Under The Covers: Leif Podhajsky

LEIF Podhajsky is to young designers what Flume is to young producers.

For every kid who heard his ‘HyperParadise’ remix then went and cracked Ableton there’s one who saw the cover of Tame Impala’s InnerSpeaker then immediately cracked Photoshop.

His acid-washed experimentation with symmetry, landscape and infinitely vanishing horizons drew him to the attention of a young Kevin Parker on the eve of releasing his debut album.

Needless to say, the album changed both of their lives. This may have been Leif’s break into the music world but it is his ability to weave his style seamlessly into any genre – be it design or music – that has made him a veritable rockstar of the medium.

After InnerSpeaker’s success, the Byron Bay local shifted gears and made the move to Hackney in the heart of London’s creative community. The natural landscape elements that had defined his work with Tame Impala gave way to the more abstract imagery featured on Mount Kimbie’s Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, while his collaboration on Bonobo’s breakout album The North Borders seemed to draw these two styles together.

The artwork for these albums seem to simultaneously plot Leif’s personal journey and capture the essence of the music – whether it’s the low-fi psych of early Tame Impala, the sleek and precise electronica of Mount Kimbie, or the analogue-meets-digital ambient beats of Bonobo.

That’s the thing about Leif’s work – it’s difficult to differentiate where his voice ends and where the musician’s influence takes hold. It’s a conversation between the visual and the musical elements where neither speak out of turn.

"Creativity comes out of a weird place and it’s so mysterious and untenable that I think most of the time you really don’t know what the fuck you are doing."

Leif’s journey through the musical world and beyond has led him to collaborations with everybody from Foals to LeBron James, Roots Manuva to Wired Magazine.

No medium is off limits as he seeks to develop his craft into new spheres. This mentality becomes clear as he reflects on his current projects.

“At the moment I’m about to release a pair of sunglasses in collaboration with Cubitts, a backpack with Ucon Acrobatics, just finished Kylie Minogue’s new album campaign, have a gallery show in Berlin and really want to design rugs.”

To him, creativity and art is at its core a mode of communication and it can permeate any medium. “I’ve always loved this approach and think good art/design is universal. I really don’t want to just keep doing the same thing over and over.”

I reach out to Leif without any great hope of hearing back, assuming that an artist with such intricate designs and such a high level of output spends his time in a state of Jedi-like focus in between week-long creative benders.

Instead I get an email within a few days oozing with the laconic charm that is part in parcel of a Byron Bay upbringing. We arrange a time to chat a bit about the album covers that have shaped his career and the process behind his distinctive collaborative style.

Can you tell us a bit about how you got into photography/graphic design and how this led to working in music?

I’ve always been interested in making stuff. At some point i got really interested in design and photography and as a kid would hand draw a lot of logos and very graphic patterns. I never really knew it was a field I just seemed to be drawn to the shapes. I studied graphic design and eventually opened my own agency in Melbourne with a friend, which in turn sort of gave me this freedom to push my more artistic inclinations on the side.

I became more and more obsessed with delving into this new approach, which became less about design and more about pure image making. I loved the freedom it gave me after years of working in agencies and communicating other people’s ideas through design. It was a very explorative time for me and I think it was also reflected in some of the music that was being made at the time, which was a lot more free flowing and experimental.

I never really planned on creating artwork for music, it sort of just happened organically. It really fit the two worlds I was into, design and art. So I started doing a few friends bands and then got to work on InnerSpeaker pretty much straight off the bat.

What role do you feel designers and photographers play in visually representing musicians’ work?

For me its always been about communication. Visually representing in a single image what the album is about so that the viewer/listener has a place to take the leap and embrace the sounds that they are about to hear.

How much of your album artwork comes from your own understanding and relationship with the music, and how much is it about getting inside the musician’s head and understanding their connection with the music?

It’s a bit of both, I love to get inside the musician’s head and hear about what they were thinking and feeling at the time and this definitely helps put things in perspective. But more importantly I like to run it through my own filter without knowing too much, if that makes sense? I think it takes this outside understanding to fully realise the music’s full potential.

There’s been a number of times I’ve discussed ideas with musicians and they have a really firm idea of how they see the visual looking. But then I’ve thrown something at them that’s completely in another direction and quite often this is the one they get drawn to the most. I think it’s hard to let someone come in and translate their work, but in letting go the best results and the most clear results usually come to the fore.

It’s almost what they really had in their head but couldn’t explain it with words or references. Creativity comes out of a weird place and it’s so mysterious and untenable that I think most of the time you really don’t know what the fuck you are doing. That’s the beauty of it. But if you can connect with that place that’s usually where you find the magic. I also get really strong colour and visual cues when I hear sounds which I’ve learnt to tap into when developing imagery.

