Aaron Draplin has created works for the likes of Nike, Ford, and Burton Snowboards. He co-founded the immensely popular and handy Field Notes brand and has even produced designs for the Obama administration. He sells merch online and at the big design shows, slinging everything from “torso covers” and hats to Timex watches and posters.
You already know this.
But he’s also got one hell of a record collection, the kind that will generate some obvious comparisons when you measure shelf size over a Zoom call. He occasionally sends studio playlists out into the wild over social media with a mighty deep bench, and he’s the kind of guy that can talk records for hours on end—literally. We went pretty long for the interview you’re reading now. But it felt more like the kind of conversation where you drink a couple of beers and throw a stack of records on the turntable. And what you come to understand is that his design career and the music he rabidly consumes are deeply intertwined. Sure he’s created posters and record covers, worked for his idol Jay Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., but you start to recognize a few themes emerge. Embrace the weird. Don’t take yourself too seriously. But also, you should always, always be going for it, because you never know when this all could go away.
So, we challenged Aaron Draplin to name his ten favorite record covers. He cheated just a bit because there are a dozen albums here—but we’ll allow it just this once.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. It’s also best enjoyed with the accompanying playlist.)
Flaming Lips – Transmissions From The Satellite Heart
I bought this when it came out because it was in the Buzz Bin.
Here’s the thing. I’m trying to pick stuff that people have a little bit of access to. And so the idea is this; the things that are on this list are things that I got to buy of my own accord. They were accessible. But why I pick these things is because, in some weird way, they gave me hope that I could do whatever I want. And the Flaming Lips is the perfect example of that.
When you flip that record, it’s not even the cover that I love. I love the type. I love the weirdness. I love the crappy Photoshop with the boombox and stuff. I love the back of it, which was Howard Finster-esque. You knew it was Wayne [Wayne Coyne, Flaming Lips frontman] and his shitty handwriting, and it’s perfect. It’s what they sound like. The cacophony of the big and the explosions and the fuzz sound and all the cool shit. That back cover sounds like the fucking Flaming Lips. And that is what grabbed me.
So when I would look at the back of that thing, and reading these titles, listening to the record— I only had it on CD back then—it gave me this hope that whatever I was seeing in graphic design at the time, here was a visceral example of these assholes going for it.
You want to rally behind that. If an album is supposed to make you feel, this made me love them, and that art made me love them so much because you could tell it came from their own hand. And it could have gone away right away. Their shit still feels as weird as it ought to.
Butthole Surfers – Hairway to Steven
I come from a big Butthole Surfers community, at least with my friends.
I also come from a chugging Robitussin community in Northern Michigan with these fucking hicks. You know we didn’t have whatever you guys had, or wherever you live, in the next big city or whatever. But you could chug Robitussin and get a little buzz. So because of that wonky psychedelia, the Butthole Surfers were weird and crazy and scary. I saw them in 1991, and I was just getting out of high school. Even the way that they played, with Paul Leary rolling his eyes back in his head and doing googly eyes and shit and shaking his head, you were like, are they on something? Is it an act? I don’t know? The strobes? All the way home from Detroit, where we saw them, you’re like weaving in the car because you’ve just been assaulted.
What I love about Hairway to Steven is that these guys didn’t take themselves seriously. You had these weird little illustrations for the song titles, and there was so much mystery. And it’s tripped out in a weird way that doesn’t feel forced. It’s Texas. Texas is weird in its own right, you know, and these assholes are getting away with this stuff!
You have to make your own weird. We got to that stuff pretty young, and the Butthole Surfers had no problem making their own little universe of insanity and creepy stuff. And I just loved it. For that record, they were doing these weird photo techniques on the cover. I don’t know how they did it all these years later. They weren’t doing it with Photoshop. Maybe they mixed negatives and took a photo of that somehow. But then you see a record come out a couple of years later in Pioughd, and they’re doing these first little bits of Photoshop techniques with more tripped out psychedelic shit. Whatever they did with Hairway by mixing these negatives, It just always stuck with me—there’s just a way to show it.
Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff
I love this cover! I love the Charles Peterson photo and the lettering. It reminds me of going to shows at VFW halls when I was a teen.
What I love so much about this cover is that it felt like the show. I saw Mudhoney live eventually, but I didn’t get to see them small like this, you know? This cover is 88′ or 89′ when they’re still a little secret in Seattle. We saw them when they were a thing that could have 500 people at the show in Detroit, right? But with this, there was a sense of them just not taking themselves too seriously, being funny, and just really cynical on stage.
You could not take yourself that seriously—it was okay. You know, at that time, hair metal was just on its way out, and grunge was killing all that stuff. When we got into Mudhoney, that was right out of high school. Nirvana was getting ready to take over the world, and we loved that stuff. So when you saw that cover, it just felt like, oh my god, it can be like that. Slammed into a thing, laughing at themselves—not like oi, oi, punky fucking East Coast hardcore shit.
You can go and have a good time and drink a beer and whatever and get messed up and dance, or just get wild jump off a rafter. There was a party sense to it. So that album personifies me. I wasn’t in Seattle, but that’s what it tasted like. They nailed it. The hair, the jeans, the weird beads they were wearing around their neck. You can see all that stuff in the photo. And it just makes it look fucking fun. And you know, it’s not slick photos of them, there’s no photoshoot. They walk the walk, and they fucking rock. I love that record to this day.
Spiritualized – Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
I just loved the whole concept behind this. Just taking the pill. But it was really the packaging that sold it. The CD came in this blister pack, almost like something you’d buy at the drug store. I saw it first in a design annual, and I just remembered being blown away by this. It must have been in 1998. I was doing a lot of studying at the time and just learning about graphic design. I just bought a copy recently, and I didn’t open it.
I remember seeing that when it came out. I ended up borrowing—and never giving back—a friend’s copy. But I wish I had bought the blister pack.
You can still do it! You can get one on Discogs for about 30 bucks, and it’s just fun to tear into. My first one is torn to shit, but now I have this black one.
Dinosaur Jr. – Green Mind / Where You Been / Without a Sound
I love Jay Mascis’s handwriting. I love the grainy photos that looked like it was just his playroom or practice space. No pretension whatsoever. The art was weird, and the paintings were weird. There was a nihilism to them, and there was always something being lost. It was always these weird creatures.
There’s this guy named Angry Johnny, and he was the painter of the Where You Been cover. If you look him up, you can see a photo of him in his home, and there’s the Where You Been original painting. I loved Jay’s vulnerability on the songs and the confusion, the murkiness, and then, you know, talking about little creepy creatures and stuff. His handwriting is so fragile. His voice is so fragile. And then he’s such a weird guy. And, of course, he can make the biggest fucking sounds ever. There’s just some kind of ping pong back and forth, but those records look really gentle to me. They don’t look scary—they look like the world is a weird place.
I didn’t know that was Jay Mascis’s handwriting on the covers.
The Dinosaur Jr. thing to me felt like it was okay to be soft. It was okay to be scared. It was okay to be mixed up. That’s the vibe I always got from those Neil Blender [editor’s note: Blender did the cover for Without a Sound] paintings. And, you know, we weren’t strangers to that shit. We came from skateboarding. So we knew who Neil Blender was just simply because of that, you know? I didn’t know who Angry Johnny was, but I went and looked for him, and his stuff is incredible. I just ate it all up. It was arbitrary to what the songs were about. Jay just likes creepy little creatures.
With the Neil Blender cover, when I look at it now, I think, oh yeah, this makes sense. Like, of course it’s a skateboard artist because this shit looks good on the bottom of a skateboard.
The story goes that Jay was buddies with all the Alien Workshop guys and he skateboarded growing up. He still skateboards, and to him, Alien Workshop was cool. And that was Neil blender and all of those guys coming up back in the 90s. You saw Jay wearing all those t-shirts up on stage.
Dinosaur was the perfect vessel for these weird little creatures. Yeah, you’re right, like a skateboard. Anything looks kind of cool on a skateboard. When you meet that guy, that really is the story with that fucking weirdo. He’s a weird guy. You know, he’s not a bad guy. He’s just not the kind of guy to put it all out there. You really have to push him to get it out of him, you know? It’s kind of a frustrating thing as a fan. I can say this much though, a couple of years ago, we were in Detroit at this big event backstage. Everyone leaves the table, and it’s just Jay and I sitting there, and I have a little miniature guitar from Third Man Records. I’m just noodling, and we’re not saying anything. And he finally says to me, “Draplin, are you still in Portland?”
And I almost started to cry! Because he knew my name. He knew where I lived. We had met before, but he’s so aloof. But I know every single place I’ve met him all the way back to 1993. And I know every time I’ve ever met Wayne Coyne and David Yow, and every time I’ve met so and so. I gotta tell you, that sounds weird, but kids say the same to me. Which is fucking insane! But I get it, you know? They built me up into this thing, and I built these assholes up into a thing, and there’s a magic to that. You know, there’s an absolute magic to that shit.
