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?
TRAVIS SMITH: 33.
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
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
MU: I know often times there's problems with colors, images and stuff
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?
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
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
MU: So far there've been no major problems with the final printed
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
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
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?
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.
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
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.
MU: Seempieces is the name of your design company?
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
MU: Looks to me like you're keeping the ones you have, so that's a good
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
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?
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
MU: Seempieces.com is your official site, correct?
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.
TRAVIS SMITH / SEEMPIECES
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