John Seabury is a Grammy nominated illustrator and designer. His visually addicting works of art have been featured in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, internationally acclaimed publications, and in a broad constellation of promotional material for iconic musicians, such as Radiohead, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Devo, George Clinton Parliament Funk, Willie Nelson, and many more. He is also a founding member of Psycotic Pineapple, historic Berkeley punk band. I had the sincere pleasure of talking to him about his rollercoaster of a career and the nuts and bolts of his unrivaled artistry.
Did you make a conscious decision to be an artist? Can you describe any defining moments that led to the recognition of your artistic talent?
I did not. I have always been attracted to visual art, especially drawing and illustration. I don't know why. I did have a memorable experience in kindergarten, so I guess that I was five years old. We were given an art assignment, I forget what, but I drew a picture of Willie Mays making a flying catch in center field. I decided to draw it from the point of view from the outfield wall, rather than from home plate or the stands. The figure was shown from behind, no face, but it did show his jersey number 24. He was air born, leaning to the left. The ball had "motion lines" like in the comic books I had seen. I drew the stands in the background, more or less in correct perspective. The teacher liked it so much that she made me take it to the principal to show it off. The only time I ever went to the principal's office for doing something good.
How has your taste changed over the course of your working life? Are there any techniques you continually use?
I'd have to say that my tastes haven't changed much since I was a boy. I'm not proud of that. It's pretty much assumed that artists should constantly be "pushing the envelope", seeking new horizons etc. But I find myself often looking inwardly and into the past. Maybe trying to perfect something that I started when I was very young.
I'm also not proud that I don't often branch out and experiment with other techniques. Like painting and sculpture. But being a drawer, it's just so much easier and faster when drawing. Low overhead, no physical stress, no toxins, no preparation, no clean up. After spending years working in sketch pads on my knee, I hardly even use my drawing table. Just lap tables. So I'm not distracted by materials and such. Just the pen and paper. That's partly why I can devote so much time to the drawing itself. My freehand sketch pad drawings were also a way unlock my mind. Scotch and beer also helped with that.
One of my techniques that has always been popular is called scratchboard, or scraper board. I discovered the Sci-Fi illustrations of Virgil Finlay very inspiring. Scratchboard is usually a stiff backing coated with white clay. Then coated with black ink. You use a stylus or knife or whatever to scrape away the ink, basically drawing white on black instead of the usual opposite.
Please describe your working process. Where do you draw inspiration and fortitude? How do you know when a piece is finished?
It's almost embarrassing to describe my working process. I have always been lazy in terms of academic study and technical aspects. I always avoided homework and I never read the instructions. Just trial and error. I've been faking it the whole time!
Personal experience often influences my ideas. When I was younger, I often had a hard time consciously developing ideas. Later, I learned to just start working and usually ideas develop while my hands and eyes are busy. Doodling while otherwise distracted often comes up with interesting results. That was the germ of my Radiohead design, doodling while talking on the phone. I don't get ideas, they get me.
Fortitude? Hmmm. I don't rely on fortitude to get work done. It's not like I have a choice, it's just what I am.
I discovered at some point in my life that I can be very self-conscious and timid. So starting with a preconceived notion is usually the path to mediocrity. If I am concerned about what people might think of my work, my creativity suffers. Which can make it very challenging working on commercial art.
Sometimes the piece is finished only when I run out of space. S. Clay Wilson claims he suffers from "graphic agoraphobia", fear of open spaces. I've done a lot of freehand abstract drawing where I find there's no room left to sign the piece.
That's only part of the time. Sometimes a piece is finished when I've gotten sick of looking at it. Other times I set aside an unfinished piece for days, weeks or even years. Later, when I re-encounter it, I see what it needs to be finished.
You must have been quite young at the dawn of the psychedelic era. Which artists from that time influenced you?
I've always felt fortunate to have been raised in a stable home and environment. But as I've grown older I've realized that I and my friends are VERY fortunate to have grown up where and when we did. I am approximately the same age as Rock'n'Roll. The same age as the Equal Rights Movement. When I was very young, pre-psychedelic, we had great music on AM radio, which my brother and I kept on all night, every night. We had the golden era of MAD magazine. I hugely admire Will Elder, Don Martin, Mort Drucker, and on and on. I had an insatiable appetite for all kinds of cartoons, including animation.
Another coincidence of "where and when" is that television producers were just beginning to create half-hour cartoon shows. So to fill air time they showed old animation and shorts that kids not much younger than us never got to see. A lot of our time spent eating sugary cereal in front of the TV on Saturday mornings was enjoying the old classics like Betty Boop, Popeye, the Three Stooges and the Young Rascals. We didn't mind that they were old fashioned. I really believe that the best early animation was some of the best modern art of its time. Also coincidentally, one of the best early made for TV cartoons, Rocky and Bullwinkle, was created by J. Ward, a Berkeley local who had a real estate office quite near my home. My friends and I would go into the office just to admire the giant Bullwinkle illustration that graced the office. The name Bullwinkle was taken from a friend of Ward's. I went to grade school with one of the Bullwinkles.
And that's just the beginning! By the time I was ten years old, Berkeley was already famous for student protest and social activism in general. Some invisible Dr. Frankenstein had created a new beast, using body parts from the corpses of Rock'n'Roll, beatniks and folk music. Zapped it with LSD and voila! Psychedelia! One of the earliest and best psychedelic bands was Country Joe and the Fish, a Berkeley band. You could see them for free in Provo Park on Sundays, along with many other great bands. Growing up in Berkeley at that time was better than living in Disneyland.
As you might notice, I have a hard time separating art from music. Back to graphic arts, that same era gave us underground comix and psychedelic poster art. Oops, back on music. Several of those artists did both comix and music posters, like Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin. And it was mostly local, right in my face. My junior high school was three block from the center of the action, Telegraph Ave. My first underground comic was a "folio" of drawings by my hero, S. Clay Wilson. I stole it because I was too young to buy it. We had Zap Comix, Feds 'n' Heads, (Gilbert Shelton, maybe the very first underground cartoonist, not R. Crumb), the Furry Freak Brothers, Yellow Dog, the Berkeley Barb, etc., etc. There was even a store on Telegraph that sold nothing but comix. We had Odd Bodkins by Dan O'Neill, a syndicated daily comic strip in the SF Chronicle. He had some great socially satirical content that sometimes got him into trouble. By the late sixties, he had gone so far out that he was fired.
One thing that stands out, though I took it for granted at the time, was that the music poster and comix artists were pretty much free to do whatever they wanted. No art direction, no censorship. That probably has a lot to do with how I ended up doing it myself.
Besides all of that, I had an appetite for the classics as well. Durer, Bosch, the Bruegels. My parents had an old edition of Dante's Inferno, illustrated by Gustave Dore. Fantastic engraving technique AND lots gore and nudity. I loved it so much I took transfer paper to trace and copy some of them, thus ruining the pages.
By the time I started to take acid, I also discovered Dali. I became obsessed with his work, although I was so intimidated by his ability that I never even tried to emulate his style.
My father Paul was also a big influence, he was a closet cartoonist who preferred political satire in a New Yorker kind of style.
I wasn't all that impressed with a lot of the modern art of the time, abstract, pop, conceptual and minimalist. Not enough good drawings.
What is the most labor intensive work of art you've ever created?
Probably my silkscreen edition called "San Pablo Serenade" I did it when I had a silkscreen studio. Numerous drawings, ink and scratchboard and collage elements. Pre-computer. Old school film work, darkroom stuff. Hand cut stencils.
Thirteen different screens, hand pulled with copious amounts of split-fountain ink colors. No two are alike. I printed maybe 150 sheets of paper, on 36" wide stock. For the split-fountain skies in the background I had to turn the screen sideways for the right effect. I pulled all of the sky backgrounds at least twice. So at least 300 full yard-long squeegee pulls . Add to that maybe 1500 more pulls for the rest of the colors. Couldn't throw a tennis ball for my dog for a couple of years after.
Can you tell us about your relationship with Kevin Gilbert and what events led to your Grammy nomination for The Shaming of the True artwork?
Boy, long story there. I only met Kevin Gilbert a few times. My friend, Jon Rubin was his friend and manager. He was a fan of Pyno Man and even paid for a run of three different Psycotic Pineapple shirts just so he could wear them on tour. As tragic as his death was, I will say selfishly that I lost out out when he died. I think that we would may have worked together on music as well as art.
There's detailed story written by Joel Selvin, I think, that tells the whole story. Short version is Kevin was a vey precociously talented musician/songwriter/producer. He and several of his friends used to get together once a week to write and demo songs. During that time, he was assigned the task of remixing an album by a young female artist. If he couldn't fix it, the label was going to drop her. They started going out together and he invited her into his musician's club. She was Sheryl Crow, his club met on Tuesdays, hence the name Tuesday Night Music Club.
Sheryl and Kevin broke up, but they continued recording. They got a deal to produce their work as an album. The name of the band was the Tuesday Night Music Club. Then some A&R guy convinced Sheryl to "go solo". So the record was released as a solo effort and the title was the Tuesday Night Music Club. On Letterman, she claimed authorship of the song "Leaving Las Vegas" even though that was the title of a published novel also already made into a mainstream movie. The author wrote the lyrics, the band wrote the music, all before Sheryl sang it.So, not surprisingly, Kevin and the rest of the band were a little miffed.
The Shaming of the True was his "rock opera" inspired by the deceit and unfairness of the music biz. There are veiled references to Sheryl (and Madonna, whom he despised). He never got to finish it. Death by erotic asphyxiation. Jon Rubin saw to it that it was completed and released. He hired me to do the illustrations, something I'm pretty proud of.
Ironically, the CD package set was nominated for a Grammy for package design, but the prize went to Madonna (the only Grammy her album was nominated for). Her CD cover for "Music" was remarkably bland for a Madonna release and hardly a contender for a graphic design award. Kevin writhing in his grave...
What is next on the plate for your band, Psycotic Pineapple? Can you tell us a story about the most bizarre gig you've ever played together?
The Pyno only plays sporadically, maybe twice a year. Alex Carlin, our organist, spends most of his time in Russia and Eastern Europe, being a rock star. We are playing June 30th in San Francisco at The Knockout Room. We have done some new recordings and will eventually release it. We also have unreleased old recordings that may see the light of day before we're dead.
To some audiences, I suppose any Pyno gig was bizarre. One of my pipe dreams is to create a book compiling all sorts of musician's nightmare gigs. One especially bizarre gig for the Pyno was playing juvenile hall in San Francisco on a cold saturday morning. In the chapel. The young inmates weren't exactly "getting" our style. And it was obvious that they were there on orders. A truly captive audience. The gal who hired us was a young social worker. She's in back all smiles and the kids are all glowering at us. Very uncomfortable.
Tell us about Pynoman. Who is he and what does he mean to you?
Pyno Man is a legend in his own mind. Yes, influenced by my own experience, but he is a cartoon caracter, not reality. I wish I could get that across to Wild Bob, the guy who always wore the Pyno suit at performances. He believes that he IS Pyno Man.
Pyno Man is basically a street crazy who thinks he's a rock star. Hilarity ensues. He's the kind of guy you enjoy watching, but you dread the possibility that he will find out where you live.
Many of your depictions of females have a pin-up, sometimes burlesque inspired sensibility. Who are your muses?
My muses are beautiful women, fantasized, idealized. All pin up and glamour is fantasy.
