Original Dinosaur Jr. Album Artist Maura Jasper Talks About Leaving Behind the World of Album Covers
In 1987, an art student named Maura Jasper hunkered down in a converted barn at UMass Amherst, in the hills of Western Massachusetts, and sketched an album cover for her friend's band, a little-known (and extremely loud) rock outfit called Dinosaur Jr. Twenty-seven years later, the jarring, threadbare cover art -- along with her covers for 'Dinosaur' (1985) and 'Bug' (1988) -- are instantly recognizable in the pantheon of essential pre-grunge indie releases.
For several years in the late '80s and early '90s, Jasper was the go-to artist for Dinosaur Jr. as the band blew up, making music videos, album covers and gig posters. The progression of Jasper's work for Dinosaur Jr. not only illustrates the forward movement of the band and their lacerating sound, but also tells the story of young artist maturing and coming into her own. To help make the point, Numero Group released 'Visitors' back on Record Store Day 2014, a five-record box set of early Dinosaur Jr. 7-inches that included Jasper's original art and an essay she wrote about working with the band in the late '80s.
As we look forward to Dinosaur Jr's headlining slot at the 4Knots Festival on July 12 in New York City, we asked Jasper to think back on the process of working with the band on some of their classic works, the unique experience of collaborating with eccentric frontman J Mascis, and how creating the offbeat covers influenced her later work as an artist.
How did the Numero collection come about?
I got an email from [Numero Group co-founder] Ken Shipley. It was that simple -- they just contacted me.
Had you thought about doing a project like that before?
No, I had not thought about it. My relationship to the work is that it’s work I did when I was a lot younger, 18, 19, 20, 21 years old. I was still developing as an artist. So, I look at the work and I see myself developing and thinking. I feel an obligation to the work, because it’s a part of my development and something I did that is important to me and to other people.
So when he contacted me, he said, "Can you show me everything you have?" They were putting the Dino book together the year before, and they [Rocket 88, the publisher of the book] were asking a ton of people for things, so I had that material handy, and I sent him [Shipley] a ton of images. He got excited about the images and had the idea to do something more with it.
I was always struck by these figures with the bulbous heads and lanky bodies that appear so often in your early work for the band. Was that a stream of consciousness creation, or a world you were creating?
All of the above, in a way. I felt like it was a bit of a world. It was influenced by a lot of what I was looking at at the time -- I was really interested in German Expressionists and figurative work.
A lot of the work expressed things I was trying to work through. It was a very immediate way to access more expressive or emotional imagery, a way I could work through experiences I was having.
'You're Living All Over Me,' the band's first major release which came out in 1987, is an indie rock classic now. Do those two people with their heads fused together on the cover have stories?
At the time I did the cover, I was thinking about things that were personal and had to do with my own experience. But I was also listening to the music. J had given me a demo tape and I took it into the Art Barn at UMass Amherst. I had a studio in there and it was cold and I remember listening to that tape over and over again and sitting down and doing lots of different images in response to the music. I can look at the pieces and remember events in my life and people in my life from when I was creating them, but they do take on something else and become their own entity.
But with that one it's important to point out that if you’ve ever held up Sonic Youth's 'Confusion is Sex' next to 'You’re Living All Over Me,' they look remarkably similar.
I must have been thinking about that image. I bought the record maybe two years before [making the Dinosaur Jr. cover], and it was a favorite record of mine at the time. I looked at a lot of album art and I listened to a lot of music. As much as I was influenced by other artists and artwork, I was also looking at other album artists.
Do you still admire album covers?
No. [Laughs] I mean I enjoy them, when I pull them out. My relationship to art-making is totally different than it was then. I do still appreciate album art. But it's not the same now.
It’s different when you’re young, to sit there with a big album in your hands, in your bedroom or wherever you are, where you kind of allow yourself to get into that space and give yourself that kind of time. But I don't have that kind of time, or I don't give myself that kind of time. I don't think about the total experience of it, the music and the art and all of it together, which was how I always thought of it back then.
What do you think of Marq Spusta’s redrawing of the 'You’re Living All Over Me' cover for Dinosaur Jr's 2012 'Chocomel Daze' live release?
It’s a good question. I don’t think anything necessarily about his take, because it's as interesting as anyone's take, and to be honest I’ve seen lots of different versions of that image. In fact, I was saying earlier that the original image [for 'You're Living All Over Me'] was influenced by another image. People are always sampling from different things. I like the work Marq does for Dinosaur Jr, and does what he needs them to do and he does it well.
My only thing was, I wish they’d asked me to help them find someone to do it. I always wanted to put out a call to get different examples of people who’d redrawn that. It’s a nice image, I like what he did with it.