Son Volt – Trace
This is a top five record for me. I’m just a big fan, even going back to the Uncle Tupelo stuff. The cover just seemed perfect for what they wanted to do, you know? There’s old audio equipment, that mic. It felt like something worn out, almost like old wood on an old guitar. And on the back of the record, you just have a few normal guys hanging out in their practice space. It’s very tasteful, and there’s no real mystery.
Sam Prekop – Sam Prekop
Well, you know, Sam Prekop is an artist, and he painted that cover. I love it so much. The Chicago thing for so long was just heavy stuff, you know? Big Black and Jesus Lizard. But this was just another vibe altogether. And I loved it. But all those Chicago guys seem hard to talk to. They seem pretty smart.
Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
What I love so much about the cover is, yet again, it’s like none of this matters. And our art is just fucking going for it. All this could go away in a day, so don’t take yourself too seriously. You know, we can do collage, and we can have these weird word plays that become their own landscape of fuckery. I just fell for them. I fell for them so hard that I had to see the rest of it. You began to expect it.
It was okay to not take yourself so goddamn seriously. That’s a big theme in this shit for me because it loosened me up, and it made me realize that you know, with all of the Soundgarden’s and stuff, there’s a lot of hair preening and shit. You know, “tonight, Soundgarden brought to you by Prell!” Now when I see these big metal acts with all the hair on, I just kind of laugh. They land in a certain category where it’s predictable. Like, here’s another Black Sabbath fucking riff tribute thing.
And, by the way, I love a lot of that shit!
Elevator to Hell – Eerieconsolation
I’m pretty sure this is Rick White’s (frontperson for Elevator to Hell) painting. And just seeing it for the first time in a record store, that’s what this shit sounds like. I mean, I’ve been burned by Sub Pop bands before, but not this one. I feel like a lot o the doom bands got in this kind of look a few years after this came out. Sort of like High on Fire, but this felt like another world.
His type and painting are amazing, though. They make me like the music that much more.
Grateful Dead – American Beauty
It was very fashionable to like the Grateful Dead in our community in the 80s. That’s what the hippies listened to. I went and saw them twice in 1994. I was a skateboarder, and I went down because my buddy’s got to go do drugs. I never really did, but I went with them because we got to go hang out in the parking lot. I walked around, I ate falafel, and I saw two shows. Now, I was just a fucking 17-year-old kid. It was just like, this is something for adults to be at, you know? Your uncle should be there dancing. I remember the only song I liked was “Eyes of the World.”
I just didn’t know any of those other songs. I didn’t know that stuff. I already had American Beauty, and I don’t even know how I got to it. But I had that in high school. Maybe it was through my parents or I bought it at a thrift store. But the idea was, that was a classic folk record to me, right? And that cover and the type and the psychedelic quality—it felt like them. You know the story of the Dead, but they were like a heavily branded version of themselves when I saw them. The bears and all that junk you saw at the show, well, that was all shit from the 80s and 90s made by fans to sell out in the parking lot. But that’s what you had to go on.
But with like Aoxomoxoa? I love that fucking cover. That is some psychedelic shit, you know? That’s classic Rick Griffin psychedelic shit. As a kid, being captivated by all of this stuff, you start wondering where it all comes from. American Beauty, though, it felt like the songs. It felt like old wood. You know, like a weird saloon or something dark that you went into. And some of the songs, you could have almost seen them in 1855 or something. I love Anthem of the Sun and how weird that cover is because it’s just psychedelia. It’s pitch-perfect, you know? Almost too perfect. I guess that’s what your brain does with fractals? But there was this woody, warm, and inviting quality to American Beauty—to the sounds of that record. It was a warmth, and it had to be almost carved out of wood.
I think it’s one of the rare records where what you see on the cover is what you hear in the music. And it’s an ambigram, which I just learned today! This is like the dumbest hippie shit I can think of, but if you put it in a mirror it reads “devil’s kingdom.” I don’t own a vinyl copy, so I couldn’t confirm that today.
Wow. I just flipped it like this in Photoshop. But I wonder if you flip it and turn it upside down—
(Aaron fiddles around in Photoshop for a few more seconds and his eyes light up.)
Holy fuck. There it is.
You see it?
I see the devil’s part. I think I see it. I DO see it! Son of a bitch, these guys are so cool.