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Seeing music:
Leif Podhajsky

In conversation with the artist whose clients include Tame Impala, Bonobo and Vivid LIVE

Claudio Santoro
Sydney Opera House

In a quiet studio in London’s Shoreditch, Leif Podhajksy pops some echinacea and puts on a mixtape before settling onto the couch. The artist and designer is best known for his psychedelic covers of some of this decade’s biggest electronic albums - Tame Impala, Bonobo, Mount Kimbie, Kelis - and a selection of his oeuvre decorates his studio walls.

"Growing up listening to music, you get taken away on this adventure and this picture gets born in your head," says Podhajsky, who's become a major player in how contemporary music is visualised. The Byron Bay-born, London-based artist was the Creative Designer for Vivid LIVE in 2016 and his hypnotic work will feature in the fesitval's return for 2017.

His studio is modest but his line-up of projects is impressive, spanning fine arts and VR, all seen through the dual lens of Australia’s spacious natural landscape and London’s busy art world. In this extended interview, we talked about how he got into album cover design, what inspires his work - and the joys of a good mixtape. 

"You just get a sense as you're going along that it fits the music."

Leif Podhajksy

Claudio Santoro: What are you working on at the moment?

Leif Podhajsky: I’m going through a massive shift. I want to do some painting and installations, similar to what I did for the Opera House but in a gallery. Kind of reposition and enter that world.

CS: What was your first big break?

LP: Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker was my first proper record cover. I’d done some friend’s stuff before that, a Young Magic EP. It came about while I was in Melbourne running a studio called And Studio with a friend of mine, which was like graphic design and art direction, and I just ran some experiments on the side. I think I was featured in Lodown, which is Berlin-based magazine, similar to Monster Children. I became friends with Sven from the magazine. And then Glen from Modular, who’s Tame Impala’s manager, must’ve seen that and he emailed me out of the blue and was like, “Hell yeah.”

CS: So the studio enabled you to work on your own creative endeavours?

LP: Yeah, then I kind of transitioned from the studio completely into doing this kind of stuff. It just seemed more interesting to me so I thought “Fuck it. I’m just gonna follow it and see where it goes.” But it never began as wanting to do art for music, it was more just me experimenting, doing collage and digital stuff as I’d always worked in digital mediums.

CS: What was the brief like for Vivid LIVE 2016?

LP: I think it was quite open. They wanted it to reflect the festival and its core values for Sydney and Australia, so there were all these different levels. It kind of had to feel like Sydney and have a little bit of the Opera House in it. I was told to look at all the previous designs which are all quite different. I’ve always followed them and thought they were really cool.

CS: Talk to me about the concept.

LP: I made these abstract pieces. I pulled a whole bunch of photos of the Opera House and used this technique called displacement mapping, where you take one image and a second image and almost mathematically fuse them together in Photoshop. It was kind of like running those two things through each other, so we kind of came up with this really strange, glitchy, melty effect and they really liked it.

CS: Cool. So it’s made up of old pictures of the Opera House data-moshed together?

LP: Basically, yeah, like data-mosh or similar to that. But it just takes quite a lot of tweaking.

“With a mixtape there’s a understatement to it, like a story that you have to find yourself.”

CS: I’ve read that when you’re working on an album cover you’ll listen to the music whilst experimenting. How do you know when you’ve achieved a successful representation of the music?

LP: I think you just get sick of it [laughs]. It’s hard to know actually.

A lot of the time I’ll do two or three or even more different directions and just see which one feels the best. You just get a sense of it as you’re going along that it fits the music. Sometimes there’s a brief and the label or the band are quite specific on what they want so that kind of gives you an idea, which can be good but can also make it even more difficult because sometimes they don’t really know what they want. So, what I like to do is take their idea and my idea and show them something that’s probably something they wouldn’t have thought of and often they’re like “That actually really works.”

A lot of the album covers I’ve done, I’ll do one version that follows their concept and then I’ll throw one in, which is one I feel works really well but is completely different. Underneath, the concept is still there but visually it’s completely different.

CS: That’s a powerful thing to deliver what people think they want as well as what you know they should have.

LP: Sometimes it works seamlessly and sometimes not so much.

