Interview: Scott King on Sleazenation
Artist and graphic designer Scott King talks working as creative director for Sleazenation in 2001 and 2002.
Artist and graphic designer Scott King talks working as creative director for Sleazenation in 2001 and 2002.
Lou Stoppard: How did you come to be involved with Sleazenation?
Scott King: Initially I was asked to redesign the magazine - that was at the end of 2000. It was painful. It was only three years since I’d left i-D but I remember going round and round in circles with the design. I was trying too hard. I remember doing some of it in the Sleaze office, and one night I left the office, remembered I’d left my keys, so went back and they were all stood round the computer I’d been using, looking at the design I’d been doing. I overheard one of them say, ‘This looks crap. It looks like a Sunday supplement.’ They wanted ‘wacky’, I think - ‘Shoreditch Anarcho’ or something. But I was determined to make it feel more like an art book - I wanted it to be very straight, because I wanted to try and influence the contents and make these ‘statement’ covers. I wasn’t planning the next Raygun.
LS: Why did they pick you?
SK: I got involved because the editor at the time, Steve Slocombe, had been an assistant to Wolfgang Tillmans, so I knew him through that. I remember having these very long protracted conversations with him before I started the design - I can’t remember the content of these conversations, I just remember sitting in a pub with him for hours and being drained by his endless questions. I think they were looking for a direction or an identity really - the magazine didn’t really have one at the time. Stuart Turnbull, who was meant to be the editor was off work for a few months and Steve had sort of stepped into, or stolen, his shoes, but he had no experience as an editor, so I think he was looking for some direction really. It was all a bit haphazard.
LS: You mentioned working at i-D before - what did you bring from that experience?
SK: Well, I was at i-D from age 23 to 26 - straight out of college. So i-D was my apprenticeship. I got apprentice wages and learned a lot - I also did a lot of things wrong. I had a funny relationship with Terry Jones. I’d started out as the golden boy and slowly became a pain in his arse, I think. I became art director there when I was just 24, mainly through me pestering him to give me that title. But as soon as I was art director, I seemed to spend a lot of the time at odds with him. I remember in 1996, in his absence, I completely redesigned the magazine without telling him – so he came back from holiday to a whole new magazine. It looked fantastic I thought, and I still do – but he wasn’t happy and we started to fall out a lot. In retrospect, I can’t believe that I completely changed the magazine without even thinking to discuss it with the publisher, but that’s what I did, and it was the beginning of the end [laughs] but it was best for me to leave at that point. I think he fired me, but I covered the sleight of that by storming out in tears one Saturday morning and never going back. It was sad really, but I had to leave, I’d started to hate it. I like Terry, he was good to me really, but I was young and ambitious and determined to do my own thing. What I brought to Sleaze from i-D were some professional, high-end magazine rules: stuff I’d learned from Terry about pacing and structure. Terry had this very crap but absolutely true mantra that he would repeat to me; ‘Scott, making a magazine is like baking a cake. You do not start until you have the right ingredients. If the ingredients are good, the cake will be good…if you don’t have eggs, why try and bake a cake?’ - something like that. But it was this that I brought to Sleaze - get the right contributors and you can make a good magazine. So I saw my first job there as to bring in better photographers, and I was lucky that these photographers contributed to the first issue I did: Wolfgang Tillmans, Corinne Day, Jason Evans, Jonathan de Villiers, amongst others. I’d sort of figured out that a great issue of a magazine - that is, a great issue of a magazine in the public consciousness - only really consisted of one brilliant photo/fashion story and a brilliant cover; everything else was immediately forgettable. So I concentrated on trying to do this. It became my template – no cake mix involved really…well, background cake mix, for sure – but I concentrated on the covers and making sure there was at least one good fashion or photo-based story.
LS: The covers happened around the same time you were doing CRASH! What was that and what impact did that have on Sleazenation?
SK: My approach to Sleazenation - though not intentional – was to make it become 50% CRASH! and 50% i-D. Looking back, I welded the two things together. But there was no way a small commercial magazine could ever say the things Matt Worley and I said with CRASH! and expect to get advertisers or not get sued; but I tried to implement some of that criticism of the media that we’d done with CRASH! into Sleazenation. The immediate problem though, the terrible irony, was that anything you put in a style magazine, any kind of ‘scathing critique’ is immediately and only consumed as some form of ‘cool’. Whatever you say is overwhelmed by the format: a format that is expressly about trivia…which, in a way, I like. It’s like pop music, isn’t it? Attempting to save Africa with Bono on vocals. But, yes, there was a lot of CRASH! in the issues of Sleazenation that I did. It was a sort of CRASH! shandy.
LS: Your role was creative director – did you focus mainly just on covers, or the entire magazine?
SK: It meant I had overall control of the visual contents and the covers - the words on and the ideas for the covers. It’s a grandiose title for an art director really, isn’t it? But the great Stephen Male had previously designed a couple of issues of Sleazenation and called himself ‘creative director’, so I copied him.
LS: From what you’ve said, it does seem you were more interested in the covers than anything else. What makes a great cover in your mind, and how did you approach the design?
SK: I think great covers – really great magazine covers, with George Lois’ work at Esquire being the ultimate example – are about a single statement. A complicated idea or a truism, but made very simple through the clarity of the language and the art direction. Great magazine covers are really just posters – it’s the same language. So it’s really just about finding and committing yourself to a single idea. The design is secondary and the idea of ‘illustrating the contents’ are secondary to making a single statement – and that statement has to begin with the context. You’re making a cover that is going to sit next to hundreds of other covers on the newsagents shelves…so that’s the context. It’s really more about what you don’t do than what you do. How do you make something stand out in that context? Doing nothing at all, making a blank space in the sea of ‘See Hotchip’s Wedding Photographs on Page 96’ is the ideal. Leaving a big hole on the shelf is the ideal - as Richard Hamilton proved on The Beatles ‘White Album’. So I always tried to start from the point of context and work backwards.
