Pleasure to Draw: An Interview with Phil Lawvere

On the surface, the name Phil Lawvere might not mean a whole lot. But if you take a root around your record collection, the importance of Lawvere’s contribution to the world of metal becomes pretty evident, pretty quickly. As the man who painted the covers to such classics as Endless Pain, Pleasure to Kill, Terrible Certainty and Emperor’s Return amongst others originally released on Noise Records in the late-80s and early 90s, Lawvere unwittingly raised the visual bar for metal album covers by attaching detailed, fantastical and surreal vistas and scenarios to the roughshod music enclosed within the record sleeves. After dropping out of the scene back some 25-odd years ago, Phil is making a return to the world of metal album cover art after realising where a large part of his creative heart lies. We caught up with him via the wonders of J. Bennett’s interhole to discuss his past, present and future.
Was your dropping out of painting album covers a result of not having/making enough money, treatment by Noise Records, disillusionment with the scene or something else?
Well, each of those factors certainly played its part, but I think if I really boil it down it would be simply due to a lack of self-confidence about my art back then. Despite all the people who think so much of those old covers now and have recently been kind enough to let me know that, I am intensely self-critical and at the time did not think I was good enough, especially when producer [and Noise Records boss] Karl Walterbach told me after four albums that Kreator was no longer interested in another “Lawvere” cover and that he had managed to get H.R. Giger to do their next album. I felt totally out-classed. Now 25 years later, it was a shock and a bit of vindication to discover that my cover paintings have been their biggest selling t-shirts.

What had you been doing in the years between then and now?
Well, a lot really. I’ve led a pretty interesting life where I’ve gotten to play a few different roles. Having never studied art, it wasn’t the only career I saw laid out for me and I was interested in other things too. Mostly though, I’ve made my living through a variety of creative pursuits such as advertising illustration, photography, animation, cartooning, web design, as well as being a Flash programmer. All creativity comes from the same place though, so I consider them related. As my pursuits led to more reliance on computers, ultimately, I felt increasingly that painting was old fashioned and that certainly no one would appreciate it any longer in the face of the possibilities of digital illustration. I also did some acting in TV commercials back in the early 90s, and at one point became a bit of a celebrity in my home country of Greece. Later, I even owned a Mexican restaurant in Athens for a while. Additionally, I’ve been a pub musician over the years, playing and singing live. So like I said, I’ve seen life from a few angles. I just get bored doing the same thing for too long. I also have strange ideas about money and career that don’t really fit the capitalist paradigm. I only worked enough to pay my bare necessities, and then would go off and start some other thing, or just party with friends. I used to say that if you offered me a job where I got paid a million dollars an hour, I’d probably work an hour and quit, ha ha! What’s also unfortunate is that I’ve saved so little of the things I’ve done over the years. I don’t look back. All my old Berlin thrash work was thrown out by my ex-girlfriend’s mom years ago. I guess I always thought my real calling was ahead of me; maybe in the end it’s what I left behind though…painting.

Phil in Greece, 2012

Did you feel something was missing all those years you weren’t painting covers?
Yeah, but I didn’t realize it, I guess. I always told people through the years that when I got older I would become a painter again and that’s exactly what’s happening. I’m like a kid starting from scratch though. I have no old work to hang on my walls.

How do you feel the time away has impacted what and how you do these days?
You know that joke about the young bull telling the old bull that they should run down the hill and screw a cow and the old bull says they ought to walk down and screw ’em all? Well, getting older is about learning patience and planning ahead. I look at painting differently now. When I was young I wanted to grab a brush and start painting before I’d even sketched anything. Pleasure to Kill happened like that. I’m not saying it isn’t a good way, but you make mistakes too. I used to hate myself for not been able to paint like Frank Frazetta. I wondered why his talent didn’t just flow out of my hands too. I never realized how much planning, patience and years of repetition gave him the results we see now. I see more in his work now than I did then; more subtle things that, in the end, are sometimes the real source of its power. So now, I’m putting myself into my own personal school of art. Over the next months and years I hope to study the aspects of putting a compelling image together, and to grow a lot as a painter as a result. I can’t just repaint my old covers over and over again as some people seem to want, but need to come up with new stuff too.

You’ve written about how Frank Frazetta’s oft-negative attitude, both towards other artists who painted fantasy scenes like his and those influenced by him, took some of the lustre away from your own fantasy work. If Frazetta were still alive today, assuming he’d be as opinionated as ever, do you think you still would have returned to the world of art?
Probably not. I cannot describe the esteem I have for him. It’s something burned into me from boyhood. I’ve read lately on the web that many of today’s illustrators feel the same way. To my mind, Frazetta took the Marvel comic action figure, and brought it to the level of fine art. Techniques of implying motion, weight and interaction have been added throughout the history of art from the times of the ancient Greek statues and I feel he added something to that history, and will be more and more recognized for it. His color, lighting and composition are beyond compare too. But that fountain has ended and we will never see new works from him. So, I think there’s nothing wrong in people showing their love and appreciation of his techniques by painting in similar styles. He, himself, emulated his heroes; that’s something I never learned until only recently through web searches. We are so lucky to have so many resources at our fingertips. I was in the dark about so much as a kid. Now, you can learn anything on line if you’ve got patience.

Can you explain what’s presently going on between you, Kreator and Karl Walterbach?
First, I have to explain that in1987 I moved to Greece and lost all contact with the alternative music scene in general. Over the years I occasionally saw a young tourist on holiday wearing a Kreator t-shirt, but just assumed that people were bootlegging them off of the old record sleeves. I had no idea that Kreator had become the successful band and merchandise machine that it is now. One guy recently posted on my page that my return to thrash, and my royalties quest with Kreator “after all these years” was “suspicious.” I neither watch television nor listen to the radio and had no contact with the scene… honestly. It was only when my ex-girlfriend from the Berlin days tracked me down online two years ago and informed me that my covers had become so popular and that so many positive things were being said about them. So, when a long term programming project I had been working on for eight years fell through, I happily decided turn my back on that work and return to doing art again. I first approached my old contact Karl Walterbach, who was Kreator’s original producer. We exchanged a number of friendly emails and began discussing my doing the next Kreator cover. Eventually, I pointed out that in all fairness (and legality) I was entitled to some royalties from their current merch sales too. I think he panicked and assumed that I was out to screw them for major money, so he suddenly refused to speak with me or answer my emails any more. The cover for the new Kreator album [Phantom Antichrist] we had been discussing up until then was unfortunately canned. People say I should have shut up and been glad for the new offer, but principals and honour are worth more to me than any amount of money or fame. Finally, this year, I assured them for the fourth time that I was not out to damage anyone and was only asking for standard industry royalties on current sales. I offered to forget the last 25 years if they would just acknowledge my current rights.

Is it a case of them just totally failing to acknowledge the contributions you made to the visual side of the band?
The irony is not only that I invented their mascot and did their most famous covers, but that the name Kreator itself was my idea too. I told Karl that “Creator” spelled with a “K” would appeal to American kids and he used it. I guess it worked out for them. Karl’s response to my last appeal was to “stop annoying us with your absurd and ridiculous claims.” Would that piss anyone else off? Granted, I’ve never heard a word from Mille himself, but I wrote him and got no answer except from Karl who claimed to respond on his behalf. Surely by now he’s aware of my beef.

Does the shunning apply only to Kreator or to all the Noise bands you drew covers for?
From what little I know about what’s gone on in the last 25 years, no other band went on to merchandise my work on the level that Kreator did. They have taken my demon head and reworked it into a number of new covers, and the Pleasure to Kill piece (which was a painting of mine and never commissioned by them) has been morphed into a number of different designs on everything from bags to hats to badges, t-shirts, sweatshirts etc. They figure I’m afraid to pay the legal fees required for a long, drawn-out lawsuit, which their management can match ten times over. So instead, I’m just putting the story out online for fans to see how greedy their favourite band really is. I’m hoping they’ll come to their senses before I need to sue to the full extent of my rights, including damages and all past royalties. It’s things like these that disillusioned me with the scene in the first place. Money, status, fame… they fuck everyone in the end. Bands sure bitch if their stuff is stolen, but when they do it, it’s okay?

You go to great lengths to explain that your background was more in the punk world than the metal scene. At the time you were being regularly commissioned for Noise covers – which in turn meant you became one of the faces of the German thrash scene – were you at all in touch with the music those bands were making or was it just another gig?
Noise was also putting out records from Henry Rollins, D.O.A., and other punk artists too, so to me it was just a cool Berlin underground label. Thrash was a fusion of punk and metal, and my love of fantasy art was appropriate for that facet of their musical offerings. I was thrilled to be able to paint in a style I loved, and yet still be in an underground atmosphere.

Phil in Berlin, 1983

How has your opinion about those bands and their style changed over the years?
Considerably, and more so each day. Whereas, at the time, I viewed thrash as a sort of watered down punk without political bite, I now see it as a bulwark for people who feel alienated from society-at-large and it’s hypocrisies – besides being cool of course. Someone just sent me a [popular German news magazine and website] Der Spiegel interview with Mille Petrozza though…that’s unbelievable. It worries me whenever the mainstream incorporates underground culture because it always cuts out the meaning. In the interview, they only have him commenting on things like catching a cold in the air conditioned bus. I’m sure he said much more interesting things than that, but they didn’t print them. I’d also like to say that because I have much more direct contact with bands and fans than I did then, I have developed a real respect for them. Metal people are some of the nicest and most thoughtful folks around! That might sound like pandering, but we all know how true it is!

Is your return to being a commissioned cover artist an exercise in you feeling there’s something missing in the artworks of today? Or a return to a personal love? Or a combination of both?
Definitely a personal love. As far as what’s missing these days, I didn’t really feel that, but fans and bands came to me as soon as my site was up and cheered me on in doing “non-digital” style illustrations again. There’s an old-school movement now which recognizes that with all the technological advances we’ve seen in recent decades, we’ve lost something too. That holds for so many things in life these days, like what the word “friend” has come to mean to people. It’s happening in music too. Ask most guitar players what the best sounding amp is and they’ll tell you an old-fashioned tube set up. That’s technology from the 1920s, with sound going downhill ever since. Look at the return to vinyl. I remember there was a saying in the 70s, when transistors became so widely used, that “the Japanese have made life easier, but not better.” Now we’re much further down the road of cheap, easy, but bad, quality. I do also enjoy painting digitally though. It’s a great tool for composition and trying a variety of ideas quickly. However, I’m careful to use it in a way that it remains true to the style and technique of my old paintings. I see nothing wrong with mixing old world and new, but it is essential for me to occasionally paint in purely real world media too. Plus, I love the smell of turpentine…

Who are your favourite “metal” artists?
Well, after all that spiel about digital art, I’m going to give a mention to a great digital illustrator, Brent Eliot White, who was very helpful to me in getting reacquainted with the current metal art scene. While there are many gifted artists that deserve mention, I’d just like to say that his imagination and use of light & color really impress me.

Have you branched out into other fields like tattooing, mural painting, etc?
As far as tattoos go, I’ve been offered by many people to do that. I personally have no tats of my own though (just lots of scars, ha ha), despite the fact that I was constantly surrounded with heavily inked people through the years, including my stepfather who I very much looked up to as a boy. He was in prison right through my high school years and had tons of tattoos, including the classic “LOVE” and “HATE” knuckles, naked girls, etc. He also wore a big earring, which in the early seventies meant you were really fringe. But I remember being twelve years old in the visiting room with him, and he made me swear never to get a tattoo. He explained that it was for two reasons: firstly, because you never know what you will believe in ten years down the line, and secondly (he winked) if you’re arrested for something and there’s a woman on the witness stand describing the snake and dagger on your left arm you’re fucked, ha ha! I’m honoured, though, that some people have chosen to tattoo my art on themselves. However, I would just feel hypocritical making them since I have none of my own.

Tell us about the works you’ve been involved with since you returned to painting album covers?
I’ve been slow and cautious about my return and haven’t directly contacted any big labels yet. I wanted to get back into the groove, find out where I am now as a painter and also just do a lot of practicing for my own self-growth. I also have a lot of old business to finish up and wind down too as I switch my life over from my other activities to being a full-time painter this year. I’m also new to online promotion and putting a lot of time into trying to run a proper Facebook page and build a decent web site. Add to that, people have all been really eager to communicate and welcome me back and I’ve been lucky to have been offered a number of interviews which has all left very little time and energy to actually paint so far, ha ha! I have done a couple new covers for two German bands Minotaur and Nocturnal, which we’re all very happy with. I am currently working on a couple more that I won’t announce until they’re done. In general, my paintings take time until I’m happy with them. The biggest news for now is that [Hirax vocalist] Katon De Pena and I met online, and he’s the one responsible for me getting back into real old school oil painting. He’s a big Frazetta fan like me and we get along really well. I’m currently working on the new cover for Hirax, which will be my first thrash cover in 25 years done completely old school, in oils. I’m taking my time with it though.

Minotaur cover

Nocturnal cover

Were you aware of the “thrash revival” and how everything that was old is new and cool again when you returned? Did that have any stead in your decision to make a comeback?
I only became aware of that recently, after my actual decision to return to the cover art scene. I’m still in Greece and am pretty isolated from the realities of the thrash revival abroad, but I’m learning more every day. There is a scene here too of course, but it’s a younger crowd that I’m not really exposed to. I’m a bit of a quiet, reclusive, hermit painter now, having had a pretty wild life up until recently, but a very good friend of mine from the old days owns the most popular extreme rock club in Athens. I go there when I want to listen to loud music and have a beer or twelve, and it was the guys there that first clued me into how much more popular Thrash had become recently. I look forward to being a part of it again.

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