Last Time You Took Me Back - Restraining Order CD Cover
My band Restraining Order put out our first CD in 2001. It was a collection of mostly hard rock songs, with a few lighter acoustic tracks and even a ska and punk tune mixed in. That's what happens when you have four guys writing songs. We went through a bunch of proposed album titles, and my suggestion was "Last Time She Took Me Back". I liked the title because it could be taken as, "The last time this happened, she took me back" but also, "This is absolutely, positively the last time she'll ever take me back." See how that works?
The other guys seemed to warm to it as well, though our guitar player Phil suggested making it more generic (and less gender-specific) by changing "She" to "You". It was a good suggestion, making the phrase even more ambiguous. Since we weren't on a label and would be self-releasing the disc, we locked down the title between the four of us - "Last Time You Took Me Back" it was. And, since I was the lone designer/illustrator in the band, I agreed to put together a cover image that would illustrate the concept.
About a year earlier, I'd first started using a graphics tablet - A Wacom Graphire, which you could get back then for $99 in any CompUSA or similar store. The tablet's working area was only 4x5", but it turned out that was plenty for me. I loved it immediately. Going from doing digital illustration with a mouse or trackball (which seems insane now) to using a pressure-sensitive tablet was a huge leap, and I was doing all sorts of experiments in Photoshop, learning to sketch, apply color, render linework and do other illustrative and photographic techniques in a whole new way. It didn't take long to get used to my new tool.
So a Wacom-inspired illustration was a natural for the Restraining Order album cover. I don't believe I even did a sketch first (digital or traditional) - I think I filled the screen with what was then our theme color - a magenta-heavy purple - and started dodging and burning like a fiend.
I'm not big on using a wide range of colors for an illustration or design - I tend to use a very limited color scheme whenever possible, often just working on tints and shades of just one hue. That's where I started with the Last Time piece, and I never varied. It can drive some people crazy - "Why is it only one color?!" - but it creates instant cohesion in the elements, pretentious as that sounds. A realistic, full-spectrum color scheme can come off looking generic and boring. Using limited colors brings everything together in a brute force kind of way.
I showed the partially-completed piece to the band - an impressionistic image of what is ostensibly the character who's thinking the album's title, dressed in a shirt, tie, and overcoat, carrying flowers in one hand and an umbrella in the other. I lived alone in a small apartment at this point, so I modeled the image on my front porch and the parking lot across the street. My aim was to make the illustration vague enough so that it didn't hit you all at once, but once you stared at it for a minute, you start seeing more of the scene. I added rain for dramatic effect (the umbrella seemed to call for it) and showed it to the band.
They all liked the piece, and seemed to think it conveyed the kind of doomed/failed relationship theme our songs were typically about (don't worry; we're all happily married now, despite our lyrics). I prepped the artwork for the rest of the album - the other five panels of the insert, the on-disc printing and the tray card interior and exterior, all using this same magenta-purple color scheme. I like to beat the viewer into submission as much as possible. It's all worth it when someone sees your album and says, "It's really purple" or "You sure like purple!" I consider that to be my reward as a visual artist.
Once the album was out, we'd managed to place a small quantity in a few local music stores on consignment. Months after they'd stocked our CD, I went into the Cherry Hill Tower Records (now an empty shell) to shop for a gift. I was crouched in an aisle, flipping through CDs, when I realized I knew the song playing over the store's sound system very well - I was subconsciously tapping the beat, and getting it right. Yes, they were playing our CD in the store. I looked from person to person, perhaps hoping to see that movie-like moment where everyone starts tapping their feet, maybe dancing around a little, and - of course - demanding the employees tell them, "Who IS this band?!" It didn't happen. I tried to call my bandmates on my then-new cell phone, so they could hear the big moment - none of them were around. It sucked. This is not how things happen in movies.
I guess that wasn't punishment enough, so when I made my way through the line to pay, I asked the cashier (a young girl with bluish-black hair filled with more butterfly barrettes than you'd expect to find on a five-year-old's head), "Hey, who's this band playing?" To my surprise, she said, "Oh, it's Restraining Order. They're like, well not totally hard but they have some fast songs and a couple slower ones." I think she may have even added, "They're cool" or "I like them", but I can't be sure. I was happy enough that she had some idea of who we were, and seemed to have listened to the CD previously. I left well enough alone, and walked out of the store feeling pretty cool. If only I could have known then that when I'd return to the store more than a year later to close out our consignment, they'd have sold only one of the five CDs we gave them - I think to one of our friends, too. Maybe they should have played it more in the store.
We went on to put out two more CDs (EPs, actually), both of which I designed the covers for, though not using illustrations or the Wacom. I'm now using a bigger tablet - the Intuos (which is nice - it's bigger and has more functionality)- and maybe someday I'll splurge for the amazing Cintiq, which lets you draw directly on the monitor. I could probably lay down even more purple with that thing.
Last Time You Took Me Back on Amazon
"She's My Girl", the song that even people who don't like us seem to enjoy: