An inside look at the dedication placed to immaculately craft the face of this brutal beast.
Words by Luis (@luis.hoa):
Five full-lengths in and it's clear that if artist extraordinaire Paul Romano isn't at the visual helm, then it's just not a WITHERED record. Since their full-length debut in 2005, Atlanta's WITHERED have welcomed Romano's prowess among their blackened death metal fold to serve as the pioneer for the band's visual identity. However, this isn't what you'd expect from your usual album cover commission cycle. What Romano and band frontman Mike Thompson concoct time and time again is the result of honest camaraderie and mutual understanding, which goes beyond the expected professionalism of the commissioning process. These are two talented entities that build upon each other's creations to ensure a seamless nature to it all, making for tantalizing listen whenever a new WITHERED record comes around. The band's forthcoming Verloren is no different.
Arriving on June 25th via the always consistent Season of Mist Underground Activists, Verloren looms over listeners with a sonic terror that is as sinister as it is cataclysmic. To put a face to it all once again, Romano brings an intricate wooden structure to life that harkens back to an element visible across WITHERED's discography. It's an ambitious feat that strays from the conventionalities of album cover illustrations to add a new dimension to the Verloren listening experience. Today, Heaviest of Art is proud to premiere a behind the scenes video that details the process of putting the Verloren album cover together.
Check out the video below and read through an in-depth conversation with Paul Romano and WITHERED's Mike Thompson to learn more about their longstanding friendship:
Mike, the road to ‘Verloren’ is underway and like all of your previous full-lengths, it comes adorned by the art of Paul Romano. What can you comment about the audiovisual partnership you’ve built with Paul over the years?
Thompson: I have always felt very fortunate to have someone as creative and inspirational as Paul being one of our biggest supporters. It’s one of those things that tells me we’re doing something right with our music. I met him back in 2001 when I was on tour with my old band, Social Infestation. We then reacquainted in 2004 after Withered’s first demo was released. I stayed overnight at his house and we became fast friends over sharing appreciation for each other as artists and embracing a lot of the same life philosophies.
And decades later, you're still here doing it together! Seeing as he’s played an integral visual role throughout the band’s existence, would you say that Paul is essentially an honorary member of Withered at this point?
Thompson: I don’t consider him an ‘honorary’ anything. He’s contributed as much as any one of us and has more than earned his position as a member. He’s been with me/us since the beginning and has directly shaped an aesthetic to capture what we do. On a creative level, I think we share a, sometimes confusing, esotericism I don’t get to experience elsewhere. Sort of a deprecating humility in the work that creates our bond.
You need to take that man on tour! Paul, reflecting back at your initial collaboration for 2005’s ‘Memento Mori’, you’ve grown great lengths as an artist and as Mike mentions, you built a strong bond with the Withered crew. You developed something similar with Mastodon as well, taking on multiple album covers that went on to become genre staples in their own right. What does it mean to you to have built these relationships with the bands you’ve partnered with?
Romano: Withered is a very natural fit for me. Their music hit me right away on their demo I received back in 2004. I met Mike Thompson that same year, when he stayed at my house with Mastodon. He and I really hit it off with so many of the same interests in movies, books, and music. There was also the “family” connection with Mike and Chris (Freeman) being in Social Infestation with Troy (Sanders - Mastodon). I let Mike know then that I would be truly excited to build their visuals. Thus started the audiovisual partnership.
The imagery I come up with for Withered is more personal than many of the other commercial projects I work on. Mike shares the earliest of demos for new songs with me. This keeps me up with how they are growing and how I will respond. I prefer the long exchanges to plan and build the artwork. The actual execution of a final work usually happens quickly (in most cases it does) but being able to think on it, go through iterations and let it grow naturally over time, can yield something with more depth.
'Memento Mori' is a bit of an outlier. I stand by what I was doing on MM but it wasn’t until 'Folie Circulaie' (2008) that I was locked in aesthetically with Withered. On MM, I wanted to create somewhat traditional imagery with a jarring palette that was meant to be caustic (in every sense of the word, corrosive / sarcastic). When I first started working with Mastodon, I was told that the packaging I was creating didn’t look metal enough. Fortunately, the band loved it and so it went through. The heavy music being produced in the late 90's - early 2000's felt like a new era filled with self-awareness. It seemed to make sense to push out visuals that built upon the tried and true and introduced new elements (genre staples).
I don’t think about just album covers when I am working on a project. I look to develop a fuller visual experience with the packaging as a whole. Such as on MM, the cover with the veiled skull is just the start of a full corpse that unfolds in the rest of the booklet. I was inspired by Hans Holbein’s 'Dead Christ' (1520-1522) and even more so by 'Stretch Christ' (1987) by the Starn Twins. References to art and art history play heavily into my work. 'Memento Mori' was quite simple by comparison to where the visuals have gone with Withered and I certainly have grown but my foundations were still present on that packaging.
My relationships with bands happens naturally through becoming friends. So much of it comes from simply keeping in touch, talking about life, what we’re watching/reading, etc. Then, there is that exchange of ideas I mentioned, hearing early demos and doing sketches in response. With each band, I do my best to tailor fit the visuals to the band and what they are doing at the time, hence Mastodon albums look very different from Withered albums (and so on throughout my oeuvre). As you called it, these artistic endeavors build strong bonds.
Strong, genuine bonds in this case. Mike, reflecting back on when you first started working with him during the 2004 demo, what drew you to Paul’s work initially?
Thompson: Well, that night that I stayed at his house, which also contained his art studio, he gave me a tour and allowed me to rifle through his archives. He showed me much more of his work that extended beyond music and explained his incredible classic art training from childhood. I realized I was with a genuine renaissance artist, not just some metalhead that conjures evil images. All of his compositions contain great depths of reference and honor to centuries’ worth of art development & visual expression. Initially, I thought there was no way an artist like this would be interested in my little band, but he expressed his take on our music at the time and saw it very much the same way that I do, well beyond the surface level stylings that most people stop at. It felt very serendipitous for me and I’ve enjoyed our nearly 20 year friendship ever since.
I might have to ask him for a tour of his art studio myself! Sounds great. Paul, this time around, you took a unique route and built the recurring wooden sculptures by hand, an element that of course finds itself on every record since 2008’s ‘Folie Circulaire’. One could say that this builds some visual interconnectivity between the records themselves. Were the structures intentional or were they something that organically came about as you interpreted the band’s themes throughout the discography?
Romano: Those chaotic structures have haunted my sketchbooks since I was a freshman in college. As I said, Withered pulls out something very personal. I saw the work of sculptor, Tadashi Kawamata, when I was about 18 and it took root. He creates these chaotic structures very similar to my drawings (and now sculpture) but on a grand scale using whole buildings and interiors.
The chaotic structures have always been my metaphor for inner turmoil, crazy situations, relationships, and practices we all build for ourselves that might be functional, but look like precarious nonsense (and usually fall apart). Mike and I have talked over the years about our struggles in life and as artists, so these themes make it into both the music and the artwork. The concept of the title, 'Folie Circulaire', cyclical madness, is something that most folks can relate to; dooming ourselves with the same actions over and over. So, it was definitely intentional to use these structures throughout the artwork on FC and continue on subsequent Withered albums.
It started on FC as intentional but has now moved to something organic. Each album for a band has its commonality to a band’s sound but its own personality as well. I try to keep a cohesive aesthetic throughout a catalog but also pay attention to how the band is growing and changing.
What sparked your interest in wanting to take this different artistic direction for ‘Verloren’?
Romano: As I just said, each subsequent album I work on for a band, I look to grow the aesthetic. On Withered’s 'Dualitis' (2010), I added chaotic flora to the mix. The flora, like the architecture, appeared very early in my sketchbooks and has a similar metaphor in mind of growing/building our own situations. The flora has more of a paradox attached to it between something beautiful and something beautiful that is actually more of a cancer. Both types of structures appear as part of “human” characters on 'Dualitis'. The structures expanded to something more epic to a full landscape size on 'Grief Relic' (2016).
Finally, on 'Verloren', it became a reality. It was high time. As I said, I’ve been fascinated by such structures since I was young. Building and sculpting for a Withered album is unique within the artworks I’ve created for them but not unique to my work. I’ve sculpted, constructed, and photographed environments for other albums in the past. Now however, another push for me to sculpt more is my partner (Darla Jackson), who is a fantastic sculptor. Lastly, the pandemic afforded me the time to spend longer on the project.
It's been a longtime coming, but you've finally recreated what you began with FC in the flesh. In terms of the collaboration itself, some bands are particular and detailed about what they’d like to see whereas others allow for creative expression. Where would you say that you and Withered find yourselves? And how has this creative approach with the band changed over the years?
Romano: I tend not to work with bands or on projects that have too detailed an idea of the final product. I am hired for my experience, creative input, and skill, not just as a technician who can produce an image. I don’t mean this in a rigid way. I am completely open to a client’s ideas. It is a collaborative effort and as we talked about, building relationships. It is about listening and working together. This is where I am with Withered and every band I work with. I am very fortunate to have trust from the bands that work with me.
Mike and Withered give me creative control with the visuals. On 'Verloren', Mike only knew that I would be sculpting the artwork this time around. I sent him some teasers of me sculpting the figures. Really just seeing a part like that is way too vague compared to the final vision. After I photographed the whole scene, I sent a slideshow over to Withered with about eight different possibilities for the cover; including multiple "Verloren” logo choices as well as logo placements. The covers I originally had in this document had a warm/cool palette and Mike saw the music as overall colder. So, outside of narrowing it down to one image for the cover, minor color adjustments were the band’s only cha