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Your Space Or Mine

Neil Krug’s psychedelic desert dreamscapes are coming to a billboard near you

Album sleeves remain one of the most significant pop-culture artefacts of all-time and iconic record covers are, without a doubt, among the most cherished, reproduced, and evocative works of art we encounter in our everyday lives. After a swift ascent to become one of the music industry’s most sought-after creators of album artwork, collaborating with the likes of Bonobo and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Neil Krug’s sleeves are future classics. From the film noir menace of Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence to the enigmatic, sand-filled, sunlit interior that graced the cover of Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush, his images are already very much embedded in the cultural consciousness (or what he refers to as “the musical cosmos’).

Drawing on a unique and stylish lexicon of cinematic references, his distinctive photographs often evoke the high-key colour of a Californian dreamscape. With its irresistible golden light, and that uncanny experience of boulevards and vistas you’ve encountered a thousand times before, as if in a dream or immortalised on the silver screen, California seems like the perfect home for Krug’s saturated, otherworldly images.

While influenced by the enduring aesthetic of the 1960s exploitation movies which he devoured as a youth, Krug’s vision seems to depict a world disorientingly dislocated from time. Like so many others prepared to make their home on a fault-line for the promise of eternal summer, the Kansas-born photographer was drawn to the Pacific Coast by the elusive, shimmering mirage of bygone California. “It’s something that doesn’t exist anymore,” he explains. “But it’s a place in our minds, and it’s present in the works I’ve made over the years.”


Words by Emily Dinsdale

Phantom: Stage One - Last Supper by Neil Krug
Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence by Neil Krug

As another artist who has assimilated the ghosts, glamour, and mythology of old-Hollywood into their work, Lana Del Rey seems like a dream subject and collaborator for Krug (who, in addition to shooting the cover for Ultraviolence, has also been recently working on imagery for her next record). But the pair’s artistic union was delayed due to Del Rey’s misbelief that Krug was dead. As a big admirer of his work, she’d first came aware of him through Pulp Art Book paying stylistic homage to the B-movies of the 1960s and ’70s. Del Rey had, for some reason, been led to believe the book was the beautiful last statement of the artist before his untimely demise. “Something about that work suggested the maker must be dead by the uninitiated viewer,” Krug tells us. ”In spite of this misunderstanding, a great collaboration commenced once she and I met up and realised we’re the same age living in the same city. I probably have more polaroid’s of her than any other musician I’ve ever worked with.”

Phantom: Stage One is a phantasmagoric series of images created by Krug with his fellow-Texan artist, Kaiman Kazazian. Now, as part of BUILDHOLLYWOOD’s Your Space Or Mine project, 15 photographs (including the exclusive image, “Last Supper”) from this project will be displayed on billboards across cities in the UK. Set in the mysterious, lunar-like landscape of the desert, it recreates one of the photographer’s vivid dreams in which a lone woman follows a ghost into a psychedelic environment, Phantom invites us – the viewer – to follow her into the colourful, smoke-filled terrain.

How does Krug imagine his “desolate desert daydreams” will appear against the backdrop of the British streets? “I’ve always imagined Phantom being displayed on an extremely large scale,” he says. ‘If anything, this collaboration with BUILDHOLLYWOOD gives Phantom the ability to live within the context I envisioned.’ So, do keep an eye out for these surreal, psychedelic artworks coming to a billboard near you, but brace yourself for a potentially mind-blowing experience because, he warns, “I hope the series will feel like a hit of acid.”

Below, we talk to Neil Krug about the lure of Los Angeles, iconic record sleeves, and his hopes for Phantom: Stage One.

Looking back, what do you think were the most important creative influences from your early life? And how do you see those present in your photography today?

Neil Krug: Sesame Street, the Brothers Quay, and the film Blow-Up were all major influences. The fantasy, the horror, and the swagger – really the commingling of it all. I don’t see those influences present in any kind of literal form, but I know it’s there. I find all my early inspirations to be in this giant reservoir that has guided my taste throughout most of my life.

Could you share with us what drew you to designing album covers?

Neil Krug: Designing album covers happened completely by accident. I’ve always been influenced by music, which might have something to do with it, but it wasn’t something I sought out specifically. Since I was a kid, music has been an inspiring force in my life, and I’m appreciative when sound can conjure something from my subconscious into an image.

Bonobo - Migration by Neil Krug
A$AP Rocky by Neil Krug

There seems to have been a resurgence in vinyl. Has that felt very liberating in terms of how you approach creating the artwork?