Listen to Leif Podhajsky's Mixtape for Lodown Magazine

Click play to listen

CS: What types of music do you listen to?

LP: I haven’t really been listening to full records lately which is what I used to do. Now it’s basically just mixtapes. Places like Noise In My Head, Pinchy & Friends, all these different mixtape sites - that’s kind of what gets me through the day. That’s kind of how I hear my music. I’ve kinda lost touch with what’s happening in the mainstream.

It’s all these weird, old sounds that you’ve never heard. Like, what is this 80s Japanese thing that’s blowing my mind? I heard this song the other day that sounded exactly like Conan Mockassin. I wonder if he’s heard it or not, or got this sound from there. You hear a lot of that, almost like the original place where some artists get their inspiration. That’s kind of interesting. I’d never heard of it either and was like “Wow, there’s some weird 80s synth Japanese artist who’s put out one record and it’s fucking amazing. No one’s heard it.” But the fact someone has found that for their mixtape…

I keep a massive spreadsheet full of songs so if I’m listening to a mixtape I’m always like “oh fuck, I gotta find this song,” so it’s kind of got me back into music in a way. I’m excited again by it. It’s the same excitement I used to have. Not to say there isn’t great stuff coming out but I’ve just changed.

CS: Maybe because you’ve worked so closely with music?

LP: With a mixtape there’s a understatement to it, like a story that you have to find and put together yourself, which is what I like to do with album covers, but you have to leave some mystery there. You want to create this story where people find their own adventure in the music.

For me, growing up listening to music like that, you get taken away on this adventure and this picture gets born in your head or you feel certain things, so you kind of want to craft that with the artwork. But mixtapes do that for me because you get taken to all these strange places and you don’t know who the band is and it doesn’t matter if they’re cool or big or neither.

“Growing up listening to music like that, you get taken away on this adventure and this picture gets born in your head.” 

CS: Who are some designers and artists you’re inspired by?

LP: I guess my website Melt is the place where I put a lot of my inspirations. It’s the same idea with mixtapes, but visually - finding these artists that not many people have heard of that also have a back story that’s super interesting but they’re not super famous. That really interests me. Delving into those crevices of things that have fallen through the cracks. Maybe in terms of album artwork, Storm Ferguson, Peter Saville but I think Melt's the place where all the weird stuff comes out.

CS: You can see nature in a lot of your work. Do you often go out into nature and bring photographs back into the studio?

LP: Yep. It’ll mostly be when I’m on holiday or some sort of excursion but I’m always taking photos. London’s really difficult… there are great parks but it just doesn’t feel like you’re far enough away.

CS: I guess in Sydney you can feel like you’re in a really desolate space without going very far?

LP: One of the things I miss about Australia is the space. There’s so much of it and you don’t realise until you come somewhere where there’s so many people. Not even just London but the UK in general. You have to drive a lot further to get away from civilisation, whereas in Australia, even in the city you can feel quite alone.

I went up to Wales, Snowdonia National Park. It’s about a five hour drive. That’s how far you have to go to get properly away from civilisation. So we went hiking up there and I kind of do those things to keep me sane, but it takes a lot more work. You can’t just jump in your car and drive. London kind of traps you, because it takes so long to get anywhere. It almost ruins the experience.

“With people getting worried about things, art falls by the wayside, which is a shame.”

CS: Which are your favourite galleries in London?

LP: Tate’s always good. Whitechapel is a good one East. Pace Gallery, White Cube, Gagosian.

CS: What about in Australia?

LP: The galleries in Brisbane are really amazing. It’s a shame there isn’t more money in arts. It’s such an important thing. That’s why I really like London or Britain in general. Even just a regular layman would maybe go to an exhibition at the Tate whereas in Australia I never really felt that. There’s a core of people that love art in Australia, but that’s the core, it never really gets further out. That’s why I think Vivid’s really cool - they’re trying to branch out. Things like that are really important to Australia because it’s about educating people and getting them interested.

I think that’s why I really love London and Europe. It’s really inspiring, especially places like Paris where art runs parallel with people’s lives. Their life is art. It’s the same in Italy, art is running at the same junction.

I think with more segregation and people getting worried about things, art falls by the wayside, which is a shame, because it’s maybe the one thing that can bring us all together. Maybe that’s idealistic.

