BraveWords' "Metal" Tim Henderson caught up with the 50 year-old artist recently to talk about his influential past and "unwritten" future. Read on…
BraveWords: Talk to us about your background and education growing up.
Lawvere: "My childhood was so crazy that I've been told by a number of people it would make a good book. We move around a lot, and my mother was married multiple times. I was born in Berkeley, CA during the protest years of the sixties, and my she and my dad were active politically, and perhaps subversively... They moved me to Canada when I was two, to avoid both the FBI and the Vietnam draft, and then later on to Spanish Harlem in Manhattan, ending finally in Boston where I went to high school. My mother's husbands have ranged from a renowned mathematician F.W. Lawvere (my father), to a black bank robber who was incarcerated throughout my high school years, and lastly a Greek fisherman who she married after I left home. I later ended up in Greece fishing with him. So, I've had some interesting male role models you could say. As far as school goes, I left the 'educational system' at sixteen, moved out of my mom's house and started working. First for a fancy architectural firm where I learned a bit about mechanical drawing, which lasted only a couple months. I did odd jobs there too, and one day they had me paint the office walls... unfortunately, I splattered two paint drops on a priceless japanese antique painting. They had to have it restored by a museum... after that I worked for a silk screen company for a year and a half in Gloucester, MA, where I learned a bit about graphic design. Aside from that I have never studied art, and I haven't held a steady job either, since those days at 18 years old. Lucky me eh? I should appreciate that fact more. It's been a rough ride though, keeping myself fed through the years, but I simply can't stomach having a boss. I'd rather be dead. That's why I've never really made any money either, because I'm not one to compromise myself just to please others or make a buck. I'm famous too, for getting my friends to quit their jobs so they can hang out with me and drink, ha ha!"
BraveWords: What were your key influences? Were they musical? Movies? Comic book or other album art?
Lawvere: "All of the above. Except instead of comics, I was more into the Conan books of Robert E. Howard. The difference being that the images were all in your head instead of drawn out for you. You only had the amazing covers of Frank Frazetta to inspire you before you read them. I worshipped him s a boy, and still deeply respect his art now. These days though, kids get everything presented to them in glorious CGI. The Lord of the Rings, Narnia etc were all things that you could only read in books when I was a boy, and visualize yourself in your own mind. I think they've done a phenomenal job of creating those films though, with some of the scenes in Narnia (first one) so close to what I had seen in my mind as a child that it was eerie. C.S. Lewis had that incredible ability to put you in his world... like the books themselves were the magic wardrobe. I recognize that now, in how the makers of that movie saw the same things, and felt that same mood that I did. They've still never made a decent Conan movie though in my opinion. They actually make me embarrassed to be a fan of the books. I would say that the Spartans 300, came closest to looking like a living Frazetta painting. Personally though, I'm fan of true Greek history (why I live in Greece) and I don't like when any history is purposefully blown out of proportion or distorted for the sake of entertainment. Greek history is full of amazing facts, so there's no need to make it into anything bigger than it was. One day I hope to paint the major moments of Alexander the Great's Life. I have to mention the Dune books of Frank Herbert too, which were a huge Influence on me. Then Kurt Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, and Nikos Kazantzakis as far as non-fantasy writers who were my bread and butter growing up. I read so much when I was a kid... then stopped for some reason."
BraveWords: At what point in your life did you decide album art is what you were meant to do.
Lawvere: "This year, ha ha ha. I never had a clue that people had responded as they did to those covers I painted in the eighties. I was just blown away when I found out that fans liked my work so much. I have to say though, that the whole question of what I'm 'meant to do' has plagued me my whole life. Sometimes I think I was 'meant' to spend my whole life wondering what I was meant to do... I've tried many different things besides painting, like photography, animation, web development, flash design, programming apps, owning a restaurant, acting, even singing and playing live... I get really bored doing only one thing. One of my sites that I built around twelve years ago is a virtual, on line guitar in Flash, called Chordman.com. It was really ahead of it's time... but now there are iphone apps that do everything it does and more.. I never thought to ask any money for it then, but it's still there. I also tried to start a social network site back then too, long before either MySpace or Facebook existed. I had bought the name Facelist.com. I swear to god."
