Metal Album Cover Artists Interview: Behind the Scenes with Niko Anttila, Petri Lampela, and Heino Brand

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In something of a long-distance digital roundtable, Metal Solstice caught up with three artists whose creations help to bring metal to life in the form of album covers, stage equipment, and merch designs.

Niko Anttila has a unique perspective, his creative pursuits including traditional physical media, digital art, and drumming for death/thrash outfit Nemecic. The Finnish artist has partnered with the likes of Apocalyptica, Kaunis Kuolematon, and Sabaton on their album and clothing design- even scaling his work to full-blown stage props for Sabaton’s 2019 “The Great Tour” across North America.

Described by Vesa Salovaara (Vorna, Ephemerald) in a previous Metal Solstice interview as, “…a true gift, a man from the North!”, Finland’s Petri Lampela often incorporates hand drawings and his own photography into his album art. Lampela has worked with numerous other up-and-coming bands including Fireproven, Everture, Where’s My Bible, and more.

South Africa-based Heino Brand has defied geography, harnessing the power of social media to connect with bands across several continents. such as. Often finding inspiration in tree bark as well as other natural textures and moody elements, Brand has designed album covers for the likes of Wolfheart and Mors Subita.

Although unique in style and perspective, the artists’ commonalities were also striking. Chiefly, the lengths they’ll go to meet clients’ needs, spanning oceans and even trekking to abandoned houses replete with rotting horse intestines just to capture the best material. Yes, read that sentence again. Each artist is also avid in other creative pursuits, whether in music or other physical art, and continues to dream and create beyond just the digital space.

Heino Brand art for Mors Subita.

Metal Solstice: Can you tell me a bit about your design background? How do you continue evolving your design style?

Niko Anttila: I have always had a tendency to pick up anything I can draw with and that has been with me from since childhood. The attraction to doodling on any given piece of paper eventually led me to apply into a graphic design school. Unfortunately, by the time the school started, it had changed its focus on audiovisual production and didn’t really include elements of graphic design as much as I hoped it would. Nevertheless, I did my time there, so to speak, and graduated as a media assistant.

As an artist and designer I consider myself self-educated. I got the spark to paint about 10 years ago, after many years mainly focusing on music. From since I’ve been honing my skills mainly in traditional painting as well as in digital design. I paint as much as I can and I like to experiment with different kinds of mediums, try to mix them up and see what happens!

That is a really cool way to pick up new useful things as well as paying attention to what happens around you, what other artists do and so on. I think best way to evolve and bring up new things into your repertoire is to fearlessly try new things and techniques. Even a failure is a way to go forward.

Petri Lampela: I loved drawing as a kid and already knew that besides music this is going to be my path in life. In the nineties I draw the cover art for my own band’s cassette demos and that was the first time these two worlds came together.

I worked in advertising agencies for 15 years, but album covers and band logos have been my main source of income for the last few years and that’s what I absolutely love to do. I usually work with Photoshop using my own photography, but lately I’ve been doing more and more hand-drawn art. When working with the computer every element is on a separate layer and nothing you do is irreversible. With a marker pen what’s there pretty much stays there. You can draw for 30 hours and still ruin the work completely. That’s quite exciting.

Heino Brand: I studied Applied Design after I left school, with Graphic Design being the subject I majored in. In terms of illustration and photo editing, I’m mostly self-taught. I try to evolve my skills by observing others’ work I enjoy, analyzing what I like and what I don’t like. Certain things become easier with doing it for years, but there’s always room for growth. Over the years I’ve been part of various projects from book covers, mobile app development, website design and lots more.

Vorna album cover, Petri Lampela, 2019.

MS: What would you consider the “signatures” of your artistic style, if you have any? In addition to bands’ requests, what are some of your sources of visual inspiration?

Niko Anttila: If there are any, I consider strong use of colour might be one of my signatures. The style of the painting varies quite a lot depending on the customer. For an instance the stuff I do for Sabaton (like flyers shot from the confetti guns) has a really different feel compared to paintings I do for some black metal band or if I am building up material for my own exhibition.

To be an artist is to observe. I mean you can pick inspiration practically from anywhere around you. Nature teaches you how light shines through thin materials and it shows you that shadows are not black. Spending time observing things around, I love to browse through paintings made by other artists. I especially love Russian and eastern bloc symbolism and I get really inspired from it. I get inspired by the work of my contemporaries. Zbigniew M. Bielak, Denis Forkas Kostromitin and Eliran Kantor are all really different kinds of artists and I love their work. Looking at beautiful things, makes you want to create beautiful things.

