Unhinged Art | Interview
Recluse, obtuse art – nightmares on canvas, bringing albums to life. It’s what Northern Irish artist Paul McCarroll, AKA Unhinged art and drummer for Scald, does best. MI has featured his work before, most notably upon the launch of his compilation book. Chris Robertson however wanted to get a little deeper inside the creative mind of Paul McCarroll – and did this interview at the start of the year.
I have to apologise to the author and subject. This was supposed to go up back in February. Nonetheless, it’s a crucial insight into Paul’s influences and techniques that I hope you’ll find enjoyable.
MI – It may seem like a very obvious thing to say, but both Unhinged, your art output, and Scald, your musical output, seem very much like extensions of you – like there’s not much held back, not much consideration of “should I or shouldn’t I exteriorise this part of me”.
So two questions; where does Unhinged begin and Scald end in terms of your own creative urges, and; is there a Paul McCarroll that we will never see in either one or the other but which asks to be let out sometimes?
“I probably hold back a lot more than is obvious by my output. I have books filled with ideas, most of which will never go any further because I simply don’t have time, or they’re too uncomfortable for me to tackle yet, or the time isn’t right.
There have been things I’ve done that I’ve left in an unsatisfactory state and gone back to many years later. I think as you get older there’s less of an urge to expose everything you create, and that applies to music too.
In the early days of Unhinged / Scald, before I did much work for other people, Unhinged was more of a personal thing and Scald was my collaborative work. It’s obviously more blurred now and Unhinged is split into my obviously selfish personal output and the work I do for and with other people. But even that is dubious since to various degrees I seep my personal viewpoint into what really should be illustrative of their output.
Strangely I can sometimes get away with more of this on other peoples’ work than with Scald. Scald as a whole has no boundaries but we’re very disciplined and focused within individual projects. So it’s nice for me when another band just lets me loose with no more than a title.”
I can’t really see a quality difference, if we can talk of such a thing, between the Scald work and the “loose with no more than a title” work, when you’re given full freedom for a project you must self-impose a pretty high level of discipline. Do you belong strictly to one or the other of the schools that say either that creativity is born of freedom or of limitation and resistance?
“I hope there isn’t a quality difference. I think it would be pretty shoddy of me to give anyone work that I hadn’t put 100% into. Of course there are times when restrictions are imposed that I don’t believe I’m doing the best work possible, but I’m fulfilling the requirements set for me, that’s frustrating and irritating sometimes.
I’m obviously going to prefer to be just let loose on something, but self control is still necessary. For instance all the work I’ve done for Prometheus Burning, I’ve had complete artistic control over the three covers I’ve done, they give me the concept of the music and leave me to it, but I put restrictions on myself because I know what will work for them within the context of the band.
As for freedom + limitation, they both have their merits. With no freedom an artist will become stilted and resentful, but with no limitations you’ll never face any problems, and problems are what help you improve. The parameters are different for any project involving anyone else’s work, the trick is understanding what they need and then making the best possible visualisation within those parameters however limiting they may be.”
You’re pretty much a household name in the Irish metal scene but, speaking of Prometheus Burning for example, how much is your name spreading outside of both Ireland and metal? Have there been any particular projects you’ve done that have given a particularly noticeable boost in that direction?
And does the, for want of a better word, “exotic” nature of working for someone far away bring anything to you creatively, given that they belong to a scene that you will necessarily be less acquainted with?
“A household name in the Irish metal scene? Well I guess that’s where I’m known right enough, but I can walk into any gallery you choose in Ireland and I’ll get sneered at like any other tramp. It would be nice for my work to be known across a wider audience, but other than with other underground artists I don’t think it is, not much anyway.
Prometheus Burning are an electronic industrial type band and I’m pretty familiar with that being a fan of such music, but it’s kind of strange how that came about. Usually I just get an email from bands who’ve seen my work from another cd cover or by word of mouth. I’ve very rarely gone looking for work.
That all started by me hearing a Nordvargr promo and going to Henrik’s site to get some tracks. I noticed he was looking for an artist to do a sleeve for his latest cd with Drakh. I emailed him and eventually I did the cover through Tumult. They were happy with that and I went on to do the Hypergeneome 666 project with Nordvargr / Beyond Sensory Experience + Kenji Siratori.
