When I first started reading Pitchfork back in the early aughts, I was often maddened by the site’s emphasis on album art. “Who cares what a record looks like?” I’d ask myself as a 19-year-old. “I’m all about the music, man.”
I’ve since changed my tune. While I don’t necessarily think artwork should be taken into account when assigning a rating, I do think it plays into an album’s overall aesthetic. It can enhance, mystify, or directly contrast what the songs are or aren’t trying to say. And from a simple art appreciation standpoint, some records just look really cool.
These days, I’d say I’m somewhat obsessed with album art, going as far as to rank the cover of every album we’ll be reviewing this year. And that’s what Album Art of the Month is about. I pick my favorite artwork of the past 30 or so days, then talk to the visual artist about working on the record, their history with the band, and anything else that might come up. Then, for our Annual Report in December, we’ll pick our Album Art of the Year.
To kick things off, we spoke with Steak Mtn., a.k.a. Chris Norris, the man behind our top album art for January: Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues. And yes, we’re aware that this feature may seem like a slight variation on Pitchfork’s own Take Cover series. What can I say? What began as revulsion has become genuine inspiration.
How did you originally get hooked up with the band? Are you from Florida?
Yeah, I’m from Tampa, originally. One of my old bands, Combat Wounded Veteran, was on No Idea.
My buddy Byron, who got me into Against Me!, was a huge fan of you guys. I’ll have to check it out.
No, don’t. [Laughs.] You won’t be happy about it. I’m not happy about it.
So, I was doing a lot of art for [No Idea founder] Var [Thelin], and he and I had a very similar viewpoint, artistically. He thought it would be really funny if I did an Against Me! record. I feel like I say this a lot, but it’s a qualifying thing to set me apart from the band—I truly love Laura, and I’ve loved working with the band forever, but that band doesn’t make music that I like. To me, they are a truly great band. I mean, if you want to talk about excelling past a genre that couldn’t be less interesting, they’ve done a great job. And as a songwriter and knowing the difference between good and bad music in that realm, I know that Against Me! is a great band.
Anyway, at the time, the enthusiasm for that band was very ridiculous to me. And I just dislike the cargo-pant fucking Gainesville crowd and the cutoff fucking Dickies. I hated that whole world of the Hot Water Musics and the Army of Ponches and all that garbage that Var put out. It’s just the tackiest, corniest music to me. That doesn’t mean that it’s not great music. But personally? I look at it, and it makes me want to die more than other versions of punk.
So, when Against Me! was becoming kind of popular in that world, I made a couple snide comments to Var, as I often do, about his roster. And he was like, “Oh, yeah? Well, why don’t you do the 7-inch?” And I did. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but it was the “Sink, Florida, Sink” 7-inch.
Oh yeah, I’ve seen that.
Right, with the stupid gingerbread man and the fucking candy. It was like a test. It was a joke, like, “Oh yeah, you guys want to do fucking artwork? How about this?”
Is the gingerbread man reaching into the other one and pulling out stuffing, or something like that?
Well, they’re fighting. And when the one punches the other one in the stomach, you open it, and it explodes into candy. It was really a pretty silly piece of work. And Laura went for it! [Laughs.] And then she and I started talking more and kind of seeing where we met up and that we had a lot of the same interests—kind of seeing art as a sort of silent member of a band.
So, that’s right before Searching for a Former Clarity’s coming out. I wasn’t involved with Clarity on that level, but I started doing a lot of shirts and posters, kind of working our way to where we were going to be. Because at that point, [Laura] already had Jason Munn working on it. He runs this space out of Oakland called The Small Stakes. He’s a very good designer.
Originally, I worked on New Wave, and at some point, there was kind of a break where Laura was wanting to do the work herself. There was kind of a disconnect aesthetically between her and I, and she also felt like the record was so much a part of her and her creative process that she wanted to do the art as well. And I walked away, and I was like, “That’s totally fine.” And that panther head was born. And Jason Munn laid out the whole thing.
I like the panther head, but it reminds me of that Ratatat album, Classics.
It’s probably just a happy coincidence.
It’s a little bit different, but they’re essentially both wildcat heads.
Did they come out around the same time? I’m not too familiar with Ratatat.
I think Classics was a little bit before. It’s in more of a sepia tone, but the cat looks similar. Moving on to the cover of White Crosses—when I interviewed Laura for our Cover Story, she said you call those things Melters: the women who are dripping away.
Well, there [are] dudes, too. It’s important to note that. The clues of Laura’s transgender dysphoria—it’s funny to look back on that now. A lot of the work we’ve done is, and always has been, very gender-based. Part of that is because I’m a dirtbag, and I like filthy art. I produce sleazy art. And some of it was maybe just a subconscious thing on her part.
With White Crosses, I didn’t really have much of an inspiration. I have a giant photo and jpeg archive of things you just find randomly. I was just kind of fucking around with some [of that] stuff, playing with Photoshop and smudge tools. I’m very influenced by body horror and Cronenberg. That’s kind of always in the back of my mind, even if I’m not thinking about it. Transformation and doing weird stuff with the body.
So, [Laura and I] were going through a whole bunch of ideas, and, as has been the case a couple times, Laura just said, “None of this is working. What are you working on personally? What do you have sitting around in your desktop that you’ve been fucking around with?” And [the Melters] came up. And Laura just kind of jumped at it. It was really important at the time to have all of our bases covered. It was important to have both male and female Melters, almost to the point where we’re melting gender.
With the Melters, did you look for a specific type of person? To me, the cover of White Crosses is such a Florida type of woman.
