(Max Murgia) (Translated by Shadowqueen)

Mark Wilkinson, that is when art meets music. Mark is one of the most appreciated record cover designer: his paintbrush has been beneficial to some very important bands such as (Fish era) MARILLION, JUDAS PRIEST and IRON MAIDEN, defining a style and integrating perfectly in the imaginary world of the bands for which he’s been the illustrator.
I personally cared much about this interview, and it was supposed to be made during a rainy Saturday night in Milan, when Mark came to Milan for his recent appearance in an MTV Italy show. The informal ambience and the copious quantities of alcohol that flooded the Pudding Tavern table made this a hard attempt, so I gave up. I’d rather let Mark talk freely and listen to him replying to the interrogations of something like 15 of his hardcore fans, who had lots of inquisitive questions for him.
Mark was very kind and made himself available to sort-out the information, oddities and behind the scenes anecdotes that had been called to mind during that night, in an e-mail interview that I hope you’ll find as interesting and enlightening as I did.

First of all, would you tell our readers something about how your art met music, and how you have become a much sought-after illustrator for album covers?
I don’t remember when exactly it was that I became fascinated with record sleeves but it must have been sometime during the last year of school. Some friends and me used to bunk off from school to go to the record store in Windsor to listen to the latest releases that week. If there wasn’t anyone new that I wanted to listen to in the listening booths, I used to look at the sleeves in the racks to see what I could find. I loved the painted sleeves the most, anything by “Hapshash and the Coloured Coat” for example...who designed posters as well as sleeves and eventually ended up making an album. It wasn’t very good actually but I loved the sleeve! I would sometimes buy albums just because I liked the sleeve...sometimes I was disappointed in the music and other times surprised! I had friends who were in bands but I wasn’t too interested in learning an instrument but thought a lot about how great it must be to design record sleeves. I became fascinated with the airbrush a few years later when I’d bought a book “The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics” and seen the illustrations by Alan Aldridge and Harry Willock. I bought one and set about learning how to use it and designing sleeves for imaginary bands in my spare time. I started drawing at work where I was employed as a draughtsman at a company that designed heating systems. I used to draw caricatures of people and workmates encouraged me to design posters for the dances that my workplace organised for the employees’ social clubs. I also helped out a friend who designed silkscreen posters for bands that played the local university and colleges nearby. One fateful day I saw an advert for an Art School in Watford where they were advertising for students who were not necessarily trained at school but had a portfolio of interesting work. If the work was good enough they would take you on for a 3 year course in Graphic Design. So...I went to an open day and showed my drawings and posters and had an offer to join the course. I left the engineering job and started. After a year I switched to Illustration full time as I had been encouraged to do so by a part time lecturer there called Graham Palfrey-Rogers who it turned out was the art director a decade before for the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour TV film. I left the Art School with a diploma and joined his studio in London and it all really started to happen for me after a few hard years doing book jackets and magazine covers, barely making a living...I was on the dole (social security) to make ends meet. I walked into a design studio one day in 1982 that had contacts with EMI Records and needed an artist to do some sketches for a new signing there called Marillion. The studio asked 3 illustrators to submit work and the band chose my ideas. So that was first record sleeves...apart from a few isolated designs for compilation albums for Heavy Metal bands called "Hot Shower" for RCA and one or two classical records for Polygram and the Decca label.
Is there any artist who has influenced you more than others?
Caspar David Friedrich...and the whole symbolist school of art. Rick Griffin and the Stanley Mouse Studios in America, and the aforementioned Hapshash and the Coloured Coat studio in England which was really Michael English and Nigel Weymouth. I also loved the work of Viennese artist Gottfried Helnwein.
Tell us how a Mark Wilkinson album cover takes shape, from the original concept to the finished product? Do you get to listen to the music first?
Sometimes... but not always. I like to hear the music if at all possible. I play the demos or whatever constantly to see if there are any ideas that pop into my head that are suggested by the music. Sometimes the band has a specific idea of what they want, other times they leave it to me to send in sketches or nowadays digital designs by e-mail. Once the ideas have taken shape and have been approved, I do the finished work.
Most people got to know about Mark Wilkinson’s art through the work you've done with Marillion. Would you like to tell our readers how you got the job and how the Jester character was born and later developed?
They didn't want photographic cover designs but wanted to return to the earlier era in the 70's of painted sleeves, they wanted to establish a relationship with an artist, one that would grow with them over time like the Roger Dean/Yes example. The Jester was suggested by Fish as the obvious choice for an image for the band as they already had the album title "Script For a Jester’s Tear". The first single "Market Square Heroes" was to have the Jester hiding behind the mask...the second one, the mask torn away, an idea suggested by Mark Kelly. For the album we all got together and ideas were flying about all over the place and Fish had more or less a complete image worked out in his mind's eye... the seedy apartment, the Jester, a struggling musician, playing the notes scrawled out on a sheet of paper, etc. It was up to me to make sense of it all visually.
After the Jester went through the window in the "Misplaced Childhood" cover, there was a change in style in your job for Marillion. Tell us about the "Clutching At Straws" concept... We always had a tough deadline on this album... a few weeks at most, for various reasons. The concept was there... a bar with lots of characters who had been an inspiration to the band, hard drinkers and life-on-the-edge writers and artistes, a bit like a drinker's Sgt. Pepper sleeve! Originally there was supposed to be dozens of people in that bar. I suggested doing a mix of photography and illustration this time to get over the problem of such a short period I had to complete the picture. I was about a week into it when the manager called me to say I had 2 or 3 days more at the most to complete the job because of a deadline of getting the album out in time for an American release. It was a tough call... I had to compromise drastically, and it was not the sleeve we had intended. We ended up with what... about 5 or 6 people in the bar instead of the dozens we had originally intended. It was the worst sleeve I have ever done... and in my opinion for the best album Marillion ever made. I was terribly upset about it and thought it may well be my last for them! It was... but not because of that, as history showed.
When Fish parted company with Marillion, you stuck with him: tell us about your professional relationship with the Big guy, and how's working him.
I was asked to carry on working for Marillion after the split and I considered it carefully. I decided against it because I didn't trust their manager at the time. Artistically I wish that obstacle had been removed earlier and I could have carried on working for both. You look for truth in an artist. Otherwise all you're left with are "phonies" as Holden Caulfield stated. And there are too many of them in life let's face it! In the end they don’t deliver on their initial promise and you feel cheated and let down. You look for an artist that you can heap on the praise for the high points and give enough slack when the lows happen. I can love him. I can hate him. I think... I hope... there is a mutual respect between us. In the good times (if there is an "r" in the month and a fair wind in his sails)... Fish'll out-metaphor the hind leg off a frog and put together some great work. In the bad times?... Watch out for breaking glass!
People have been waiting for the "Masque" book to be released for years: now it's finally out (and thank God for that!) - tell us about how it was conceived and how it developed the way it turned out?
I hoped people were waiting for it too! It was conceived to be published after "Clutching At Straws". What a thin book it would have been? Ironically though, it would have sold many more copies if we had brought it out then! As it is a much more complete work. It tells the whole story behind those album sleeves, what the symbols splattered all over the covers meant. It delivers a no-holds-barred account of our working relationship. I love a lot of what Fish does, but not all which he well knows! It is the same with him with the covers. When it works it works beautifully. That is the story we thought we would tell. An honest one. Visually, the book is absolutely what I wanted. I think it should be of interest to anyone fascinated by album sleeve art. I sure could have done with it when I first started out! There is even a step-by-step account of how the "Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors" sleeve was made. Both visually from first drawings to the airbrushing... what inks were used etc. and conceptually with Fish and my first meeting about it when it was to be the next Marillion album chronologically. Of course they imploded before it was released and it became the first Fish solo album sleeve!
In your latest works (Fish's last couple of albums and John Wesley's record, for example) you started experimenting with computer graphics - tell us something about it.
I really liked the cover for Wes' album, one of my best ever I think. With Fish, I think the last two albums worked better inside the booklets rather than the covers. Generally speaking though it was market forces that made me switch to computer art. I could no longer afford to work for weeks at a time airbrushing and painting a single picture to be paid less than I had been 20 years ago. Everywhere you look in graphic art the budgets are shrinking along with the size of the canvas... IE CDs. I have a family to support like the next guy... but I'm damned if I will sell my soul to rock 'n roll! So I, like many others saw what was happening with digital art and decided to have a go. I love drawing with a graphics tablet and playing with images on screen. Also, it can be quicker to do, BUT crucially... not always! The thing is... people take advantage. Clients want to pay even less because they think it is done quickly. So you are left feeling pretty demoralised and artistically stifled if you're not careful! I think Wes's album sleeve doesn't look as if it was created on a computer. I don't like a lot of the smooth... 3D side of computer art. I like what you can do with texture for instance. That' what interests me, to have the end result not looking as if it was done on the computer. I like it as an art form in its own right. And I think it is equally valid as an art form to painting. I must admit to a feeling recently though that I would like to return to painting a picture by hand again. Just for me... see if I can still do it I suppose.
Are you gonna work on Fish's next album? Are there any ideas already in your mind?
The subject matter of “Field Of Crows”, the next album title was borne out of Fish seeing a field of crows in Kosovo I believe...and he wasn’t aware of the Van Gogh don’t expect a messy suicide! There is a rough idea of what he would like to see in this album cover, elements of which may change. It would lend itself very well to do by hand. I have expressed a wish to do this one as a painting. Quite how I can afford to do it is another matter as budgets as ever are tighter than a gnat's toupee.
You made a few covers for Judas Priest too. I guess our readers would be very interested about that...
I started working for Judas Priest on the "Ram It Down" album sleeve and have done all their covers since. I got the job after the band had seen my designs that year for "The Monsters Of Rock" festival which I had done each year for 8 years before it folded. The last two ("Meltdown" and "Demolition") were done digitally. "Demolition" in particular was a difficult one as the band really wanted something different this time and were concious of the changing styles in album covers for metal bands... a more simple direct approach, more graphic than illustrative. It took about 20 attempts to get to the final cover that they liked. The lettering was in place early was just difficult to get the rest to work and to fit in with the title. We got there in the end! Before that - with "Painkiller" probably being the best example - it was a case of supplying rough drawings based on the band's ideas. We had the biker in place on that one for instance and they suggested a metallic creature riding pillion but I replaced the biker with the metallic creature and put the monster's head on the bike to add to the hellish theme of the title track.
From the Jester to Eddie: tell us about how was taking care of a character that wasn’t originally created by you - and since we're talking about Iron Maiden, I guess it would be interesting to know about your relationship with this band.
I had painted the image for one of the "Monsters Of Rock" posters that featured the winged Eddie when Maiden were performing, it was released as an album with the design as the cover. I had met Rod Smallwood (the band's manager) at the time and he had said we must work together again as he was pleased with that poster. A few years later I got the call to see if I could help out with "The Wicker Man" design for what was then to be the band's album cover. It was a tricky one to pull off as no one was sure whether Eddie should be tearing himself out of the Wicker Man, was to be the Wicker Man or as had been tried before... within the smoke coming from the Wicker Man. Getting the head right was difficult... took 3 attempts I think but everyone was pleased with the end result. It was eventually released as the single and I was asked to do the next single "Out Of The Silent Planet" too. More commissions to come I hope!
Let's talk about comics - I know you made something for Judge Dredd. Tell us something about it.
I was friendly with Alan Grant who had moved to the same village as me, we got talking one day and he saw my portfolio and suggested I paint some covers for the Judge Dredd megazine of which he wrote many many stories for as well as Batman, The Demon and Lobo for DC Comics amongst others. My style was too slow for doing the stories themselves, so I stuck to the covers. One of them was used for the title sequence for the film with Sly Stallone (the last one you see on screen) that was great to see the picture 20' up there on a movie screen.
Is there a musician or a band that you wish you could work for?
Oh... difficult one. Porcupine Tree... I love that band, I almost got there with the last one as Steve asked me to submit some ideas, one of which was in the front running until the very end when it was decided the subject of the title track featured a boy and my picture had a girl! I was not aware of the lyrics when I did the image you see. Pink Floyd... but let's face it... it ain't gonna happen is it!
What's the album cover you wish you'd be remembered for?
"Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors" but "The Hill" painting inside the gatefold rather than the front cover... it took months to do and achieved what I set out to do... a sort of modern day "Garden Of Earthly Delights". Other than that... probably "Script For A Jester’s Tear"... as I said on MTV when I was asked the same question... because it set the standard really and was the most complex picture I had made up until then. It's still my favourite Marillion cover.
What kind of advice would you give to a young artist who wants to pursue a career making album covers?
Well... they probably are using computers not painting. It is now as it always has been... not what you know but who you know a lot of the time. Get out there with your portfolio and knock on as many doors as you can, don't get depressed if it takes time. Send out your work on CDr to as many art directors of record companies as you can... find out their name first by ringing the company up. Ring up after a week or so to see what they thought... BOTHER THEM! It’s what they are paid for... to discover new talent, they should be bothered.
One last question: what kind of music does actually Mark Wilkinson listen to?
I love the latest "Tool" album "Lateralus" a lot. John Wesley’s latest of course, "Fellini Days" especially "Clock Moves Sideways", and I still play "Plague Of Ghosts" by Fish every other day... it's still his masterpriece in my opinion. "Channel Light Vessel", "Roedelius" still, Porcupine Tree and all their satellite bands like "Cipher" and "No-Man". I like "Brave" a lot... easily the best post-Fish Marillion album. Captain Beefhart... listening to "Strictly Personal" at the start of the day really gets you in a great frame of mind, a real injection of good spirit. Joni Mitchell... "Hejira" to end the day to calm things down and to remind yourself that there are few artists that you can use the term "genius" for but she is up there with the gods!

< BACK >