Photos by Neil Krug
It took almost a year and a half to get Neil Krug on the phone.
Not because the LA-based artist was aloof or unwilling—he is, in fact, quite the opposite—but because I was trying (and failing) to get the inside scoop on the artwork he’d created for Tame Impala’s highly-anticipated album, The Slow Rush. With the veil of secrecy now lifted on the album, Krug is free to reveal more about the surreal scenes covering Tame Impala’s psychedelic new offering, created on a trip to a deserted diamond mining town in the Namibian desert. Krug and Kevin Parker travelled to the otherworldly ghost town late last year, sifting through empty ruins and constantly shifting sand dunes to create images that look to be plucked straight from your dreams.
While the story behind The Slow Rush project is fascinating in and of itself, we decided to kill a few birds with one stone, delving further into not just the new Tame album, but Neil’s top five favourite works, including Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence, Singaporean punk act Yeule, and photo series Born Again and Phantom Stage One.
The Slow Rush
When you and Kevin headed out to Namibia to shoot the cover, was that during the process of him writing the album, or had he wrapped it up and you were working on the visuals afterwards?
I think it was pretty well wrapped up, but you’d have to ask him. I actually don’t know. I kind of stay out of that stuff, you know what I mean? (laughs) We’d done the ‘Borderline’ stuff and I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, just because he’s a busy guy right?
I can imagine.
So it’d been a minute. I’d spoken to his label people and they were like, ‘Kev’s gonna call you,’ and we spoke and made a date to get together and do the ‘Borderline’ stuff. He’d freshly gotten off the plane from doing Saturday Night Live and we did that immediately, like the whole shoot was done at like 5 o’clock in the morning at his new house.
We did it quickly, turned it around because we had to get that single out, and then it was shortly after that that we started discussing the big event, which was going to be the record. It was sort of in the air… I don’t know how to put it into words, we just had this feeling that we might do something bigger. He called me over the summer, and we discussed a bunch of different creative ideas. We were both thinking along the same lines, we both wanted to do a surrealistic interpretation of what ‘time’ is, and trying to do it not in a kind of throwback way, but a simplified way; almost like a Magritte, Dali-esque surrealist image that looks completely real, like it’s a real place.
I was suggesting various spots, and he came to the table with the idea of going to Namibia. Listening to him telling me why he wanted to go there and what he wanted to see, I kind of fell in love with the romance of him telling me the story. It just felt so much more appropriate for us to make the pilgrimage to Nambia and actually do the work—you know, he and I are both in our thirties, we’re not old men, so I was like if we’re ever going to do this, now is the time. Also, i just felt like the story would be better; there’s not going to be much of a story if we fake it and I use a phoney location that I kind of computer graphic, or composition it or whatever.
It looks amazing. And you guys were fully in there, digging in the sand and stuff right?
(Laughs) Well, what’s amazing is that once we actually gave each other the hi five over the phone that we were going to do it, thus began the journey of actually getting the thing produced.
Which must have been tough.
Yeah, it wasn’t like, ‘ok we can go now’. It was a Herculean task that I put upon my production team and for the next four months we struggled to get approved, and to get the proper visas, and to bring all this foreign equipment into a different country; which I imagine now is even harder with the virus being so active. That was a journey unto itself. I got there about a week before Kevin arrived and had the lay of the land with my team, and handpicked what I thought were the most compelling spots. I had an idea of what Kevin was looking at as being the potential cover—I had other rooms in mind which I thought were just as equally strong candidates—but I think that that had to win out for various cosmic reasons on his behalf. But yeah, we actually did some physical digging. Because what happened was, the room that was the cover, was his sort of dream shot. But when we arrived, the sand was to the ceiling (laughs).
No way, so you had to dig it all out?
Well, it was kind of hard to find because we had this giant buffet of references. And when I found the room I was like, I think this it the room but it’s hard to tell, because the sand is literally to the ceiling.
Is it a big town that you were searching through?
The place is… you kind of get off the highway, and it’s a little mini town. What’s there is what was a proper community, with hospitals and gyms and what was obviously a thriving community at one point, where there was diamond mining up until the 30s and 40s. So, it’s kind of a dream within a dream walking around there, imaging what was once a thriving community is now a lost dream.
Must be little bit eery.
It is eery, but in the best possible way. And I think what creates the sort of outer body experience that you have walking around is the fact that it has been fully encompassed by the sand; it’s blowing through the windows and the doors because there’s all these nearby sand dunes.
So the sand forms are constantly changing?
Constantly changing and flowing through each and every individual property that’s on that lot.
That’s amazing. I saw on a Reddit thread, when the album hadn’t dropped yet but your cover had, that people were making little 3D models of your album cover.
(Laughs) No, I haven’t seen those, they were actual 3D models?
Yeah! And it made me think, Tame Impala has such a fandom around it, is that something that plays on your mind throughout the process?
