Thing: Where did you learn your craft?
Hugh: I trained as an illustrator, as one thing I was particularly good at
from a very early age was painting and drawing. I loved art, writing and music, and still do. I copied Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath LP covers into my sketch books as a kid, as well as painting huge murals based on these album jackets on my bedroom walls, but I don’t think I immediately perceived record cover design as a viable career. Those guys, like Derek Riggs, Joe Petagno or Hugh Syme were as remote as the musicians who made the music, but I also saw them as being just as important. To me, their art was as integral to the music. I found a sketch book in my folks’ garage a couple of years ago, and I’d compiled a “Best Of Iron Maiden” in 1982 from their first three albums, which was all they had released in 1982, and I’d given it a catalogue number and publishing credits, all of which were accurate, which is a bit of an odd way for a 12 year old to behave, but that’s exactly what I do for a living now. I have subsequently worked on dozens and dozens of releases by Maiden and Sabbath, so how wrong I was about career viability. I resisted becoming a graphic designer for years, as I didn’t see that path as gratifying as being a “fine artist”, but when I found that a career in illustration wasn’t keeping me sufficient beer tokens I joined an illustration course that also doubled as a graphic design course, and snuck from one course to the other to become a graphic designer. Most of the graphic work I did at university was produced cutting up and glueing bits of paper, but all that sticky taping was what I showed to my first employer who liked what I did enough to offer me a job. So I quit the illustration/graphics course after one year to join a record label, and have never looked back. One reason I had joined that course was to try and get to use a new fangled thing called an Apple Macintosh computer. After three months of using one at that record label, I was able to run rings around my tutors at University. Bless ’em. In case it’s of interest, I also play bass in a hard rock band called Pig Iron, so I get to write, play and create artwork for that too. We’re currently making our fifth album.
Thing: What inspires your work?
Hugh: A friend told me the other day that I had the best job in the world as I’m paid to hang around with rock stars. It’s slightly more involved than that. Working with an artist or group that I admire or respect is often inspiration enough, but I prefer to work with a band that has a clear idea of what they want, no matter how vague. I first worked with the band Thunder around 1996, when their previous two album covers had been quite high concept affairs from Storm Thorgerson. I originally showed them about twelve designs, which included a load of retro, 50s type beach scenes, and from that one meeting they picked out the album cover and all the singles. It doesn’t always work that smoothly, but it’s led to a long association with that band.
Thing: Motorhead, Iron Maiden, The Who, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles… the list of artists and bands you have designed for it quite incredible. Would you be able to say which band you are most proud of working with; or perhaps that is that like picking a favourite child?
Hugh: Again, I guess it would be toss-up between something by Whitesnake, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. That’s not to say I want to leave out Thunder, Motorhead, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, The Kinks, ELP, UFO, Dio etc. I was lucky enough to be invited to the Bert Jansch tribute gig the other night, and it struck me that most of the people there never met or knew the great man, but when I was designing “Crimson Moon” over a decade ago, and would go round to Bert’s house to see him and his wife Lauren, I was just doing my job. In retrospect, I’m proud to have been involved, even in a very small way.
Thing: I’ve read that you are/were very passionate about heavy metal, does that make working for heavy metal artists easier and more enjoyable than working for, say, a dance artist?
Hugh: I’ve designed sleeves for dance artists, and until the Phil Collins “Platinum Collection”, the biggest chart release to my name was a dance single. But with regards to my relationship with HM, I’m often designing stuff for that 12 year old that I used to be, who used to rummage in the bargain bins in Woolworths or scouring the racks of the Record & Tape Exchange in Camden Town. I’ve also recently realised that I regularly buy records, by which I mean vinyl, because my 12 year old self would have wanted them if he could have afforded it. He now gets quite spoilt. But, to answer your question, I grew up listening to Whitesnake, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and so on, so to meet these groups on a professional basis and find they’re really decent, friendly, nice people, is truly gratifying. I guess the main difference is, I respect them for their art and abilities, whereas most modern music sounds like a load of loud, heavily compressed bleeping and caterwauling. Do I sound like my father now? I still listen to a lot of music I originally bought 30 years ago, but I don’t know if that means I have immature tastes now, or had very mature tastes then. I loved The Doors and Motorhead 30 years ago, and still do.
Hugh: Although I had very little in the way of direct input, I’m proud to have my name listed on remasters for Deep Purple’s catalogue reissues, which were records I grew up with. Again, I guess it would be toss-up between something by Whitesnake, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. I remember the first Iron Maiden picture disc I designed, which was for a song called ‘The Angel & The Gambler’. I asked for two copies so I could send one to my mum, as I used to send her to our local Our Price record shop on a Monday morning to pick up their new singles on the day that they came out. I’ve worked on plenty of Iron Maiden reissues, but the one Maiden release I am most proud of is a US only compilation CD that is so rare I don’t even have a copy.
Thing: Seeing your artwork on a zeppelin flying above London in 2007, as part of the Led Zeppelin reunion campaign, must have been a special moment. Can you tell us a little bit about working with Led Zeppelin and also Shep Fairey?
Hugh: Shep Fairey designed that for Zeppelin, not me. I was merely asked to adapt his art for the marketing campaign, designing billboards and taxis. I love that band, so I was very happy to be involved, but cannot take any more credit than that. Shep Fairey is a very talented, original artist.
Thing: What’s your favourite album cover of all time?
Hugh: Rainbow “Rising”, painted by Ken Kelly, just ticks every box for me, and has as much impact as a 5 inch CD cover as it does as a 12″ LP. It essentially became that band’s motif or logo. Black Sabbath may be one of my favourite bands, but did they have any classic LP covers? The first LP, by Keef, was good, and I have always liked “Technical Ecstasy”, by Hipgnosis. I still think “Killers” by Iron Maiden is one of their best LP jackets. The guys I grew up admiring tended to be the more fantasy orientated painters. Check out Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Derek Riggs, Barry Windsor Smith.
Thing: Who’s your favourite band?
Hugh: I guess I would have to say Black Sabbath, but the older I get the more mellower my tastes have become, so I’m more likely to listen to The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, very early Kate Bush, Rainbow or Deep Purple. I got into Haim last year, and currently listening to Zervas & Pepper, who aren’t heavy at all. Celtic Frost are still very important to me too, as are Iron Maiden. It could be age, but I now like listening to a lot of 80s pop from my youth, that had no interest for me at the time. Madonna, Hall & Oates and Billy Idol were around all the time on the radio, when all I was listening to 30 years ago was Iron Maiden, Yngwie Malmsteen and Rush.