In part two of this two-part feature, Chris Sick interviews Olaf Jens about his career, influences and artwork
Twisted Tales from the vinyl wasteland
Olaf Jens and album artwork to die for
My first commission to design a record sleeve was from none other than Mr Shamblin Sexton. It was for a Western Swing compilation called Crossroads in Cowtown that he had talked a label into releasing. The sleeve’s front cover was of a Cadillac with bullhorns mounted on the front, and it set the scene for the early Whiskey Preachin posters that were to follow. That job was a baptism of fire and a textbook example of how not to design a record sleeve [Thanks Chris, now you tell me. SS.]. Unfortunately, it took months for the vinyl to make it out of the warehouse thanks to a not-untypical distribution farce, but that's another story.
As a record collector, DJ and illustrator myself, I have a fetishistic love of records and their design. From the tip-on sleeves and extensive liner notes of classic jazz albums, to the heavy-weight gatefolds and trippy artwork of the 60s psych scene, the language of the record sleeve collates a dictionary of design, a personal database in your head, cataloging the cliches and tropes, the colours and the printing techniques that set the record sleeve in a certain genre or era. If you’ve spent enough time flicking through the racks and digging through dusty crates, it becomes second nature to identify, from the album art, not only the type of music housed in a particular sleeve, but even the year of the record’s release. Then came Twisted Tales from the Vinyl Wastelands. What was this kooky country music and who designed these crazy sleeves?
Naturally, I was more than happy to accept the opportunity to interview the artist responsible for some of the most eye-catching album covers of recent times, including work on the Back from the Grave series and, of course, the Twisted Tales from the Vinyl Wasteland series. Having been a fan Olaf Jens, the man in question, for quite some time, this job would give me the opportunity find out if our perspectives and influences had taken a parallel course, one channeled and focused by a love of sleazy rock and roll and forgotten B movies. Jens’s work for the Twisted Tales from the Vinyl Wastelands series comes outta Oddballsville, via Leftfield; crazy, unnerving comic book art adorn these gatefolds, drawing you into this batty backwoods world of crackpot country curiosities before you even drop the needle. I had to find out what had knocked this twisted artist’s orbit off axis.
Olaf Jens is a Dutch expat now living Stateside. After years of all-night DJing and playing in garage punk bands across Europe, he now lives in Nevada county, where he illustrates lowbrow counter culture and B movie horror images from Hell. So, join us as we step inside the abnormal mind of Olaf Jens...
What came first, music or art?
I have been drawing as long as I can remember, but music has always caught my ear as well since day one, no matter what genre or era. Both my parents are / were into art, music and literature. The bookshelves were filled with fantastic art books, and my father has always been an avid collector of classical music and jazz. They took me to museums, galleries and concert halls as soon as I was able to walk. I am really grateful for that, because music and art is what I breathe and can not live without.
What are your influences, and have they changed over the years?
All the great comic book illustrators of course: Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Al Feldstein, Kaz, Charles Burns, Robert Williams, Hergé, Peter Pontiac, etc., but also all the “New Objectivity” painters: Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Max Beckmann. I don’t think my influences or style has changed over the years, and I do not look too much at what other contemporary artists are doing in the same field. I live in a remote area in the Northern Californian mountains and hardly leave our little town. I do not buy art books or visit museums like I used to. All my free time I spend making art, but currently I do not have much: I have a full-time factory job, and my sweet wife and I are building a big house, with the help of our two teenage daughters. After it’s finally done (hopefully in a year or so) I will have a fantastic art studio and we will have art shows and live music. The place is going to be big!
I have a theory that DJs make the best record sleeve artists. As a massive vinyl addict as well, do you think that helps you design sleeves?
I have been collecting music since the late 70s, had radio shows and DJ’d at clubs and bars since the mid 80s, so my brain has soaked up a lot of rock and roll cliches for sure, haha! Yeah, I definitely think that I use a visual language that has its origins in rock and roll.
What's your favourite record?
My favorite record has to be that first Françoise Hardy LP. Yeah, I know: It’s not a crazy, wild rock and roll album, but it still puts me in the right mood ever since this super sexy babysitter played it for me in the early 70s. She always wore black clothes, had a miniskirt, and super high leather booths with high heels, huge golden hoops in her ears. Some kind of Gypsy / S&M / hippie chick… Needless to say, there’s an important memory attached to that album, and there are rockabilly elements on it But ask me the same question tomorrow and you will get a totally different answer!
I started designing when I set up a club night Djing '50s & '60s trash and garage punk 45s and we needed posters but were too skint to pay a proper designer. How did you get started as a designer?
I always designed my own DJ flyers since the mid 80’s, had trashy art & music zines for a while well, but never thought of making drawings for other people until a few years ago, when people started noticing my doodles on social media. Terry Graham, drummer of The Bags, Cramps & Gun Club was the first one who asked me 10 years ago to make art for his book cover. Not bad to get asked by an all time hero. That’s how the ball started rolling.
And how did you start designing record sleeves? What was the first album sleeve you designed?
First album cover was for our Dutch pals from The Amoksin 2006. The record is called “Dead Man’s Rally”. I sent in a sketch and waited six months for approval. A reply never came, but they used the sketch and decided to use my previous DJ monicker Johnny Ola for the credit I’m happy they used the sketch, because it looks great. I might have overworked it if they wanted me to spend more time on it, and it fits the primitive semi-acoustic musical style. Like I said, at that point I did not think about being a pro illustrator.
I've got lots of horror stories of design jobs that have gone south, mainly down to clients not really knowing what they want. Are you left to just design what you want, is it down to the client or a collaboration?
It’s collaboration all the way with the series I design for Mark Lee Allen. We speak the same language and hardly have to explain ourselves. Usually he comes up with a concept and I visualize it. It’s all pretty smooth with him, but I obviously have horror stories as well from customers who do not know what they want, or expect something else. I usually bombard them with a string of questions so I know what I need to work on. Most ideal would be if people leave it all to me, but that’s not an option at this point.
What's the process? How do you approach a new commission?
I try to get as much info as possible out of customers. They’re usually musicians, so I listen to their music. My favorite gigs are the reissue comps with vintage obscure rock and roll.
What's the best and worst design job you've done?
Best one has to be a 2019 promotional poster I did for Ghost Highway Recordings. It is all painted with acrylics on a wooden panel and has elements of vintage pulp novels and science fiction illustrations. Definitely a style I currently like the most.
Absolute worst design job has to be a flyer / poster for a local pre-school fundraiser / casino night where I DJ’d and my pal sang Rat Pack songs… I scanned in a horrible sketch and added ugly computer coloring and disgusting digital fonts for the info… Everybody was happy with it, but I wanted to kill myself, or at least hide for at least a year. Haha. I left the computer behind me recently. All my art will be painted from now on, just like the latest volume in the Twisted Tales From The Vinyl Wastelands series, “Hippie In A Blunder”, and other recent releases. Hand-coloring is the way to go.
What are your views on the health of music today? How about the health of illustration arts today?
Today’s music? I have no clue what’s going on. There has always been an underground of some sorts, rock and roll wise, so that’s good, but I cannot think of any contemporary corporate bands I like, but I never have, anyhow. Only the big names from the 50s and 60s have my interest, plus of course the lesser known, crazy and wild ones from that era. Illustration wise, it’s pretty much the same. I like to block myself from what’s going on, so I have no clue what’s hip. I see some cool retro type illustrations passing by on the web that I like. I think Marcel Bontempi is the shit!
Some of the Twisted Tales covers remind me of The Songs the Cramps Taught Us compilations, most of them taken from old 50s horror comics. You must be a big fan of the Cramps, how have they influenced your art?
The Cramps have influenced me more than Françoise Hardy for sure, haha. Originally I was into punk rock and discovered The Cramps a little later, in the early 80s, and they blew me away. To me, they were more punk rock than most of the bands around that time. More dangerous, rebellious and cool! My album covers are not specifically inspired by The Cramps. I’m just tapping from the same sources.
I think if you are a Cramps fan then you tend to love weird, lowbrow B movie trashy art and oddball records. I've listened to some of your radio show and it's very eclectic. Has your love of this culture shaped your record collection and what do you look for in the music?
