AW19 Featured Artist Interview: Robert Beatty

We are pleased to announce our Autumn/Winter '19 featured artist Robert Beatty, whom we teamed up with to create a limited edition series of tees, caps and enamel pins for this coming season. 

Robert is both a prolific artist and musician based in Lexington, Kentucky, whose visual art is immediately recognizable and relentlessly refreshing. You've probably seen his album artwork on some of your favorite albums from bands including Tame Impala, Peaking Lights, Oneohtrix Point Never, Drugdealer, Thee Oh Sees, and many more. He's also a frequent contributor to the NY Times and countless other publications.

Robert's art feels timeless in that he has an uncanny ability to reinterpret nostalgic references - think airbrushed classic rock albums - in a polished, contemporary way. We are honored to have Robert on board as this season's featured artist. 

Phil Ayers and Matt Borgia of Pilgrim Surf + Supply recently hopped on the phone to catch up with the artist. 

Photo by Matthew James-Wilson for FORGE. Art magazine

Pilgrim Surf + Supply: Between the FW19 Featured Artist Collection and Self Discovery for Social Survival, you’ve now been involved with a few Pilgrim projects. Have you had a chance to see the fully finished film? 

Robert Beatty: Yeah, I mean I saw it at basically every stage throughout its entire creation. I wasn’t able to make it to either of the premiers in LA and New York, but I’ve seen the final edit. 

PSS: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, if you had any sort of formal art education, how you got into both music and art, etc.? Was there a particular moment where your work as an artist went from being a hobby to a viable career? 

RB: Yeah, so I’ve lived in Kentucky for my entire life. I grew up in a small town called Nicholasville and then moved to Lexington, which is the second biggest city after Louisville in Kentucky. And I’ve lived here my entire adult life. 

When I was a kid, I grew up in the sort of pre-internet era, so it was kind of tough, being in a small town, trying to find things and figure out what I was interested in. I ended up getting really into weird comics and magazines and stuff, and I was also able to find music through that or just ordering records blindly through catalogues and stuff. That was also kind of back in the day when MTV showed actual music videos and late at night you could find some weird stuff that they would never play during the day, stuff that was a little more under the radar. Honestly, cable television was a big part of me finding stuff. There was always weird stuff on late night, like weird animations and cartoons. 

And then the other big thing that helped me find a lot of music and get into any sort of community when I was younger was the college radio station at the University of Kentucky. I probably grew up listening to that from the time I was like 11 or 12, so I was listening to whatever crazy music was coming out of there. The weirder the better, even pretty early on. 

After I graduated high school, I didn’t go to college. I worked as a janitor at a gas station for a few years but at that same, I was also going and volunteering at the college radio station at the University of Kentucky, which is WFRL. I started doing a show there and meeting like-minded people that were into the same type of music. There were some people who had noise bands and more experimental rock bands, so I started playing music with some of those people and that eventually became the band Hair Police, which was kind of the first band that I was in that toured and stuff. We started in I think 2001 and we ended up going on tour with Sonic Youth in like 2004. And that was without a real record label; we were pretty much doing everything ourselves. 

PSS: To not be on a label or anything, how did a tour with Sonic Youth get lined up? Did they find you guys? 

RB: Yeah, I mean Thurston Moore is also searching out weird, underground stuff, so I think one of our cassettes or CDs somehow found him. He and Byron Coley had a column had a column called Bull Tongue in a magazine called Arthur Magazine. I think one of our cassettes got reviewed in that or something. But yeah, he always, but especially around that time, really had his finger on the pulse of weird stuff coming out of wherever. 

PSS: What instrument did you play in Hair Police? 

RB: Always kind of weird, home-built electronic stuff. A lot of of circuit bending casio kind of stuff, or just weird electronics that I could modify. One of the main things that I played for the bulk of when that band was touring heavily was a hearing test machine that I had reconfigured to work as a kind of crude synthesizer [laughs] but yeah, a qualitone acoustic appraiser is the official name of it. 

So that’s kind of how I got into most things that I’m into; I’m a very curious person, always have been since I was a kid, trying to take things apart, figure out how they work or what I could do with them. And that’s kind of how I approach everything even to this day. And because we were kind of doing everything ourselves, I was most of the artwork for all the records that Hair Police was releasing. I was also playing with a couple other bands with friends and doing artwork for them. So that’s how it started. And we also toured pretty consistently for like 8-10 years throughout the early 2000s until 2010 or 2011. I met a ton of people through doing that, then eventually some of my friends started asking me to do artwork for their records and it just grew really organically from there. 

