Portland, Oregon’s Sam Ford. Artist. Drummer. Dungeon Master. After reading this interview and being dazzled by his awesome art, you are commanded to legally download “Speak Loudly, Say Nothing” by Wizard Rifle. Sam plays drums. One more example of an artist/musician double threat for my follow up article about people more talented than me.
What was your first paying art job?
I seem to remember a poster for a surf-punk show to the tune of $10 that I never actually got paid for; that happened a lot but it was so fun to be involved in the music I didn’t care. When I was first getting started in Portland no-one had any idea who the fuck I was, so I just started badgering venues for any shows they wanted free flyers for, and sending art to bands I really liked and saying “Gee, you’re really swell, use this however you please”. I did that with this amazing noise metal band Black Elk and wound up doing a bunch of work for them, and found an incredible community here, but for many years I worked almost totally for free. The first gig that hired me for real was my friend Nate Carson (currently of Witch Mountain) when he was in the experimental grind band The Better To See You With, who paid me $400 for their cover and the original. I owe that dude a LOT, he’s been a great supporter and a great friend over the years.
Who are your artistic influences?
I mentored under comic writer and illustrator Paul Chadwick for a good number of years back in my home town, so his influence on me is immeasurable; he’s a truly wonderful guy and a phenomenal artist. My family has been astonishingly supportive, as has my girlfriend Angela, and I take great inspiration from their hard work and diligence. As far as artistic influences: Old cartoons from Rankin Bass, Don Bluth and Ralph Bakshi, Ray Harryhausen and Greek mythology in general, Geoff Darrow, Bernie Wrightson, Kelly Jones, Gerhard, Frank Miller, Mark Schultz, Alex Ross, Ricardo Delgado, Jack Kirby, John Totleben, Stephen Bissette, Killian Plunkett, Todd McFarlane, Moebius, Dave McKean, Odilon Redon, Ian Miller, Frank Frazetta, Brom, Richard Powers, Roger Dean, Philippe Drulliet, M.C. Escher, H.R. Giger, Stephen Gammell (the scariest art ever created), Mark Tedin, Ron Spencer, History, Nature, Space, Time…
Your weapon of choice seems to be Pen and Ink. What other materials do you use? How much work do you do on the computer?
I love my inks, it’s true, it’s hard to break the comic influence and I just keep finding new ways to improve my textures and techniques to keep it fresh, but I’m definitely expanding my color palette and more recent additions have included colored pencil, watercolors, acrylics and sculpture. I’m really looking forward to experimenting with oils and charcoals, just dicking around and seeing what I can come up with, and maybe some found objects and latex once I get a nicer camera. I want to get gnarly and messy and barely in control. I’ll use Photoshop for a quick color job on occasion but usually for color balance, saturation and layout. There are some truly jaw dropping digital artists at work, but computer art ain’t my bag.
Most of your art is pretty phantasmagorical, do you ever have to use reference materials?
I love that word, phantasmagorical… Yes, I use references obsessively. As weird as my work gets I can’t stand the material components not looking like what they are, I want a glacier to be a glacier and not a half-digested marshmallow. I rent library books or do Google image searches mostly, or go for a walk and study textures, lighting, wildlife, etc. I have to be careful with the “research” end of things, I will subconsciously do anything to delay putting pen to paper.
I try to fit at least one 15-letter word in each article. Take us through your creative process from concept to final.
There are times when I get struck by an idea for a piece, and I get so freakishly enthused that I just pace for an hour or so as it works itself out, but mostly I question the band for as much conceptual input as possible. I’ll do a few rough pencil/ink drawings after that, sometimes with quick watercolor or computer color, scan and send them to the group until all are satisfied (not always a swift process, but absolutely critical to avoid requests for changes ¾ of the way to finishing). After that I just try and get the thing done on time, carting it with me everywhere and sending occasional progress reports, then scan or photograph it and use a file-share service to message the finished piece to the band or their label. Thank christ for technology, as much as I complain about it it really is tremendously useful!
What is your studio space like?
A low-slung coffee table and a sofa shared with an overenthusiastic french bulldog. I’m about as undemanding as it gets for space, though I am a prima donna about light. I like working in coffee shops too, it affords less distractions and someone else chooses the music so I don’t have to. And there’s coffee.
It also shows all the phonies there pretending to be writers like me what an artists work looks like. Take us through a typical day.
