A look behind the visual approach to one of Portland's top ensembles.
There are few bands with an artist among their ranks and even fewer bands with an artist of Matt Stikker-like prowess. Portland's DROUTH are among those few and with a full-length that harnesses said artistic capabilities just days away, audiences are set to indulge in one dynamic sitting of black metal depth.
As DROUTH's Excerpts From A Dread Liturgy inches closer to the scheduled July 24th release date, the band ready a statement with their Translation Loss Records debut. Unfolding song structures and menacing black metal aggression envelop listeners through this five-track record, each track of which incorporates bits of doom and grind into the mix. Like the multitude of shades in the record's musical palette, Stikker's cover illustration is stacked with intricacies that unveil themselves with each passing glance. All in all, Excerpts hits a sweet spot in the career of the now full-fledged quartet, standing as their strongest effort yet and one of this year's must listen to records.
We talk to artist and band founder Matt Stikker ahead of this week's DROUTH outing:
Three years from ‘Knives, Labyrinths, Mirrors’ (2017) and you’re back with ‘Excerpts From A Dread Liturgy’, an exhilarating effort that stands as representative of the growth you’ve made as an artist and a musician. As the audiovisual mastermind, what did you set out to achieve?
Stikker: I’ve always viewed our efforts collectively. The way that I approach everything is that it’s more about the process. This record is as much a testament to where we are as a band and all of us individually are as artists as it is a platform. All of us are very proud of it. More than anything, it’s an indication of where we’re headed as far as our direction as a band, both visually and musically.
An important thing to note here is that the Pacific Northwest and Portland specifically is a breeding ground for top tier metal. Do you feel as though the camaraderie between you all as a metal community has an impact on you all as a band?
Stikker: There’s a lot of great bands as you mention. I can tell you that there are a huge number of awesome bands in Portland. There’s a really vibrant community of death metal bands, punk, black metal, goth, and every kind of different music that sort of fits a darker aesthetic. A lot of us talk to each other, play in cover bands with each other, and are roommates with one another, so it does help to cross pollinate a little bit. There’s a sort of openness here where the scene isn’t totally segmented, which is probably reflected in the caliber of all of the various awesome acts that do come from Portland.
Agreed. Speaking to your work as the band’s artist, is your approach to illustrating your own band’s album covers different to that of a commissioned work?
Stikker: That’s a good question. Yes, but only internally. There’s a level at which I’m able to distance myself from my commission work, which isn’t to say that I don’t put myself wholly into it. I view all of my commission work as a collaborative effort, as it should be, with the bands and various clients that I work with. My task when doing commission work is to execute their vision and ultimately it is as though my feelings on the project are a little bit below what the band feels about the end result whereas working for my own band is a bit of a different process.
My bandmates are always very supportive and have feedback, but they’re always willing to defer to my judgement in terms of aesthetics. I appreciate that but at the same time, it puts some pressure on me mainly because there’s no one but myself to tell me when it looks right. It represents a different challenge that is a bit more internal. It’s an enjoyable process but it could always be frustrating. Ultimately, I’ve learned to trust the decisions that I make because I have no other choice.
Many artists prefer a vast amount of detail and direction when taking on a commissioned project. As far as being the sole person responsible for the cover, do you find any difficulties in meeting your artistic needs while also representing the band?
Stikker: I’m fortunate in that I feel that the aesthetic that we’ve cultivated with Drouth is strongly aligned with my taste and my artistic philosophies. I’m able to synthesize my musical, lyrical, and artistic output in a way that I am fortunate to have a great deal of support and trust from my bandmates. I also have a lot of input where it matters, which is not to insinuate that it’s merely just me. I have this unique artistic opportunity and I certainly don’t take that for granted. I try to do justice to the vision that I have for it.
At the end of the day, what I recognize from my artistic process is that I’m never 100% satisfied with a piece. I have to satisfy myself with being 99% and use that 1% as motivation to move on to the next project. I always view my work as an enjoyable process that serves as a benchmark of where I am rather than dwell on those elements that I feel aren’t perfect. I do have to be accountable to my bandmates and eventually share my work with all.
Despite you being the artistic mastermind, it’s also a collaborative effort, so to speak.
Stikker: Absolutely. It’s a fine distinction but it’s a crucial one. I have the trust and support of my bandmates. At the end of the day, Drouth is for individual artists coming together to create something.
I’d argue that the music speaks is a reflection of the camaraderie between you all. Album covers are visual embodiments of the music layered within and your work on ‘Excerpts’ is incredibly layered, merging black metal, doom and crust in seamless fashion. Does the art influence the music or vise versa?
