Exclusive Interview with Mike King
Meet the artist behind some of your favorite album covers & concert posters. We recently sat down for an interview with graphic artist and poster designer Mike King!
Hailing from Portland, Oregon, Mike started his career by making posters for local punk bands in exchange for admission to shows. Designing for over three decades, his portfolio contains work for some of the most renowned musicians & bands in the world, such as Elliott Smith, Jack Johnson, The Shins, Ben Harper, The Decemberists, and many more.
When did you start drawing?
Mike King: I mean I started drawing pretty early, 4 or 5 I think… I have a drawing of batman from when I was like 5 years old and it looks like the Brady Bunch. So yeah, I was always drawing. I kind of went to hippie school where you pretty much just draw all the time; that’s kinda all I did.
1000Museums: And was it an experiential school or was it a school for the arts…?
Mike King: I think it was an art school because that’s where I gravitated. I don’t think there was a “plan”. I didn’t even know what their plan was.
1000Museums: Kind of more of an open format?
Mike King: Open format and I don’t think we actually got like grades per se. Somehow I graduated from high school (I went there from 4th grade to 12th grade) but I didn’t really ever learn much. Except how to screen print.
1000Museums: So did you spend a lot of time drawing outside of school?
Mike King: Oh yeah. For many years, I thought when I grew up I could draw comic books or something. I was very much into comic books. I read a lot. I’m not a good enough drawer to draw comic books so that didn’t work out for me. There’s a “looseness” that you have to have in your drawings to be good at that sort of thing—I could never quite get over the hurdle of getting enough movement in. Comics are very much movement-oriented. And I could never get there. It’s like, “oh yeah I can do that anatomy and I can do that ya know— all of the stuff. But it was never alive enough—
Maybe if I had gone to school or something maybe I would have learned it, but I never did. I mean I went to high school and that was it. And I never went to art school or anything like that. Maybe that would have been overcome by some actual training, but I was a “free-range” kid just doing whatever I wanted to do. I wasn’t ever really given any limitations of what I could do, but at the same time I was never given any framework to actually get anything done.
I’m a self-taught artist, which is kind of weird, but people do it.
Tell us about the first time you sold your art.
Mike King: The first ones that I made were just because they were bands that I played in and someone had to make the posters so I did that. And then I met these guys who were doing concert promotions in a club and I was like “I could make”—actually I went into their office and I was trying to get a gig for my band and I saw a guy in the corner struggling to kind of put together this poster and I said, “oh I can do that” because I had done other stuff by then. They said, “can you do this today?” and I said “yeah.” At the time I was working in a copy shop so I had access to Xerox machines and stuff like that, so I went in, I made the poster, and I brought it back a couple hours later and that’s how I got hired. And I’ve worked with them now for over 30 years.
Can you walk us through your process?
Mike King: The first thing I want to develop in that type of relationship is how far they will let me push them— if someone comes to you with an idea well then you have to either incorporate them or gently steer them away from them if they’re crap. Ideally, in a perfect world, I would be unquestioned and do whatever I want to do [laughs] but—an album cover is generally a very drawn out and convoluted process that requires a fair amount of work because there’s a lot of— it’s rare that the album cover depends on one person liking it to make the decision so there could be a lot of revisions.
1000Museums: Do you listen to the music before creating the artwork?
Mike King: Generally I have a rule about this when designing record projects— I don’t listen to them at all. I mean I love a lot of music, I love a lot of different kinds of music, but I hate more music than I love. Which I think is good because if you think everything in the creative world is great then I question your taste. So I try not to get caught up in the actual music beyond simple classifications… because I find myself in positions where I sour myself on a project because I don’t like the music—and I think I’m doing my client a disservice. It might hurt their feelings that I’ve never heard it but it would hurt their feelings if it comes out crappy because I didn’t like their band.
Sometimes when I’m presented with new projects I do a lot of research in terms of seeing what the band t-shirts look like, what their products look like, how they are visually representing themselves because that’s what I should be concerned with.
I think it’s great, ya know? I don’t begrudge my place in the world. Thank god I found some way to be productive.
1000Museums: Do most of your clients hear about you based on word of mouth?
Mike King: I think back before—where you could kind of find anyone if you really wanted to find them, it was probably more word of mouth. At least in Portland, where I started, I was “that poster guy” or whatever so if there were posters to be made, I oftentimes got to make them and so that’s kind of how it was— being a kind of big fish in a small pond or whatever.
What was your first poster project?
Mike King: I remember several posters. One was for a park cleanup and I believe that one was because I had already—at that time I was probably 13 or 14—and I believe I had already learned how to screen print so I think that was the first screen printed poster I ever did.
There were some guys in my high school that had a band and I hung around with them and I did some posters for that so it’s hard to say what the first one was…
I guess somebody somewhere probably thought “I’m gonna grow up and I’m gonna make posters for rock shows”. I’m sure people think that. There was never a plan to do that and I think I was probably doing it for 10 years before it occurred to me that I was a graphic designer. I would say this: I’ve made more mistakes than plans.
Are there any artists that were inspirational to you?
Mike King: I think in some ways—all artists are inspirational to me, but there’s positive inspiration and negative inspiration and one of the things that actually kind of came to me relatively recently, is that I’m kind of a sponge. I will just go and just suck it all up and some of it may come back in some way or another. And now I’m going to contradict myself—
Before I said that I hate so much of everything but I really do love bad art. Like, the things that are just like “this is so wrong”. I’m so enamored with it. Even if the art is terrible, I still wanna see it. I love experiencing it.
Tons of things are major inspirations to me. It’s hard to say what’s a direct inspiration—sometimes it’s just like “oh this shape, this color, this concept”, whatever it is. If you look at my work it tends to be—I don’t really work in a style. It is kind of all over the place. It’s kind of more of an aesthetic than a style, and a lot of that comes from this kind of dissatisfaction. Kind of always wanting to avoid doing everything the same all the time. Sometimes I grow weary of artists and you look at their stuff and you go “oh yeah; they did that” and you can tell from a mile away that they created that because it’s this identifiable color or context or whatever. Like Martin Scorsese said he wanted to be able to make any kind of movie and I would like to make any kind of poster I guess. If you’re making posters for punk bands or country western bands or metal bands, hip hop… there’s all sorts of stylistic range that kind of works within that genre.
So if you want to make all the posters you have to know how to make all the posters…
In the last 20 years, you’ve created over 4000 posters. Is there one that really stands out to you?
Mike King: No. And I don’t love them all.
I always look back and it’s like “oh I could have done this or that…”. I try not to look back too much. The best case scenario is that I’m mostly pleased with something. And I appreciate people who appreciate my work.
It’s important for me personally when I think about The Decemberists or think about Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros—that artwork is present in my mind when I think about the band. It’s weird but cool.
I think that posters for live events sort of offer everybody an opportunity to kind of go someplace where they didn’t have plans to go. With show posters— there hasn’t been much of a revision process so I was able to present people with something that might not have been what they expected, or how they expected it to be presented. Most of the time, that works very well.
1000Museums: Thanks for siting down with us Mike!
Mike King: Thank you.
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