The Classics – The Interview: Jim DeBarros, Part 1
While researching for album cover designers for the reggae edition of The Classics I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to find one, as most of the designers/illustrators that created work for the classic Reggae and Dancehall albums were based in Jamaica and the contact info on the albums was either non-existent or dated.
Needless to say, I stuck to my guns and discovered a graphic designer by the name of Jim Debarros who essentially created the identity for Super Cat’s first US releases, in addition to many notable album covers for some of music’s most renowned artists/groups. Check out Part 1 below:
Many NYC designers say that their borough and or NYC had an almost inherent influence on their attitude or style. Being that you’re from Brooklyn, would you say the same applies to you? If so, how?
Certainly in my case I would say that’s true. I grew up across the street from Pratt Institute. My earliest friends were the children of architects, illustrators and designers. Our neighbors were former Pratt grads and they were an influence not just on me but the neighborhood itself. Tom Feelings, Ted and Betsy Lewin, Walter Steinhilber and many others were familiar to me and present either as people I could see and talk to or witness their work firsthand.
Did your upbringing and or family-life have an effect on how you developed creatively? If so, in what ways?
I would say my family was always supportive. We had art in the house and we were exposed to many things. Whether it was a visit to a museum or just friends who work in jewelry or pottery my folks allowed me to see that there were many possibilities. I should add that my father was an advertising executive with Doyle Dane & Bernbach so he was regularly engaged in the creative process as it applied to television commercials.Some of his friends were art directors, film-makers, etc. So again, the idea of exposure I think was very helpful. As an African American I think being able to see yourself as whatever is critical to success.
Growing up, who were some of the popular recording artists/groups and who were you listening to? Do you think music played a role in your development? Does it play a role now?
Me personally I was very into new wave and alternative music, some rap and rock but my folks were into jazz and my grandparents liked calypso so again, exposure. Specific bands that I liked and in some cases still like were Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure, New Order, Kraftwerk, Art Of Noise. All the classic hip-hop was cool too, RUN D.M.C., LL, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Fresh Prince etc. Back then I don’t think we segregated the music so much. If it was good it was good. Of course I liked Prince and Michael Jackson too but I think I liked the U.K. stuff a bit more because fewer of my friends were into it.
I started drawing myself when I was about 5. I think it’s a natural way kids express themselves so I wouldn’t want to suggest that there was this ‘eureka’ moment when I was handed a pencil and paper. Honestly my cousins and I would lay on the floor trying to copy images from the comics and I think our folks were happy that we were doing that instead trying to beat each other up pretending to be super heroes. The other thing was Pratt had Saturday morning classes for kids as young as 7 and summer courses too so once my folks saw that I liked drawing and painting they made sure I went as often as possible.
At what point did you know that you wanted to pursue design, professionally?
Well, I decided I wanted to be an artist at 13 but I was imagining following in the footsteps of George Perez or John Byrne drawing X-men. I majored in Illustration at Pratt and as I learned more about how to draw and paint on a professional level my dreams to work in comics changed. I started out wanting to work as an illustrator. As I was shopping my work I went to Island Records to see if there was any interest. The Creative Director there loved the work but advised me that there wasn’t anything available. A week later he asked if I would be interested in a design assistant role working three days a week. I was working in a studio with Art Directors and Designers at the label that had U2, Bob Marley, Young MC, X-Clan, Boo-Yaa Tribe and many others. It was great.
What were some of your first commercial projects?
I don’t remember what my first assignments at Island were but my first ‘real’ project as a professional was to illustrate the cover art for this band called The Heretix. They were a rock band from Boston and the fellow that hired me as a design assistant gave me the project. They wanted an oil painting of a circus clown. The drummer tattooed the art to his shoulder. The album didn’t sell very well but it was a thrill to do.
How did you land at SONY and what kinds of projects did they first bring to you?
