Hearing Is Seeing: The Influence of The Designer's Republic

In the last couple of years, I've had a few people jokingly ask me if I could possibly have a day job—5 albums in 30 months is a lot of output, and apparently people don't quite believe I could hold down a career in addition to writing this much music. It's true: I do indeed have a job that occupies 40-to-50 hours of my week; when I'm not working on City States, Modal Voices, Avvenir, or Contretemps, when I'm not spending time with my wife and our dog Bowie, I call myself a graphic designer.

My co-workers—I'm employed at a digital agency in Chicago called Isobar—often comment on the particular aesthetics of my work: technical, angular, retro-futurist, mathematical but oddly expressionistic. They might as well be talking about my Avvenir recordings, and the parallels aren't coincidental; if my main influence for the style of Avvenir comes from growing up on Autechre and Aphex Twin, then it shouldn't be a surprise to hear that I discovered graphic design while looking through the liner notes for the CDs of Warp Records, many of which were created by a Sheffield studio called The Designers Republic.

This was long before I had any sense that making electronic music was a thing that I might want to do—instead, I collected CDs voraciously, rare Aphex singles, out of print Cabaret Voltaire and Coil, imports by Zoviet France and Merzbow. For me, hearing electronic records was like listening in on an encoded signal that only a handful of people could receive, and the album art was the key. Or, to think of it another way, hearing and seeing the music were different ways of experiencing the same idea, two interrelated acts that completed one another.

I stole from TDR when I was 19. Sorry.

I stole from TDR when I was 19. Sorry.

A friend of mine from college turned me on to the fact that people actually did this for a living—making record covers—and the work of The Designers Republic was my inroad. I was 19, and over the course of my first semester in college my friends and I would spend evenings listening to Incunabula, looking at books prominently featuring TDR, David Carson, and the UK studio Tomato. One of my earliest college projects featured an appropriation of The Designer's Republic, a type spec poster featuring a recolored and blurred scan of Autechre's Tri Repetae liner notes (I got an A).

Their work is a continuing touchpoint for my design career; from the data visualizations I make at my day job, to the silkscreen prints I created back in 2013, to the desktop glitches I've been posting on Instagram as of late, the aesthetic sensibilities of Ian Anderson and company are all over the things I make.

Now, I've come full circle. Electronic music led me to design, and some 17 years later I'm looking at those same LPs as inspiration for my own recordings. After a decade of singing and playing bass in City States and other indie-pop bands, I started making solo electronic music of my own; starting with Contretemps in 2015, which is heavily influenced by Aphex Twin's SAW II along with the music of Fennesz and Merzbow, I shifted focus later that year to my Avvenir project, which borrows equally from Autechre's early, electro-inspired LPs and their later generative works. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the album art I made for those Avvenir recordings reflects the parallels of my visual and sonic preoccupations.

Three Avvenir covers: Linotype, Glyphs, and Natural Language.

Three Avvenir covers: Linotype, Glyphs, and Natural Language.

To reiterate a point I made above, as a listener I've always experienced the music and album art as two parts of the same whole. Now, as a maker of music, that notion is even more pronounced, and the themes I explore as a visual designer & musician are converging: how technology is reshaping our lives at a quickening pace, altering how we communicate, understand and misunderstand one another, how we remember, and how we interact with the world around us. To that end, I owe an awful lot to Ian Anderson and TDR for helping point the way to the career I have today, for shaping how I hear, and how I see.