Computer Arts: Tell us about the project ...
Lewis Heriz: This is the latest in a long-running series of compilations by Soundway that presents tracks from African countries – so far, Nigeria, Ghana and, now, Kenya – that are more unusual in style than those you normally hear on comps. The Nigerian releases were already out when I came on board, and I had to build upon the aesthetic the label had already developed.
All of the designs begin with choosing the photo. Miles Cleret, who runs the label, presents, at most, two or three shortlisted photos he found while collecting and researching for the release, which I digitally cut out and play with compositionally. In this case, colour was very significant: whereas the Ghana Special was a bright turquoise and gold – referencing Ghanaian fabric and its mineral reserves – the burnt orange, here, is a nod to the colour of the earth in Kenya. The other elements pay tribute to the design conventions prevalent throughout the era the original records were produced: the floral patterning is often found in the 7" record sleeves; many used cut-outs of the band members, placed on an illustrated background; the type was often either Letraset or hand drawn, so here I included both. The music is beautiful, but it's also rough and heavy, so there has to be some immediacy to the design to convey that. I added those beams behind the figure of singer D.K. Mwai for added righteousness.
CA: How did you put the piece together?
LH: Because we've spent a great deal of time in the past developing the series' visual language, we can easily reference that. So these sleeves are quicker than most. My process changes from day-to-day and brief-to-brief, but a large percentage is produced digitally on Photoshop. Originally I hand-drew or screen-printed everything, but the nightmare of making changes later made this completely unviable. So now I produce the image digitally until it's been approved, then very often I redraw the various elements by hand, scan them back in and recompose.
Unless it's specifically requested, I avoid producing a final image that's obviously vector work. The biggest challenge with these designs is bridging the gap between time and place. It's so fundamentally important not to be clichd, yet you're trying to ring cultural bells in people's minds so they understand what the music referred to might roughly sound like. You have to reference it in a way that's fresh enough to do these unheard tunes justice, but not so modern that it's removed from the source. There's always a tussle between 'old' and 'new', and as a lot of my work is positioned precisely in the space between them, resolving that conflict is a constant challenge. And one that I absolutely love.
CA: How did you get into design?
LH: I got into designing through DJing and promoting club nights and gigs. It always comes back to the music. I was an obsessive doodler, so it was a nice excuse to try drawing with a bit more discipline. It was after designing the poster for a gig we put on featuring two bands that played Afrobeat and funk my current process began to develop. I spent two weeks on it, poring over the concept, the typography, the colour and the feel. It was off the back of this that I began working with Sofrito Tropical Sessions, and a huge part of my visual identity is tied in with that.
I guess I'm associated with vintage and tropical styles, which I don't think means anything, really. Because I design for music from the tropical regions, it's inevitable they have a feel of art and design from those countries. But I think of it more as a reflection of the world as it is now. I'm just as inspired by the hand-painted stalls on Ridley Road market in Hackney as I am by record sleeves from Benin.
CA: Who or what influences and inspires you?
LH: As I was self-taught, I looked to the poster and record artists of the past for tutelage. I was heavily influenced, to begin with, by Eduardo Muoz Bachs and Nico of the Cuban film institute, ICAIC, as they had such a strong grasp of how you can communicate through abstraction, how to use colour, how to incorporate text into a piece and how to convey character.
My dad's a screen printer, so that imperfect medium is very much in my blood, too. There are many others who inspire me to keep at it. While Barney Bubbles wasn't an original inspiration, discovering his work encouraged me to carry on down the route I was taking. The way he shape-shifted and appropriated from artistic movements is something I feel a kinship with – keeping the old present through reference. I love a huge variety of styles and mediums, but, generally, those that tend towards the bold and unfussy excite me the most, and it just so happens that the 50s-70s was a great era for that. I don't see it as being retro. I just see it as a rich aesthetic dialect like any other.