BraveWords: When did you decide in your career could you make a decent living off your art.
Lawvere: "I never did, ha ha. Which is not to disillusion any up and coming, hopeful artists. Lot's of guys make great livings of of it. I've just never been very money oriented. I value my freedom a thousand times more than money, so I never became very business like about my art. If you look back on my eighties stuff, you see I only did a few covers per year... because I was off doing lot's of other things, even then. Some guys are like factories churning out a cover a week, which I can't see myself doing... but I am going to try to grow up now, and be a bit more dedicated…"
BraveWords: It appears that you left the scene for a while. Any particular reason (without getting too personal)?
Lawvere: "At one point Kreator decided that they had had enough Lawvere covers, and Karl W. managed to get H.R. Giger on board to do their next cover - as well as Celtic Frost's (Tom G. Warrior actually disliked my Emperor's Return cover). Giger was pretty much the most famous artist in the world then, with the success of Alien, and I felt totally out classed. So, I left cover painting at that time, feeling like a real amateur compared to him. Who would have guessed that years later my work would out sell his as t-shirts? Also, it had been the same story for a while too... more blood, more gore, and more skulls please. The Kreator Out Of The Dark cover was actually a bit of fun on my part. I thought okay, you want blood hmmm? I'll just serve up a decapitated head in a soup of it. You see, while I do embrace the dark side, as people can see in my work, fantasy art is more than just that to me. I also like the heroic figures, and sexy women. I hope some bands will ask for that too! Anyway, I then moved on to live in Greece and fish with my mother's new husband. I reverted my name to the original french spelling of La Vere too. For 25 years no one knew where 'Phil Lawvere' was, and I had no clue that Thrash had taken off like it did. When the web exploded I was no where to be found on line, under my true name. Finally though, my ex girlfriend from that time in Berlin Miki, followed up on the websites that I owned and had registered as Philip Lawvere, and contacted me to inform me that I had become the 'king of thrash cover art' ha ha ha... one fan actually did call me that. I'm not worthy."
BraveWords: Do you own all your art or is there some bands outrightly own now?
Lawvere: "I've never sold an original to a band thus far, and sadly my ex-girlfriend's mum threw away all my old work which I'd left behind in Berlin. She's the sweetest woman though, and I know they were pretty creepy for her, so I just have to laugh about it and forgive her! I've also never signed away the copyrights to a piece... which is another issue entirely. However, untold thousands of t-shirts and merch have been sold in the last 25 years, and I've never gotten a single penny in royalties. In the last years I've tried to contact Mille Petrozza and Karl Walterbach, because it's time Kreator came to some agreement with me on that. I offered to forget the last 25 years in return for a standard industry royalties agreement on present and future sales, but ultimately all I got from Karl is 'stop annoying us with your absurd claims'... his actual words in a one line email. Karl always claims to be speaking on Mille's behalf, but I've never actually gotten a single response from him. Now, I just want to tell the fans the story on line, and ask for their opinion. Let the voice of their own fanbase talk some sense into them! So anyone interested, please read the story at Philiplawvere.com. There's a Facebook post there to add your opinion, which I would really appreciate."
BraveWords: What are your feelings about the digital generation reducing the size of art for the CD, iPod etc...
Lawvere: "I'm old school. Imagine that I haven't done a cover since before CDs became the common format! The CD/iPhone size restriction is now an issue to me, and so I'm thinking more in terms of having strong graphic impact within that limitation. I did two new covers for German thrash bands Minotaur and Nocturnal recently, but was still thinking in the old school way, so I created whole scenes for them. Luckily, they both have strong central characters, so I'm going to suggest to them now that they crop the paintings on the front cover to accommodate the small size of a CD. Then, they can use the full paintings on the reverse side. I'm really happy that vinyl has made some small comeback now. Picture discs too, are something I identify with metal. Back then, I also did an amazing pop-up, folding album sleeve for Helloween, which is on my website. It literally jumped out and bit you in the face when you opened it ha ha! I set up a mini factory in a Berlin night club run by a friend of mine, and we cranked out a limited 2,000 editions of that. My own copy is really beat up after years of showing it off!"
