Through an in-depth artistic observation and introspective research, Atlanta-based artist Jacob Escobedo demonstrates an improved ability to create extraordinary works of art out of ordinary thinking. Jacob Escobedo is widely known as the Vice President of Creative Design for both Cartoon Network and Adult Swim‘s Creative Group. Over the years, this highly prolific artist has created the arresting design of a wide variety of album covers that truly stand out, including Broken Bells, Gnarls Barkley, Dark Night of the Soul, Rome – the musical collaboration of Danger Mouse, Daniele Luppi, Jack White and Norah Jones – T-Pain, Active Child and Vampire Weekend. Additionally, Escobedo has also overseen the creative direction of the original one-hour animated feature, Freaknik: The Musical, produced by T-Pain and directed by Chris Prynoski . Escobedo’s work has continued to be relevant throughout the years and his latest effort for the Portland-based band, The Shins, is no exception. Upon the forthcoming release of the band’s fourth album, Port of Morrow – for whom he designed the startling new album and single cover – we sit down with Jacob to learn more about his incredible journey in the music industry.
Hi Jacob, let’s start with a brief introduction of who you are, where you’ve been raised and when did your interest for art begin (did you take any art courses at school? ….etc). How did you get started as an illustrator and graphic designer?
I was born and raised in a small ghost town in Nevada called Pioche. My father was a self-taught artist from Mexico, so I was always surrounded by his strange hoarded collection of old medical books, mexican comics, handmade furniture and naive paintings. So, I always considered him an early influence on my experiments in art. He would ball up tin foil and save dirty plates from dinner because he claimed he saw busty lady silhouettes and men in cowboy hats…he was like a mexican R. Crumb. He never stopped painting and drawing and smearing weird things on paper. His private collection of these drawings were on display all over our house. The second biggest influence on me was my high school art teacher Larry Williamson. He was a crabby, bearded old man who would carve bone and wood into huge sculptures that looked like they came out of the Nevada desert. He allowed me to take three consecutive art classes my senior year tucked back in the unused football field concession stand and supplied me with unlimited fresh brewed coffee and art supplies. I think he was the one that made me feel like I should be making art every chance I got. After high school, I enrolled in the art program at the University of Utah and met the illustrator Nate Williams who helped me realize I could make a living painting and drawing. So I left school and started freelancing for local papers and ad agencies.
Your creative style is characterized by a wide variety of digital techniques, mediums and bright colors. Please take us through your design process, where do you start? What tools do you use in creating your artworks?
My creative process always varies depending on the project. When possible I try to listen to the music first and then move into researching visual inspiration, trips to used book stores and record stores. I love Penguin paperback book covers and old science fiction illustration. A project usually starts with thumbnail sketches and paint washes, I use found imagery to make collages. I try to work with tactile organic elements before manipulating them in photoshop or illustrator. My wife is a pretty good sounding board and a big help with inspiration. She is an expert in art history and has an incredible sense of style, filling our house with a great collection of art and objects. I feel most inspired at home.
As I was looking through your portfolio I was really taken with the series of animal drawings. You started this series in 2007, naming each drawing for the friends who cited the depicted animal as their favorite. What else can you tell us about this series?
It started with a drawing of a bat for my wife. She has an odd fascination with bats and that led to a drawing of a coyote for me. I wanted to hang them above our bed like spirit animals watching over us. Those drawing sparked the series and I started doing one for each of my kids and then one for each of my close friends. I sent some of them to Jen Bekman and she asked me to participate in 20×200. It’s therapy when I to draw tight detailed tangles of psychedelic hair and organs and feathers. I just finished four new drawings for West Elm.
You’re considered a highly respected and renowned artist in the music industry, having designed posters, tour shirts, singles, EP’s and album covers for bands such as Gnarls Barkley, Young The Giant, Active Child, Dark Night of the Soul (Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse) and Vampire Weekend. Broken Bells’ visual aesthetic might well be considered one of your most significant accomplishments. It seems like the packaging and design for Broken Bells’ records have grown more cohesive over time. As a whole, they emerge as interrelated chapters in an hypothetical sci-fi novel. How would you describe each of them? What can you tell us about the cover for the latest single, Meyrin Fields?
Broken Bells was a long, tough process. James Mercer and Danger Mouse had some ideas of this woman standing in a room full of bells. So, we explored that a bit and luckily ditched the idea before the photo shoot. We went through dozens of rounds of creative, photo based, collages, simple illustrations and type exploration. Finally Danger Mouse gave me the album when they were finished recording. The album sounded spacey and atmospheric so I focused on those aspects and got inspired by these 300 year old architectural drawings. When I created that pink orb in space with a lone light shining from a window, it felt like I had discovered that planet somehow…it seemed to really capture the melancholic feeling of that album. Being alone and floating in space. Everything just flowed after I created that. All Broken Bells art from then on spurred off the same look. Pink organic shapes in space. Mountains and smoke and architectural orbs in landscapes. I’m a huge fan of the black monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey. When the monkeys are gathering around that abstract geometric shape. That image is so powerful to me.
The Meyrin Fields cover was inspired by the lyrics.
Cycle down in the belly of the ocean
Why he ever notice it as sucking up ?
