Russell Mills’ cover designs for Brian Eno, David Sylvian and Nine Inch Nails are among the most memorable of the trade. By intricately interweaving photography and painting, Mills has established an incomparable visual style, which penetrates the subconscious of a composition and brings it to the light. Grounding these works is a tight web of ideas, concepts and intellectual exchange – and an ongoing ambition to communicate the incommunicable.
Let there be no doubt: Russell Mills is a visual thinker. And yet, his work, expressing itself through collages and a simultaneity of two-dimensional and three-dimensional architecture, has always glanced underneath what meets the eye. The depth of his mysterious images reflects the depth of the sonic creators he has worked with: From an early interest in punk, Mills quickly developed a relationship with the ambient community and a wide variety of uniquely creative and, at times, wilful artists: Over the years, he has contributed classic covers to classic albums by Brian Eno, David Sylvian and, on 1997’s The Downward Spiral, Nine Inch Nails. Unlike many colleagues who found themselves unable to adjust to the much smaller and far less sensual CD-format, Mills has successfully adapted his techniques and remained relevant until today, only recently presenting stunning artwork for Nils Petter Molvaer’s Hamada. For a visual thinker like Mills, the connection with sound may seem strange – but it has brought about some of the most haunting covers of the past few decades.
Why this deep connection with music?
A Rothko painting can fix me to the spot and tear me apart – I don’t know why or how this happens. A Pollock painting can mesmerise me and fill me with joy. A James Turrell installation calms me and also inspires. A Kurt Schwitters collage seduces and amazes me. The films of Tarkovsky and Lynch can bewilder, enervate and move me. But they still all require work and effort and dedication. Music is mobile and immediate. Other art forms require that we make an effort to experience and enjoy them. We have to stand in front of and study a painting. We have to read, in a linear mode, a book or a poem. We sit in front of a film allowing a narrative to unfold, generally also in a linear direction. Music can be experienced without explanation. Music goes straight to the heart, the groin or the legs. When we experience music that moves us, we either want to celebrate joyously or cry, or we want to fuck or we want to dance
Your earliest clients were ‘fledgling punk groups’ on the one hand and Brian Eno on the other. It must have been an incredibly open and exciting time.
Whilst I was at Royal College of Art between 1974-77, my work in experimental collage and mixed media assemblages suited the Punk ethic visually and conceptually. In hindsight I can appreciate that this period was hugely important, for the music world and for me. But at the time, as Punk exploded, I was in the middle of it, so it all seemed normal – incredibly exciting and vital, but also just what was going on. I saw the Pistols and the Clash play the Royal College of Art and was going out maybe three or four evenings a week to see bands who intrigued and/or excited. I think that what interested me about the Punk bands I worked with and for, was their incredible energy, their total lack of embarrassment. This blatant desire to succeed was not too common in the art world – although it has subsequently become seemingly the only moving force driving most so-called art.
How did you become interested in these scenes in the first place?
Prior to attending the Royal College of Art I had studied at Maidstone College of Art between 1971-74. To me, having discovered Beefheart at the age of fifteen and run away from boarding school to see Hendrix play one his first UK dates with, I think, the Nice, the Move, Pink Floyd, Amen Corner and Eire Apparent in Brighton, most contemporary music in the UK had become pretty boring, formulaic and syrupy – although I had always loved all of the Walker Brothers’ releases and followed Scott Walker’s journey religiously. I’d experienced some great bands at the art schools I attended, firstly at Canterbury College of Art where I had a room in a house owned by East of Eden’s Dave Arbus’ Mother. The house was full of music and long haired hippies paraded in and out at all hours. Coming straight from a boarding school, this kind of life was a short circuit to being an art student! In addition to East of Eden, Canterbury at that time was buzzing with a great roster of local bands – Soft Machine, Hatfield and the North, Caravan, Gong, Egg, Henry Cow, Camel, and of course the wonderful Ian Drury, who taught part time in the art school and was in the process of forming Kilburn and the Highroads. One could hear them rehearsing in the studios.
