Art of the Record Sleeve: Part 2 with Lindsay Todd

DJBroadcast has been looking at the people behind the sleeves, the aesthetic part that makes your record stand out from the rest. It has been an integral visual part of the musician for decades. But over time the relationship with the sleeve has changed, as we moved to a digital and streaming generation. Last week DJBroadcast spoke to Philip Marshall, who had curated sleeves for the likes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, 808 State and various OstGut Ton EPs.

In the second part of our ‘Art of the Record Sleeve’ feature, DJB spoke to Lindsay Todd, the elusive, green fingered and (feathered) bird obsessed master behind Firecracker Recordings, who also happens to be the designer behind House Of Traps, and owner of the incredible The Living Mountain record shop in Edinburgh. He describes his label as a home to oddball house and techno, and his sleeves are limited edition gems of artistic exploration into the visual side of music. His shop is a collection of all his passions, making it a go-to destination for anyone looking for the avant-garde, obscure and electronic. Trying to stay on topic about graphic design and art DJB managed to discuss wombles, inflatables, the merits of toilets and scam artistry… all in a days work for someone living his dream on a Tuesday night at 10pm.

You’ve been running Firecracker recordings for 11 years. Why did you start?
In 2003 Nick Linkwood moved into my apartment, and asked if he could move his studio into my bedroom. I was studying studio engineering at the time and said yes, not knowing really what it would entail and that I would end up sleeping in a hum of amps and samplers. I remembering him telling me I couldn’t turn anything off as the drivers weren’t backed-up. We subsequently spent the whole of the summer working on tracks, which culminated in the first EP.

So how did you come up with the visual design ethos of the label? Did you have a long-term vision or goal?
I wasn’t officially a designer back then – I was funding the project and creatively in charge but Tim, Nick’s brother, was the graphic designer. We had been running through ideas but none were working, till Tim mentioned he had some old Marvel comics, and that was when I saw an image and went “that’s it!”. So Tim put the design together for the first and second one, we worked together on the third and then by the fourth I did. Then in 2008 I got my own printing press and that was it – I decided to do it all myself and became the designer for the whole label.

How did you get into screen-printing?
In college I did a module based on screen-printing. It was more intense then as it was oil based and I had to do big wash downs. It was basically messier and more labour intensive and 2008 I had to relearn it all.

"Assembling, packing or stamping records takes up 90% of my time"

What then made you buy screen-printing apparatus then, after running the label for a while?
In 2007 I decided that I would like to do something a bit more hand made. But I didn’t put two and two together with the screen-printing till a friend who had a studio space and a screen printing press and unbelievably had all the stuff to go with it. He didn’t really use it that much, but he was a fantastic experimental screen printer and he’d print with mold spores , pushing the limits of what could be done. He anyway left for three weeks and let me use the set up and I then spent ages tearing my hair out and just learning. The first screen-printed cover we did was 1,500 copies and it took me forever, and I was just going. But there is something about my Calvinistic self that this really appealed to.

How did this work out for you cost wise? Was this cost effective for you to put the time and effort in yourself?
If it wasn’t I wouldn’t be here chatting to you now. But I’m not about to have a speedboat and an inflatable banana down in the River Forth anytime soon.

Maybe we can post you a little one!
Then I will have made it.

There is such a cross section of styles and designs on your website, what is your method if you have one?
I have to be the first to admit that I am completely impulsive and everything I do is done by the seat of my pants. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t connect to the thing I’ve done before. As a start point I often commit by buying some new ink or wood I want to try, and then have to work backwards to an idea. So it’s more spontaneous. I’m impatient, impulsive and I need to work fast. The way I’ve steered the label and the music is the way the art has come about. When you don’t have a style or are predictable in what you do, then people stay a little more interested. It gives a little bit more depth through confusion, if that makes sense?

How many releases do you do a year?
I think about 15 a year, which I hand print myself. I have several labels, Unthank, Firecracker and Sacred Summits, which are with Honest Jons in London. Then I used to do Shevchenko, but it seemed ridiculous to have four labels.

Do you think that the three labels you are running as visually different in your eyes?
No – They all feed into each other. When I started each of them, I thought they would have their own identity. However, I can become very bored, very fast, when I feel that something is becoming homogeneous or generic. If I feel something is becoming homogeneous then I stop which is really what happened with Shevchenko. With Firecracker and the others I can kind of do anything I want – which I guess is about opening up parameters.

Is the defining aspect of the labels then the music rather than the visual element?
No, it’s a bit of both. Especially with Firecracker. The path that I’ve taken with the music has had a few twists and turns. Last years it was all about house music, and now we’ve just worked with the forestry commission where we’ve been recording in Iron age forts, burial sites and cupping ring marks, which has created a mixture of folk music and electronic. Hopefully people will still keep paying attention even though it’s gone away from the path.

