Design Inspiration: Darryl Norsen


I’m excited to get back to a feature here at the site that takes a closer look at the designers behind the album art that adorns so many of my recent favorites. As much as any other part of the full album experience, good art draws a listener in and cinches the argument on owning the physical package. In the past this series has explored works from Robert Beatty, Jason Galea, and El Praraiso’s Jakob Skøtt. This week I’m shining a light on Darryl Norsen. You’ve most likely encountered Norsen’s work on excellent show posters, or in graphics for Raven contemporaries Aquarium Drunkard’s Talk House and Laginnappe series. Those of you winding down the extended path of Dead reissues would likely also have seen his work in recent Jerry Garcia & Merl Saunders reissues and 75th Birthday materials. Norsen’s crisp type work and clean lines have also found their way into excellent albums from Beyond Beyond is Beyond, Three Lobed and No Quarter Records. As usual with this series, I asked Darryl to explore his own favorite sleeves and recount how they may have shaped his own approach to design.

In Norsen’s own words, his attraction to record sleeves came at a young age, “I have very vivid memories as a pimply faced teenager in oversized band shirts huddled in my bedroom surrounded by stacks of CDs as I poured over their covers and liner notes. It was, and still continues to be, a fascination with how you visually represent a band and their work. This is what happens when you live in the middle of nowhere Western New York, the internet didn’t exist and your imagination was the only thing available to unlock that mysterious world. That scene is not too far off from my current 37 year old self whom I often find in thrifts, record stores and other dusty, non organized places as I pour over stacks trying to find inspiration. It is so much part of my DNA to have an open eye and take in everything visual that I often don’t realize I am zoning out and my wife and kids will say “HEY – you there? We’re going over here …”

Jane’s Addiction – Ritual De Lo Habitual (Warner Bros, 1990)

Growing up there was a group of brothers that I used to hang out with. They were all rather elegantly nefarious but the oldest was so deep into metal that it made his parents furious. I remember coming over one time and he was getting screamed at because they just came home from the mall and he sneakily purchased a copy of “Appetite for Destruction” with the banned cover. I can still see it sitting on the window sill above the kitchen sink. There was another album also confiscated that I can never shake from my head — “Ritual De Lo Habitual” with the infamous three lovers in three ways cover. Me on the other hand, my parents really didn’t care. They let me have memberships to Columbia House and BMG and I would order what I wanted as long as my allowance was handed back over. Which meant my cover of “Ritual” was the plain black and white 1st amendment cover. It’s beautiful and stark. The ultimate fuck you to the record label and stores for censoring them. I recently had to replace my original cd copy and I couldn’t find another of the censored cover so now I have the original and it just doesn’t feel right. Nostalgia can be cruel. Recently it has entered my head this is the last true psychedelic album and it’s fitting that the artwork, in some cases, is the most bland.

Peter Matthew Bauer – Liberation (Mexican Summer 2014)

Rob Carmichael aka SEEN did this album art and he is someone I have looked up to for the last decade and a half as an immense designer who can easily straddle a world between something very chaotic (Black Dice & Animal Collective) and something so clean (War on Drugs & Dirty Projectors) yet his style is very easily recognizable. Liberation is a criminally underrated album that is housed in the best 1960s counterculture-esqe quasi religious artwork that I was initially convinced had to have been lifted direct from one source and repurposed. I was sorely wrong because Rob’s selection of fonts, the color, the line work that is not exactly ‘perfect’ yet is so dead on to what you would find in flyers, newspapers, magazines, and other printed materials from that time. I am a sucker for that kind of stuff. Over three quarters of my archive and reference materials are from that era – it’s the amateur vibe that really sucks me in. It’s not overthought like a lot of design as it was used as a piece to quickly communicate so it was meant to be immediately engaging. Tangent aside I am always excited to see what Rob is working on as he’s the nicest, most humble dude on top of it.

