Stephen Kasner Interview

I remember the first time I saw the work of Stephen Kasner. I thought to myself "Wow, I love this, but I usually don't like stuff like this". Then I realized that I had NEVER seen anything like this, except maybe in horrific nightmares that my mind was continuously struggling to keep away from my waking moments. It was as if the paintings were shifting and breathing, beckoning me to give up my rigid human shell and join them in a bizarre dance of constant evolution, where there is no end, no beginning....and that was after seeing only two paintings

To my mind's horror, Stephen has not slowed down one bit, filling books, album covers, and art galleries with his beautiful renditions of nightmarish beings. And as if that weren't enough, he is now set to release his first full-length CD of music, in the form of his Blood Fountains project, which itself is part of his incredible collaboration series with Utech Records, which has featured cover paintings by Kasner for heavyweights such as Skullflower, Aluk Todolo, and Justin Broadrick's Final. I decided against my better judgment to let Stephen open the gates of his mind and unleash his demons....and the results were as epic as his work.

HSJ: So lets talk about the early days....waaay back. Do you remember the first artwork that really grabbed you? Also,what subject matter did you first tackle? Me, I couldn't stop drawing Kiss when I was 4-5.

SK: I was always drawing, but never really gave it a lot of thought. It was just something I did. I used to watch a lot of old Westerns and horror films on television, but spent most of my time drawing to them rather than watching them. I would draw the characters in the films, periodically glancing up at the TV, studying the character(s), paying attention to the film for a moment, then go back to the drawing part. I did countless illustrations of Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone characters, Dracula, Godzilla, and on and on.

I did draw KISS endlessly later on, then there was the Star Wars phase in '77, but I think every kid went through that, right? At least the cool kids did. As a youth, the record album art that most affected me were, yes KISS albums, but more so, the ones that really struck me hard and stayed with me eternally was the Hipgnosis stuff. Also, my father had a collection of old horror anthologies which were illustrated by the incredible Richard Powers. If there was one piece, or one artist, that affected me most deeply as a child, it was him.

HSJ: Have you always been a painter, or did you begin with sketching? How much (if any) drawing do you do now?

SK: I didn't really start painting until high school, and those were pretty clumsy things. I began to take painting very seriously while in college, and decided to pursue painting vigorously towards the end of my studies. I did a lot of mixed media experiments then, and still do, but the gestation was while I was in school. I had equal focus at the time between painting, drawing, illustration and photography. I used to paint on my photographs a great deal then, and oddly, my illustration instructors despised that. I suppose I was breaching too much tradition by doing that, so it was then that I realized that breaking as many rules as possible was going to be my main focus in life, regardless of what career path I wandered.

As far as the division of my time now between drawing and painting, I suppose it's about half, though I don't think about that division much. I don't set particular amounts of time aside for one or the other, I just do one or the other, or both, as it flows naturally.

HSJ: Much of your work is admittedly dark. Is there a certain mindset you need to be into for the work that you do? I'm always amazed at how many musicians who create disturbing, depressing music tell me that they don't need to be in that kind of mood to create that kind of stuff.

SK: I am seemingly always in the right mood. I don't know whether that's a good or bad thing! I mean, all the work I do comes from a place that is most natural to me. It isn't a stretch for me to get to a place I need to be, mentally, emotionally or psychically. The center of the pendulum that appears to make up my core being is predominantly what results in the majority of my work. Even if I am at some kind of emotional extreme, the pendulum swinging wildly, the center remains the same.

HSJ: I don't remember the fist time I saw your work, but I definetly remember the second time, thinking "Oh, its THAT guy". So how important is artistic identity to you? And does that help or hinder your work? I know that just like in music, it can be a daunting task to try something decidedly different when you've already established a certain aesthetic.

SK: I honestly don't think about that much. I'm not attempting to do popular or conventional work. It's not part of some master plan. As I mentioned, the work that I do, it comes naturally. It's not possible for me to do unnatural work. Frankly, I am continually surprised when my work resonates so strongly with people. I think it's fantastic when that happens, and I am extremely pleased that people connect with it so strongly, but perhaps that occurs because the emotions and themes in my work, though perhaps dark and hidden, are elements that most of us possess. My work tends to bring that out of people, and acts as a catalyst, a true evocation of things that are buried deep within us all.

That being said, I don't have a problem with staying consistent, or the pressure of conformity. I just continue to do what I do best, and if my work changes, it is because I, or a part of me changes. We are all evolutionary beings, after all. Nothing is stagnant. We are all constantly evolving and changing. There is no forever.

HSJ: To that same end, much of your work looks different, but there seems to be something very thematic running through it all. Are these objects/characters all part of one world that exists somewhere in your mind, or is it more random then that? Also, do you ever visualize what these objects would look like if alive and in motion? Honestly just the thought of some of your paintings coming to life and moving around is terrifying!

SK: Naturally, all the objects/characters are part of one world that exists in my mind, but sometimes, the random revelations are also true. I don't plan my work out. I very rarely do sketches beforehand when plotting a painting. I find that if I do that, those pieces usually fail, or inevitably, they transform into something else completely. My paintings are very unconscious. I usually start by making only random marks on the canvas, and let it evolve from there. Obviously, at certain points along the journey, I do make specific choices. If I didn't my work would likely be completely abstract. When the marks start 'making sense' to me, I generally hone in and focus on elements/aspect that make sense or having meaning to me.

I do visualize what the images would look like live, in motion. In fact, one of my goals is to eventually work in film, and to realize some of my imagery that way. I can see them as ideal dream sequences for just the right sort of film, definitely.

HSJ: I think it's great that fine art and music/album art are starting to come together a bit, but they are still quite far apart. Why do you think this is? Also,what role do you think that the "drone" or "thinking man's metal" movement has played in this? Definetly seems an interesting clash of high-brow meeting low-brow.

SK: I have been vocal about this issue for many years, and even dedicated a chapter to my album art, and thoughts on the 'fine art vs. album art' double-standard, in my book, Stephen Kasner: WORKS.

I'm in complete agreement that the tangible shift in this sort of thinking, the blurred lines of growing acceptance, are wonderful, and well overdue. Some of the most magnificent artworks I have ever seen have been pieces created specifically for certain records. Ironically too, much of what we experience as album images are significantly finer art than much of what we see in high-end galleries; that which is sold as 'fine art'. Any of us who have ever wandered into a fine art gallery in New York City, the 'art capital of the world', can attest to what I'm saying here.
Drone has indeed contributed greatly to this clash and blur of the rules. It could be that drone, being one of the more challenging forms of 'metal' in its history, have by virtue broken most of the rules attributed to metal, thereby tearing down a lot of the walls of what is considered standard. You've said it yourself, by referring to is as 'thinking man's metal', so perhaps the 'thinkers' prefer to be challenged a bit more, and introducing imagery that many would consider fine art helps to push the boundaries. To me, it all either works or it doesn't. It's that simple, and personally, I care for imagery, and the marriage of imagery and music, that works. Not too many of us care for things that don't work, unless they harbor sadomasochistic tendencies, which certainly DOES occur...!

HSJ: I was wondering, as an educated fan of underground music yourself, are you ever proactive when it comes to pitching ideas about art to bands, or do you just sit back and field offers? If you could work with any band, what would your dream project b

SK: Of course, I try to be as proactive as possible, but sometimes that proves to be a double-edged sword, at least in some cases. I do try to communicate as much as possible with a band I may be working with, and the more ideas the better. However, it can border on inhibiting if an idea becomes too specific, or the demands of meeting an exact idea/image become too focused. I tend to work better when I am left as much freedom as possible to interpret music. I can follow certain rules, and express specific ideas, but inevitably, if a band or musician can trust me to interpret those ideas, the end result is often superior. If I push too hard on a specific idea, the artwork merely becomes an illustration, and the imagery results in static and feels forced. Freedom in art to interpret music is just as vital as the freedom the musician needs to realize their own craft.

My dream project? Black Sabbath in 1970. Alas.

HSJ: Favorite Sabbath song?

SK: Planet Caravan

HSJ: Currently, my favorite piece of yours is the Khylst DVD art you did. So amazing. It's simplicity really lures you in the more you look at it. Do you have a favorite piece of your own?

SK: That's a truly difficult question to answer! I love the Khlyst piece as well, but moreover, like how all the Khlyst art works together, including the art for the album and the DVD release. I think the pieces as a whole produce a much stronger statement. If I had to choose, and I think it's impossible for me to select one single piece, I can come close by selecting the Dreamscape series from 1993, as those were some of the first paintings I've done that I feel really came together. Those paintings were the first group that guided the way to the rest of my life's work up to this point.

HSJ: Have you ever been, or are you currently in, any musical projects yourself?

SK: I've had and been in several over the years. In the 90's, I had an experimental project called ArorA. The spirit of that project is very similar to, and has led to the formation of my current project, Blood Fountains. The first Blood Fountains full length album, Floods, comes out today, August 8th, on Utech Records, as the culmination of the year and a half long UR/SK Series I've produced with Keith Utech.

Otherwise, I have been an active member of Psywarfare, and I currently contribute to David Beaver's project, Smoker. I am also in collaborative projects with Dwid Hellion and Jacob Bannon as Irons, and Dwid and I have a personal project between us that we are beginning production on called H.E.X.

HSJ: I am a HUGE fan of the CD series you've done for Utech Records. How did that all come about? Also, has it turned out how you originally intended? Favorite CD of the bunch?