I probably really started doing the album artwork thing seriously around 2010 or so. That’s when I started doing a lot of artwork for bands that weren’t necessarily just my friends. I started getting asked by people who had just seen my work on other people’s album covers, so that’s how it initially started to grow. I did stuff for bands like Peking Lights early on and was friends with them and it’s pretty cool to still be doing stuff with them today, having known them for so long. Like I knew them when they were still living in Madison, Wisconsin and they had a record shop/clothing store there and my band played a show there. But that cover for their record Lucifer was a really big breakthrough one for me and then that kind of led directly to a few other big things, like the Tame Impala record. They had seen the Peking Lights records and a couple other things I’d done and that was what pushed them to reach out to me to do the artwork for Currents. I think I was already kind of getting by just doing artwork at that point, but that was the one that definitely pushed things over the edge, where I was actually able to feel comfortable just doing artwork and not having to hustle so much. That album came out in 2015 and people are still obsessed with that record and even doing crazy shit like getting tattoos of the artwork. I guess it’s definitely the most recognizable and popular thing that I’ve done, which has kind of been surprising honestly because I feel like these days, people only pay attention to things for a few months and then they get forgotten. But yeah, that album is definitely the thing that most people are aware of that I’ve done, and that definitely pushed my career into some sort of new realm. 

Tame Impala - Currents (2015)

PSS: In the last few years, it definitely seems like you’ve branched out a bit in addition to all the album artwork; I know you’re doing a lot of Op-Ed artwork, your stuff is in the NYTimes, you did a clothing collaboration with Dries Van Noten in the last year or so. Are you always flush with commercial projects? How do you balance your time between commercial work and finding time for experimentation and a studio practice? 

RB: Yeah, so in addition to all the album artwork, I do a lot of video work, animation (obviously I did a lot of the animation for SDSS), I’ve been messing around with installations, small sculpture work, I did a book a few years ago called Floodgate Companion, which I think is still the best introduction to and overview of my work. So I work in a really intuitive way, a lot of times I sit down, I don’t really know what I’m gonna make, and so a lot of times I’ll make something that doesn’t necessarily work for a particular project and I’ll set it aside to come back to later and just work on and develop as its own sort of thing. I’m always working on about a half dozen things at once. There’s never a time that I’m just waiting for some work to come in or something. 

In a sense, my commercial work and my personal studio practice are sort of interconnected. Obviously, with commercial work there’s sometimes a more specific direction, which I honestly enjoy doing because sometimes I like that structure. And some of my favorite work that I’ve been doing lately has been the illustration work I’ve made for the NYTimes. Just because that stuff is really quick and you don’t have that much time to think about it. Sometimes there’ll be a 6 hour turnaround time on some of that stuff, especially the Op-Ed stuff. It kind of forces you to just make something and get it to a point where it feels like it’s good - with that kind of stuff, I don’t really think about it too much. I just read the piece, sit down, and make something. A lot of times with the album covers, I feel like they’re a bit too labored over. They kind of lose something when you’re working on them for 3 months. 

PSS: You do such a good job balancing this digital, polished appearance with your work that also has an analog feel to it. Do things usually start with a free hand sketch? What does your process look like? 

RB: I’m always trying to hide the techniques, not that I’m not open to sharing how I make things, but I don’t want someone to just look at my work and say, ‘oh, that was made on a computer’ or ‘oh, that was made with an airbrush.’ I want people to see the work and not necessarily jump to how was this made, if that makes sense. Part of what I’m doing is not necessarily trying to emulate techniques from the past but rather trying to kind of take elements from the way people used to make things in the 60s through the 80s and sort of update the stuff in a computer. I’m really going for a bit of a timeless feel with everything that I make, so that you can’t really place if it’s from the past or the future. 

Nothing I’m doing is technically crazy, it’s all pretty basic stuff. I mean, all the airbrush stuff that I’m doing is just based off analog air brush painting with masking and shading. I’m not using any fancy brushes in Photoshop or anything. 

I also don’t like spending money on technology [laughs]. I’m a bit of a luddite. I just got a tablet for my computer for the first time last year, before that I was doing everything with just a mouse. A lot of it for me is just being resourceful and using what you have, without relying on whatever the newest piece of technology is. You don’t need the newest version of Photoshop, you don’t need the newest computer. I’m working on PC that’s over 10 years old. That’s kind of core to the way I do everything. I was making music with stuff I found in the trash or equipment I’d found at a thrift store. I wasn’t ever buying musical gear. I don’t know if that same approach necessarily comes through in the art that I’m making but I come from a very DIY, scavenger background. So I like taking what’s around me and making it into something new. 

PSS: Switching gears a bit, are there any artists, illustrators, album artists, etc. who have inspired you in your career? And are there any album covers from no particular era that are all time favorites? 

RB: Yeah, I mean someone who always comes to mind when people ask me this question is Gary Panter, just because he’s someone who’s kind of done it all. He’s done fine art and installation, illustration and album covers and animation, along with set design on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. You see his stuff and you know it’s his stuff, and he’s never really compromised his style or watered down his vision in any of that. And he came from the LA, hardcore punk scene in the late 70s - early 80s. So he’s definitely someone that I think about as a huge inspiration or more just like a model on how to navigate this type of career. 

I’m trying to avoid getting stuck just doing the same thing, too. Like, I could just do album artwork for the rest of my life and I would probably be able to do that, but I don’t want to limit myself to just that, I want to do more than that. 

As far as album covers go, it’s always difficult to pinpoint one particular album, but obviously someone like Roger Dean who did all the Yes album covers - he probably did the Sci-Fi Fantasy album cover thing better than anyone else is ever gonna do it. 

There’s also a guy named Bruce Hack who was this weird kind of Christian synthesizer musician in the 60s and 70s, and he has a record called The Electric Lucifer that I love - the album artwork is done by the artist Isadore Seltzer, who was a commercial illustrator similar to Milton Glaser (I think they worked in the same studio). He probably just did this cover as a job for Columbia Records or something but yeah that one is definitely a favorite. 

PSS: Do you have a favorite album cover that you’ve done so far? 

RB: Yeah, I mean there’s definitely a few. There’s a cover I did for my friend Steve Hauschildt that’s kind of an outlier in my career stylistically, but I did the artwork for the album and then I also did a bunch of animations to go along with the album, that are kind of animated versions of the album cover. That and the William Tyler cover that I did last year, are a couple favorites from the more recent stuff I’ve been working on. 

There’s also a cover I did a while back for this guy Brad Laner, who was in the band Medicine, that I really love still. And that one is a little bit different from most of the stuff I usually do, but there’s something about it that just kind of nailed a certain vibe really well. 

It’s hard to pick a favorite though, because I’m always trying to make these things sort of individualized and unique to the music. It’s cool because a lot of musicians aren’t necessarily visual people, so I can sort of help reinterpret their musical language into a visual world as well. 

PSS: Can you talk a bit about the process for collaborating with Pilgrim & Mexican Summer on the Self Discover for Social Survival surf film, which predates this clothing collaboration, and then how that sort of led into this more recent apparel collab? 

RB: Yeah, I mean Keith from Mexican Summer reached out to me a while ago. I think they had gone on a few of the trips and had some footage, but when I was first contacted about that, they didn’t even have a rough cut of the film yet. I wasn’t really sure what my place in the whole project would be initially, because it’s such an ambitious yet sort of nebulous project, at least it seemed that way early on, that kind of took shape as it was being made. So it all came together in a really cool organic way and everyone had their specific role and contributed their part to make this thing what it ultimately came to be. I’ve never quite worked on a project like that before. I think it was probably December 2017 that I went to New York During that visit, he gave me a bit more insight into the Pilgrim brand and all the different things that you guys have going on, which is pretty incredible. And yeah, I didn’t have too much of a background knowledge in surf films. You know, I’d seen the Endless Summer and Crystal Voyager, and also the Captain Good Vibes stuff. But it was super cool, everyone just kind of let me do my thing, and just watching the surfing footage, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do to complement but not obscure or take away from the surfing, so I tried to keep things pretty minimal. 

And I think it was while we were collaborating on the movie, he mentioned that we should do an apparel collaboration down the road. So once the film was finalized, Chris hit me back up again to discuss this particular apparel collaboration. 

And with the clothing collaboration, you guys kind of told me about the inspiration for the season and it seemed like an opportunity where I could do something way more minimal and make it work without having to scream Robert Beatty [laughs]. 

PSS: Aside from the seasonal direction for the clothing, was there a specific inspiration or place you looked for ideas when working on these clothing designs? 

RB: Given the materials you guys gave me, I immediately went to all the weird, minimalist artists that worked in the desert like Agnes Martin and Donald Judd and others. And just sort of in that same world, I really love petroglyphs, stone circles and all that weird ancient art that nobody really understands. There’s a lot of universal symbols that pop up in that sort of ancient artwork that distorts or plays off of minimal imagery, so that was definitely something I had in mind when I was working on designs for Pilgrim, just trying to reduce or break something down to the most minimal, essential elements and still have it mean or represent something, just in a bit more of an abstract way. 

PSS: Do you approach a clothing collaboration differently from some of the other visual art projects you work on? 

RB: Especially doing something like clothing, I’m always trying to make it a little bit more open-ended. Whereas, with an album, you already know the sound that is in the album so it’s a little bit more specific. But with a shirt, I’d like for anybody to be able to wear that shirt and it be able to adapt and work for different people, different contexts. I think sometimes I end up being a bit more reserved when I end up doing stuff like that compared to what I can do with an album cover or an illustration. And just overall, I think people always think of my artwork as being really colorful and over the top psychedelic, but I really like trying to reign that stuff in and making something that still has personality but isn’t just screaming at you. 

PSS: Are there any upcoming projects you’re working on that you can share or discuss? 

RB: I’m doing an installation at a Museum Hotel called 21C in Lexington, KY. It’s basically a small art museum attached to a hotel that’s free and open to the public. So that’ll be in September, but I’ve already done a few different installations this year. I was in the Atlanta Biennial at the Atlanta Contemporary. I’m trying to do more of that stuff, and hopefully can do something along those lines in the space that you guys have [the Over Under Room] in Brooklyn. With that stuff, I really like to create a sort of environment as opposed to just having things hung on a wall to buy. Aside from that, just doing more of the same with my album covers and other illustration work. 

For more information on Robert’s work, click here

And to shop the entire Robert Beatty for Pilgrim Surf + Supply collection, click here.