Family Band's Kim Krans on Juggling Art, Music, E-Commerce, and More

Husband-and-wife team Kim Krans and Jonny Ollsin have no shortage of creative talent. Indeed, as proprietors of the always expanding online universe The Wild Unknown and cofounders of the appropriately named Family Band, they give off the impression that everything becomes inspired in their care. A visual artist since her mid-teens, Krans has created artwork to complement the band’s sparse, haunting sounds, on album covers and as a stark visual narrative for the video “Night Song.” Her detailed illustrations also grace calendars, prints, and, most recently, the children’s book ABC Dream. Shortly after the release of Family Band’s second album, Grace & Lies, Krans talked with Imprint about image making, inspiring collaborations, and striking a delicate balance between the business and the band.

You moved to New York from Michigan at age eighteen. Tell us more about your background—how have you built a career as both a visual artist and a musician?

I was born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is kind of in the middle of nowhere. It was very rural—there wasn’t even a stoplight in our town, that kind of thing. And then I got into art school. I put together a portfolio to try and get into Interlochen Arts Academy, a really amazing boarding high school, and they gave me a full scholarship. Interlochen really informed everything about how I make things. It was a very traditional, work-ethic-establishing school. It taught me a lot about disciplining yourself and being focused. After that I got accepted to Cooper Union and headed to New York.

From the age of fifteen to my mid-twenties, I spent my time working on visual arts. Drawings, sculptures, and I had a few gallery shows in New York. Then, gradually, I started making work that could be sold to a broader market, which kind of happened by default. My friends wanted to buy things for their friends and I set up this little online shop. It got blogged about, and it grew pretty quickly. All of a sudden I had a small business on my hands and I didn’t really know what to do with it. Meanwhile, Jonny and I started playing more and more music together and the band sort of grew up at the same time. Now we have these two collaborative projects that we focus on.

Details from the children's book ABC Dream

Each one of your projects (Family Band, The Wild Unknown, Forest Party, ABC Dream) is stylistically unique, yet they form a cohesive whole. How do you manage the subtle shifts between your many endeavors? Is your process or approach different for each? 

I don’t actually know how that works, but I’m glad to hear you say that. I work on a project-to-project basis. If it’s a music video, it needs a certain type of attention. If it’s an album, it needs a different set of tools. Whether it’s drawing, or music, or songwriting, anything, it has to have an intricacy as well as feeling very free and loose. That’s easiest for me to find when I draw. I’ve been drawing for so long that I can pretty much draw whatever, but that doesn’t mean that the drawing is going to be interesting or good. It has to be tight in certain areas, and loose in certain areas, mysterious, and then very articulate. I think the band sort of balances those things. That’s the quality that I’m always going for.

For the “Night Song” video and the Grace & Lies cover, you literally use your face as canvas—projecting stark black and white imagery onto its surface. How did you come up with the direction for this video?

The sample beat in that song always reminded me of being at a slide lecture, if someone just kept pulsing different images in front of you. That got me thinking about making an animation of sorts, with drawings that shift and change and create a narrative. I thought it would be more interesting to have a protagonist that you see interacting with the drawings, and once I started working with how they look over the face, I realized we could do all these crazy things. When you do an animation, sometimes people are tempted to make it look really good or real, and having the beat establish when the drawings would change allowed me to make it funny. When the cats throw the ball over the head, it doesn’t need to go thirty-two frames for you to understand that it’s being tossed. We went with the comedy of it.

It was such a fun project because the drawings were loose, and they weren’t as finicky as the usual work that I do, but still really expressive. The whole project was a great release.

I read that you created visuals to help the band to hit the right mood while recording Grace & Lies. Can you describe what these pieces looked like and how they influenced the songs?

We used a really big drawing board in the studio. It really helped us to not think so typically about how we were using the instruments or what kind of sounds we wanted, but to just think about the atmosphere or the mood. I would draw the setting of a song, like a night setting, and I would say, “The ground should feel strong and heavy, and the sky should feel twinkly.” And then that got interpreted into “OK, Jonny’s guitar riff has this type of effect, we’ll use this guitar pedal for the guitar line, and then we’ll have this really strong keyboard or bass line holding it down.” It just became a way for us all to brainstorm and think about sounds, almost like image-making, almost like a soundtrack.

Krans's illustration for the cover of Tape Op magazine

Your prints often feature detailed and refined drawings of animals or nature, alongside lyrics by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Van Halen, giving us a good sampling of your musical taste. What other artists have influenced your work? 

Superwolf, the collaboration between Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham, was a pretty big influence for Jonny and I when we first started making music together. Matt Sweeney is such a sick guitar player, but he pared it down to sing with Will Oldham in a way that really suited those songs. That felt like a template for us to start to think about; just because your ability on guitar is amazing doesn’t mean you have to play over everything. I’m always listening to more sparse stuff, like Leonard Cohen. We also listen a lot to early Fleetwood Mac, a record called Then Play On. It’s from before Stevie Nicks was in the picture, but it’s amazing, so beautiful. It has a lot of instrumentation that leads into heavier full parts and then it gets pared down again. Going into making this record we were thinking a lot about that.

I’m such a fan of so many artists. I love Philip Guston, he’s one of my all-time favorite drawers and painters. Louise Bourgeois. I like to look at old Goya drawings, and Charles Burchfield books. I have a lot of art books and we look at them all the time.

Lastly, what’s next for your drawing/illustration career? What sort of projects are you currently working on?

I’m very anxiously awaiting the delivery of a thousand 78-card tarot decks which I just finished drawing this summer. Prints of the original artwork, which funded the printing of the decks, sold so quickly; I was relieved and excited. They’ll be out in the beginning of September. And then we’ll be in holiday mayhem until 2013. The business and the band are both growing so much that it’s hard to know which one to focus on when. I don’t know how much touring we can get in this fall, but I’m sure in the new year we’ll hit the road—once we’ve sent out all those calendars.

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Print‘s August issue is devoted to trash. It includes a special section guest designed by Sulki & Min; a visual essay by Jillian Tamaki; a look into the garbage cans and recycling bins of 18 designers; and stories by Rick Poynor, Steven Heller, Debbie Millman, Fritz Swanson, Michèle Champagne, and more. Order your copy, or download a PDF version, at MyDesignShop.com.
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