Features - Photo

Under Cover: Mark O’Brien


In the second of our weekly features on the importance of cover artwork, Loreana Rushe chats to Mark O’Brien. He’s the bassist in Enemies and the man behind the the beautiful artwork for their sophomore album, Embark, Embrace.

Hi Mark! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, I’m 23 years old and living in lovely Greystones, Co. Wicklow. I graduated from IADT Dun Laoghaire with a degree in Visual Communications last year and have continued designing since. These days most of my work is coming from the music realm which is brilliant since art and music have always been my two biggest loves. I also play bass in Enemies, which is one of my favourite things in the world to do.

Tell us about this cover.
The cover is very-closely linked with the title of the album. ‘Embark, Embrace’ is like a manifesto for Enemies, one that comes from a desire to explore different parts of the world and fully embrace the experience of being in a band. It’s about sailing enthusiastically into unknown waters. The main image was inspired by the faces of old-timey compasses, which is quite fitting given the exploratory themes behind the album.

What materials did you use to create it?
Paper, pens, colouring pencils, a scanner and some wet teabags.

Can you describe the process and inspiration behind the album cover?
Explorers, old maps, ships and birds about to take flight were the main kinds of images that came to mind while fleshing out the idea of ’embarking’ and ’embracing’. My initial idea was to focus heavily on birds’ wings but all of my sketches seemed to be lacking that spirit of exploration we were going for. I then remembered the graphically beautiful faces that I’d often seen on old compasses, and quickly drew up some rough compass sketches. The band trusted me to do something nice with that idea so I just continued to flesh it out, iteration by iteration, until we had something we’d be proud to put on our record.

Mark’s process images and inspiration boards for the album artwork

How hard was it to create artwork for your own band?
It was pretty tough actually. It’s very easy to be far too precious far too quickly, which stifles the whole experimental/loosening up stage at the beginning. Enemies is my baby – not only my baby but a baby to all four of us, so every step of the artwork was made with a good deal of nervousness in the back of my mind; “Will the guys hate this?” “Does this complement the sound of the record?” I’m really happy with the result, I just wish I had trusted myself a little more along the way.

Do you ever have visual ideas when creating music in Enemies?
In a way, yes. Before a song has a name or any lyrics all I can think about is a specific colour for that song. I thought of Indian Summer as “the lime-green song” for a long time before the name and lyrics changed the images in my head. It doesn’t go much further than that though, the bulk of my focus is on sound during the writing process.

Did the other members of Enemies have much input to the design?
Definitely. I was okay-ing concepts and visuals with them at every stage of the design. In fact, if Lewis hadn’t had the courage to tell me that some colours looked crap at the 11th hour then we’d have a far worse-looking record on our hands. The people you’re designing for can have such valuable input when you’ve become far too close to everything. I created all of the artwork at my mother’s kitchen table so that poor woman also ended up being my go-to person for regular design critiques, sorry Mum.

Do you feel your art relates to the record?

What has been your highlight so far in terms of your work?
Having the Embark, Embrace vinyl land in my lap was a pretty special moment. My final project in college also brought me to the Adobe Design Achievement Awards in Toronto last year, that was an incredible pay-off to a lot of hard work.

Who are your favourite artists?
People who keep it loose and put a lot of heart into their work; Stefan Sagmeister, Martin Venezky, M&E, Marion Deuchars, Aaron Cometbus and some very talented classmates from college who showed me how hard work pays off.

What inspires you both as an artist and musician?
Recently it’s been the title of an ASIWYFA song: “Don’t waste time doing things you hate”. It’s something that makes me want to make art and music for the rest of my life.

What’s your favourite album cover?
I suppose I’d have to say Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins (below), not only because it’s a beautiful image but also because it’s the container for the best album ever made. That or the first Ramones record, just because it’s the most badass image of all time.


How important are album covers to you?
When I’m listening to an album I can’t help visualising the cover all the way through. To me it’s as much a part of the album as the music or lyrics — it’s burnt onto my retina from the minute I see it. As odd as it sounds it’s a  factor in deciding whether or not I want to spend my money on that album. I like to think I’m buying a piece of visual art as well as a collection of songs.

Would you judge a band by their album cover?
Unfortunately I think I definitely would (or do). As I said, I can’t help but picture the album cover when I’m listening to an album, so if it’s a dodgy-looking cover then there’s a bitter taste in my mouth (or… eyes) from the get-go. It’s not that album artwork needs to be slick or professional (some of the best covers are extremely amateur and scrappy), it’s just that it needs to compliment the music that sits behind it, not take away from it.
What would be your dream commission?
I think if I were to work with any of my all-time favourite bands I’d end up so being so precious and nervous about it that I’d completely mess it up. That being said, if Sufjan Stevens came knocking I’d have to give it a bash.

What are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished two single covers for Raglans and am about to start on Croupier’s new EP. I’m also doing a Rock ‘n’ Roll digital sticker album for kids and a massive, daunting, hand-painted banner for Enemies’ live shows.

Mark O’Brien can be found on twitter @Mark_JOBrien and http://markobriendesign.com

Buy the album at: http://enemies.bigcartel.com/

Enemies tour dates:
16 May – Roisin Dubh, Galway
18 May – The Pavillion, Cork
23 May – QUBSU Speakeasy, Belfast
25 May – The Button Factory, Dublin
2–4 August – Castlepalooza Festival, Tullamore

is the co-editor / photo editor. She also contributes photos and illustrations to The Thin Air print magazine.