The inside Story
The Making of The Best Little Secrets Are Kept Design
I’m a music fan. It’s always been a big part of my life. I wasn’t made to play. Just listen.
It’s not that I don’t wish I could play. It’s just that I can’t. I’ve accepted that. I don’t even try. True music fans are different than most people. Like musicians, music fans wear their influences on their sleeve. I’ve always had a taste that was a bit backwards. I was listening to Van Morrison and Paul Simon in high school. Everyone else was into Metallica and Depeche Mode. Big difference. The thing is, I can listen to Metallica and Depeche Mode too. I’m not as moved, but I can appreciate it. I have multi-genre taste. I have The Bronx on Tuesday and JJ Cale on Wednesday.
So, I met the guys in 1997. Jason, Mark and Brian were in a band called Convoy. My brother, my wife and I had regularly gone to see Convoy at The Casbah. The Casbah is a historic little club just on the edge of the downtown area in my hometown of San Diego. I’m sure most cities have a similar club. Boston has TT the Bears. Occasionally they get national or regional acts, but most nights are filled with local bands. Convoy was the best of the local scene. A vintage, rough-around-the-edges rock band with a real craft for songwriting. I introduced myself to Jason after their set and we hit it off pretty quick. I was a young designer and had realized that maybe a way to get involved in the music scene would be to design my way in. A couple weeks later I found myself pulling into the driveway of their ranch in Jamul with my wife and kids. They worked out songs in their garage all night and treated us like we were part of some pseudo-family of theirs. Jason would put my son on the piano next to him and let him bang on the keys while they were working out songs. It was unreal. I was a very young dad, and I think all the guys liked having me around to represent what the other side of life is about. The life where you get married right out of high school and have kids before you’re ready. A life where you’re waking up well before the crack of noon. It was the same for me, just in reverse. And it was pure heaven
Eventually Convoy reached the ceiling of the tiny room they were playing in. They needed a bigger room with more air to breathe. Louis XIV was born. Needless to say, I’ve been involved ever since. For the most part, I’ve designed most all things that come directly from the band. Posters, CDs, albums, web sites, you name it. I’m not sure how it works out with other bands and their designers, but I think this loyal relationship has worked well to achieve a cohesive, consistent style. Jason and I have always been on the same page. Sometimes it seems like we’re the only ones reading from that page, and that’s pretty damn cool.
Jason Hill and my oldest son Mickey in Jason's SD studio
Jason, Brian and me in NYC
Mickey on the drums at the ranch in Jamul
Atlantic is a world-class record label. I mean, Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles. It doesn’t get much bigger. They have budgets, resources, and deadlines. When Louis signed with Atlantic it was a bit scary. You don’t want to get chewed-up and spit-out. You don’t want to sell out. You don’t want to lose control of the things that are important to you. To Jason, control is the important thing. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And Louis wasn’t broken; Louis was a well-oiled machine. Writing, recording, producing, and designing were part of the package that Atlantic signed. They brought me into the deal. I was part of the package. We had already released a full-length and two EPs as Louis XIV. Our self-titled debut is a raw, stripped-down rock album with a vintage Jazz styled cover.
The design of that CD was done without a budget. There really is no budget when you're an unsigned band. Initially, Jason had emailed me an image of a Lawrence Welk cover. It was simple and bold. Something about it seemed so smart. We loved how all the old records had the names of the songs right there on the cover. It gives the songs power. It’s not just about a hit or two. It’s an album. It’s a collection of thoughts that don’t work unless all that thinking is put side-by-side on the cover. That’s cool. I’ve always loved the look of old Blue Note Jazz records. Clean, two-color art with san serif, bold writing. I love the spare black and white backs on all the records put out in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They had an image or two and a story, review, or poem that you could sit and read while listening to the album. We wanted that. In the end, I designed a full-sized record that we shrank down to fit in a jewel case. On the cover and back, I used still images from a video Jason had created for “The Hunt.” Brian wrote a poem for the back. It fit the formula of a vintage album, but I think we added enough to make it our own.
The batch of songs that Louis brought to Atlantic, that would end up being on The Best Little Secrets are Kept, had a different vibe than the self-titled. They weren’t as dark and looming. They were just as cock-sure, but there was certainly a new infatuation with sex and sexy. The album design would obviously reflect that. I wasn’t sure how things would work with Atlantic. I guess I was still overwhelmed that Jason had kept his promise or loyalty or guilt or whatever, and that I was going to be designing this important album for Louis for this amazingly giant record label. Holy shit.
We were already a bit behind the eight ball. We had already released “Finding Out True Love is Blind” on an EP prior to signing with Atlantic and it was blowing up on major radio stations across the US. It had a life of its own. It’s rare these days for a song to get on the radio without lots of money and staff. “Finding Out” was breaking the rule. With the limited amount of songs that do actually make it onto the radio, it’s a good idea to have something to sell if you figure out the secret knock. Atlantic had nothing to sell and they already had a hit song on the radio. We put together Illegal Tender to have something in stores while we put together a proper full-length.
It wasn’t easy. I have a decent collection of old magazines from the ‘30s to the ‘60s that I occasionally pull ideas from. I’ve got tons of Life, Esquire, and other misc. magazines with unbelievable amounts of amazing imagery. We initially showed them a design that was a collage of images pulled from these magazines. Red lights started flashing over at Atlantic. “You can’t use that. We don’t have rights to any of that stuff.”
It was back to the drawing board. I didn’t have a big archive of sexy images of girls and Atlantic really wasn’t prepared to spend any money on a photo shoot and there wasn’t a budget for anything. The design had to be done yesterday. We were already losing time with “Finding Out.” While in Boston with my wife, I stopped into Newbury Comics (a local record store) and bought a book that seemed perfect. It had vintage, home grown nudes. The cover had oriental characters all over. There’s something about the oriental characters that seemed right. It was odd, but just sexy enough to be perfect. It was full of housewives and such from the ‘40s and ‘50s. It was vintage, low-budget, semi-erotic porn. For some reason I just knew it would work.
We were accustomed to creating things on our own without a budget, but we weren’t used to being regulated. Atlantic, for obvious reasons, wasn’t going to let us just use the images I pulled from the book. I called the gentleman who compiled the images. He lived in New Jersey. Interesting guy. He came up with a reasonable fee for us to use a series of images from the book.
Great. Unfortunately, Atlantic wasn’t comfortable with us using any of the girls faces on the cover because we didn’t have model releases. All the comps I had created to that point showed faces. We also couldn’t show any nudity. After some trial and error, we were given some clear-cut rules. You can have a bit of boob, but no nipple. Not even the hint of a nipple. Don’t even think about the grassy knoll. No face and no nipple, but a little boob. Not ideal, but we were going to have to work with that. We decided that the songs had to be on the cover again. I wanted it to sit, side-by-side with the self-titled, and have the two of them be able to go to the same party together if they wanted. It was also important to stay raw. There’s something too phony about slick productions. The outside of the packaging has a dark quality similar to the self-titled, but we added some pink to art. For the inside we wanted a creamy tone and introduced an interesting crop of a nude woman that lined up with the cd tray. This one was sexy, semi-dangerous, and we were pretty sure it was going to stand out on the shelf. It also fits the music. The guys record everything themselves on old-school equipment. They have a vintage approach to a new sound. That’s the look of that EP. I’m pretty sure Atlantic was happy how that EP turned out. It looks pretty good.
Illegal Tender Sketches
Illegal Tender Designs
Once Illegal Tender was done, we quickly had to start the process of designing the full-length. We had no title yet. That’s always been a last-minute thing for them anyway, and I knew this would be no exception. There was no deadline yet, but I could feel it coming. Jason and I hadn’t really had any conversations about the design concept. I didn’t even know where to begin. We started brainstorming. Jason has a vivid creative bend sometimes. Where I tend to self-regulate based on my own version of reality, he always shoots for the moon. It can be frustrating, because it sometimes means a bunch of work, but mostly because he’s right. There were variations where the front cover is her from the front and the back is her from the back. He also had this idea that the girl would have writing all over her. I’m not sure why, but that one scared me. Anything written I’ve ever seen of Jason’s is chicken scratch. Who would do the writing? Who’s going to take the picture? What are you going to write? The other idea was to have a collage of body parts. Hands, legs, lips, feet, fingers, or whatever. They would be very sexy crops. Jason thought we could just get this out of magazines. After going through the Illegal Tender process, I knew that wasn’t even an option. But I liked the collage idea. I had no idea where to get the imagery, but I’d figure it out.
Atlantic wasn’t keen on the clothes being on and off idea for two reasons: nudity and extra cost for the sleeve. I was a bit stressed out with the whole situation. Jason and I had been able to cruise along pretty smooth for the last 7 years. Do whatever we wanted. Now we had rules and such. I got a call from an art director with Atlantic. Rob wanted to know if we had any ideas and how could he help and so on. He wanted to know if we had any photographers in mind. Not really. I started doing some photographer research and started looking at illustrators as well. Sometimes illustration is a very cool route. I loved the cover of the last Blur album, Think Tank. That had been sitting on my desk for a while and I’d love to do a cover that cool. I sent Rob a list of photographers. “Cool? Have you ever heard of Phil Mucci? We use him a lot and he’s good with bands.” He sent me a link to his portfolio. Some big stars and a funky collage style that was very interesting. I was jazzed. I chatted with Jason and we thought it could work. He trusted me. Rob checked with Phil on a schedule and such, and before I knew it, we had a date for a photo shoot in a couple weeks. Both Jason and I had conversations with Phil about what we were thinking. We didn’t have any solid ideas. Just a feeling about style and that it should be sexy. Phil sent us some covers and artwork that he thought had the vibe of what we were looking for. They were LP covers from the ‘70s and some vintage porn posters. They were right on. We were really into a photo by Helmut Newton of a girl on a couch looking back at two single beds side by side. It was very odd, but sexy in a weird way. Shortly after, Phil sent us an unbelievable sketch. I was really blown away. The people in the sketch actually looked like the band. The cover would be a girl sitting on a couch half nude. There would be a closed circuit camera up in the corner. The inside art would be of the band sitting around a television watching the video of the girl. Jason had second thoughts. Phil’s work all had a digitally manipulated quality that made him feel uneasy. The idea seemed too planned. It was original, but it was just too polished. We didn’t really want Phil to design the art, just take the photos. The idea was too slick.
I spoke with Phil about our concerns and he wasn’t all that excited. I’m pretty sure he was sick of us already. He wanted out. He was used to coming up with concepts and having people jump on board. We were going to be difficult.
Luckily, we were able to hold onto Phil and decided that we’d go to Los Angeles with a vague idea of what we wanted and see where that took us. I don’t think he liked to work without a plan, but we did. He would be doing publicity shots of the band as well, so there would be plenty of work to be done. We did know that we’d need a model and that there would be a chance that she would be nude in one way or another. Atlantic wasn’t especially excited about having a model there. That would be more money. It’s not that they didn’t have the money budgeted to spend, but you could tell they would rather have spent it in other places.
The powers that be over at Atlantic were increasingly getting more nervous. Nudity is not their cup of tea. It doesn’t sell well in middle America. It’s too dangerous and we live in a new world. It’s not the ‘70s anymore and album covers are a reflection of that. Janet Jackson had just exposed her booby on TV and everyone was gun shy, including Atlantic Records. Jason seemed to be on a crusade: and not to bring Christianity to the non-believers. There was going to be a girl, as nude as we could get her on this cover. I was in the middle.
