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  • Writer's pictureJulia Woollams

From Dark to Fire

At the beginning of the year we worked with the lovely band Tiger Mimic on their new logo and visual style. Angela and I first discovered Tiger Mimic’s music through an open call for bands when we ran the inaugural Cro Cro Land festival in April 2019. I instantly fell in love with their music. Their single at the time (Elephant Skeleton) completely stuck in my head – a lilting and somewhat soulful tune, with unexpected lyrics sung in a combo of male and female voices, as well as an exquisite mix guitars and keys which took me on a rollercoaster from bright pop to the dark and macabre. I am no music blogger (being very firmly on the visual side of life) but it was reminiscent to me of what I like best about Metronomy, with a harder and perhaps more exotic edge. With music that’s very hard to slot into a genre, Tiger Mimic have been called indie, rock, alternative, disco, alt-pop, new wave, prog rock, groove rock, surf, tripped out grunge, moulin rouge punk and more. You’ll just have to listen and decide for yourself.

As you can imagine I was eager to be involved in the visual side of their new music for 2020. A key component of 31% Wool is collaboration – both with clients and creative partners. Working side by side with clients to better understand the rationale of their projects is intrinsic to finding the right solution, as well as collaborating with the best creative partners to have a team with the exact mix of talent for each project. 

A key component of 31% Wool is collaboration – both with clients and creative partners.

For our project with Tiger Mimic we had a double collaboration opportunity, as they were both our clients and creative collaborators, with the band’s guitarist and singer Bram Johnson also being a talented illustrator. The band have a strong creative vision both aurally and visually and we were all keen to evoke a sense of opposites in their new visual style to match the themes in their music. 

For their new singles for 2020 Bram painted connected artworks which we then developed into the single cover designs.

For the year’s first single ‘It was Still Dark’, Bram painstakingly hand-animated the accompanying video which brought to life the sinister eye character from the single cover. 

Here I chat to Bram about his creative influences in art and music, as well as his processes in painting and animation.

Stills from the final 'It Was Still Dark' animation, tiger mimic
Stills from the first half of the animation

Julia: As well as being an awesome singer, songwriter and guitarist, you are also an illustrator – so all around just a little bit creative. What gets you most – sight or sound?

Bram: Aw, well thanks, first of all! I'm not sure I respond to sight or sound more than the other, usually there's just something that grabs me (or repels me) in either of them. I think it matters to me more that a given artist or musician is doing something distinctive more than anything. For instance, I can go to a museum and really appreciate photo-realistic paintings for their technical impressiveness, but the ones who pull me in are the artists like Klimt and Schiele who seemed to paint the world as they saw it, and not necessarily how it was. 

I don't remember the source of the quote (or if I'm paraphrasing poorly), but I had a writing teacher who always said something along the lines of “It doesn't matter if it's real, so long as it's true”, and that tends to be what draws me in the most with art/music/writing. When someone can show me the world in a way that it isn't, but still in a truthful way, I'm hooked. It's like borrowing someone else's eyes to look at something from an angle that didn't exist before, and I find that so exciting. 

It’s like borrowing someone else’s eyes to look at something from an angle that didn't exist before.

As for me, I'm certainly more of a musician. I've liked to draw my entire life for fun, but I only took up painting and printmaking maybe 6 or 7 years ago during a period where I was feeling a bit under-creative on the guitar. I always find if I'm stuck on one thing (guitar, writing, etc...), the easiest way to get the wheels turning again is to do something completely different for a bit. 

Bram Johnson
Some of Bram's NYC office doodles

Julia: How did you train to be both a musician and an artist/illustrator?

Bram: Basically I didn't. I took generic art classes in high school, but the main reason most of my visual art looks the way it does, is that it just evolved from years and years of doodling. I had an office job in NYC for years and I sincerely hated meetings, so I spent most of them doodling (which, for any disapproving employers out there, statistically helps retention of information) all kinds of weird cartoony stuff mostly. Like I said, one day I was feeling stuck with music so I decided to take a stab at painting. The first few I did on cardboard because it was all I had lying around and I didn't really imagine I was going to stick with it, and I just ended up feeling hooked. Since then it's just been practice, I guess. The first year I painted ALL THE TIME with really varied results, but that was how I found what worked for me. It's become a more occasional but deliberate thing for me, especially as my music workload has grown quite a bit.

