Self-annihilating ennui, protest, the feeling of total freedom that brings us closer to the final redemption. It could be a scene from the late 60′s dramas about teenage idealism or disillusionment . A stirring yet static suspension from the glimmering surface of the world we live in. It is precisely this loose allegory about the quest for spiritual enlightenment through the aesthetics of the visionary and psychedelic experience that American artist Neil Krug employs in his playful and sophisticated photography and filmmaking. Los Angeles –based artist redefines the boundaries of mysticism and psychedelia by integrating them into commercial works and music videos for bands such as Devendra Banhart, My Chemical Romance, Ladytron, The Horrors, Scissor Sisters, Tame Impala, First Aid Kit, Canyons, Sea Wolf, Juan Atkins, The Pierces, Dri, and White Flight. As Neil readies the release of his much anticipated Pulp Art Book: Volume Two, in collaboration with the photographer and model Joni Harbeck, we got the chance to talk about what fuels his grainy narratives and realizes his creative vision.
First of all, welcome to LDWT. How did you first get into photography, Neil? What made you decide to explore photography and filmmaking as means of artistic expression? Did you have any formal, academic training?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in film and photography or art in general. It’s something that’s always fascinated me, and as a kid I dreamed of being an artist in some capacity. I’m self-taught so I’ve never been certain if things would work out.
Most of your landscape photographs seem to pass by in a dream-state. The use of mesmerizing images blurring into each other and fading into the desert sun, the dazzling beauty of the pink mountains and the vivid aesthetics of utopian abstraction are certainly some of the most fascinating aspects of your poetic vision. Your forthcoming book, ‘American Road Movie’, seems to be a gorgeously composed inside look at some of the most haunting landscapes in America. So, what does the landscape mean to you, Neil, and what can you tell us about this specific project? What elements were you most interested in while choosing your travel destinations?
“American Road Movie’ is a collection of imagery based on the landscape icons of the classic road movie. I grew up in Kansas and didn’t see the desert until my mid-twenties, so I’ve spent a lot of time imagining these spaces.
The collection of images were taken with my sort of splintered edge. In other words, landscapes that appear a certain color in reality have been turned inside out to give the spaces a more painterly quality. There isn’t a particular spot that I was most drawn to during the travel. The goal is to show the abstraction of nature from my perspective.
Invisible Pyramid is your long-awaited feature film project featuring Kalee Forsythe and Ainsley Burke and It’s supposedly about two women “escaping the loss of a loved one in search for an answer to their ambivalence.” I noticed that some of your portrayed subjects often seem to be trapped between the realms of reality and oniric imagination and this film, like many art films of the 60s and 70s, appears to deal with the struggle for identity and freedom. As a viewer, I look at the backstage shoots and I see traces of Michelangelo Antonioni, Gus Van Sant, Terrence Malick, and Nicolas Roeg ’s influence. They immediately make me think about films like L’Avventura (1960), Zabriskie Point (1970), Gerry (2002), Badlands (1973) and Walkabout (1971), just to name a few. How do you figure your background in cinema has informed your work as an artist and filmmaker?
All your influences as an artist inform what you do and what you are I suppose. I’ve always gravitated towards older films as a movie lover and felt the drive to incorporate the things I love about those films into something of my own.
To me a period of culture can date a film poorly or it can support what the film is about to begin with. With ‘Pyramid’ I’ve tried to keep the focus on the essential elements of a what I love about a good film. Simply, a great story that supports the visuals and vice versa.
There are symbols in your photography and filmmaking which often recur, such as Fire. I see the camera lingering on burning objects and people in several works, see Invisible Pyramid, The Blame (Gonjasufi), Children of the Light (White Flight ), Love You More (The Pierces) and Gravity the Seducer (Ladytron). Can you tell us more about it?
I know I’ve used it quite a bit. Simple elements like fire and water are great to use because everyone understands what they mean. I could make up some pretentious jargon as to why I use it, but in reality I use it as a device to send a message in the composition. With Ladytron and White Flight, fire was used as an allegorical device, and with The Pierces and Gonjasufi, fire was used to make the stories in their videos more vivid. The fire in ‘Invisible Pyramid’ utilizes both approaches that I just mentioned.
Throughout your brilliant career you have photographed and art directed campaigns for such great artists as Devendra Banhart, Ladytron, The Horrors, Tame Impala, My Chemical Romance, Ratatat Gonjasufi, First Aid Kit, Canyons, Sea Wolf, Juan Atkins, Sinner DC, The Pierces, Dri, and White Flight. I’m particularly fascinated by the music video you directed for Ladytron’s Tomorrow (Velocifero, 2008). Watching Tomorrow, my experience was reminiscent of watching Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed by Peter Weir in 1975 . As well as in the movie, we can see three beautiful girls mysteriously disappearing in a visual, poetic, awe-inspiring experience. Is it a mere coincidence? How did you end up working with the band and how did the idea for Tomorrow come about?
