RVA NO.2 : Heavy Metal Robot Cannibals, An Interview with Illustrator Will Towles

by | Aug 27, 2010 | POLITICS

In meeting Will Towles, I was introduced to his wife and son as they stepped out for errands. In that immediate moment of everyday conversation, I could tell how much Towles’ life had changed from late night metal shows and all-nighters hanging out with musicians to something far more focused. Showing off his young son’s room, he talked of its former glory as his drawing studio. Stepping into his new, much smaller, more cramped studio space, we connected on our shared love of heavy metal album cover art, the process and inspiration of creating it, and his mountain of sketchbooks.

TODD: How did you get started with album covers, where does that go back to?

WILL: Being at parties, going to shows, being in art school, and one day i just got up the nerve and was like, “Hey I can draw that.” I did a bunch of garage band stuff in high school and early college. I can’t even remember some of the names of the bands. I got fairly lucky early on, and one of the first people I started to talk to was Ryan from Municipal Waste. I did a couple of things for them when they were first starting up, and that was pretty much everywhere all of sudden.

TODD: When did you meet them? Was that through school?

WILL: [laughs] Um.. no, I was working in a call center, and his girlfriend worked there, and I was hitting on his girlfriend. She thought we would hit it off really well. We had lunch, and we did. I would hang out, drink, and listen to records with him. He even pulled me outside when we were getting to be close. He told me, “You were so scamming on my girlfriend.” We got a big laugh out of that. It was really sad though, we were really tight for about 6 months and then I moved to Baltimore, and did the same thing in Baltimore. I mean, the reason I knew that this was going to be something that was going to propel my artwork was because it was a smaller local band at the time and their record was in the record store in Baltimore. That told me that I could do these drawings and show them everywhere. I wouldn’t have to deal with the pressure of putting on an art show.

In meeting Will Towles, I was introduced to his wife and son as they stepped out for errands. In that immediate moment of everyday conversation, I could tell how much Towles’ life had changed from late night metal shows and all-nighters hanging out with musicians to something far more focused. Showing off his young son’s room, he talked of its former glory as his drawing studio. Stepping into his new, much smaller, more cramped studio space, we connected on our shared love of heavy metal album cover art, the process and inspiration of creating it, and his mountain of sketchbooks.

TODD: How did you get started with album covers, where does that go back to?

WILL: Being at parties, going to shows, being in art school, and one day i just got up the nerve and was like, “Hey I can draw that.” I did a bunch of garage band stuff in high school and early college. I can’t even remember some of the names of the bands. I got fairly lucky early on, and one of the first people I started to talk to was Ryan from Municipal Waste. I did a couple of things for them when they were first starting up, and that was pretty much everywhere all of sudden.

TODD: When did you meet them? Was that through school?

WILL: [laughs] Um.. no, I was working in a call center, and his girlfriend worked there, and I was hitting on his girlfriend. She thought we would hit it off really well. We had lunch, and we did. I would hang out, drink, and listen to records with him. He even pulled me outside when we were getting to be close. He told me, “You were so scamming on my girlfriend.” We got a big laugh out of that. It was really sad though, we were really tight for about 6 months and then I moved to Baltimore, and did the same thing in Baltimore. I mean, the reason I knew that this was going to be something that was going to propel my artwork was because it was a smaller local band at the time and their record was in the record store in Baltimore. That told me that I could do these drawings and show them everywhere. I wouldn’t have to deal with the pressure of putting on an art show.

TODD: The repeatable canvas becomes the album cover that someone picks up and the work goes with it.

WILL: I could do something and not have to go through the pressure of selling that one, and then selling a bunch of them. Everyone sees it, all over the country. That to me seemed like a little less legwork at the time.

TODD: Are there album covers, album cover artists, or band art that you still like?

WILL: That’s kind of how I view artwork through record covers. It was how I was exposed to artwork. Art was all the cool record covers. You’ve got the standards like Pushead and Repka Dan C Graves that did all the gnarly death metal stuff. Mad Marc Rude that did the Misfits Earth A.D. covers, and Battalion of Saints. I think I look more like his stuff, he’s a little bit more crude of an artist, but there’s a little bit more feeling to it I think. There’s so many and those were the guys that I looked at for art, and a lot of comic book artists like the guy who did Akira, Otomo Katsuhiro. Geof Darrow that did Hard Boiled. The guy that did Rusty Kid Robot.

