Robert Crumb is probably best known from his career as a comic book artist, specifically from the world of underground comics in the United States in the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s. Characters such as Mr. Natural have assured Crumb’s name will endure amongst comic fans for years to come. However, talent like his does not pass unnoticed and his work has graced more than just the pages of comic books. Aside from illustrating Crumb has another passion, early twentieth century popular music. Over the course of his career drawing comics he has also been steadily amassing a portfolio of music related art work. He’s designed everything from record covers to business cards and letterhead for small companies to promotional material for concerts and record stores.
However, he’s not limited his passion for music to just illustrations and is not only an avid collector of old 78 RPM records of his preferred music. He has also become an accomplished musician in his own right. Most recently he lent his talents as a mandolin player to the Eden and John’s East River String Band recording Be Kind To A Man When He’s Down, but he’s been playing music since his days as leader of the Cheap Suit Serenaders back in the late 1970s. While some of that music is readily available the same can’t be said for his music related illustrations. But that’s all about to change with the forthcoming release of The Complete Record Cover Collection from Norton Books in November of 2011.
I had the good fortune to be offered the opportunity to put some questions to Mr. Crumb regarding this new book and the music that inspired it. I forwarded my questions for him by email, and what you’re about to read are his answers exactly as he wrote them. A fascinating man with an amazing talent, hopefully the following interview will provide you some insight into how his passion for music developed and how that translated into his artwork. I’d just like to thank Robert Weil at Norton Books for setting the interview up and Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer them. Enjoy.
1) When did you first discover music? What was it about the music you heard that captivated you?
When did I first discover music? I first discovered music on April 23rd, 1947. No, just kidding. I don’t think people “discover” music, as there is always some kind of music around from the time we are born. We just become gradually more aware of it as we grow. In the modern world with its pervasive mass media, the first music most of us become aware of, aside perhaps from nursery songs, is mass-produced popular music. I remember as a kid in the late 1940s — early ‘50s hearing the popular music of the time coming from radios. I recall that it had a mildly depressing affect on me… Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Vaughn Monroe, Frankie Lane, Patti Page, Teresa Brewer. There was something unspeakably awful and dreary about this pop music of the time. In general I have had a loathing for popular music all my life, except for the period of early rock and roll; 1955-1966. I liked some of that music, and still do. I really lost interest after about 1970.
The first music that really “captivated” me was film and cartoon sound track music from the early days of the “talkies,” the early 1930s, which I was exposed to from watching television in the 1950s. Early Hal Roach comedy shorts such as “The Little Rascals” and Laurel and Hardy were shown over and over again, and the background music in these reached deep into me, I’m not sure why. Much later — decades later — I learned that these great bits of background music in the Hal Roach comedies were all composed by an unassuming, behind-the-scenes music business man named Leroy Shield; he is still relatively unknown and forgotten.
Then at age 16 I discovered that this kind of music could be found on old 78 rpm records of the 1920s and ‘30s. That was a great revelation, and from then on I became an obsessive collector of old records. At first my main interest was the old dance orchestras and jazz bands that sounded like the music in old movies and Hal Roach comedies, but then I started listening to old blues 78s that I found. They sounded strange and exotic to me at first, but I grew to love this music — blues of the 1920s — early ‘30s. Then I discovered old-time country music. Again, at first it sounded crude, rough, but this music, too, I grew to love. From there I went on to find that old Ukrainian and Polish polka bands of this same period — 1920s – early ‘30s — were also great, and then I found old Irish records — wonderful stuff — Greek records, Mexican, Carribean, on and on. Over here, living in Europe, I found great old French music, Arab/North African music, sub-saharan, black African music, Armenian and Turkish music, even Hindou Indian music, on the old pre WW II 78s. So now, you can imagine, I have a pretty big collection of these old discs — 6,500 of them, more or less, an embarrassment of musical riches.
2) Illustration became your first primary means of expression, not music, what held you back from pursuing a career as a musician?
From an early age I had a strong desire to play music but there was no one in my immediate environment to show me anything. My parents had no interest in music beyond listening to pop radio. I started on my own at age 12 with a plastic ukulele, and a pamphlet showing how to tune the thing and some chord positions. Ironically, my mother’s father had been a musician, playing string instruments — banjo, mandolin, guitar — but he died when I was only a year old. None of his children showed any interest in learning to play music.
As with comics and cartoons, I learned to play music just by working at it on my own, with no formal lessons. But I did not possess a “real” instrument til I was in my late 20s. It was not until then that I finally met others my age who liked and played the same kind of music as me. I have always enjoyed playing music but never particularly enjoyed performing in public. Though I did play many gigs with various bands, I never got over feeling extremely nervous and self-conscious in front of an audience. A career in music did not interest me. I already had a “career” as a cartoonisht/artist, anyway. Plus, there really is no such thing as a career in the kind of music I like to play. You gotta have a regular job and play old-time music on the side, for the pleasure of it.
3) Aside from those illustrations directly related to music, album covers, promotional materials etc. what if any influences did the music you love have on your art work?
None that I can perceive.
4) Your first commission for an album cover was, I believe, for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. How did that come about?
In 1968 I was living in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. ZAP Comix had already come out and I was beginning to be well-known in the hippy subculture. I was approached by someone in the “Big Brother” band to do the album cover. I was not crazy about their music but I needed the money. We (my wife Dana and I and our son Jesse) were living on public assistance, or welfare, at the time. Columbia Records offered $600 for doing the cover. That was big money to me at the time. Actually, I was drafted at the last moment, as the band was not happy with the cover produced by the record company. I had to “pull an all-nighter” to get it done. I took some amphetamines and cranked it out. I remember finishing the work as the sun was coming up over the house tops outside my window. You can do that kind of thing when you’re 25.