In the fall of 08′ Ladytron reached out to me over flickr because in those days I didn’t have an official website to retrieve emails. The band was on tour in Europe and offered me the choice to shoot the video in either Spain, France, or Germany. I chose Spain and in retrospect I’m so glad we were able to shoot there.. Reuben of Ladytron mentioned the idea of shooting a portion of the video in the mountains of Montserrat to capture a performance from Helen and Mira of the group. I believe he had been there on a previous occasion and knew the right spot. We hiked up the mountain and filmed for a couple of hours and made it back in time for the band to perform that night in Barcelona. It was a great time.
Regarding the idea, it’s one of those things that just popped up as the right thing to do. Ideas are strange occurrences because you don’t know where they come from. With ‘Tomorrow’ I imagined Dali paintings moving and girls floating around cliffs and whatnot. I didn’t want the lyrical content to be mirrored with the visuals and the band loved the idea. I’ll always have fond memories of that video because it was my first one.
The Scissor Sisters’ Magic Hour represents your latest collaboration with designer Trevor Tarczynski, with whom you’ve worked closely before in designing album artworks for Juan Atkins remix package, Ladytron (Gravity the Seducer, 2011) and Canyons (Keep your Dreams, 2011). How did you and Trevor meet and how did you guys work on each of these album artworks?
Trevor has become a good friend of mine over the last couple of years and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done together. My agent introduced us in 2009 prior to the Canyons project and we’ve been rolling ever since. Trevor and I are an interesting team because we have totally different artistic backgrounds but we both share the same vision when we’re working on a campaign together. In my opinion, ‘Magic Hour’ is our greatest collaboration thus far. All the imagery I generated married with his design so well. Unfortunately some of our best work is on the cutting room floor from old projects. Once I made a cover of a sitting geisha facing a mountain in meditation and Trevor illustrated the most incredible type to finalize the piece. The cover was rejected because the band wanted a portrait instead. After enough time goes by we’ll release a book of rejected artworks.
For The Scissor Sisters’ new album, you have produced all the artwork, which also includes the covers for the singles ‘Only the Horses’ and ‘Baby Come Home’. As far as I’m concerned, Magic Hour perfectly recreates the concept-album feel of the band’s work. A superb symmetrical composition with a great perspective, perfect lighting, wonderful tones and a brilliantly crafted surreal, hypnotic imagery that is reminiscent of Storm Thorgerson ‘s work. Please tell us more about this album artwork, Neil.
The idea from the beginning was to have the cover artwork continue the theme the band had established with the previous records. The three previous covers are based on a simple action occurring, so it was my job to work with the established direction but take it to a new place at the same time. The Scissor Sisters are fans of the “Gravity the Seducer’ artwork and wanted something utilizing the same tools, but used in a more exuberant fashion. I came up with the idea of having a small group of Zebra standing near a large chrome sphere in the middle of deserted location at the magic hour of a sunset. The toughest part of that cover was trying to figure out which angle I wanted to show. The entire scene was generated in 3D so the perspective possibilities were endless. I generated almost 80 different versions of that same scene before we decided on the final one.
Pulp Art Book: Volume Two is expected to be released in September of 2012 and includes new characters and vignettes suspended between psychedelia and Italian 1970’s Poliziotteschi movies. How did you and Joni Harbeck work on the development of this sequel?
All the images in volume two are ideas we had during the making of the first book but didn’t get around to shooting them in time. The first thing we tackled was the ‘Coyote’ and ‘Luce Solare’ series which we shot over the course of a weekend in the desert. Then we spent a great deal of time prepping the ‘Heist’ series.
That particular series took the longest due to all the costumes, wigs, and weapons we had to acquire in order to get the look right. I’ve always been a fan of Italian crime films and thought Joni would look perfect playing the roles of five different woman brought together to pull a bank heist. She and I named each character and came up with back stories for each girl before we shot the series. For us, we treat a shoot of this nature like a movie set and throw the conventional model-pose bullshit out the window. It’s more about the creating a film in photographs rather than trying to get the prettiest pose. We wanted the overall feeling of the series to be a bit unnerving.
In a recent interview, you talk about the importance of using illustration and painting as reference or inspiration for your own photography. What are the artistic influences on you?
It’s just a color thing really. I find the color palettes of paintings and illustrations far more inspiring to look at when I’m pa-rousing for references during a project.
Lastly, what else is coming up for you?
At the moment I’m busy at work on four different artwork campaigns and have a new CGI music video in the works as well. Before the summer ends I’ll have a bunch of new to release.