And GWAR, I have GWAR to blame for a lot of this. I was really into science and I thought that was what I wanted to do with my life. 9th grade I was into school then I saw GWAR, the first heavy metal concert I went to.

TODD: Where was that?

WILL: It was at Floodzone, which is now Have a Nice Day Cafe. That used to be a rock club. They were awesome, and their bass player stripped down to a G-string and the singer took her shirt off and I was like 17 and yelled at the bouncer to let me in. That was it. After I saw that I realized that was more exciting, the fire and blood, naked women and decapitating celebrities. That was a lot more exciting than anything else.

TODD: Than pure science?

WILL: Pure science or anything school had to offer me. I was a pretty decent as an artist, so I decided to do that instead.

TODD: Where did you go to college?

WILL: VCU. 1995-2000 painting and printmaking.
.
TODD: Were there any professors that left a good mark?

WILL: [pauses] Um…Freed was really cool. There were a lot of professors that I got something from. I don’t want to be too sour about it, but at the time I felt like I had to kind of hide. Any time I brought comics up someone would get mad. The last year, I did a lot of abstract work ‘cause it was quick and easy. I could do a lot of it and they responded to it better so way down in my portfolio I have a bunch of abstract crap I just churned out to keep them happy. Doing artwork was a way to keep the ball rolling. I could go to certain places and talk to people about “well I did this” or “I’ve done this” and they’ve seen that. I was just more into the shows. I’m usually more interested in the music scene than art scene. Which has always been to my disadvantage.

TODD: So what new projects are you working on?

WILL: Let’s see, I’m really interested in doing comics. I think a lot of the band stuff has been really good to me and I’m gonna keep on doing it, I’m still doing some band stuff right now. This is kind of like the jumping point to the next chapter. Comic books, definitely. I’m working with the guy Eric Miller. The guy who did Mark of the Damned and just finished Taste of the Blood of Frankenstein, and we’ve been talking and trading ideas for about a year and some change. The timing wasn’t right for me to get started 6 months ago because of the kid but I think things are going to start coming together in the next few months… comics are a lot of work so don’t hold your breath.

TODD: Now with going into comics, do you find there is a difference?

WILL: With a record cover, especially with heavy metal, they want something that will take a whole weekend to do. Pretty much a record cover represents a weekend I didn’t go out. With comics I’ve learned you have to go along, you have to teach yourself to draw as fast as you can. I’ve changed the stuff that I draw with and the way I draw. The past year I’ve been just drawing characters over and over again as many times as I can so I can get them as quickly as I can. So it’s a kind of night and day discipline between the record cover stuff and the comic book stuff.

TODD: Have you gone to see or meet any comic book artists or watch their process?

WILL: Once in a while I do. Ah, who did I meet? This is kind of a dark story, I met the guy that drew Kudzoo about two years ago, and the week after he signed my sketchbook he died in a car wreck. The cool thing is I can reach anyone I want to now because I have the guts to do it. 20 years ago you couldn’t email Jim Lee or Jack Kirby and say “hey I really like your stuff”, but now I have all these guys’ emails and addresses. I really want to email and write Jaime Hernandez …. I want to write him a letter saying gosh damn what a great artist and how much I like Loving Rockets and there’s a guy named Don Simpson that I worship. He did Megaton Man and Bizarre Heroes and a bunch of porno comics. That guys is like… God… The past few months I’ve looked at his stuff and just copying his work and looking at his work has made me a 100 percent better artist. That guy is amazing. Yeah, Eric Miller has been really great about dragging me out. There’s a great comic and horror movie convention down in Chesapeake VA in a library, they do it twice. That is the most amazing place ever. I’ll let RVA know when that happens again. Anybody who likes horror movies or science fiction or fantasy should go there cause its a great convention, it’s all day and it’s in a really great library. Then they have a 24 hour film fest. It’ll just melt your heart with all the movies they’ve got. It’s so good… so good.

TODD: Is Eric working on writing or just character development for it?

