"I'm a minimalist at heart. If a song doesn't need a solo, I'm not going to force one into it."
Four5One: Better by Design
@U2 interviews Steve Averill, the man behind U2's image since the very beginning
June 02, 2003
These are busy days inside studio two, 30 East Essex Street, Dublin. This is the home of Four5One, the preferred design agency of corporations large and small, governmental bodies, and an ever-growing lineup of entertainers -- including, of course, U2. You know their work because you've seen U2's album covers. But Four5One also gets design credit for the fanclub magazine, Propaganda, as well as for digital design work such as the interactive menus employed on the Elevation 2001 Live from Boston DVD, and just about anything else that gets sent out with U2's name on it.
The relationship goes back, no exaggeration, to before U2 was U2, when The Hype sought the counsel of a Dublin punk rocker named Steve Rapid, who by day was an ad agency designer named Steve Averill. While The Hype changed its name to U2 and went on to conquer the music world, Averill grew his design empire through a series of name changes (The Creative Dept., Works Associates, Averill Brophy Associates, Averill Design Associates) into Four5One, and the company has earned such a high-profile reputation now that they don't need to advertise that U2 is a client.
But Four5One's work with U2 will get plenty of advertising soon, and that's a big reason for the busy-ness: their 20+ years of art direction for the band will be on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, beginning on June 14th. On top of that, they're putting the finishing touches on a book, Stealing Hearts At A Travelling Show, which covers their work with U2 from U2:3 through The Best of 1990-2000, and includes interviews with Bono, Adam, Averill, and fellow Four5Oner Shaughn McGrath. (They hope to have the book complete in time for the opening of their exhibit.)
Busy or not, Averill was kind enough to agree to an exclusive interview with @U2 (conducted via email) to discuss the upcoming exhibit, as well as giving U2 their name, hits (mostly) and misses with U2's album imagery, and saving The Unforgettable Fire.
Let's start with the exhibit coming up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. For the fans who will be visiting this summer, can you give us a preview of what to expect?
The exhibition space will show various aspects of the work to date mounted in large frames, but due to space restrictions we can't show the amount of work we cover in the book.
Have you guys ever been asked to put together a large, physical presentation of your own work like this before? What were the challenges involved in developing the idea and executing your plan?
We have been approached before and started to catalogue the work, the various projects that we have been involved with, just over a year ago. But as it ran to over 500 pieces it became apparent that we would need a pretty large space to show everything. Then the Hall of Fame opportunity came up and we decided to put together a comprehensive book to detail our work with the band. The challenge was to produce a collection that was of a high standard of reproduction throughout which meant recreating a lot of the original artwork that had been lost.
What do you hope the fans who see it will take from it?
We hope that fans will see the way that the band has developed its graphic identity throughout its career in conjunction with one central design source. This has allowed a continuity that few bands have the opportunity to realise.
Your exhibit is replacing an exhibit of Anton Corbijn's photography, which leads to an obvious question: you're the band's art director and their image is your job. But so much of their image is also tied up in Anton's work. How closely do you work with Anton and who takes the lead in making sure the photography fits and complements the overall art direction?
The relationship with Anton is one of mutual respect. I first suggested that Anton work with the band for the War album when Bono asked me which photographer should we work with and I thought his photographic style would suit the mood I wanted best.
Anton has such a strong visual sense it is more a question of working on ideas than art-directing him. However, once the photography is done we devise several strategies based on the photography or including it as an integral part, to see which direction the band want to pursue. Anton is involved at this stage but not as heavily; his involvement varies on individual projects. At that point it is essentially down to the band and myself and Shaughn McGrath, the other half of the Four5One equation.
Let's go back to the beginning -- your first image-related work for U2 was coming up with the name "U2." Once and for all, what's the story behind the name, how you came up with it, and what you had in mind when you suggested it?
After several discussions with Adam on numerous music-related topics we talked about coming up with some potential names. We felt that The Hype was inappropriate. So Adam would say that the direction they were thinking was like this particular band or that particular band. He then said at one meeting that he would like a name like XTC. I thought about that and my suggestion was U2. As it had a graphic simplicity and strength and would be easily identifiable in a worldwide context. It also comes from the frequently used expression "you too", and it was the name of the Gary Powers spy plane as well as turning up in a lot of other places. For instance, my tape deck was a Sony U2.
Did I read somewhere that you gave Adam a list of ten name ideas? Do you remember any of your other suggestions?
Only one other name, which was somewhat tongue in cheek, was The Blazers. Though there is a band from East L.A. using that name so maybe it wasn't so bad. It kind of fits with the Hives and Strokes type of name now.
Last year Bono told Larry King that he didn't like the name U2, and Edge and Larry said essentially the same thing to Hot Press. Does that bother you at all?
