Under The Covers 001: Kevin Foakes/DJ Food and the art of Ninja Tune

Kicking off the first in the “Under The Covers” series for Sleevenote, Tom Vek speaks with Kevin Foakes, AKA DJ Food, whose Openmind graphic design practice has been responsible for album artwork for Ninja Tune, Warp, De:tuned, Sony, Universal to name just a few.

Tom Vek: Hi Kevin, total pleasure to be speaking with you. I remember very vividly first seeing the “Openmind” logo on Amon Tobin’s mind-blowing Supermodified album, and then subsequently on other Ninja Tune releases. What is “Openmind”?

Kevin Foakes: Hi Tom, pleased to be first in the door so to speak. Openmind started as a collective of people I was flat sharing with after I left Camberwell College of Art in South London but slowly it became the alias I used for graphic work. The Openmind logo was the first thing I ever designed on my first Apple computer around 1994 and I’ve used it on most of my design work since. I’d started at Camberwell doing Illustration originally but switched to graphics midway so I was really still grappling with the basics of design.

A selection of Kevin’s music design as Openmind

TV: Can you give us a snapshot into how you became involved with Ninja Tune?

I met the Ninja Tune lot through Coldcut at the end of my graphics course in 1993 and slowly got my foot in the door at the label, first as a DJ on the Solid Steel radio show and then as a designer when they were looking to update their logo. The first thing I did for them was to update Michael Bartalos’ ’scratchy’ Ninja logo with the sword which was later changed to a record. They loved that so the next thing was a 12” house bag and label template and then LP sleeves proper.

I was learning in public for the first few years having no experience with the technicalities of actually getting the designs off the screen and onto paper as well as learning the intricacies of the computer. The label was situated in London Bridge and there were probably 5 people working there then including Matt & Jon and I sort of became the label art director as they didn’t have anyone else to do it. Plus I was hungry for that, I wanted to design for the music industry and jump in at the deep end. It was still early days still for the label and they hadn’t made the splash that people like Mo Wax had but that was coming as the music they were putting out was becoming more noticeable.

A trio of things in 1995 pushed them out into the limelight, their first Ninja Cuts compilation, Coldcut’s Journey’s By DJ mix and the club night, Stealth, that they held at the Blue Note which was actually a DJ Food LP launch party originally. Between meeting Coldcut and then I had sort of been inducted into the DJ Food fold in the studio and during club sets with Coldcut and that was one of the first were PC (Patrick Carpenter) and I performed as DJ Food on 4 decks.

TV: I love hearing that a lot of music art designers learned on the fly, I know its pretty stressful supplying artwork for things that we’re printed in the hundreds/thousands, did you ever have any clunkers print wise?

KF: So many, I look at most of my mid to late 90s work and wonder what I was thinking with colour and font choices. There were multiple cases of fonts looking great on screen and then moving in the print process — I’d not just heard of outlining them to avoid that. My monitor wasn’t colour calibrated and I had no clue about that so colours would look fine on screen but print terribly. I used to send documents to the printers all on one layer, multiple layers of image, type and other stuff, they would have to sort it out for print and proofs would come back (when the label did them) and stuff had just disappeared or was hidden behind something else.

Sometimes the records would come back and that was the first time I’d see it and it was wrong with no chance to change it. One big headache was supplying the silver layer on the first Ninja Cuts compilation, I wanted to have a silver tint to the photos of the turntables but didn’t know how to specify it, we ended up just printing silver squares over the black image and what showed through it what you saw. There are so many, when you’re second guessing print finishes there’s a certain amount that only time and experience will tell you and I had to learn from my mistakes the hard way.

Michael Bartalos’ ’scratchy’ Ninja logo and Kevin Foakes’ redesigned Ninja Tune logo

TV: You designed the most recognisable Ninja Tune logo, I always think label logos are a big part of album artwork, like a stamp of approval. It feels like the label connection has been lost for digital music. Would you say that the logo kinda gives artists a feeling of family with their label-mates?

KF: The fact that — with Apple and Spotify certainly — labels seem insignificant in their metadata is a mystery to me, those services seem to want to take the place of the labels as the provider and the only people important to them are the artists. They’ve almost stepped in as the record label/shop and where this stuff originates from is unimportant. In the pop world of course it usually is less import but in the independent sector the labels can sometimes be bigger than most of the artists they serve. I’ve always been attracted by labels as much as artists, ZTT, 4AD, Warp, Def Jam, Blue Note, Mo Wax, ECM, one leads on to the other etc and the visual aesthetic that they have is a huge part of that too.

The tiny sizes associated with thumbnails mean that certain barriers are in place when you start to design a logo these days. A logo is a club membership badge, you wear that badge with pride whether you’re a fan or playing a part in that club, be it on your lapel, T-shirt or tattooed on your skin. I’ve met many people with the Ninja Tune logos tattooed on their bodies and it fills me with pride that someone would love something I’ve designed and contributed to enough to have it inscribed on their body, it’s the ultimate compliment.

TV: Haha tattoos, that’s amazing! (Shout out to the guy with a Nothing But Green Lights tattoo on his leg). How about outside of Ninja Tune?

KF: It’s been interesting for me to recently release records outside of Ninja Tune — of which I will always consider myself a member of because I put 25 years of my life into it — but it does feel good to be a part of something else too for the first time. The Castles In Space label is something I’ve been a fan of for many years and I’ve seen it grow from the first releases to become a main player in a certain field of electronic music, I’m not quite on family terms with all the other artists yet but I’m proud to put out a record with their logo on it.

TV: Being a music artist and designer is something we have in common. I don’t know if you find this, but envisaging the artwork would help me finish up an album. At what point during the process would you start creating album art, is it different for your own releases?

KF: For my own work it usually begins at some point in the middle to end period of a record, once I can hear how the record is turning out I can start to visualise it better. I do usually have some ideas along the way or even at the start but they rarely make it into the final version. What I’ve done with the last couple of records I’ve made is send mocked up front cover art to the labels along side the music so that they can visualise the finish record when they’ve hearing the music.

TV: It’s like an album is no longer a demo when it has art haha.

KF: With other people’s work I don’t have to even hear the music to do the artwork and will usually come in at the end or — with someone like Ollie from The Herbaliser who I use to share a flat with, we would work on and talk through concepts and ideas during the making of the albums.

Kevin’s album art for Amon Tobin’s “Out From Out Where” in Sleevenote

TV: We’ve been working on getting your work up on Sleevenote and I’m delighted that Amon Tobin’s “Out From Out Where” is up, with your amazing I’m going to call them “cyber-illustrations”?

KF: The album artwork features images I made from parts of a Japanese Gundam model kit placed on a scanner then photoshopped together with photos of tramlines taken in Switzerland on holiday. I was going for a kind of organic technical feel with all of Amon’s work.

TV: I always thought it totally fitted the music, as with all your work for Amon. The tracklist is rotated on this one, or rather the whole artwork was intended to be viewed as a portrait gatefold experience is that correct? You intended the listener to physically rotate the sleeve?

KF: Yes I did, that’s the reason the text runs down the side, you’re actually supposed to turn it 90 degrees anti clockwise so that the title is at the top and open up the sleeve. The portrait image needed to wrap round the front and back. I’m not sure why we didn’t do a gatefold sleeve for that? The inner sleeves had a couple of versions of it as well, split in half across the two discs so you could place the two together and make the image as well.

TV: Oh it’s not a gatefold LP? That’s interesting, kinda dawned on me that CD cases were gatefold by design, I remember sometimes you could open it up and look at the front and back together, and (if the designer had been clever with the spine), it would make the continuous image, although the CD itself would be perilously able to just fall off haha. The card Digipak for CDs felt a bit more organic than the plastic CD case, but the inherently rectangular shape/reformat of the cover always bugged me a bit, what do you think of Digipaks?

KF: Funnily enough I thought it was a gatefold and had to check and it wasn’t! — although we did a gatefold for the next Amon release of 2 remix EPs. Also weirdly for the CD release of this we did an O card slipcase around the CD case as they were all the rage at that time but a digipak would have been better. You remember when there would be fads for stuff? Mid 90’s it was all printing on reverse board, they everyone wanted to do 10”s, then 7”s were back in, fluorescent inks…

TV: I’ve spoken recently about stuff being hidden too, under the CD tray, so fun.

KF: Anyway, digipaks, they were OK, not that hard-wearing but probably aesthetically nicer than plastic cases but at least the rectangular cover could wrap round and you didn’t have to navigate the little left hand strip where the cover hinged on the cases. The amount of times I tried to get something to line up across those, it was a thankless task. I always wanted to put something inside that little compartment, I was given a CD once in Switzerland I think that had a heavy lump of metal inside the compartment. I even tried to subvert the CD case by making the back of the tray the front cover once so you flipped it over to open it on the back but no one got it. Also, have you ever tried to open a CD case the wrong way round? It’s hard, you grip it a particular way and it stops it from opening, very annoying.

TV: Oh yes I have some Cable promo CDs with stones and feathers in that side part of CD case. Someone put a cigarette in one too?

Turns out it was done by Stefan Sagmeister and Hjalti Karlsson and photographed by Susan Stava for Jamie Block’s “Timing Is Everything”, 1998 (Capitol Records)

I’d like to wrap up with your thoughts on where you think digital music artwork is going or should go? Obviously Sleevenote is one proposal for that, with a strong eye on backward compatibility. Do you have any concerns or wishes for digital music presentation for the future?

KF: I have to confess I’ve not thought about it much for many years. Once iTunes happened I got excited as I could see several possibilities for it but very quickly I realised that the doors were closed to innovation and all they wanted was a thumbnail front cover. I wanted to do different ‘covers’ for each album track that would change with each song as you listened, Bleep let me do that with Amon’s ‘Foley Room’ LP actually so if you bought it digitally you got a unique image for each track.

I got excited about PDF booklets but there were so many restrictions on sizes, number of pages etc. it seemed like they only wanted the most basic extras for digital artwork wise, I think I did something for one of my releases and left it there.

The problem as I see it is that the files don’t need to come wrapped in anything or were/are on hardware that’s either small or that you’re generally using for something else while you’re listening. I know Apple tried to address that with the screen saver type animations but I don’t know anyone who sits at their computer looking at the artwork on screen whilst listening, you’re more likely to watch a video and that’s more likely to be where the artwork budget goes these days. An iPad with Sleevenote comes closest to the LP sleeve / picture frame physicality (without wanting this to sound like an ‘infomercial’) and I think only a piece of hardware with a means to show off artwork could bring us close to that experience of holding something.

But we consume music differently now, although I think any release that has some thought out element of artwork is going to distinguish it from a faceless file uploaded in the sea of media. Music still needs to be visualised in some way, not matter what format it’s in, people expect it, it’s a sign of legitimacy in the same way as a band signed to a label is. I’ll never understand an artist who goes to the trouble of making a physical record only to have it go out on a white label in a plain house bag. You went to all that trouble but didn’t care enough or have the vision to dress the music in anything? You fell at the last hurdle there.

TV: Couldn’t agree more. Thanks so much for speaking with me Kevin.

For more of Kevin’s work check out the Openmind website and djfood.org

Check out Amon Tobin’s “Out From Out Where” in Sleevenote

With special thanks to Ninja Tune

If you would like to upload your own album art to Sleevenote, check out our Design Tool, FAQs and get in touch.

The album artwork format for digital music. http://sleevenote.com