Meet the Grammy-Winning Creative Director of The Black Keys
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
Creative Director Michael Carney may be the first Working Not Working Member to win a Grammy. You've undoubtedly encountered his album artwork for some of rock music's most notable acts, both classic and contemporary. We talk to Carney below about his creative journey from his background in Akron to his current design practice in Nashville. He gives us a behind-the-scenes look at his early start designing album covers, posters, t-shirts, and flyers for his brother Patrick's band The Black Keys, and how that culminated in a Grammy for his work on their 2011 album Brothers.
The utilitarian minimalism of Carney's approach on projects like Brothers follows through on his DIY foundations, as he constantly pushes himself to explore new mediums and techniques where design doesn't distract. "Not having a formal knowledge of how to do a lot of the stuff that I wanted to do forced me to learn the process for whatever medium I wanted to use for every project I took on. If I wanted to do a photo-based cover, I would go to the library and read about how to set up lights and what speed of film to use and stuff like that. It never occurred to me to get someone else to take the photo or do any part of those projects so I just figured it out. That D.I.Y. way of working is something that I still see in my work and is really something that I can’t shake."
Carney gives us a very generous glimpse into the process of designing memorable album artwork, as well as the logistics of working directly with the artist versus the label, and how trust in his craft often determines the outcome. "For me, the moment you start subverting any of those visual expectations [of album artwork] is when you start making something interesting. That only happens when the artist trusts you and is actively fighting for your vision."
Carney has lately been pushing his creative boundaries by immersing himself in new creative industries like film and fashion. He's currently working on a project for a major movie studio, designing the relaunch of a currently defunct line of Japanese eyewear, and launching a line of graphic t-shirts out this fall.
Tell us a little bit about your creative background. Who is Michael Carney and how did he get here?
I grew up in Akron, Ohio, and have three brothers. From an early age, I really liked to draw and my family was incredibly supportive of that. I took a lot of art classes as a kid and then in high school entered a Magnet Arts Program.
After high school, I went to an art school called Columbus College of Art and Design that has an aesthetic philosophy that is heavily influenced by the Bauhaus. While I was a student my older brother Patrick was playing in bands and recording music. So I started making the art and designs for the stuff he was doing. His band got a record deal while I was in my first year in art school and I did the art for their album and designed t-shirts and buttons and flyers for them. Then the following fall he formed The Black Keys, and I started doing all the art and photography for them as well as going on tour with them when I could. By my junior year at CCAD I was doing freelance projects for Fat Possum Records who released The Black Keys second and third LPs… By the time I finished Art School I had done around 8 record jackets and a bunch of shirts, posters, and other stuff.
After I graduated, I spent about a year or so moving around a lot and doing little freelance projects here and there and playing in bands. Then one of my friends got a job as a t-shirt designer at Abercrombie and Fitch and he sent one of the recruiters my stuff. I got a job there and it was pretty miserable, but it motivated me to do my own design projects at night and on weekends so that at some point I could work on my own design projects full time. I did three years there and looking back I learned a lot during that time. More importantly, I met a ton of really amazing and talented people. They closed the brand I was designing for and I left.
Then I moved to New York and worked a day job in fashion and did freelance design for bands in my spare time. During this whole period, I had been doing more and more design work for The Black Keys. In late 2010/early 2011, I was nominated for and won a Grammy for Best Album Package for my work on The Black Keys album Brothers. A few months later I quit my day job and started my own design studio and was hired officially as the Art Director/Creative Director for The Black Keys, overseeing all visual aspects of the band’s output: albums, singles, merch, photography, video, web, marketing.
In addition to my work with The Black Keys, I work as an independently hired designer, creative director, art director and consultant with an eclectic group of clients across many industries, but mainly within the music, culture and fashion space.
How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links all of your projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project as its own entity?
I have actively attempted to avoid a signature style within my work. My goal is always to create a style that is right for each project. That being said, I have a way of making my work that some could argue constitutes a style and there are definitely aesthetic and conceptual themes that can be observed across much of my work.
There are a few things that I attempt to achieve within my work when possible. One major goal is a clear conceptual direction. I don’t think it is enough to just make something visually pleasing, though often times that is all the client wants or is willing to do. With music packaging especially, my goal is always to build my art around an idea or a concept that is the backbone of the design. The most impactful designs to me are ones that have something happening beyond the surface level visual information.
My work also leans heavily on typography. In terms of a typographical style, I use a lot of old typefaces and fonts. I collect font books and catalogs and other printed material containing fonts and examples of type. My interest is not just in finding an obscure font, but often times finding a commonplace font and a way to cast it in a new light.
Another stylistic theme that I see across a lot of my work is the idea of utilitarian minimalism. I think of that as a more low-brow version of minimalism. Minimalism that is created out of an attempt at avoidance of design rather than pure design in its simplest form. There is a magic in things that are seemingly undesigned or when the design is based solely on utility. An example would be stenciled type that is made from a set of stencils that is missing a certain letter, so that a letter is fudged by the person using the stencils. Even if it is the most overused stencil font, the end product is a dynamic piece of typography.
Can you give us a little insight into your process for designing album artwork? Do you try to only allow the music itself to influence your visual response, or do you also draw inspiration from what you’re into at the moment?
Every music packaging project is different. Often times I am flying totally blind. No music, sometimes no album title. I have even been asked to pitch concepts based on the album title only because they wouldn't say who the artist was. The ideal way for me is to work directly with the artist from the beginning. I find that it's the easiest way for me to get an idea for who they are, where their head is, and what they are interested in. Sometimes I build out a concept while brainstorming with them and other times I bring a partial idea and flesh it out with them. The only artists I really just pitch fleshed out ideas to are ones I have a long-standing relationship with and an established level of trust with.
