Storm Thorgerson


One of the few useful pieces of unsolicited email I've ever received arrived in my in-box on Thursday, Sept. 11, 1997. It was a press release from Beth Brody of Brody Public Relations in Stockton, N.J., detailing "Mind Over Matter: The Images of Pink Floyd" (Sanctuary Publishing; ISBN 1-86074-224-6), the new book by Storm Thorgerson, designer of nearly every Pink Floyd album cover, as well as loads of other classic images. Within a week of my reply, Brody had a copy of Thorgerson's book in my hand, with a phone interview in the works between Thorgerson and myself shortly thereafter.

Thorgerson, 53 at the time, had just stepped into his office on Tuesday, Sept. 30, when I placed the call to his London office from my Burlington, Vt., domicile. Cordial if not a little clownish, his first concern seemed to be for my well-being, considering the trans-Atlantic time difference that was requiring I conduct the interview at 7:30 a.m. my time. "Are you awake?" he asked. "Are you on the ball? Are you focused?" he demanded with a rapid-fire British clip. Assured I was up to the task, but not entirely sure of the nature of "Floydian Slip," I explained I produced a weekly Pink Floyd show, broadcast in the state of Vermont. "Is that where you're ringing from?" he asked. "Good grief." "Do you know where Vermont is?" I asked, certain, as many Vermonters probably are, that the rest of the world hasn't a clue about our tiny state. "Yes, I've been there, darling," Thorgerson purred back at me with mock indignation.

If speaking to one of the most prolific cover designers in history — and a collaborator of the Floyd at that! — seemed intimidating even moments ago, I now felt like I could breathe easier. I settled in for what I hoped would be an interesting chat, and wasn't disappointed. Casual and without pretense, he gave every impression that no topic was off-limits — and that for as long as I asked questions, he'd be willing to answer them. We spoke for 35 minutes. An edited version of this interview was broadcast on "Floydian Slip" on Wednesday, Oct. 29, 1997. We've provided a complete transcript below. — Craig Bailey

Floydian Slip (FS): How'd you get your first job with Pink Floyd?

Storm Thorgerson (ST): The band and I come from Cambridge, which is a university town about 50 miles north of London. I'm sure you will have heard of it — one of the two major university towns in England — Oxford and Cambridge. We were not of the university, but of the town. We knew each other in Cambridge, because we were in the same high school. Roger Waters was a year above me, and Syd Barrett was a year below me. And David Gilmour, in fact, was in a neighboring school, but since we didn't like the neighboring school they were the enemy. So we all knew each another, and Syd and I were in the same kind of peer group when we were kids, about 17. And then I didn't really have that much to do with them for three or four years. I went off somewhere else to college. And in the meantime they went off to architectural school and they formed a band. Then Syd joined and they became The Pink Floyd. Did the first album, "Piper" — which I had nothing to do with. And was initially asked to help intercede in, as it were, trying to handle the Syd situation when Syd was going into orbit and was playing a different tune altogether, literally and metaphorically. And the rest of the band had the very awkward position of trying to live with it or trying to not live with it. And I was asked for some advice on this, but I didn't have much to say — or I probably had something to say, but it must have been unintelligent. It was very hard to cope with one's own problems let alone somebody else's. But I did volunteer my services to do the cover for "Saucerful," when a mutual friend who had been previously asked, declined.

FS: So that was 1968.

ST: It was the turn of '67/'68, isn't it? Because "Piper" came out in '67. So this would be the turn of '67 to '68. And this mutual friend failed to come up with the goods, and I kind of jumped in boldly. Foolishly! Headstrong. Opportunistic and all the rest of it — never having done a record sleeve. Anyway, that's what I did first. And since they knew me from previous times, they said, "Alright."

FS: Did you have any idea you were entering what was to become a 30 year collaboration?

ST: (Laughs) God no! If I'd known! I don't think you ever think like that, do you, when it's happening? It's sort of like an equivalent, professionally, of a domestic marriage. You know. You may think this, and you may think that. Plus cette chance, we say.

FS: The book that you just put out, "Mind Over Matter: The Images of Pink Floyd," you start about by talking about Syd and the early days of Floyd. You write that, "One of the many extraordinary things about Syd was that he was not so extraordinary — at least not to us at that time." What did you mean by that?