It just evolved from years and years of doodling.

And music, I also never really studied. I took flute lessons when I was in middle school, but the teacher had dozens of students and he was getting near retirement, so he was pretty gruff and he unintentionally intimidated me out of it. We always had lots of instruments lying around the house, though, because my dad would pretty much buy anything he found. He was a guitarist himself so there was always at least one of those handy. 

My dad couldn't read music and only knew a handful of chords, but he had a very distinct style and I learned so much from just jamming with him early on. Once I had the foundation, though, I practised like crazy and it has just remained a part of my life that I feel weird without. I had to buy a little travel guitar for work trips in NYC because I couldn't face going 10 days without playing. I still can't read music or play scales or anything, but I figured out how to get the sounds I wanted and that's all I ever really wanted.

Tiger Mimic
Graphic courtesy of the band

Julia: How would you describe your style of music?

Bram: You'd think I'd get better at answering this question... For Tiger Mimic, in broad strokes, it's energetic music with a lot of twists and turns. There's a bit of a sinister, surreal, unpredictable quality to the songs that all seems to come out of the confluence of Jess' and my writing styles. The whole band has really diverse influences and backgrounds, so I think it all works its way into the music in ways that we may not even be conscious of. 

Julia: How would you describe your style of illustration?

Bram: Hmmm... it probably has the most in common with things like ikonography or maybe ancient Egyptian art, in the sense that they're almost always 2-D and colourful. For painting, I use a lot of starkly contrasting colours and gold, and seldom use any sort of perspective at all. Most often there will be a single subject occupying a small part of the painting, and then most of it is dedicated to some sort of repeating element. Flowing hair, geometrical shapes, nebulous flowing blobs, or something like that. 

If I'm sketching something, it tends to be quite a bit more cartoony. Bulbous eyes, bald heads, big noses, or weird human/animal hybrids. That's something I also picked up from my dad. When I was little we would draw on opposite sides of the same piece of paper and slowly build a little story as our elements crossed paths. I used to do exquisite corpse drawings with a buddy of mine too, I really enjoy that sort of work where you just start without any specific idea and see what happens. The more I plan something visual, usually the worse it turns out. 

Tiger Mimic's new logo and visual style
Tiger Mimic's new logo and visual style

Julia: How important is it for you and the band to present yourselves as an all round creative package – the visual elements being intrinsically linked to your music?

Bram: I grew up on bands like The Beatles and Pink Floyd (who had amazing album art), as well as watching classic MTV videos, so I think it's just ingrained in me that it's all part of the same package. Especially now when you're vying for people's attention in a very crowded world, if I want someone to buy or stream our song, but I also want them to watch my video, but I also want them to buy a piece of merch, I better do my job and give them something worth their time. If we're successful at it, this means we've made these different things (song, art, video) that all complement each other, but also stand on their own as things people can enjoy separately. That's the hope, anyway!

Tiger Mimic - Bram Johnson's painting
Bram's connected paintings for 'Dark' and 'Fire'

Julia: As a designer I love when things work as sets or series (three is a magic number!), so I’ve especially enjoyed working with you on Tiger Mimic’s single covers this year which all connect together. Did the paintings come first or the idea for the themes of the single covers? 

Bram: The painting we used for ‘It Was Still Dark’ came first and it was sort of an impulsive thing. I sat down with the intention of sketching out a bunch of ideas and the eyes were the first thing that came up, so I didn't bother trying to come up with anything else and picked up the paints. 

‘Dark’ is about this sense of dread and escape, ‘Fire’ is more about hope and gratitude.

