Traversing through the mental layers of the trio's latest psychological endeavor.
Words by Luis (@luis.hoa):
There's power in the shared human experience. No matter what walk of life we happen to be in, feelings are universal and our expression of our solutions can have lasting impacts on those willing to hear them. British neurologist Oliver Sacks is one who would put a pen to his life every day and through his works of scientific literature, many have come to make sense of their struggle as a shared human experience, like today's subject, SEPUTUS founder Stephen Schwegler. Schwegler's relativity with the works of Oliver Sacks inspired the creation of Phantom Indigo, a labyrinthine work of metal that comments on the mental jail caused by the routine structures of life.
Phantom Indigo, which arrives on June 4th via the always consistent Willowtip Records, is a tantalizing experience that welcomes engagement beyond the surface level. With every passing listen, you'll find yourself connected deeper to the human mind that Alex Eckman-Lawn so meticulously crafted for the album cover, one layer at a time. Sonically, Schwegler, Doug Moore (Pyrrhon, Weeping Sores, Glorious Depravity), and Erik Malave have straddled the lines of genre confines and expressed their varied musical backgrounds in ways that will have you repeating tracks consistently. Add guest features from current and ex-members of Artificial Brain, Revocation, and Replicant and Phantom Indigo becomes all the more an example of the strength that lies within honest camaraderie. This is the same camaraderie that brought Schwegler and Eckman-Lawn together to craft one audiovisual gem that captures the record's strength in seamless fashion.
We go Behind the Cover of Phantom Indigo with Stephen Schwegler and Alex Eckman-Lawn to discuss the making of the multi-layered, multi-sensory death metal composition:
With ‘Phantom Indigo’ just a matter of days away, you two have put together quite the enticing package that, as mentioned, was heavily influenced by neurologist Oliver Sacks' ‘Hallucinations’ (2012). Visually, what were you looking for when working together on the release?
Stephen: I knew I wanted something amorphous, ambiguous, and representative of what mental thought feels like. Emotional thought often feels like 80 different layers of images swirling through my head, so I wanted something that felt like that. No easily identifiable forms. I also knew I wanted dark purples, violets, and anything in and around that color spectrum. When people describe indigo, it’s the color at the far end of the spectrum and purple/violet is often the last recognizable color in that rainbow, so it infers “indigo” in some way. There’s no way this music would pair with the typical red/black/grey/white color profile that a million bands use, so we stayed far away from that.
Alex: Honestly, I took more inspiration from talking to Steve and listening to the album itself. I knew that 'Hallucinations' had an impact on the writing process for the band, but I didn’t want to get too tied to a specific take, so my aim was to find something that felt like a sum of all the little parts that make up 'Phantom Indigo'.
I was focussed on finding this balance of the hazy loneliness, anxiety, fear, repetition, and distortion that Steve described to me. I knew I wanted to use some kind of repeating pattern mashed together with more organic and chaotic shapes. I wound up focusing on trying to walk the line between abstraction and a human form. We kind of spiraled around this until arriving at the cover as you see it now - both a literal interpretation of the name and a more abstract representation of the themes.
Alex nailed it quite accurately. Stephen, writing for the record began in 2016 and it slowly but surely came to be over the years of playing with Pyrrhon and Weeping Sores. It’s an all-encompassing composition that reflects the investment placed within it all, especially the lyricism, artwork, and compositional structure. What does it mean to you to finally see it come to fruition after all these years?
Stephen: Purely on my end, it feels primarily like relief. I hate to say that because it should be this 100% amazing feeling to finish an album after so long, but I’m keeping it real. There’s a definite limit to an acceptable turnaround for an album and five years was too long for me in this regard. All this being said, the best thing about the experience was seeing the work that everyone else brought to the table. I already have an idea of what I’m doing or what I’m trying to express, so it’s fun for me to see what everyone else conjures up.
The feeling is understandable given the length at which the album has surely evolved over the last few years. As mentioned, the record draws heavily from Oliver Sacks' work. Where did you find commonalities with the book, enough to where you found the drive to craft a record around it?