ST: Well, you know, if you're in a crowd — running with a gang, right? — then you're in the gang and you don't think like that, do you? They're just in the gang. They're just part of the peer group. They're part of a bunch of friends.

FS: When was the last time you saw Syd?

ST: I haven't seen Syd for some many years now. I don't think I've seen him since '75. That was his infamous visit to Abbey Road recording studios when they were laying down "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" backing vocals.

FS: You were there?

ST: I happened to be there by chance, yeah. I didn't necessarily hang out an awful lot at the recording studio, because it wasn't necessary. But I happened to be there when Syd turned out, and it was a very — I think I write about it in the book as well — it was a very heart-rending meeting. Quite sad, it was.

FS: That was the last time that anyone in the band has seen him as well. Is that true?

ST: I don't know that for sure. I think it probably is, because he's not been very well, and he's certainly not very well now.

FS: Do you know what he's up to nowadays?

ST: Well, yes, I think he's reclusive — has been for 20 years. Has not been well. And has not been well emotionally, and certainly is not, can't, be well physically.

FS: We should mention that this isn't the first book you've written.

ST: (Laughs) Should we mention it? I see. Yes, we should. You're right, Craig: This is not the first book I have "compiled," I think is a better word than "written." I'm not really a writer. I do write in a conversational kind of style, I suppose, because it's only me who knows what went on in terms of the covers. So in terms of designing for Pink Floyd, if somebody else wrote it they'd have to interview me a lot, and that seemed to be a bit of a waste of time, so I thought I'd just write it down myself. In "Mind Over Matter" it's the pictures that matter and not the words so much.

FS: I'm familiar with your 1978 book "The Work of Hipgnosis" ...

ST: "Walk Away Rene." I kind of wrote that, too. Again, I don't know whether write is the correct word. It's also, obviously, conversational. But it was the same thing, because we were talking about all the work we did for all sorts of bands, including the Floyd, but lots of others.

FS: In that one you also include some photos of your original studio.

ST: Oh that — the dung heap.

FS: Considering all the classic covers you guys turned out, it looked pretty basic.

ST: Basic?! Basic?!

FS: I'm being polite, Storm ...

ST: (Laughs) That's complimentary. The premises were absolutely scuzzy and filthy beyond belief. They remained that way for years and years. I don't think either Po (Hipgnosis co-founder Aubrey Powell) nor I were particularly tidy individuals. The only bit of tidiness we might have been interested in was in the art works. Actually, the art works were pretty dirty, too. But the finished pieces that appeared to the public were the bits we were interested in.

FS: It certainly didn't hamper your turning out a lot of covers.

ST: No, I think that, it in some quirky way, provided ... We were just more interested in designing and thinking up ideas — making covers, making films, making books. I don't think we gave it much thought. It was a pretty horrible place in retrospect. There are some people that believe a tidy mind is reflected in a tidy office. Can you tell a lady by her handbag? I don't know, you know? Do the contents of a room a handbag or a studio or an office or some kind of traveling bag. Can you tell a person ... Can you tell a person by his shoes? Can you tell a record by its cover?

FS: You also write in that early book about your technique. You talk a lot about cutting and pasting, bleaching, a lot of real mechanical techniques. I would guess that today you use a lot of computers.

ST: Yeah. We don't use computers — I don't very much use computers. I use them for retouching. Because that is a phenomenal thing that computers can do, which is to transfer what basically is a photographic medium into a digital medium, without that much loss of quality. It's extraordinary. I'm continually impressed by that. And then to work, obviously, in a digital domain is a lot easier, because it's uncorruptible. Well, (laughs) I say that — it's sort of uncorruptable. And you can copy it many times and it doesn't hurt it. That is extraordinary. In terms of retouching, it is seen by me, and certainly by some retouchers I've known, as a godsend.

FS: I also get the feeling from reading the book that you might hold computers with a certain amount of disdain.

ST: Yeah, I think I do. But I don't know whether it's because I'm an old toady person, or whether it's because I have a genuine complaint.

FS: If I didn't know the truth, there are some of your covers I would almost assume were created with a computer instead of a real photograph. "A Momentary Lapse of Reason," for example. I would sooner guess that was a digital creation than someone dragging 700 beds onto a beach, which is what you did.