I always feel that way with any project that I do, I always want it to be strong. Truth be told, I think when you know there’s going to be that many more eyes on a project, you definitely feel that. Also, the artists that have previously contributed to the Tame Impala artworks are all friends of mine, like everyone knows everybody, and you want to continue the work in the right direction. It’s not an anxiety I feel, it’s just a pressure, a healthy pressure that I’m aware of; like knowing you’re going to have to play a really big game. You know you’re on a winning team and that the team needs to keep winning (laughs). I don’t let it ruin the process, but I know that it’s there. I think that it definitely feeds my alpha, Scorpio competitiveness to make it the best thing I can possibly make. But what’s a blessing about this particular body of work, is I was insistent that Kevin travel to Namibia, because I just thought I don’t want to have to call him from location, trying to explain to him what were doing. So he was actually able to physically be there, which is incredible for what we were doing.
We were able to get all of his publicity shot there as well which was like a dream, and not only that, but he was able to sit in on most of the edit with me back in LA. It was just night after night of us having a laugh, drinking wine and just enjoying the process of the discovery of the edit and where it should go. And having time to cerebrally going into, well, what do we want the colours to be? A lot of what you see in the artwork was clearly not there to begin with; a lot of the rooms were really destroyed and falling apart, ceilings caving in and graffiti everywhere, so obviously we weren’t going to leave that in. There was a lot of post [production] to create our own space within that space. We both knew that we didn’t want the images to be depressing or a bummer. We wanted you to be transported when you see this stuff, I wanted it to feel like it’s a place in your mind. And for those that really have no idea when they see this, I hope that they look at it and can’t tell if it’s a real place or if we faked it. I feel like they can sense that it’s half and half, which is cool.
And aside from the main image that you used for the cover, the whole package was incredible, especially the one with the ocean outside of the window.
What’s interesting is that the ocean wasn’t actually in that window, but it also wasn’t that far away. I actually finished that for ‘Posthumous Forgiveness’, once I heard the song I knew what to do. I was like, I think there needs to be an ocean, probably because—and I don’t think Kevin agrees with me on this—but Iv’e always felt that there’s some connection that Kevin has to the ocean with his music-making. He disagrees I think, but I’ve always felt like, if you do a little history of the past in his recording process, he’s kind of always been near bodies of water during his most creative process. And for whatever reason, the feeling that I had for the sentiment of the song, and the sort of emotional narrative that it’s given, I was like I don’t to see more abandoned properties through that window, I want to see something else. It’s one of my favourites.
Speaking of your favourites, let’s talk about Yeule. I was really interested in why you chose this project, as often people love to speak about the big-name collaborations they’ve done, which in your case, would be people like A$AP Rocky or The Weeknd.
I think so many things get hyped up unnecessarily, you know what I mean? I think with Yeule, what I really enjoy with that imagery and aesthetic is that it was so simply done, and about how rugged of a punk personality that she is. I feel like that is the first time I’d done such strong portraiture of someone in a very natural state. You look at all that imagery and you’re like, she has such an incredible look and that’s just her. There was no performance, no artifice, that’s who she really is. That was all done in my home studio, and when it came out and all the supporting imagery went everywhere, I felt like it helped to tell the story of what needed to be told for that record, and I’m just so proud of it. It’s such an incredible record too. She’s like 21 and doing such a phenomenal job of putting music together, and telling her story and creating an interesting, compelling narrative in her videos and everything. I was kind of blown away by it.
How did you guys first become connected?
I think she sent me a message to my studio, and I don’t often pay attention to that kind of stuff—not that I don’t care—it’s just one of those things that someone alerted me to, and it was such a genuine… it’s happened a couple of times: First Aid Kit years and years ago wrote me a similar note, and sometimes that stuff just kind of touches your heart, I don’t know how to explain it. I don’t know if serendipity if the right word, but something just connects and you feel like you should pay attention, and you need to be present for it, and you’re being called to do something that is important work. I dunno, I just go with my gut on that stuff.
Lana Del Rey
And your work for Lana Del Rey was amazing too. I read somewhere that when you were shooting the cover for Ultraviolence, you took something like a thousand photos and then ended up using the first photo?
Yeah, totally it’s true. I don’t know what is it, maybe other people have had a similar experience where you come back to the most natural place of where the shoot started… we weren’t trying. That first day, I think I remember treating it more like a test day, like let’s just get to know each other, be in a no-pressure zone and just hang out because we’d just met each other days before that. In looking back, when she and I had this mountain stack of photos, we were in my studio late at night and going through everything, and that one just stood out. I think we both found ourselves going, ‘This one seems the loudest.’ Let’s let it live, it’s alive! What I was struggling to consider in the whole package was the title was so loud—Ultraviolence is a pretty loud title, it’s not exactly subtle. And I was worried… i didn’t want the cover to be some action-packed, diehard image that suggested that. I just thought that wouldn’t date very well, so I thought that if we do something left field, it will look better for longer.
You were using a lot of cinematic references as inspiration for Ultraviolence. What have you been referencing at the moment for current work?
With the Lana image, I was thinking a lot about Cul-de-sac, the 60s black and white film. These days, oh man… I look at a lot of Pinky Violence imagery, which was like a sub-genre in Japan that did a lot of crazy exploitation movies. Some of the movies are really awful, but if you let your imagination run wild you can look at some graphic images, the way they did their posters, the way they did some of the sequences in their films… there’s a lot of really incredible stuff there. I even created a character called Pinky based on that whole concept that I’ve been working on for years with my friend Katrina. A lot of the stuff that I look at, especially in the last year or so, hasn’t been cinematic stuff. In fact, in terms of composition, I look at a lot of painter references. I’ve been trying to do more research on Francis Bacon the painter and how his process was, his choices of colour… I just find him to be so incredible and so inspiring. The stuff that I think I’ve been leaning into more is how colour can affect your mood and perception of work. I’m trying to just evolve my colour theory, and trying to evolve the work so that it looks like it’s changing. Because I feel myself changing, my tastes and whatever in previous years has evolved.
One of my favourite series of yours is Phantom Stage One. Can you tell me the story behind that? When I look at it it really reminds me of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
So many people have said that!
Yeah, but I’m totally not offended by it at all because I agree. I hadn’t thought about that at all in making it. A couple of years ago I started getting the first few ideas of what would become Phantom Stage One thing, and it’s Stage One because I’m actually probably going to do it in three stages and tell the whole story. I kept having these daydream, vivid… kind of phantasmagorical things come over me, and it even went into my REM sleep where I was envisioning these weird scenes and volcanoes. I’d wake up and scribble things down in my phone, and found myself waking up in the middle of night like being, ‘Oh my god, what the fuck was that?’ I’d email myself complete garbage; just weird words, nothing that made sense. It was a completely abstract thing that would come over me, and then I found the collaborators to work with and started to build it step by step.
When you and I spoke probably about a year and a half ago, that was when the early bits of it had just started coming out. The first Stage came out, which I think was like 40 or 50 pictures or whatever, but the whole thing to me was just a dream. It was trying to figure out how to… not comment about environmental things, but to sort of pull you on a journey of people going on a journey and witnessing these scenes. We just started Stage Two, I’m so excited. I think that as it evolves, hopefully, the arc of what I’m trying to do will become clear and even if it doesn’t that’s ok because I kind of like the idea that hopefully, the imagery leaves enough room for anyone’s interpretation of what it means. I’m not trying to comment too directly on anything, I kind of feel like it’s better… less is more. The more I shut up the better (laughs).
And was that an instance where you were evolving with your use of colour? Because that’s one of the biggest takeaways from me from that series, was how vivid and dramatic the colours were.
Oh my goodness, thank you. Yeah, maybe so. I think when I woke up, I saw the way that my brain was interpreting it in my sleep, which was super vivid and not real, it was sort of 50s technicolor and there’s a lot of things that I attempted in those first stages that I wasn’t able to achieve, that I learned was just too difficult with big groups of people and the elements, you know. Some of those shoots are maybe the hardest physical shoots that I’ve ever done in my life; just getting the set-ups right and editing is an absolute nightmare. But now they’re finished they feel incredible because it just takes so much to get those shots completed.
Is that one of the first times that your dreams have dictated a project, or is that usually how it works for you?
The daydreams are the best. That’s usually where I find most of my inspiration. I don’t generally dream photos stuff or film stuff, thank god maybe… it’s a little reprieve (laughs). Usually daydreaming and getting out of my studio and going on a walk usually activates it fairly quickly. I dunno, I feel like I’ve had that since I was a little kid too.
So, I’ve only really seen glimpses of your Born Again series on Tumblr. Can you tell me a bit more about it?
I’m finishing it this year, and I think it’s some of my best portrait work I’ve ever done. What’s interesting is that I’ve been shooting on a particular film stock, and I’ve set my studio up as such to try and make the images look as classical and romantic-style—I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the term chiaroscuro?
Yeah, it was a technique used in Renaissance paintings?
Yeah, and I’d never really done anything like that before, and I was really influenced by Joseph Wright of Derby, who was a painter from the late 1700s. If you look at a lot of old horror novels, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I think they used a Joseph Wright painting for that. It was the first time I’d seen it as a kid, and as I got older I discovered more of his Renaissance painting and landscapes, and how dramatic they were. I saw it again probably five years ago again and it reminded me of how much of an impact that work had on me. I thought I need to figure out a way to give it that drama in my studio, but obviously in a new way, in the kind of demented way that I would do it. I started putting together a weird cast of people I usually work with, and I tried to give them the look and feel of people that have fallen out of The Living Theatre, which is like a theatre group in the 60s. I was like, I want this to look like freaks that fell and landed in this non-space, and we just happened to find these photographs on the ground.
I kept thinking ‘What is this collection going to be called?’ And I remember being a kid and being raised super religious—I’m not religious in any way shape of form now—but I remember the first kind of contact I had with the opposite sex was in church basements in the dark, terrified and horrified, but also thrilled at the same time. The words that were always thrown around in those days were ‘born again’ and these kind of religious terms, and I remember thinking of that when I was putting this work together. It was so outrageous, because I think of this as a title that’s contradictory to the imagery that’s coming across. It just felt so ridiculous that it should just stick.