Working on album artwork is totally dependent on the level of trust that the client has with me. The highest level of trust comes from working directly with the artist. You can get a pretty high level of trust working directly with the label but oftentimes artists have a distrust for the recommendations of their label that can make my job more difficult. If they don’t trust you they are only going to let you do something straightforward, because they don’t know if they can trust you to take creative risks.
At its most simple form, an album cover has the artist's name, the album name and an image; in an even more basic format, that image is a flattering image of the artist. Some artists are not willing to sidestep any of those unwritten rules, and usually, that is because they don’t trust the designer. For me, the moment you start subverting any of those visual expectations is when you start making something interesting. That only happens when the artist trusts you and is actively fighting for your vision.
Do you find that it’s easier to create album artwork if you’re a fan of the music, or does it not really make a difference in your approach?
I have been very lucky to have never been in a position to work on a project for an artist who’s music I do not like. I also don’t really fan out on stuff so much as have a sort of reverence for the project when it is someone I am a huge fan of. When I was first starting out I could get pretty blocked if I thought too much about the scale of the project or the profile of the artist. Nothing productive comes from thinking about that stuff; my way of navigating this is to treat everything like it is the most visible project of my career.
What are some ways that your skill-set and style have evolved over the years, either from personal growth or changes in the industry? Have you introduced new methods and materials?
Since I got my start at such a young age I have really changed dramatically in terms of almost everything if I am being totally honest. When I was working on my first projects I really had no idea what I was doing in every possible way. I could build an idea and that was about it. The other thing that helped at that point was a massive fear of doing bad work, which motivated me to be hyper critical of my work. Not having a formal knowledge of how to do a lot of the stuff that I wanted to do forced me to learn the process for whatever medium I wanted to use for every project I took on. If I wanted to do a photo-based cover, I would go to the library and read about how to set up lights and what speed of film to use and stuff like that. It never occurred to me to get someone else to take the photo or do any part of those projects so I just figured it out. That D.I.Y. way of working is something that I still see in my work and is really something that I can’t shake. I think it is a really good thing aesthetically, but in terms of work flow, it can get annoying.
I do a lot of reverse engineering to figure out how someone made something and then trying to implement that in my own way. It is a lot like recording music: if you want something to sound like a cello, you are gonna need to play it on a cello, or else it will sound like a synthesizer that's trying to sound like a cello. A lot of designers don't get that. They don’t get that if they want to do something that looks like a 1960s psychedelic poster, they can’t do it in Illustrator using vector from start to finish. You can’t make something look like a hatch show poster if you are using a font that was designed in 1998 typeset on a computer. That is why you see so much of that uncanny valley vintage style design. Trying to replicate the style rather than the process always turns out something weird and off-putting.
What are some of the similarities and differences in designing album artwork and doing advertising work for the likes of Warner Bros, Netflix, Marc Jacobs and J. Crew?
At its core, it is all the same work: coming up with an idea, refining the idea, executing the idea, and at some point pitching the executed idea. The experience of doing an album's packaging can vary so much from project to project or client to client it’s hard to set that as a barometer to measure other work against. Usually, work that is not album packaging is a less complicated process, a bit easier.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I pretty much only work on stuff that I can’t talk about until it is announced so I end up seeming weird and vague when people ask me what I am working on. I have a project for a movie with a major studio that I am working on this year/early next year. I have a couple music packaging things going on.
I am currently working on the branding and packaging design for the relaunch of a now defunct 1980s eyewear line. It is a collaboration with my friend Tommy Ogara who started the eyewear brand Native Sons. The frames are all made in Japan and are really incredible. The packaging and branding are starting to take shape now and I am very excited about it. The product is really incredible; they are literally the nicest frames on the market.
I am also launching a line of graphic t-shirts this fall. It is a little early to talk about it, but I've been spending a lot of time on that.
What’s the design scene like in Nashville?
I don’t really know, to be honest. The most social I am is when I go work at my friend's print shop a couple nights a month; he has a clam shell letterpress, every type of silk screen press and about 10 risograph machines. So I go work with him on stuff and we talk shop. Mainly printing personal projects/zines/t-shirts and stuff like that.
Beyond that my design/art social world exists via text or social media. All of my friends are spread out around the world at this point so I don't have the luxury of hanging out in person the way I did in the past.
What do you do when Not Working?
I have two kids under 3 so almost all of my free time is spent with them. I really like to cook and I do that as much as I can. Trying to get back into the swing of skateboarding too.
What’s your favorite Black Keys album?
It is probably Brothers or Chulahoma (not technically an album)
What albums should WNW Members go listen to immediately?
Here are some albums I really like in no particular order:
Link Wray - Link Wray
Townes Van Zandt - Townes Van Zandt
Aphrodite’s Chid - 666
Spacemen 3 - Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To
Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band - Safe as Milk
Grandaddy - The Sophtware Slump
Throbbing Gristle - 20 Jazz Funk Greats
Dion - Born To Be With You
Flower Travellin’ Band - Satori
Serge Gainsbourg - Histoire De Melody Nelson
Dr. Alimantado - Best Dressed Chicken In Town
Silver Jews - The Natural Bridge
Jimmy Cauty (member of KLF) - Space
Brian Eno - Another Green World
The Cramps - Songs the Lord Taught Us