Eno & Syvian
If I understood correctly, Roxy Music seem to have provided you with some kind of epiphany.
I first heard Roxy Music on John Peel’s Top Gear, which was I think sometime in 1972. I was immediately hooked. Their collage of sound and oblique references struck a chord. A rock band who knew about art, film, literature and humour and who weren’t singing about boy meets girl and who were making some wonderfully unearthly sounds too! I had to know more, especially about those sounds. Thereafter, wherever I found any information on the band or heard them on the radio, I was becoming more and more interested in that weird guy in the feathers and make-up twiddling levers and knobs making sounds from another planet. Eno. Here was my English Captain Beefheart.
In which way did your methods and views as an artist change after you started working with and for Eno?
I’d suspected that my fumblings to formulate new ways of working was being echoed in Brian’s work. On meeting him these suspicions proved true. I don’t think my methods and views actually changed substantially whilst working with and for Brian. It was more a case of his processes and approaches to making music paralleling my efforts with visual work. His success with what were considered strange methodologies and processes gave me more confidence with my own strategies and experiments.
What kind of strategies and experiments?
I guess that my work for any projects, including those that can lazily be called “ambient”, has evolved in exactly the same way that all my work evolves. Mainly by chance. Everything I’ve done has just happened. The work proceeds from a combination of concerns. Primarily my main focus is on ideas that will anchor the work, inform the work and give it a conceptual and contextual grounding. Secondly I try to find something, a way of working that hopefully conveys, if obliquely, the essence of those ideas, or in the case of music, the moods or places that the music evokes. I guess I’m more concerned with suggesting rather than describing or emulating. I can’t work on pieces, paintings, art and design or music, without ideas to underpin the finished works. The research I do tends to be pretty rigourous, in depth and broad. The research throws up sometimes seemingly unrelated and disparate ideas and previously unsuspected connections that inspire and inform the work. The way I approach all my work, personal and commissioned, is pretty much the same; the way that my work for Nine Inch Nails unfolded is similar to the way that works for, say Brian Eno and Roger Eno, Harold Budd and David Sylvian have formed.
Tell me about your interest in Sylvians work.
I’d known of and admired David from afar through his work with Japan, but had had no contact with him until he phoned one day out of the blue, to say he’d seen and admired the cover work I’d made for The Pearl by Harold Budd and Brian Eno and wanted to discuss the possibility of me tackling a cover for Japan’s Exorcising Ghosts. We met up and immediately found we had much in common: There was a shared and wide range of musical influences and it was refreshing to discover that he was also extremely well-read, loved film, particularly the work of certain Japanese and European directors, and was passionate about art. He was open to and willing to share opinions. He’s also very honest, direct and frank, which also appealed to me. Like Eno, he also had and has a great sense of humour. All these qualities endeared me to him. When working for him on covers and various packages he was generally very trusting of me, but he also enjoyed being a part of the process, particularly the conceptual side of a project, the research, the planning, the possible routes to take. We constantly bounced ideas between each other until a direction felt right.
Do you believe in the idea that “all arts are aspiring to the condition of music”?
I think that now, given the changes in our sensibilities allied to the huge technological changes of the last century, many of the arts are capable of indeed, “aspiring to the condition of music”, but few have actually succeeded. The arts that succeed and survive the time of their making are those that express the indefinable, the ineffable. I guess I try in all my visual works to do the same – to allude, suggest, hint at or towards, to communicate the uncommunicable. To somehow encapsulate some essence of the ideas or the experiences that have seeded the works.
Is a deeper, a philosophical and spiritual meaning in music generally an essential aspect for you when working with a musician?
Not necessarily, although it helps and makes life far more fulfilling and interesting. I’ve been extremely lucky to meet up with, work with and for and in many cases become friends with some great musicians who also happen to be thoughtful and culturally intelligent. Many of their interests happen to coincide with mine. Essentially they are, like me, very interested in how the world works and how things hook together to make things happen and make things better. Many of them are great thinkers, curious, postulating possible scenarios for unknown futures, suggesting new ways of moving forward. These are the kind of people I enjoy being with.