Pete Fowler Interview: the inspiration behind the illustrator
Pete Fowler’s vibrant illustrations for Super Furry Animals’ record sleeves became synonymous with the band’s playfully subversive image. Christopher Barrett finds out what inspired the man himself.
Often mixing psychedelic landscapes, unusual beasts and references to technology, Pete Fowler’s awesome artwork has been used across the vast majority of Super Furry Animals’ albums, videos and merchandise. His brightly coloured creations for the band were in stark contrast to the conservative retro imagery that adorned many a Britpop album back in the Super Furries’ heyday.
The Cardiff-born, London-based multimedia artist has also worked on projects for bands including The Horrors and Clinic, but it is his work with the Welsh indie band for which he remains best known. Fowler continued to work with Gruff Rhys after he went solo, creating more restrained but no less imaginative work.
A passionate music fan, Fowler has performed as one half of the duo Seahawks and regularly gets behind the decks, most recently as the tour DJ for Hot Chip.
Outside of his experience in the music industry, Fowler’s endeavours include delivering projects for major brands such as Paul Smith, Disney and Volvic, as well as working in the fields of illustration, toy design, printmaking, painting and embroidery.
Fowler has also gained a worldwide fanbase with his Monsterism project, which encompasses imagery, films and a range of toy figures, including one called Grylph that was modelled on Gruff Rhys as an allotment-owning older man.
Growing up in Cardiff before studying fine art at Falmouth University, Fowler was surrounded by music, but the sleeve imagery that made the greatest impact was that which adorned records by anarcho-punk band Crass.
“I have always been drawn to bands with a visual identity, and Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher’s artwork for Crass was incredibly strong, very political and quite disturbing,” Fowler says.
‘To try and get a mad idea through, sometimes you need to come up with a madder idea and pitch that first’
A fan of The Specials, Fowler was also impressed by the imagery used by the 2 Tone record label. “That was when my interest in art and music really met,” he says. “I loved the label’s checkerboard motif and the man in the shades and suit. It was very monochromatic, simple imagery that helped forge a very strong identity for the music and label.”
Having graduated in 1991, Fowler moved to London, where he tried to make ends meet by producing artwork for T-shirts and nightclub backdrops, while also putting on small exhibitions of his work in bars. Word spread quickly and it wasn’t long before Fowler received a phone call from Creation Records and an invitation to show his portfolio to the Super Furry Animals.
Despite the band and Fowler hailing from Cardiff, their paths had never crossed. Fowler recalls the first time they met. “At the time, Super Furry Animals were putting the finishing touches to Radiator in Parr Street Studios in Liverpool and the label asked me to go up there and hang out with the band to see if we got on.
“When I first walked into the studio, they were mixing Demons, which has these great-sounding Mariachi horns. I said, ‘I love this, it reminds me of the horns from Love’s Forever Changes’. Their eyes lit up, that was the spark. It turned out that they were also big fans of Arthur Lee, and so we clicked and got on really well,” he says.
Fowler says that the band’s decision to employ an illustrator to create their artwork was a direct reaction to the Britpop poster boys and girls of the time, whose record sleeves were often adorned with photographic imagery of themselves.
‘For me, it’s about having fun and trying new things’
“Super Furry Animals were more interested in artwork that represented the music,” he says.
As a fan of the band, Fowler initially found working with them a little nerve wracking. “Gruff had loads of working titles and unfinished versions of tracks for Radiator. He gave me a cassette and a list of songs and said, ‘If you get any inspiration from the titles great, otherwise do what you want’. He was so open, I was really excited but also nervous, as I didn’t have much experience of working with clients. The band pretty much gave me carte blanche.”
With Super Furry Animals’ band members and the team at Creation impressed with Fowler’s artwork for Radiator, he was invited back to produce the sleeve imagery for the band’s third album, Guerrilla. His work involved clay sculpture, photography and computer 3D graphics, and resulted in an image of an octopus-like monster sat alongside a nuclear power station operator.
Fowler says Creation Records were “Oasis-rich” at the time, so when he came up with the idea of producing a pop-up gatefold sleeve for Guerrilla the suggestion met with very little or no resistance.
“To try and get a mad idea through, sometimes you need to come up with a madder idea and pitch that first,” he says. “The first suggestion was a case that when opened would fire a CD out. So when we presented the idea of having a pop-up nuclear reactor operator, it was quickly approved. We really wanted to create a pop-up of something bland because they are usually so dramatic,” he says.
Fowler’s later work with the band included collaborations with artists Mark James and Keiichi Tanaami, but he would continue to be involved in the creation of all their album artwork except for Hey Venus.
“There are not many bands who consistently work with the same artist. Working with Super Furry Animals was like a marriage; you get to know each other better as you go along and to keep it working it’s essential to continuously bring something fresh to it,” he says.
“Every time I have worked on an album sleeve for the band, I have done something new. It has been a matter of looking at how we can create something fresh while retaining the visual identity of the band.
“With all of the Super Furry Animals projects, the ideas have come from seeing something in song titles or lyrics. I have an idea, an initial spark and then it’s a matter of taking a few steps back and finding a new and interesting way of representing it. A lot of the time, I have been inspired by the band and their sense of playfulness. They saw that in my work as well. For me, it’s about having fun and trying new things.”
Super Furry Animals: Radiator (1997)
“The band gave me the working song titles for the album and a reference to good and evil jumped out. The two things co-exist in everyone and I wanted to create an image recognising that. At the time, I was drawing a lot of monsters and people in animal suits. I liked the idea of someone in a bear suit walking past a window and seeing another aspect of their personality in the reflection. I was interested in technology, mobile phones were relatively new and had become more affordable, I was a bit obsessed with them back then. The band really liked the image, even though the inspiration came from a song title that ended up not being used.”
Super Furry Animals: Guerrilla (1999)
“I was working on sculptures in my free time and the band saw what I was doing at the studio and encouraged me tomake a 3D sculpture for the Guerrilla album sleeve. I wanted to invent a new god for the new religion of the time — telecommunication. So I created a god out of clay, that was half mobile phone and half octopus. I was inspired by the theme of the album, we were thinking about technology good and bad and I wanted to throw it all together,
so there is this yellow god alongside someone operating a nuclear reactor. The final sleeve was created using a mix of 3D computer graphics and photographic elements.”
Super Furry Animals: MWNG (2000)
“For that album, the band went for a more stripped back sound, they recorded it very quickly and on a ridiculously low budget. I was inspired by the starkness of the album’s sound and the speed at which it was completed. Mark James and I wanted to reflect that in the artwork and strip things right back, put all the multi-coloured psychedelic imagery to one side. The idea was to create a monochrome stamp. Mwng can mean two things, a horse’s mane or to be down emotionally. We wanted an animal with longish hair, but we didn’t want the obvious horse, so we came up with this goat. We loved the ambiguity of the title and the goat seemed to reflect that.”
Super Furry Animals: Phantom Power (2003)
“This is my favourite Super Furry Animals sleeve and album. I am a massive fan of The Beach Boys and so are the band. At the time, I was listening to Surf’s Up, and the band’s lyrics on that album are inspired by ecology and the ruination of the earth. There is a similar thread in Phantom Power, and so I wanted to reference the Surf’s Up cover image, the horse with its head bowed down symbolising the suffering of Native Americans and the sadness of that genocide. Like Surf’s Up, Phantom Power is a melancholy album and I dialled into the music and wanted to interpret the theme and the emotion that went into it. For me, that was really important.”
Gruff Rhys: Candylion (2007)
“It is a joyous album that has some quite serious themes, but the overall feel is very innocent and upbeat. I teamed up again with Mark James and we wanted to do something new, to use a different medium for the album sleeve that would be very colourful, very upbeat and reference early-80s children’s TV programmes that used puppets, particularly Fingerbobs. Mark had done a lot of carbon engineering and had made some amazing packaging, so we thought, ‘why don’t we make a 3D character?’ One version of the LP came with a build-your-own Candylion kit, and two schools in Wales used it as a project. It was a really fun album to work on.”
Super Furry Animals: Dark Days/Light Years (2009)
“The final album was completely different from the rest. Keiichi Tanaami had done the artwork for Hey Venus! and I was asked to collaborate with him. I had spent a lot of time in Japan, but my Japanese was beyond rusty. When you are collaborating you need to have a decent understanding of each other’s languages, so it was challenging but also humbling because he is an amazing artist. We started to collaborate purely visually. He would send me images from Japan and I’d add elements of my own. It was one of the most amazing collaborations I have been involved in because it bypassed language and culture and was quite intuitive.”
Gruff Rhys: American Interior (2014)
“Gruff was working on the film and brought me in to design the font, so I came up with this Western-style font. It was a long-term project involving so many different platforms, including a book, album, film, app and tour. It started with the font and grew from there to involve animation, illustration, and I designed the puppet that represented the film’s protagonist John Evans. While working on the film, the cameraman was taking loads of photos, and one image jumped out – Gruff with the umbrella and the mini
John Evans sat beside him. It is such a poignant image, I thought it should be the album cover. The sleeve artwork only involved a small amount of work from me, overlaying the black and white image with some colour. I like to think I know when to step back and be restrained, that comes with working with someone for a long time.”