Discovering The Cramps, plus Norton and Crypt Records in the 80s was life changing for me. I was making these mix tapes in the early 80s while listening to cool shows on the radio. I would start recording as soon as I heard a cool song, and deleted the ones I did not like. Usually after ten seconds I knew if I was going to like the song or not. I ended up having these random mixes, style wise, where genre switched from fast vintage rockabilly to blues and soul tearjerkers, from raw 70s punk to mid 60s garage, from surf to old country etc. etc… Later I would find a lot of those songs on comps reissued by Norton and Crypt… Those kind of mixes are still my favorite.
Taking over from Mort Todd for the legendary garage punk series Back from the Grave must have been a great honour. How did you get that gig, and did you feel you had to emulate his style, or did you feel the need to do your own thing?
I only met Tim Warren briefly twice in the mid 90s, but he might have known my name as a Crypt mail order junkie since the 80s. He happened to be in the Bay Area from which I live three hours away, so I invited him for a radio special on my KVMR radio show. We did a fun two-hour show and he decided to stay for a couple of days because he was interested in buying a house in the area. He saw a sketch laying around for the book I was working on for Terry Graham and was blown away. He asked me for advice for the upcoming new volumes of Back from The Grave. He wanted them to be super political, and I told him to stay away from it and just stick with a FTW approach. I drew a sketch on the spot literally visualizing that, and he must have liked the idea. He emailed me half a year after that asking me to make art for the new Back From The Graves. I remember being super hungover when I read the email after DJing at Pleasure Fuckers guitar player Norah Findlay’s 50th birth day party on a Tahoe cruise ship and almost shit my pants. “WOWWWWW!!! I get to draw for my favorite label Crypt Records?”… I could not believe it! I only had two weeks to come up with the art, though. Usually labels ask me at least three months in advance. Style wise I decided to use elements of the early Graves, using basic and simple coloring, and I just did my own thing, knowing that it would fit.
What are your views on gatefolds? Do you dread it when the label asks you to design a gatefold or do you refer to have a larger space to work in?
Gatefolds are cool! More to look at and read. The music is a bonus, haha.
What do you look for in the music when designing the artwork for a record?
Sometimes I listen to the lyrics and use elements for the art concept, but I also like it when customers tell me to come up with something completely different from that. And of course the music itself is important. Luckily I like pretty much all the bands and labels that have approached me over the years.
The designs you've done for the Twisted Tales from the Vinyl Wasteland series are fantastic, full of oddball redneck horror. There's a great story inside each of the sleeves that you've illustrated, as well. Have you any ambitions of doing a comic strip or graphic novel?
I have made several comics in the past for my late 80s and early 90s zine called OLABLA, which I liked to do a lot. Maybe when I have more time for art I will make comics again. My sweet love and I decided to collaborate: An illustrated book with short stories in the works.
What other jobs are you working on at the moment? Anything you are particularly excited about?
Keep your eyes peeled for a reissue of that first South Filthy album from 2001, which was released originally only on CD by Sympathy For The Record Industry back then. A Spanish label will put it out on vinyl soon with my cover art.
A four song 7” EP will be coming out for Whateverglades, an Oakland Garage Country band. They’re really cool, I told them that they are to country music what Detroit Cobras are to R&B and soul. There will be four different covers for it, pretty unique.
Our Portuguese garage punk friends from The Dirty Coal Train have a new LP coming out that features my art.
A Mexican label is putting out a two CD compilation of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds / Birthday Party / Grinderman covers by contemporary bands, mainly ones on Voodoo Rhythm Records, another mind-blowing release I got to make art for.
And like Mark Lee Allen mentioned in your previous interview, a compilation of cool hillbilly from the 50s called ‘Strut My Stuff’ will come out on quality label Sundazed. That comp still blows me away, Mark did an amazing job putting that one together. File it next to your Country Hicks comps!
And HEY: I kinda owe my “career” to Mark & Tim. Not a bad gig to work for your heroes! THANKS GUYS!!! And thank you for this interview. Cheers from beautiful Nevada City, CA.
So there you have it, folks. In the words of the man himself, Olaf Jens. If you have yet to enjoy the first part of the Twisted Tales form the Vinyl Wasteland story with Mark Lee Allen, follow the link below to be taken straight to it. Otherwise, go and listen to some of these great records and enjoy the artwork on the sleeves. It’s what it’s there for.