I felt like I could make anything work, I just wanted to know the rules. I was told that officially there would be nothing remotely close to nudity on the cover. We might have a model there, but she was going to be clothed. She didn’t have to wear a turtleneck sweater, but she’d be covered. About this time, Jason took matters into his own hands. He called one of the presidents at Atlantic who had shown an interest in the band. He was in Florida at a party when Jason called. The conversation went something like this: “Come on, let’s be dangerous again. Remember Roxy Music. That was awesome. Let’s do some trailblazing. Let’s put a naked girl on a cover again. Rock is supposed to push the envelope.” It worked. All that was left for Atlantic to do was say “Whatever. Jason apparently can get whatever he wants, and he wants girls.” Jason was right though. If you have an album that is bound to be the most provocatively sexy thing to come out by a group of non-hip hop artists in a long time, you can’t take baby steps with the cover. You can’t have a girl in a teddy or high heels or whatever. It’s got to be dangerous. It has to have that vibe of all those albums in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Jimi Hendrix with all the girls lying around nude, and just about every Roxy Music album cover. That was where we had to be. It was starting to feel like a scene from Spinal Tap.
The only real direction we’d be bringing to the shoot was the Helmut Newton photo. The girl would only have to show her back. Phil would find a location that had the feel of the Newton photo. The set in the photo was classic and plush. It looked like the girl was on a big expensive couch in a big expensive hotel room in the ‘70s. The girl was natural. Not too skinny. She was beautiful the way that girls were beautiful back in the day. We would find the girl once we were in LA.
I was glad to hear that the photo shoot was going to be in Los Angeles. It was winter on the East Coast and it’s never really winter in southern California. Phil’s studio is in New York, but he was going to be in LA to shoot The Mars Volta, so it made sense to have the shoot there. We needed a location for the photo. We wanted dirty but classy. Phil had some experience with an old hotel in the downtown area that was rented out for various photo and video shoots. He said that it was a bit sketchy, and that tenants still lived in the area. That sounded perfect.
I sat in my office the day I was leaving for LA and watched a live webcast of Louis in a radio studio. They played about 6 songs and were interviewed on Morning Becomes Eclectic. The show prides itself on breaking unknown bands. I was going to be hanging out with the guys in California in about 8 hours. Since I had left the West Coast, I had seen the guys maybe once a year when visiting California or when they came through Boston. They had never been to Boston as Louis, so this webcast was the first live performance I saw.
I left Boston on Thursday afternoon. I’d be in California till Sunday morning. It was going to be a quick trip. I was a bit nervous about the whole thing. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I got off the plane in LA to find a well-dressed man holding a sign with my name on it: LIMO HOFSTETTER. At that point, I could have turned around and gone home and it would have been a successful trip. We were staying at the Hyatt on Sunset. I called Brian during the 30-minute ride to the hotel and he sounded jazzed that I was town. He mentioned that the hotel was known as the Riot on Sunset and that we were gonna get shitty. It’s a long flat drive over to Sunset Blvd from the airport. As you finally begin to ascend the Hollywood Hills it gets a bit more glitzy and big. Everything feels Hollywood. Bright lights, fake city. I got out at the entrance to the hotel and found Vince Vaughn in front of me looking disheveled and having an animated conversation on his cell phone. My wife was going to be pissed and my parents were going to say “Vince who?”.
The hotel wasn’t glamorous or expensive looking. It was a nice hotel, but there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” feel about it. It had the vibe of a place where TVs got thrown out of third story windows on a regular basis. Jason showed up and we figured out that Atlantic hadn’t booked me a room. I was going to have to share a room with Jason. We went up to the room and Mark, Brian, and Jimmy came along soon after. They had a copy of the Illegal Tender CD with them. It was the first time I had seen it. It looked great. The cover was really solid looking. We had gotten that one right, and it felt good. I guess everyone at Atlantic was excited about the way it came out as well. That made me feel better about the weekend and calmed my nerves a bit. There was a lot of budget and talent converging in LA and I wanted to hold up my end of the bargain. That was the first time I had met Jimmy. It’s James, actually. He pointed out that I had gotten his name wrong in the packaging. He sounded a little bitter. Damn.
We drank a six-pack that Mark had brought over from his room and watched one of the late shows. Trail of the Dead was the musical guest. We debated the pros and cons of the dual drummer thing they had going for them. Mark said that he could tell that one of the drummers was far more talented than the other because he was playing all the hard parts. They looked like they were playing the same parts to me, but I’m pretty sure Mark knows what he’s talking about. We listened to a newly mixed version of Hey Teacher that had just been finished. It was cool. Much bigger than the version I had been listening to on my Ipod. Jason wasn’t sure about the song being on the album. He thought that maybe it didn’t go well with the rest of the album. He thought maybe it was too cheap or childish. We talked about the song order for the album. It hadn’t been finalized yet. They also hadn’t decided on the title yet. The latest idea was “The Changing of the Guard”. Not sure about that one.
Jimmy took off to meet his girlfriend who had just come into town and the rest of us went down to the hotel bar. You had to either be a guest or someone special to get into the bar and I hoped that I qualified as a guest because I sure wasn’t going to qualify as special in this place. Everyone looked like they were in the cast of 90210. I mentioned to the guys that I had seen Vince Vaughn earlier in the night. They weren’t all that impressed. They see celebrities all the time. I got the feeling that they were on the verge of being celebrities themselves and they knew it. On the way down to the bar a group of 3 guys had seen us walking down the hall and said “hey, aren’t you guys Louis XIV? We saw you with the Killers in Vegas. You guys were sick.”
We sat at a booth and did some catching up. It was a “let’s look cool” scene and I wasn’t feeling all that cool. I went up to bed earlier than you’d think.
I woke up on East Coast time. 3 hours earlier than I would in New Hampshire. Add to that the fact that Jason wakes up around 11 and I’d have to find something to do for the next 4 hours. I grabbed my camera and walked a couple of miles to the left on Sunset and then back a couple of miles in the other direction. I had some coffee and decided to go back and get Jason up earlier than he’d probably like. The front desk woke Jason up to confirm that I was actually staying with him and he had them make me an extra key.
Jason had driven his dad’s car up from San Diego. It was more like a boat. We drove down Sunset to a ‘50s style diner for breakfast. They had valet parking. It was a diner for God’s sake. LA is weird and I don’t think they know it. We came up with a strategy for the day. We were going to meet Phil in a couple hours. He was going to show us photos of models he had taken on Thursday. We talked about the vibe we were looking for in the design. We always seem to come up with key words and phrases when we’re working on something new. The more times the same thought comes up in a conversation the more it sticks.
We draw from the same visual well. When he says something about the design for Beggar’s Banquet, I know he’s talking about the cursive writing. When he says Roxy Music, I know it’s not so much the music, but the feeling of the covers.
There’s a sexy girl on the cover, but there’s always something odd about it. It’s sexy but also strange. There’s a girl and she’s wearing a tight dress that looks like it’s wet and maybe it’s ripped and maybe she’s lying on the grass somewhere and there’s always an odd set of circumstances suggested by the photo. That, for the most part, was what we were looking for. It would be nice if there was some relevance to the circumstances we were going to suggest, but I don’t really feel it’s necessary. If it feels right, then it is right.
There was a billboard for the Scissor Sisters across the street. We definitely didn’t want to be there. What the hell are they wearing? As we were waiting for the valet to bring us the car we were standing next to a good-looking girl. After she left, Jason kicked himself for not asking her if she wanted to be on the cover of his record.
We had some time to spare before we were supposed to meet Phil. We drove down to a music shop that sold used guitars and equipment. Jason was looking for a vintage keyboard that they could use on the road. I recognized the guy working the shop. I had done a website for his band a few years earlier. They were called Big Elf. I remember that they were big in Scandinavia. Jason knew him too: they had the same manager at one point. This place specialized in reselling equipment that had been used by famous to semi-famous musicians. You could buy a beat-up old guitar that was maybe used by Bryan Adams or a kick drum used by the Cramps. Jason checked out a variety of old keyboards. Most seemed simple and ‘80s and not unlike something we had in our house when keyboards first got popular for the masses. He was also looking for a box that could be used as a mobile recording studio. It had to be something that could hold soundboards and maybe a laptop. He knew the band was going to be on the road semi-permanent once the album was released and the prospect of being away from the studio so long was making him nervous. He wanted to record in all the hotels they stayed in along the way and make an album based on the recordings. He didn’t find the box, but we did walk away with an old keyboard.
Phil, Liz, Rob and the rest of the band met us back at the hotel and we made our way up to the room. Liz and Rob were from Atlantic’s art department and had come out from New York. The truth is that if the band hadn’t brought me in as the designer, they’d have been working on the design. Phil had taken pictures of about 7 girls. Since we were most likely going to photograph this girl from the back, he had taken pictures of the girls from behind. We all sat and debated the qualities of the girls’ hair or backs or asses or heights. As wrong as it felt, it was all very necessary. I can’t even explain why because it would just come out wrong, I’m sure. Just believe me that it was a process that we were going to have to go through.
It quickly became apparent that probably none of these girls was going to work. They were either too skinny or their hair wasn’t right or something. Jason had an idea of what he wanted the model to look like and it was going to be a challenge to find a perfect match. I could see the frustration in everyone. These girls had been chosen with a certain budget range in mind. There were models who might work better, but they were in a price range that Atlantic hadn’t planned on. They didn’t even really want a girl in the process, let alone a girl in the next price range.
Phil had also taken some photos earlier in the day at the location. The hotel had a few large ballrooms and halls, as well as a series of rooms with ornate fixtures, wallpaper and such.
We were afraid they were maybe trying to be a little too Louis XIV era with the location, but at the same time there was an interesting quality that we could make work. Phil talked about where all the props were going to be staged and stuff like that. He’s a pro. He was doing his best to organize a situation that wasn’t meant to be organized. I was impressed. We decided to meet back at Phil’s hotel and see what we could come up with for a model. The photo shoot was the next day and we didn’t have a model lined up. We were quickly running out of time.
Phil’s hotel was quite a step up from where we were staying. He had a suite with a living room and bedroom. He had a balcony that overlooked the swishy little side street the hotel was on. Phil had a talent agency organizing images of models and compiling a section of their site with photos for us to look through. We looked through photos and pared our choices down. The problem was that we didn’t have images of any of the girls from the back. We had put so much critical thinking into every nuance you could imagine with the initial set of girls. It was hard to do that kind of critique with smiling head shots.
We ended up choosing about 4 girls who might work. Phil made a call to the agency to see if we could meet with the girls that day. Before you knew it, the doorbell rang and a girl came through the door. Phil brought her to the bedroom and took similar pictures as the ones he had of the earlier girls. I felt bad for the girl. We were all sitting on the couch just staring at her when she came out. Phil loaded the images on his laptop. Better, but not quite perfect. I really wasn’t sure what perfect was at that point. A little while later, the bell rang and in came another girl. Turns out she was a Playboy centerfold in the ‘90s. She might work, but she might be too short. I was afraid our criteria was getting so narrow that we could have sat there and figured out a reason why Angelina Jolie wouldn’t work if she had shown up. At this point, we were late for an appointment with the stylist. The guy had called a few times already and was getting impatient. We left Phil to the model quest and headed out. Phil had lined up the stylist to outfit the band. We had requested mod-style clothes. Brian wanted a white suit. The guys had brought their own clothes along to be tailored. I could tell that Jason was feeling overwhelmed. He had the feeling of too many cooks in the kitchen. We had never needed a stylist, or staging areas, or locations, or anything like that before. We had pulled together some very successful designs without all that. There were a lot of people involved at this point and it was unclear how much control we were really going to have at the photo shoot.
