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Evil Eye Productions

Since metal's inception, the importance of album artwork has been rivaled only by the importance of the music, itself. Known for his work with Nevermore, Opeth, Katatonia and many more, artist Travis Smith brings the screaming sounds from your stereo to life in his creative images. Armed with a Macintosh computer, a camera and some traditional art tools, he has become one of the leading cover artists in the underground metal world. In an effort to check out the packaging, the Metal Update had a chat with Travis Smith about his techniques, his musical tastes and his favorite album covers of all time.

METAL UPDATE: First things first, how old are you?


MU: Married?

TS: Yes.

MU: Kids?

TS: Yup.

MU: Are you now self employed as a graphic designer?

TS: Yeah. I'm doing that right now full time, but how long it goes we'll see.

MU: It's paying the bills, right?

TS: So far so good.

MU: Do you have a degree in graphic design or are you self taught?

TS: Self taught. I haven't had any formal education on it at all.

MU: How did you fall into it?

TS: I was working a day job a while ago where we had some computers. We ended up getting some Macintosh computers. They had Photoshop on there. I was working for one of my friend's bands at the time, Psychotic Waltz. I did flyers and shirts for them for a while using more traditional methods. I sort of experimented with the digital thing and at the time I hadn't heard anything about it. After experimenting, I began to see what you could do with it. At the time, I wasn't doing the cover for Psychotic Waltz but their regular artist kind of disappeared for a while so they asked me to do it. I experimented with some digital stuff and they seemed to like it. After that, they told me some other people that they knew liked it so after a while I started getting better. I sent out portfolios and a couple people heard of me and they asked me to do stuff for them so it just kind of took off.

MU: I actually work in the prepress area. I'm pretty much the step after you as you might be aware. Do you deal with any prepress guys?

TS: I don't so much have to deal with them. After the art is done I color correct it, prep it up, do the layout, get all the files ready for film, and I just kind of zip it off that way to the band or the label and they take it from there. I've dealt with printers directly a couple of times, but it's not like in the usual day to day duties. I usually never have to deal with them. Sometimes a printer will call me if there's a question, but I really haven't had to deal with them first hand.

MU: I know often times there's problems with colors, images and stuff like that.

TS: I try to take care of all those problems before I ship it out. I try to foresee any potential problems and have it set up enough to where there's no problem. I do my own CMYKs. If I have to, whatever printer I'm going to I'll use their templates, stuff like that. So I try to take care of all that stuff beforehand.

MU: That brings me to a few technical questions. What kind of equipment are you using?

TS: Macintosh.

MU: What type of Mac?

TS: One of the first G4s, the older ones.

MU: What programs do you generally use?

TS: Photoshop. For layout I use Quark Express.

MU: Illustrator sometimes?

TS: Yes. For logos, EPS files and stuff like that.

MU: You said you hadn't had many problems yet. Do you always use the same printer?

TS: No. I'm sure that each label has different printers. I don't do my own films. I just send it out to the band or the labels.

MU: And they deal with any issues from there?

TS: Yeah. There's a guy Scott at Century Media. He's the production manager. He'll get my stuff and if there's a problem with the artwork or whatever, they handle it from there. They go back and forth with their own printers.

MU: So far there've been no major problems with the final printed products?

TS: Not that I can think of.

MU: You do primarily all electronic based graphics. Besides using the computer, are there any other methods that make your designs happen?

TS: That's where it all comes together, on the computer. I usually build the images, like I'll paint backgrounds with watercolor, I'll do pencil stuff, photography and kind of blend it all together into what I'm trying to do for each certain project.

MU: So you do all your own paintings, photography and drawings?

TS: Right. Some of the photo shoots I go on, there'll be a friend with me and he'll snap some shots too. One of the ones he got might be the image I'll use or I've got a couple of photographer friends I trade with sometimes.

MU: I wanted to ask you on a couple of specific pieces, some of the steps that were involved, if it's not giving away any secrets to your success.

TS: OK. I don't think so.

MU: I was kind of struck by the Nevermore picture with the spoon and the worms. How did you make that happen?

Nevermore Spoon Image

TS: That was one of the ideas I was trying to work up before I knew too much about the album. For all the worms, I went to a bait shop and bought buckets of worms and photographed them in lumps, or a couple here, couple there. The spoon is something I just held up. Held it up and took a picture of it. Cut everything out and put it all together. The spoon was hard, because I think for that one I had worms in the spoon. They kept wiggling off it. I think it took me a couple of hours to get that shot. Just trying to hold it in the light and have the worms stay there or try to shoot it before the worms fell down.

MU: You basically bring that into Photoshop and tweak it out.

TS: Yeah.

MU: One other one, which I'm assuming is a painting of yours, is on one of the Anathema covers with the boat.

TS: That's not a painting at all.

