Snuggle up, 'cause here comes part two in our new column Under the Covers, where we chat with the great Gilbert Hernandez of Love & Rockets about his experience working with musician Kristin Hersh on the cover to the 1996 Throwing Muses album Limbo, and most recently, the cover to Kristin's memoir Rat Girl, out now from Penguin.
[Ed. note: part one of this interview can be found here.]
Inside folded-out CD art for Limbo
Janice: Can you remember all the way back to the first time Kristin approached you to do the album cover for Throwing Muses' Limbo?
Gilbert: I don't remember who contacted me first, or how it actually began. I just go as far back as me in her rented apartment with her husband and her son Ryder, who was just a toddler. And we had Thai food. And I just remember it was a really pleasant experience. I thought she was really down-to-earth, and fun to talk to. It was a really nice, laid-back time.
Janice: Kristin says she was completely prepared to talk you into it, and you were game from the get-go?
Gilbert: Oh, sure. I try to do work like that with people who already have a good reputation, and she already had a strong reputation as a serious artist. I just kinda thought it might be fun. I was also flattered that someone asked me to do an album cover.
Janice: I'm sure it wasn't the first time, right?
Gilbert: It may have been. I'm just not a designer. People always think of me as a writer. Of course, it was grueling. Once I start doing something for somebody else, no matter how simple it is, self-doubt mounts. It turned out fine.
Janice: What was the process like? Did you have any input from the band or the label? Were you just given free reign?
Gilbert: It was pretty much free reign. Kristin just said she liked my Palomar work, so, she wanted something Palomar-esque. I thought, this is great since this is something that I already do! So, I worked something out on that. Of course, once I sent it, I thought, “Oh, this is something they're not going to like,” but she seemed to be okay with it.
CD single from Limbo
Janice: She mentioned you sent a couple of different sketches. The one of the tour bus, which is on the inside of the CD booklet, the girl jumping rope, which was used for the “Ruthie's Knocking” single... [ Ed. note: as I mentioned yesterday, I was wrong -- it was used for the "Freeloader" single. ] Were you surprised that they chose the portrait of the man's face for the cover?
Gilbert: I think that was meant to be the cover. I think she said, the record company wants a bold image. I thought, “Yeah, they're really gonna want this old farmer guy on the cover.” Sure enough, they did!
Janice: So, who is that man? He's an old farmer to you?
Gilbert: He's one of the old folks from the town. Where I grew up, and what I've done in my Palomar stories, is I've always involved older people. They still have a presence in the town and in the characters' lives, because that's how it was for me growing up. It was very integrated. I just decided, y'know, people might be expecting cheesecake from me, so I'll go the opposite.
Janice: So, the expression on his face... How would you describe his emotional state?
Gilbert: Oh jeez, boy. Y'know, I never considered that. I just drew a guy who's seen a lot of life. That's pretty much it.
Janice: When I first bought the album, I was just a teenager, and so I thought he was kinda scary and creepy-looking. And now that I'm older and I look at the album, it's like he actually looks more sad.
Gilbert: What happens to a lot of young people, especially in this country, is they dismiss or goof on old people, because there's only two alternatives to getting old: you get old, just like them, or you die before that. And a lot of people don't want to have to deal with that, so they just kinda categorize old people as frightening or foolish, because they're afraid that's what they're going to become. The alternative is death. I think it's in the back of young people's minds. It's not a daily concern.
Janice: That's interesting. It kind-of lends itself to alternative music or alternative comics. People don't give it the respect that it deserves.
Gilbert: There's so much freedom in it. That's why I've always kind-of stuck to it, and defended doing comics, from a point-of-view of self-expression, 'cause there's so much freedom in that. If you really want to be honest, you have a place for it. If you really want to tell something that has deeper meaning, you can do it.
Janice: That's part of what makes you and Kristin such a perfect fit!
Gilbert: Yeah, I thought it was!
Janice: So, later down the road, when she came to you to do the cover for Rat Girl, there was probably no hesitation.
Gilbert: At first I was a little hesitant, because she was going through a publisher, and... you gotta deal with Art Directors. Let's put it this way, Art Directors at Fantagraphics are a breeze. It's tough, even at small publishing companies, you tend to jump through hoops a lot. And I'm not a very good hoop jumper. I don't take direction very easily. So, I was hesitant at first because of that reason. But for the fact Kristin asked me, and it was her story, I thought, I can't pass that up. Like I said, it's something with meaning. I was happy to jump aboard.
Janice: So, sort of similar, were you given direction, or were you given free-reign?
Gilbert: I think I asked both the Art Director and Kristin what they want on the cover. They said, basically her face on the cover, but as a cartoon. We went through a few stages. A lot of the ones I did were of her smiling, looking at the reader smiling, but it doesn't reflect how she's feeling in a lot parts of the book. So, I did a slapdash of her looking to the side, with a wary look in her eyes. And both the Art Director and Kristin said that's the one, that's the one. And I refined it over and over until it finally came out.
Janice: Kristin mentioned there's a version where she had great luscious lips...
Gilbert: Oh, that's right! I tend to do that when I draw somebody for real. I tend to idealize them a little bit. It's just a habit. A little bit more pert to the nose, a little bit more fullness to the lips, large eyes, y'know. It's just cartooning. And it tends to please people, so I just automatically went that way. And she thought, “Oh, nice drawing, but it's not me!”
Janice: Were you allowed to read the book before you began the art?
Gilbert: I read parts of it. I don't like to read a book, or listen to the music, when I'm working on the thing I'm doing. I just like to have free reign, and have the person describe to me what they like, and come up with something that way. 'Cause I tend to get clogged. If I read the book, then I'm like, “Well, now there's too many ideas.” I can't have too many ideas. If you read the book ahead of time, if you listen to the music ahead of time, then you're like, now I have a bounty of ideas. I have an overactive imagination, so when it's tapped... [ laughing ]. So, I try to close the faucet with that kind-of job, because I tend to complicate things.
Janice: Kristin mentioned one the reasons she wanted a “comic book”-style cover is because the book has lots of imagery in it. So, maybe it's a good thing you didn't read it first. She would've filled your head with all these images!
Gilbert: Exactly. I would've walked away and been like, “Ohh boy...”
Janice: What about the color choices? Was it your idea to have the blue halo effect around her?
Gilbert: No, I think the Art Director came up with that to make it pop. I would've done that anyway, but I didn't know they were doing a black cover.
Janice: It's interesting knowing that the period in her life that she was writing about was such a dark time, so I was wondering, is that reflected in the art?
Gilbert: I think so. You want to grab your audience, and people who might not have looked at it before. They see the words “Rat Girl” and they see this cover and they think, “Oh, what's this?”
Janice: “This is something I could relate to.”
Gilbert: So, that's a good thing. I know from an artist's point-of-view, it's a little awkward, but really it's very important.
Janice: It's so tricky, isn't it, because on one hand, you gotta think about marketing, but on the other hand, you have to take into consideration the artistic integrity of the product. Did you experience that with Limbo?
Gilbert: How so?
Janice: Well, I don't mean this to sound disparaging at all, but did the record label say, “You can't have an elderly person on the cover! That'll never sell!”
Gilbert: I didn't get that, but Kristin might have. You know, I'm trying to think back to it, and I can't remember why I did an old farmer guy. I guess I was just so deeply emerged in Palomar, and I think Kristin really wanted that. Let's make Palomar what it is, and that was one of the things, and she was pleased with that.
Janice: I like the idea of maybe Limbo being a place, like Palomar, where all these characters are residing.
Gilbert: That could work. Another thing is, as much as we want to define what's on the cover, we also wanted to leave it up to projection. For the readers to project. That's so important, especially for young readers. They love to read about themselves. So, if you can grab them with a cover, they see this young woman and think, “That's me!” And then they read it, and say, “Yeah, that's me alright.” So, it's all good.
Janice: Do you feel that's true for your books as well?
Gilbert: I think, yeah, in the early days. Especially with Jaime's work because it's a direct bullet to young people living this lifestyle, and we grabbed on to it right away. It was still relatively new back then in the 80's, starting in the late 70's. We thought it was already over. We were old men doing this. Jaime was all of 21 years old. I was 25 when Palomar came out, whoa. [ laughing ] “I'm gettin' too old for this!” But luckily, we found an audience. Somehow, people wanted to read it.