By the time we got to the stylist, we were very late. They didn’t seem all that annoyed, but they also didn’t seem all that interested either. They had pulled together a rack of clothes that would fit each guy. The guys gravitated to a rack in the back of the room and were told that it was for Audioslave. At this point, I felt more like a personal assistant than a designer. I’ve always taken on more than just design with the band, but this was a far more official experience. I was taking phone calls from Atlantic about timing, and the model search. Phil called and said a girl had just been by and he was convinced that she was the one. She was a southern girl with a “rock-and-roll” style about her. I was nervous to just have him hire her. I knew that after the way the day had gone that the band would have to see the girl before we officially signed off. It was late and Phil wanted to just be done with the quest. I said he’d have to just wait till we got back. Meanwhile, the guys were still trying on various suits and such. There was a tailor on site fixing clothes the guys had brought along. Brian was annoyed that there wasn’t a white suit that fit him. There were some cool shoes though. There’s nothing better than cool, vintage shoes.
We made our way back to Phil’s a bit exhausted by all the stress of the day. As we were making our way into the elevator, Shug Knight made his way out. Brian mentioned that he had killed someone.
In the room, Phil showed us photos of the girl. The band fell in love. Phil made a quick phone call and it was official. She’d be at the downtown location bright and shinny in the morning. It felt good to have that decision finalized. It had been a trying process, but once again, it felt like the frustration had been worth it. We all had room service dinner and beer on Phil’s tab. Brian fulfilled his promise and got me shitty. I was quickly outmatched. We went to the bar in this hotel. It seemed even more exclusive than the other one. I felt extremely out of place and decided I should stumble back down Sunset and crash in the hotel room. A little while later Jason woke me up and wanted me to go down to the Hyatt bar and meet their A&R guy and the production manager with Atlantic. I wasn’t feeling up to it, but I gradually regained composure and we went down to the bar. We sat at a table in the middle of the bar. I was feeling pretty shitty and was bummed that this was how I’d meet these guys for the first time. John Rubeli (A&R) had brought the final mix of the album with him. He gave the CD to David Burrier (Production Manager) in a ceremonial, “it’s official”, kind of way. No more changes. This is it. I think they knew the importance of the ceremonial staging. Jason would probably still be undecided on that album to this day if he didn’t have people putting an end to it around him. There was a fire going in the middle of the bar. We were all in t-shirts. It was very bizarre. I needed sleep.
The Photo Shoot
Liz and Rob picked Jason and me up fairly early in the morning. We were going to be there earlier than the rest of the band. We would be working on the cover shot with Karen Miller (the model) and we decided the guys could show up later for the band shots. The hotel wasn't much from the outside. As soon as the elevator door opened to the basement, I knew it was going to be a perfect place for the shoot. You could tell it had been elegant and expensive at one point. Now it was weathered and un-kept. The basement of the hotel looked like it had been used as a bar at some point. We were using it as a staging area. The stylist had brought all the racks of clothes and had set them up in the corner. There was a hair stylist setup in the back as well. There were people everywhere setting things up. The staging area was adjacent to an enormous, open room that Phil wanted to use for one of the shots. It had large windows along the side that shot bars of light across the room. Phil had set up some couches in the center of the room. He had his game face on. He was anxious to get started. Karen was there and Jason wanted to touch base with her. They chatted for a bit in the staging area and Jason explained what we were looking for. She apparently hadn't been informed that some of the shots may require a wee bit of nudity and it was obvious she was going to be uncomfortable. The majority of the photos was going to be shot on one of the upper floors of the hotel. There were about 5 rooms on the floor that were set aside for photo shoots. One was referred to as the Valentino room. I guess Valentino had stayed in the hotel for a period of time. It had velvety red wallpaper and old regal furniture in various stages of decay. We ended up using some of the promo shots of the band that were taken in this room. I liked the room a lot, but it was almost too regal. We didn't want the whole thing to seem too contrived, and although the room was authentic, putting Karen in the room seemed to me a bit forced.
We gravitated towards another room that was just as classic, but more subtle. We started there. Phil had brought a few extra guys with him from New York to capture video of the day. He was trying to break into the video market and was taking a chance that he might be able to create a video with the footage. They were using old black and white 8mm cameras that made a mellow whirring sound when they were running. It was neat. Phil started by taking a few moody shots of Karen in the room. We weren't really going for moody, but he was just trying to get a sense of Karen, Jason and the whole vibe we were going for. You have to start somewhere. After the first round of photos, we took a look through the images Phil had taken. He was shooting most of the images digitally, so it was easy to evaluate what we had.
We decided we should take a series of images in the bathroom and around the room where Karen would be nude and photographed from the back. We found out that once again, we probably weren't going to be able to show a face on the CD. I think the reasoning was that it would throw us into the stratosphere of budgets. Karen was also a bit apprehensive about being the nude girl on the cover of an album. At this point, she made it known that if she was going to be nude, there would be no witnesses besides Phil and a stylist. This was going to make things easier on me with my wife. I was going to have a lot of explaining to do anyway. Jason, Rob, Liz and I sat in the hall while Phil shot the pictures. Rob mentioned that Atlantic was trying to bring back a sense of the good old days and was reviving the classic Atlantic logo. That got me to thinking that it would be very cool to make the CD look like a little record. I'd seen it done before and always loved the technique. Now, being on Atlantic, we could actually replicate what Louis vinyl would have looked like. That was exciting. While waiting for Phil to finish up, we came across some guests of the hotel in the hallway. It was a bit strange. A large, shirtless man started wandering the floor. He had been in the elevator with us on the way up and apparently had noticed what floor we were working on. He was harmless, but his presence added a nervous edge to the shoot.