No one told me they were going to ask someone to redraw that, so when I found that out, I was not happy about that, and I wished I could have found somebody so it would be interesting to me, too. But with regard to Marq's work, I think he does great work.
The sketches and illustrations you did for the 'You're Living All Over Me' period are so different than the physical art you made for 'Bug,' in 1988. You said in your essay for 'Visitors' that for the 'Bug' cover, you wanted to "make something that could think as well as feel.” What does that mean?
At that time, I became much more interested in the content of the work going beyond purely expressive visual information -- not just drawing a figure screaming up at the sky. That's great when you're 17 or 18 years old, but there was a point where I was looking at things that were pushing me more intellectually as an artist. Suddenly, I wanted the work to be able to ask questions, or talk about something else, to take it outside of myself.
When I was young, I was just interested in how I was feeling, and expressing raw emotions. But that became less interesting. And there comes a time when you want art to take on a bigger job and you want to ask bigger questions.
Has J ever approached you about doing more art or is that totally behind you?
It's not totally behind us, but it doesn’t really come up, and when it does, we have nice, normal conversations about it. We've moved on to different things. And to be honest, their needs and my needs are different. They need someone who can work with them in an illustrative capacity, to really brand the band. And that's not what I do anymore.
What do you and J talk about when you discuss the art you made for the band?
J and I are friends. It's not something that's off topic or anything. How can I explain this ... it's like anything you did with someone in the past. There have been times, every now and then, I may get something from him, like, "Do you want to do this?" or "Are you interested in this?" but at this point my interests are a little bit different.
At one point with Numero Group we talked about doing a pop-up store for Record Store Day and presenting some of this old art alongside of my more recent work. And when I talked to J about it, he was really excited. We talked about having him DJ or come in and play with his band Heavy Blanket. Suddenly, we were excited about doing an event together. That's how it is now -- talking about fusing these things and activating them. That's more interesting to me than doing posters or whatever. I'm more interested in creating energy for people.
But once J got involved we needed bigger space, and everything sorta collapsed at that point. But he was really excited, more excited than I thought he would be.
There's this anecdote about the original cover you made for the single for 'The Wagon,' the first single from Green Mind, in 1991. J decided as the record was being pressed that he hated the cover, that he was too creeped out it, and so Sub Pop had to recall the single because of the art.
That’s one thing I’m not sure J and I talked about. [Laughs] Sub Pop was so upset. [Laughs] It's funny because I really liked that cover. It was a great synthesis of everything I was doing at the time. It did everything that I wanted to do. It talked about or inferred something about lost innocence or childhood but it was very dreamlike and surreal. But he hated it. [Laughs] He just hated it.
You couldn’t have found two more opposite ends of the spectrum, J on one side and me on the other. When he decided he didn’t like it, they’d already pressed this thing. So there were some awkward conversations with Sub Pop.
We didn’t talk about it much after that. I remember being really mad at J, or just frustrated. And J came up with some version of his own, a gorilla or a hand puppet, I don't know. [Laughs] You know, he just thought, "I can do this better" and just went in and did it. And we just kind of moved on. It wasn’t a breaking point in our friendship.
You also made the music video for their cover of the Cure's 'Just Like Heaven.' It definitely feels like that work was formative for you because it allowed you to explore different media and have an audience for it.
Yeah, it was extremely important. That work is still very important to me. And yeah, I love that video. It’s one of my favorite things I made. It liberated me away from illustrative work, and allowed me to find another way to think about how to embody some of the energy of the band.
I had so little experience, but that was a plus. I didn’t have any technical ability; I had ideas. I knew it would be OK if it was falling apart, because it would be funny. It was the same as if you’re in a punk rock band and can't play the guitar -- you just need the attitude and you just go.
The attitude in that work, and the ideas that came out of that, those came with me and went into everything I've gone on to make. I take it with me. Some artists burn the work they made before a certain time, to let go of the past, so no one can see it. I can't do that. All my developmental years are out in public. And I'm OK with that.
More Dinosaur Jr. Art by Maura Jasper
Jasper's 1989 cover for the 'Just Like Heaven' single:
A few concepts for the 'Just Like Heaven' cover, provided by Jasper. The original single was packaged as a 12-inch record with music on one side of the record and an etching by Jasper on the other:
Contact sheet for the doomed cover of 'The Wagon,' provided by Jasper. The photos were taken by Sub Pop photographer Charles Peterson:
An early sketch, released as part of the 'Visitors' box set:
A stage concept created by Jasper. The concept was used by Dinosaur Jr. for Boston and New York City shows in 1985 and '86: