There’s a lot in an album cover. I think that a lot of us, when we were children, bought more than one record, or at least developed an interest for a band, solely based on their covers, posters or T-shirts (this is how I got into Iron Maiden!). A cover can also make a huge difference in the reception of an album. If the cover is ridiculous (I’m looking at you, Manowar’s Anthology) the album will also be seen as ridiculous, while if the album has a great cover (like Amon Amarth’s “Surtur Rising”, Rebellion’s “The Clans are Marching” or, to be honest, pretty much any album by Iron Maiden) you’re more likely to give it a chance based on that first impression.
But what’s behind those covers? Why we associate a cover or a symbols with a band, little is known about the men and women who create them. This despite the fact that a lot of these covers have shaped a band (e.g. Eddie for Iron Maiden or Hector the Paladin for Hammerfall).
In an attempt to learn a bit more about this unknown world we are conducting a series of interviews with these artists (and yes, the word is definitely appropriate here). This time, opening this series of interviews, we sat down with Ingo Römling, a versatile illustrator who, besides being in charge of quite a number of covers (Alestorm, Rebellion, TýR and Battlelore, among others) is also a terrific comic artist and cartoonist.
Obvious thanks to Ingo for being such a good sport. He talked with us for over two hours, answering all of our questions.
Metal Blast: How did you start your career as an illustrator?
Ingo Römling: Tough question. It was a very long and winding road. But if you want me to nail it down, I would say that it was sometime around 1989.
I was drawing funny cartoons and stuff while, at same time, I was in a band as a bass player. There was a local magazine, just for bass, and there was a music store right next door! It was called “Mr. Bassman“. I was hanging out there a lot, and one day I took some of my drawings, went straight into the editor’s office and showed him my drawings. He laughed his ass off, and that was my first job: Drawing cartoons for a bass magazine.
I must have been 17 or so…
MB: A bass magazine had cartoons? That’s a first! Where did you do that?
I: This was right here in Frankfurt. “Mr. Bassman” was a cool place for musicians to meet… I think the whole German music scene could be seen around there.
Sadly it doesn’t exist anymore.
MB: And, regarding that band you were into, what style of music did you play? Rock, metal, polka?
I: Hahaha! No… wow… let me think… I don’t even remember exactly what band I was in this time…
I think it was some funk style. All young bass players in the 80s started with funk. Hahah…
MB: And after the cartoons, how did you start working on your current style? I mean, I see your cartoon on your Bio page and it’s definitely a long way to the stuff you’ve done, for instance, with Alestorm.
I: I never had a goal considering my style, really. I was experimenting a lot. I adored the art of Jean “Moebius” Giraud (who died last Saturday) and I was reading the “Schwermetall” Magazine, which had adult comics. You know that? “Heavy Metal” magazine?
MB: Yeah, Heavy Metal… assuming you mean the same one from the Heavy Metal movie. Yeah, that had some really cool art direction.
I: Yes. The movie was inspired by the works of all these comic artists like Moebius, Richard Corben, Enki Bilal, Frank Frazetta… great.
MB: I understand. I’m sorry because clearly it was a loss for you
I: Yes, it is. I think for everyone who loves comic art.
MB: Were you a comic illustrator as well?
I: Yes, but very much later. I began my career as a cartoonist and illustrator for several magazines around here. Pretty boring stuff, insurance companies, bank and financial stuff. But they paid me some money, and I was learning a lot about how the business worked.
MB: What kind of things did you do for banks and insurance companies?!
I: Mostly cartoons! The content is mostly pretty boring. So they used cartoons and caricatures to spice it up.
MB: I’d love to see those, especially side-to-side with your current stuff
I: Ooohhh… my god… yes… i think there is a cardboard box somewhere in the cellar… hahaha!
MB: I see on your website that you also worked for Tupperware Germany… you definitely had quite a varied career
I: Yes, it is. Being an illustrator is a funny job…
MB: When would you say you started working in your style? I mean, beyond the cartoons.
I: Hard to say. I think it started when I got into the Gothic scene, I was into industrial metal these days, Nine Inch Nails, Gravity Kills, Rob Zombie and stuff. I liked that visual style very much.
That was around the mid-90’s…
MB: Are you a metal fan, or are the metal covers “only” a job for you?
I: Don’t hit me… I like some metal bands but I won’t describe myself as a true metal fan.
MB: So how do you do it when it comes to the covers? I mean, do you listen to the music to get some inspiration, or do you get a general idea from the band/label and just go with it?
I: Whenever possible, I’d like to listen to the music! I always get in contact with the band to get to know the guys, their style and ideas. I enjoy it to learn about my customers; The guys from ALESTORM are pretty cool!
MB: Yeah, I’ve had the luck of interviewing them, and it was very fun to do it… Although it felt a bit weird, because it was the first time I interviewed people younger than me!
I: Yes, they are very young! I was shocked! But they put up a really cool show! I’ve seen them on stage. Really funny guys!
MB: Yes. They definitely get the crowd going… and the crowd is also younger than me. And I’m only 27!
I: Hahaha! Go home, kid! [laughs] I’m 42!
MB: Last week I interviewed the singer of Cannibal Corpse, and he was basically saying the same thing. That he still thinks he started yesterday, when he was 25, and now he’s 40 something, and his fans keep getting younger and younger.
I: That’s why I rarely go to concerts… all these children around me!
MB: Speaking of Cannibal Corpse. You might have heard of Vince Locke, the guy who has done most (if not all) of their covers. His art is very… special. Would you ever agree to do something like this?
I: Yeah, why not? Did you that I’ve been working on a Zombie comic series the last two years?
MB: I did not. Sorry about that. I am ashamed. Do not hit me.
I: I will consider not to use violence. It’s called “Die Toten” (“The Dead”) and it’s about how a zombie disease may take progress in Germany. It’s pretty hard to get guns here, so it’s obvious that there won’t be a group of survivor-guys and a girl in a tank top shooting their way to the supermarket…
MB: That sounds like a very interesting topic since, unlike what happens in the US, it’s also very hard to get guns. Because of that, does the German population survive for about a month?
I: It’s a quite interesting topic, if you start to think about it. No… I don’t recall the exact time concept, but we have one. We were thinking about stuff like… how long does it take till the lights go out? How long till the newsfeeds stop? How long do nuclear plants work without maintenance… do zombies climb up stairs? Do they open doors? Do they freeze in winter? And so on…
MB: That’s very good. There’s a book on the topic (if you can call it that) that narrates the aftermath of the zombie crisis. it’s called World War Z by Max Brooks.
I: Haven’t heard about it. But maybe the authors did!
MB: So, are there any things you simply wouldn’t like to illustrate? Maybe certain topics?
I: Yeah. I can be very annoying when it comes to Nazi and nasty violence stuff, especially when there’s no reason for it. I’ve seen a lot of artworks which have just one aim – to shock and to provoke. That’s boring. Tell me about your ideas behind it and I will consider to draw it.
MB: Well, yeah, I’ve seen stuff like that, when they just go over the top with the violence. In my opinion, it’s sort of a desperate attempt to get attention. If your music sucks, people at least will know your album because of their covers.
Kind of what happens with Lady Gaga! No talent, but noticeable!
I: I can’t say anything intelligent about Lady Gaga. I don’t care much about her. But I think she knows how to put herself in scene.
MB: Have you ever been asked to do something and refused? Not only for ideological reasons, but also because you thought it was stupid?
I: Yes, I did. I won’t say the name of the band, but I refused to do the job because it was exactly that one-dimensional stupid provocation stuff. We talked about it and it was okay. We didn’t fight or anything. It was okay. Someone else did the artwork and he did a good job. Technically.
MB: Can you tell us what their idea was?
I: It had a fascist Nazi style. I called the band and said “hey, tell me about your ideas behind that – where’s the reason?” They told me it was part of the concept and they thought it was funny. Well… I didn’t think it was. So we agreed that somebody else should do the artwork.
It wasn’t a Nazi band or anything. We’re still in contact; although we have different visual preferences, no one cares about it.
MB: The fact that somebody thinks something as huge and controversial such as Nazism should be used as artwork because it’s “funny” sounds odd. Do you think that it would be better for the artwork to have meaning as a whole, as opposed to just something done for kicks?
I: Well, kinda. The thing is, very, very few people care about the “meaning”. A cover artwork has to kick ass, that’s for sure.
MB: Going through your portfolio I saw that although you do a lot of “traditional” artwork, you also work with photographs. When did you start photographing for your work? Did it come naturally, or as a result of a request?
I: I started photographing because I wanted to combine several ways of working: Photography, 3D, Photoshop, Illustration, traditional “analog” techniques. My first camera was a small Olympus… and it just happened! They asked me if I could do some pictures and I did. But later I got a bigger camera! [laughs]
MB: So, let’s take the Alestorm cover as an example. How do you get it done, what are the steps?
I: The steps are:
1. Napalm records gives me a call and ask if I want to do the new cover for ALESTORM
2. I say “f*** yeah” and write an e-mail to Chris and Dani
3. They tell me what they have in mind
4. I do a sketch and send it to them
5. They say “wow, f***ing cool! Give it more blood! And we want the rat! The rat!”
6. I finish the sketch, everybody goes crazy
7. I put in the color (always in mind that it can be used in different formats, as a digipak, a poster, a shirt…)
8. I finish it, load it up on my webserver.
That’s it. Well… simplified…
MB: What about the actual illustration? What are the techniques, formats, etc. Do you do everything on the PC, or do you draw by hand first and then scan it?
I: I work digitally, on a Wacom Cintiq graphic tablet. Everything is done in Photoshop, from the first sketch up to the final picture.
MB: Was it a big change from you when you started working digitally?
I: It was a small change… yes, it took time to get used to it. It’s quite different from working on paper, the pen feels different, the surface feels weird and you’re always working with the picture zoomed up – you never see the whole thing until you pause and zoom back. Yeah, it was strange at the beginning.