[Laughs.] No, but that’s actually pretty good. You’re right. She’s that sexy trailer mom who’s past her prime. But no, I actually have a lot of old men’s magazines and like beefcake stuff: gay magazines from the ’40s and ’50s. Grandpa’s fucking spank mags. I usually kind of draw from that stuff because it’s so classic. Laura got a bunch of images, and that was the one she gravitated toward for the cover. That whole record is photo manipulation, which ended up kind of biting us in the ass later on with Warner Bros. because I had to do a lot of hoop jumping, just proving that it came from something that no one could track.
So, the look between the original pressing of White Crosses from Warner Bros. and the Total Treble one…there are subtle details that are different. Not a lot. But enough to be like, “Oh, the hairbrush is missing. Oh, there are flowers here.” We had to change a bunch of stuff to make it ours, and that was pretty arduous, actually.
What about the cover of the new record? Was it just a cube of meat that you superimposed something on?
It’s just a bunch of different slabs of meat that I put together; then you fuck around in Photoshop. The breast actually came from… I used to work in pornography. So, I had a lot of access to adult images. So, I just used someone who worked in our building’s boob. I can’t remember the name of the girl now. But it’s some girl who’s worked in pornography recently. That piece actually started off in an art show, and Laura bought it from me.
She said it was called “Miss Steak.”
[Laughs.]“Miss Steak,” yeah. That image actually started off as an illustration in a Combat Wounded Veteran record. It was like a small thing that I had wanted to update for an art show I did with Laura’s wife, Heather, in L.A. a couple years ago. Laura bought it for her studio, Total Treble, when she was still in Florida.
[But] when you look at the [inside of] the record… the picture of the disassembled woman—that was originally going to be the cover. It was going to start clear, and as you flipped through the booklet, it [would] get more blurry.
Is that photo manipulated or just a straight photo?
No, that’s the straight photo. When I worked in adult movies, there was a RealDoll. Do you know what that is?
It’s like a realistic sex doll, right?
Yeah, they’re really intense, so the owner of the company that I worked for had one. And they had been kicked around for a couple years, and it was more like party doll thing, not really something anyone used. So, there’s this really cool skeleton on the inside, and they had cut off all the skin of this RealDoll, and I found it in front of my office in a cart. So, I took a bunch of photos once Laura told me what the name of the record was. I actually knew the name of the record before I knew about what was happening with her.
My original thought on the record, before I knew what was up, was that there’s an offense in Against Me! that is very much aggressive to jock mentality, like pissing off a bunch of people that come to [the] shows that are meatheads. If you do Warped Tour once, no matter what kind of band you are, you will always carry with you a knuckle-dragger kind of audience, like real dummies. So, I actually thought this title was really sticking it to these fucking idiots, and when Laura finally told me I was like, “Oh yeah, well that makes sense, too.”
But she ultimately went with “Miss Steak”?
[N]ot very long ago—less than six months ago—she said, “Why don’t we just use the thing we bought from you?” And I was like, “Oh, that makes much more sense.” There’s a lot of weight to it, especially what’s happening lyrically with the record. And it was cool for me, because it was the best example of not being a gun for hire. It was a personal work, a piece I actually really liked.
And just to clarify with the steak, you said it was a composite of a bunch of slabs of meat?
Yeah, I Googled “steak.” I found a bunch of cuts of meat, and I turned one left, then turned one right, and slapped the boob on top.
Were there any other takes on the cover, aside from the slabs of meat and the disembodied doll?
I was really pushing for the [doll], but once Laura came with the thought to do the cube of meat she owned, it was like, “Why the fuck would we do anything else?” And then I came up with the font treatment, which was really important because the album is so minimal. Every piece counts when it’s that minimal. It’s not like when you have a big image on the front, and you could be in Helvetica Light, and it doesn’t matter what your band name is. It was just really important that every part of this record had a distinct personality, because we knew we weren’t going to blow it out with a 30-page booklet like we did for White Crosses. And we knew that for every single square, we had to make it sing. So, for that font treatment, I came up with the whole alphabet.
I noticed on the lyrics sheet—at least on the vinyl version—some of the capital letters seem to use imagery that has to do with the songs. For example, on “Drinking with the Jocks”, the “D” is almost shaped like a bottle. Was that something you planned out?
That was actually more of an accident. When we were doing the lyrics sheet, I knew we were going to do a really basic Helvetica, because we were going to Xerox it a whole bunch for the actual lyrics. But for the first letter [of each song title], I was just trying to give it some personality by Frankenstein-ing fonts and Xeroxing them and seeing what worked. It was kind of like a test. I was only going to give myself one shot and then use whatever I did. It wasn’t really calculated in any capacity.
How long did you work in the adult film industry for?
Just three years.
Has it influenced your art in any way?
No, I came to it because I was already making dirty work. I mean, I think it solidified a lot of things like my access to creepy content and things like that. That’s an important thing, too, because I’m not one of those nerds who goes to AVN and loves porn sites.
To me, pornography is a true art. Everyone scoffs at that idea, but it’s something that I’ve really taken with me. It’s a disposable and fast art and one that no one pays attention to, which is kind of the greatest part. Everyone that actually likes pornography and is like a weird lonely dude in a room or a popular guy who just likes to fucking jerk off to Andy San Dimas—no one really understands the work that goes into it.
There are these really great visual people that work in the business. To me, it’s like these people are painting with pornography. It’s very specific. I worked in BDSM. It was called kink.com. It’s not Wicked or Vivid. It’s not blonde people on a beach fucking. It’s really artistic and weird stuff. So, that was really important. I really wanted to be part of something where there was an even bigger art inside of the art.
What was your job title?
I was the set decorator. A lot of people think you just put bed sheets on the fucking wall and put down a dirty mattress. And sometimes we did, but we [also] did a lot of cool, weird stuff when I was there. And they did cool, weird stuff before I got there. I was very happy to contribute to this fucking strange, little world.