CS: Well, it’s the universal language.

LP: I went to Frieze a couple weeks ago which was super inspiring. It’s such a great thing.

CS: How do you think growing up in Byron and Melbourne influences your work now?

LP: I think it’s the connection with nature - that’s the main thing for me. Growing up in Byron around rainforests and oceans and waterfalls and always going camping - that’s played a massive part. And the space. The sparseness of it. There’s not that many people there. There are 60 million people in the UK - this tiny island. There’s this distance and space and energy that comes along with that, which comes into my work and always has.

I think it’s being so far away from other countries, like in this bubble, which is an interesting thing. It’s a good thing for a while, but then I think you need to branch out. There’s a lot of interesting stuff coming out of Australia, especially in music now. To me, that ties back in to the whole idea of Australia because there’s this eclectic mix and I feel like people are never really influenced by just one thing. They’re influenced by their environment but also by stories from other places, and because they’re so far away you create your own idea of them. Like when you go to New York for the first time it’s like being in a movie.

CS: How do you think growing up in Byron and Melbourne influences your work now?

LP: I think it’s the connection with nature - that’s the main thing for me. Growing up in Byron around rainforests and oceans and waterfalls and always going camping - that’s played a massive part. And the space. The sparseness of it. There’s not that many people there. There are 60 million people in the UK - this tiny island. There’s this distance and space and energy that comes along with that, which comes into my work and always has.

CS: You said you’re working on something for London Grammar.

LP: I’m also doing this VR project. I can’t say much more about it. It’s kind of interactive music, so you can make songs and cue things up in this virtual environment.

CS: How do you evolve your aesthetic as a designer? It’s sometimes easier being guided by a brief but what about when you’re working independently?

LP: I guess there isn’t much thought about it. That creative drive is always there and I’m always experimenting, even if I’m doing something for a brief. A snippet of an idea. It’s almost like getting to know yourself in a way and keeping fresh. I get pretty bored so it’s a matter of always trying to push it. As soon as i put something out i’m like “oh, i’m so sick of that” so i’m always trying to push it to different areas and do different styles. I guess I’m known for one style in a way, but if you look at it, there’s quite a few different styles in that. So pushing it into painting will be completely different for me because it’s a different medium.

CS: What do you have coming up?

LP: A big switch coming soon into fine arts. Expanding more on what I’m doing now but focussing more on paintings and installations, like the virtual reality. Also I’m going to be doing some scarves again. I’m doing some collaborations with some different brands on products which I can’t really say much more about now. But definitely trying to expand more, which is full on, because you get so used to what you’re doing. It’s a big change which i really like - you have to be constantly evolving.

CS: Is there one particular discipline you feel allows you to express yourself most? Do you get more out of creating something tangible?

LP: I think when you do prints and frames it’s really nice to see your stuff taken from a digital space and brought into the physical. It translates when it feels the same and that’s when it works really well. I had an exhibition at the start of 2016 with Red Bull which featured a bunch of prints - they’re at a little exhibition at an advertising agency now - but they all worked really well, the colours all really popped. Sometimes things change from screen to print, it almost can be a different piece, but these worked out really well.

But exploring different ways of printing is something I want to do soon too, like working with metallic inks and screen printing. So, always trying to add another layer to what you see between the digital and the physical. I guess it’s like this weird play between the two, which I’ve always really loved. I really like technology along with nature, using this digital space that asks whether things are real or not. I think that plays with a lot of the things that I’m exploring. The link and the language between the physical and the digital - it’s almost like a dreamsphere to me and I don’t know which one is real or not. Is the digital version real or the print? It’s like a dream.

CS: PJ Harvey wrote her most recent album in a glass cube as performance art cross music production. What do you think have been some successful intersections of art and music?

LP: I think Brian Eno always does really good things with visual and music. He did a cool project called ‘Sounds of  A Building’ where he hooked up different things that picked up the sounds of this old, big church and you could actually play the building. He’s someone who does that really well.

CS: I believe he had a lot to do with the inception of Vivid LIVE as well.

LP: He’s a fucking genius and someone I would love to meet! Always pushing his stuff into new areas.

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