MU: How did you do that?

TS: Let's see. The photograph is from a few years ago. I dug it up in one of my old boxes. We were doing some shoots for Psychotic Waltz. The bass player and his friends did some shots in the desert. I think I should have photo credited him but I'm not sure who took the picture. It was like this old parking lot thing in the middle of the desert and it had a little puddle in it. I remember that we had all the photos together, and I said if we ever use these in the future, I'll just keep these. I dug that one out. There was like a red filter on the sky. I was walking around. There's a lake over here, and I was walking around it one day, and there was this dude in his fishing boat. I was watching him and he never moved. It just looked like he was sleeping on the lake in the fishing boat. I just took the picture and forgot about it. Later on I came up with that idea. I found that old photo of the puddle. When I was going through some photos I found that one and the boat one. Then I tried to remember if I ever needed it, it would look cool if he was in there with some dead fish laying on the cement and everything. With the Anathema, that is one of the ideas I threw at em. I said, "What do you think of this?" They didn't know if it fit right away, but pretty soon they decided on it. But that one was just blending a couple of photos together.

MU: I think it's a really nice piece.

TS: The puddle was only a couple feet wide originally. But I wanted to portray it as this massive lake, and maybe he fell asleep and it dried up around him and he's totally oblivious. That's basically it in a nutshell. His whole surrounding just dried up and he's oblivious. A Natural Disaster can be taken one of two ways.

MU: It almost has a painting look to it.

TS: I don't remember exactly what I did. Color enhancements and stuff like that. A little bit of blurring and swirl on this part or whatever. I tried to give it a surreal ambient effect.

Anathema - A Natural Disaster Cover

MU: Seempieces is the name of your design company?

TS: Yes.

MU: Where did that name come from?

TS: I was applying for a business license here and I had to come up with a fictitious business name and I didn't want to have Travis Smith's Designs because a lot of people do that and it's kind of lame. I just wanted something ambiguous. I was just writing down words because I had a deadline to file for the license. I was writing down these words and I think seem was one word and pieces was another word. I wanted to use this word somewhere, blah, blah, blah. At the time I thought it fit and sounded cool so I just went with it.

MU: Do you work out of your home?

TS: Yeah, mostly.

MU: So you just have your computer there?

TS: My main one is over at my friend's shop and I have another one here that I use. This is where I take care of most of the sorting out stuff and everything.

MU: Do you live in an apartment or house?

TS: I live in a house.

MU: What inspires your designs?

TS: Looking at the lyrics or mixing the lyrics with a photo I've taken or saw. It could be anything, like the Anathema. Just walking around the lake and seeing that guy. The kind of thing, just having life experiences or watching the kids grow up or if something happened to you - just using a photo to capture that. And mixing that with a band's lyrics might give you a new idea on an experience that you've had. It's just stuff like that. It's usually just stuff that comes up. If I think too much on an idea, I never get a good one.

MU: You've done tons of covers for metal bands. Are you a metal fan yourself?

TS: Yes.

MU: What bands are you currently into?

TS: My favorite bands. . . I've ended up working with my favorite bands, which is cool. Basically my favorite bands for a long time have been Opeth and Katatonia. Anything Devin Townsend does. I like all the old Acid Bath stuff. I like the softer side like Anathema, Porcupine Tree, The Gathering - stuff like that. I like a little bit of everything. I'm a real big Solitude Aeturnus fan. I like a lot of the Iced Earth stuff. Death has always been a real favorite, and Sadus.

MU: It's cool you've got to work with most of them.

TS: Yeah, I like Borknagar, Vintersorg and I'm real big on Arcturus.

MU: Your tastes are scarily similar to mine. Do you play in a band?

TS: No. Before I started the artwork thing years ago, I was into the idea of learning bass and doing that whole trip. A lot of my friends are real musically inclined. I think it's just one of those things, being a musician or an artist or whatever, in order to be real good with it, you already have to have it in you. Playing the music thing, after trying to do it for a while, I realized I couldn't make it happen. It wasn't there.

MU: Being a fan is just as good I think.

TS: I just never pursued it for that reason. I couldn't make it click. I stuck to what I could do and what I do.

MU: You are certainly making a difference in the creative aspect of the whole thing. How did you get the gig designing so many metal covers? It basically started with Psychotic Waltz, right?

TS: Every time I did one, a couple of people might have seen it. After I did Psychotic Waltz, I hooked up with Sadus, because Steve saw the Psychotic stuff. I ended up talking to him, and the next thing after that, I was bugging Century Media for a while and they had me do the Skinlab thing. So Psychotic, Sadus and Skinlab were my first big leads. After that, I started sending out stuff and then I just started getting emails from bands saying, "Hey, I'd like to work with you", type of thing. Anders from Katatonia wrote me an email one day and through him I got hooked up with Opeth. It was stuff like that. It was all word of mouth. I was really flattered that everyone was liking it.