LS: How did the ‘Cher Guevara’ cover come about?
SK: Stefan Kalmár was, at the time, the director of a small gallery in Cambridge and he asked me to do a ‘giveaway’ poster for Cambridge students at Fresher’s Week - something they could put on the walls of their bedsits. So I started thinking about the greatest clichés of student bedsit posters. Che Guevara seemed the obvious choice, but I couldn’t just replicate it. Anyway, one night Stefan was talking to our friend Gregorio Magnani and in his German-English, Stefan pronounced ‘Che’ as ‘Cher’ - they told me about this and I just copied it. So we made the poster and it was very popular. The people at Sleazenation liked it too and asked me to make it the cover on the first issue that I designed. I fucking hate that image - it’s become the bane of my life. I had to give up self-googling because of it. It was great as a poster for students’ bedsits, but should have stayed there.
LS: You worked at Sleazentaion around the time of 9/11. That must have affected your process?
SK: 9/11 was the defining moment of The Spectacle wasn’t it? There’s nothing I can say about it, really. It affected the ‘I’m With Stupid’ cover. It was an Earl Brutus song that never got properly recorded. I was great friends with Earl Brutus – I loved them and did some of their sleeves. Straight after 9/11 they were in the studio trying to make some new songs, but the momentum had gone by then, really - it was a bit of a sad time for me as a friend and a fan because they were so brilliant, but it was all coming to an end. One of the songs they were trying out was called I’m With Stupid - it’s a great song and I sat and listened to Nick shouting it - this may be my Damon Albarn moment, because I just nicked the whole idea. I was struggling for a post 9/11 style mag cover - I mean, what can you say? - so I just took that title and designed it like the corny T-shirt, it was perfect. I don’t think they ever got any credit for it, but it was their idea, I just made it into a magazine cover. ‘I’m With Stupid’ was an attempt to say nothing about 9/11 - given the context, given that the magazine had to come out two weeks after 9/11 and that every magazine in the world, from ‘Trout Fishing Weekly’ to ‘Knitting Daily’, was compelled to comment on it in some way. ‘I’m With Stupid’ was about that - it was just about context, the cover sitting on the shelves at WHSmith surrounded by this mass inability, this loss of language or format to illustrate or understand what had just happened.
LS: Would you say politics, more than fashion, affected what you were doing at Sleazenation?
SK: Only in the sense that I knew enough to know that you cannot ‘do fashion’ unless you are doing it at the right level, with the right people – you really have to completely be a part of that world in order to comment on it, otherwise your efforts are deemed laughable or irrelevant. It’s the same with art. It’s controlled by a very small number of ‘gatekeepers’ and they shape the language. I like this idea. I think it’s funny and is only a microcosm of how everything else works. I mean, nobody really wants to vote for an inept public school boy as Prime Minister, do they? But you’re given a choice of three inept public school boys to vote for, so you choose one.
LS: But a lot of your process seemed to be about questioning what a style magazine could be and what a fashion spread could be. A lot of them blur into art pieces - such as the shoot with the fighting football fans. But did you ever feel like the content of the magazine didn't compliment the ideas of the covers? How involved did you get with features and the spreads?
SK: Sometimes at Sleazenation, there was literally not enough content to fill it - either that or you’d get a commissioned story back and it was terrible so you’d find yourself with ten pages to fill. So this was an opportunity to use some pages for CRASH! projects or just make up a story and put it in - a sort of last minute repair job in some ways. But once I realised this was a possibility, or even a necessity, I started to think about the magazine as a vehicle for, dare I say, ‘art’. I’ve always loved Dan Graham’s 1968 work Figurative, in which he booked advertising space in Harper’s Bazaar and used the space to run a till receipt. I love that idea of making ‘mass art’ - not some poxy ‘artist’s book’ printed in an edition of 100 and sold at the ICA bookshop - but genuinely mass art, like pop music, like the best pop music which is really just art but made into sound and accompanied by a video and a haircut that you can see on TV. So I didn’t think of things like Epidemic: A Fashion Story as an alternative approach to what might be in a magazine, but really as a mass artwork. ‘Mass’ may be an exaggeration, I don’t think Sleazenation ever sold more that a few thousand copies a month – but I liked the idea that it was an artwork made to sit on the coffee table of a hairdressers salon in Gateshead. In the end, I moved towards the 'art world' because there was no outlet in graphic design 15 years ago for what I wanted to do. I'm a graphic designer really - a graphic designer who can't use Photoshop and wanted to be a Sex Pistol.
LS: There's an anti-consumerist bent to a lot of it - was that difficult to reconcile with working for a style magazine?
SK: No, I’m not Swampy. I love all things ‘pop’. I have no interest in things that are willfully opaque. I like things that try and fail to be popular; that’s where the beauty is. I don’t imagine for a second that Ian Curtis ever said, ‘Right lads, this is sounding good, wouldn’t be surprised if it gets to No.13 in the charts.’ You always want to be No.1, don’t you? But you fail constantly. I find that very beautiful.
LS: What makes a great magazine?
SK: It’s usually a complete arsehole semi-fascist isn’t it? The best magazines are really just one person’s ‘vision’ – Twen and Willy Fleckhaus being the greatest and most beautiful example. It’s all about control – controlling a language. And it becomes really funny at the highest level. It’s a staple of comedy – look at Anna Wintour and the spin-off movies.