Designing Rustie’s Glass Swords: An interview with Jonathan Zawada
This week – on 10 October, to be exact – Glass Swords turns 10.
The album, the debut full-length from Glaswegian producer Rustie, aka Russell Whyte, is the type that fans will recall hearing for the very first time – the day, perhaps, or at least the setting or occasion, still strikingly clear in the minds of many.
The crystalline textures, insatiable energy and boundless joy put forth on Glass Swords was compelling from the off – or from the first few seconds of its dreamy opening (and title) track. Over the years, we’ve collectively attempted to surmise the musical ideas put forward on the record, and the rush of emotions it stirs up in listeners. Sonically, the neon-hued album – which was released via Warp Records – piled an abundance of sounds and references spanning hip-hop and video game music through to prog rock and 80s pop on top of one another. The end product was akin to the premature opening of a shaken up Coke can: overflowing and fantastically fizzy.
A handful of projects followed Glass Swords. There was 2014’s Green Language, 2015’s EVENIFUDONTBELIEVE, plus a smattering of loosies, remixes and edits. However, Glass Swords remains Rustie’s magnum opus – an exercise in maximalism that really did stand the test of time. So much so that Glass Swords still sounds as epic as it did 10 years ago; it remains a peak-time dancefloor album of the highest order, one that continues to captivate listeners, and inspire fellow artists, through a fusion of fearlessness and fun. And, of course, big tunes.
To mark its milestone birthday, we caught up with Jonathan Zawada, the designer behind the Glass Swords cover, to find out how the striking artwork came together. Zawada also shares with us several alternative cover designs and sketches.
Final Glass Swords cover design, 2011 © Warp Records
Firstly, can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
My name is Jonathan Zawada, I’m an artist and designer from Australia. I just enjoy making things and over the course of my career I’ve exhibited paintings and sculptures in various galleries around the world. I’ve also designed all sorts of stuff from sunglasses to apps and lots of album covers in-between for people like Baauer, Wolfmother, The Presets, Flume and lots of others.
How did you start out as an artist?
The first design job I was ever paid for was a business card for a local rubbish removal company which I did when I was about 14. Pretty soon after that, I had an after school job in a traditional cell animation studio and made t-shirts for a local hairdresser. I also designed various websites. Early on, my career was programming and web-design focused, and art was something I did at night. However, over the course of several years it started becoming a bigger part of my work and eventually overtook my design practice entirely. For a period I was creative director of the Australian record label Modular, where I really got to stretch out into collaborating with musicians in a visual capacity.
What was your first introduction to Rustie and his music?
The first I heard of Rustie was when I was contacted by Warp to see if I’d be interested in designing the cover for the first EP he put out with them, Sunburst. I was so excited! I hadn’t heard of Rustie [before that], but I grew up on Warp and the label was always the absolute pinnacle of brilliance to me. I loved acts like Autechre, The Black Dog, Plaid and Aphex Twin as a teenager and their design had massively shaped my interest in design and visual arts. I remember being blown away by Rustie’s music, although I confess I didn’t fully wrap my head around it at the time.
How did you get involved in the Glass Swords project?
I guess Rustie was happy enough with the cover I designed for Sunburst because when his album came around they asked if I’d be interested in designing a cover for that, too. It was all very quick and quite simple in terms of the brief and the whole process.
What brief were you given?
As I recall, the brief was pretty minimal. It may have almost consisted solely of a frame-grab from an old Superman movie which had the desert colours I ended up using in the cover. I can’t remember there being much more than that. For the Sunburst EP, I do recall Rustie mentioning something to do with Super Mario which I was particularly excited about. They didn’t end up getting used, but I made a lot of fun and colourful variations of that first logo I designed – maybe part of the brief for the album was just that it should feel bigger and more mature than that.
Sunburst EP sketches, 2009 © Jonathan Zawada
How did the sonics of the album influence your creative process?
The bright sharpness and detail of the sound on the album really jumped out at me, and the idea of refracted shards of light really felt like it did that same thing in a visual way. His sound is so completely unique and seemed totally new to me. I wanted to represent that while still acknowledging his Superman reference, which had a certain degree of nostalgia to it.
How many versions or drafts did you design during the making of the cover?
I remember painting a completely different version at first that just had a single mirrored obelisk. It was much more realistic and less stylised, but also more moody and dark – it felt more like 70s fantasy art. I can’t remember if I ever showed that version, but I think I abandoned it because it felt too phallic and lacked a degree of energy that was manifest in the final design. Though, I remember being quite proud of how it looked technically.
There were only a couple of rounds of refinement on the final piece – adding some small details and finessing it after Warp gave me the OK on the concept. There were a series of alternative ideas that I had made for the first EP when I designed the logotype involving different swordsmen reaching for their swords – I don’t think these were ever in the running for anything, but I remember really loving the idea at the time and was hoping I’d get a chance to develop them further.
Glass Swords sketch, 2011 © Jonathan Zawada
Talk us through the final design – did you have any other notable inspirations or references, or was there anything else you were trying to convey?
I wanted the final cover to have the kind of energy and dynamism that I felt from the music, but also have a monumental otherworldliness to it, too. I don’t exactly remember how the idea of the rising/setting sun refracting through the crystal shards came to me, but I do remember worrying that it might have been too literal with respect to the title. I was also very interested in minerals and crystals at the time, and I was attracted to the challenge of illustrating that, but also abstracting them sufficiently to turn them into something else.
Do you have a favourite album track?
I can’t say that I have an absolute favourite track on the album – they’re all incredible!
Who else have you collaborated with on cover artwork or music videos?
I’ve worked on cover art for music for about 20 years now, so there have been quite a few. Some notable ones are having worked with Flume on – and since – his Skin album on everything from cover art to merch, videos and live show design. I’ve had long ongoing relationships with Mark Pritchard – also on Warp – and The Preset, who were one of my first big breaks. In addition to that I’ve worked for all sorts of other musicians over the years, from people like Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga to Clark, Temples, Baauer, Eprom, The Avalanches and Danny L Harle.
Glass Swords sketch, 2011 © Jonathan Zawada
What do you enjoy the most about working with musicians?
I’m not sure exactly what it is, but when it comes down to it there’s a complete lack of pretense with most musicians. They know if what they’re making is good or not, you can’t justify or talk your way into liking music that doesn’t do it for you – that’s not so much the case with visual arts which are quite often built on a lot of talk, and – to be frank – bullshit. I’ve become totally addicted to being sent some music without anything to tell me what it should look like other than my instinct. Ultimately, absolutely anything is possible with designing for music and I really love that freedom. It tickles the part of me that tends to get bored easily and wants to avoid repetition.
On reflection, is there anything you would have done differently with the Glass Swords cover artwork?
Looking at it now, I think it could have been pushed either further into abstraction or alternatively given more detail. At the same time, I like the simplicity and uncomplicated nature of it, and I’d probably ruin it if given another chance.
In your opinion, what was it about Glass Swords that gripped listeners at the time, and indeed to this day?
There’s a real purity to the ideas in the record; an unbridled enthusiasm and positivism to it all without it ever tipping into bubblegum simplicity. It is complex, but visceral and honest.
Discover more of Jonathan Zawada’s work over at zawada.art