BraveWords: Let's talk about your famous art. What's your personal favourite and why?
Lawvere: "The Kreator Pleasure To Kill cover beyond a doubt. It's the one that came closest to what was in my mind. The meaning of the picture was lost in the name of the album though, which wasn't really what I was trying to illustrate. The demon represents the consciousness, in it's perpetual battle against illusions, misperceptions, and lies. It's an endless battle, that must be continuously fought - as you see by the pile of bones, and relentless approach of new skeletons. Since they're already dead though, they aren't being 'killed' as the album title suggests... but smashed like the illusions they are. I would find no pleasure in killing anything."
BraveWords: You are probably most known from the Kreator material. How did you meet Mille? Were these original pieces or did Kreator commission you to create them? What happened after 1988? Opinion of Kreator art now? Have you pitched any to them lately?
Lawvere: "Fans will be surprised to learn that I have never met Mille, as with most of the bands at Noise. I dealt directly with Karl Walterbach in his office most of the time. Pleasure To Kill for example was something I had painted for myself, and which the band only chose to use later (Mille confirms that in interviews). As far as their cover art since then, they've reused my demon head in multiple images, even distorted it by adding things etc. That's not really cool to do without permission of the artist... but I was hard to find, and some even thought I was dead. Just like Hieronymus Bosch, who's art was also 'lifted' for their cover... but his copyright has long expired, since the law grants it 'for the life of the author, plus 70 years'. No new covers are likely to happen either, while they are ignoring my royalties petition. People have told me to drop it, and use my association with them to get new work... but they don't know me very well."
BraveWords: Can you tell us about your dealings with Celtic Frost and Rage.
Lawvere: "As I say, I rarely met with bands, just Karl. Never met anyone from CF, and RAGE only briefly in an office meeting. People might be surprised to learn though, that I actually named both Rage and Kreator. Karl had wanted to change TORMENTOR's name (Kreator's original moniker) to CREATÜR, like creature with an umlaut or something like that, and I suggested calling them Kreator... like God the Creator, but with a K - as with Amerika. I told him American metal fans would love that, and they did. Then there was a band called RAGING AGRESSION. I had that typically American approach of distilling everything down to it's simplest form, and suggested that they just call themselves Rage. That sounded far cooler to me as a punk. I designed their logo too, with the chains bursting open around the letters."
BraveWords: How often would a band give YOU ideas?
Lawvere: "Rarely. If anything Karl and I would discuss ideas in his office, but he was always receptive to my concepts. Often I'd just bring him something I'd already done. There was one painting I remember, that I had done on my own called Techno Junkie (meaning technology, not the music) which was a cyborg injecting himself in the arm with an electric cable. Karl really liked it, and the plan was to use it for VOIVOD I think. Somehow that never came to be, and the painting was eventually thrown out with all the others by my girlfriend's mum. Pity, it was cool for it's day. Funny though, that question also made me remember one incident, when the lead singer of a kind of traditional rock metal band that Karl had taken on, tried to give me specific instructions. I remember this dude that looked like a watered down Mick Jagger staring at me really intensely, and saying that he wanted 'a silver tray, with a bottle of Jack Daniels, a packet of condoms, and a line of coke' as their cover. I just looked over at Karl like 'who is this guy?'"
BraveWords: Early German thrash appears to be your specialty. Is this a result of your musical taste?
Lawvere: "My musical taste leaned towards the hard, loud and fast hardcore punk of the early eighties, and without that interest I would never have met Karl Walterbach, and learned about thrash or trash as he still calls it... he was instrumental in it's development, so maybe we should be calling it what he does. You could say it was a case of being in the right place, and the right time too. It's hard to explain to people today what it was like in Berlin at that time. A city entirely surrounded by a wall, and beyond that guys with machine guns. Over your head was the plausible threat of nuclear armageddon, each day. Inside the walls though, was the most fantastic diversity of art and music and punks, rockers, skinheads, gays, squatters etc. the misfits of Germany - who's alternative youth all moved to that city. If I remember correctly, residing there meant that they didn't have to do mandatory military service - so you can imagine how it collected characters. It was perfect crucible to boil and explode artistically, emotionally and musically. I spent five years there."
