As the artist behind some of the metal underground’s most iconic album covers, the guitarist behind the frenetic riffs of Atomçk and a member of creative agency Rogue Beacon, Luke Oram knows a thing or two about the UK DIY metal scene. After being enamoured by his work on Wallowing’s Planet Loss and the accompanying comic books, we sat down with Oram to chat about culture, the economics of art and the potential merits of universal basic income.
The following is an extract taken from the Luke Oram interview in Issue 6 of our zine, pick it up below, or subscribe to our Patreon to get the full text.
What are you working on at the minute?
A number of things, I’m currently in the process of doing a comic book for Wallowing. I just finished a cover for an American comic called By The Horns for Scout Comics, it’s kind of like a science fantasy setting. It’s got a sort of irony to it, using a lot of Monster Hunter and Star Wars-y tech and idioms, but it has a grungy irony to it.
I just recently signed onto work with a British comic called The 77, which is interesting as the model they’ve got is that they crowdfund each issue, so it’s bi-monthly. It’s called The 77 because it’s based on early 2000AD and 1977 is the year 2000AD launched. It’s cool, it’s a lot different for me because it’s more me doing actual comic book panels rather than painting or illustrating a cover for something. I’ve begun work on that and that’s maybe coming next year.
How is it working as a freelancer in the modern economy, in Britain in 2020?
It’s something of a curate’s egg. Parts of it are magnificent, parts of it are pretty bad, but both parts are not unique to being self-employed. A lot of people are in the same boat regarding the general hardships of modern-era Britain, being unable to afford decent housing etc. I take a huge amount of personal fulfilment from my work, it’s the main passion of my life, I love painting and drawing things and I always have since I was a little kid. I don’t really have any employable skills other than this so it’s a case of I can do this or I can go make even less money in an entry level job I wouldn’t be good at at all. I spent my 20s in those kinds of environments and did not prosper.
It’s a weird one, I work from home, it’s super Covid robust, and the upside of working from home is that Covid hasn’t really affected me at all and also I’ve been fairly lucky that I had a project at the start of the year that was cancelled due to Covid, but we got halfway through and got half the financing and paid to do it, so I got half of that, for Boomtown Festival.
Was that the alternate reality game (ARG)?
Yes, it was a lot of fun, I blundered into doing that. A friend of mine was the programmer one year – he’s managed to hang around and withstand the oddness of festival work, you get half a year that’s busy and intense and then nothing the other half of the year – and we got to a position where we could pitch an ARG for promoting Boomtown. Unfortunately it got cancelled due to live events not existing anymore, so understandable. The team who did that, we’ve got some other stuff coming, games we can release to the public, we’re getting ready to launch one but I can’t say too much.
You’ve been designing artwork for artists for ages, what’s a piece that’s notable and one that stands out to you?
The Slugdge cover I did was popular. It’s the biggest release I’ve worked on in terms of sales, it was very well received, especially in America. It was a big release in America, on a reputable notable label [Willowtip Records]. For people in the British underground scene, that’s the one I get recognised for the most. I’ve spoken to lots of people over the years who think I’m in Slugdge as a result, I’ve been absorbed into the slug cult that surrounds that release.
As for something I really like. I did a few covers for a band from Newcastle called Live Burial, I really like the most recent cover I did for them, Unending Futility. For a number of reasons, just because of what was going on at the time, it was 2018 I think, and at that time I had not a lot on that month, and a friend of mine was quite free and a few other creatives I knew, and I was able – at the cost of a pub lunch for everyone – to set that scene up as a shoot. It’s got this dying king on the altar in some kind of crypt. I didn’t know what it was called at the time, I just had the demo.
The experience of setting this up as a shoot, so that I had good frames of reference for lighting and things… I mean I didn’t have an actual guy who was a zombified king, and the crypt was booked out that week, but having that original set was useful, it makes everything real and everything solid, it elevates it. It has this otherworldly, spectral feel that I felt was in this band’s music and the themes they created with it, rather than it being a gory, typical death metal cover. But what I liked about this was it had this more academic painting aspect to it. It allowed me to attempt to produce something with a renaissance feel to it but much darker. Applying a sense of dread without painting loads of zombies and gore, it’s just a guy collapsed on an altar.
So you were able to match the atmospherics of the album with the art?
Yeah, and be able to express the “fine artist” in me. The other thing I liked was that the main inspiration for it was the classic Michael Whelan’s cover for Cirith Ungol’s King Of The Dead LP, it’s this wraith king in a crypt, I think it was bought for the band but it totally matches their music and it’s one I love. I wanted something with that kind of feel, but I’m not as good a painter as him, but when it was released, that was the same month Cirith Ungol released a new album. So my painting was next to a Whelan painting next to all these other album covers. I didn’t see it coming but it was super satisfying. I liked the image, It was really nice because it was well received, the label didn’t mess with the image too much – that happens a lot.
And you did the Wallowing art as well.
The Wallowing art I did years ago, I did that in 2016, much earlier on in my practice. I agreed to do it in Tom [Harrison]’s front room, like little squat shows. My band was on tour with Nothing Clean, we’d played this show and it was freezing cold in December and we played a Brighton house show, shoutout Tom and Frank [now the Astral Noize Events team], I had a great time. I remember getting up in the morning and I don’t drink, so I wake up really early and Tom came up to me, he said to me, “I have this idea for an album, I don’t know what it’s gonna be yet, it’s gonna be like if a grindcore band wanted to be Rush”, we emailed back and forth and that happened. The brilliant thing for me is that the band are so conceptual, they’ve got this whole story, all this stuff going on and when I did that cover, I only had the faintest, through a glass darkly glimpses of what they had in mind. Now, years down the road we’re talking about this concept, so it’s really developed, there’s this whole world and all these different shades of grey ideas that they’ve put into the story, and during the pandemic they’ve really allowed themselves to use that to do clever stuff, cool background stuff, cool little bits of interactivity to keep up the interest. They’re years ahead, they’re smart guys, they know how to put that stuff together and they all own it.
Is multimedia art delivery like that is something more artists should be doing?
Yeah 100%, I think people should be doing that, there’s a few reasons, but straight off the bat is it’s doable on a moderate budget. You won’t get anything for free, but still on a moderate budget. With Wallowing’s thing it’s the cost of posting stuff and the cost of buying a pay-as-you-go sim so you can ring up your resistance leader. It’s low-expense for what has undoubtedly netted a lot of attention, and attention that’s totally good, ‘cause people love a cool story and a cool thing, something that’s authentic, something that resonates with the music. It’s not just a tacked on gimmick, and that’s why it’s working for them. I 100% think more bands should think about what they can do, often with their own skills and the skills of their own friends, to achieve a lot and that’s key. You should do it, so you don’t allow big corporate music companies to win.
Issue 6 drops 11th December. Order here.
Interview: Richard Lowe