Stephen: Originally, the NPR interview Sacks did with Terry Gross was that thing that connected with me and brought me to the book. The funny thing is that it wasn’t the drug experience itself that drew me in like most people might think; it was the instantaneous clarity, the vivid description and emotion of what Sacks described that I connected with. Oliver’s thoughts felt familiar after years of high positive and low negative emotions coming and going like baggage moving rapidly through an airport. The draw of the book itself to me is the fragility and unpredictability of the human mind. I often wonder if one day my imagination will get so carried away that I will lose the ability to distinguish things. You ever have that experience of laughing out loud really hard at a joke or situation you remembered? And no one else knows what you’re laughing at, thinking or remembering? Because that feels like a low-level hallucination to me. It’s a very fragile and human read and it was a good visual catalyst for the compositions I wrote.
Yeah, I think that's an experience we can all sort of share and your interpretation of Oliver's ideas is something to truly enjoy and really feel. Seputus began their musical journey with the ‘Man Does Not Give’ (2016), which also sports a great cover, specifically by Caroline Harrison. What sparked your transition to Alex for this one?
Stephen: Because Caroline is 1) an amazing and thoughtful artist and 2) possesses a style that is highly compatible with the Pyrrhon/Seputus/WS taste profile, we overload her with work and ask a lot of her, output wise. I spent maybe two minutes thinking about other artists before coming up with Alex. I transitioned to Alex because I could see his work living in my world. His toolbelt of breaches, cracks and fissures pairs well with his wild color and shape sense. To me, pairing his style with mine makes a lot of sense. He lives like five blocks away from me in South Philly and honestly, I just like him and his personality. He’s extremely easy to talk to.
It's safe to say the cover art partnerships have been seamless thus far. That said, how would you characterize the collaborative process in terms of finding common ground for the visual approach, especially when referencing an entire book and its concepts?
Alex: Steve was incredibly generous in sharing tons of information about each song, where his head was at while he was writing, and how it all fits together. Dude even sent me a kind of a mood board for the album! All of this stuff was so helpful for me and really made it feel like a collaboration.
One of the of the things that really resonated with me, and this is kind of the book as filtered through the human Brita-filter-brain named Steve Schwegler, was this concept of willing the world into abstraction through hyper-focused thought. Like, you can use your mind like a battering ram and just plow through reality into this other consciousness. That inspired a lot of visual concepts for me, but also really hit home for me on a personal level, as I am someone who struggles to control his own thoughts.
Steve: I think when some people consider paying tribute to a book, the obvious move would be to utilize the text’s contents and put together a collage image that manifests iconography from each chapter or something like that. That wasn’t our approach at all. The trick for me was to NOT reference the entire book, but to reference the feeling the book and its stories impart on me. There were also works of art from Adam Lupton, Eric Lacombe, Kai Samuels Davis, Grigor Eftimov, Francis Bacon, etc. that served as visual references in parallel with the book’s content, and while those have nothing to do with 'Hallucinations' necessarily, my internal emotional compass aligned with them.
A wealth of references to pull from, all of which coincide beautifully on the cover. The book itself takes on the social stigma associated with hallucinations caused by everyday life and mental health overall. Your cover in particular does the same by addressing the world that lives within our head. That’s just my interpretation of course. What role do you feel that art plays in challenging social stigmas and changing the narrative for topics such as mental health?
Alex: That’s funny, I never really thought of my art as a way to confront the way people see mental illness, just as a way for ME to confront my own mental illness. But of course, I hope people can relate to the things I make. That’s kind of the unspoken agreement of this stuff. Of course I make art for myself, but without being able to share it, I sort of feel like it withers and dies. It’s a "tree falling in a forest with no one around" kinda thing I guess.
So yeah, I guess I hope that someone might see my art and consider the idea of looking inward and confronting the things about yourself that are unpleasant, or terrifying, or just being willing to actually look at what you don’t like about yourself and make changes - there’s no shame in that. In fact, I think it’s absolutely fucking necessary.
Steve: I don’t think about the social roles I want art to play very much. What I look for in art is a vivid, relatable portrait or framing of something. It needs to accomplish this for me, or it fails, no matter its social message or the stigmas it may address. A solid, unshakable vignette. My opinion is that any art that possesses these traits came from genuine struggle, discovery, experience and the accrued mental baggage that comes with it. We all look, listen and read for perspectives that we cannot encounter or come up with ourselves. If someone’s art accomplishes all this, the role that it can play in addressing stigma or mental health narratives is powerful. All this being said, if there was one thing that I wished art could illustrate better, it’s that failure is okay and in fact necessary, because failure is such a looming presence in social stigma and mental health.
Definitely, and it's all up to interpretation by the viewer. Touching on the multifaceted approach to the visuals on ‘Phantom Indigo’, about how long did the cover take to complete? The layering is all done with paper, right? Surely this takes a lot of patience.
Alex: Honestly, I lost track of the time for this one, haha! I work in these separate phases, like the initial design usually happens in photoshop, and then there’s the physical cutting stage, and for this one, I did some mark making with paint to get those crusty textures. Then, there’s the layout and design, photography, etc. etc. It’s all these disparate little chunks that somehow come together in the end. I’m always surprised when it works!
You tend to work with vibrant color palettes and ‘Phantom Indigo’ is obviously no different. As insignificant as some might find colors to be, they play a significant role in conveying the emotion of the record and artwork as a whole, especially with this one where there’s multiple dimensions within the mind. How did you look to approach this particular aspect for the cover?
Alex: So for a really long time, I felt like I was trapped in this color palette of mostly desaturated tans and sepia, partly because my source material is often old photos, which have this inherent weathered color scheme that I really love. I’ve been intentionally pushing myself out of that palette lately and this was a really great excuse to go bananas with the color. Early versions of the cover were actually way more pink and Steve had to tell me to tone it down, haha! The indigo part kinda got away from me and I had to circle back around.
Since (for me at least) chaos is such an important part of the image, I tried to focus on grouping color spectrums into orderly prisms. There was another version of the cover that had literal color graphs, like prismatic pyramids built into the silhouette (this guy got used elsewhere in the layout). Again, I think this was just a bit too far and we wound up with something that’s a little bit closer to monochromatic in the outside layer. Then, there’s this explosion of color and light as you go inward. I wanted the open schism in the “head” of the phantom to feel like a truly separate space and I think we succeeded in capturing that.
Definitely. Touching again on that unused concept for the cover, it takes a much different approach. Is there a reason in particular that you in the band went with layering the mind rather than the heart and body overall?
Alex: Yeah, that one was a close runner-up for the cover, I think. I like that image but we agreed that it was a bit too literal in the form of the “figure” and the stuff inside it. There’s too much that’s familiar, you know? It includes recognizable bits of human faces, some vague anatomical stuff, and I think that distracted a bit too much from the focus on mental spaces.
It's still pretty damn good. Is your creative approach to cover artwork distinct to your personal works in any way, especially since you’re meeting another person’s artistic needs rather than your own?
Alex: Oh sure, commissioned work is always a different process from working for myself. That said, it’s not always totally removed and in this case in particular, I think the themes lined up pretty closely with my own, so I felt comfortable to explore a bunch of ideas, including more personal takes.
Sometimes a band will contact me with THE IDEA and I’m just a set of hands to achieve this idea. That’s fine, I’m an illustrator and that can be my job. Other times, a band will say, “Hey, we want an image that deals with these themes, see what you can do,” and then there are times where the band says, “We know your work, do what you do.” All of these have the potential to be really interesting projects to me and I honestly enjoy having a more strict set of rules sometimes. Finding a way to meet my own artistic needs while collaborating with another artist or band can be really exciting and fulfilling in a way that I couldn’t always achieve on my own. Sometimes, these lead me in a new direction with my personal work or even wind up making the jump over. For instance, I have a few pieces in an art show coming up in June that came about while I was working on the Seputus art and share a lot of the same visual language.
Also, I’ve gotten to know these guys personally and I like them a lot. That’s always a bonus.