You have worked a lot with certain artists (eg. Bonobo and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker). What differences are there working with people you already have a relationship vs a musician that approaches you for the first time to collaborate?

Good question. I guess the difference is that when you know the person you have a lot more to inform your ideas about how something should look. This can be both good and bad. Personally I try to live with the music as much as possible. I think even if you know someone really well you always get something deeper out of the music. It’s when they’re most open and vulnerable, I guess. Tapping into that has always worked best for me in creating work which mimics, or tries to mimic the emotion of the songs.

You have transitioned from designing album artwork to designing apparel for LeBron James and Kevin Durant. What differences are there in your approach to apparel design with sports megastars as opposed to album design for musicians?

For me it’s never felt any different, it’s always about communicating a message or concept in the best way possible. Working within the parameters given to you … I’ve always loved this approach and think good art/design is universal. I really don’t want to just keep doing the same thing over and over.

Your work seemed to start off with more of a focus on landscapes and more abstract imagery and now there seems to be more of a photographical direction (Kylie, Tkay Maidza). Is this a conscious transition?

I guess one part of it is, as I said before, never wanting to do the same thing over and over again. The other part is knowing what will work best for a project. For Kylie and Tkay it made sense to have them on the cover to tell the story we wanted to tell, where I take on more of a creative director role and build the concept and vision with the musician. I sometimes find it hard letting go and having someone else translate the idea, but again it’s about communication and trusting in the process.

Mount Kimbie

Cold Spring Fault Less Youth

Can you tell us a bit about the background to this collaboration?

I think their manager got in touch as I’d done some other stuff with Warp Records and put me in touch with the guys. We met up a few times as their studio was around the corner from me in Hackney [London]. It was perfect as they were rehearsing the songs for their live tour and I think living with them sonically outside of recording gave them a good perspective on what they wanted.

They sent me a load of art and album cover references. If I remember there was a lot of old Blue Note jazz records and very bold iconic/typographic pieces along with a few more warped surreal vibes. So a pretty mixed bag. After our discussions the idea was to explore this sort of modern version of a Blue Note jazz cover. The music had a big effect on the design. I wanted it to be really bold and graphical but with a sort of modern twist on old jazz covers.

There seems to be an almost deco vibe here but the album is made up of pretty progressive electronic tunes. Was that a deliberate juxtaposition?

Definitely. This juxtaposition was vital, but I think it’s got a modern quality to it that fits really well with the music. Almost like a electronic version of a free flowing jazz album, if that makes sense? I think experimental nature of their music really lends itself to this jazz metaphor. I wanted it to be iconic/symbolic with a central piece but also be abstract and not as literal as some of those jazz covers. I think we achieved this with the composition, colour and type on the album.

What process have you taken here? Is it entirely digital?

It actually started as a loose sketch very early on and then was developed digitally. It was actually in the first lot of concepts I showed them and I was hoping they would like that piece as I thought it fit really well with the sounds. It was also totally different from anything else I’ve done, or was known for at the time. So I was really excited that they loved it and both felt a connection with the piece almost instantly. It’s magical when it happens like this. From there we refined and developed the colours and the type, this probably took the most amount of time.

This record came out around the same time as The North Borders by Bonobo. Did you work on the two pieces simultaneously?

Both were really important albums for the artists so it must have been nice seeing them go so well in such proximity. I’m trying to remember. [Laughs] It feels like a lifetime ago in some ways. I do remember working on them simultaneously and also moving apartments at the same time. Two really amazing projects to work on, they both feel like really defining moments for both musicians and also for myself.

Outside of Mount Kimbie and their music, where did you draw inspiration from for this design?

Abstract art, surrealism, Blue Note jazz records, vintage type and logotype design. I’ve always loved this style of large block colour and I guess I was just waiting for the right project to explore it. It’s funny as I’ve actually been drawn to this style artistically more and more lately – I’ve started some painting that are very much a continuation from this initial phase.

Were there any alternate versions of this design? How many back and forths did you have before you settled on this?

Mostly colour variations and a load of type ideas. Probably upwards of about 20 or so different type layouts in the end.

Do you have a 12” LP in mind when you design covers like these?

Usually yes, and specifically for this project as we were refining iconic jazz covers. I love the 12” format and I think if you can nail that it should scale well for other formats also. It’s still one of my favourite vinyl labels I’ve ever done. I get really into designing down to every little detail like how the legal copy should look etc.

What is different about attempting to capture a band’s identity and sound through design as opposed to photography where you can include the actual individuals?

Different approaches suit different projects. Nowadays especially there’s not this need to have the typical band on the cover. There’s usually a load of press photos that get circulated online and in print around the release so sometimes I think it’s interesting to form a different visual language around an album and see how people interact and interpret that. On the flipside having an artist on the cover can instantly connect you with them and their world. It really depends on what sort of story you’re telling.