ST: Yeah, that is what we did. And we had to drag them all back again because of the God-damn English weather. It rained. I mean, maybe it's kind of the same as Vermont. I don't know whether your weather's very predictable, but ours is not. And we had waited, like, for two or three weeks for a reasonably clear forecast. And this is some three or four hours outside London, so it was quite a schlep, for us — distances being so much smaller here, remember guys. Anything over 50 miles is regarded as a huge journey. So it was a long trip, and we didn't want to go until we got a reasonable forecast. And we got a reasonable forecast and it was still wrong. And so even after we put all 700 beds — and remember these are wrought iron beds, these are not lightweight beds, they are really heavy — all individually arranged, all carefully spaced, and then it rained, for Christ sakes. And when it rained it was sort of a gray drizzle through which you could see nothing. You couldn't actually see that you had a lot of beds there. So the whole point of taking a lot of beds there was something that appeared to be a complete waste of time. So we had to talk them all back in again.

FS: Is part of the satisfaction for creating a cover like that actually going out and doing, and not faking it on a computer?

ST: Yeah, I think that this whole business of whether to do it for real or not, or whether it's in a computer or not, is just something that, as it were, we did from quite early on, not only for the Floyd but especially for the Floyd, but also for other people we'd do it. So that if we arranged some kind of, how shall I put it, set or some kind of grouping of people or some kind of event, or some kind of sculpture or installation, we would set it up and shoot it. We might shoot it in bits, but it would all be shot for real. And that, I think, is because in some ineffable fashion, it's always better. Its always better. Obviously you can do all sorts of things in a computer that look better for doing them in a computer, but they are computer things. Where as what I do mostly is to rearrange bits of reality according to what the idea might be in an attempt to represent the music. Which is why it's called "Mind Over Matter," because it alludes to sort of little tinkering, as it were.

FS: You listen to an album before you design the cover, correct?

ST: (Laughs; amused) Yeah, of course we listen to it. Yeah! We listen to albums mucho. We also read the lyrics mucho. And we also often talk to the band mucho. It depends on the band, really. Obviously in the case of the Floyd, over time a certain degree of communication is, as it were, established. However, the communication also can fall down like it did on "The Division Bell." Ironically, because one of the themes was about communication, or the lack of it, we managed to exhibit the very act of it in doing the cover. Because we thought we'd done a great design, which is the one we used in the end, but David (Gilmour) didn't like it at all. No, that's not true. He didn't like it very much. So for three or four weeks it was in a state of lukewarm rejection. And that is after many years of working together. Otherwise we take, as it were, a brief, which is, obviously, the music for the feeling of it — and that would be the form of usually demos. And then there would be the lyrics, which are reasonably accurate. There would be some changes later, because vocalists, obviously, give it new inflection or change words when they actually sing it. And then there would be anything that the band had especially told us, or the title or any other thing that they wish to impart. So, yeah, all these are taken on board. And the music is played over and over continuously as a sort of a foreground/background kind of thing.

FS: We'd love it if you could tell us you've been working on a new Pink Floyd album cover. I don't assume you could tell us that, could you?

ST: (Laughs) Yeah, good question! If only, right?

FS: Do you have any idea when a new album might be coming out?

ST: No, I don't. As for a new album, no I don't have an idea. I'm actually not entirely sure why there is no new album, sort of at the moment as far as I know in the cards. But there may be. I don't necessary know these things. So there may be, and I don't know it. But in terms of what I do know, concretely, that is that there isn't at the moment. Great pity.

FS: Roger Waters split with the rest of the group in the early '80s. You've gone on to work with Dave Gilmour and the members that have continued to use the name Pink Floyd. Has Roger ever talked to you about doing work for his solo projects?

ST: No, Roger hasn't talked to me since 1980. He stopped talking to me, amongst many others, even before the split. In fact, I don't even know why, particularly. I don't even know if he remembers why, particularly.

FS: We hear a lot in the media about the rivalry between Roger and the band. Do you think that's accurate, or is it more media hype?

ST: I think a lot of it is media hype. I don't know whether even "rivalry" is the right word. I think that in many ways Roger is quite angry about things. But I don't fully know. I don't know why he left the band.

FS: In the book — tell me if I'm reading too much into this — you seem to be placing more of the blame for this situation on Roger than on the rest of the band. Is that your take on it?

ST: Yeah, well it is my take to some extent that Roger initiated it. I mean, he tended to be the initiator. So it would stand to reason that since he was, in parenthesis, more of the stronger force — right? — that things would to some extent, as it were, follow his lead. I would say. But I wasn't there and I don't know what's in Roger's head, and didn't know what was in Roger's head then. But I presume that him leaving The Pink Floyd was what he wanted to do.

FS: There are always rumors about reunions floating around ...

ST: Yeah, I know. But I also think that's also a perennial thing put about by all sorts of people from publicists to the record company — from the management to the agency — from media people to fanzines. I think it's expressing a desire, to some extent. You know, I think it would, in the same way as we would say that it would be great if the Floyd were to make another record maybe. I mean, maybe it would be great if Roger and Dave could patch up.

FS: The group's always sort of been known for shunning the media, hasn't it?

ST: I don't think the Floyd have ever in their 30 year history, I don't think they've ... I don't think they've been anti-press, because, obviously, they need the press as the press needs them. So they get exposure. They've done interviews and articles. But I don't think they're much of media people, as such. I mean, they were pretty faceless most of their careers, weren't they? Even after "Dark Side," and ever after several years of "Dark Side." I mean, actually, even after "The Wall." I can't remember precisely when it changed, but I know that for years and years and years either Roger or Dave or Rick, they could walk down the street and nobody would know them. As I think I've written in the book, I think it's quite a feat actually that they were able to do that.

FS: That's got to be at least in part because they typically wouldn't have their faces on their albums.

ST: Oh yes, well, that's not entirely true of course, because they were on "Ummagumma," and they're in the middle of "Meddle." But I don't know whether it's that particularly. Maybe it's a mixture of things of which a large component might be the music is not — the music and the band's style — is not personality oriented. I don't think, really.

FS: Do you have any idea how many albums covers you've designed for the Floyd and others?

ST: Well, they're all there in the book for the Floyd. Is it 16? Or 18? Sixteen, I think. Because there's only three I didn't do. Four, actually. I didn't do "Relics," but I did redo "Relics." So I half did "Relics." And I didn't do "Piper." I didn't do "The Wall." I didn't do "The Final Cut." And I think there are a few others across the world that have been released at certain times — you know, obscure collections from Botswana or Uruguay that I probably hadn't had a hand in. (Laughs) But maybe the band hasn't had a hand in it either! Most of it I have done, yeah.

FS: What about other bands you've done work for? There have been a slew of them.

ST: In the past, obviously, I was working quite a lot for Led Zeppelin. And I worked for Genesis and Pete Gabriel. And, you know, quite a range of people. We worked for Black Sabbath and various other darker forces. Recently I've been working for Catherine Wheel, for (Burlington, Vt.-based) Phish, for Ween and several others.

FS: Which Phish album is it you did?

ST: I've just done the last one. It's called "Slip, Stitch & Pass."

FS: And is that out yet, or is it coming out soon?

ST: I think it's out in a month? Yeah, it's a live album, and there's a new studio album next year, I think.

FS: Recently you've been doing a lot of reissues and whatnot. Is it strange to go back to an album that you finished ...

ST: Are we back on the Floyd now?

FS: Yeah.

ST: Yeah. Is it strange? (Pause) Well, yes and no. I think I sort of wrote — I'm trying to remember what I wrote in the book, for crying outloud! — I think that I wrote about how when CDs to go to vinyl there was a degree of repackaging or a vast amount of repackaging, executed by record companies. Who unceremoniously squashed vinyl designs into CDs — into CD booklets and tend to make a mess of it. Now this occurred whilst the Floyd were in a state of trauma in terms of Roger and Dave breaking up. So I don't think that their attention would have been very much on this event. So what happened was suddenly, without us noticing really, the CDs had appeared in a rather slovenly fashion put together by the record companies. The packaging was not suitably adapted. So we have been sort of renovating since about '88. We've sort of been slowly renovating. Or was it later, maybe? You know, the pictures. So that the CD packages were a bit more in line with what it was that we might have intended, if we had been, as it were, more focused at the time back in '83 or '84.

FS: Compact discs and the reissues give you work, but at the same time, your canvas has shrunk by about 75 percent.

