Meet Kate Gibb, the artist behind The Chemical Brothers’ Surrender artwork
Kate Gibb is the visionary behind The Chemical Brothers’ artwork for their iconic third studio album Surrender, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.
To mark the occasion, the duo have released a 20th anniversary edition of the album which expands on the original tracklist with previously unreleased material, live footage from their Glastonbury 2000 set and a series of new remixes. The deluxe versions of the collection each come with a DVD, book and a collection Gibb’s prints.
1999’s Surrender came to be hugely important for The Chemical Brothers, comprising career-defining tunes like Hey Boy Hey Girl and Out of Control. Surrender came to be equally impactful for Kate, who at the time had just graduated from university and was a self-proclaimed “indie kid” producing the odd print for clients. 20 years on, the artwork has maintained a presence beyond the golden age of record sleeve art and is a standout cover on any record store shelf today.
We mark the anniversary in a discussion with Gibb, who talks to us about her relationship with ‘The Chems’, music and how her role as a designer has blossomed over time.
Tell us about your background as an artist and how you ended up working with The Chemical Brothers…
It wasn’t long after finishing a part-time MA at St. Martin’s that I got to collaborate with Tom and Ed. Commercially, I’d had a handful of book jackets under my wing and a small music campaign. I still worked sporadically making dummy books at a publisher in the West End, mainly to supplement my studio rent.
I was contacted by Blue Source, (a design group based in West London) who were producing, commissioning and art directing a diverse range of artists, photographers, illustrators and makers in order to create iconic sleeves for the band. The Chemical Brothers/Virgin Records had asked them to direct this project, Surrender, and so they had asked a handful of creatives to pitch for it. I was one of them. Tom and Ed had shared ideas about their record and what they wanted the cover to portray. They particularly liked a painting, from somewhere around the 60s/70s, which had areas of photographic collage combined with traditional painting and a colour-band/spectrum involved within the piece.
I had 48 hours to reinterpret all of the above. I don’t think I achieved that much but the treatment of a photographic image via silkscreen seemed to cement the beginning of a visual language that we honed and developed throughout the whole campaign.
Were you familiar with their music? What did you think when you first heard the record?
Vaguely – I was more of an indie kid at the time! We were invited to the Virgin HQ, myself and Mark Tappin (designer/art director at Blue Source) were to be played the album by their label manager Steve. We were overwhelmed by the magnitude of their sound. We listened to pretty much the whole of Surrender, smiling at each other and giving occasional ‘thumbs up’ signs. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. On the way out Mel C from the Spice Girls passed me! All very surreal.
It allowed me to hear, feel and interpret their music in a completely intuitive way. Stopping to actually listen, not multitasking or working at the same time. Absorbing their sound on a purer level revealed the multi-layering and complexities of their process. From then on I was a fan.
Was there a brief? Tell us a bit about the early conversations you had with the band about the album and what they wanted to achieve visually.
I felt there was an understanding that as I’d been selected for this project it was my unorthodox silkscreen aesthetic that had cemented our collaboration, and it was my application of this to photography that was key to developing it. Their album felt less about a specific time and more about being in the moment, taken over by their music and how to capture. We used a library to locate photographs that we felt either captured the themes and emotions of this album, resonated with the song titles or represented a feeling it generated. Both Tom and Ed were keenly involved, alongside Mark Tappin and myself, Nick Dewey from their management and Steve their label manager at the time.
What were you enjoying in art at the time? How are those influences reflected in this piece?
In 1999 I didn’t have a mobile phone, a computer or an email address. Film photography, photocopiers, fax machines and pagers were my infrastructure of the day! It was a peaceful time to be creative. I would often use somewhere like Rough Trade as an art reference library too. So many beautiful vinyl sleeves were being created and then you had the classics to refer back to, history of art, music and design under one roof.
Other design groups were using photographers like Elaine Constantine, Donald Milne – to name a couple. And graphic designers such as Julian House from Intro, the painter Reggie Pedro who created all the sleeves for Gomez. It was a golden age where the record sleeve showed itself to be a commodified platform to showcase the creativity of the day. I just wanted to be a part of this and for my contribution to hold its own style visually and aesthetically.
You ended up working with the band a lot. Why do you think the relationship was so fruitful?
Like any healthy relationship, I think a mutual respect naturally built up over time, for the appreciation of each other’s creative process. A sense of trust developed around myself and Mark Tappin: being able to interpret and create a visual solution to the sounds of their music. I wonder if as everything I do is predominantly an analogue process, if the sense of it being made by hand as such illuminates the feelings of humanity and togetherness that are key themes in their music? If you put the time in and nurture a relationship, the results are often richer. Overall I have worked on six album releases for them, all involving Mark Tappin. As each release came and passed, our interactions became less frequent as the band understood and became familiar with our process.
Are their parallels between your creative approach and the band’s?
As I worked alongside the band for a lengthened period of time, their music and the levels of how I interpreted it deepened. I remember chatting to Tom about writing music, his methods and how creating a track involves a layering process, a bit like screen printing. It really helped me appreciate and digest their creative process, like a musical metaphor for the practice of printmaking.
How does it feel when you listen back to the album now?
Listening to Surrender now feels as good as it always did but its sense of familiarity is more embedded in my brain. I hear new bits and extra layers that I hadn’t noticed before. Like watching your favourite movie over and over and discovering new ways to interpret and absorb it.