Some of the best record covers are the ones that can transport you to a far-off, mystic land. At the very least, they create a mood and set the tone before you even drop the needle. Hell, the record might not even sound like whatever place you’re going, but that transportive quality can create something enthralling when it comes to the music itself, and it creates the perfect marriage between song and design. There’s nothing wrong with mall-worthy glamour shots or a prop-heavy photoshoot, but giving listeners something to hold on to and explore while blissing out with a halfway decent pair of noise-canceling headphones is an experience most audiophiles lust for (and a seemingly forgotten notion in the age of Spotify). Just look at Reign in Blood, Pink Moon, Bitches Brew, I Want You, Relayer, or basically anything from Molly Hatchet. That’s world-building.
You get the same feeling from Garcia Peoples’ new album Dodging Dues, but also much of the work designer Darryl Norsen has dreamed up for the Grateful Dead-worshipping psych-leaning jam band. Now on his third cover for the ostensibly prolific Jersey band, Norsen’s created something that listeners can get lose themselves in, preferably from the comforts of an oversized beanbag chair. With soft colors, bending rivers, and a whole host of other trippy images and landscapes, the Light in the Attic and Smithsonian Folkways go-to designer created the perfect ideal world for the Matt Sweeney produced record coming in January.
We spoke with Norsen about Garcia Peoples’ new album cover, the working relationship he’s formed with the band, and the “wandering landscapes” he’s been exploring in some of his recent work.
How did you initially connect with Garcia Peoples?
I was introduced to Garcia Peoples by their former label head Mike Newman of Beyond Beyond is Beyond Records. He floated me an early copy of their second album Cosmic Cash with a note saying, “I know you grew up following 1990s jam bands and love NRBQ—I think you might like this too.”
I fell head over heels in love with them. I played it everywhere and for everyone who would listen. It would be a couple of years before we finally worked together, but I had been doing other designs for Beyond Beyond is Beyond, and Mike was like, you should take a stab at their fourth album, One Step Behind, artwork. That was very influenced by early psychedelic poster art and The Residents/The Cryptic Corporation in-house design team “Porno-graphics.”
What was the inspiration behind the Dodging Dues design in particular? What were you looking to explore?
When I designed the album artwork for their fifth album (Nightcap at Wit’s End), I was starting to experiment with having a continuous story told from the front to the back cover. I wanted the eventual album owner to have to spend time trying to decipher what was going on and having to flip the cover from front to back.
Album covers these days are becoming more secondary due to digital streaming, so if you own something physical, I want you to spend time with it—enjoying it and questioning it. So with Dodging Dues, I wanted to continue that theme, albeit a bit more psychedelic and ambient. This album is a city album with a lot of lyrics referencing watching scenes from a window or the streets, so it was kind of intentional to make this look more like a daydream instead of a direct city landscape.
I read on your Instagram post that you wanted to explore these “wandering landscapes.” Can you tell me a little bit more about that (I’m also thinking about that Shay Martin Lovette cover)?
I wanted to break down the front and back cover normalities. While Nightcap also has that wandering daydream kind of design, the first time I tried this was with Silver Scrolls Music for Walks (Threelobed, 2020), and I felt like, “Oh, I am onto something here.” Shay’s album has that feeling, but it is still very front cover and back cover to me though there are connecting elements between the sides—it just isn’t as fluid, which I think these other ones have succeeded at.
If you look at Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy or Pink Floyd’s Meddle (both by Hipgnosis), when you lay those flat, there is so much more to the covers. It is more interactive and makes you wonder what the artist was thinking, or if they felt like they couldn’t contain it to a 12″ square. I have an upcoming design for a legendary musician split between four album covers, and the only way you can see the whole thing is if you own all four albums and place them side by side—like the Garbage Pail Kid card backs from the 1980s. It’s an amazingly difficult challenge to design that big and feel all the areas with the right balance. That’s why I do that to myself (laughing).
How much input do you tend to get from a musician or band?
It honestly depends. With Garcia Peoples, we have a relationship where they pass me a pre-mastered version of the album, and I start to pull different ideas out of the lyrics. I can’t think of a single time that Tom, Cesar, or anyone else in the group has been like, “well, we see this,” because I respect their aural vision, and they respect my visual one. It’s all about interpretation, I suppose, and we all see things differently. Regardless, it is very self-affirming that I am doing something “right” (while I will also tell you the errors in art are the best parts). Other bands come to me and say, “I am seeing this.”
That’s fun as well, l but I think going in clean slate with my interpretation always lends itself to producing my best work.
Garcia Peoples’ Dodging Dues comes out on January 14. You can purchase it here.
Want to learn more about Darryl Norse and his work? You can follow him on Instagram.