THE AUSTERITY PROGRAM’S JUST FOLEY INTERVIEWS LEGENDARY ILLUSTRATOR DEREK RIGGS
Derek Riggs is an illustrator based in California. His website showcases the album art he’s done over the past thirty years, including his absolutely classic work for Iron Maiden. Derek is opinionated and funny; the half hour you will spend looking through the entire site shows that clearly. In 2006, he put out Run For Cover: The Art of Derek Riggs, a book that includes a bunch of his best stuff as well as several interviews.
I was hesitant to call him and ask him about his work for Iron Maiden, as that’s an old chapter in his life and he’s put a lot of that behind him. But then I thought, “Fuck it, it would be fun to call Derek Riggs, let me see if I can talk to him.” He was game, so I took a deep breath and asked him a few questions about his past.
One of the people who works on the website tells a story about looking at Killers as a ten year old kid and being uncontrollably drawn to it, saying, “It was like pornography.” This is funny to me, because it’s true — it was unavoidably compelling and obviously evil, but also because of the countless Eddie posters that shared wall space with Heather Locklear or Pamela Anderson. So, how do you look back on your life as a pornographer?
[laughs] Oh, I wasn’t part of all that. I just drew a picture and the rest of that stuff didn’t really have anything to do with me. From the first thing that I drew, it was all a logical response to what I saw around me at the time. It’s funny you say that about pornography, because part of my motivation at the time was a reaction against what I was seeing in hard rock bands. They all had boring art with half-naked women and it was all really crap. I wanted to draw something that had some balls to it. There was nothing else like what I was doing at the time.
That’s funny, because Eddie ended up having such a strong appeal, to the point that people had to put posters of him up in their rooms.
I had a funny experience of my own. About two months after I submitted the art to Killers, I was walking down Oxford Street in London, where I lived. There was a huge Virgin records store at the end of the block. They did an absolutely huge 15 foot by 15 foor square painting of Killers. I didn’t even know it had been released. I thought, “Fucking hell, that’s terrible.”
Terrible why? Because they screwed up his jaw or something?
No, no, they did a brilliant copy. I just couldn’t believe that I was seeing it. I’d finished the same thing two months before.
At that time, I was into science fiction and was busy drawing my own space stations and things. But I had gotten fed up with science fiction that had crap monsters. This whole thing about — let’s draw a terrible demon from hell and make him look like… a monkey with wings. It was pitiful. No imagination — a monkey with wings was what people were coming up with as the scariest thing imaginable.
I take a look at the overall arc of stuff that you did with the band, from the inital, rawer stuff like Killers to the very tightly focused art on “The Trooper” or “2 Minutes to Midnight” to the total mindfuck around the Seventh Son or “Clairvoyant.” How do you see that development? Am I just making that up?
Well, what Iron Maiden did was they did because they read a book or saw a movie. They’d see something and then go write a song about it. But I was always trying to make the albums flow from one to the next. There’s more than just a bunch of pictures. There’s a visual, symbolic language that’s shared between releases. [laughs] Of course, I made Maiden think that it was them that was doing that. But the streetlights, for example, carried through from one record to the next. And fans knew this. They were coming to shows with banners that had my signature on it or even with the pictures of the the streetlights.
[Suddenly getting more serious] You see, this is where we lived in the 1970s. The scenes on those first few releases… London was a shithole after the 70s. There were millions unemployed; that’s quite a lot for a country like England. Parts of London were completely rundown. The places on the album covers were places that I used to live. I lived in Finsbury Park — now it’s trendy — and buildings were literally falling down. They were full of squatters. And that was my neighborhood. And this is where English punk rock came from. This is from a bunch of kids who were told that they were nothing, never going to be any good, never be anything. That’s what was going on in those first pictures of Eddie. It has fuck all to do with heavy metal. Iron Maiden just said, “Give that punk rocker longer hair and we’ll take him.”
Of course, the reason that Eddie ends up falling apart is because I was bored by that point.
Well, there’s a lot going on in those pictures. There’s the continuity, there’s the stuff that Maiden wanted me to put in, there’s me trying out different things… if you just follow one train of thought, your paintings are going to be crap. It’s got more complicated than one train of thought.
So you were doing album art, something where the artwork is intended to be part of a larger package. While the state of that art is very different than it was in the mid-late 80s, what was important to you in doing work that was designed for records? What makes good versus bad album art?
It’s like this, or at least it used to be: A band puts out a record, and they get less than 10% to share between them — this covers everything that they get. So you sell an album, and maybe they get a dollar, maybe. But if they sell a t-shirt, they get 30-60% on that. They’re making many times more than on the album. And some fans will only buy a record once, but they’ll buy more than one t-shirt. The band, as a whole, are making a hundred times more on the shirt than the album. Any band that tells you it’s all about the music is bullshit.
So if the picture won’t convert to a t-shirt, it’s a waste of time. It’s got to work on a CD and a poster and a t-shirt. Otherwise the band isn’t going to make any money.
When I’m painting a cover, this is what’s going through my head. The cover for the CD or record is the front end, but what’s making the money for the band is the merchandise. Of course, in [the band members’] minds, they’re the equal of Mozart. But if you’re like the FBI and follow the money, you’ll see that the band is just a front for a very large merchandising operation. The band might not know enough to know this, but I know it. So you look at a cover and think, “That’s not going to make a good shirt.”
I was right on the border of this for Somewhere in Time. The artwork is good on the record to hold in your hands, but it almost doesn’t work on a t-shirt.
By the way, this is my big bitch with people who do computer-based art. People have no idea about traditional composition. It’s like there’s a spaceship that’s hidden by a mountain and the mountain has too much stuff going on it. Or you’ve got a green figure on a green background. Of course, you can’t see it. But the art director thinks it’s great.
What I’ve read says that you ended things with Iron Maiden and walked away. This has included giving them Eddie without further claims on it. How do you look on that decision?
Well, it probably wasn’t the smartest business decision, but I didn’t really care. I couldn’t work with their management, and I still can’t really. At that point, it just became too painful to keep doing it. I’d had enough. There was so much bullshit around Fear of the Dark. I just said, “Forget it, I’ve had enough.” I mean, they gave me some money. But the rights to the character haven’t been bought or sold — so that’s still all floating out there. But the bottom line was that I’d had enough of doing it. Fuck it. And I wasn’t going to be doing anything else with Eddie, so why not let them have it?
Well, I’ve done a few paintings for them since then. [See the commentary on Riggs’ site on Flight 666 – Ed.] But they asked me to sign another contract with them. Initially it looked all right, but then I thought the better of it. Look, you can have an art director who wants to see six different versions of something because he’s ten years old. But I can already tell you — “That’s not going to work.” Fucking around with different options… when I tell you it won’t work, it won’t work. And I got into artwork to do good artwork, not to satisfy an arti director by making boring crap.
Really, I’ve done zombies. At this point, it’s like, “How do you want your zombie? Would you like him with a burning city behind him or with lightning? Do you want him boiled or fried?” [laughs]
Justin Foley plays guitar and sings for the Austerity Program. Their record Backsliders and Apostates Will Burn is out now. Visit them online at www.austerityprogram.com. All messages about urban bike riding, vegetarian BBQ and monetary policy will be answered first.