For the second in a series on the impact of music on art, Anna Tozer talks to Jason Munn, who has created posters for a host of bands including The Flaming Lips, Death Cab for Cutie and Andrew Bird.
Technology has liberated music from physical formats remarkably quickly. Albums, which used to take up half the bookcase, have been reduced to thumbnail images – or to nothing at all. For some music fans, that’s progress – for them, the only thing that should be filling the room is the sound. They are glad to be rid of those teetering plastic towers and the fiddly task of retrieving a CD.
And yet for others, there’s undeniably something missing. They need something tangible that represents the band they love. This has spawned some interesting alternatives, among them Matthew Dear’s album, Black City. In addition to the usual musical formats, you can also buy his album as a miniature sculpture – a tiny aluminium skyscraper, called the Black Totem. Each one is hand-carved and comes inscribed with a unique album download code.
But most fans are looking to a more conventional alternative. Continuing in a cherished tradition, a modernised version of the much-loved gig poster is fast making its way back on to fans’ walls.
Jason Munn, who started making gig posters 12 years ago, says “I was always drawn to the visual side of music: flyers, posters and cd packages.” Vastly different to the traditional-looking, busy posters of his contemporaries Darren Grealish or Jay Ryan, Jason’s understated, modern designs appear much more grown-up. Taking inspiration from modernist Swiss design, his prints are simple, clean and elegant. Screen-printed by hand on sturdy, heavy stock paper, they’re all limited edition and signed. They feel special.
When coming up with ideas for a new poster, Jason says: “I try to look for hints, if I’m not given a clear direction [from the band] … then it’s a lot of listening, reading, watching their videos. Most of the bands I already know, so I’ve listened to them a lot. Sometimes I already have associations.”
Whether he finds inspiration from a band’s name, a particular song, or their unique sound, each poster refers to something specific to each artist. The concept of the poster may be lost on the general public, but for a fan, it’ll speak to them immediately. It might bring to mind a line from the opening track of an album, or their signature sound, or a raw emotion the music inspires. The exclusive nature of his posters are a massive part of their appeal.
Often using musical motifs, many posters feature guitars, violins, keyboards or records. For his Andrew Bird print, Jason chose the violin – the instrument that explosively fills every Bird album. Jason also drew inspiration from this musician’s unusual obsession with insects, his lyrics often filled with references to butterflies and bees. And so on Bird’s poster, Jason transforms a violin into an elegant beetle with translucent wings.
Jason based his poster for The National on their High Violet album’s rather solemn opening line “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders.” It was, Jason recalls, “the spark for that idea”. At first the concept appears pretty straightforward: the poster’s main subject is a diamond ring – a reference to love and marriage. But a second glance reveals a delicate white spider hanging from the jewel – the cuts within the gem have been spun, not cut. They’re a silken web. It’s a wonderful moment when your eyes suddenly see what’s really going on.
Typography is another favourite tool of Jason’s. He bends and shapes letters, redefining them into something more: a capital G may form part of a guitar, or the letter T a winged bird.
For his latest poster for Atlas Sound, promoting a tour for the hauntingly beautiful album Parallax, Jason was immediately drawn to the artist’s name – two, five-letter words. “I like the symmetry. After listening to the album quite a bit, I realised he used all this looping, and I liked the idea of layering (the words) over the top of each other.”
The result is a mesmorising maze of shapes. Although the poster’s difficult to read, once you’ve picked up on one word, you find the other. Unusually, he chose to print with translucent ink. By layering the same colour twice, this effect creates darker sections where the letters cross over themselves. “On the printed poster, the ink is so clear you can see the texture of the paper underneath it” Jason says. “It kinda creates this ghostly feel, which I felt worked really well.”
Whichever artist Jason makes a poster for, his personal style is instantly recognisable. Visually, they’re all startlingly simple, their compositions arranged with dedicated care. But, says Jason, “It makes you work harder when you’re passionate about the subject matter.” For every poster, he delves in deep to celebrate something that truly defines a band. With physical albums becoming a thing of the past, Jason’s posters are making music feel more real in an increasingly invisible, digital future.
London based illustrator and art director, Anna Tozer has turned her hand to a variety of projects for The Guardian, Clipper Teas and a tent at Glastonbury. See Anna’s illustration work on her website quillustration.com.