Petri Lampela: People always tell me that I have a recognizable style, but I’ve always thought that versatility is my biggest asset. With well-known visual artists who have their own distinct style the client usually approaches the artist because they want to go with that specific style. Perhaps it’s my background in graphic design that I usually try to figure out what kind of design style would fit the client’s wishes and adapt to that.

Heino Brand: I don’t have anything specific that I go out of my way to include, however I’ve noticed I like to make use of a lot of tree bark textures. There’s always some grit to my work. Oh, and the odd candles here and there. I find inspiration from listening to music, watching films and observing things in everyday life. It can even be from a random conversation with someone which leads to an idea.

Art for Kalmah by Heino Brand.

MS: How do you approach creating new album art? Do you typically get to hear the music first? Similarly, what percentage is the band/label’s input, vs. your own creative vision and input?

Heino Brand: Most of the time I prefer to work with a clear idea of the ‘theme’ for the whole album. I sometimes get to listen to the music and that definitely helps with ideas. For the most part the bands that I’ve collaborated with have all had concepts in mind and I try to fill in the gaps if there are any.

Creative freedom is great, but to a degree. Having too much freedom makes it difficult to pinpoint and focus on something solid. I’ve had that work in the past, but I’ve found that it can also be a hit or miss situation. People might not always know what they like, but they sure as hell know what they don’t like! Then it is up to you to find that which they do like. It can produce a lot of back and forth, so I definitely work best with some set of parameters in place.

Niko Anttila: One thing in common with every project is the attempt to get as much information from the band as possible. The music speaks for itself and defines the genre we are working in, yes, but I like to know how daring band is with the design, you know… are we doing this basic genre loyal artwork or can we push things a little more into some other direction. I really like to find out how much freedom I have with the project.

Some projects are done swiftly, in a week or so and some take a lot of time just to get all the info and preferences down. Usually bands let me hear the stuff beforehand, if they have something ready at the time. Very few want to expose songs in demo phase and I understand that completely! Labels have had thus far very little interest in the designs, which is nice, haha! I have usually had a very healthy 80-100% input in all artwork.

Petri Lampela: Sometimes the band already has some idea what the cover image should be like and sometimes I’m asked to just let my imagination fly based on the title, music and lyrics. I’d say it’s about 50/50. The creative stage is probably my favourite part of the process, pondering over the lyrics and music and coming up with an idea for the image inside my head first. After that it’s basically just printing the image out. The whole design process can take from 60 minutes to 30 hours, depends on many different variables.

MS: Specifically for Niko, as both a metal musician in Nemecic, as well as an artist, do you feel that you have a unique insight into what bands are seeking when designing new album artwork?

Niko Anttila: During my time in the business, I’ve been a bit surprised how differently each band works and what makes them tick. Some have really well figured ideas and they are basically just seeking for a hand to concretize it and others just want something but they don’t have a slightest clue what it could be! To be honest, I prefer to work with the latter. I am and like to be more than just a tool tracing ideas; I want to have freedom to express my vision of the band’s music and let the project to grow from that. Being immersed in the scene brings some benefits but what comes to the bands and what they seek art-wise; it is always a unique process.

Nemecic “Wardenclyffe” art by Niko Anttila.

MS: What is the most memorable project that you’ve created for a band, and why is it significant to you?

Heino Brand: In terms of my favourite cover that I’ve designed I’d have to say it’s Shadow World by Wolfheart. That was the first time I created a detailed landscape piece. Another surprise was getting to work on two Kalmah tour posters and shirts.

Niko Anttila: The biggest and most memorable project for me is without a doubt everything concerning Sabaton and building their tour on The Great War album. Sabaton is the biggest band I’ve worked with and it was really cool for me to be part of such a big operation. I got to paint the flyers they shoot live from confetti guns and that project started to escalate quickly into painting and even building full stage props for them.

With this project I really got the chance to express myself and to get into things I haven’t done in this magnitude before. All this pushed me to the limits in so many ways and that is where all the growth happens. This surely was both, challenging and a very positive experience for me.