Tkay Maidza

TKAY

For Tkay’s debut record you were more involved from an art direction perspective. Does this involve collaborating with more visual artists as well as the musician? How does it alter the process?

For this it was clear early on that we would have Tkay on the cover so it was about forming a really strong concept and photoshoot around that idea. We shot the photos in Paris with Florence Tétier and Nicolas Coulomb who I think have a really interesting style.

Was she very involved in the creative process behind the photography?

Tkay was really involved in forming the concepts for the shoot. She has a really unique and colourful style and we wanted this to translate onto the cover. In her mind she had categorised all the songs on the album into colour groups and had a load of references for each colour. I wanted the cover to be really bold and with the logo as a giant symbol, with her front and centre on a red background with a bold black border.

With an emerging solo artist what are you trying to convey through the album artwork? Does it differ from a band on their third or fourth album?

It’s a very different approach. For Tkay we really wanted the cover to be about her and her style which is so entrenched in the music. You want people to connect with her as an artist.

The colour pallete is very strong on these shots. What inspired the choice of colours?

This was the vision from the start and really connected with the songs. In the end the label ended up going with a blue version of the cover, the original was meant to be red with a black border and almost a neon purple block type over her. Personally I think this was more impactful and in your face.

Are those iPhone headphones that she is wearing in the main shot?

The cords are part of the clothing.

Tkay has a real style and aesthetic of her own that is very strong on her Instagram and Facebook pages. Does this inform the way you consider the album artwork?

I think it’s just an extension of who she is personally and what her music represents, so it’s super easy to link the two. But I get what you mean. For people nowadays their online persona can be this hyperreal thing that is very curated and nuanced. I’m into it, as a means of expression and as a way to connect with more people in very specific ways.

On the flipside, how far can we go? I think at some point the new thing will be to shun social media. I’m hoping there will be a new thing. All this data collection and advertising is a real drawback of freedom to expression. There will be a tipping point and, as with all artists, they should be the first to leap forward into something new and challenging.

This is very off topic now, but how scary is it when you have a conversation and two minutes later you get ads specific to something you mentioned? The problem with this is it’s not only personally invasive, it’s having massive repercussions on society as a whole. Our attention spans are so short that it’s hard to engage with things with true and deep meaning, like music, art, ideas, imagination. I’m not against it as it’s helped me massively show my work to people I wouldn’t be able to reach, but I’m just a little worried how deep in we all are.

Tame Impala

Innerspeaker/Lonerism

You’ve been involved with Tame Impala pretty much from the start, creating artwork for a lot of singles and a couple of albums. Did you have an idea of the significance of the music before it came out? Did you feel like it would take off to such an extent?

I had an inkling, but never thought they would become so significant to so many people.

How did you get in touch with Kevin initially?

Their label manager Glen [Goetze] saw some stuff of mine published in Lodown Magazine and got in touch and he connected us. Weirdly I’d actually emailed the band before that but think my message went straight to junk. I’d been a fan from pretty early so it was a dream to work with them.

How is it collaborating with somebody who is so personally invested in the music and has such control over the creative direction of the project?

Kevin definitely knows what he wants, but I think there’s still room to wriggle in all that. It’s also nice working with someone who knows what they want as it means you can focus all your energy in the right places.

What impact has your involvement with the band had on your career path?

It kind of set me on the path, doing the InnerSpeaker album. I thought this might be something I could keep doing. So I kind of just kept following it, moved to London, and just set to work really. It just felt a lot more “me” than running an agency. On the flipside I always get associated with the band and that work which can be frustrating. But I wouldn’t change it. It’s nice to be a small part of that history.

There is a real motif among all of the work you have done for Tame Impala. What is it about the music that inspires these symmetrical landscapes?

On the Innerspeaker campaign we used a lot of dreamy, acid-tinged landscapes, harnessing a Droste recursion effect at times which makes it seem like the landscape repeats into the distance for infinity. Personally I’m really interested in exploring patterns and ideas formed in nature and this really suited the music on this album.

The landscapes here work really well as there’s always a focus point in the horizon in which to draw the viewer’s eye. I think using these recursion and symmetrical techniques reflect the patterns found in nature and also the patterns and themes in the music.

For Lonerism, the album was more focused around a specific photo that Kevin took in Paris, a lot more abstract in its storytelling approach. The lonely viewer looking in through the gates and feeling this separation with everyone on the other side. I love how this really reflects the album as a whole. This feeling of isolation – I think a lot of people connect with that. That feeling of not quite fitting in and having this sort of separation from society. That’s what I take from it anyway.

Something Else