MB: But you clearly made it work well!
MB: Right now are you working mostly with cover art, or do you mostly do other works?
I: Right now I’m working several different jobs. I have to finish some illustrations for school books this week and yes, I also do some music. There are some interesting projects coming up and maybe you’ll see me on stage again this year!
MB: Metal this time?
I: No, I’m afraid not. More… Rock. But I had a pretty cool session with Uwe Lulis some weeks ago. He has a pretty cool studio here in Frankfurt, build into a bunker from World War II.
MB: Right now do you mostly paint and draw for work, or do you still do it just because you like it?
I: Drawing is my profession and I like it very much.
I forgot to mention – I’m also working on a comic book. Artwork should be done around end of this year…
MB: The zombie one?
I: No zombies this time. But mechanical android murderers… woooooo… (switches light on and off…)
MB: What would you say is the toughest part of your work?
I: Talking about money. I hate it. I totally hate it, but somebody has to do it. I wish we would live in a world without money and all the stuff we need comes out of a hole in the wall.
Mb: Hey, if you want to give me free stuff, for no money, I’m all for it!
I: Okay, and you come and install the hole in the wall, yeah? Where it is all coming out from. Cars, clothes, food, health insurance, new mac computers…
MB: : I can install the hole, whether it works or not depends on whether your heart is pure. I can’t be responsible if it doesn’t work… It’s like flying with Peter Pan
I: Good one!
MB: But since you mention money. Is doing covers profitable for you, or do you get most of your income from your other projects?
I: I don’t work for free. And believe me – I learned it the hard way…
I think that you’ll never do much profit from being a cover artist. I do it because I can’t live without music and because I know that most of the bands and labels don’t have much of a budget.
I’m just working a lot to get along.
MB: Could you give us a rough estimate of how many pieces you do per month?
I: Difficult, because some projects are finished within 2 weeks, other projects take months… or even more than a year! Most of the time I’m working on 3 or 4 jobs simultaneously.
MB: More than a year? What kind of thing is that?
I: I finished the cover art for LETZTE INSTANZ a few weeks ago. We started talking about the concept around the beginnnig of 2011.
MB: Don’t you have to fight against deadlines? Or do they usually contact you when they’re only thinking about the album?
I: I always have deadlines. They always come when you least expect them!
My work is very associated with the time schedule of the clients. For example, if I get scheduled for a cover artwork – but then things happen… the singer gets sick, the drummer quits, the label changes, whatever… a tour has to be cancelled and the album release gets pushed several months into the future. It even happened one time that a band split up in the recording studio while I was working on the artwork! SHIT! I had to throw all the work into the trash bin. It can be pretty chaotic… but it’s rock’n’roll and I like it…
MB: Couldn’t just put it up for sale for another act to use?
I: No. It was a logo design. How do you sell a logo to a different band? Hahaha!
I even did some illustrations for APOCALYPTICA some years ago, but they never went into public. I can’t use them because they feature the characteristic cello…
I: Damn. So you just have to leave them there? That’s terrible
I: That’s part of the job.
MB: Speaking of that, what happens with your copyright? I mean, you obviously can’t sell that picture to other bands, but can you display it or sell prints? Same thing with your other artwork, for instance Captain Morgan or the Battlelore covers
I: Most reproduction rights belong to the bands and labels. I always have the right to show my work on exhibitions or on the web… but I have to mention what band or project it was associated with. In most cases this is no problem, I just talk to the bands in advance.
MB: Was it your idea to have the Alestorm rat?
I: The idea came from Max Riedler from Napalm Records.
He was like “hey, do a zombie rat!”
And I went “… what?”
“Yeah, a rotten, hideous, undead rat!”
And now it’s called Scurvy Steve and it has its own fanbase!
MB: In an interview, Chris called it Barry Shitpeas
I: I think that’s his unofficial name… by the way… did you see the SWASHBUCKLE cover where that red parrot was eating the ALESTORM rat?
MB: You said that you learned “the hard way” not to work for free. What happened’
I: I did too much work for too little money. And then a guy with a briefcase knocked on my door and wanted me to pay a shitload of taxes. Not funny.
MB: Do you do commissioned work, or only with big companies, labels, etc?
I: I work for all kinds of clients – small companies, big companies, even private persons. If you show up at the “Comic Salon” in Erlangen this year: I will sit there and draw you a picture if you buy a book!
MB: Which one of your works are you most proud of?
I: Oh. Wow. Well… I think I did some really impressive stuff for ASP. There are some pieces I am really proud of. I like the ALESTORM and BATTLELORE artworks a lot. And some of the photo manipulations I did for the electro band IN STRICT CONFIDENCE… there are many artworks I still like a lot.
MB: Finally, what’s your advice for aspiring artists?
I: Work hard and follow your own way… but stay willing to learn.
And… never work for free!… Except for friends. And for your mum.
MB: Thank so very, very much for this interview, it was a lot of fun.
I: Thank you! And no problem – it was fun.