5) Did you start actively seeking out gigs doing album covers after that, or did you think of it as a one off deal at the time?
I’d given up on being a commercial artist by 1968, and had found to my complete amazement that I could do my own crazy comics and get them published in the hippy so-called “underground” press. There was little or no money in it, but who cared? It was TOTAL FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION in my chosen medium — print! It was the hippy era, man, survival was “transcendental.” We didn’t worry too much about money. That came later, when my work actually started to MAKE money, then there were lots of money problems, I was buried under money problems by the mid-1970s. But that’s another story.
The only other album cover work that interested me much was making covers for reissues of the old music from 78s that I loved, and that I usually did in exchange for — guess what? — 78s! I’m still doing this today.
6) The majority of your album covers appear to reflect your taste in music — old time country, traditional jazz and acoustic blues. Were there gigs you turned down because they weren’t from one of those genres and if so why? What is it about that type of music that attracts you more than others?
I’ve turned down a few offers to do album covers for rock bands — not much. I don’t need the money, I hate the music — Why do it?
What is it that attracts me to old time music of the 1920s and ‘30s? I don’t know. I could go on about how the older music sounds more authentic, less contrived, more home-made, etc. But I’m not sure that really explains it. Some kind of neurological fixation I don’t know. Who can explain these things? You tell me, why do you like what you like?
7) What’s your process for creating the cover art for an album? For Eden and John’s East River String Band’s most recent recording, Be Kind To A Man When He’s Down, you created an image based around the disc’s title featuring the musicians playing in the disc, but what other attributes influence you?
Creative processes are a hard thing to talk about, and there are so many different processes or approaches. For instance, in the case of Eden and John’s East River String Band, the idea for the cover was suggested by them. I liked their idea and used it.
8) You were one of the musicians on that album, mandolin. When did you start playing and performing music? Why a mandolin?
I “graduated” from the ukulele in my 20s to the tenor banjo. For many years, I just banged out chords on the banjo, then I branched out into the guitar and the mandolin, in my ‘30s. I’ve also fooled around on piano and accordion. I tried the fiddle for a while, but gave up on it as it sounds pretty awful until you get good at it, after a lot of practice. Now I think I should have stuck with it. By now I’d probably be at least serviceable on it, if I’d persisted. I’d be able to get through, you know, “Home Sweet Home” or “Oh Suzanna,” stuff like that. That’s about my speed anyway. I never achieved virtuosity on any instrument, plus, I play string instruments backwards, left-handed, which is a serious handicap, although it didn’t stop Jimi Hendrix.
“Why a mandolin,” you ask. Why not a mandolin? Okay, yeah, by now it’s like, an antique instrument, right? One reason I took up the mandolin is that it’s a very easy instrument to learn, much easier than either the fiddle or the guitar. I gave up on the fiddle and took up the mandolin. You can play something resembling music pretty quickly, with only a little practice, on the mandolin That’s why back in the golden age of string instruments, the 1890s – 1920s, there were mandolin clubs all over the place. These clubs were full of ordinary people, lots of young people, kids, teenagers, as well as older people. There were also banjo clubs. They’d play together in huge ensembles, just for the pleasure. Electronic media killed all this; radio, movies, jukeboxes, then television. Television delivered the coup de grace to widespread, grass-roots, self-made recreations. They just sat and viewed, they were hypnotized… zombies… They watched anything that was on… It held them spellbound. That was another thing the hippies sort of rebelled against… for awhile at least… But the media is now more powerful than ever. We’re hooked… There’s no escape… It’s changed, though… Now it’s, you know, “interactive”…
9) What similarities and differences have you found in your creative process as a musician and as an illustrator?
Music and drawing pictures and writing… totally different things… I would not call myself a “creative” musician. I don’t compose my own music, I don’t do fancy improvisations on my instrument. When playing, I’m happy if I can play a tune smoothly, rhythmically, bringing out whatever beauty is in the melody itself… That’s enough for me. I’m not trying to “kick ass” when I play music, or anything like that. The drawing is something else again.
10) Among the illustrations included in the new book, R. Crumb The Complete Record Cover Collection are a series of portraits of jazz, blues and country musicians of the past. Some of them are taken from packages of cards you created. Where did the idea for these collectibles come from and were you able to choose who you included in each series? If yes to the latter what criteria was used for selecting who was to be included in each set?
I was inspired by the old baseball bubblegum cards to make those musician cards. Yes, I chose the performers, the categories, everything. I was looking for some way to pay tribute and to evangelize for this music that I loved, music that was so buried under the avalanche of later popular music. Some of those musicians or groups that I drew have never even been commercially reissued since the original 78 was made back in the ‘20s. Mumford Bean and his Itawambians, for instance. Are they obscure enough for you? They made one 78 in 1928, two sides. Never reissued. That’s how fanatic I am. The French accordion players are even more absurdly esoteric. Those didn’t even sell well in France. Nobody’d ever heard of them!
11) Of all the music-related illustrations you’ve created are there any in particular that stand out and why?
No, not really.
Once again I’d like to thank Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer my questions for this interview. If you’re unfamiliar with his artwork check out his web site. You’ll soon see why he’s fascinated people for ages with his work. If that whets your appetite for more, or if you’re already a fan, then your sure to enjoy the work on display in The Complete Record Cover Collection when it hits the shelves some time in November.