WILL: We’re kind of operating in the Dawn Of The Dead universe. Like his whole world, and if anybody has watched that movie or experienced Eric Miller there is a huge vast universe of a million characters and worlds and sub worlds. So I could be doing that forever. That’s what we’re doing. This one got used for the first Hard Winter Fest, it’s a Richmond black metal festival

TODD: When was that?

WILL: I think 2009, 2008? Terrible with dates. The next level is to date them. I usually just finish them and toss them aside as quickly as I can and move on to the next one. This one is from some band Attackula from Brooklyn, New York.

TODD: And this would’ve been an album cover?

WILL: I think this was on the inside of one of the records. I never got this one. This is one of my more favorite drawings and I like that band a lot. I think I even did this one for free and they never even sent me a record. I learned early on and you can’t take things personally when people aren’t the way you like them to be. I did something for Earache Records I was really really excited about. I’ll show you the record. it was a record. It was the first time I did that.

TODD: Show me the record.

WILL: Okay, I didn’t know how to use photoshop at the time… and they were like “ do you know how to do this?” [And I said] “Sure i do.” I taught myself photoshop to do this job, and it came out and I was really excited about it, and they had a lot of bands that I really liked on it. And it’s not the best in the world, it’s kind of a mess but I was super proud at the time of it. When the review came out this one reviewer said it’s just crap as far as the artwork. I was really crushed I felt really mad for a couple weeks, I mean critics are going to say stuff like that.

TODD: Did you ever catch anything on fan boards or anything positive?

WILL: Well one of the coolest things was my favorite band that did the compilation is this band from Brazil called Violator, and I emailed pretty much every band on it. And they wrote back in pretty much broken english “you’re the guy… I’m gonna get that tattooed on my arm.” I don’t know if he ever did but man… this was a treat to do and I really busted my ass on it. It’s funny enough if I did this now–I mean this took about 3 months of me working all the time, doing it the hard way.

TODD: Do you know what year that was?

WILL: That was like 2005 or 6? I think Phil Hall got me this. Pretty much someone asked from Earache if they knew an artist to do it. I think Phil sent them my way, Merciless Death. I was really excited they, sent me a really nice letter back, Toxic Holocaust, really excited. Mutant from U.K. I talked to about it, Mutant got the same review, said something stupid about Mutant’s music. And Violator, that was the sell. I would’ve killed to get on this knowing that they were on. Really excited.

Think this is probably the one that everyone’s seen. And I’ve done a t-shirt for Battlemaster, and right after that I was at a party and one of the guys talked to Phil when they were starting it, and that’s how it became.

TODD: What is the 213?

WILL: It’s Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment number. We had no idea. I left that part blank and right before I scanned it in a I called up Phil and told him “we’ve got this spot and I want to put a tattoo on him” and Cannibal Corpse is all about serial killers and he thought Jeffrey Daumer would be appropriate.

This is kind of what started a lot of it. This is a mess… they wanted it in color and I was in someone’s living room sleeping on a couch, and there were magic markers, and they bugged me about it so much I just colored it in with magic markers

TODD: It definitely has a feel of one of the early Maiden covers

WILL: Yeah it’s on that scale. to me, now looking at it, it looks like some of that Cryptic Slaughter stuff those records, they really looked…what’s the word… like novice art, like they got the best kid in art class to do it. And it’s kind of a mess but I think that’s what I like about it. I think sometimes the stuff comes off too polished and too professional, and it kind of loses what was exciting about it. But man, I just… I did the crappiest job. I mailed this in a tube to the printer and I didn’t even know how to scan it in, no clue about any of that stuff. There’s that much [about 2 inches] more artwork on all sides, someone just saw this and just slapped it on the printer, and printed it as is. And I talked to them about it a lot. and we were just like “yeah our music is pretty much the same way, we all did what we wanted to do and just forgot about the rest.”

TODD: I think that’s some of the beauty of indie media.

WILL: Yeah, I’m usually the guy the band gets to do their first record cover or first t-shirt and I’m definitely not the greatest artist. There are people who are a lot more talented, but I capture something, I capture what that feels like. Eventually the band will go on to get a couple grand for their next recording and get a van and get some artist that the record label will send a few thousand dollars to and it’ll look really slick and nice.

