“A Big Mess”: Scene Dissection, featuring artist Mike G. Miller
This is the third installment in a series exploring what makes a heavy music scene tick. I will be interviewing people who take on tasks beyond playing in a band: promoters, visual artists, audio engineers, writers, etc. We’ll learn about what it takes to build a thriving music scene and what motivates people to devote their time, effort, and expense when financial rewards and even appreciation are scarce. This time I am talking to artist Mike G. Miller.
You may not recognize Mike G. Miller’s name, but you have likely seen his work sometime in the past few years. He has drawn album covers for Lord Mantis, Sick/Tired, and most notably Bongripper, who commissioned a series of gatefold hellscapes for vinyl releases of all their studio albums so far. I first met Mike through Bongripper’s bassist, Ron Petzke, years ago when we all lived in DeKalb, IL, home of Northern Illinois University (go Huskies, I guess). Mike has remained in the area his entire life, attending college, starting a family, and being deeply involved in the oddly vibrant local music scene that over the years has spawned Judas Iscariot, Charles Bronson, and an early incarnation of Weekend Nachos, among many others. I recently caught up with Mike outside the long-running practice space/DIY venue on Seventh Street when I was back to play a gig. We discussed his artistic influences, his process in drawing album covers, and his general outlook on humanity.
Jason Kolkey: Tell me a little bit about your training as an artist.
Mike Miller: I have a BFA from NIU…I guess that’s training. I did so much before it, though. I went in with this giant pile I already did, like Bongripper and Sick/Tired album covers and stuff like that. So I never think of it as training, but I guess it was. I did a whole bunch of new stuff in there. I started acrylic painting there and learning how to work professionally as an illustrator and all the process and all of that.
How did you first get interested in art?
That’d be comics, of course…I just looked through the Marvel ones for the art, but I never read them. And then more alternative comics; I like Robert Crumb – he was my favorite – and Dan Clowes. All those guys, the old school, 80s and 90s guys – Charles Burns and that whole crowd.
Was there anything specific about that aesthetic and approach that appealed to you?
Yeah, cuz they could just do whatever they wanted. I always liked that raw stuff, not the superhero stuff. Just real dark and all about sexual stuff, which wasn’t in [mainstream] comic books, of course, in Marvel and all that … Crumb was huge. He’s just all about the art and nothing else. That was cool because he wasn’t about going out and being a big star. He just kinda did his art and hid.
How would you describe your style?
Oh, man, I don’t know. I like those classical guys like Hieronymus Bosch and Breugel because it’s just about sexual chaos and violence and horrors, but not just horror. I’ve never actually thought about that.
Is there a reason you’re attracted that sort of horrific, chaotic imagery?
Well, what I always used to say to myself is that’s just how I saw the social world, I guess. Not so much anymore, but in high school and after, everything just seemed so violent. Everybody can be real nasty to each other, but they can also be like clowns. People can be thoughtless and all about pleasure, but it just ends up a big mess. That’s how it goes: people come together, and it clashes into a big mess. Everything works out for everybody individually, but I guess I never focus on that; I never go that far. I’m always in the chaotic part of the progression of people finding what they gotta do. But I smash it all together because I have ADHD and I’m always thinking constantly about all sorts of people all at once.
So I’m always thinking about every instance and everybody I know all at once and just make this big picture full of tons of people in these violent, most of the times sexual, confrontations. And you can’t tell if it’s pleasurable or painful; it’s just a mixture of everything. And it’s dark but not horrific. There’s never really any gore in my stuff … People look at it, and they expect to see gore because it’s so violent, but if you look at it there’s not really that much gore in it. I think that separates it, and makes it more of an internal, deeper thing. It’s more about internal struggles, psychological rather than physical violence, like fighting. People go around getting into fights, and it’s not about that. It’s not about punk shows or anything like that.
What are your favorite media or tools to use?
For the last four years I’ve used nothing but ballpoint pen and any kind of paper I can come across. Usually I take that into Photoshop and just mess with it, from at least raising the contrast and brightness all the way to just coloring it in, using effects on the lines. You really can’t tell it’s ballpoint pen at all if it goes through the computer. Or I’ll leave it as a ballpoint pen drawing. Or I will go over it with a bunch of materials like acrylics and inks and rub it on and just layer up on it. So I always start with ballpoint pen; that’s my main thing. Since January  I’ve become addicted to small notebooks, about 3×5 or up to 5×7. And doing one drawing a day I have about 700 drawings, so I’m pretty overwhelmed by that actually.
What music do you like to listen to while you’re drawing?
I’ve always wanted to put this out there: Cruelty and the Beast by Cradle of Filth is my main go-to for drawing. I’ve listened to that album … well, not much in the last year, but since 2004 once a month at least. I just love that album; it’s always on hand. It’s between their super-raw stuff in the beginning and their mainstream poppy stuff, and it’s just this awesome sound. I thought that album has the same texture as my art: it’s real clear, but it’s real condensed and gritty. My stuff isn’t super raw, but it’s also not super slick either.
And all sorts of other bands. Actually in the last year or so I’ve been listening to classic rock vinyl, like the second and third Def Leppard albums; I love those albums. ZZ Top…old school ZZ Top, of course. I shouldn’t just say those, because there’s so many more. But just that old stuff, like early 80s and before.
Do you have a favorite of the pieces you’ve done?
I have probably all together like 2,000 pictures – maybe a lot more than that – I consider completed. I’m already going on a thousand for these small sketches, so that’s a lot. But from my completed stuff, I’d have to say the Bongripper albums I’m really proud of. So I’ll just leave it at that. Those turned out really good, probably because I really worked on those for somebody. They were all me, but they were also a collaboration with them giving suggestions and turning stuff down and having to keep retrying. In my own stuff I just do whatever I want, but they’re kinda picky cuz they want the best thing for their albums. So that really helps me get an awesome [final image].
Do you like having that kind of input from the band? At what point in the process is it helpful?
Well, professionally it should all be about the client, what they want. But personally if I’ve been working a ton and they say they don’t like something … I could go either way, really. I can do whatever I want or I can work with them. The last Pink Machines album, Silicone Alley, it was obvious he just wanted women with gigantic breasts in an alley, like in dumpsters and stuff, and then he said something about Jesus having big, giant breasts. And I thought he just didn’t really care. So I sent him some different suggestions, and he was like, “No, that’s what I wanted.” And I’m like, “Oh. Really?” So I went with that, and it turned out awesome. It’s really one of my more obnoxious pieces, but it’s one of my favorites too. And it was good getting that solid input from him in terms of what he wanted.
Let’s talk about the process that went into a specific Bongripper cover, the one for Miserable. First of all, can you tell me where the idea came from?
That started off with my own interpretation of “miserable.” I started off with something completely different than what happened. There’s no big mouth with teeth swallowing up a bunch of people, no jaws at the bottom or the top. It was just a guy in a cell or something like that. And I guess they wanted something different, so I came up with the big mouth … I put the jaws at the bottom and top and it turned out so much better than what I had before. So that was really cool they were real up front about what they thought of it, cuz that pushed me to come up with something that made it a much better cover than it would have been.
But how [the Miserable cover] actually is, how it turned out, was actually more of an experimental thing. Everything started off with ballpoint pen, of course, and then layered on with tons of inks and [acrylic] paints, lots of ink washes. I did a lot of cutting and pasting. I had to do a lot of studying for something I never even used that probably wasted a couple weeks. There were going to be stairs going down into the bottom, instead of tubes of people. And I just never ended up using the stairs. But it always turns out better in the end when you do what naturally flows.
I stuck it in Photoshop and processed it from there. Tons of small editing, too. It took a long time for that, cuz it’s such a giant cover. And the thing is, they originally asked me to do something very simple. In the end, I did probably the most complex professional project I’ve ever done. And of course everybody likes it. Whatever, I guess I don’t do simple yet.
Is that something you hope to cultivate? More simplicity?
I don’t know … I kind of am now with all these sketches and stuff. But I always don’t like when a comic book artist [gets] simple. Like with Erik Larsen, his original Savage Dragon stuff was so awesome because the feel of all his pen and ink had such form. But then he all of a sudden got super quick, and I don’t really like that. It looks lazy, I guess. I’m just not lazy enough yet with the art, except I just don’t have time.
Actually lately, since I’ve got kids to take care of all the time, that’s why I can do so many drawings because I don’t have the attention span lately to leave a project unfinished, so I have to finish in one sitting. So I’ll get like one to three drawings a day, and I’ll just hold onto them. It’s like … what’s the thing where you’re addicted to creating and recording things?
Yeah, I guess. With art it’s like I have to have tons of stuff. I don’t have a few handfuls of things, I have tons and tons. And I want tons and tons more. I just want a giant roomful of it. But the more I get, it’s more overwhelming, so I guess my stuff is becoming more simple with that, because I have to finish in one day. But I still get really down to details in that, so it’s a crunch, and it causes a lot of extra anxiety. But I still do it anyway. Everyday.
Do you think Bongripper will be calling again when they have another thing to do? They’ve come to you for how many pieces now?
Four, so yeah, I don’t know. We’ll just have to see, I guess. That’d be cool though.
Would you be open to working with other bands?
Oh, yeah. I’m always open to working with other bands … They can contact me at my email address [firstname.lastname@example.org] or my blog.
Are you working on any personal projects? You said you’re doing a lot of sketches. Is that going to become something?
I have a comic I guess I could plug called Excess and Moral Decay. I did two zine-sized ones, but I’m gonna relaunch it as a larger 7×10; it’s just gonna be called EMD. It’s gonna be more of a magazine: a variety of imagery and some comics. Probably not as much comics as just pictures; it’s gonna be an art magazine, pretty much. Just a book with all my stuff, whatever I wanna put in: complete freedom to do whatever I want.
Is that what appeals to you about that format?
I’ve always read comics, and all the alternative comics are real special to people. You know what I mean? A comic, a book is real special to you. You have it all the time, you read it, and have one or two that are your best ones. So that’s what I wanna do with these books. I wanna have these books that are really great, some of my best stuff in them, and hope it’s taken as an awesome book and sits on someone’s coffee table for a long time and they just don’t throw it away at least [laughs]. But yeah, I’m just shooting for putting out something really, really good in that format. Art is too hard to push as just art. I don’t even know how to go about that. But self-publishing comics, you can just make it; you can decide to go to sell it wherever. Art is more up in the air. I need something more instant with how much time I always have. I need some more satisfaction, so if I have a book all made, even if not a lot of people have it, at least I can say that book is a book. You close it, and there it is.