logo

PRETENDING THE COVER DOESN’T EXIST: AN INTERVIEW WITH ILLUSTRATOR AND MUSICIAN MIKE SUTFIN

It was the year the Arlington Heist had to move venues from the normal location at the Knights of Columbus off highway 14 in Arlington Heights, IL, to some random gymnasium that may or may not have been in Arlington Heights. I kept hearing “ex-Charles Bronson” tossed around in conversation when I got there, and a few moments later, Ebro Virumbrales came up to the front of the room with a microphone in his hand. People were riled just at the sound of the amps turning on as Ebro paced back and forth. In a handful of words, he introduced his band Punch in the Face, slightly lost to the sound of the first song starting. I was caught off guard, as it was my first time seeing them play.

After the set I was quick to check out the merch table, where they were selling an album and a shirt printed with the same art on it— a dynamic first-person fist-view black-and-white illustration of a guy getting his malar bone caved in. I picked up the EP, a quick turnover indicating the “PITF” imprinted on the cheek of the cover figure came from a pair of embossed brass knuckles, sitting at the foot of a pool of blood. It remains my favorite piece of album art to this day. As an Illustrator myself, I was quick to check out the guy who actually drew it.

Cover for Punch in the Face – S/T

Mike Sutfin, the artist responsible for the art on more than one PITF cover, is a freelance Illustrator and proud father based in Oakland, CA. He grew up moving around a good amount, eventually ending up in the outside of Chicago. He received his BFA in Illustration from Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, IL (It’s not a total coincidence that’s where I ended up getting my Illustration BFA as well). A town west of Chicago with a questionable reputation due mainly to one band: Charles Bronson. Aside from discussing his current career with close ties to the Fantasy/RPG market, Sutfin was nice enough to answer some of my questions regarding his spell as a guitarist with CB in the early days, and share some memories about our Alma Mater, working as a student alongside CB’s infamous frontman Mark McCoy.

JVL: Describe the 90′s hardcore landscape, and how Charles Bronson fit into the mess.

MS: Pop punk bands dominated Chicago at the time & we often found ourselves standing odd man out on playbills. Maybe our location an hour west in DeKalb helped us disconnect & focus on writing songs that fit our own musical interests at the time. We were more into 80′s HC as well as some current bands in the ‘Power Violence’ category. Maybe this distinction helped us in the long run, but I don’t think any of us thought there would be a long run for Charles Bronson.

Another factor of separation was our glaring indifference to the politically correct outlook at the time. Obviously, the issues of discussion were valid & important but also felt self-righteous at times. Going to shows and constantly having to tip toe around these land-mines of sensitivity truly felt like we were attending a Church meeting. Some people with this mindset would give us a pass, because Mark’s lyrical presentation was brilliant & hilarious. It’s all in how you say it I suppose.

There wasn’t a whole lot of fan fare for Charles Bronson during my participation in the band. However, Mark was frequently contacted by bands & record labels around the country and that encouragement wasn’t taken for granted.

The influence of CB on newer hardcore expanded well beyond Chicago. Was there anything distinctly Midwestern about the band?

I guess Mark’s lyrics reflected certain aspects of our surroundings, I mean we had a song called ‘Chicago‘ & we made fun of Tony Victory and all that. For myself, the most midwestern thing about CB is my memory of what life was like during my involvement with the band. The brutal winter treks from Dekalb to Chicago & the surrounding suburbs feel very midwestern in my mind.


Cover for Punch in the Face – At War With Everybody


Cover for Goblin Cock – Come With Me If You Want To Live

Did moving around the country as a kid come through in any way in your artwork today?

Yeah, without a doubt, moving multiple times during childhood had an effect on my artwork. The reality of being torn from friends & a stable environment is somewhat destructive to a young kid but I’m trying to complain less & have a positive outlook on life these days (like Youth of Today).  Moving frequently allowed me to meet those important people who unlocked doors in terms of music & art. I think we search for inspiration on our own, but also naturally gravitate towards people with similar leanings. It’s a special thing when you find someone you click with & can give recommendations back and forth.

After moving from a the suburbs of Chicago to San Diego in 2002, the most exceptional regional difference I noticed was the uncanny ability of California inhabitants to let shit roll right off their backs. Any problem or dilemma must be of grand importance to warrant any loss of cool. Personally, I welcomed a healthy dose of this anti-venom as it helped me calm down and make better decisions.

I live in Oakland now and if you can tolerate/avoid crime, gang violence, drug rivalries, trash tumbleweeds, etc.  it’s a pretty exceptional town. As far as art & music the Bay Area has me spoiled.

As an NIU grad myself, I’m curious to know what your experience was out in Dekalb back in the day.

Well, truthfully my decision to attend NIU was not determined by its academic valor but more DeKalb’s close proximity the town I went to high school in & the friends I had there. Thankfully, this careless decision led to three highly significant aspects of my life – playing in Charles Bronson, meeting the love of my life & studying illustration under Mark A. Nelson. In that cornfield of isolation, I stumbled upon a professor who recognized some talent in me & convinced me to cultivate it. I toyed around with the idea, but I didn’t believe in myself till that point. Eventually Mark & I became best bros & hung out all the time & it was awesome. Living with multiple straight edge dudes & becoming bored with my own idiotic campus behavior led to a more focused work ethic towards art & music.


Artwork for Killers 10”

Mark Mccoy is an active visual artist these days as well. Have you two ever exchanged notes?

When we were roommates back in college we had some pretty serious artists in our house so critiques outside the classroom were common. We were a young bunch of dicks who gave support to each other while talking shit on the flocks of apathetic students blatantly wasting time & money on art school.

Communication with Mark was sparse for quite some time, then in late 2010 I made a surprise visit to a Failures show. We had a good talk that evening & we’ve been in contact a bit more since then. I think our ‘notes’ are similar in that we are both self-critical, enjoy the details & plan for the future. By chance, we were in a couple group shows Rich Jacobs put together last year which I was pretty happy about.

… I’m entirely impressed by his current path. Mark puts an immense amount of work into his record label & it’s apparent at first glance. Regarding his artwork, I’m really digging the highly embellished drawings of reconstructed natural & man-made materials. Mark is a true creative talent with an admirable integrity. Musically, I think my current favorite release would be the Suburbanite 7″ as it’s top-notch.

What are some differences or commonalities in working on a job with musicians/labels, as opposed to working with the sci-fi and fantasy publishers that have become an integral part of your portfolio?

Music Illustration projects are primarily for good friends & it’s a labor of love situation. A human connection is at the core of my motivation which does not exist with commercial work. However, I approach everything with a similar mindset where I’m going to dedicate myself regardless of financial compensation.

When a record cover is near release, there is an inner concern as to what the opinion of the punk HC crowd will have? I respect their reaction, having come from that realm & wanting to keep a hand it it. A fan of music will offer a genuine review because their judgment is based on the art itself. The greatest music on the planet can’t save a poor record cover. With Magic: the Gathering or Warcraft trading card game commissions, outside factors make it difficult to determine exactly why an illustration is successful or not. For example, if a card is rare or powerful the kids will love it regardless of the artwork.

This unconventional balance in my portfolio existed from the beginning & has been understandably confusing to some. A good example would be the story of when I met Iain Mccaig. For those unfamiliar, Iain is a world-renowned concept artist working primarily on blockbuster films like Harry Potter, Star Wars, Terminator, etc. Anyway, at the urging of my good friend, I was asked to lay my work out before him for a quick review. Surprisingly, he gave me some very positive feedback & went as far as to graciously offer a foot in the door with Lucasfilm. Being a major Star Wars nerd, my jaw hit the floor (This was before the prequels). It was snowing like a mofo that night & despite my host’s efforts to convince me to wait out the storm, I insisted on making the two-hour drive home. I remember Iain giving a few words of support, ‘He wants to get home & finish a project! I can see it in his eyes! What is it Mike?’. ‘Um, A split 7-inch cover for Monster X & Capitalist Casualties’ I replied. I can still see his perplexed face…

The motivating thread running through all types of projects is that a strong piece of work has the ability to grow in the minds of those who initially saw it as well as having the ability to find a future audience of unknown origins.


Mondo poster for Blade II

What makes you pick a record up off the shelf? Do you judge an album by the cover?

The answer is too broad as I don’t really have a set list of criteria I’m looking for. I think design & music are mutually pliable in terms of what can be successful. As long as the product of this pairing is harmonious, resonates with the listeners, the basic fundamentals of design seem unimportant. It’s good to be aware of current design trends, but don’t pigeonhole yourself thinking they will endure forever.

In the case where a record cover doesn’t suit the music, I do not judge the album to the point where I can’t look past this flaw. I’ll just listen to MP3 & pretend the cover doesn’t exist. There are also instances where I absolutely love the cover & hate the music (Rick Griffin & Roger Dean record covers come to mind). So it goes both ways, however when everything clicks, you love that album much more.


