|Brian Cannon talks to Fuck Yeah The Verve about working with The Verve, his unique approach to creating, and the future of Microdot as the relevancy of sleeve design stumbles into the 21st century.|
Brian Cannon with Richard Ashcroft and Kate Radley.
"It was ace." Brian Cannon sums up his time working with The Verve succinctly and modestly. Curiously, the phrase is subtly emotive. Cannon is the driving force behind Microdot Creative, which he established in 1990 after completing a BA (Hons) degree in graphic design, and though his modest aversion to professing the importance of his work may convince you otherwise, Cannon has created a legacy. As British music soared in the 90s, culminating in the rise of Britpop and the noisy chart-clambering that accompanied it, Microdot silently created many of the iconic album sleeves that would come to define the era. Cannon and Microdot quickly became seminal forces in graphic design when working with bands such as The Verve, Oasis and Suede not only immortalised British culture and the Britpop movement, but created a demand for the Microdot approach to graphic design. Two decades later, Microdot continues to adapt and evolve its unique approach to design, working on projects which are increasingly diverse and geographically sprawling.
Despite the span of Cannon’s career, perhaps most significant to the readership of this blog is Microdot’s earliest years: between the years of 1992 and 1998, all 18 of The Verve’s 90s-releases were Microdot creations - projects and a period Cannon reflects on fondly.
"The whole Verve experience was a wonderful thing and something I am proud to have been involved with," he explains. "The very early days were my favourite in terms of the whole vibe surrounding the project, it was very innocent and exciting. Music wise my favourite album would have to be A Northern Soul, but I love the other two as well. Sleeve design wise, I think it was all pretty good, but again I like the very early stuff. I still think A Storm In Heaven is the best sleeve I have ever done, for anybody.”
Cannon’s association with The Verve began with a chance encounter when he met Richard Ashcroft at a party in Wigan in 1989. Cannon went on to form a strong working and personal relationship with the band.
"We all became really good mates, I got exactly where they were coming from and they got the ideas I had. I was a MASSIVE fan of the band which obviously also helps. It just worked, we clicked."
"Preparation is nine tenths of the battle."
In preparation for the shoot forAll in the Mind’s cover image, Richard Ashcroft is photographed by Cannon lying in Mesnes Park, Wigan in 1992.
Source: The Microdot Lecture Tour
While later releases saw the “indulgences” that a slightly more generous budget could afford, early sleeves ensured Cannon made use of the band’s resources as well as his own. This gave the sleeves a uniquely personal touch which was compounded again through Cannon’s “no references” approach to sleeve design. The Verve EP's tetraptych features Richard Ashcroft's apartment in Orrell, Wigan. Cannon points out Ashcroft's then-girlfriend Sarah Carpenter is featured in all four images, and that the clock mounted on the wall was also used on the sleeve for Gravity Grave, though he points out the latter is “sheer coincidence.” He elaborates on the issue of budget, “…we had very little budget back then so we just used what we had around us, it was Richard’s clock…” and points out he “wasn’t implying a connection.”
As The Verve’s popularity and subsequent funding increased, Microdot’s approach to the design of The Verve’s releases remained largely similar.
"The budgets only really started to increase around the time of Urban Hymns, which is quite ironic really because the more complex sleeve images were completed earlier. The size of budget never helped or hindered creativity, I just got on with it. If anything having less money made me utilise the resources I had more.”
Cannon explains that for the cover of A Northern Soul, the band were photographed in black and white in a Manchester studio and the resulting image was hand coloured before being turned into a large format transparency, later projected from a scaffolding gantry onto a warehouse wall.
Source: The Microdot Lecture Tour
As such, a constant of Microdot’s approach to design is Cannon’s “hands-on” approach and painstaking dedication to his craft. Despite its “digitally enhanced appearance”, Cannon explains the sleeve of She’s A Superstar is authentic. He turned the waterfall blue by pouring a dustbin of blue food colouring into the water, and installed a neon sign into the river - its generator out of shot. He adds that the “four silhouetted figures on the distant hillside were not added digitally” either, and that it really “is (The) Verve shivering up there for hours until we completed the shot.”
Weeks of preparation and meticulous planning were involved with each release, to ensure that by the time of the shoot, nothing was left to chance. Cannon maintains that he has never had to redo a shoot and that “research and preparation is nine tenths of the battle”. When it came to working with The Verve, there was no exception to this rule - a rule that allowed Cannon creative control yet left room for input by the band. Cannon readily explains the benefits of this approach to the working relationship between him and The Verve.
"There were never any clashes of vision, we would discuss thoroughly each project and the concepts were finalised before a single frame of film was exposed. The research and preparation involved the band, so there was never anything that had to be re-shot, or any disagreements with the end results."
"My way of working was just to immerse myself as much as possible into the band’s project. I’d listen to the words… and reflect that in all aspects of the sleeve… I was in the studio when they recorded [A Northern Soul].”
Source: The Microdot Lecture Tour
In 2011, Cannon toured England on the Microdot Lecture Tour. Anecdotes allowed audiences an insight to the client relationships Microdot maintained. In one such anecdote, Cannon explains that an unused shot from the Lucky Man sessions was referred to by Ashcroft as “too Ashcroft-centric”. When asked his opinion on the theory that Urban Hymns was a forerunner to Ashcroft’s “diversion” from the band - even despite Ashcroft’s “too Ashcroft-centric” comment - Cannon explains, “Urban Hymns was effectively originally meant to be an Ashcroft solo record, however, it just did not sound the same without Nick so it became a Verve project, unlike the previous albums, he wrote most of the songs himself. So you could say it was a forerunner to his solo career.”
Cannon’s close relationship with his clients is clear, and it is this intimate engagement with the music industry, as well as his later work with a variety of companies (ranging from Converse to Virgin Trains), that has left him with insight and diverse, widely-applicable experience. Though he looks back fondly on his career in sleeve design and remains passionate about it, he is realistic about the future when considering the digitalisation of the music industry as a whole.
"The fact a designer’s canvas has shrunk from a 12 inch sleeve to a CD to an online thumbnail has obviously been detrimental. The industry as a whole has very little money and virtually none for packaging / sleeve design, so on the whole it is virtually finished."
Microdot’s newest website, Microdot Speaks, contains a two-part article aptly titled, ”What’s A Computer?" in which Cannon discusses graphic design in a time before modern technology. Though remaining perpetually loyal to his "hands-on" approach to design, Cannon still embraces the use of technology and explains the future path of his own work is paved to explore new, challenging avenues.
"I am concentrating more on photography and film making, and looking to break into other areas away from music."
When asked to compare himself and his work to that of his contemporaries, Cannon is blunt: “I actually gave a shit, listened to the respective records and immersed myself into projects.”
In a field as dynamic as graphic design, where sleeve design has become virtually obsolete in a few short decades, it is surely the consistency of Cannon’s unparalleled dedication and genuine passion for his work that will ensure Microdot’s continued success in all mediums of production in 2012 and beyond.
You can explore Brian Cannon’s huge catalogue of work at microdotcreative.co.uk.
To keep up to date with Cannon’s work and to hear the latest from the Microdot team, visit their newest website at microdotspeaks.co.uk, or follow them on Twitter or Facebook.