The door opened with Phil sweating like he had just run a marathon. The first round of nude photos were great. He had a series that he had taken with her looking in the mirror at herself. I could tell those would be tough to crop her face out, but the tones and colors were great. He took some photos against a green painted wall that had a curiously strange feel that was exactly what we were looking for. This was progress. Jason was energized. He started talking about his plan to write on Karen's back with lipstick. "She's not going to let you write on her," I said. Before I knew it, he had convinced her and we were trying to find lipstick. We decided that lip liner was going to work best. Phil got excited about the plan and decided this would be a good thing to put on film and we sent Jason down to get dressed for the shot. The rest of the band was waiting downstairs and looked anxious for news. I could tell they wanted to be up there in the worst way. "It's going great. Jason's going to write the song titles on her back and Phil's filming the process." I have to be honest. I didn't see it working. I generally don't have problems visualizing Jason's ideas. I had a problem with this one. But, as he started writing, it came together so clearly. It was brilliant. Exactly what we needed. Phil had 2 video cameras going as well as his digital camera when Jason started writing on her back. I was nervous he was going to run out of room. He was writing very large. We had to make a last minute call to Atlantic to let them know we had decided on the track order. It was official now. Once Jason got to a point down her back that she was going to need to partially disrobe, we were kicked out again. Jason came out with a big smile. This was it. Phil was inside taking similar photos as he had earlier, but this time with the writing on her back. He shot photos against the green wall, in the bathroom mirror and in the shower stall. It was hard to tell, but it seemed like we had a winner. Not sure if it would be on the cover, inside, or back, but at this point, I felt like we had enough to work with. Phil had all the props set up for the Newton shot and they decided to get that out of the way in the same room. They then went to the Valentino room and shot some more of Karen against the velvet wallpaper. We certainly had enough to work with at this point. They took a series with Jason and Karen together in a hallway, but there was something contrived about these shots. Our time had run out with Karen and she left for the day.
We went down for lunch and regrouped for the band shots. The guys like to cut their own hair. Go figure. Mark's the only one who used the on-site barber. The guys grabbed a few suits each and we headed up for the shoot. They ended up using only outfits they had brought with them from San Diego. I'm not going to go into much detail about the band shots. At a certain point it was monotonous. They took a shot with the whole band looking out from the inside of the shower stall, which turned out to be the same location as the cover shot. As the photo shoot progressed, the amount of make-up the guys had around their eyes began to build up. After every session they'd run to the bathroom and add a bit more. "How does it look?" "I don't know dude, I've never worn make-up. That's a tough one." Liz and Rob were a bit worried that all we'd have was images with poorly applied eye make-up. They wanted me to have a chat with the guys and see if there was a chance to get a few without the make-up. This was quickly placed at the top of my list of would-be uncomfortable conversations. "Too much make-up guys." More make-up was applied. We went downstairs and did shots in the elevator and in a large ballroom. Jason had heard that Simple Plan had recently shot a video in the ballroom and that annoyed him a bit. About a month later, I saw that video. Part of the video was shot in the staging area we used as well as the ballroom. We were getting tired. It had been a long day. Phil had shot many gigabytes worth of photos throughout the day and had hard-drives full of images. We certainly weren't going to have a shortage of imagery.
Jason and I grabbed a ride back to our hotel with Glen. Glen is the publicist with Atlantic out in LA. He had a to push a car seat out of the way to make room in back seat for me. That brought me back to reality. He talked with Jason about the never-ending quest to finalize a bio. Since the early days we've had the hardest time deciding on words to describe who we are. I felt bad for Glen. We'd been through this before and it was a losing battle. Coming up with a good bio is so tough. If you tell the truth, you lose a sense of mystery and if you lie, it sounds contrived. Everyone tries to be so clever with bios. It just comes across as annoying. While on the way back, Finding Out True Love Is Blind came on the radio. When the song finished, the DJ commented that it was a naughty song. Yes indeed.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
Back at the hotel, we changed our clothes and planned on meeting everyone back at Phil's for a victory celebration. As the band waited for a cab in front of the hotel, we saw the members of the band that sings "Stacy's Mom" walking on the other side of the street. I had this vision of West Side Story and of us crossing the street to kick their ass. I think we could have taken 'em. I'm sick of that song. Everyone was in good spirits back at Phil's. Phil, David, John, Brian, Jimmy, Mark, Jason, and I sat around the computer and took stock of the imagery we had. It was overwhelming. There was so much to choose from. At one point, Phil was scanning through the photos so quick it looked like Karen was dancing. It got me thinking about the website. I ended up using the idea for the filmstrip animation on the present website. We ate and drank and were merry.
Brian was on that night. He can be one of the funniest guys to be around. He has a crude sense of humor that only he could own. When you try to repeat his stories, they only come across as crass, but from him, they're funny as hell.
We went down to the hotel bar again and I knew I wasn't going to be long for that world. I called my wife and she said that back home they were forecasting a blizzard for the next day. I was going to be flying right into it. I was going to have a rude awaking once I got home. Jimmy and I decided to head back to our hotel. It was about a three-blocks walk. It was a happening Saturday night on Sunset Blvd. It's the first chance I had to really have a conversation with Jimmy. He's a cool guy. I got the feeling he feltas if he was on the fringes of Louis. The rest of the guys had been together for a long time and they've all lived together and been through so much. It's hard to just instantly become one with that. Since that night, they've toured non-stop for about 8 months. I think he's certainly found his way in. Jason woke me up a few hours later. "Are you hearing this?" he said. The couple in the room next to ours was going at it. The guy was either strangling the girl or she was having an extended orgasm. We sat in the dark for about an hour chatting about the day. We were in a good place. The day had gone well. Karen had worked out great. The couple next door would stop for a minute or two and then be back at it. "That guy is a stallion." The design process wasn't going to be easy, but we were off to a good start with the photoshoot. As I drifted off to sleep, the bed board was still crashing against the wall next door. As it turns out, Jimmy wasn't strangling the girl.
