Q: What Do Mogwai, Bon Iver, Converge & True Grit Have In Common? A: Artist Aaron Horkey- An Interview

October 25, 2011 by Chris Grosso

I think it was around 2002 when I received an email from a guy named Aaron Horkey from Minnesota looking to buy a Cable ‘Northern Failures’ t-shirt. I gave him my address and a week later I received a letter from him in the mail. The first thing I noticed was the handwriting on the envelope, as I’d never seen anything like it. It was really incredible. I sent out his package and followed up with an email, actually asking him if he was a tattoo artist or something. It would be 5+ years until I heard from him again.

Cable was booking our first set of the ‘Three Nights of Noise’ shows in early 2008 and once again I got an email from Aaron, this time asking if we’d be interested in having him design a poster. We had never been approached by anyone to do a poster so this was all new to us but we were definitely very interested. I hadn’t seen any of his work but someone mentioned that he was a really, really amazing artist and that we were lucky to have him work with us. Little did I know until the UPS man delivered the package…I almost fell over.

I had never seen anything like it, and it was ALL DONE BY HAND! The mighty Megaloceros stood brave & proud…it was a real moment for me. It reminded me of why we did this band in the first place. There we stood on the brink of our first few shows in several years, many hurdles overcome, there we also stood like Megaloceros, proud of our legacy but ready to fight once again!

When we arrived to the first show in Wallingford, CT there were already a few cars in the parking lot. We still had to sound check and the show was hours off. It didn’t take long for the first person to approach us and ask “Are you Cable? Do you have the Horkey prints with you”. It was kinda weird, how did this kid know? Then came the next guy and the next guy. People drove from as far as Boston & Providence to get one. I was dumbfounded. Needless to say, it was the same scenario at the other 2 shows and even later in emails and Myspace messages from people all over the world. The run should have been called “Three Nights of Horkey”.

We got smart after the first show though and we wouldn’t sell any out of the van. If you wanted one, you paid the door price because people would just split after they had the print, haha. Aaron went on to do another poster for the 2nd run in October 2008 and also did the cover art & handwriting on our last album ‘The Failed Convict’. He became a member of the band while doing the layouts. We would send him songs to listen to from the studio. I think his visuals really melded together with the music on the album. The entire package has a feeling of gloom leading to redemption. It is my favorite Cable album. Enough of my rambling, please enjoy this wonderful interview with a true master of his craft, an enigma and my friend, Aaron Horkey.

-Vic Szalaj

The Failed Convict is available worldwide from The End Records Mail Order or iTunes.www.theendrecords.com

*Note- The following interview was conducted via email- hence its lack of fluidity. My utmost thanks to the very busy Aaron Horkey for taking the time to do it!

The Aaron Horkey Interview

TIS: I saw you recently did a print for the film True Grit. Can you tell me how that came about?

AH: The screenprint was made to coincide with the premiere of the film late last year. It was commissioned by a company called Mondo who licenses film and television properties and marries them with artists/illustrators to create limited edition posters and other ephemera. This was a fun project to work on – I’m a big fan of the Cohen Brothers and the time period of the film was something I’m fairly obsessed with – basically, it didn’t take much prodding on Mondo’s behalf to get me on board. I had worked on a couple projects with them previous to the True Grit job but this was the first one that seemed like it might have the potential to be seen by quite a few folks, (whether or not that’s a good thing is up for debate). I was also in a bit of a bind as I only had the trailer for the movie as reference and I refused to watch the John Wayne original so the book ended up being my primary touchstone as far as ideas. I went through quite a few permutations and roughs before settling on the rattlesnake/text composition, which contains the most lettering I’ve had on a single poster and, as far as I know, only one typo which I didn’t catch until we went to see the film. I was bummed but no one else seemed to care…

We’ve actually been working on a wooden, laser-engraved version of the poster for almost a year. Moon Editions out in San Francisco is handling production duties and the early samples I’ve seen are just incredible. Mondo will have a small edition of the wood “print” available and I’ll have my own Black Osprey edition as well, in an alternate colorway.

TIS: So I know you’re a bit of a skateboarding fanatic. Can you tell me what boards you grew up skating and who some of your favorite skaters were/are?