TODD: How do you feel about having your work on vinyl?

WILL: It’s the best, that is the best. The other thing that I need to get, now they are doing tapes, Cannabis Corpse is on cassette tape. I’m really excited bands are doing tapes again.

TODD: You get the folded stuff?

WILL: Yeah, but like CDs, when the CDs started it was good, but they are junk now. I still buy CDs, I still listen to them, but vinyl is a piece of art and it’s an object.

TODD: Remember the CD long boxes? That almost like, created the artwork for it. I remember I used to cut them out and put them in my locker.

WILL: Yeah I used to put them all over my notebooks. looking back I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had all my long boxes. Agoraphobic Nosebleed, a band from Northern Virginia, put out a CD with long boxes. I think more people should do that.

This is one of my lesser known, but one of my top 5 favorite bands I did artwork for, top 5 favorite records. I did artwork for these guys, they came to my house, couldn’t get them a show so we watched Friday the 13th movies and drank beer all night.

TODD: Where are they out of?

WILL: Somewhere out of the Midwest I wanna say? And I was hiding my dog’s name on a bunch of my record covers and I got this a couple months after my dog died. So when I got it I had forgotten and I was really excited ‘cause its a big record and its really nice. then I saw my dog’s name, Baby Girl on there… and my heart started melting. These guys were really cool and really up front to pay me, really nice to deal with, I think we’ll be doing stuff again pretty soon.

TODD: What did you think of Frank Frazetta and the selling of the Conan painting for millions?

WILL: A week later Dio died. I listen to NPR a lot and and they said something about Dio dying and they got so much hate mail…about “why would you talk about heavy metal artists on NPR? what are you doing?” I think it was why NPR never mentioned it when Frank Frazetta passed. But I can imagine that will be something they talk about on monday and you’ll have the same amount of high brow people “ why would you want to talk about…..”

TODD: Once you go through all that money it becomes high brow.

WILL: Yes, it becomes high brow

TODD: His patrons to some level had been George Lucas and Clint Eastwood, when they would buy his work for the extravagant fees, but then again it’s the artist stamp of debt that it’s just strange.

WILL: I mean you’re never going to get away from that, just like the story I told about the comic book artist, I can’t remember his name either…I was like “Oh he’s dead, my sketchbooks are worth something now.” I mean with Frazetta, he was fantasy pop culture. It would be hard to think of something in the 50’s, 60’s 70’s, 80’s that he didn’t have a hand on. He did posters for Battlestar Galactica. Any movie you think of, even novels that went on to become movies, if you look back he did stuff for the novel, not so much the movie.

TODD: Do you remember what your first printed Frazetta work would’ve been?

WILL: It was kind of the rubbishy kind of art that I didn’t think was cool, like him and Kirby… didn’t get them at all. One day I was working at Slave Pit and I asked Bob Gorman “What’s your favorite artist who inspired you all?” And I remember Hunter Jackson saying it too… and he brought me upstairs, he had a lithograph of one of Kirby’s which was really nice, looking back and I remember at the time and thinking… this is junk. I mean it looked like crappy comic book stuff, so I can understand when people see that and say that. It’s fun for me to thumb my nose at it.

TODD: It’s like the stylization becomes like… “oh i get the style.”

WILL: Yeah, well I think what people see is, when they don’t like it, and I’m not going to kid myself thinking it doesn’t exist, is that this art form is directly tied into commerce, where fine art likes to pretend and likes to be something elevated.

TODD: And it’s just elevated commerce, because if you talk to an art dealer…

WILL: Yeah, they’re just making way more money than we are. We are living check to check and piece to piece, and kind of hand to mouth. And they are making yacht money and chateau money. And we are making rent money and baby food money. But yeah, I can understand that and not understand that. Another artist I really like, a really big influence is Basil Wolverton, the guy that did all the stuff for MAD Magazine. Now, when I’m older, I start to see the beauty in all that stuff I thought was… I used to think, Frazetta, Kirby, old MAD Magazine, old crime tales and creepy comics, it seemed like typical comic stuff that I wanted to rise above, and now that I’m older and gotten over myself I look at it and realize they are so much better than I’ll ever be, I just want to bow down to those people.