One of the interesting things is the digital aspect of the design – a lot of designers nowadays only see their work as a thumbnail. You seem to not have that issue apart from the images that are on your website.
I have quite the opposite. The digital side of things is a negligible part of what I do. Assembling, packing or stamping records takes up 90% of my time if not more. The computer is only used for maybe touching up an image… I work on paper to start with and then scan and in very basically in Bitmap mode in Photoshop I will edit and do tiny touch ups if needed. Afterwards I get my acetate done and it then it goes straight onto the silk screen. Then really the artistic process is matching colours and doing variations and seeing how colours sit on top of each other.

So you never think how is this going to look as a thumbnail?
No – I completely wing it.

"I have cold sweats about records appearing in bargain bins"

So, do you ever think about your sleeves as art in people’s homes?
Recently yes. Because of the way people come into the shop and I’ve started doing prints as well, so the prints are an indicator to me that people do want to display this stuff, where as before it was kind of unknown to me. You put things out there and occasionally people send me pictures of all our art and graphic stuff laid out on their bed, a little like readers wives. And I find that very humbling that some one takes so much effort and has their firecracker section in the house.

There is no convention in the way that you work; you don’t have the artist’s name centre stage on the record, or a lot of typography if any on your sleeves. Was this a conscious decision?
When I am forced to, I will put typography on them and I tend to use claridon. I keep thinking I should sit down and figure out some typefaces to use, but I have a problem with repetition. Me and type don’t really have a great relationship and I find it difficult finding a font that won’t look dated in 10 years time. And that is part of the process for me as well. How’s it going to date? I have cold sweats about records appearing in bargain bins. Looking back at the 90s and the early 2000s it was a bad time for design and people were using a template for labels that was really dull and boring and I ran the other way to get away from that and maybe over compensated… And I hate barcodes, it’s a hassle the way you have to conform to distributers and metadata and we aren’t really about digital sales. That aspect is always an after thought, the best format is in vinyl.

Firstly a lot of my favorite labels from the past were esoteric or the design process was damaged or flawed. For example Arthur Russell and Sleeping Bag Records, and a lot of the aliases he used to use. Secondly, there are little clues hidden in my sleeves that are either a nod to an idea I have for another sleeve, or one in the past. And hopefully people can sit down with my records in an evening and piece together the puzzle. There is a lot more depth and story than it just being a record sleeve.

I’m just looking at some of your work here – and one of the sleeves I find most interesting is the one you’ve done for Jeff Keen.
That was a collaboration with Jeff Keen – the artwork is from his sketch books and Jonny Trunk had the idea to do the colours, so we started off with one colour; blue and produced a 100 sleeves in each five colours. When we did a new cover it corresponded with the splatters in the record. So – we started of with blue and there would be blue splatters for the first hundred and a blue sleeve, then the next was red, and you would get the blue and red splatters on the records and a red sleeve, and then the orange sleeve with blue, red and orange splatters… and so on, which is an insane way to make a record but it really appealed to me.

And here you used type.
It was from the Jeff Keens sketch book as well.

If you had to pick the one record you are really proud off which one would it be?
The Sun Ra is obviously my favorite – there are two on my site, but the gold one. It was a triple album. That was a massive project – it was working with Jazzmann and persuading him that this was the way to go. I had moved down from Edinburgh to West London in 2009 and I had to sell all my screen-printing stuff I asked Jazzmann who I was working for doing mailorder stuff to let me build a mezzanine floor in his studio. The deal was that I paid for the materials, and he would let me have the space rent-free and I would be installed in his space doing nice things. I had this vision we would shout romantically up the stairs, things like ‘have you done that screen print…?’ and being artistic, but we ended up bickering all the time, which worked as it was the start of a good relationship. The gold one was the first project we printed, and then the silver one. I feel that was one of my most realized projects. The silver one was a see through record and a glow-in-the-dark slip-cover.

Do any of the artists you are working with ever hate the artwork?
No – because usually there is already a relationship there based on a mutual respect from me to them musically and from them to me artistically. I get approached but it’s important for me to be musically exploring all the time so I can’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring. I am a massive vinyl fiend and I’m always trying to find new and interesting stuff – and when I am in this process it generally leads to new artists. I am in a nice position now where I don’t really need to explain what the labels are – Also, if we are musically in the same place then we are usually artistically in the same place as well.

So your work attracts the unconventional
Yes – it’s a calling card. It’s a trap.

Are there any design rules you follow?
Yes – get as far away from the bed as possible in the morning.

Please credit: House of Traps