Stikker: I almost think it’s unconscious. It’s funny that you mention that because when you describe it in that way, I agree with you completely. I think that the music matches the art but it almost has more to do with my role and ability to synthesize all of the elements unconsciously. They both come from the same place: this desire to create physical layers of texture, instruments, and lyrical themes that are represented across the different facets of what we do. It’s an unconscious representation of my aesthetic overall.
Touching on the layers, there’s a lot of detail packed into the tight spaces stemming from the skull. There’s much to dissect here and we’ve got our own interpretation of it already. About how long did the painting take to complete and what tools were used?
Stikker: I want to say I did it over a period of about four months. It was actually during a point where I was moving houses, so it became a thing that I was singularly focused on a while. I normally tend to work pretty fast and at a smaller scale than what I did for this cover. I wanted to give myself a challenge, not just an artistic or creative challenge, but a physical and technical challenge.
For this one, I used an art board that is about 30 to 35 inches. I don’t remember exactly, but it’s about twice as big as I would normally work at for an album cover scale. I use a combination of graphite and ink, some gouache, maybe a little charcoal. Sakura Micron pens are my go to, but I used a brush on this one as well.
I worked slowly and took it in pieces. It was a level of singular focus that I usually don’t usually have the luxury to be able to dedicate to a piece, so in that sense, I feel that it turned out quite well in terms of my expectations for it. I’m very pleased with the result.
With every analytical glance of the cover, new details become known and it speaks to the patience that went into it. Is it intentional to provoke listeners to look deeper into the material rather than on a surface level, especially since streaming has become the dominant medium of music consumption?
Stikker: Definitely. There’s always a dual purpose with the artwork as we as artists represent bands through commissioned album covers or shirts. With album covers, you of course have this dual purpose. I set apart and identify strongly the package, but also to faithfully represent the material being performed on the record. For me, I do feel that I put a lot of meaning and emphasis in the artwork that I create for Drouth. There are a lot of elements there that are connected lyrically and thematically to what’s on the record, which was important for me to represent. Creating something that rewards a closer look, another listen, and a more careful analysis is a worthwhile goal for everything that we do.
As an artist yourself, you understand firsthand the significance of art has an introduction to new music. Do you recall a time when an album cover made you pick up a record or even change the way you engaged with it?
Stikker: That’s a good question. Like a lot of other people, I can say that when I first saw the cover of ‘Somewhere In Time’ (1986) around the time I was 10 years old, I was amazed. That’s a top one for many artists I’m sure.
I see so many album covers and as an artist, I’m constantly looking at what other folks are doing and always evaluating. I almost view it from a really detached perspective where I am appreciating and looking at it from a different eye, a more inquisitive eye. When I was getting into more extreme metal, I remember seeing the cover to Insect Warfare’s ‘World Extermination’ (2007) and got lost in the details.
Sawblade (Daniel Shaw) is an amazing artist and an awesome guy as well. I’m fortunate to have talked and interacted with him a little bit. He’s a very detailed oriented artist and his hard work speaks to me on a level. His art has a strong central image that you see and immediately clicks as representative of the aesthetic. There’s so much detail, richness, and texture that it works on all levels. That one to me is one that stands out in particular as one of my favorites.
Would you cite it as maybe one of the album covers that had an influence in the direction you wanted to take your own artwork?
Stikker: Sure. I saw it around the time I was starting to take art a bit more seriously. I would say it’s definitely one of those that influenced the tact that I’ve taken with a lot of my work. I’m always drawn to that combination of really bold and immediate imagery with certain subtlety that keeps pulling you back.
We all have that one album cover that brings us back time and time again. For this record, you have the support of Translation Loss Records, who pressed the LP with killer packaging and vinyl variants. To those who are eagerly awaiting, what can folks expect once the record arrives?
Stikker: I think it’s the complete package and I’m very proud of what we’ve done. Again, I’m really fortunate and grateful to my bandmates and the label for having the faith in me to put the art together. From a design standpoint, it’s a very cohesive package. I’m proud of the way it looks and I put a lot of thought and energy into it. The support and feedback that I got from my discussion with Translation Loss was absolutely what I wanted. We didn’t have to make any compromises with the aesthetic, so I think people are going to be very into it when they actually have it in their hands. There’s an immediacy to owning a record and seeing it up close.
I’ll echo every other metal album cover artist to say that digital streaming does no justice to the art form. To all who purchased the record and will purchase the record, I send you my sincere gratitude and I hope you enjoy the package as much as I enjoyed creating it.
Excerpts From A Dread Liturgy arrives July 24th via Translation Loss Records. You can order your copy HERE to bask in this intricate black metal effort.