SK: Initially, Keith contacted me by email and explained his ideas for the series. He had done a series the previous year with photographer, Max Aguilera-Hellweg called, Arc. Keith sent me the entire Arc series, and of course already being a great admirer of his label, I signed on for the project immediately. Keith and I corresponded a great deal in the months leading up to launching the series, and we collaborated on selecting the musicians we wanted to feature. It's been a marvelous experience for us both, and the journey has held many more surprises than either Keith or I planned. That's part of what has made it so fantastic, though.

I think my favorite release of our UR/SK Series would have to be Runhild Gammelsæter's album, Amplicon, for several reasons. Chiefly, however, I consider it the most challenging record of the series, and I'm extremely proud to have it included. If I told you the story of how that album came into existence, you wouldn't believe me. It's too magical to describe, and anyway, to this day, I haven't found the right words.

HSJ: Obviously, when it comes to album artwork, what you're looking for is some sort of synergy between sound and visual. What album cover of yours do you think achieved this to the greatest degree, and why?

SK: I am proud of most of the work I've done with bands. The only ones I feel weren't as successful are a result of communication issues, honestly, or being treated poorly after I've been baited into a situation under false pretenses. Those are always disappointing. For exceedingly various reasons, though, a few of the artistic collaborations I've done with musicians that I feel contain the most synergy could be Integrity, Seasons in the Size of Days, Runhild Gammelsæter, Amplicon, Khlyst, Chaos is My Name, The Stargazer's Assistant, Shivers and Voids, Martin Grech, Unholy, Meatjack, Trust, Ruhr Hunter, Torn of This, Darsombra, Ecdysis, to name a few.

HSJ: How was the Catalyst show you were a part of? I was really interested to know what kind of crowd/people showed up. More art nerds or metalheads?

SK: Haha, well WE, the artists, were there and some people might consider US just nerds in general! Seriously, no, no one would ever consider us nerds. I'm kidding. The Catalyst show was a fantastic event. Brett Aronson, the curator, really had a spectacular vision for what he wanted the show to be, and he and all the artists put a lot of blood and sweat into making it happen. I have wonderful and fond memories of the exhibition, and the camaraderie and support shared by everyone in the week leading up to the event. Realistically, the crowd was remarkably mixed, as it usually is at gallery exhibitions. There was a bit of everyone, including some knuckleheads who very obviously showed up just to purchase Horkey prints to rush home and put on eBay. That's a true story. That really happened. I mean, these cats didn't even BOTHER to look at the show. They immediately ran to the sales office, well they ran to the line leading to the sales office, to buy prints and leave. Immediately. I love Aaron Horkey's work to death, but I guess I was just startled to realize that people would treat it like that, like a commodity, like a thing without life, to buy and sell, to make a profit and nothing more. Astounding!
HSJ: Thanx so much for doing this. I'm a huge fan of your work. Give us a heads-up on what you've got coming up this year.

SK: Thank you, Beau. I truly appreciate it. I am a long time fan of HSJ and it is an honor to be featured here. Will indeed keep you posted on future events, but for today, the main excitement is the release of the Blood Fountains album. I have a lot of people to thank for helping to make that happen- David Beaver, Yoshiko Ohara, Mat Woods, Cheryl Pyle; all amazing musicians and I'm so proud to have them as collaborators. Couldn't have done it without Keith Utech and James Plotkin, either. I'm extremely grateful for such amazing comrades. I hope those who have interest in the experiments enjoy the album immensely. Cheers, all!

HSJ: HUGE thanks to Keith Utech for helping us hook this up ,and for always being a supporter of HSJ since our inception. Cheers brother.


Kevin Gan. Yuen said...

"...knuckleheads who very obviously showed up just to purchase Horkey prints to rush home and put on eBay. That's a true story. That really happened. I mean, these cats didn't even BOTHER to look at the show..."

too true, I witnessed this standing outside chatting (or not) with some of the featured artists... funny

Stephen rules.

Anonymous said...

Stephen Kasner is the real thing.

Anonymous said...

Awesome artist. Thanks for this insightful interview.

Anonymous said...

Thanx. Stephen went all out on this one.

So Kevin, how many Horkeys did you buy? :)

Kevin Gan. Yuen said...

HA! Beau, thanks jack-ass - I did not buy a single thing... the lady and I went to say hi to Justin, Stephen and Seldon.

I will admit that I have their sunn O))) // Boris Altar print that I bought @the Westcoast Altar tour and 'the Fire..' Pelican poster ... which will no doubt put my kids through college one day ;)

ps. how many Horkey's do YOU own?

Anonymous said...

Guess what? I own as many Horkeys as I do Yuens. One. That SunnBoris you speak of.

I love Horkeys linework, but usually don't like the color schemes he uses.

Kevin Gan. Yuen said...

definitely - he is an incredible illustrator.