Artwork for Cattle Decapitation/Caninus Split

How influential has skate culture been on your work?

These classic skate graphics left permanent blisters on the minds of many, including myself. I will always hold the work of these amazing artists as sacred & legendary, however the amount of people citing these works as the basis for their own is fatiguing. These visuals are set so deeply in our subconscious that retailers now consider them public domain & it’s disrespectful. I see Generation Klepto rehashing the past as a marketing tool so frequently, I worry it’s become a danger to creativity. I hear people resting on the excuse ‘everything has been done before’, & I hope that’s not the truth.

Case in point are my inaugural skate graphics for Kris Markovich’s company ‘Hollywood‘ in 2k2 (Decks included Kris, Dorian Tucker & Don ‘The Nuge’ Nguyen’s first pro model). Despite the success of these skull-headed decks, my conscience knows they are too reminiscent of Pushead. It was very cool to work in the industry & If the right opportunity presents itself I’d love a chance at redemption.


Cover for Foundation Skateboard’s Cataclysmic Abyss video

What’s playing in the background when you’re doing work?

Audio books, music, podcasts, movies, tv shows & sometimes a baby monitor.

Do you still make it out to shows in Oakland/play music? Have you been entirely swallowed up by the comic world at this point?

Haha…yeah, when I run out of Conan the Barbarian comic books to read, I do make it out to shows. I just saw Urban Blight & Creem…fun show. I am currently an inactive musician, stoked on being an artist.

Ever receive any questionable or unwelcome comparisons when it comes to your work?

An unwelcome comparison is more or less a negative review in the mind of the creator. Anyone with access to the internet can make their opinions known & some of these opposing observations can be real head-scratchers for an artist. It’s a difficult skill to learn but it’s important to appraise these outside comments and regulate their effect on you.  Consider the source & focus on intelligent critiques that offer an insightful look at your work from a different perspective.

What are some ways you take influence from art without regurgitating an icon or aesthetic in your own work?

If you are about to commit regurgitation, you are aware at the earliest stages of idea development. The easiest way to thwart this snafu is to simply not do it. Think more about your own course of action. I believe I’m still developing my own identity so I don’t have all the answers, but I think it’s helpful to look at another artist’s process & figure out what they discovered about themselves over time. What were the techniques, identifiers & choices that were held onto for the lifespan of a career? Maybe that will help & tell you something. Looking at the work of an artist I admire is exciting for me & delivers a rush of motivation.


Personal Work, 2007

Any experiences stick out in your mind from all the shows you’ve been to in Oakland? Any current local bands standing out in your mind?

Oakland seems to receive bands with a lot of enthusiasm. There’s a diverse selection of all-ages ‘venues’ in the area, my favorites being the unlicensed DIY rooms where events are put on by the folks who live there. I recently went to see Merchandise play in this large building in pretty gnarly area of downtown Oakland. Once I dodged the neighborhood crackhead-zombies circling the entryway, I had to navigate a maze of dark staircases (Up, then down) & hallways, eventually finding myself in a room with the band. I remember waiting to use the restroom with a bunch of people and there was a girl in a bathrobe smoking a cigarette next to me waiting for the shower. In terms of local bands, the most recent stand out would be Replica.

Visual artists and musicians are more than familiar with how digital media has changed the structure of both tangible aesthetic, and art as business. As more forms of analog processes disappear or lose relevance, where do you think things stand for the future?

I haven’t noticed a decline in bands seeking artwork. I think musicians will most likely always desire a working relationship with visual artists. In my experience, payment has never been the driving force in terms of a taking on a DIY music project. I couldn’t support myself on music assignments alone which is why they are few and far between in my schedule. I accept work of this nature to support good friends and for personal enjoyment. I don’t recall reaching out to a band that I like and asking to collaborate. This is something I may try to do in the future.

When it comes to physical media formats losing their necessity, my concern is more for the labels whose existence relies on record sales. A band with a good following can circumvent poor record sales by touring more & selling additional merchandise. If there is a positive aspect to it all, it would be our impending future’s demand to adapt & improve. Not only in terms of finding new ways to distribute music but also raising the bar of standards as far as what deserves a release that can be held in hand.


-
Thanks to Mike for spending some time with these questions.

Mike Sutfin’s work on the web:

MIKESUTFIN.COM
MIKESUTFIN.BLOGSPOT
@SUTFIN ON INSTAGRAM

Leave a Reply

*

captcha *