"We were like the SAS: everyone knew their positions." Microdot's founder tells Abi Bliss the secrets behind creating some of rock's most memorable record sleeves
Just outside Wigan town centre sits the spot immortalised by George Orwell in the title of his book The Road to Wigan Pier - the joke being that there never really was a Wigan Pier, only a modest jetty used for unloading barges and given its misleading title by Wigan-born entertainer George Formby. But there is a pub: once a Victorian warehouse, now, inevitably, called The Orwell, and as Microdot is currently renovating a new and still-chaotic studio, it's here that Brian Cannon meets us for a sunny lunchtime spent reflecting on his company's first 21 years and his plans for the future.
Computer Arts: One of your forthcoming projects is a brand new e-zine, 'Tin Can Telephone.' What's the idea behind that?
Brian Cannon: I'm in the process of redesigning my own website and I wanted to introduce a blog so I could update it with what I'm up to. Then people started saying that they wanted to contribute to it. So it's gone from being a blog to an online magazine. Alan McGee is going to do an interview, as well as Nick McCabe who played guitar in The Verve and actor Rhys Ifans. Another thing I'm doing is a university lecture tour, which is great. Graphics has always been incredibly competitive and it's difficult enough for anybody who's just started out, so I thought it would be nice to help some young hopefuls. I've come across some excellent talent, which I'll be featuring from the summer onwards.
CA: What was it that first made you want to become a designer?
BC: This goes back to the 70s, when I first discovered punk rock. The Sex Pistols blew my mind away. I tried to learn guitar but didn't have the patience; however I've always been interested in drawing. My father, who was a coal miner, was an astonishing illustrator but he never made any money from it - it wasn't the done thing in the 40s and 50s. He encouraged me. So from a very early age, I not only knew that I wanted to be a designer; I wanted to design record sleeves.
CA: When Microdot first started, what did you think of other sleeve art that was around at the time?
BC: Well, I never refer to other designers for inspiration, because you run the risk of becoming derivative. I used to hang around with the bands, not other designers. The only people who I had any time for are Central Station Design in Manchester, who designed the early Happy Mondays stuff, Malcolm Garrett and early Peter Saville, although I think he was blown out of all proportion in the end. And Jamie Reid, obviously. I interviewed him for my degree.
CA: How did you come to work with Oasis?
BC: I took my mother to Rome for her 60th birthday. Whilst there, I bought a pair of Adidas squash trainers - not that I've ever played squash - which you couldn't get in England. Later, I was in the lift in the building in Manchester where I had my office, and this guy got in. The first thing he said to me was, "Where the fuck did you get them trainers?" That was how I met Noel Gallagher. We got chatting and I told him about the work I'd done for The Verve. As the lift door opened he went, "Right, I'm in a band; we're going to get signed soon. I want you to do the artwork."
CA: How did you conceive and realise those fiendishly complex photoshoots?
BC: A good example is Oasis' first number one single, Some Might Say. Noel handed me a lyric sheet and said that he wanted all the lyrics represented in the image. That was a tough one. We came up with the concept of a disused railway station, because of the lyric, "Standing at the station / In need of education". We went driving around all over Derbyshire and the one we found in the end, near Matlock, was a masterpiece. Then we had to start thinking of props and models. We would always do test shots with me in the picture. I never used actors: I used friends, my mum and dad, and barmaids from the local.
CA: It sounds like the kind of set-up that could have gone horribly wrong...
BC: There's no substitute for research and planning. By that stage, Oasis were massive, so we didn't have the chance to reshoot anything. We were like the SAS: everyone knew their positions; exactly what they were doing.
CA: With cover designs, are there any memorable ones that 'got away'?
BC: The Be Here Now album ended up with a Rolls Royce in a swimming pool, which is a bit excessive. The initial idea was for each of the band members to be photographed in a different location in the world, but it never came off. Nothing to do with budget; just the time constraint. The maddest one was Dog Man Star by Suede. Have you ever seen This Is Spinal Tap? The Smell the Glove scene? It was a guy on his hands and knees with a dog collar around his neck. I thought Brett Anderson was taking the piss.
CA: Looking at photos of you hanging out with Liam and Noel Gallagher in the 90s, it seems like one long party. How much was fun, and how much was hard work behind the scenes?
BC: It was a lot of fun. We developed a very close relationship from always working together. It was a unique project, because Oasis were just so big in the mid 90s. Liam knew he could trust us, because we'd been working with him since before he was famous. Every Friday night he'd come round our flat and we'd get hammered. But when we were working, we were working, despite the fact that it seemed like chaos a lot of the time.
CA: Recently Microdot has branched out into more corporate work. Are clients ever put off by your rock 'n' roll baggage?
BC: I've never experienced that. We probably don't get past the first post with those people. We have got a reputation for being a bit renegade. We have a certain way of working that can rub some people up the wrong way. But at the end of the day it all comes down to the body of work.
CA: Microdot's early work is noticeably image-led; how has your attitude to typography changed since then?
BC: Typography is something that I'd never really considered much, probably because I was taught it badly at college. So I've had to pull my own bootstraps up on it. I enjoy doing it now. I'm continually trying to better myself. I want to be able to look back and see a progression.
CA: How can a designer whose work has come to represent a particular era show that they're still relevant today?
BC: Microdot's 20th anniversary was a good time to bang on about what we've done in the past. The website was very much orientated towards showing previous work. Now it's the 21st anniversary it's like a coming of age, so we're doing a new site.
I want to showcase stuff that hasn't been commissioned, stuff I've done myself. I want to concentrate on widening the net and identifying those clients who might tap into what we're doing at Microdot, even though they're not necessarily associated with music.
CA: With the decline of the CD format, is there a future for visual design in music?
BC: I think that the music industry in general is completely knackered. They've shot themselves in the foot with this digital business. For a true music fan buying vinyl or a CD, the packaging was part and parcel of buying the record. Now with downloads, nothing comes with it, so why pay for it when you can just download it for nowt? But bands all have websites, they all do gigs and all need a logo. So you still need a watertight visual presentation.
Falling in love with both music and sleeve design during the explosion of punk rock, Brian Cannon founded Microdot in 1990 after graduating from Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Met). His first sleeve commission was Killer Album by Ruthless Rap Assassins, but he found greater renown with The Verve and Oasis, creating striking and often surreal photographic covers from precisely staged shoots. As well as sleeves for Ash, Super Furry Animals and Suede, Microdot's designs have also found favour among brands such as Levi's, Converse and Virgin Trains. Having moved to London in the mid-90s, Cannon and Microdot are once again based in his native Wigan. www.microdotcreative.co.uk