Kenji was totally into that and recommended me to Prometheus Burning for a 12” he was collaborating on with them. Since then I’ve done all their releases and worked again with Kenji and Tumult. None of this would have come about if Eibon hadn’t sent that promo. I guess I should branch out more and see what’s out there for me in the not so metal world, but I never bother because I’ve got constant demand from the metal scene.
The ‘exotic’ nature of working with people on the other side of the world is nice, but I treat it the same as a demo cover for a band a couple of miles down the road. It’s all by email anyway, I very rarely meet up or talk on the phone to anyone.
From recent work that we’re familiar with here in Metalireland world we’ve seen your work in a number of different mediums ; computer aided painting on Killface, photo and collage work on the last two Primordial and, most recently, what seems like a completely hand drawn picture for the upcoming Darkest Era album, amongst many others. Could you tell us anything about the process of choosing one medium over another and is there one in particular which your creative urges pull you to more naturally than the others?
“I hate the term ‘computer aided’, no-one says camera aided photograph or spray can aided graffiti. There’s a lot of snobbery toward using a computer as a tool to create art, it used to be the same for airbrush art. Of course a lot of it is shite, usually when it’s been made by people with no talent or it’s lazy and obvious.
But there has always been shit art in all mediums, maybe now it’s a lot easier to make it public, throw some photo parts together, filter them up , put some heavy textures on and bam – easy ‘art’. For me it’s about the right idea and the correct medium to create a suitable aesthetic. I never know for sure which direction that’s going to go until I understand what the band are trying to achieve and when the idea is somewhat developed.
But, pencils, pens, paint, ink, cameras, scanners and computers, they’re all tools, only a means to an end. Darkest Era is a good example. It’s all, aside from the lettering, drawn in pencil and inked, but then coloured in Photoshop. But that’s also ‘by hand’ because it’s me with a pen on a wacom tablet drawing it all in, there are some photographic textures too.
I think people associate computers with automation and all the work is done for you. If that was the case there wouldn’t be so much shit digital art. When I paint on a computer I take more time, work in more detail and it is actually more labour intensive.
You mention Killface. I took photos for that, a head in different positions, with the same lighting so I could have the head and hands position and the torn-off face. Then I composited them in photoshop , drawing in how the face would detach. There’s artistic licence for weirdness in the gore but I still wanted a bit of realism in it. Then I started over and painted the whole thing in by hand, every pixel you see in there, I’ve put there. The only photographic element still visible is the pattern in the wallpaper.
Really, it’s just knowing the right thing to do for each individual project. I don’t always get it right. For my personal work it’s different because I don’t do so much planning, just sort of allow my mind to wander, like on ‘The Vivisectionist Wedding’, ideally I’d do much more of that, just making it up as I go along.
It would be nice to be asked to do that more on album covers but I think it scares clients not to have a sketch or plan to relate to. Still, sometimes there’s a core idea and I can allow myself some spontaneous freakery aside from the focal point.”
Well, now that we’re starting to get better insights into how you work today, how about you tell us how this career all came about? Were there any really inspirational moments that made you go for it full on, or did you just slip deeper into it until you had enough work to get by on?
“It really was just an incremental thing. I’ve never been that good at self promotion or anything. I’ve always wanted to be a professional artist and be able to make enough to live from it. That’s still a long way off though and pretty impossible at this level, designing or making artwork for music releases. When I was younger I always did just whatever I could to earn a bit of cash, decorating, paint effects, murals, sign painting, labouring work etc.
Over time I tried to get more into the art side but if you had no money to push yourself in those dark pre-internet days it was pretty hard going. I’d always done drawings etc for band demo’s and flyers, but the first real cd job that actually worked out was Adorior’s ‘Like Cutting the Sleeping’, I’d given them artwork for their demo before that, but to see that first pro-printed cd on a foreign label was really gratifying.
However, that was back in ’97 for a band that I was friends with and aside from all the D.I.Y. stuff with Scald, it was really getting some I.T. and design skills and getting on the internet around 2000 that set the ball really rolling.
Metal Ireland was actually very important during this time, that and Scald, which gave me links into the Irish scene. My first jobs for Waylander, Abaddon Incarnate, Slave Zero etc may look a bit shaky now as I was on a pretty steep learning curve with digital design but I really appreciate those early commissions as every one involved was taking a bit of a risk.
Since then I’ve just sort of gone with the flow, improving and trying to be as professional as possible. These days I get asked to do much more than I have time for but not enough to pay the bills. Really I’d like to just do 4-6 releases a year and spend the rest of my time on my personal artwork.
I’d actually considered quitting custom artwork, just making art and making it available off the shelf. It would save a lot of time on the communication and development side, but it would lose the personal connection with the release. It would be less special. Still, I may sometime in the future only take on work that I think I can also utilize as exhibition work and as prints to try and tip that £ per hour balance slightly away from poverty.
I recently did a write-up for your frankly excellent first hardback collection of work “Animus Unhinged”, in which I purposely avoided what could be considered some obvious style comparisons. Free now yourself to mention them or not, as you see fit, tell us about the creative influences and forces, artistic or otherwise, that have moulded your vision.
“Earliest influences, definitely as a nipper: 2000AD, Star Wars and the movie Alien. Even though I was far too young too see it when it came out, I was about 9. There was a tiny write up about it in the back of Radio Times with some stills and possibly one of Giger’s paintings. I became a bit obsessed with it and saved up for a huge book of the movie which had the whole thing in stills with all the dialogue. I read it over and over until it literally fell apart. I knew every word before I saw the movie some years later, but it still blew me away.
I don’t think I really saw much more Giger until I was about 17 when I bought Celtic Frost’s ‘To Mega Therion’ which I still think is my favourite album cover. I think that made me want to find more of Giger’s work but up to that point I was into general horror and sci-fi, what I’d seen on record covers and artists like Dali, Ernst, Magritte and of course Bosch and Breughel.
At a young age I was obsessed with ‘The Garden Of Earthly Delights’ but that was down to being on a Deep Purple sleeve and Breughel in the same way because ‘The Triumph of Death’ was on The Best Of Black Sabbath. So really it’s down to heavy music that my interest was so sparked.
I probably placed no differential between the ‘great’ artists like Bosch and great sleeve artists like Joe Petagno. So it was quite an affirmation a couple of years back to have a few of my bits hanging in the same exhibit in Portland with Petagno’s ‘Orgasmatron’ painting.
I mean, art in school was shit, I taught myself to draw by copying comics and to paint by painting record covers onto jackets and schoolbags. I think all artists are inspired by what comes before them and probably hope to inspire those who follow. Finding your own style is pretty hard in all that and when influences become too apparent it’s hard to shake.
When I started painting with airbrushes I hated using stencils so just went freehand but the better I got at it the more Giger seemed to come through, not in the drawing style but in the finish. I actually stopped using the airbrush because I was sick to death of being compared to him.
It’s strange because the works I like best by Giger are the more abstract biomechanical and landscape works like the New York City series, which he used a lot of stencilling in. But if you loosely spray and build up your paint in smokey dirty coloured layers it’s going to come out like Giger.
I’m not belittling him by any means, I think he’s a much underrated artist and suffers from snobbery, I am a fan and don’t deny the influence, but it’s tough to do anything dark by airbrush since he’s been and done it. Of course Giger is the influence that you are hinting at but there are so many inspirations out there, Bacon, Turner, my personal favorites, Zdzislaw Beksinski and Gottfried Helnwein and newer but still great artists like Chris Mars.
Given our readership, I feel compelled to ask one throbbing question ; what’s with all the cocks?
“Getting Freudian are we? Ok. Well I’m sure there are dozens of funny answers to this or maybe people think I do things for a laugh, but more often than not there’s a point to what I do, not that my art is humourless. I’m sure I don’t put in as many reproductive organs as I used to, but that may be down to the the amount of emails I get saying: “P.S. Please, please, please, no willies on our album cover”, unless of course it’s Adorior and then it’s pretty much anything goes, then go a bit further.
On more than one occasion Chris from Adorior has told me of people calling the art ‘gay’ because of all the dicks in there. If I was gay, I wouldn’t be going ‘wow look at that lovely willy’, it’s not Mapplethorpe you know. It’s not erotic, it’s disease, it’s violence, it’s selfishness and contempt.
A lot of the time I use these devices in a blasphemous manner, as with Adorior, or for my personal or work with Scald representing reproduction, the constant battle for prolonging existence, insecurities, disease paranoia or dominance. Sometimes it is purely to make the viewer feel uneasy. Like with Mr Blue Sky. Or contempt for the blindingly hypocritical Christian conservative society we have in Ireland.
I’m constantly amazed at what some of the hate preaching fuckwits around here deem by their own twisted logic to be offensive. I probably don’t annoy them much though, because on every occasion I’ve been lucky enough to exhibit anything it’s been content restricted. But, rants aside, yes, certainly on occasion it’s simple black humour.”
We’ll let the readers research into that Mapplethorpe reference at their own discretion. So, Animus Unhinged, we think it’s excellent; gorgeous presentation, amazing image and book quality… are you happy with it over all, and what kind of reception has it received here and abroad?
“I think overall it’s a good representation of what I’ve been doing over the past 17 years or so. I think it looks great, of course there are flaws, but pointing those out won’t make it better for anyone. And, of course there are things I’d change, there are plenty of things I did change.
There are a few images I’d take out and some I’d put in, maybe more pencil work, sketches etc. From the start I wanted to have as little text as possible, not explain too much, take all the logos and graphics off and let the work speak for itself. On some I think it made the image better but on others it made them a bit empty, because they’d been designed around the graphics…if that makes any sense. But it was all or nothing, and I think the effect was more positive than negative.
Feedback has been very positive actually. It’s a slow burner, with the publisher just starting out, they’re setting out their stall with this and a couple of other releases that should be out soon. They’ve taken a risk with me as an ‘emerging artist’ and I’m just grateful for the opportunity to put it out there. To be honest I don’t really know how it’s doing so far, I’ve sold about 50 odd copies, quite a few of those to Europe and further.”
Well personally I think you definitely did the right thing. The fact that you let the images just speak entirely for themselves was a brave step but well decided on. Hegel calls the reliance of art on the commentary and verbal explanation of the artist the “death of art”, but you side-stepped all of that, in fact you’re extremely absent from the book.
In a way that very little art can muster these days there is, certainly for an Irish metal fan, a gratifying sense of participation when looking through the book, a sense of sort of communal pride I guess. Tell us actually how the introduction from Martin Walkyier came about?
“I think that’s correct about self explanatory commentary. Art and indeed artists should have some mystique, certainly as far as the meanings go. Obviously I have dialogue on the matter with bands I work with, to explain why I think things should be done a certain way, that’s only fair because I’m representing their work with mine.
Publically I avoid explanations as much as possible, the question “Well, what’s this all about then?”, to me is nauseating, and people think it’s a cop out to ask them in reply, “What does it mean to you?”. I think a lot of the time the meanings are pretty clear in my personal work, there’s usually a clue in the title, if not, it’s up to the viewer to suss that for themselves.
I’ve always hated that art college mentality, that art has to be explained. It’s basically treating your audience like fucking idiots. Of course commentary through art history is interesting and important but in most cases I don’t think that is the artist’s job. Of course if the commentary is part of the actual artwork then that’s fine.
For instance Travis Louie, who creates wonderful imaginative portraits (look him up) writes a short back story for each of his characters and it works very well. With some artists it’s about ego inflation and their desire for intellectual recognition.
I like being part of the Irish metal community, there is a wealth of camaraderie and drive for improvement that has pushed aside the back stabbing ego bullshit of the shitty cover bands of the past. I like to support it as it supports me.
As for Martin, I’ve known him for quite a while now, It was Ciaran O’Hagan that introduced us when I did a shirt design for Waylander that Martin was screen printing. I did the Clan Destined logo and symbol for Martin in exchange for some shirt printing and then I continued doing stuff for him. He’s always been supportive and recommends me to other bands.
When the subject of the book came about he offered to write something for it and of course I was honoured. I asked him to write something to close it because I’d already asked Pete Dempsey to write the foreword, but in keeping with the general vibe of the book, to leave me and my name out of it and write a reaction to the actual artwork. I think he did a nice job as did Pete.”
Well thanks a million for taking the time out to have this chat with us, before you go can you tell us where we’ll be not seeing you or your name in the future? Any exciting upcoming or distant projects planned to whet our appetites?
“Well thanks to you Chris for your continued support, and to Metalireland of course. Looking pretty busy in the coming months. Right now I’m just finishing up on the new Primordial and I’m sure there’ll be more releases to work on over the year. Have some re-release plans for Scald that are on the table, that’s been a long time coming. I really need to spend some time and get to work on new Scald releases too. The break has been too long and I’m itching to create unpleasant noises.”
- Interview with Chris Robertson ::: 14/06/11