That was the signature move for so long especially, Rob Liefeld, he would do these big cylindrical boots and then a little foot coming out of them. I got printed in one of the MAXX issues, 26 or 27 of MAXX. That was before I was doing any of the album cover stuff. That was like the big thing.

TODD: Awesome. I probably have the issue. I’ll check it out. One of my students actually got printed in the letter section to MAXX. He was like “I was at the Red Lobster and your MAXX comic was awesome.”

WILL: Yeah the guy liked those kind of letters

TODD: Yeah he was like… so you like Red Lobster huh?

WILL: Yeah they like those, it’s funny because I was in college and I didn’t tell my teacher, she was one of those like “pif” and someone in class had it and didn’t get that I did it. And then a third person who knew me and knew I drew something for MAXX saw it and it came out, and she was really proud of me. I was trying to play it off, I just didn’t want any more of the comics argument, but she was really nice and really proud of me.

Just makes me want to beat people. It’s like the George Carlin thing about shell shock versus battle fatigue, where it takes comic books away from comics and makes it into something that it’s not as a ploy to sneak it into libraries. My wife is really good about getting comics, she actually got in trouble because the “F” word was in a comic and she didn’t catch it. And some mad mom came in and pitched a bitch. I mean that’s a way to get in, I have mixed feelings about it. It’s easy for the movie execs to pitch an idea if its written and drawn out and it’s already got a backing behind it. But they always junk up the story. Alan Moore, a big hero of mine, said it’s a comic book, it’s supposed to be read it’s supposed to exist in your mind, it’s supposed to take you a long time, and its supposed to be an experience. And a movie is an hour and a half, two hours, then it’s done and you can forget about it. It’s not the same thing.

If I didn’t go to art school, yeah I look at certain things and I can tell who didn’t go to an artsy art school and you know, have some teacher who only likes abstract stuff or only likes this or only likes that. And not to have to fight with them and have your stuff torn apart and have someone be like “oh you like Jack Kirby puff. And that’s fine if you want to make t-shirts for teenagers to buy at the mall. but this is for real art. this is for real artists.” Anyone who gets into art needs to get their shots in, needs to get scuffed up and their egos bruised, because if you don’t, once you get started you’re gonna be all chewed up. Even when you do something good. Especially for comics… it’s the whole culture of people pointing out little tiny nit picky things. Or the heavy metal world, its like a Roman coliseum. Everyone wants to tell you that you’ve lost your edge and you’re no good anymore. The last you thing did… that was good and the stuff you are doing this year…

Thanks to Will Towles and his family for letting me share a part of his story and for sharing his awesome artwork and connecting two metalheads. Thanks to Casey Longyear.

WILLTOWLESSARTANDLIFESTYLERANT.BLOGSPOT.COM

words and photos by Todd Raviotta
http://naturalscience.posterous.com
http://www.facebook.com/todd.raviotta
http://vimeo.com/user2477893/videos

Read more exclusive content from RVA NO.2 HERE.

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work: www.majormajor.me




more in politics

Editorial Roundtable on the Richmond & Virginia Elections 

As we find ourselves in the middle point of summer, the upcoming months will bring pivotal decisions for our community as we elect our next mayor, city council and school board members followed by the gubernatorial election next year. Over the past few months, we have...

Dispatch From Cuba 2015

I wanted to give a bit of context for this piece. I was introduced to Bill one afternoon at the local watering hole by a mutual friend. Bill, a talented and experienced writer, shared some of his work with me, and I was interested to read more. When I asked if he had...

News or Noise: How Irresponsible Journalism Threatens Our Democracy

Immediately after the first presidential debate, journalists wasted no time amplifying Biden’s poor performance. And so the narrative begins. Or rather, continues. Over the last few years, news outlets have been reporting on the advanced ages of both presidential...

RVA 5×5 | Bonding With (Or Against) The People?

There has been a lot of activity across the region recently about bond ratings and localities issuing bonds. It is a timely comparison of priorities of local leaders, a glimpse of a possible future, and what happens if you have people in charge who worry more about...

Topics: