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 change.
The creative process with the band seems much the same as it did in the beginning. Vague ideas bounce back and forth for a while and then everyone gets down to the hard work of doing their part.
As the video illustrates, the creative process for it all required a ton of patience given the intricacies of the wooden component and finding an adequate lighting setup. From creating the sculptures themselves to capturing what would become the cover photograph, about how long would you say that the album cover process took?
Romano: There are a few answers to this.
It took about three months if you count the time I left all those wood strips in my yard to warp under weather conditions.
It took about a month and a half, counting all of the clay figures that I sculpted and crushed up before liking the protagonists that appear in the album artwork, as well as the test structures I built with the warped wood.
It took about two weeks only counting final sculpted figures, assembling the woven structure, taking the final photograph and digitally designing the rest of the packaging.
The lighting setup was very fun. I do this technique often where I keep the F-stop tiny (F18-22) and take 10-13 second exposures in total darkness, using flashlights to “paint” the objects. I like the impossible shadows it creates. As I said, the pandemic allowed me to have more time with projects.
Congrats on getting this all put together, Paul! Truly an ambitious undertaking, as we can see by the pictures. Mike, many bands like to diversify their output and employ new artistic talents for every album cycle. Withered on the other hand remains consistent and builds upon a solid foundation. What keeps you all coming back to Paul?
Thompson: For me, it’s that he takes much more than a professional interest in this. He truly puts himself into the work and embraces everything about the band. He’s developed a mythos and a host of characters for each album that represent focused expressions within the music. At heart, I’m very much a loyalist and I want to continually reinvest in anyone who’s invested in me/Withered. True personal investment is the greatest gift you can give in this existence.
Definitely. Though artwork can sometimes be dismissed as a marketing ploy, it serves a larger purpose to best expand upon the lyrical themes present within as we've mentioned. As you enter this fifth full-length, how significant has it been for you all to have placed such a heavy emphasis on the visual side of your music?
Thompson: I’ve always struggled with associating visuals properly. I tend to suffer a disconnect. I know how I want the cumulative experience of listening to the album and looking at the art to feel, but my imagination blanks a bit with visuals. My ‘visual’ experience is releasing my mind into a black abyss of solitude free of any stimuli outside of the music, so that makes for very vague/boring visuals. As a result, I tend to neglect the visual perspective. Paul can embrace the mood and translate it for us beautifully. It has helped me mature in that regard and perhaps given us more confidence in prioritizing the visual side of things this time.
As Paul details in the video, there will be some neat limited edition prints that will be included in the LP bundles. These were meticulously crafted and serve as a great addition to what is already a great physical package for the record. Why take such an ambitious approach in a time where streaming has dominated the realm of music consumption?
Thompson: Well, this is just further testament to Paul’s approach and commitment to Withered and just the craft of testing limitations. The art of creativity is striving to reach beyond norms and challenge everything around you. He’s a masterful artist in so many mediums and deserves to express them. I’ve learned that he is also a very texture/tactile centric artist in such a way I’ve never considered before knowing him. It’s such an important yet overlooked aspect of experiencing life. To have all of this in hand and dwell on it while listening to the album on headphones is something I very much look forward to doing. The feel and smell of the print will likely prove to enhance the experience dramatically.
If that's not enough of a reason to pick up a copy, I don't know what is. In closing, from the multidimensional beauty of ‘Grief Relic’ to the atmospheric somberness of ‘Dualitas’, there’s much to love from Withered’s album cover selection. In looking back at the near two decades long partnership, which album cover stands as your favorite? And why?
Thompson: That’s like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. They’re so unique in experience and context, they truly are beyond compare. Some have the advantage of experience/time behind them while others have an advantage of naïve wonderment & potential. Sorry if that’s aloof or disappointing, but I have much of the original art framed in my home. As I walk by them going room to room, each one brings me to the feeling of creating each album and that specific period in my life, especially the times shared with Paul in those days. Wouldn’t change a thing about any one of them.
Romano: 'Folie Circulaire' is my favorite. This is where the aesthetic that would expand throughout Withered’s catalog began (and where I believe the Withered sound became mature). The CD and LP have different covers but both packages present a cohesive world for that album. I created quite a bit of artwork outside of the cover for those packages, much of it I still enjoy; the Ouroboros, The Reader, The Rider, Throne of Tears.
After that, I would pick 'Verloren'. It was really a fun one to create. I even did a photoshoot with the structure and the 5 kittens I had at the time. The kittens mostly destroyed the structure. If you look closely in the video, you may notice differences from the one on the cover. I rebuilt the structure to make the “behind the scenes” video.
Verloren arrives on June 25th via Season of Mist Underground Activists. Get it HERE.