Once I had ‘Dark’ squared away, I had the idea that ‘Where The Fire Used To Be’ should somehow be kind of a mirror image. Where ‘Dark’ is about this sense of dread and escape, ‘Fire’ is more about hope and gratitude, so it needed to be a sort of opposing force. My initial impulse was to have each painting be a component of a face, so they would line up into this bizarrely deconstructed (but connected) face when they were all finished, so ‘Fire’ originally had a mouth instead of a heart, but it really looked like nothing. Plus, what else would I have done? Some random ears, a nose, eyebrows? Anyway, once I got my head on straight, I switched to the heart. It was more reflective of the theme of the song and a more distinctive image.

And the third one I don't want to give away too much yet, but once I had two panels it was obvious the third one needed to link up somehow too. There is a sort of overall meaning to the three panels when they are combined, but we'll have to cross that bridge when the next song comes out…

Bram Johnson's paintings - Tiger Mimic
Bram's connected paintings for 'Dark' and 'Fire' with the single art overlaid

Julia: I know your hand-animated video for ‘It was Still Dark’ was a labour of love. Can you tell me a bit more about your process of getting from the static art on the single cover to the storyboard and then the final animation? 

Bram: So we had a completely different video plan that got torpedoed by COVID, so we were sort of sitting around wondering what we might be able to do. I toyed around with the idea of stop motion, or something like that, but I was kind of hesitant to take another stab at animation. The Elephant Skeleton video took ages because of the way I did it, but I started looking at drawing pads wondering whether I could work a little faster if I was actually drawing the thing. So Jess got me a drawing pad for my birthday, which arrived at the end of April, about two weeks before ‘It Was Still Dark’ was due to come out. I sat down that night and did a little test animation of just the eyes with the red stuff coming out, basically the same as the painting but in action, and sent it to the band. We all really liked the wobbly, sketchiness of the thing, so we just needed a story. 

Bram's early storyboards for the animation – Tiger Mimic
Bram's early sketches for the animation

Luckily, Jess' lyrics on that one tell a pretty evocative story of these people on the run trying to find a safe place only to find the new place was strange and creepy, so I just imagined them running through the wilderness to this town where things immediately take a turn, and then just let the creepiness chase them through the rest of the video. Once I started animating, I quickly realised the initial storyboard was way too short, so I needed them to go somewhere that would give me flexibility to add more scenes without getting repetitious. That's why I send them into the house of horrors – I wanted a setting that could start out pretty familiar and get progressively stranger as it went. The little blue guys appear inside because it felt like the eyes were more of an omniscient presence, so there had to be some kind of foot soldier doing the actual chasing. They're the same blue as the eyes, I sort of imagined them being part of the eyes somehow.

One of Bram's storyboards for the animation - tiger mimic
One of Bram's storyboards for the animation

The chase had to end eventually and I wanted it to be clear that their fate was inevitable, which is why for all their running they end up back in the same place and, eventually, the whole story ends where it began.

Because of the time crunch, I spent 11 days straight working on the video, pretty much from the moment I woke up until I went back to bed. Animation is really labour intensive, but I really do love it. Maybe time to dust off the old drawing pad again. 

Stills from the second half of the 'It Was Still Dark' animation
Stills from the second half of the animation

Julia: And lastly, if you had to choose your all time favourite album cover what would it be?

Bram: Oof, tough one. There are a bunch of folks, like The Beatles and Queen, who had so many awesome iconic covers, but if I had to commit to just one... I don't know, maybe ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd? I knew a bunch of Pink Floyd's album covers waaaaaaay before I knew any of their music and I think that's a testament to their simplicity and impact. 

I've always loved how strange ‘Wish You Were Here’ looks – it's so compelling entirely on its own merits, without even mentioning the music. I don't think I actually owned the album until I was in my 20's, but I've known that cover for as long as I can remember, even though we didn't have the record.

It’s so compelling entirely on its own merits, without even mentioning the music.

And I do like that album. It's not one of my top picks, even from Pink Floyd's catalogue, mainly because there's a lot of kinda meandering instrumental stuff that I don't think is their best work, but the vocal melody to ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ is one of my favourites they've ever done and, of course, ‘Wish You Were Here’ is just a gorgeous song. It's still an incredible album, I just find 13 minute long tracks a little cumbersome in general. Unless you're ‘The Doors’. 

A huge thanks to Bram for the chat. You can check out the 'It Was Still Dark' video below.

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