Rise up and sound this state
That everything else in this world can be broken
When the scolding flow closes the distance
up from the devil then seeping out
your tiny vengeful life might pass through my mind
but I blink and it’s over
Pink smoke seeping out of a vent in a barren landscape felt appropriate.
Here’s a concept stills for Broken Bells music video “The Ghost Inside”, directed by Jacob Gentry and featuring Christina Hendricks. How did you work on the visuals and what were your concerns?
I had to come up with concept stills for Jacob before it went into production. The fake postcards of the pink mountain with windmills were supposed to be from this fake resort that Christina Hendricks is considering her destination…only to find a desolate planet in the end. The concept completely fit in with my vision of this lonely planet in space, so it was an easy collaboration.
Your work is also indirectly inspired by old science fiction book covers, biology text book graphics and religious flyers. It would be great to learn more about how you created some of your recent album artworks. Where did you draw inspiration from?
STEVE MOORE – PRIMITIVE NEURAL PATHWAYS
I can’t remember if Steve sent me graphic inspiration or if I was just drawn to that imagery when I listened to his music. I love illustrations from biology text books from my childhood. My father was always picking them up at thrift stores and I would create weird collages that my mom would awkwardly hang in our living room next to framed portraits of Jesus.
STEVE MOORE AND DANIEL O’ SULLIVAN – MIRACLE
Steve and Daniel actually sent me the inspiration, Jean Widmer who inspired the type and the painting “Descent From the Cross” by Jacopo Pontormo 1557 which I traced and recolored with neon paint washes which gave it this great Baroque meets Sci-Fi feel. The new wave minimal sounds felt so right with that image.
Asa came to me with a bunch of inspiration, which included ancient roman busts. This was the second round I sent him for cover options. The first, which I’m glad he didn’t go with, was a black diamond ice cream cone floating in a desert. It looked terrible.
Daniele Luppi and Danger Mouse were looking for something that felt like an authentic graphic from the 60s. Simple and iconic. The black heart felt appropriately cinematic with the dark duets of Jack White and Nora Jones.
And last but not least, Port of Morrow. This cover is captivating. How did you come to work with The Shins? Was the final cover the first idea you came up with? How closely did you work with the band on this piece?
After working with James Mercer on Broken Bells, he came to me about this Shins album. He sent references of old eastern european book covers with skulls and psychedelic faces. So I explored three different rounds of creative. Each time getting closer to what he was looking for. In the final round, I scanned a cross cut of a rock which formed that mountain and put this spirit made of feathers on top. He immediately loved it, but thought it needed a Hopi inspired mask because he grew up in New Mexico. So he sent me all this great inspiration and it slowly evolved into that cover. If you look closely we’ve filled that smoke coming down the mountain with naked ladies at James’ request. Look for a bunch of tour posters and merch coming soon. It’s pure Hopi psychedelic spookiness.
Jacob, you’ve been working on this killer artwork for the Adult Swim SINGLES Program 2011. The simple idea behind this series was to release a free, unreleased download track each week for 10 weeks from a different and new artist, including Ford & Lopatin, Best Coast, How to Dress Well , Mastodon, Active Child, The Tallest Man on Earth, jj [ft. Ne-Yo], The Rapture and others. You designed and created an highly detailed artwork for this singles project. Each single had its own cover art. How did the idea to break up the artwork like a puzzle come up?
I’ve been at Adult Swim for so long now, occasionally I like to just sit on my couch in my office and draw. Jason Demarco, who coordinates all the music for Adult Swim allowed me to indulge myself. So I just sat for several days and drew that ridiculous mass of gnarliness. We thought it would keep people coming back if we revealed the different pieces of the puzzle as each single was released.
Jacob, you have several years of experience working as creative director for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. You also co-created the original one hour special “Freaknik: The Musical”, starring T-Pain, Lil Wayne, Young Cash, Snoop Dogg, Sophia Fresh, Rick Ross, and comedians Andy Samberg and Charlie Murphy , among others. How did you get involved working with Chris Prynoski on the show? Did you have free reign in creating the characters?
This show started with a weird pilot for Adult Swim called “That Crook’d Sipp” which was loosely based on “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner. I was co-creating that with Nick Weidenfeld who came up with this character Freaknik, the physical spirit of black spring break in Atlanta. Adult Swim liked that character so much that they had us make an hour special. Carl Jones from Black Dynamite and The Boondocks helped Nick write it…and I worked with Chris and his team designing all the characters. It was an amazing collaboration with all these artists. T-Pain brought all the crazy energy to Freaknik and it was really his connections that brought all the talent. I remember looking at Nick while we were on the phone with Andy Samberg and just sitting in shock as he completely ad libbed his entire portion.
Any upcoming project that you’d like to share with us?
Working on some stuff for Jeff Antebi at Waxploitation for The Future Sounds of Buenos Aires
Do you have any advice for all the cover designers out there?
TRY HARDER. That’s the only piece of advice I got from David Lynch when I was trying to work out the Dark Night of the Soul cover. It was in all caps.
What would be your desert island selection of best album (or book) covers ever?
Funny you should ask, I think “Island” by Aldous Huxley put out by Penguin (paperback) might be the best cover ever. I also think WIRE Pink Flag is pretty perfect.