Slip into something more comfortable as we present a new column at Fantagraphics: Under the Covers, a sexy* look at album covers drawn by our artists, and the musicians who hook up with them. [ *Ed. note: Sorry, not really sexy. ]
Janice: So, all the way back to the very beginning, how did you first discover Gilbert Hernandez?
Kristin: When we moved to Boston as teenagers, underground comics seemed more... We could relate more to underground comics better than we could relate to underground music, which at the time hadn't grasped the indie-aesthetic yet. It was still a boys club, and, I don't mean to be insulting, because I really admire a lot of those people, but we couldn't relate. And underground comics were so fragile and gutsy, and they used light and shadow the way we used light and shadow. We just fell into that world, and sympathized with these artists who we really couldn't find analogs for in music.
And, my favorite was Gilbert. When we lived in and made records in L.A., I remember reading Heartbreak Soup over and over again, and having that get me through the terrible recording of The Real Ramona, which was a nightmare to record, personally and professionally. It was sort-of an interesting nightmare, but still. L.A. plus nightmare does not equal a happy girl. Heartbreak Soup somehow embraced the hell and the heat, and yet spun it in this beautiful, gutsy fashion that I think allowed my record The Real Ramona to not suffer the affects of the horrible recording process that it was. And I was always grateful to Beto for that.
Throwing Muses actually broke up when we made that record, and when we re-formed, we decided that the music business had no business destroying us. So, we would be a band that didn't give a shit because we were a band that didn't give a shit. And all we were gonna do was play music until we ran out of money, and that was our version of heroism. That was as heroic as we can get. So, when we made our final real studio album, I called Beto and said, “You have to do the cover, because it would mean everything to me if you did.” And he did!
He and his wife Carol came over to our apartment, and hung out with us and our little boy, and talked about what we wanted, listened to the music, and it was... I can't tell you how moving it was to have the cover of Limbo be in Beto's hand. All the detail, and the pain, and the... energy, I guess? He can somehow draw energy in a static impression, like a photograph that he gives you. These moments that he can capture are somehow living and breathing. I was so honored to have him do that for Limbo, because it was a very sad time for us. We knew we had run out of money to be on the road or in the studio, and so we were technically no longer a band. And I think it was our best record. It was bittersweet and very touching to have Beto commemorize it that way. And I've now seen pieces from that record cover tattooed all over people's bodies, on so many people. Which is great! It's permanent, and living and breathing.
Janice: Did you meet when you were in L.A. recording The Real Ramona?
Kristin: Oh no, I was still just a fan. It was during Limbo that I reached out to him.
Janice: What was his response?
Kristin: I think he said, “Sure,” which was not the response I expected! I was ready to talk him into it. He was like, “Okay,” and I'd go, “Now wait a minute, that's too easy!”
My book — it's called a memoir, but it's really just one year, 1985-86, from one spring to the next. So, really, it reads more like a non-fiction novel. And the title itself is very comic-book-y, and I wanted it to be read more as a graphic novel. It's very image-centric. I think graphic novels are far more beautiful than memoirs, because, you can't escape the world in a graphic novel, and a memoir, you can let your brain kind-of runaway and leave the story for a while. But in a graphic novel, you don't have that option. So, I wanted people to read from image to image to image, and one way to spin the book that way was to have Beto do the cover. The first few pictures he drew... I didn't know he was going to draw me, that was not what was —
Janice: I was wondering if that was the original plan!
Kristin: I didn't know what he was going to do! I just wanted him to do what he wanted. [ laughing ] And he drew me with these beautiful luscious lips and y'know, I look like someone from Palomar. You've met me, I don't!
So, he sent his first sketches in to my publisher Penguin to begin the dialogue, and they just said, “Okay” and picked one. And he was like, “No, no, no! Wait a minute! This is the first draft!” So, of his own accord, he redrew the cover and it looks so much like me. I mean, he made me a little prettier than I am, which was kind of him. But he captured the spooky, worried look that I always have in my eyes.
Janice: That's exactly what I thought when I saw the cover! I was like, she looks worried.
Kristin: [ laughing ] Yeah! I always look worried!
Janice: Was it a similar situation with Limbo where you just said, “Do whatever you want”?