Neil Krug: Absolutely. Whenever the opportunity presents itself for me to produce my work on a bigger scale, it’s a good day. The reduction of music and art into a tiny thumbnail is a damn shame, so I’m grateful to be making work in a time when vinyl still exists as a viable format. And more importantly, that people still care.

There’s something very dreamlike about Los Angeles – maybe it’s the light or something to do with being on a fault-line, and the presence of all that old-Hollywood mythology. In what ways, if any, do you feel that leaving Kansas for LA has influenced your work?

Neil Krug: I wouldn’t have the body of work that I have without my departure from Kansas to Los Angeles. It’s no surprise that the southwestern United States has been an important part of the work I’ve produced over the last ten years. As a teenager in Kansas, I consumed as many ‘60s exploitation films as I could get my hands on – all of which were filmed on the West Coast. In that consumption was something I’ve been chasing ever since, which is this conjured facsimile of California. It’s something that doesn’t exist anymore, but it’s a place in our minds, and it’s present in the works I’ve made over the years.

Lana Del Rey was a big admirer of your now-sought-after first book, Pulp Art Book. Could you tell us how you came to collaborate with her?

Neil Krug: My collaboration with Lana was something that had been in the works for a long time, kismet you might say. Ten years ago, Lana was told by a misinformed friend that I was dead and that my monograph, Pulp Art Book, was my final artistic statement. Something about that work suggested the maker must be dead by the uninitiated viewer. In spite of this misunderstanding, a great collaboration commenced once she and I met up and realised we’re the same age living in the same city. I probably have more polaroids of her than any other musician I’ve ever worked with. I’m excited for people to see the new imagery we’ve been working on for her new record.

Your sleeve for Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush is such a future classic. Could you tell us about the concept of that artwork?

Neil Krug: Thank you. It’s a favourite of mine, as well. I view that artwork as a piece of symbolism. But I feel different looking at it now than I did the day I shot it. People have written me describing what they think the cover means and how it has influenced their appreciation of the music, which is incredibly humbling. The cover artwork is defined by the listener and their impressions, and their experience is projected back onto the image. Certain works are best represented with little to no description, and I feel that The Slow Rush falls into that category. The concept was Kevin’s [Tame Impala] and he appointed me as the artist to help tell that story.

Tame Impala - The Slow Rush by by Neil Krug

If you could’ve designed the sleeve for any record of all time what would it be? And could you describe why this particular album captures your imagination?

Neil Krug: Peter Saville’s cover for Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division and the Andy Warhol banana cover to the first Velvet Underground record. Obvious choices but, for me, simplicity always wins in the end. Say everything you want to say with the least amount of fluff – get to the point. Those particular designs are brilliant and have lovingly branded themselves into the musical cosmos.

What are the inspirations for Phantom: Stage One? What story are you telling with this project?

Neil Krug: The genesis of the project began with a series of dreams I was having. I dreamt about a woman following a ghost into the desert and coming upon a group of people following a similar path. With any series I’ve made, whilst shooting, things begin to organically go in their own direction and I have to keep up with the energy as it comes. All the figures you see in Phantom are Kaiman Kazazian [fellow LA-based Texan artist and creative director] – her face and performance multiplied in crowds. She and I created The Clémenti Oiseaux, a fictitious band of strangers. It’s in this collaboration that we hope to pull the viewer into the universe in which these characters exist.

Phantom: Stage One is a great title with sci-fi and supernatural connotations. What does it mean to you?

Neil Krug: From the beginning, I wanted the title of the project to work with past imagery and all future stages of the series. So far so good. The title is as direct as the imagery, and I leave the rest up to the viewer.

How do you feel about the prospect of seeing this project displayed in city streets across the UK?

Neil Krug: It’s an honour I can’t put into words. I spent much of my late twenties and early thirties in the UK producing artworks for friends, so it feels like a surreal homecoming.

Recontextualised in this way, how do you think the meaning of Phantom: Stage One may change or be given an additional twist?

Neil Krug: I’ve always imagined Phantom being displayed on an extremely large scale. If anything, this collaboration with BUILDHOLLYWOOD gives Phantom the ability to live within the context I envisioned. The twist being the contrast of the desolate desert daydreams against the hazy London backdrop, creating even more of a surreal co-mingling of imagery.

How do you hope Phantom: Stage One may affect passers-by who see it? What impression would you like your images to leave with them?

Neil Krug: I hope the series will feel like a hit of acid; that the viewer will be left wondering what happens once the smoke clears. If you could just unpause the gathering, where are they all going? I want imaginations to run wild. I hope passers-by go, ‘Oh, this isn’t another ad for… fill in the blank.’ That would be a success for me.

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