Image via Youtube
William Schaff wears a mask while talking to press. Sometimes the mask is a skull; other times it’s an ape or a piece of cloth. “I feel that knowing what I look like becomes a distraction from my work, especially in today's world of social media. A person's face gets plastered around even more than their art. So if you are going to look at my face I would rather it be something created as well. Whether I'm big, tall, fat, skinny, bald, or hairy…I feel what I look like should be irrelevant. It's all about what I’ve made.” Schaff’s face may not be recognizable, but his work is. The multidisciplinary artist and musician is the creator behind the iconic album covers for Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists, Songs: Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co., and the entire Okkervil River discography. Visually, Schaff’s work deals with themes of longing, loneliness, and debt all of which are familiar territories for touring bands.
“Initially, when I started making art for musicians, it was all people I had met through playing shows. They’d see one of my pieces and ask if I could do something for their record. Then someone would see that record and track me down to make theirs.” Schaff kept odd jobs throughout his twenties, occasionally taking work in commercial illustration, and scraping by where he could. The success of his album covers allowed Schaff to focus on his art full-time . He currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island where he occupies a studio and apartment he has affectionately dubbed Fort Foreclosure. Recently, Noisey had the chance to sit down with Schaff and discuss the stories behind his covers, and what it’s like to make art for other artists.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
NOISEY: One of the earliest albums your artwork appeared in was Godspeed’s Lift Your Skinny Fists. How did that collaboration come about?
William Schaff: I didn’t know of Godspeed before meeting [Guitarist, Vocalist] Efrim Menuk. A band I was touring with stayed at [Montreal venue and recording studio] Hotel2Tango and I believe Efrim was living there at the time. Not knowing who he was, I found myself immediately intrigued by this one tattoo he had, and started poking at it and questioning before the poor fellow could even wake up. Efrim is a kind soul, and he spoke with me, even after my annoying approach. We spoke of Zionist history and the Holocaust. We spoke of workers and their struggles, themes that are loosely associated with both our work.
Schaff's artwork for the inlay of Lift Your Skinny Fists
I left him and the folks there several of my chapbooks. When he approached me about doing something for an upcoming Godspeed album, ultimately there wasn’t enough time with the deadline. He asked if he could use images from one of the books I had left. I said sure. At the time, I had very little idea who Godspeed were. To me, they were just another band doing their thing. The album got us all a lot of attention. While it was strange to see the art I had done showing up in places like the New Yorker or Rolling Stone magazine, I was more surprised to start receiving emails from people around the world. It introduced my work to folks more outside of America. There have also been times when I’ve been criticized for ripping off the guy who did that Godspeed record, which is of course very humorous.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones - Pin Points and Gin Joints
The way that artwork came together is really different than your usual process. You have talked about getting general ideas from musicians, then listening to their music, and creating the work from there. You don’t give people sketches. The artists don’t get to see the work until it’s done.
I am not interested in acting as someone else’s hands. For the amount of re-working that would end up happening, it would never be worth what they were paying and I would be left with a bunch of drawings and sketches I couldn’t care less about. On the very rare occasion that a piece I have been commissioned to do isn’t accepted, at least I am left with something I still feel strongly about and would be proud to show anywhere. I am lucky to work with people that know and like my work… so I tell them if they like what I have done in the past, trust that they will like what I do for them. Those are my terms.
Was the art you did for The Mighty Mighty Bosstones a commissioned piece?
They were working with a friend of mine and when they told him what they wanted, he brought me in. I had to approach this like I would a commercial illustration job, instead of my normal terms. I have to admit my main reason for wanting to work on this was because they were looking to re-draw their iconic bulldog logo in this old beer mat style. I grew up in Boston, listening to the Bosstones, and seeing that dog throughout the years. I felt like someone had just invited me to re-design the Nike swoosh. I ran into frustrations, and while I think the dog that came out is good, the one I had originally pitched I felt was so much stronger. If I remember correctly, Bosstones singer Dicky Barret felt the dog looked too sick. To me, bulldogs never really look like specimens of health. Still, I was happy for the work for a chance to put my mark on the Bosstones dog.
Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy
Your art for Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy has some of my favorite pieces of all time. You’ve said that you wanted to take a fairy tale approach to those images.
Will Sheff [frontman for Okkervil River] was the one mentioned the fairy tale approach. It was a great phrase for him to use, as I am fan of the old Lewis Carrol images, and of books like Struwwelpter. I really feel that Black Sheep Boy is a great example of how well Okkervil and I can work together. They’ve known me a long time and give serious thought to my whole body of work. I feel they know how to get what they want out of me without interfering in my process.
Songs: Ohia - The Magnolia Electric Co.
You also designed the owl image from the late Jason Molina’s Magnolia Electric Co.
The owl came about because of Jason. Before I started the pieces, Jason said to me that when he was writing the songs he was thinking a lot about owls, pyramids, and magnolia. That is all he asked me to keep in mind when I was working on the artwork. I had just come off of a particularly horrible time in my life, and the owl characters became these representatives of different sides of me.
Jason Molina - The Townes Van Zandt Covers
You also designed on the posthumous seven-inch Secretly Canadian just released.
After Jason and I met, I would send Jason drawings and he would send me music. We traded art through the mail. When he would come through town we’d sit down and get dinner or whatever and talk about the last things we had sent. Eventually, we started upping the ante. I remember at one show he played “Tower Song”, which I didn’t even know it was a cover. I didn’t know who Townes Van Zandt was. After the show, I asked which record the song was on and he laughed at me. He said he never recorded covers.
Later that night he said that he would love to see a drawing of himself as one of my skull-headed creatures. The next mail art I sent him was a drawing of him with the skull head. In the picture, he was singing to me. I told him that if he liked the drawing, I would love if he recorded that Townes song. I didn’t give a shit if it was recorded on a boom box or in Abbey Road Studios. I just wanted that song. The next thing I get from him was a cassette that not only had that song, but a few other Townes songs, and tracks that would become Magnolia Electric Co. The album that I did the art for. The recordings from that cassette are the recordings that Secretly Canadian just released. I was really honored to have my work used for the record. The piece itself is one of many I made right after his death… in response to his death, really. So, again, it meant a lot to me that this piece was used.
Graham Isador is a writer based in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter.