Behind the Album Covers with Leif Podhajsky


Artwork by Leif Podhajsky

Leif Podhajsky’s artworks are plastered across some of the best albums of the past decade.

And given we’re only weeks away from closing out the 2010s, what better time to ask him to tell us the stories behind some of his all-time favourite album covers? The Australian graphic designer’s instantly recognisable aesthetic of mind-melting, psychedelic forms has provided visuals for the likes of Tame Impala, Bonobo, Foals, Lykke Li, Mount Kimbie, Santigold, London Grammar and more, all of which you’ll find in his first-ever monograph currently up for funding, New Psychedelia. Go throw some coin at Leif’s incredible new book here, and read on for the stories behind some of his best album covers below.

Tame Impala – Innerspeaker

What hasn’t been said about this album? Out of everything I’ve done, people still ask about this one the most; it’s a blessing and a curse. What I like is that it’s stood the test of time, it still feels timeless to me and I’m happy with that. I was living in Melbourne and if I recall correctly, Glen Goetze from Modular Records sent me a very short email asking if I wanted to put together some ideas for Tame Impala… had I heard of them? Yes, I had and I was excited by the prospect and a little daunted too, as I knew this album would sort of represent a time and movement that I felt a part of. Little did I know the impact this album would have on so many other people.

Kevin [Parker] had some ideas about creating this repeating effect that had a sort of acid haze. I locked myself away and just listened to some of the tracks he sent me; the hard part was getting the Droste effect just right, so that it felt like a normal landscape but with just enough of a surreal twist as to trick the mind into an infinite loop. I remember we went through so many options and I was starting to feel pretty exhausted by the whole process. But in the end, it was more than worth it. I think I still have an original 12” and some Innerspeaker rolling papers in a friend’s lock-up in Melbourne… that’s if he hasn’t lost or sold them.

Bonobo – The North Borders

This one came about due to sad circumstances. Ewan, one of the creators of Bonobo’s previous album Black Sands, had passed away. I stepped in quite late, as I remember the due date was really tight and the label Ninja Tune needed something ASAP. They wanted to explore a similar style to Black Sands, which was photography based, with landscapes etcetera. I put together a range of pieces which we sent to Simon (Bonobo) and at the end, I put in some ideas that were a little more surreal and abstract whilst still capturing the feeling of a vast landscape.

Luckily Simon really loved those and we pushed forward with the idea, which I think really captures the album nicely. What do you see? Some people see a giant wave, others a mountain… For me, creating something which has intrigue is really important to setting the scene for an album—it sets you up for the journey without giving too much away. It gives the listener a starting point to create their own memories and feelings of the music.

We also did an amazing box-set with 10x 10” vinyl, one which was engraved with a symbol I had designed. It’s a cracking record, and I’m super happy to have worked on this one. The live show for this was really ambitious for an electronic album, everything was live, with loads of guest vocals and strings. I have a great photo from a sold-out Brixton Academy show with these giant glitter cannons going off and a full stage of people.

Young Magic – Melt

A classic! We go way back and this album, more than any, sums up my time in Melbourne. A very beautiful and explorative time, many seeds were planted. Isaac [Emmanuel] used to come around to my house and I would show him ideas or experiment in Photoshop. He would be sitting there saying, ‘This is great, but this one also…’ It was like one of those memes of a creative director hovering over your shoulder (laughs).

But it was fine as we’re really close friends and there was a lot of experimenting going on. I think this one was a beautiful mistake. I was playing around with the warp tool… no, the liquify tool, and in CS4 that was a spasmodic, glitch-prone business, likely to crash the whole program. I made this mark and it just looked super otherworldly. We were both like, ‘That looks cool…’ I think I tried many of these effects but none ever looked as good as that first one. For me, this piece feels like the perfect blend of digital and organic. A weird paradox. I think it also sums up Young Magic’s sound: super lush, organic textures, but with electronic digital warmth also.

Mount Kimbie – Cold Spring Fault Less Youth

I’d moved to London and was living on Mare Street, just off London Fields. It felt like a really great time as there was loads of great music coming out. I’d just done or was doing stuff for Bonono and Tame Impala’s Lonerism album. When I think back, it was such a great time to be in London and pushing what I did.

For this cover, the boys sent me a range of reference images; loads of blue note jazz covers, but also a lot of more modern graphical pieces. I really wanted to make a sort of modern, electronic version of a blue note record cover, and I think that’s exactly how it turned out. The style for me at the time was really different to what I was doing. I just started experimenting with these block colours and when I made it I thought, ‘This is it!’ I sent the band a range of concepts hoping, but not certain, they would like this one. Turns out they both really loved it and felt it captured the album really well.

I remember going to meet them—lovely blokes. They had a studio right around the corner from my house and we had coffee at E5 Bakery and then went back to their manager’s office which was a large warehouse. I have a photo of them playing FIFA… I wonder who they support? Hopefully not Arsenal.

Tame Impala – Lonerism

Second Tame Impala album, and this time round I was living in London and again, it felt like this album was going to solidify the times. It did.

After staying in touch with Kevin, I had done a rough test shoot on this POV idea Kevin had and heard nothing back. Then out of the blue, not long before the album dropped, Kevin wrote me and said they had an agency working on some concepts which in the end didn’t resonate. He had these photos he had taken in Paris on, I think, a disposable camera and wanted to see if I could work that idea. So this one was really about just finessing the photo a bit and giving the package a bit of a story.

I remember him saying that the album was about being a loner, an outsider looking in. After he sent me two tracks, I knew that the photo could really represent the time and place in his life in which he made the album and I think in that way it really suits the themes on the record. The photo was of Jardin du Luxembourg, peering through the steel bars… this separation with the happy sunbathers. I love this has a deeper meaning that’s maybe not evident straight away. The back cover is him lying in his studio apartment with his gear all around him. I love how the cover offers this feeling of isolation and then the back cover offers this warm world he’s made for himself. As a bit of an introvert myself, this really resonates and I think it offers solace. I had a really great time working on the singles for this one, we did a whole bunch of 12” releases and a box-set.

Foals – Holy Fire

I have no idea how this one came about, another East London connection perhaps, but I do remember having beers with the lads at Railway Tavern in Dalston, which is my sort of old school boozer, very tucked away. I had a few meetings with Yannis [Foal’s frontman] and he would just take the piss, winding me up. So I was obliged to do the same and I think that solidified the relationship. I remember he would send me loads of image references, a constant stream… I think he had seen the photo of the horses on a Tumblr somewhere and we tracked down the original photo by Thomas Nebbia, which was published in Nat Geo. The original photos were really clean and you could see more of what was happening; we cropped it in, and I played with the texture and darkness, so it looks like the horses are all out to sea. I think this creates a nice ambiguity, again giving the listener a jumping-off point. It’s very cinematic.

All We Are (Self Titled)

This is still one of my favourite covers I’ve done. Again, it’s different to a lot of the other covers I’ve made, and I always like exploring new ways to create and push my work. I remember a bit of a mad rush to meet the band before they shot back to Liverpool, and we instantly hit it off and I felt I really understood what they were trying to achieve; one of those meetings you come away from feeling energised. After our chat, they sent me three images: one that had a 70’s light and dark vibe, a still from The Shining, and another one I can’t remember. But we talked about creating something that gives the feeling of unease, dark and light. They also wanted to have this strong human connection.

The central figure, lonesome, surrounded by blue. There’s a really nice duality going on here which I think also exists in their music. Warm and happy, but also alluding to something darker and mysterious. I just love how all the colours feel in harmony and the thin logo in yellow type brings it all together. For the singles, I used the same figure but in different positions, with the body contorted to represent each of the songs. I wish I got to hang out with these three more often, they always seemed as if they were living every moment and always having fun!

Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

Also a long time ago now, it’s all a bit hazy. After I’d done the Innerspeaker cover, I thought maybe this is a good idea to make album covers, sounded like a fun job. So I thought, ‘How can I do more of these?’ I used to go to the newsagency and take photos of all the credit pages in magazines, fashion, music, whatever, and then research and try and find email addresses and see about any jobs. Looking back it was such a naive but brilliant way to do it.

By chance, I got in touch with the Creative Director of Pop magazine and he just happened to be good friends and creative director for Lykke Li, who was needing some artwork for her new album. I remember having a few phone calls with Lykke and we seemed to be on the same page with a lot of things. She had these beautiful photos by photographer Roger Deckker and wanted to create something dark and full of emotion. We actually went in a very different direction in the beginning and something wasn’t quite clicking, but I send over some ideas with the final shot and this really resonated with Lykke, so we pushed on in that direction. She sent me over some scans of paper that she had scratched into and we integrated that into the cover.

All the type was handset, all the kerning and leading is worn and slightly off-kilter, which I think adds to the overall dark, mysterious vibe. Towards the middle of the campaign, I flew out to finish the artwork with Lykke in New York… it must have been January as it was bitterly cold. I was meant to be staying in Midtown but ended up just crashing on a friend’s couch down in Lower East Side, as Midtown makes me lonely. It just so happened that Lykke was working out of Peter Bjorn’s house, which was weirdly on the same street. I’d go around in the morning with coffee and bagels and she’d give me some direction and then flit off to prior engagements. It was weird sitting in Peter Bjorn’s house looking at all the guitars and watching the low sun dip into darkness. It felt very right for the album. I ended up going straight to Mexico on a bit of a wild adventure straight after this… but that’s another story.

Help make Leif’s New Psychedelia a reality by pledging here (and you’ll get limited-edition goodies and a copy of the book for doing so).

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