Meet the Noise Musician Responsible for All Your Favorite Mind-Expanding Album Art

Hair Police’s Robert Beatty muses on his strange career arc and shares a few new animations he made for Giphy.
January 26, 2017, 11:11pm
Robert Beatty's album cover for the Flaming Lips' just-released 'Oczy Mlody'

Robert Beatty's story starts with noise. Long before he was designing record covers for A-list psych rock acts like Tame Impala and the Flaming Lips, even before he was making art for his friends' records, the Kentucky-based artist and designer was taking apart toys and making tape collages from the safety of his childhood bedroom. Wringing whatever prickly sounds he could from the electronics at his disposal—and spending his high school years digging into the weirder corners of the Warp catalog—he developed a taste for the absurd.

Somewhere along the way Beatty met Trevor Tremaine, a like-minded weirdo in his hometown of Nicholasville. The two longtime friends moved to Lexington after high school, where they had a show on the University of Kentucky's radio station. Through the station they met everybody in the college town that inhabited the same outer realms that they did. They started playing noise shows, usually under different names with different people, with little prior planning. One of the names that stuck was Hair Police, which Beatty and Tremaine eventually turned into a bone-chilling combo with Mike Connelly (later of Wolf Eyes). From Beatty's perspective, they "got about as much notoriety as a band playing the kind of music we were playing can get," meaning that they developed a reputation as one of the most curdled acts of the mid-00s noise scene, and—most notably—that they spent a tour opening up for Sonic Youth.

From the inception of Hair Police in 2001, Beatty channelled his childhood interests in drawing and graphic design into art for records—both for Hair Police and for his own solo project Three Legged Race—and show posters. A few years went by and friends took notice of his surreal and enlisted him for album covers of their own. After he made literally world-shattering cover for Burning Star Core, he became the go-to artist for a certain segment of the underground, turning in colorful airbrushed absurdist art for the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never, Peaking Lights, and Wooden Wand and a host of others. In the past year, he's handled those aforementioned covers for Tame Impala and the Flaming Lips, as well as launching his first art book, Floodgate Companion.

It's now been a little over three years since Hair Police last released a record, but the hand-sculpted surreality of that era of his work still pulses through everything he works on, including a strange new collaboration with Giphy that launches today. The self-proclaimed "best way to search, share, and discover GIFs on the Internet" recently reached out to Beatty to enlist him to create a handful of pieces, which he took as an occasion to pump some absurdity into the service. He turned in eight otherworldly animations that were bounced from their digital origins to gritty VHS tape and back again. You can check out all of those pieces below, along with a recent conversation with Beatty himself about his roots in the Midwest noise scene and the proper pronunciation of .gif.

THUMP: So before we get into it, is it pronounced"jiff" or "giff"?
Robert Beatty: I think I say it differently dependent on the context. If it's on its own I say "jiff," but if I say "animated" I say "gif." I know there is a definitive answer because the guy that created it said so. But I can't remember which it is. [Ed. note: Despite what he may believe, Beatty proceeded to say "giff" for the remainder of our conversation]

Over time you've been known for both your visual and sound art; what's your background in both?
I've always made art since I was a kid. I've always drawn and made things. I got into music really heavily as a teenager. I started experimenting with sound more than anything, making tape collages, opening up electronics and taking them apart and seeing what sounds I could get out of toys. It's something that a lot of people do, but I didn't know that or that circuit-bending existed. I was just experimenting. I got into playing noise music through that. That's the reason I'm here doing anything at all, because Hair Police started releasing a decent amount of records and touring. That became a gateway to doing art.

So you didn't ever pursue art formally?
I've always hoped that I'd be able to do art for a living but I didn't know if it was going to work out or not because I wasn't setting up the traditional infrastructure for that to happen. I didn't go to art school and I wasn't pursuing it in a way that would traditionally yield results. I didn't come from a family with a lot of money. Neither of my parents went to college. That was kind of it. I got out of high school and I worked at a gas station as a janitor for years and years. By the time I'd done that, Hair Police was touring several months out of the year. I just went from there, you know. I don't know that I would have benefitted from art school anyway. I suppose I'll never know.

Did you start out doing album covers for friends mostly?
A lot of the early stuff was stuff I was doing for projects I was directly involved with. One of the first things I did for someone else was for a band we played with sometimes, Burning Star Core. It was a record called Challenger. Then I did one of the early Oneohtrix Point Never covers, for Russian Mind. That was just through knowing Dan [Lopatin] through touring. But Hair Police started putting out records in 2001 and I didn't start doing records for other people until like 2006 or 2007. So there was a good deal of time where I was only doing stuff for my own music. So yeah, it's cool that my friends who I was doing artwork for got popular. It exploded shortly after that.

Was there a moment that you realized you could start doing this for real?
I definitely think doing R Plus 7, the Oneohtrix Point Never record. That being on Warp was a huge thing. When I was growing up I listened to Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and Autechre. All of that stuff was my favorite music when I was in high school, sitting in the cafeteria with headphones on at a table by myself. Doing a cover for a record that was coming out on Warp, that was a big moment for me in general, doing something that was linked to what influenced me.

Tell me about these new animations you've made. I know you've done video work before but this seems to be a unique set of constraints. How did you make something so inherently digital work for your processes?
This was a cool challenge. I do a decent amount of video work for my own stuff and I've done several music videos as well. But making music videos is kind of frustrating, you end up putting all this work into something people are going to watch once, maybe. The loop aspect of [the gifs] is nice. You can focus on one thing that you want to have happen and that's what people will see.

All of these gifs that I made for this were taken from video. I was making animation in the computer and then processing that through analog video and then re-digitizing it and cutting it into loops. I'm running it through a few analog video mixers that I have so I'm actually running it out of the computer and recording it to VHS. The way I work is very hands-on. I'd rather be turning a knob than clicking a mouse.

Did you give any thought to what makes a satisfying gif?
Most of the gifs I made are focused on faces. If you're doing something that's really strange and psychedelic and people are going to see for a couple of seconds, having a face that they can pick out from the mess maybe makes it a bit more engaging.

It's a cool project to take on, it almost seems optimistic about doing this kind of work in the internet era.
It's kinda cool because it only exists in this really proprietary format. It's weird because it maybe seems like things are coming back around to physical stuff. I was really surprised at the response to the book I just did. In an era where for most people any visual media they're taking in is from a screen, how receptive people were to that book and how many people went out a store and picked it up. It was refreshing for sure. But a book's not like a record. You can't properly digitize a book without losing the experience. With a record you can more or less get the same thing listening on YouTube or Spotify.

And see a thumbnail of the artwork.
Maybe it's because I've grown to be doing what I'm doing in the era where the thumbnail is so important, but most of the artwork I'm doing is pretty direct and pretty simple so I think it works in that format anyway. Challenger, which was done before iTunes was a super prominent thing, that image would still be recognizable at any size. The Tame Impala cover too is a good example. You could see that at 16x16 pixels on a screen and you know what it is. There's a good chance that's influenced the way that I work, but that may just be why I've done so many record covers. It works.