Another very memorable project I did was the album cover art photoshoot for Gloria Morti album, Kuebiko. It was my first plunge into using other means than painting to execute album cover art. We had to set the date for this photo session according to the availability of horse or cow intestines, which were integral part for the project. Those are not available from slaughterhouses due to government regulations and our only hope was to wait for emergency slaughter, which eventually happened.

We got the horse intestines which we needed, but we weren’t able to set up the site as fast as we hoped. By the time we got all set up, some of the guts had gone a bit foul and even while well packed, the stench was absolutely horrible! You can imagine what it was like to cover a welded cross prop with stenching horse intestines in a hot summer day in an even hotter old abandoned house, haha!

Wolfheart “Shadow World” art by Heino Brand.

MS: Do you have a “dream project”, e.g. a style of art you’d like to pursue, or a band you’d really like to work with?

Heino Brand: I don’t necessarily have a dream project in terms of art style or of a band I’d like to work with. That being said, there are definitely a lot of bands I’d be excited to work with. Wintersun, Eternal Tears of Sorrow, Old Man’s Child, Whispered, Omnium Gatherum and Swallow the Sun to name but a few. Their music has influenced me greatly. The style that I’m mostly interested in is dark fantasy. Anything eerie, mysterious, and which leaves you feeling cold and deserted.

Niko Anttila: Yes, Iron Maiden! I fell in love with the work Derek Riggs did for them and that is one of the reasons I do this, so doing something for them would be a dream come true.

One project I can already talk about is the new Nemecic album which is soon ready. We are currently waiting for the master tape to arrive and we will be offering it to labels soon. As like with the first one, The Deathcantation, I am responsible for the album cover artwork. Making art for your own band seems to be much harder than doing it for others, haha! We’ll see how it ends up!

MS: Is the world of album artists super-competitive, or do you feel like there is room for everyone to contribute their talents? How do you typically connect with clients? Please share your experience.

Heino Brand: I think there is room for everyone to contribute. However, it is like a lot of other things these days. It’s become ‘easier’ and so there are a lot more people in the market. Also a lot of bands these days have very creative people already in the band that are responsible for their album covers etc. It’s like most other professions out there, you have your well-known and established artists that bands seek after and it’s about getting to that point. Where your name basically precedes your art. Also, like most professions, it’s hard work and nothing is ever guaranteed. Though If you like creating art, keep at it.

Petri Lampela: My marketing strategy is almost 100% word of mouth. As a business strategy it’s slow but on the other hand I know that I’ve done something right if bands approach me after seeing my work somewhere. To hear clients say that I managed to capture the essence of their music and lyrics with my art is something that always gives me the chills and I will never get tired of. To be able to do what I really love is the greatest reward of all.

Everture “Emerge” cover art by Petri Lampela.

MS: So, Heino- being located in South Africa, you’re geographically inconvenient to metal bands, but social media helps to close that distance. How did you begin to partner with bands in Finland and elsewhere? How do you keep those relationships alive?

As much as I detest social media platforms like Facebook, I have to admit it has put me in touch with a lot of great people I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to collaborate with otherwise. I believe the first time I did an album cover was for the U.S. band Ascension.

In terms of Finnish bands I think it was for Black Sun Aeon’s album, Routa. I remember listening to Before the Dawn and Dawn of Solace back then, so I sought out Tuomas Saukkonen. Dropped him a message and that was it. I try to keep those relationships alive by periodically reaching out to the bands I’ve worked with before, and also heavily rely on word of mouth.

MS: Tell me about your other creative talents- either album art outside of metal, or outside of graphic design altogether?

Petri Lampela: I’ve been playing music since the early nineties and we’re at a demo stage with the second album of my current band, Lords of Kobol. I must admit I’m really lazy in exploring new music; I tend to always go with the old favorites. On the other hand, my taste in music is quite broad so there’s luckily always something new to be found in the old favorites anyway. Lately I’ve been listening to Soundgarden, Kansas, Death and Nik Kershaw.

Heino Brand: Well apart from creating art, I really enjoy writing music. My love for music got me into album art in the first place. So currently I’m busy working on my first EP and I’m very excited about it. I’m getting to work with Caleb Bingham, who was actually in Ascension. So if I remember correctly my very first gig as an album artist was for his band’s EP, which was in 2008. We’ve stayed in contact for all these years and so it’s great to be able to have him be a part of this project. The project is called Brundarkh and I’m hoping to have the first single ready in the beginning of 2021.

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