Well, it is easy in retrospect to say that the name isn't great but it would be hard to think of any other name that would suit them now. What they have achieved has made them U2 rather than the other way around. It is not the most rock 'n' roll of names, I'm well aware, but it was a good name for them at that time. It was memorable when a memorable name was needed. But no, I don't mind. We'd all like to reinvent ourselves.
The Rolling Stones have their lips logo. The Beatles have a certain font that was always used as part of their image. How come U2 doesn't have a logo, a single identifiable icon to associate with the band?
The Stones lips logo is classic and every band would love to have such an identifiable trademark but few work as well as that. But then the Stones were already a huge band when that was introduced so it had the effect of emphasising their identity. In the U2 context we have created recognisable icons like the War photograph or the Joshua Tree silhouette but we are always trying to move on and so we have never deliberately created such an icon.
Let's talk about doing an album cover. At what point in the recording of an album do you get involved? What's the process -- who brings the ideas to the table and how do decisions get made?
These days we get involved at an early stage in the recording process so we can get a feel of where the music is going at that stage. From there we discuss possible visual direction and titles and design a number of directions which are discussed directly with the band. After an agreement as to a particular image we begin to refine the cover and then begin to work on the remainder of the booklet.
The band has said, and Willie Williams agreed when @U2 interviewed him last year, that PopMart was their most difficult tour. Was the Pop project the most difficult for you, as well? If not, what was the most difficult? On the flip side, which project was the easiest?
I don't recall any particular sleeve being more difficult than any other. The first one was probably the easiest given that there were less expectations and finding the image for the second Best Of took quite a lot of work A) to find a memorable image and B) to make the buffalo image workable.
Let's talk about some of the specific projects and album covers....
Boy. Conventional wisdom dictates that you should introduce a band by putting their faces on the cover of the first album. Why didn't you do that with U2, and did you consider it a risk at the time?
It is the acceptable wisdom in these days of marketing but then we wanted the best sleeve we could do, one with a strong visual impact, and it has to be said that it was a brave move to hide the band's name in the boy's hair.
Were you aware of, and did you have any reaction to the decision in the U.S. to change to the "stretch" album cover image for Boy?
I wasn't aware of that at the time, it was all done at Island. I had done a very similiar idea earlier for a poster.
October and War. I remember you saying in previous interviews that October is the cover you dislike the most. Was it such a mistake that you had to get the band off the cover and put the boy back on for War?!
October was again, I think, right for the time. They needed to get themselves across. There are details that didn't come together as I wanted but, while it's not the strongest sleeve, it fits in well with other sleeves of that time.
It's a great contrast to have an album called War and an image of a young boy, albeit a somewhat rough-looking boy, on the cover. Tell me about your thought process for that one.
The intention was not to especially mirror the Boy. Rather, I was trying to make the idea of War more universal. We had considered using a picture from a renowned photographer like Donald McCullen, but in the end I wanted to reflect the idea of the horror of war in a child's eyes. I had an image in mind of a child being rounded up, I think in the Warsaw ghetto, his hands up behind his head and the fear of the situation in his eyes.
To this day, all of the imagery related to The Unforgettable Fire is high on my list of favorites. The album sleeve is great, but more than that -- the posters, the postcards, the photography at the castle or out at the Cliffs of Moher -- everything is so colorful and lush, such a stark contrast to the previous work. I trust that was all by design?
There was a deliberate sense of Irishness about the landscape that was striking. That particular sleeve was one where originally I was not to be involved. Paul McGuinness rang me and said that Island Records had been pushing to do the sleeve and they felt that they should let them have a go. I was invited to attend the presentation and it soon became apparent that the ideas didn't work for the band. Paul called me out of the meeting and asked me how soon I could have an idea ready.
Once the concept was in place we went to see numerous castles and only a small number had the kind of visual power we were looking for. Many of these were featured in a book on ruined Irish castles, but it was felt that rather than simply using an image we wanted the band somewhere within the picture. We shot for three days in the west of Ireland. It was a very enjoyable experience, as are most of the cover shoots. It's a time when the most intense discussion about the look of the sleeve takes place.
Joshua Tree. Did you have a sense you were working on the project that would put U2 in the rock stratosphere, so to speak?
The Joshua Tree cover was deliberately widescreen in concept. It had a cinematic quality that the music had. You can never predict how an album is going to be received but since Unforgettable Fire and working with Brian Eno, I was much more a fan of the band's music than before.
There's a striking (but obvious) similarity between the Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree covers. The maroon/burgundy became black, and the photo was changed of course, but the framework is the same -- a photo inside a color background with gold trim and gold lettering. Did you do Joshua Tree like that on purpose? Was it meant to follow the lead of The Unforgettable Fire?
Yes there was a deliberate synergy, as there is between Pop, Achtung and Zooropa -- all use a grid system for the designs.
Is Rattle and Hum the only project you didn't work on? Any thoughts on what you might have done differently with the art direction of that project?
No, I went and met the people at Paramount Pictures to discuss the cover. We knew what the cover image was going to be but given all the work that was required for the film as well as album it was best handled through Paramount in L.A.
After Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, we all know U2 wasn't thrilled with its image -- at least the image that was being portrayed in the media -- as the overly-serious, sad-faced guys who didn't know how to have fun. Do you take any responsibility for how that image eventually came back to haunt them as it did? Could the art have been presented any differently?
Of course the covers could have presented themselves differently; there is never only one solution. But looking back do you think a shot of four grinning members of the band would have better represented the music? Also anyone who knows the band knows that they have always been capable of a lot of humour. The media image is simply one that the media liked to use as a stick to beat them with. I have always found that those people who want to take digs at any band can always find something to use from the artwork, song titles, misquoted lyrics, etc. You have to do what works for everyone at any particular time.
Achtung Baby. This album introduced us to The Fly. This was the first time Bono was sticking his neck out front and center and shouldering the load for the band's new image. Did that make your approach to the project any different, having one person/character to focus on?
In terms of that project the focus for us was, as always, on all four members. The Fly character was really more of a live thing. We have always known that you could put together whole covers based on Bono or Bono character shots but that's only part of the equation. U2 are a band where all four members' opinions are equally valid in different ways.
Zooropa. I have a good friend who would love to sit down with you for a few hours and go through that album sleeve and booklet to find out what all is going on there. There seem to be a lot of subtle political messages inside (sex, birth control, political fanaticism, European unification, etc). Was that a specific request from the band, or did they originate more from you and your team?
The images used on Zooropa were sourced, to a large degree, from footage that was going to be used for the stage show. We sat through a lot of it to find the frames that we thought held the most impact as a single image. Because of the tight deadline for its release we had to work quite fast to put together the cover.
We talked about Pop a bit earlier, but one more question -- how did you react when Playboy asked about their logo supposedly showing in Larry's eye on the album cover?
We didn't speak to them directly but we had a good laugh about it.
All That You Can't Leave Behind. After three bright, technicolor albums (Achtung, Zooropa, Pop), this one flips 180 degrees and is quite reminiscent of some of the earlier album covers with its muted colors.
It was time to show the band in another light -- a simpler more direct reflection of their lives and age. It, as any of the sleeves we have done, also needed to be in tune with the mood of the music, simpler and direct.
It is simpler and more direct, as you say. To put it in similar terms, it's a set of stark, black and white images. But the album is filled with buoyant, uplifting, joyous songs. On the other hand there's Pop, which has some really dark, moody music, but the cover and artwork for that album is all multi-color flash and gloss. Do you agree with those assessments?
There is something to be said about that viewpoint but again from a concept point of view the ideas come from discussion and our understanding of what the album cover needs to convey rather than looking back. Each sleeve is conceived on its own terms initially and then as part of an overall picture. If it was felt that it was right then it could easily have been a full colour image. The theme was travel and to show an aspect of band's life.
Was it Bono's request that the airport sign be changed to J33-3, the biblical reference, and would you have liked a little more notice to make that change?
Yes, it was Bono's request and no it didn't take that long to do in the overall scheme of things.
With the two Best Of compilations, the boy image was a natural for 1980-1990. His image appeared on two of the album covers of that period, after all. But why the buffalo for the 2nd compilation? Where the boy was associated with two albums, the buffalo were, technically, associated with just a single song, "One."
We tried a huge amount of images and ideas for the second volume and the buffalo seemed to have the most resonance with everyone.
I've seen a few of the buffalo images that were not used for that cover. Why the decision to go with the one where the heads are about to collide?
It was the most dramatic of the buffalo images and can be interpretated in a lot of ways that some of the running ones couldn't.
U2 albums, both musically and image-wise, can be put into groups of three, and the band has spoken about different "eras" or "periods" of the band. Boy through War is one, Unforgettable Fire through Rattle and Hum another, and then Achtung Baby through Pop is another. So can we safely say that All That You Can't Leave Behind was the start of another era and that the new project will follow its lead?
It certainly seems that way, and they seem to fall subconsciously into threes. But until we get into the next cover time alone will tell how that comes out.
As you work on the current project, is it more challenging because you're working with a band that has such an extended history? I mean, people on the street hear the name "U2" and in all likelihood, they already have an image of the band. Do you find yourself fighting against that history at all?
No more than any band that has created its own iconography as they have. When talking about image, etc., they will reference the Beatles or the Stones but, in their own way, they have also got a visual history. You are always aware of it but we always try not to do something predictable.
The overall thing for me is to produce covers that are largely free from being tied to one particular time. The sleeves should be able to work if they were coming out now. In other words, I think that if Boy was coming out now for a new band it would be as strong a cover image now as it was then. Hopefully, by and large we have achieved this.
Finally we love working with them, and as a band as I feel that they see their best work is in front of them and they are always looking to challenge themselves and to do something new, for them, and we try to match that enthusiasm and outlook in our work with them.
The Four5One exhibit opens June 14, 2003, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.
© @U2, 2003.