AH: I started skating at a pretty weird time – 1992. This was the era of everslick boards and bearing-hugging wheels, rip-off graphics and giant pants and I willingly partook in all of the above. My first board was a New School – either a Tom Boyle or Brandon Carabajal model, can’t be certain this many years later. I do remember the deck featured what may or may not have been a Vaughn Bode graphic, most likely unlicensed if that was indeed the case. I rode that set-up until the concave, mellow as it was, was completely gone. By the time I retired that one it was seriously about half its original length and performed like a wet carpet sample. From there I picked up a Plan B Mullen Dog Days and then a Gonzales 60/40 and probably some others before discovering Stereo and that was pretty much it for me all through high school.

In those early days we were, for the most part, cut off from outside influence – videos were fifth generation VHS dubs and any magazines that found their way that far inland were quickly devoured on sight. This was frustrating at the time but it led to some really unique and original methods of going about things – not just skateboarding but music and visual stuff as well. We also really enjoyed what we could get our hands on and it felt that much more special… I really feel lucky to have come of age in a pre-internet world because I don’t think that’s a scenario that is played out with any sort of regularity anymore, and that’s really a shame.

As for favorite skaters I was mostly drawn to Ethan Fowler, Frank Hirata, Barker Barrett, Drake Jones, Buddy Best and Kien Lieu. For videos, it begins and ends with Stereo’s “A Visual Sound” and Alien Workshop’s “Memory Screen”.

TIS: You’ve done prints for skate companies in the past, is that something you still currently do from time to time, or plan on doing in the future?

AH: I haven’t had enough time to pursue board graphics for a while now but the urge is still there. Being landlocked and old is a bit different from living in southern California and just tripping over graphic work on your way to the supermarket. I definitely had a good run, can’t complain at all. The screenprinted skateboard deck is one of my all time favorite channels for illustration application but is a bit of a rarity in these dark days of logo-based heat transfers. Recently my good friend Todd Bratrud started up his own company called The High 5 which is one of the most inventive and interesting things in all of present-day skateboarding. If I ever eventually come out of retirement on the board front, it will most likely be through that avenue…

TIS: Having no artistic talent myself, I was wondering if you could walk me through the process of putting posters together for the bands you work with like Mogwai, Cable, Neurosis, Isis etc? How heavily does their music weigh into your final product?

AH: The music is paramount – if I don’t like the band, I won’t take on the project. There have been a handful of times in the past that I’ve been talked into doing posters for bands I wasn’t familiar with and those stick out to me as more forced and even clunkier than my usual work.

As for the process – it’s mostly dictated by the deadline. I’ll try to refine and tighten every aspect of a poster until I’m absolutely out of time as there’s always, always something I’m embarrassed by on the final piece. I figure if I can push each element of the composition to its zenith maybe I’ll someday end up with a successful picture… No such luck as of yet but I guess that’s a big part of why I keep pushing.

To begin, it’s the tiny thumbnails which lead to larger and more refined sketches. Composition is ironed out early on to quell irritation later. Inking when pencils seem finished, white gouache clean ups if needed. Color guides, separations, layer collation – tweak until time runs out and then off to the printer. Oversee ink mixing/printing if possible then sort/sign/number and make sure the posters get where they need to go. Bury archival copies in flatfile drawer and hate self/vow never again to do another poster. Break oath to self, get on with the next one…

TIS: Is that typically the style of music you’re into?

AH: Yes, the darker, heavier and more honest the better.

TIS: So I remember how excited some of my friends in Cable were when they found out you were going to do your original print for them for one of their numerous “reunions” (before the other print and Failed Convict album cover), but I’ve also heard you were equally excited to work with them. Can you tell me a bit about that experience?

AH: I’ve been a fan of the band since the “Gutter Queen” LP and followed their output closely up until what appeared to be their swan song – 2004’s incredible “Pigs Never Fly”. For whatever reason I keep a running list of defunct bands I would have liked to do posters for and Cable was near the top of that list. You can imagine my excitement when, in 2008, I read of a small string of reunion shows that were slated for that summer. I had ordered some records from Cable’s drummer, Vic, a few years prior so I hurriedly searched my address book for his contact info and fired off an offer to make a poster for the aforementioned dates if they didn’t already have something lined up. To my surprise he and the rest of the guys were somehow into the idea. We hammered out the details and the first of 2 “Three Nights of Noise” posters was born.

I had a difficult time settling on an image but a reimagining  of the starkly minimal “Northern Failures” sleeve kept popping into my head so I went with that, replacing the stag from the album cover with a stately Megaloceros and keeping the poster as monochromatic as possible. I think the band was a bit nervous about the time line as I pushed the whole thing closer and closer to the date of the first show (see answer 4 above) but once they saw the print I think it eased some of their fears. They ended up commissioning a follow-up for their next batch of shows so it must have been alright, anyway. The illustration from that second poster was used on the cover of their latest full length, “The Failed Convict” and, if I’m not mistaken, appears in tattoo form on Peter Farris’ arm which is just unreal. All told, a great experience – I’m still over the moon about the whole thing.

