A true pop culture polymath, name any extraordinary niche of audiovisual culture and the chances are Strictly Kev/DJFood has read about it, written on it, or illustrated it. The designer behind much of the Ninja Tune‘s graphic identity, as well as an avid record collector and blogger, in his new book Wheels of Light, Kev explores the psychedelic lenses of 70s projection disc art.
Rob Smith spoke to Kev about his new book and some of his favourite obscure reads.
As a designer, do you judge books by their covers? Is a well-designed book cover as satisfying as a good record sleeve?
Absolutely! A good sleeve of any kind can make someone pick a record or book off the shelf and peer inside, which is half the battle in the sea of media we’re subjected to every time we walk into a record or bookshop. Furthermore, a good spine design can help you find that object on the shelf after it’s been read or listened to and filed away. A good book with a bad cover is a shame to me.
I’ll sometimes search for editions with nicer covers if they exist. I recently found an edition of Naked Lunch with a Julian House cover which is far nicer than my 80s copy. I’ll buy books for the covers too (same with records) and have stacks of vintage sci-fi paperbacks from the 50s and 60s, some in frames, around the house.
As a designer, I regularly look at these things on an aesthetic level. It’s hard not to when you do that for a living, and I do sometimes wonder what some people are thinking when they approve their cover choices. ‘You just worked for however many years on something and you’re going with THAT as the image people will associate with your writing forevermore?’ The mind boggles sometimes..
If Ninja put a book out, what would it be about?
Well, we did put out the Ninja XX – 20 years of Beats & Pieces book in 2010 that I designed, that was fun although scanning and colour-correcting over 1000 images for it was a task. I really couldn’t tell you, to be honest, I’m less involved with the label on the design front than I used to be but a visual book of design from across the years would have an audience I think.
I’m forever getting round to doing one of my own, there’s just never enough time. I’ve made a sort of start with my Openmindesign Instagram account though which includes all sorts of bits and bobs from my archives as well as my own design work.
Are there any books that have inspired your design/musical practice?
I collect books with Richard M Powers’ covers, he illustrated over 1000 book fronts in his time, sometimes cutting up and reusing his previous paintings as collage in other covers. His was a kind of organic, semi-abstract, pre-psychedelic style with the occasional rocket ship or spaceman in the composition as well as these skinny Giacometti-style faceless figures which you’d guess were alien beings. I used his style as a jumping-off point for a recent design for Clocolan’s ‘This Will End In Love’ album when he asked for a 70s-style pulp sci-fi image.
As far as reference, a huge one for me was Cynthia Rose’s Design After Dark which came out in the early 90s and featured many of the designers working in the post-acid house dance music culture at the time – Trevor Jackson, Ian Swift, Ian Wright, Insane, Slam City Skates, Derek Yates. It was the book that pointed the way for me as to the path I would pursue with my design career. Even today the book is one that evokes the joyous excitement of the era for me when I was in art college.
Before that – not necessarily inspirational in my design work now – but at the time, Henry Chalfont and Martha Cooper’s Subway Art inspired a generation of graffiti artists including myself and I’d say is probably one of the most influential art books of the 80s.
Jon Wozencroft’s The Graphic Design of Neville Brody was another big book at college as were the two volumes of Blue Note covers put together by Graham Marsh and Glyn Callingham during my BA years at Camberwell College of Art. They were shown to me by a tutor who was also a jazz DJ afterhours and they made me see typography in a totally different light.
A book simply titled Psychedelic Art by Robert Masters & Jean Houston discovered in a college library set me on a path to being a student of psychedelia that continues to this day and Paul Gorman’s Barney Bubbles book, ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful continues to be inspirational. I could go on and on…
Ever encountered any books you want to burn straight away?
As a huge KLF fan, I was awaiting their Justified Ancients of Mu Mu 2023 book with much anticipation. I really struggled through it, it’s sad to say, hoping upon hope that the final pages would produce some huge pay-off that would make some sort of sense and it all seem worthwhile, but it wasn’t to be. It’s probably the single worst book I’ve ever had the misfortune to waste my time with.
Another one was the final book in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century trilogy, 2009 – just painful given the great heights they had once scaled with that book.
Does the collaging and sampling practice present in your design and musical work carry over into your writing? Did you have to adjust how you worked to assemble Wheels of Light?
Not really, I’ve written in various forms on my blog for nearly two decades now and one of my great loves is the research and interviews that go into a subject. For about 20 years now I’ve been finding and interviewing various designers and photographers associated with graphic work that I love and interviewing them for either my own curiosity, my website or another site I started called The Art of ZTT.
This was inspired, partly by the aforementioned Barney Bubbles book by Paul and partly because I always felt that the art and design of the ZTT label never properly got its due in the graphic world. The label, its artists and design were a big part of my teenage years so I started piecing together a behind-the-scenes look at the often unsung heroes and graphic work of those involved.
There’s still lots unpublished but I’ll finish it one day, although I did get to design Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Inside The Pleasuredome’ box set with Phillip Marsha off the back of it which included a hardback book of artwork from my collection.
You appear to have been involved in the production of several music books, Jonny Trunk’s Wobbly Sounds and Eilon Paz’s Dust and Grooves, as well as your own Wheels of Light. Is it safe to say you’re a music book aficionado? Any favourites or recommendations?
