1. You met Ben and Andrew through Sonic Boom--but at what point was it clear that you would collaborate together?
I visited the band at their Malibu estate for a small party to celebrate the final Congratulations recordings. The situation was somewhat psychedelically advanced when I arrived and I had some catching up to do, so I sat at a table and sketched for a while. When I split, I left the drawings and some copies of my book Vacation From Reality. I completely forgot about that until six months later when Josh Cheuse, the art director for MGMT at Sony, contacted me at Andrew and Ben’s request to design the cover. In the end, a few of the drawings from that night were used inside the booklet that came with the special edition CD.
2. Where you familiar with the band's music before collaborating?
When Sonic brought Andrew and Ben to my studio, I had no clue what they were all about and they knew nothing about me. This was a sort of an equalizer and led to some interesting conversations about Nazis and parallel realities as we figured each other out. I drove to Joshua Tree a week or two later listening to Oracular Spectacular and a black light bulb went off in my head; I got what they were putting down.
3. How much access did you have to Congratulations while creating the artwork? And if so, how did it influence the end result?
The situation was hush-hush and I had no access to the tracks whatsoever, no titles, not a single musical note; consequently I listened to Oracular Spectacular about fifty times! Still, the visits to the crib in Malibu had been memorable, particularly when I listened to the day’s (or night’s) recordings, so when I was working on the painting in my studio I could recall certain moments if I felt a need to connect what I was painting with the reality of MGMT. It was a great relief when I finally got an advance copy of Congratulations and realized how well my cover art represented their music.
4. Where did the inspiration for cats on a surfboard come from? What's the intended message?
That was Andrew’s idea; he loves surfing and he loves cats, so it was natural that the two were gonna get combined in something! Congratulations was the second official release by MGMT and Andrew and Ben were under quite a lot of pressure from the record label and the fans to deliver another set of era defining hits. Its obvious to me now that the cat on the surfboard represents MGMT and the wave is fame about to closeout over the surfer causing a wipeout. At least, that is what I gathered from interviews with Andrew after the album came out; we never discussed symbology…
5. You're referred to as "a celebrated pioneer of the Lowbrow movement?" How would you explain Lowbrow to the unfamiliar?
Lowbrow Art takes its inspiration from low culture, things like surfing, skateboarding and hotrods. These influences are usually ignored by the Fine Art Mafia, which is more concerned with exclusionary art forms like opera or color field paintings. Lowbrow Art is all about imagery and narrative and using the polished skills of an illustrator to get those ideas across. It’s all an effort to avoid the ridiculous; no one is going to accept a fifteen-page thesis paper to explain the painting, fuckit, here it is, this is what you get…
6. You've mentioned in an interview that MGMT knew what they wanted but let you do it your way. Is the band's initial vision different from the final art?
Andrew’s original idea was to have the cover look like a lottery ticket, as in “Congratulations, you’re a winner!” The plan was to have half the cover coated with scratch off ink that would reveal a secret yet-to-be-determined something underneath. Well, I knocked that concept around for a while but everything I came up with was stillborn, just laying there doing nothing, not shitty but not great either. Finally I shitcanned everything and started with an entirely new image and it took off from there. The only original elements that remained in the final cover were the checkerboard background and the scratch off ink, which reveals a photo of the band when removed with the special coin provided in the limited edition copies.
7. You've included a comment on Perez Hilton's website on the reviews of the album art: " the artwork sucks! reminds me of needlepoint in the 80's. i heard the artist is impotent from all the blow he did." How do you react to critical backlash?
Well, Sony leaked the album cover art before any of the musical tracks so both the fans and detractors went nuts. The reactions to the cover were mostly bewilderment and dismay. Where were the cute boys with their shirts off? What is this 90s shit? But plenty of people in the blogoshere liked it, and after a while the only people who hated the cover art were already haters of MGMT. Anyway, I knew that I had done a goddamn good painting for the cover so I just laughed at the criticism. I didn’t give a shit about Perez Hilton before he dissed me and I cared even less (if that is possible) afterwards. It actually blew my mind that the image got so much attention, I didn’t think that cover art was a source of debate anymore; it seemed like something from the 70s when I would lie around with my friends looking at an album cover and listening to the record…
To be an artist one needs to cultivate an indestructible ego; the trick is to maintain some humility and not become an asshole
8. Would you consider yourself a provocateur?
I don’t set out to provoke people with my art projects; I just want them to feel ”the shock of the new” that comes with any unexpected experience. I would prefer to be called a Situationist since I want to put people in situations where there are no correct or incorrect reactions. I am more of a provocateur with the novellas that I write.
9. If you could say one thing in defense of the album art, what would you say?
I don’t need to defend it, the attacks are weak. Besides, I hold the big gun; like it or not, the Congratulations cover is an irreversible and undeniable building block of reality; its part of pop history.
10. Have you spoken with the band after the album's release? Have there been conversations about the response to the album art?
I am eternally grateful that MGMT and Sony ignored the initial criticism of the cover and never wavered in their support of my effort; Andrew actually apologized to me for the stupidity that poured forth from the Internet. But I firmly believe one of the reasons I was chosen to do the cover is because I didn’t ask Andrew and Ben for anything; I just enjoyed talking to them, which created a certain camaraderie between us. Some famous people don’t want to talk about themselves; they just want to jabber on like a regular person (of course, there are those who will talk about nothing other than themselves). I’ve been around celebrities plenty of times and it’s a fun challenge to come up with something interesting that they haven’t heard before. Anyway, MGMT and I are inexorably connected now, even if I never do anything for them again. When they toured in support of Congratulations I caught them in many different locations and I was always given an all access pass. They still keep in contact and we hang out whenever possible.
Something that I never expected was fan versions of that cover. Kids have sent photos of bedroom murals that they’ve done and all sorts of weird stuff, like custom Congratulations sneakers. I’ve been contacted many times by people who want a tattoo of it and I always send them a clean drawing so it’ll look good; I know its easier if the tattoo artist has a line drawing.
11. It seems that Congratulations had a mixed response? What's your reaction to the music?
It’s a brilliant record and I never get tired of it, especially Siberian Breaks…