TIS: I also remember Bernie (Cable) telling me how the day of their first show, some dudes drove several hours from out of state just to buy some of your prints and then took off before the show even started. How does it make you feel to know you have such avid collectors of your work?

AH: Of course I’m flattered that there are people who would go to such lengths to pick up a poster, it’s unbelievable really… I do hope at least some of these folks stay to check out the band/event that the memento is in service of but I know sometimes the two worlds don’t easily intermingle. I will say I’m very lucky to have such a loyal fan base, that’s a rare thing and it really means the world.

TIS: So you’re married with children and I was wondering what the home life was like. Are your kids into tripped out stuff or are they pretty average, or are they still wee lil tykes and it’s too early to tell? 

AH: The kids really run the gamut, age-wise. Our oldest is in high school and the youngest is nearly 2 so it’s hard to say, for the baby at least, as to which direction her tastes will run. All 4 kids like to draw but that’s probably because all kids do, given the chance. I really don’t think any of them pay attention or even know exactly what I do for a living, which is fine – they should be primarily concerned with having fun and turning off the lights when they leave a room, dammit!

We do try to expose them to as many interesting things as possible but I always wonder if they get crap at school for having weird parents or if they’ll end up rebelling by getting really into Celine Dion or something… time will tell.

TIS: Are there any particular artists that have inspired you more than others?

AH: The list is miles long but I think some of the most inspiring would be my folks and the kids I grew up with that also drew. Jeff Morphew, Matt Ward, Jared Koch and Zach Scott each logged huge amounts of time filling up paper beside me all though my school years. I wouldn’t be where I am without those hours, to be certain. Thanks, guys.

TIS: What’s the most meaningful compliment or feedback you’ve ever received from someone?

AH: It all means a lot – I’m still just floored that anyone cares at all. The folks who traveled hundreds, some thousands of miles to see the “Midwestern Heart” show last year – that was unbelievable. The tattoos some people have had done of my stuff – that always takes me aback since it’s a life-long commitment and painful, (from what I hear) and expensive. Also, any time I receive a hand-written letter from a fan, in the actual mail, it just blows me away. In this day and age for someone to take the time to do that is, in itself, a huge compliment. I try to respond to all the physical mail I get, I know some folks are still waiting for replies and for that I apologize profusely.

TIS: What does the rest of 2011 into 2012 have in store for you?

AH: The rest of the year and into 2012 is pretty well packed. More posters and projects for Mondo, another collaboration with my good friend Jay Ryan and a few additional collaborations as well, continuing the Osprey Minutiae series, paintings, art prints, t-shirts, cleaning of the house, etc. Most everything coming up is veiled in some manner of secrecy, watch the skies…

VISIT AARON HORKEY HERE!

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Chris Grosso is a public speaker, writer, recovering addict, spiritual director, and author of Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality (Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster) and Everything Mind: What I've Learned About Hard Knocks, Spiritual Awakening and the Mind-Blowing Truth of it All (Sounds True). He writes for ORIGIN Magazine, Huffington Post, and Mantra Yoga + Health Magazine, and has spoken and performed at Wanderlust Festival, Yoga Journal Conference, Sedona World Wisdom Days, Kripalu, Celebrate Your Life and more. Chris is passionate about his work with people who are in the process of healing or struggling with addictions of all kinds. He speaks and leads groups in detoxes, yoga studios, rehabs, youth centers, 12-step meetings, hospitals, conferences, and festivals worldwide. He is a member of the advisory board for Drugs over Dinner.
  1. deancc says:

    Cable and Aaron Horkey… fantastic pairing!

    Thanks for the cool interview. Aaron has got to be one of the most talented and most humble people on earth.

  2. murdock says:

    Very insightful interview and a pleasure to read. Thanks for that!

  3. cw says:

    Do you know the best way to reach Aaron for a project? Great interview… Thanks!

    • Chris Grosso says:

      Thanks for the kind words. The interview was coordinated through a friend of a friend almost 2 years ago so unfortunately I don’t have contact info. I think your best bet is to maybe check out the link for his website at the bottom of the interview and see if you can find something there. Apologies I can’t be of more help!