Of course, I love a lot of the gals from my youth, Sophia Loren, Julie Newmar, etc. I also was heavily influenced by the classic pin up artists and photographers like Gil Elvgren, Alberto Vargas, Enoch Bolles, Bunny Yeager, Pompeo Posar, Mario Casilli. I've always been envious of them. Talk about the dream job!
You are an Oakland native. If you were playing tour guide, describe your perfect day in your hometown.
Well, we'd need a time machine first. Go back to somewhere between 1965 and 1975. Keep in mind I spent more time in Berkeley than Oakland when I was young.
Go to the Med on the Ave for espresso (this was long before Starbucks and everyone drinking coffee, coffee was not nearly as popular as it is now). Head down to Oakland City Hall for the anti-draft protests. Get gassed by the cops at the Berkeley/Oakland border. Go to Flint's Bar BQ on Shattuck for the BEST (I know, I know) BarBQ (and worst service) in the world. R.I.P. Flint's.
Take LSD and spend the afternoon wandering around the cemetery at the top of Piedmont Avenue (still there). Great marble works. After sunset, go to Eli's Mile High Club (still somewhere) and catch some local blues or head back into Berkeley to the Keystone, where many great bands are playing most nights of the week. Berkeley used to be a big Rock'n'Roll town. No longer. They're just too darn liberal and tolerant for R'n'R these days.
Drink too much Lowenbrau Dark, puke in front of the club and pass out on your friend's couch. Goodnight.
You are highly experienced in commercial art and merchandise creation. Can you give us one success story and one horror story from years past?
Speaking strictly about commercial art, one of my favorite jobs was for Rhino Records. I got a panicky call from an art director who wanted a scratchboard portrait of Willie Nelson for a CD cover. Due in less than 24 hours. They provided me with a photo of Willie to work from. I suggested a cowboy belt buckle type border and he said to go with it. No more art direction, they didn't have the time. So, one long day's work and I got paid about the same as other cover designs I did for them that took weeks.
I've got too many commercial art horror stories, but I'll go with this one. I got the assignment from my old friend Hugh Brown, for many years creative director and designer for Rhino Records. We shared the Grammy nomination for "Shaming of the True" and he designed the Psycotic Pineapple CD/book release of our only album "Where's the Party".
We always get along well. The CD in question was called "Kicking Our Own Asses" by an all female group from the 90's, Zuzu's Petals. They had re-formed and recorded a new album. I came up with the concept a caricature of the three of them viewed from above, in a tri-skellion shaped Curly Howard-like floor dance. I forget what they call that Curly dance, but you know what it is.
So, they're in a circle, kicking each other's asses. I also researched old children's illustrated book covers for the color scheme. I designed a font from scratch for the text.
If you don't already know, caricature and portraiture are notoriously tricky things to manage, especially if the musical artist in question is involved in the process. Everyone is vain.
I was 95% done when I got an email from the new art director (!!!). Hugh had suddenly left after about 25 years at Rhino. The new art director opened up a whole can of worms about the design, demanding changes and, to my horror, instigated a conference call between herself, myself and the band members.
"My nose isn't that big!" "Make me look younger!" "Can you make it more like Anne Taintor?". If you're not familiar with Anne Taintor's work, look it up and you'll see how utterly absurd that request is.
Ironically, I could have created a spot-on perfect Anne Taintor imitation from start to finish in three hours, tops. I was sweating bullets. There I was, halfway around the last lap and they're tossing spike strips in front of me.
Eventually, I worked it out (with surprisingly few actual changes) and I even got a bonus, so the horror movie had a happy ending.
In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about being an artist?
That it's easy and fun and so we shouldn't expect to be paid for it.
Catch a screening of Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk this week in San Francisco featuring John Seabury's band, Psycotic Pineapple or see them live on Friday, June 30th at The Knockout Room SF. Visit JohnSeaburyArt.com to explore John's work in depth.
ART ASSOCIATION WITH JOHN SEABURY
We provided John with a short list of words and asked him to choose corresponding works of art that he's created.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to John Seabury.