The limo picked me up early Sunday morning. The Strip was quiet. Part of me wished I was staying a bit longer, but the sensible part of me was glad to be heading home to my family and the real world. It was going to be strange to have been part of such a grand operation in Los Angeles and then design the final artwork in down-to-earth New Hampshire. I called Phil from my layover in Nashville. He never made it out. His flight had been cancelled. He was staying a few extra days. He was going to film some footage of Karen to use in a video. I got into Boston and the snow had just started. I took an empty bus to Concord and drove home through the snow from there. What a weekend.
Louis XIV vs. Wal-Mart
Later the next week Phil emailed me some images to work with. They weren't necessarily the images we were looking for. I had a hard time knowing which direction to go in without knowing everything we had. I knew we had a lot, but I just didn't know for sure. I came up with a few ideas with the images that Phil sent. It didn't really work. I can't be sure, but I think Phil wanted to be a more a part of the design process than we were going to be comfortable with. We really just wanted to see all the images and go from there. We just wanted to know what we were working with. It was impractical, because he had so many images. He ended up sending me a hard drive with everything. There was an overwhelming amount. I didn't know where to start. It was tough to go through them all. I created a webpage with thumbnails of everything. I quickly mocked up about 8 rough cover ideas. I wanted to get everyone on the same page before I dove too hard into an empty swimming pool. We were gravitating toward the Helmet Newton style photo that Phil had taken.
I was a bit nervous that it was so close to original. I was more into an image of Karen that had her nude flipping a light switch. She was standing against a green painted wall. There was something about the way she was flipping the switch that seemed appropriate. As if she was turning the switch of a new sound. One major problem was that she was very nude. There was a version of the same photo that was from the back that could work, but it didn't look like a natural pose. The one we liked was a side view that wouldn't pass the Wal-Mart test. At this point I really wasn't sure what would pass the Wal-Mart test. When an album design has the possibility of being controversial, sexy, or otherwise questionable, Atlantic (I'm sure all the major labels are the same) presents the artwork to representatives of stores such as Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, etc. I think there are 8 retailers like that. The stores approve or deny the artwork. It doesn't mean you can't do the artwork, they just won't sell it. Atlantic likes to get all the representatives to sign off. You can expect a lag in sales if they don't. As it turns out, the majority of the CDs in the US are sold through these outlets. The middle of America is dotted with Wal-Marts like they're schools. I never thought to go buy a CD at a Wal-Mart or Target, but for some people that may be the only option. The question was how far we could push the art and still pass the censors test. I knew we would attempt to push the envelope as far as we could, and I knew Atlantic was going to push back.
The band still hadn't decided on a title. It was going to be tough to work without it. Somehow we got them to decide on The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, taken from "Pledge of Allegiance." We went through a series of ideas using an image of Karen's naked back in the shower on the cover. We also tried similar ideas with a version where the song titles were written on her skin for the back cover. Jason wanted big, bold titling on the cover. He wanted it to look like a sister to the Illegal Tender cover. I did a few versions like that, but it seemed too heavy. I moved the image with the writing on her back to the cover and it really worked. What had seemed like a strange idea at the photo shoot ended up being perfect. The song titles would still be on the cover like before, but hand written in the photo. Brilliant. I wanted the album title to be quiet. I wanted it to look like a vinyl cover that's been shrunk down. I used the stencil style "Louis" I had created in the early days. The font for the words "The Best Little Secrets Are Kept" is the same font without the stencil motif. The image was perfect. Phil had captured what we were looking for. It certainly wasn't his style, but it's what we wanted. Jason wasn't sold on the cover. He still liked the Helmet Newton image. I felt pretty strong that the image of her back was what we wanted for the cover. I put the Helmet Newton image on the back with the bold titling and he liked that. He wanted the big title to move to the cover. He wanted it to look bold on the shelf. It just wouldn't work. It needed to be quiet. Having a naked girl's back on the cover was already enough to make it jump off the shelf. I let Phil know what images we were interested in using and he was a bit surprised. I think he was actually a bit disappointed. He had put far more energy into the other photos he had taken. They were all beautiful, but they didn't work as well as the ones we had chosen. They didn't have the raw, simple power that this one had. He retouched the Helmet Newton photo and the image of Karen with the song titles. It was amazing to see the transformation. I'm not sure exactly what he did, but it was impressive. The image looked surreal. He gave it the quality of the images from the '70s album covers. All the hues are intensified and softened at the same time. Jason was a little wary that maybe it lost the raw energy of the un-retouched image, but I thought it worked well.
Atlantic needed us to finalize a cover shortly. We'd have more time to work on the back and the inside, but they needed to get the cover approved and out to different vendors for pre-sales and such. We sent them our final version of the cover as well as our initial idea for the back using the Helmet Newton styled image. I'm not sure they went head over heels for the art. It got a cold reception. I think they just didn't want to go to bat for it. They knew it was going to be a questionable cover to the vendor reps. The problem wasn't going to be with Karen's ass, but with the amount of crack. We were told that we may need to do two covers. There would be one for the independent vendors and another for the stuffy ones. We didn't really want two different covers. We thought maybe the Wal-Mart versions could be enclosed in a brown wrap. It could have the feel of something dirty or dangerous like liquor or porn. That idea didn't last very long. It think it died for budget reasons. They didn't want complicated. We were being complicated. It's the moment in a project were you find out how serious you are about an idea. Do you fold or hold firm? I was ready to fold, but Jason was backing down.
I got a call from Rob one night. He had just gotten off the phone with all the vendor reps and he had gotten them to agree to a cover version where he had cropped out most of the "crack." There would be a shadow of the crack. He also let me know that Atlantic wasn't going to be doing two covers. It wouldn't be cost affective. This was going to be it. I wasn't around my computer during the call, so it was tough to know what the consequences would be of the new crop on the overall design of the cover. These are difficult conversations to have. You have two grown adults discussing the pros and cons of ass crack. I always like to think I have an admirable level of integrity and sensitivity. I've got two kids and I live less than a mile from my parents (not that this means I'm mature). I'm on the volunteer fire department in town (thought I'd throw that out as an additional argument in favor of my level of maturity). I like to think I have class and I'm mature about stuff like this. It goes back to what I'll call the "Spinal Tap" effect. At what point does stuff like this cross that line? Would this fit into the movie with ease? Probably. I try not to think about it too hard. I found the movie funny, but I also thought Big Bottoms was a killer song. I think there's a bit of theatre and mystique we were building with the art and I think we were on the right track. The problem I had was that without the ass crack it looks sterile. It's just a girls back. It could be the cover of a John Mellencamp album. The girl could be wearing jeans or something. The assumption of nudity was important to the crop. It also just doesn't' crop very well without it. It's just not an interesting image any more. I didn't argue with Rob. The way it was presented to me was that it was a done deal. The die had been cast. There was no turning back. I'm not the kind to question that. I think that's something I need to work on. Maybe it's OK. I can play good cop and Jason can play bad cop. When I told Jason about the call he went crazy. We had worked too hard to give up now. I think he was disappointed I didn't put up more of a fight. He obviously has more clout than I do and after a few phone calls we were back on track. It was agreed that there would be two covers. Ass crack and no ass crack. Fair enough. If you're buying CDs at Wal-mart, you probably have other things on your mind besides ass crack. In the end, unfortunately, it comes down to money.
We debated how many panels the cover booklet should have. This, once again, came down to money. We ended up with 6 panels. We could have gone to 8, but it was quite a jump in cost and to be honest, it really wasn't necessary. We really liked the image of Karen behind the shower door for the inside 3 panels. It worked really well, like a centerfold. I didn't want to mess that up with more panels. About this time, the band headed over to the UK to film the video for Finding Out True Love is Blind . There were still decisions to be made and I knew that Jason was going to be tough to contact. We can solve problems easy when we can chat every day, but having him out of the country was going to make decision-making very tough. The band left with the cover set and the back fairly well set. Nothing on the inside had been decided on. There obviously wouldn't be as much scrutiny about it, but there wouldn't be a lack of opinion either.
As soon as they left, I got the next tough call. The lawyers at Atlantic had been debating our version of the Helmut Newton image and decided that it was too close to the original.
We weren't going to be able to use it on the back or anywhere for that matter. Panic. We had discussed an idea where Karen was actually cut out of the image leaving a silhouette in her place. It was a cool idea, but the silhouette wasn't distinguishable enough (see next set of images). It was hard to tell what was going on in the image and it just added complication to complication. I felt like we were trying too hard to make it work. I used another image of Karen's back that was straight on. I created about 5 new back options. There were all cool in their own way. I had a phone conversation with Jason from England after he'd seen the options. He was hesitant to have anything but Karen there on the back. Anything else, and it lost it's sexy vibe. That's where we ended up. Another image of Karen's back. We had to fit in all the logos and little text and everything. We also had to add the new anti-piracy seal. I was told it had to be a certain size and such. It's an eyesore. It was tough to design around it. I always look at the back of CDs and some people have managed to make it smaller. We weren't so lucky. The back ended up as a bit of a hodgepodge. If I had a chance to go back in time, I'd maybe do something a little different. I had a version of the back with cords all over the floor from the studio. I liked that one the best. It wasn't very sexy though.
A photographer had taken a series of photos in the studio during a final recording session in LA. I ended up using crops of these for under the CD. There were also a series of black and white photos that Jason had mailed to me. They had been taken back in San Diego. I used these to create a collage of 4 images on one of the panels. The remaining panel would be used for all the text. I had pulled all the inside and back options together in the band's absence. It was coming together nicely. It was only a matter of having the band take a look and say "Cool, let's do it." That's great, but it never happens that way. Once the guys were back in the States we were able to finalize the inside design. He liked the images under the CD. He wanted to change a few that had guitars that he didn't really use much. He didn't really like the 4 images of the band. He specifically didn't like his photo. He rarely likes photos of himself, so it's like an eternal quest that will never be fulfilled. It's the holy grail of photos. There's always something. So, in a selfless move, he decided that Mark should be the band photo. Add to the mystery. Add to the suspense. Who is this band? The photo of Mark is one of the cooler images of a drummer you'll ever see. It worked great. All was good in the world. Each version of the album would come with a slightly different insert. One had the image of Mark and the other had an un-retouched image of Karen's back. The CD face was going to look like a record. I bought a series of old records on the Atlantic label. I tried to make it as authentic looking as possible. Done.
The cover ended up taking on a life of its own once in public. It set the tone for interviews and reviews. The Best Little Secrets are Kept is apparently the first album to ever have a e content sticker solely for its artwork. The content of the CD is the same for both versions of the CD. The only difference is a little ass crack on the cover and back. That's an uptight country. A friend of mine informed me that the cover had ended up in the design magazine PRINT. He said it didn't have a very kind write-up. "Sexism isn't the worst thing about John Hofstetter's design," it read. They said I had blatantly and inappropriately mimicked the stencil titling on the West Side Story soundtrack. We also copied the cover of an Eric Clapton album. EC Was Here has the title written on a girl's back in lipstick with a similar crop to ours. The Eric Clapton album has a horrible image and is an unmemorable cover. I like Eric Clapton and I had never seen the cover. It did seem similar to the Clapton cover, but West Side Story? Come on. We didn't copy either. But this wasn't the first time it was called sexist. I'm not going to speak for the music, only for the design. I don't really understand the sexist claim. There's a girl's back with writing on it. I think it's a tasteful image. I don't consider myself sexist. I guess sexism is the act of objectifying woman. I suppose you could make that case. Maybe we are sexist. I don't know. Does sexy always have to be sexist?
Most important, it fits the music. It's going to the same party as the songs. It makes you think, How did they come up with that? As a designer, that's what you look for. Not just a cool design, but the right design. I can't wait to start on the next one.