MU: If you are so into their music, you probably know how to portray what is coming through the speakers

TS: Yeah. I like to think that most of the time.

MU: The Katatonia and Opeth album covers are so perfect for that style.

TS: When I had first hooked up with Anders, I had just heard 'Discouraged Ones', and it was like my favorite album of all time at that moment. I think I was listening to it, and it gave me all sorts of ideas. At the exact same time, I got an email and I just thought it was a joke. That ended up happening and I took some of the things that 'Discouraged Ones' made me think of and I applied that to 'Tonight's Decision' and I thought that worked out really well. They are the one band that I think I've been able to nail the best. For some reason, it's really inspiring because they're real to the point but ambiguous at the same time. And they just have that mood. You could almost see anything simple, but that one little twist brings 'em home.

MU: Do you work much outside of the music business?

TS: I haven't had a chance to do that much. I'd like to.

MU: It's surprising that what you're doing pays the bills because metal in general, even if you're a big musician, often times you're struggling.

TS: I'm kind of in that boat anyway. It's a catch 22. It's a real effort to keep the bills paid, and when you can you're taking on so much stuff. Nobody's got a budget for it. Right now, I'm just like, "I need a vacation for a while." I haven't had a vacation since 1998, when things started getting rolling with the first Iced Earth and Death. In the same five months is when it really kicked off. I did the Death album, and that first Iced Earth album that I did and Solitude Aeturnus and the first Nevermore that I did. I was doing those all at the same time and my daughter was getting ready to be born. Ever since then, nothing has slowed down.

MU: Since you work for yourself, it's pretty laid back. You can probably get up late and fuck off a little bit.

TS: In theory you can, but to make everything work, you just can't.

MU: What are some of your favorite covers that you've done?

TS: That I've done? Again, back to Katatonia's 'Tonight's Decision' and Devin Townsend's 'Terria'. Those two are probably my favorites. I love 'Blackwater Park'. I like a lot of stuff that I've done. My favorite ones are probably the ones I mentioned - maybe the Deadsoul Tribe, Zero Hour and Diabolical Masquerade. Another one of my favorites is King Diamond's 'Abigail II' - just the way that came together. That's one of the ones I'm most proud of. And I like the Bloodbath one that I did. Mostly my older stuff, I still look at it, and was real happy with it at the time, but I've learned so much since doing them that I wish I could go back and redo them. Like Psychotic Waltz's 'Bleeding'. At the time I was like, "Wow, this is really cool." Looking at it now, I wish I could take those ideas and redo them.

Opeth - Blackwater Park Cover

MU: I agree. I was curious as to what that piece of work looked like and it really is primitive.

TS: When we did it, we were like, "Whoa, that's really cool." But I also think it looks too primitive.

MU: You have to appreciate your growth.

TS: It definitely gives you a lot of perspective on it. I can't really think of anything that I don't like because it was right. I can't think of anything I am unhappy with. The first Skinlab thing I did, that could be better. It's cool for what it is. It's really cool at the time to look back and see how many more things you know how to do right now. With all the cool covers that are coming out in the Photoshop medium these days, I don't know if the first Skinlab or the Sadus one would cut it. I still really like 'em, but if I was doing those albums now, they would be a lot different, with the perspective that I have in the last eight years or whatever.

MU: What bands would you like to do cover art for that you haven't already?

TS: If Acid Bath were still around, I'd love to do them. Porcupine Tree I'd love to work with. Mostly things like that, but the main thing is to keep working with, like I was saying, my favorite bands I've worked with. I'd like to keep working with them. I can think of more bands that I'd like to keep working with than bands that I haven't worked with yet. If I went through my CDs, I'm sure I could find tons of bands I'd love to work with. Porcupine Tree, Acid Bath, The Gathering and shit like that.

MU: Looks to me like you're keeping the ones you have, so that's a good thing.

TS: If I can keep the good ideas for them, then hopefully it will continue. Pretty soon there is gonna be a handful of other guys that are just gonna come up with incredible new crap and they might take over.

MU: Speaking of that, what are some favorite covers that other people have done?

TS: New ones or old ones?

MU: Anything. What are some of your favorite album covers of all time?

TS: I like King Diamond 'Abigail'. I like Tiamat 'Wildhoney'. Dark Tranquility 'Haven'. Stabbing Westward 'Darkest Days' has got some of the most killer artwork on it. I like the Korn 'Follow The Leader' cover. The Suffocation 'Pierced From Within' cover. I love that one. That's one of my favorites.

MU: I'm gonna throw one at you that I think is really good of recent material is the Madder Mortem.

TS: The beige looking one?

MU: Yeah.

TS: Yeah. I have that one. It's really cool. It looks like it'd be a pain in the neck to do. That's one of those things that are really intense with a cover like that. Not only does it look really cool, but it just looks like it was incredible to put together. Paradise Lost 'Draconian Times', that's another one of my favorites. The Megadeth ones, like 'Youthanasia'. I love those.

MU: What labels do you have working relationships with?

TS: I work now and again with Music For Nations. The guys at The End, I do some stuff for them. Century Media. I've done like two things for Metal Blade, but it's not like I go back and forth with those guys a lot. But the ones I've had the most frequent relationships were like that, Peaceville, Music For Nations, Century Media, The End and things like that.

MU: Who comes to you more often for work, the labels or the bands?

TS: More often, I'd have to say the bands. More often, it's some guy in the band. Whether it's a really true work request or if they are just asking questions, it's usually the guys in the bands. I have been getting more frequent inquiries from labels though. If I had to put them on a scale, it would be the bands more.

MU: I'm just surprised that you haven't had any artists on somewhat major labels or anything yet.

TS: Nope.

MU: Maybe it's a matter of time.

TS: I'm not sure how to break that barrier. It's that one little line I can't seem to cross. It's cool to branch out and do some stuff for bigger things.

MU: I wouldn't be surprised if some band says, "We want this guy" and in comes a fat paycheck for ya.

TS: I talked to a couple of labels that I haven't worked with. I've talked to some people at Roadrunner and stuff. The guy at Atlantic I've talked to. I'm not sure how the whole system works, but on most of the cases a band might choose the artist. They might say, "We want this guy," and the label will take care of getting him. I think it's just maybe those bands haven't heard of me or just aren't into what I'm doing.

MU: You gotta get shmoozing with the big guys.

TS: I'm not good at shmoozing though.

MU: Just stay true to what you do. No need to be fake.

TS: It's not so much that. I'm just not really good at it.

MU: Why do you think your artwork revolves around dark and twisted imagery?

TS: I haven't done a lot of twisted stuff recently. I think it goes back to the thing I was telling you before. I think a lot of bands I work with are kind of dark themselves. It doesn't have to be evil dark. It's just a few steps away from being happy or maybe dark, but potentially happy. That's the way I think. It comes from being sad about something, or scared about something, feeling hopeless or just stuff like that. Maybe if I worked with happier subject matter most of the time I would probably develop a few things. I don't think the 'Terria' stuff is that dark, because it's got some tints of light and happiness and stuff in it. That was really cool to think differently in that way. So I think it's a matter of finding the right album, and being inspired enough to run with it. A lot of times, my mood is kind of indicative of what I'm working on. If it's an Opeth thing, the mood is gonna automatically be kind of dark. Not so gloomy, and doomsday and evil dark, it's just kind of a mysterious whatever.

Devin Townsend - Terria Cover

MU: If you ended up scoring a Porcupine Tree or The Gathering, they might be looking for a more positive, happy outlook and at the same time that music is going to inspire more positive imagery.

TS: Like that last Porcupine Tree. It's not so dark musically. I'm seeing some dark stuff in the lyrics. They're the type of band where you could tell a dark story and make it work being really light. And Opeth is the same way. Even 'Damnation', it's still kind of sad, but it's a more positive sounding record than 'Deliverance' was. It's real mellow and dark into itself, but it's kind of uplifting at the same time. Even if the message itself is dark, you can take the whole vibe and make something light with it. The Gathering, they've been a lot more positive with the subjects and their music and everything. At the same time, they're not all happy / dancy. Those would be real cool combinations to work with.

MU: is your official site, correct?

TS: Yes.

MU: Did you design it all yourself?

TS: No. Actually, Wendy the webmistress does that. I just give her new files to update it with. That's one of the things I'm still kicking myself for. I never took the time to learn how to do that and it's probably hurting me right now.

MU: So you don't do website work.

TS: It's not that I don't do it, I just don't know how. It's one of those things I always meant to do. I meant to get into 3D a little more and I meant to start doing some web design. It's one of those things I was saying before. To try and survive on this, I'm doing so much work, that the last few years have improved what I know how to do. Right now, I wish I could do some cool web stuff. I know a couple of other art guys that do really cool art, designing their own sites and they do killer stuff. If they're sitting there and have an idea of how to change their site, they can just do it. Or they're doing sites for other people and stuff like that. Plus a lot of that is really in demand. I kind of missed the boat on that one. Maybe I can catch up, but I'm not really sure. I'm still trying to get a foothold on what I'm doing now.

MU: What are some future plans for you?

TS: I don't know. I just take each day as it comes, which is probably a bad thing. I just want keep being lucrative doing what I'm doing and hopefully keep the art thing going well enough to live on and support my family and all that. And at the same time, hoping I can stay on top of the game and support the family with it and stay in the metal scene and maybe branch out into a few things. That's all I'm looking to do.





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