BraveWords: Which piece of your art is the most valuable? Financially and closest to your heart?
Lawvere: "Again the Kreator Pleasure To Kill painting, without a doubt. As far as it's value goes though, I traded it for a cheap electric guitar back then. I remember telling the guy that he had invested in something that would be famous one day - which at the time I felt was an exaggeration, but I wanted the guitar and had no money for it, ha ha! I'm told that he has since retired and moved to somewhere like Tahiti or the Bahamas. His name is Jurgen Shwartz, and his guitar store was called Be Bop Music in Shoeneburg, Berlin - in case anyone wants to track him down. I have tried with Google and failed, but I bet he'd sell it cheap if anyone reaches him... please let me know if someone does find it!"
BraveWords: Name your top five favourite album artists.
Lawvere: "There are so many amazing artists and covers that have come along since my day and deserve a mention here. I'm still discovering them, so I'd rather not list them because I'll just miss someone who I'll find out about later, and regret not including them. I will say that I am very impressed by the work of Brent Eliot White, who has been quite kind in giving me advice about the current scene. He works digitally though, and I think that rather than try to compete with that kind of detailed, spectacular images, I'm just going to do pieces in the old school, oil painting style that people know me for. It's all I've got going for me in the face of talent like his and others."
BraveWords: Name your top 10 album art (aside from your own!)
Lawvere: "As per my last answer, instead I prefer to name covers that as a kid, inspired me to pursue cover art.
1) MOLLY HATCHET- Molly Hatchet (artist: Frank Frazetta)
2) Molly Hatchet - Beating The Odds (artist: Frank Frazetta)
3) Molly Hatchet - Flirtin' With Disaster (artist: Frank Frazetta - you ger the idea.... Frank was god to me.)
4) QUEEN - News of the World (artist: Frank Kelly Freas - classic old sci fi)
5) KISS - Love Gun artist: Ken Kelly (this was just cool of them to do, looking like fantasy art characters themselves)
6) JANIS JOPLIN - Cheap Thrills (artist: R. Crumb; Google this iconic 70s cartoonist! Fat Freddie forever!)
7) THE BEATLES - Yellow Submarine (artist: Peter Max; loved him when I was a kid)
8) PINK FLOYD - Animals (artist: Hipgnosis group)
9) LED ZEPPELIN - Houses Of The Holy (artist: Aubrey Powell - I used to stare at this a lot in high school. Stoned.)
10) BILLY COX - Nitro Function (artist: Roger Dean - I loved all Dean's work but I just remembered this one)"
BraveWords: What does the future hold?
Lawvere: "Well, I'm in a strange position. I haven't painted in 25 years, so there's going to be a few things that are inevitable. In some ways I've grown, and my paintings are going to reflect that. I will probably have improved at some aspects of illustration, but want to be careful to preserve the feel of my work that the fans remember. I'll be moving to old school, hand painted oil paintings to revive that, whereas like lots of people I had gone digital for a while. I'm also quite prepared for some people to declare my old work 'better', since it lives for them back there in history. It has developed a sort of mythical status for some fans, who will be hard to please - people can get very protective, and opinionated about things like that. I hope the purists will respect my attempt to keep it real and hand paint, instead of compete with the fantastic results available with digital media. That's my intention at least. I also anticipate a lot of growth in my abilities over the next year or two, and onwards. As I begin to paint in much larger volume than I ever did as a kid, my skills will develop more. I hope also to branch out to book covers and games etc. and become a serious fantasy illustrator. I also hope to do more classical portraits and figure paintings. 'The future is unwritten' as Joe Strummer said though, and I'd love to close with a quote from him."
For more on Philip Lawvere visit Philiplawvere.com.