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Altsounds Interview: The last interview with artist Tom Wilkes

Altsounds Interview: The last interview with artist Tom Wilkes

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Last Edited by: Chris MUG5 Maguire July 9th, 2009.

I wanted one of my first interviews to be artist Tom Wilkes, because he has worked with so many great rock artists in the past. If you own an album by Neil Young, George Harrison, The Rolling Stones, and many others, chances are you have some of Tom Wilkes art in your collection. In addition this Grammy award winning artist runs his own enviromental/human rights center called Project Interspeak. I want to personally thank Tom Wilkes for granting me this interview, and I'm sure you will find it as entertaining as I did.


Altsounds: What was your first job as an artist, and what age did you realize your talent?


Tom Wilkes: My first job as an artist was a mural. A classmate of mine had turned 16 and bought a used ‘50 Ford. He wanted me to paint something freaky on the dashboard. All my friends had seen me drawing weird cartoons in class and being sent to the Principal’s Office. They liked my sense of humor even though the teachers didn’t find it very funny. The mural idea I came up with, was a drunk parrot holding a can of beer and farting. The gang loved it. The concepts were quickly expanded into reptiles, rude cheerleaders and outer space, reptilian weirdness. In other words, a lot of fun in the warm Californian sun, for money. The car art expanded into flame jobs, scalloping and Candy Apple exteriors. The income put me through college and art school.


Altsounds: You have done the album covers for many artists including George Harrison, Neil Young,The Rolling Stones and many more. To you, what was your favorite moment making these covers?

Tom Wilkes: My favorite moments in designing covers were hanging with the artists, listening to the music and creating unique images that related to the title or musical style of the album. Then I’d decide how to illustrate the concept, with photos, graphics or both.


Altsounds: You did the cover for the now infamous, unreleased album “Homegrown” by Neil Young. When he had you do the cover for him, did you ever get to hear the album, and if so what did it sound like? In keeping with the above question, did you prefer hearing the album before doing the artwork, and how much input would an artist have on their album covers?

Tom Wilkes: Neil Young was my friend and neighbor in Topanga Canyon, California. He always liked to play me his new material when we worked together and sometimes just to let me listen to something new that he was proud of. Most of the artists have an idea about how the cover relates to the music. They enjoy playing the material for you as much as you enjoy listening to it. The creative energy seems to open up when that happens. I enjoy sharing their graphic ideas as well. Some work and some don’t. As I recall, I really liked the music on Homegrown and I think the cover is perfect for it.


Altsounds: For “Homegrown,” what was your thinking behind it and was it your first idea?

Tom Wilkes: As for the Homegrown package, I have hung out with Neil in Topanga, at his Ranch in Northern California, in the Clubs and at the Record Companies. I knew Neil very well. His tastes were the down home, honest and absolutely unaffected by his fame and success. I think the Homegrown cover reflects the real and funky essence of his unpretentious personality. What you see is what you get. In my humble opinion, I think that cover design is totally Neil Young.


Altsounds: In 1967 you were the art director for Monterey Pop. How were you chosen, and did you in fact go to Monterey Pop, and if so what was your experience there?

Tom Wilkes: I was chosen by my friend David Wheeler and the original producer, Alan Pariser. At the time, I had an advertising agency and had done a couple of album covers for the Mamas And Papas, the Rolling Stones and a mixed bag of pop artists. They were interviewing people to art direct the worlds first, International Pop Music Festival in Monterey, California. I filled the bill when I came up with the logo design featuring the classic Pan wearing a psychedelic necktie and playing the pipes. It was a great gig. We got to fly back and forth to the Fair Grounds and the offices in Hollywood, hang with rock stars, groupies, music business hustlers, dope dealers and the press. Here’s the hype on the official press release. In other words folks, read it and weep!

The Monterey Pop Festival was the pivotal event of 1967’s Summer of Love and one of contemporary rock’s defining moments. This peaceful revolution was expressed through the universal language of music, poetry, the graphic arts and new lifestyles. The lyrics of popular songs reflected the feelings of the movement. Monterey was a gathering of the tribes to celebrate the dawn of a new age and bring about positive change in existing ideals and institutions. Can you dig it?


Altsounds: You did the album package of the Concert for Bangla Desh. Where did the pictures come from, and was it difficult making the cover?

Tom Wilkes: The Concert for Bangla Desh was a project produced by George Harrison. He was very close to the Maharishi and created the benefit to aid the people of that country. At that time, I had a studio in the Hollywood hills with my partner, Barry Feinstein. George came by and asked us to donate the artwork and photographs for the event. We contacted UPI and were flooded with pictures of the horrible destruction raging in that part of the world. The package had a lot of integrity including a 12” x 12” book featuring shots of the many famous artists who participated. It’s quite a piece of art.


Altsounds: In 1972 you did the amazing artwork for the orchestral version of Tommy. What did the experience of winning a grammy for it feel like?

Tom Wilkes: “Holy Moley!” Seriously man, that Tommy package was a piece of fine art. I’m very proud of that one and also, it was great to have had a 12 inch format to work with, although the package still holds its own in the DVD size. The attention to detail with the embossing, separate book and even the custom labels is legendary. Woah!


Altsounds: Besides making memorable album covers, have you ever done any TV or radio?

Tom Wilkes: I’ve done it all in my work as Designer, Illustrator, Art Director and Producer. This includes print, film and video, as well as, live action presentations and events.


Altsounds: Is it true that you are very involved with environmental causes, and if so, has that changed your approach to your art?

Tom Wilkes: Yes, I have an Environmental/Human Rights organization called Project Interspeak that was created in ‘78 and over the years has produced books, posters, advertising, merchandise, productions and events. Project Interspeak has expanded my approach to my work and my life in general.


Altsounds: Having done so much work already, what are you working on now, or planning for the future?

Tom Wilkes: I own the original of a classic piece of art that was created by The Beatles for an ad in the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival program book. I intend to sell it to help fund the agenda of Project Interspeak, my upcoming book and film called “Tommy Geeked a Chicken” and a line of products and restaurants. Global warming is also an issue that must be dealt with in the near future, if we are to survive as a species. There’s so much to do and so little time!

Quick One Word Answers:
1. CDs or Mp3s - CD’s
2. Coffee or Tea - Coffee
3. Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton - Barack Obama
4. Acoustic Neil Young or electric Neil Young - Both

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