Cover Story Interview – The Pixies – Doolittle – with photography by Simon Larbalestier

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All images featured in this Cover Story are Copyright 1989 - 2009, Simon Larbalestier Photography - All rights reserved. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2009 - Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Gallery (www.rockpopgallery.com) - All rights reserved.

Subject: Doolittle, by The Pixies – a 1989 release on 4AD/Elektra records, with photography by Simon Larbalestier

Throughout the 40+ year history of rock and pop music culture, art and music have always marched together hand-in-hand. As documented in past Cover Story articles and in the many fine books written on the topic, album cover artwork, along with the music it promotes, has gone through numerous iterations since the early 1960s, with styles often set by one or two “breakthrough” artists who are then copied (and, in some cases, improved upon) by others (i.e., musicians, art directors and other related creatives) making a living in the same business.

As an example to back up that contention, all it takes is a look at the basic formulas for sure-fire success followed by Beatles-era acts – i.e., first sound like the Beatles, then be sure to look like the Beatles. I was always impressed by the slightly-different approach taken by the San Antonio, TX-based band lead by Doug Sahm called The Sir Douglas Quintet. Their first album was called The Best of The Sir Douglas Quintet and featured a photo on the cover of a band of five “mop tops” that was lit in such a way that you could only see the outlines of the band members, so you weren’t sure exactly where the band was from – you just assumed that they were another British band (fantastic marketing ploy, no?)! Buying the LP from the cover alone, I was then quiet surprised to hear their uniquely Texas-tinged rock tunes.

Anyway, as time went on and rock music expanded into its many different genres, each with its own group of accomplished designers, illustrators and photographers commissioned to provide appropriate cover imagery, from time to time there were musical and artistic pairings that stood out for their individuality and willingness to avoid convention. Today’s featured pairing of the influential Boston-based band the Pixies with their photographer-of-choice Simon Larbalestier serves to show how a successful pairing of artistic and musical talent produces a truly compelling package. With Doolittle, the Pixies continued to display a broad range of ways to express their take on the world musically, from dark ditties such as “Wave of Mutilation” and “Debaser” through the two hit singles – “Monkey Gone To Heaven” and the ultra-singable “Here Comes Your Man” – to the slightly-strange (but critically-appreciated) tracks such as “La La Love You” and “Gouge Away”. Their songcraft went on to influence many of the indie bands that would soon follow in their tracks, with Doolittle now always included in most every summary of “most-influential albums” of the rock music era.

This record was also the first where the design team – including Larbalestier and the fine graphic artist/designer Vaughan Oliver – had access to some of the themes that would be featured in the new record’s music and so, with these clues, they set about to imagine the appropriate visual representations of the band’s new music. The processes involved in this effort to intertwine standout song-writing with extraordinary imagery are brought to light in today’s Cover Story interview…

In the words of the photographer, Simon Larbalestier (interviewed late March, 2009) –

Back in 1984 – before starting my Masters Degree at the Royal College of Art in London – I visited Vaughan Oliver in his studio in London to show him some of my work. Most of it was very much out of context to the music industry in which he was working – my images of old decaying warehouses seemed to have no relevance to album covers! – but what we both appreciated in each other was our mutual desire to turn pictorial conventions upside down and to break down known design rules. After that meeting we stayed in touch and, two years later, I invited Vaughan to my final year degree show at the RCA. At this point in time, Vaughan happened to be looking for a photographer to work on the Pixies first EP release called Come on Pilgrim, and he was interested in four photographs from my degree show, two of which became the album artwork. This early work, looking back on it, was very raw – it was created the way I wanted it with no compromises being made to accommodate client requirements.

For the Doolittle project – by far, my most-favored body of work by the Pixies from that period – the imagery was very much an eclectic mix of the interests of Vaughan, Charles Thompson (aka “Black Francis”) and myself. From my perspective, Vaughan and Charles very much supported my dark fascinations in decay, texture, the macabre and surrealism and their visual expression in the resulting photographs. The darkness in the Doolittle images was inspired by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou (1929). Furthermore, it was the first time that Vaughan and I had access to Charles’ hand-written lyrics, and his rich use of language made it easier for me to begin to construct image scenarios. Everything about the Pixies imagery was constructed – often built as a small set as in the Doolittle series (or a life-size collage set for the Surfer Rosa Series) – and everything was sourced and built from scratch in front of the camera lens. In other words, the vision was a constructed one, and not a document of real life.

I think it is important to note here that Vaughan and I worked very much as a collaborative team – he trusted me to make the photographs, we’d discuss ideas suggested by the band and our own and most of the time he’d leave me to shoot the images in my own way. Later we

’d meet up and discuss the contact sheets before I made the final prints.

Over the course of the 2-3 weeks spent on the project – it’s so far back I can’t remember exactly! – I may have submitted 12-15 main images plus some slightly different versions of each picture. Each photo consisted of two principal elements – that is, Pelvic Bone and Stiletto Shoe, Bell and Teeth, Rope and Barbie Doll, etc. The images were shot in my studio using a Rolleiflex SL66 bellows camera with a standard 80/2.8 Planar lens that enabled me to shoot objects close-up. There was no computer software or complex filter/mirror set-ups used, and the lighting was simple tungsten reflected – the contrast and depth in the images came from the way I chose to print the negatives detail in the darkroom and their fine resolution. The negatives themselves were made on super-fine grain Agfapan 25 film (sadly, no longer made). As I recall, the management had asked for color images and I “provided” these by hand-bleaching and toning the final artwork prints in the darkroom. This visually removed them slightly from their simpler black-and-white renditions.