After a year working at Island the company was being bought by Polygram Records and our team of designers, who were all freelance were being let go. That’s when I switched to Sony Music. While at Island I met designer/artist Steve Byram who’d recently left Sony (then CBS Records) and he was the first to mention an opening there to me. Another Art Director, a friend of my dad’s told me as well so I met with the Creative Director there a few times before I was hired. Since my book was heavy with illustration and the design work at island was more supportive they asked me to do some spec work to see if I could handle the position there. Once there my first solo projects were a VHS for a Live Johnny Mathis concert, a collection of Wedding Songs for Sony Classical and some R&B pop group that I can’t recall.
What were some of your first album cover projects?
The Wedding Album was my first project alone. My first year there I did a lot of assisting. In that capacity I worked on the first Cypress Hill singles, Lisa Lisa and The Cult Jam, Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, Michael Bolton, and so many others. Usually an Art Director would work on the main album and I would do the singles, the ads, and any of the other support materials. This is where my real training began. Sony had an excellent team of designers and Art Directors there and were winning many awards for design.
Were you a fan of any of the artists/groups whose projects you designed?
A few. Mercury Rev was and remains one of my favorite bands. Not many at first, though I really liked Cypress Hill and The Marsalis brothers. A lot of what I got was the stuff no one wanted to deal with. I did a Gene Clark collection. And An Aldo Nova best of. I did a box set for Earth Wind and Fire, The Dylan 30th Anniversary CD, Mercury Rev’s stuff, a skate band from St Louis called Sinister Dane was fun. There was so much it’s hard to remember.
On the record label side – can you talk about the album cover design process? Generally, were you given creative control or provided with direction? Were the concepts based off of the music, or name of the album, etc…? It varied from project to project.
At Sony the marketing department usually assigned a project manager to each release and we’d work with them to develop the look and feel of the records. Certainly personality could come into the equation as some project managers favored certain designers. If you were favored you could expect a level of autonomy. Usually you’d get a cassette with a few rough tracks of the band or you might go see them perform if they were in town just to get a sense of the music and their style. Sometimes you might be handed a photo or some key art and you’d have to guess and figure it out on your own. Depending on the artist or group you could have a budget for original photography or an illustration. Often you’d speak directly to the band or artists management to hear what they had in mind or to offer your own ideas.
Can breakdown your album cover design process?
Generally I like to hear the music first and then meet with the musician(s). Depending on who the talent is, they have some ideas about the cover and my job is to help them realize that vision. We’ll talk, share some ideas and after that I go and set up getting the elements for the key art. If it involves photography I’ll select a few photographers that I think can deliver the look or relate to the band and then. A shoot follows and after that I’ll edit images with the best cover potential with the photographer. The selects are presented to the band to make sure we’re still on target and then I’ll start comping (designing) with the preferred shots choosing a font for title treatments or developing a logo and seeing how the image and type work together. Once the cover’s been chosen I’ll lay out the rest of the package. A&R will gather all the liner notes for me and I usually have a good deal of freedom with the rest of the package once the cover’s done.
How important was it to have a relationship with the artists/groups or were those connections pretty impersonal?
I think it’s important that the artists trust you and trust that you’re making choices that support them and the look they want to promote. Bands and musicians are artists too and as such they may be sensitive, insular, or whatever so a big part of my job is to develop that trust and maintain it through out the process.
At that time, what was the music scene like? Who were some of the popular artists/groups at that time?
When I started working in the early 90’s it seemed to me that the music industry was huge. Hip Hop was bigger. Alternative was more mainstream and both of those genres had a great influence on pop music in general. I was into the ‘grunge’ stuff as well as the new West Coast hip hop stuff so bands like Alice in Chains, Beastie Boys, Cypress Hills, The Pharcyde, Snoop Dogg, Soundgarden were big to me. For mainstream music it was C&C Music Factory and Mariah Carey was new. Gun’s and Roses and Metallica were regulars on MTV so I thought things were very diverse.
On the technical end what were you using to design with?
Macs were relatively new to the design studio so some of my work was still being done with photo stats and c-prints pasted to illustration boards with press-type and acetate overlays. Once computers became normal tools in the studio the boards went away. We use almost the same software now as we did then – Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.