Absolutely. Metal covers have certain connotations associated with them, especially death metal, which tend to be dark and bloody. Seputus strayed from that and enlisted you for the cover. Your artwork certainly doesn’t fall within those connotations, and rightfully so. Do you feel as though it’s significant for bands to avoid genre limitations of sorts to achieve the full creative potential of a release?
Alex: You know, I think that really depends on the band. I can say that I think a lot of bands do themselves a huge disservice by not actually considering what their aesthetic could be. It’s easy to think “okay, we make music with a certain kind of riff so I guess we’ll need some skulls on the cover,” or like, “I notice a lot of bands I like have this particular kind of image on their cover, lets do one of those.” That can just sort of erase your identity as a band, ESPECIALLY if what you’re trying to do is a little different from other bands. I’m always more likely to check out an album if the cover is interesting or a little different, you know?
Of course, I’m not made of stone and I also love classic sweaty-skull-melty-island-in-a-sea-of-blood death metal covers. That shit rules. In short, I love a lot of different kinds of art and I think it’s silly to tether an entire genre as varied and weird as metal, or even just death metal, to a single visual vocabulary.
Stephen: It is significant. I think people should try to avoid genre limitations while having artwork made, period. It’s not memorable or interesting these days to say, “Alright, black and white. Skulls. Bundle of sticks logo to make it hard to read or pronounce. Chiaroscuro everywhere.” That in itself is a genre limitation; metal music having shitty-looking or dumb art. Lately though, there’s been a lot of great artwork out there too, to be fair.
This happens musically too with ‘Phantom Indigo’ being a kaleidoscope of sound that stretches the album’s death metal tag as far as possible. Seeing as you’ve worked with Doug for years now with Pyrrhon and Weeping Sores, do you feel as though this is simply the result of the camaraderie between you both in addition to your experiences?
Stephen: Thank you for saying so, I hope people just plummet straight into the kaleidoscope and have a hard time getting out. The partnership between Doug and I functions well because we’re very honest with each other. We don’t like half assing things we care about. Our taste profile has enough overlap that we enjoy impressing each other with our output. I feel like our camaraderie is stronger every year as we finish more projects together. The catalogue of our ideas, tastes, language and universe keep growing. I’m proud of it all.
The results of your partnership speak for it all. Cover art has the unique trait of drawing audiences into a record prior to even hearing it. This will most certainly be the case with ‘Phantom Indigo’. That said, do you recall an album cover, movie poster, or artwork in general that had that effect on you?
Alex: Thanks dude, I hope so! I love this album and I hope my art gets at least a few people to check it out who might not have otherwise. As for art that got me hyped before I heard the album...man, so many!
'In The Court Of The Crimson King' (1969) is still one of my favorite album covers of all time. What a fucking insane image. I remember being really drawn to the cover of Opeth’s 'Blackwater Park' (2001) when I was a teenager. I didn’t know anything about the band, but I loved how mysterious and ghostly the art was, plus I kept finding more little things the longer I looked at it. The cover of MF DOOM’s 'MM…FOOD' (2004) by Jason Jägel is perfect. Glyn Smyth’s art for Ash Borer’s 'The Irrepassible Gate' (2016) floored me when I first saw it. I was already a big fan of Pig Destroyer when I saw the Chris Taylor art for 'Terrifyer' (2004) but holy shit, what an iconic image and such a change from what Paul Booth had done on 'Prowler In the Yard' (2001). Paul Romano covers obviously hit me pretty hard. Justin Bartlett’s cover for The Secret's 'Solve Et Coagula' (2010). Too many more to name!
Now, it feels like every week I see an album cover that knocks me on my ass! It’s a really good time for metal art, as I’m sure you guys are well aware. Karmazid, Caroline Harrison, Adam Burke, Alexandra Goulet, and Paolo Girardi are just a few that come to mind at the moment that consistently make amazing stuff, and there are countless more! I’m sure I’ll think of 100 more that I wish I’d mentioned later today. I’m getting really stoked just thinking about it all, haha!
Oh shit, also the poster for Parasite (2019) is so killer! The more you look at it, the more sinister it becomes without actually spoiling anything about the movie. I gotta stop myself here or I’ll be typing all day. Art is the fucking best.