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Left – Raw photo images for the record cover, plus the singles “Tame” and “Gouge Away”

All images featured in this Cover Story are Copyright 1989 – 2009, Simon Larbalestier Photography – All rights reserved. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2009 – Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Gallery (www.rockpopgallery.com) – All rights reserved.

I think it is important to remember that, at the time the Pixies images were one part of the much greater whole of my career. I was working within the design industry, completing many collages – “illustrations”, for want of a better word – for numerous editorial clients such as New Scientist Magazine and scores of book covers for publishing houses such as Random House and Secker and Warburg. I was shooting more and more landscape work for my personal fine art photography portfolio, so the fact that the Pixies work wasn’t immediately recognized as “successful” in the design world and as a marker point in my career didn’t really concern me at the time for the simple reason that I was very busy with other projects!

The Pixies were the first band that I was asked to photograph for. For the first two album covers and for some of the singles, the images were used as they were originally conceived, with no re-shoots. Knowing their appreciation of my sense of composition, I approached the Pixies projects with a confidence and certainty that offered a freedom seldom found with other commissioned projects. Where I compromised, in the later imagery for Bossanova and Trompe le Monde, was in my use of color. The subsequent use of color photography was a request from the management of the band, as I recall, not a design or aesthetic decision by Vaughan Oliver. Professional practice has since taught me that, to deliver commissioned work effectively and on a regular basis, there is always some form of compromise being made.

Being a freelance photographer often means working on projects which are short-term, with intense and often brief working relationships with designers and art directors. Often times, the real sense of the completion of the project isn’t seen until it appears in its printed form, and this can be months after the work’s been done. The Pixies project was unique for me in that it would continue to be recognized throughout the life-span of the band itself, so I wouldn’t really see it as a completed body of work until several years later.

There is no doubt at all that the Pixies work has achieved a degree of longevity, not only because of its association with a successful and iconic band, but also because it is being appreciated many years later both for reasons of nostalgia and its re-discovery by a later generation. In 1999, I was giving a lecture on my work in Seattle and someone in the audience asked me a question about the Pixies. I found this somewhat distracting as I was introducing my “Attracting to Emptiness” series in the lecture, so I in turn asked the audience a question: “Why is everyone so interested in the Pixies images?” The answer was that, in the twelve years since the release of the first EP, the audience as a whole enjoyed being able to – through the music and images of the Pixies – relive some of “the good times” of when they were growing up. I felt quite humbled at that point and appreciative that there was an audience out there that was giving my work the longevity that I desired – I had just not seen it.

Today, as people who grew up during that period of time become older and have their own families, their children have now become interested in their parents’ music and all things associated with it so that, in 2009, this work now seems more popular than ever – even to Jack and Lucy, my own two teenage children!

About the photographer, Simon Larbalestier –

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Simon Larbalestier has moved from album artwork for iconic rock bands like the Pixies, through international design and advertising, to a more documentary approach over the last 20 years. Simon graduated from the Royal College of Art, London in 1987. Now based in Bangkok, his current work involves several long term projects – chronic disability in Cambodia with the Cambodia Trust; children living with HIV in Thailand, supported by the Australian charity Born To Live; and the daily struggle of Khmer and Thai nationals, especially the elderly, the underprivileged and the disabled. This later work was screened at the Angkor Photography Festival in Siem Reap in November 2007 and in March 2008 at The Foto Freo Festival in Fremantle, Western Australia.

Larbalestier was also invited to participate in the second annual Twenty 120 festival 2008 ( http://www.twenty120.com) which had a screening of a film short Khok Tamol: New Beginnings that June at Promax/BDA in New York, as well as a screening in Los Angeles in July at Cinespace. Keeping in line with the spirit of Twenty120, a select group of 20 directors were invited to create films, interpreting the theme “Truth V Deception” as they choose.

19 images from the “Between Two Worlds” and “Attracting to Emptiness” series have been published by On Pedder in their Pedderzine Issue 4 (Hong Kong, October 2008). Pedderzine is On Pedder’s quarterly magazine. Issue 4 explores the themes of Worship, Devotion and Power.

Issue No.8 (March 2009) of C International Photo Magazine http://www.ivorypress.com/cPhoto/cPhoto_2.html featured a body of Pixies images, including unseen Polaroids from the 1988-1990 covers and new images made especially for a deluxe edition package of the five vinyl Pixies albums (Pixies: Minotaur) to be released in summer 2009

To see more of Simon Larbalestier’s work, please visit the following web sites –

Main site – http://www.simon-larbalestier.co.uk

His most-current work can be seen on his Photoshelter Online Archive http://pa.photoshelter.com/c/simonlarbalestier

And his blog (titled “Addenda”) can be read at

http://simonlarbalestier.typepad.com/addenda/

About Cover Stories –

Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.

In each Cover Story, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.

We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.

All images featured in this Cover Story are Copyright 1989 – 2009, Simon Larbalestier Photography – All rights reserved. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2009 – Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Gallery (www.rockpopgallery.com) – All rights reserved.