Ben Zoeller talks... American influences, tape design, indie labels
Kentucky-based graphic designer, Ben Zoeller, has a knack for experimenting with distorted waveforms, hypnotising patterns and soothing gradient work. His work thrives best under the constraints of cassette tapes and label work, particularly for independent labels such as UniFactor and Obsolete Staircases. We caught up with Ben recently to get an insight into the mind of the emerging designer.
"Inspiration usually comes once I have already developed an idea for a piece, sort of like a backdrop. That’s when I get the kind of rush I imagine most people mean when they say they are inspired". Hugely influential graphic designers like Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser and Saul Steinberg are said to have had a big impact on Ben's design, citing their recognisable style, use of colour and form as prominent elements he has tried to adopt. Communications Arts Compilations from the seventies are also pointed out as making an equal impression over his style.
Intrigued by the context of his pieces, we were curious to see the typical direction Zoeller takes in his design process. "Often I start work on a piece thinking “this is going to be minimal”, or “this is going to be busy, or this will be psychedelic”, but then as I work on it more and more, it tends to change direction, and I just give up trying see where it ends up... like playing chess with myself, and losing track of whose turn it is".
When working under Obsolete Staircases, a new independent label that seemingly caters towards artist with more expressive music, Zoeller's style acts as a perfect representation of how the sounds would appear visually. There is a distinct minimalistic uniform that underlies his work on a variety of musical projects.
"I think the process of seeing the music in the art is somewhat of an after-effect, and we marry these different elements in our minds in order to tell ourselves a story"
It wasn't until he met Jayson Gerycz of Cleveland label, Unifactor, that his long-term relationship with music and art would flourish. "Unifactor has a different artist working on each batch and Jayson thought I had a style that would fit pretty well. I had done art for a compilation tape almost a year before for a local label (Auralgami Sounds) and I had been wanting to do more, so these three simultaneous releases were a great opportunity".
Consequently, he was asked to produce cassette designs for bands like Forest Management (Rotating Angle, 2018), Brett Naucke (The Back Of The Garden, 2018) and Dominic Coppola (Honeymoon Phase, 2018) under the Unifactor label.
Around that same time, label owner Dustin Marcum started Obsolete Staircases in Louisville, and just from seeing Zoeller's work online, he wanted to get him involved with some future designs. The first tape he did for OS was last winter for electronic artist Connor Bell, and his experimental/electronic project, Shedding (Plod and Play Vol. II, 2017).
Working on tape design, he explains, has been a great experience: "Putting in the time to work on an actual object for someone who has dug deep to make something original themselves raises the stakes in an encouraging way". Seeing and making art for strict computer screen viewing gets "stale" after a while, adding: "A finished tape is way more satisfying than just posting something random to instagram...".
While he adds that producing the batch of designs for Unifactor was simpler, he argues further by saying that in principle, both the mediums of art and music can and are influenced heavily by each other, acknowledging that the combination of the two has previously governed his artistic compositions: "I had the go-ahead from Jayson from the start to do whatever I wanted with them, and so I was just listening to those releases and working on different pieces until I came up with the design I liked most for each. But I do like having the back and forth with the musician as far as concepts or a vision for their release is concerned."
Obsolete Staircases' latest release, Meng Qui's Sidrolz (2018), is the most recent evidence of Zoeller's style. Named after a DIY Synthesiser Meng Qui put together himself, Zoeller's initial idea for Sidrolz was to have the synth on the cover, either stylised or outlined in some way: "The Suzanne Ciani 1975 Buchla Concerts cover was something Dustin and I talked about, thinking maybe something akin to that could work... we sent Meng Qi (Beijing) a variety of minimal pieces I had worked on to see if he was interested in going another direction, and the piece that resonated most with him is the one we ended up using". From there, Zoeller came up with with some back-side designs to flesh out the theme with the feel of the cover, and incorporated some of his previous synth elements along with the instrument in the inner sleeve.
After much discussion, we were most curious to see what Zoeller considers his favourite album cover. "No one single favourite, but one design I always go back and take a look at is the reissue for Woo - It’s Cosy Inside (1989)". He mentions this particular record bore resemblance to the aforementioned Saul Steinberg, what with it's character differences and child-like framing: "It is spaced really well, great contrasts, then there is dad at his desk working up there in in “the attic”, which is a great song on the album. Mom on the phone, kid holding - I don’t know - a ladder, a vacuum? Great purples. The music is incredible too".
Despite being put the question whether or not the music ultimately dictates the pace and direction of the art, Zoeller maintains that seeing the two methods within each other is somewhat of an after-effect, and that we marry these different elements in our minds in order to tell ourselves a story. Perhaps, as he rightly puts, "a question for philosophers to ponder".