Stephen: I joke with my friends all the time that seeing the original 'Fantasia' (1940) movie as a child set me on the path to death metal long ago, but part of me believes this earnestly. Stephen Gammell’s artwork for 'Scary Stores to Tell in the Dark' (1981) was the first artwork to simultaneously fascinate and terrify me. The album art Don Brautigam did for 'Master of Puppets' (1986) blew me away as a kid; it felt poignant to me as a kid, even though I hate that their big dumb logo and that the album title is covering the painting. To me, it would look way cooler with no logos or words on the front.
Slint’s 'Spiderland' (1991) has an incredible album cover. Soundgarden’s 'Superunknown' (1994) art drew me in and I stared at it a lot. Finding Nine Inch Nails’ 'The Downward Spiral' (1994) as a kid felt like finding a dried-out dead thing with naughty lyrics. Neurosis’ 'Times of Grace' (1999) artwork is tattooed on me because I love it so much. The artwork for albums made me care about visual art before anything else.
Some great choices here from both! Hell, I'm tempted to run a separate feature where all we talk about is cool covers. With stay at home mandates caused by the pandemic, it certainly brought people closer to the arts. Audiences were engaging with the material in a more patient and human way, really embracing the music rather than having it serve as entertainment during a commute. Stephen, do you feel as though this will continue to be the case moving forward or will it vanish, especially with mandates being lifted and fast-paced lifestyles returning once more?
Stephen: I think a little from column A, a little from column B. The people who’ve gotten closer to music over the last year will remain closer and love it a little more. The people who were seeking distraction or using music as background to pass the time will find another distraction and chase after it.
I agree. The audiovisual excellence that you’ve built with Seputus ‘Phantom Indigo’ is an example of what can happen when a band finds an artist that takes an invested interest in the project and not simply seeing it as another commission. As someone who understands the importance of visual investment, why should bands invest on this aspect of a release?
Stephen: If you aren’t involved in the art or the artist, you’re effectively handing your album’s future off to a stranger. I wish people cared a lot more about the kind of artwork they were pairing with their music. I don’t want to sound like that guy, but more people will pick up and check out your album if you care more about your album artwork. It’s worth the extra effort to put a lot of time and energy into art and layout concerns after your music is done. Alex and I talked a lot about what we do and don’t like in metal art, probably an equal amount. As the work progressed over three months through covers and drafts, we both got progressively more excited about all the places we could go. There is a creative process to have with your artist after the music is done, and it’s very rewarding to nail it together. There’s no question that our working together made the final product better and more satisfying.
Alex: Holy shit, thank you very much! That’s about the best compliment an illustrator can hope for.
I think people can absolutely feel when the art is a labor of love, when it’s the right fit for the album, and the artist is clearly involved and enthusiastic. Unfortunately, I think you can also absolutely tell when the art was an afterthought. I think this can have a huge impact on the way you think about an album, even affect the longevity of an album for you. Think about how you interact with your music now. The album cover is a huge part of how we organize music, and thanks to Spotify/Bandcamp/etc., the way you interact with your music often is likely by way of a grid of different art. Don’t you want your art to stand out in the grid?
If Seputus, Pyrrhon, and Weeping sores have proved anything, it’s that the music is meant to convey more than just great riffs and varied song structures. The records embody an intentional approach to lyricism and cover artwork alike, encouraging a deeper engagement with the material. With ‘Phantom Indigo’ fast approaching, what do you hope audiences take from it? And what purpose does it serve in the larger scope of metal and music overall?
Stephen: I hope audiences observe and enjoy all the detail that was layered carefully throughout the album. It was made to be sonically dense and dissimilar to other existing metal music, and there’s a lot to explore. Even if Seputus is my project, many more people expended a lot of their energy into making 'Phantom Indigo' exceptional. I’m proud of it. The purpose for making the album was to do whatever the fuck I wanted to do. No rules about subgenre or composition or any of that. Just open the toolbox and start building.
Phantom Indigo arrives on June 4th via Willowtip Records. Order your copy HERE.