I’ve done bits and pieces, I interviewed Savage Pencil for the Rough Trade 40th book and just started work on Dust & Grooves vol. 2 with Eilon. I mostly read music or design-related books, and it has to be said, constantly have piles still to read like most people. Favourites this year have been:
99 Balls Pond Road by Jill Drower (Scrudge Books) – now reprinted in text-only paperback and retitled ‘The Exploding Galaxy: Performance Art, LSD and Bent Coppers in the Sixties Counterculture’ – an absolute must for 60s counter-culture historians.
Mud Sharks by Dave Barbarossa – a semi-autobiographical retelling of his upbringing and time drumming for Adam & The Antz and Bow Wow Wow.
Good Pop, Bad Pop – Jarvis Cocker – just brilliant with beautiful design by Julian House, I expect this to be on a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year.
Defying Gravity – Jordan Mooney w. Cathi Unsworth – like time travel, being right back in the 70s and early 80s punk and new romantic scenes by someone who was right in the middle of it.
Not to blow smoke up your arse but quite a few Velocity Press books are on my shelf too; the niche areas you explore are exactly the kind of thing I like to read about. I have Trevor Miller’s Trip City, Ian Helliwell’s Tape Leaders and Laurent Fintoni’s Bedrooms, Beats & B-Sides, the latter of which I was interviewed for. I was also featured in Jim Ottewill’s recent Out of Space which I found fascinating, I remember him asking me during the pandemic and wondering how he was going to make a potentially dry subject readable but he totally captivated me.
Browsing the shelves for music book classics I’d have to plump for David Toop’s Ocean of Sound, Julian Cope’s Head On/Repossessed, Bill Drummond’s 45, John Higgs’ The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds, Paul Morley’s Words and Music and Simon Reynolds’ Retromania.
From your blog you seem to be a big comic fan, did comics get you into reading? Or vice versa? Do you see comics and written fiction as really separate forms of storytelling?
Yeah, my fiction intake is more often confined to comics and graphic novels rather than paperbacks. I think I’ve always read comics alongside books for as long as I can remember, I’m not sure which came first. I do see them as separate storytelling forms, yeah, from having tried to put comics together myself in the past, it’s a different discipline, usually involving several people from writer to artist, colourist and letterer. Some are able to do everything but many aren’t masters of all the elements. Artists like Daniel Clowes, Robert Crumb or Moebius seem to be able to do it but it’s rare in the monthly comics ground out by the big two in the US.
My tastes have always been more leftfield and underground in the comic world, starting with a clutch of British humour titles, 2000AD and Star Wars Weekly back in the 70s and progressing to the underground comix scene in the 80s of which I now have a huge collection of. It’s quite gratifying to see how healthy the comic scene is and how a lot of it is now considered mainstream culture with Marvel and DC films helping get people into the shops and the younger generation’s fascination with Manga. I tell my sons how lucky they are to be growing up in a world where comic shops are seemingly split 50/50 between male and female customers these days.
Back in the 80s, it was 95% men and some of them were the geekiest of geeks. There’s still that element but it’s minimal in comparison and the subjects on the shelves reflect that audience too. Seeing Sandman on TV and a decent comic-inspired film were things I never thought would happen after decades of terrible transitions from the printed page to the big screen.
If you could mix and collage three books (or comics) together to sum up the DJ Food project, which ones would they be?
Oh, that’s an interesting one – hmmm, it would be part psychedelic, part collage, part sci-fi I think. Let’s go with 200 Trips from the Counterculture’ by Jean-Francois Bizot for the psychedelic – a huge scrapbook of posters, flyers, magazine pages and images from the Underground Press Syndicate.
For ‘collage’ I’m going to go with the book that accompanied the Christian Marclay exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum because I love the way Marclay incorporates vinyl and record sleeves into his work.
Sci-fi is quite difficult but I’m going to go for one that reaches into the comic world with heavy doses of psychedelia too, Brendan McCarthy’s Swimini Purpose. This is a self-published collection of decades of his comic and film work, both professional and personal and it’s like someone has dosed the pages with LSD. He’s one of the few artists – along with Moebius – who can illustrate the psychedelic experience in my opinion and there’s nothing else quite like it out there.
Are physical books still important to you, if so why?
Yeah, they are but less so than they used to be, as I finally got an iPad this year (yeah, I know, right up to date). I went digital with my 2000AD subscription as years of progs clogging up the place, never getting re-read was just getting ridiculous and my bookshelves were full to bursting. Of course, then the floodgates opened and now I’m fully converted as I was finding digital copies of super rare comics, magazines and books online.
I’d been trying to get a full run of Oz magazine at decent prices for years and now it’s unlikely to happen as prices for the early issues are out of control, but I have digital copies. It’s not the same I know but at least I can read the things (as much as you can actually read those early issues with their weird overprinting).
So now I actually read more, have a huge digital pile of books and comics to read and will get things I’d usually waiver on in physical form as I know it’ll be cheaper and not take up any shelf space.
With largely graphic books I’ll usually get the physical but with textbooks or novels I can just as easily curl up with the iPad. Also, as a designer, I can put together my own digital books easily so I make personal collections sometimes, bringing together stuff that isn’t available in book form yet.