Wake up at 6 AM to drop my girlfriend at the carpool to her animating job, drive home, finish the coffee we made, walk and feed the dog, read email and search for free audio readings of horror and science fiction stories, start drawing, get up and change the music every ten goddamn minutes if I haven’t found a good audio book, walk the dog again, keep drawing, ignore/forget texts and phone calls to keep drawing, ignore/forget empty stomach threatening to implode to keep drawing, change projects every couple of hours to keep the blood flowing and prevent boredom, walk and feed the dog, clean the house a bit, pick up the lady, eat dinner and watch a movie together and, if there’s not more work that gets done, hit the sack. I work slowly and distractedly: I wanted to do a Skinner-esque time lapse video but thought it would look too much like a tweaker obsessing over a wiggling dot.
When working with bands (besides your own band Wizard Rifle), do you take a lot of direction from them?
As much as possible; metal bands almost always show up armed with ideas and “I don’t give a shit” is very rarely a part of their lexicon (except for Wizard Rifle), so I try to ply them for any direction they can provide. Most groups I’ve worked with know exactly what they want and have very detailed and elaborate visions, and the better I can execute that vision the happier we both are, though it is great when I can crack the mental vault of images waiting for a chance to breathe free air. If a band is blown away I know I’ve done my job right.
There are so many bands out there with unreadable logos. The Lettering you created for Black Cobra is awesome. How did that creation come about?
Thank you! Super elaborate band logos are funny, they look great but it could say “Progressive Auto Insurance” for all I can read. The Cobra boys just wanted their logo and the album title tailored to resemble the cover (they had an entire “nuclear-irradiated Shackleton expedition” theme envisioned), we figured the lettering was bold enough and left it alone, I just elaborated on the spiky-icy outline surrounding it. Nate from Witch Mountain wanted me to [temporarily] superimpose a dancing penguin with an ice-cream cone on one of the cliff ledges just to mess with them, but I got so stressed towards the end getting it finished I totally forgot. I am still pissed at myself that I didn’t, it would have been hysterical.
Do you listen to your clients’ music while working on their project?
A couple of times to get the feel of it, but no matter how good it is metal is so harsh and jarring it pretty much sucks to draw to for extended periods, unless it’s doomy or droney or whatever. I mostly peruse the lyrics looking for inspiration; so many bands have marvelous imagery in their lyrics that is completely lost in the maelstrom of the record itself, and if I can incorporate specific passages into the art I feel like I’m doing justice to a part of the record that’s too often looked over.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished up covers for Portland locals Diesto (shown here) and Burnt Books, whose label At A Loss has just commissioned me for another project it’s a bit too early on to reveal. A couple of show posters for the Winter’s Wake festival in Pittsburgh and a local Portland show featuring Atriarch, Lord Dying, Nether Regions and Gaytheist… Outside of metal projects I’ve got some tattoo design gigs, a 12’x21’ mural for a friend’s neighborhood association office, some merch for a friend’s food cart, and a web comic and jewelry line my girlfriend and I are working on. New Wizard Rifle tracks too!
What are your favorite bands? What are you listening to right now?
I don’t have many true blue favorite artists besides Neil Young, Tom Waits, the Stones and Black Sabbath, but I have favorite individual albums: Meshuggah’s “Chaosphere”, “Strap It On” by Helmet, “Forever Changes” by Love, X’s “Wild Gift”, I could never possibly hope to list all of them. Right now I usually listen to classical music, audiobooks or NPR, easy listening with no skippable songs. I just finished listening to Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, it completely blew my mind.
Do you have any dream projects?
Graphic novels. I got swept up in music and the attending art early on and I’ve never regretted it, but I’ve wanted to create comics for as long as I can remember. I have ideas for a horrific backwoods ghost story, a dystopian trans-dimensional epic, a post apocalyptic sci-fi thriller… I’m trying to decide if I want to risk endless rejection at different publishers or try and Kickstart them. I’d also love to make some movie monsters if the job makes itself available, maybe even some original pieces for gallery shows if I have the time. Wouldn’t mind doing work for Wizards of the Coast either, I’ve been a gaming dweeb since time immemorial.
What artists would you like to see featured on Metal Band Art?
Mark McCormick is a killer New York-by-way-of-Portland poster artist putting out awesome silk-screened stuff, he’d be great, and Josh Foster from Texarkana does excellent pen and ink work for a number of metal bands. Alex Pardee, Nick Blinko, Away from Voivod, they’d be great too.
Thanks again Sam, you are a very talented artist.
Thanks a lot, I love your site and it’s very generous of you to give me this interview! There’s so much great art being done in metal it’s awesome to see you keeping an eye on it for the rest of us.