The Residents – Duck Stab/Buster & Glen (Ralph Records, 1978)

Sometime in middle school a friend’s dad heard us listening to Primus’ “Hello Skinny” and must of been like you dummies here is the original version and pulled out this 12” double ep from his record cabinet. These are moments you don’t forget as a music fiend because The Residents are so purely bizarre and frightening that it is hard to shake these kind of first time experiences. Long time Resident and/or Residents’ associate Homer Flynn was the man behind all the album art under the aptly entitled Porno-Graphics. His work was somewhere in-between that hippie San Francisco dayglo psychedelic vibe and the forthcoming punk and new wave scenes which I found rather intriguing as he as pushing into a realm that was not being explored by too many other people at that time. I think, don’t quote me, he is the first to bastardize a famous record cover for Meet The Residents and he surely reworked Dick Clark for Third Reich of Rock ’n’ Roll. Anyways Duckstab/Buster & Glen is really sinister looking – that evil grin of the woman about to stab a duck in the stark red and black ink is perfect. More evil than most death metal album covers in my book. There is an alternate later version in a more new wave layout that I think is ok – but I don’t know the bright green kind of harshes the original look and feel. Last year I was in a coffee shop in New York City and the young barista had a shirt with this album cover on it and I was like “Hey sick shirt!” and she was like “Thanks! My dad loves The Residents. So I stole it from him but I think they are too weird … wait you don’t look my dad’s age!” (face palm)

The Grateful Dead “Bootlegs”

I moved to Boston in the early 2000s and it was a entirely different scene out here than where I grew up. There were serious record stores with some heavyweights behind the counter, that if you could crack their grimace you could get hipped to some really strange awesome shit. At some point I was turned onto this random record store, more like organized chaos, called Deja Vu out in the suburbs. (Side note: A decade later I found out this was a favorite spot of many diggers including the Numero Group guys – it was that great of a spot). The first time I went the little old lady locked me in the store for an hour so she could go home and eat lunch. I mean where else does that happen and you don’t end up on the nightly news? So the owner shows me this back room before she leaves and one shelf is just stacked with bootlegs. Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan … etc. And she wanted next to nothing for each of them. This really opened a can of worms as it sent me down a deep hole of collecting unofficial releases and trying to figure out some of the artists. William Stout, later famous for his Robert Johnson portrait, Masters of the Universe storyboards and just about anything else visually cool in the 1970s and 1980s, did this famed Jerry Pig portrait that Jerry (for obvious reasons) was not very found of. I think it’s hysterical and at one point I pitched the Jerry Garcia Estate on doing a series of shirts with William’s Grateful Dead related imagery, this one included, but sadly we couldn’t make it happen. Like Liberation I love the candid non-designer look of bootleg artwork – sometimes it ended up being more interesting than the official releases though I have a soft spot of Aoxomoxoa and Anthem of the Sun.

Pink Floyd – Meddle (Harvest, 1971)

This is my classicist selection. It’s hard to be a designer and not love Storm Thorgerson and his studio Hipgnosis. The amount of insane album covers he and his partners are responsible for is daunting and their creations are often baffling as they did not have Photoshop, Illustrator and any of these programs we have today to experiment with. Everything was trial and error. According to Storm the “Meddle” cover is an ear underwater which I don’t know if I necessarily see but I guess everything is left up to interpretation especially these albums also doubled as stash hide outs. I often dabble in photo manipulation and I look at his early Pink Floyd designs as inspiration especially when I did Ancient Ocean’s Titan’s Island last year. There are like 20+ layers on that cover with the whole idea of the deeper you peer into it the more your imagination runs wild. Though a friend later asked if Coltrane’s “Interstellar Space” was the reference for that cover and I was like “No. Maybe? I don’t know … sure?” haha

Darryl Norsen aka D.Norsen is a Boston based Graphic Designer and Art Director. His clients include The Jerry Garcia Estate, Light in the Attic Records, Aquarium Drunkard, Three lobed, Beyond Beyond is Beyond, Concord Music Group and many others. He has worked with The National, Steve Gunn, Kurt Vile, Tony Conrad, Hiss Golden Messenger, Trad Gras Och Stenar, Endless Boogie, Chris Forsyth and anybody else who thinks he won’t screw up their image.

Connect with Darryl – Instagram // // Tumblr

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