In Conversation: Carl Glover

Carl Glover is a designer and photographer. He runs Aleph Studio in the United Kingdom, where he creates album artwork for limited vinyl releases and other analog audio formats. I got the chance to speak with Carl about the narratives surrounding our relationship with music, and how a piece of music is presented might have greater effect than we realize. 

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What drew you to work designing presentations and sleeves for Vinyl releases? Given their limited release, was there something about the format that caught your interest? 

I’ve been designing for music since the dawn of compact disc in the 1980s, vinyl was still relevant at the time, and as a teenager in the 1970s designing album sleeves was an ambition of mine, a distant ambition.

Spending too much time and money at Record Fairs throughout my twenties certainly nudged me further into the vortex. It really was a classic case of ‘It takes one to know one’. A good album sleeve has a degree of mystery to it. Voodoo. I bought quite a few LPs at Record Fairs because of the cover, only a few were unlistenable.

Is your interest in this work partly about the musicians that you get to work with?

A bit - I was in many bands myself, and still muck about with musical instruments. It has always been useful in that you understand the musical aspect of what the musician does. Most fellow designers are musicians too, that’s fairly common. 

Artists like to have their work noticed. Do you believe that Vinyl or other audio formats change how the public interacts with album art? 

Maybe. Record shops look better with the bigger images on the walls, more alive I think. As pieces of packaging there are greater degrees of freedom than other objects, with the possible exception of books and magazines, certainly at the more esoteric end of the spectrum. I think the individual’s response to a cover is an entirely personal experience, I enjoy hearing their interpretations of what the sleeve is saying. I find it all valid, even if it wasn’t necessarily the intention.

How would you define the general public’s relationship with music? Do Vinyl listeners (which come in many varieties: collectors, audiophiles, etc) have a different relationship, given the lower ‘convenience’ of larger format audio?

I’ve got no idea what the general relationship of the public is with music. I don’t have a TV, I only listen to two radio stations of limited appeal and most of my friends have very broad tastes. Being an audiophile and a collector myself, I enjoy making something that I would like to buy. Quite a few musicians I know are of the same cut in this regard.

Vinyl does require a bit more skill than inserting a CD or touching an iPod display, I think the romance starts with the setting up of the turntable, the placing of the stylus onto the record and the faint static heralding the music. Nothing like setting up a reel-to-reel tape machine though!

Do you think music listening needs to be intentional to be truly appreciative of the material? r are there different types of music, some of which would benefit from intentional listening sessions, and others who would not?

Some music is like learning a language, it comes with time. It took me a good decade or so to really get Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew for example. On LP it is incredible, though I wish I could listen with the depth that I did in my twenties; usually sitting on the floor with the lights out. Everything except the music would disappear, a great cure for a bad day.

Did that come about because you were searching for something in the music that required lots of focus? 

I’ve always listened to music that way, I think I started doing it before I had a hi-fi, but already owned dozen or so LPs that I would take round to friend's houses and play. I used to babysit my young cousins back in the 1970s and had permission to use their parent’s state-of-the-art hi-fi. The loudspeakers were gigantic floor-standers and I would lie down between them and get lost in the stereophonic sound, this would occur quite late at night as my uncle and aunt would come back very early in the morning most times, giving me plenty of time to wade through a handful of LPs. The music sounded better with the lights out too, especially since their ceiling was a frightening, swirly example of seventies plastering techniques.

I [also] find myself getting lost in quite throwaway stuff - enjoyable rubbish. Things like novelty records from the 1950s and 60s, I love that stuff.

I think your relationship with a record can be increased if it looks like it sounds. Sometimes providing the space for the music to inhabit is the beginning of the romance. It usually starts with the looks and sometimes ends up somewhere deeper.

What are some albums you've bought because of the cover? 

Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division - I bought it shortly after it was released. I saw it in a record shop in Strood, Kent. That was a particularly mysterious cover, the dystopian music that went with it was beautiful. I didn’t like them live so much at the time though. A failure would be Nik Turner’s ‘Xitintoday’, I love the cover, but the music is pretty dire.

I realize that this is probably all subjective - It’s hard to imagine there being some objective way to say that the cover matches the music. 

It’s something which I think about all the time, since I make my living from it. The packaging which seems to fit the music effectively tends to be non-specific. Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ is an effective example - what it shows is a deadpan strangeness, making the unusual seem ordinary. 

How do you feel about that idea? Does designing something come from considerations of an objective style, or personal taste, or your personal idea of what the objective style is?

Personal taste is a big factor - I think my own tastes are fairly objective, neutral even. The considerations of the musicians you work with are prime - they have to like it too, when our ideas align things happen! My biggest concern is trying to remove anything that could possibly date it. In a previous existence as a designer in a medium sized studio, I was ordered to use the latest typefaces and techniques even though they weren’t necessary. Some of these things would look embarrassing within months.

Usually I have a strong emotional connection with my work. It takes a while before I can look at it again with different eyes. Especially if the circumstances surrounding the gestation of the piece are unique. With some of the Bass Communion covers I have worked on I have had to deal with adverse terrain and weather conditions. I can’t drive, so most of the photographs are the results of very long walks in remote locations, the memories of these places are quite powerful, right down to smells and sounds. I don’t expect these factors to show in the artworks, but it makes me concentrate more on the photography at the time as I won’t necessarily be returning to the location. I don’t know what the public think, I get the occasional email from people and kind words from people I consider my peers but that’s it. Some musicians get it, mainly because they have similarly intense experiences creating music.

It’s more interesting when it takes people to places that they haven’t anticipated. Even though LP covers tend to have a distinct visual language, especially within certain genres, it’s tremendous fun going for the unexpected.

One of your clients, Steven Wilson, very famously believes that music can lose some of it’s quality when consumed conveniently. I don’t think his critique is wholly summed up by a loss of sound quality. Do you think our appreciation of music is diminished if we focus more on portable music than on less convenient but more intentional sittings? 

I agree with Steven. I enjoy the lead up to the music, the handling of the LP or CD ending with the listening experience - the anticipation is heightened by the ceremony, albeit a small one. I rarely listen to portable music, when I do it tends to be demos, works-in-progress and personal recordings that have never been on general release.

What does album art and packaging add to the musical experience? I think we can both agree that there is something there, but I’m curious if you can put it into words.

To me, it adds a context. A non-literal clue to places the music inhabits.

One final question - who are you listening to these days?

Richard Dawson’s ’Nothing Important’ gets heavy rotation at the moment, he has managed to do something new with the well-travelled genre of folk music. Last year I was playing Kurt Vile’s ‘Wakin On A Sunny Daze’ repeatedly, it encapsulated the long summer of 2014 for m, the album has a flow which easily rivals that of anything recorded in the 1970s. I like the Oh Sees and see them achieiving a similar trajectory to that of White Denim and Comets On Fire. 

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You can find Carl Glover at Aleph Studio in the UK on on twitter: @Alephstudiouk