Kristin: I believe so. I think that the only input we had in Limbo was to choose which piece was going to be on the cover.
A page from the CD booklet for Limbo
CD single from Limbo
CD single from Limbo
Janice: So, he submitted several pieces?
Kristin: And it could've been any of them. One was our tour bus driving away...
Janice: Which is in the booklet!
Kristin: Right, right... It was a very difficult decision. So, I left it up to my drummer, who's a graphic designer and smarter about those things. But the most popular tattoo is the little girl jumping rope.
Janice: The “Ruthie's Knocking” girl! [ Ed. note: I was wrong about the title, as you can see above! ] So, that was just another of the drawings that was in the batch he gave you to choose from?
Kristin: Yeah! Can you believe it? I mean, how could you choose? They were all incredible. And he's so easy to be with and to talk to, and Carol is so great. It was a very comfortable working relationship, if you can call it that. I just always felt such a kinship with him because he seems to be on his own planet as we are.
Janice: I couldn't agree more. Would you say that perhaps the guy on the cover is maybe “Mr. Bones?”
Kristin: Yeah, exactly! That's what we always called him. I never named that song. I was in my studio, which was next door to my house, and I had been working for too long and lost track of time. And, I'd worked through the dinner hour and written the song, that seemed to be about someone who had died and therefore had no weight anymore. You know that frustration when someone dies where they're not tangible to you? You know that your energies can still meet, you know that your memories will never leave you, but to lose someone's weight and pressure and earthliness is the real loss. And there was just this song that was a little confusing, and I couldn't quite finish it. And I just kept going for hours and hours. And my little son walked in, knocked on the door, and said, “Um, it was dinnertime about an hour ago, and you're still my Mom. Kids need to eat.” I said, “Okay, all I have left to do is name the song. What's a good name for the song?” And my son Ryder, having never heard the song, said, “Mr. Bones.” It's like, holy crap! That is a good name! And so that man on the cover became Mr. Bones.
Janice: Sometimes when I look at the cover, I think the guy looks scary. And then sometimes I think he looks sad. I think that says so much to what Beto brought out of what was going on behind-the-scenes with the album in his art.
Kristin: Aw man, that's an incredible thing to say. And so true. When you're sad, you get tough. And you know you're not going to function unless you can be scary to some people. And that is sort-of what happened to us. We were almost destroyed. But instead, we got tough. And, we did have to scare some people, but like my son Wyatt said, “When you do something, you make a mess.” And it's my favorite thing that he's ever said. He's said a lot things that I really love, but I thought, “Ah, that's it. If I never did anything, I wouldn't have made all these messes.” It's gotta be worth it. And that's where the scary expression comes in. 'Cause we made a lot of messes, and yet, we had to. It was important to do what we did.
And, we're now in the studio again, something I never thought would happen, making another Throwing Muses album. And it's bewitching. It's in these little pieces, and the pieces come and go, and then, come back and reappear in other songs, and it's sort-of like a “Throwing Muses Jackson Pollock” or something. We're just so enchanted by it! We're kinda lost and in love at the same time. And we wouldn't have gotten here and be able to do this if we didn't make a big mess and get a little tough because we got sad. It all comes down to Mr. Bones. [ laughing ]
Janice: What about with the cover of Rat Girl? I thought it was interesting that it's a very stark black cover, and of course, it goes with your eyes, but you kind-of have this halo of blue around you. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, and while I haven't read the book yet, from what I understand, that period was sort-of difficult for you. I wondered if he was interpreting the hope against that black...
Kristin: Oh, that's nice! Yeah, it is a difficult period in the book. It's actually my diary from when I was eighteen, and eighteen-year-olds are generally pretty resilient and hopeful and almost simple. So the book is kind-of hopeful and simple. It ends up being sweet more than anything else, which I don't think anybody would expect. It was a year where lots of things began, but nothing really kicked in yet: the band was signed, I was diagnosed bipolar, I was pregnant with my first son... that sounds like things happening, but really, it was just things starting. And while you can't call a disease “hopeful,” to start anything means, “Okay, I'm gonna say that I'm on a journey,” and that in itself is hopeful.
Stay tuned for part two of Under the Covers, where we talk with Gilbert Hernandez about working with Kristin Hersh...
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