ST: Yeah, but the canvas is shrunk anyway, so it wouldn't make any difference whether we're talking about repackaging or new packaging. The thing about repackaging to some extent is it allowed me to try to improve what it was I thought I'd done. So I was not against doing it. And I was also in favor of doing it in order to repair the mess made by record companies. On the other hand, of course, it's not quite so interesting going back over old ground as opposed to doing new stuff. But it's not without its merits, and we hope, to some extent, that we have tried to improve it, and to, for instance, insert things like lyrics where they might not have been. Because in a CD there seems no reason not to have a booklet, at least in some way as a substitute for vinyl, which had plenty of space. So even if you decided not to put lyrics on vinyl, you had plenty of space to play with other things. But in a CD booklet it seems to kind of cry out for lyrics really by and large.

FS: What are some of the projects you're doing right now?

ST: Well, as I said, I just finished a Phish project. And did a Catherine Wheel a little while back. And I'm now about to do some peripheral bits on that one — couple of singles, for example. And I've just been commissioned — I've just been doing kind of private design for somebody — well, I can't tell you, because it wouldn't mean anything to you. But it's quite meaningful over here. And I've been making a film this year, a documentary which turned to disaster. And also, obviously, I've been doing the book. And I've also done a couple new things for the Floyd over here. There was a sort of anniversary , a sort of "Piper" repackage that I did, which is quite nice. And we've also done something for the American record company: We've done a new design to have them advertise sort of some of the repackages that have not been previously released in terms of, we're talking about Floyd material now. So we are functioning — just about.

FS: A lot of those early covers were credited to Hipgnosis, which was the design studio you cofounded in the '60s ...

ST: Correct. That is the case.

FS: ... with Aubrey Powell?

ST: Yeah. Better known as Po.

FS: You and Po split ways in the early '80s, right around the time the Floyd split up.

ST: Yeah, it was about a year or two after.

FS: Why?

ST: (Pause) Ooh. That's a complex ... Well, Hipgnosis was sort of wound up by ourselves, because we wished to form a film company, which we did called Greenback. So Hipgnosis was itself sort of brought to a halt by ourselves in '83 or '82, and we started the film company in '83, or something like that. Then we made some videos and some long forms. And, again, a very difficult financial situation had occurred due to our own bungling mismanagement. We were in a state of severe financial loss in '85. And it was against the background of that that, as it was, we had our differences — our differences were maximized, if you might put it like that. And due to sort of certain different philosophies — also due to the fact that there were different views about role-playing and what your job was. And I don't think any of us, particularly me, behaved very well really. I think I was — I think from my end I was sort of rather keen to direct and might translate into sort of powertripping, which is not good for everybody. But I think probably the other two had their own problems — their errors, as it were. Although, you'd kind of have to ask them. But they're both very successful at the moment. Doing very well. Making films. I think Pete (Christopherson) is making films, but I haven't spoken to him recently. And I haven't seen Po recently. He's making a documentary. And we are going to perhaps going to consider whether we should talk to each other after not having talked to each other for 12 years.

FS: Speaking of films, you've directed a number of those shown up on the projection screen during Floyd's shows.

ST: Right. The films that we made for concerts — there were quite a few I made for the '87 tour and for the '94 tour — and a couple previous to that have varied quite a lot. (Laughs) They've varied in terms of how good they are! But they have been made, by and large, to complement and go with the songs, which is quite difficult, because the live experience is not the same as a video. So video, in a sense, is easier. Because your music is fixed. Because where in a concert, of course, they might play it differently. So you have an interesting problem. But I think, by and large, they worked out reasonably well. I mean, certainly in the last concert, some of them — "High Hopes" worked very well I thought.

FS: The book is called "Mind Over Matter: The Images of Pink Floyd." It's out in hardcover and softback. Is it available now in the United States?

ST: I think it is. "Mind Over Matter" is supposed to be released — published, is that what they say in the book business? — this week. Depending to what degree publishers, of course, are organized. I would have thought it would have been out very shortly.

FS: I had a chance to read it. It's a beautiful book. Printed on a real quality stock ...

ST: Yeah, I'm not unhappy with it. I think it didn't look too bad, actually. It was printed in the Far East. I don't know how politically correct that is, but, of course, it's so much more economical in some ways to print. Printing is very expensive, so even if you print in Italy or in Holland or in Spain or in Hong Kong, it tends to be cheaper. But I actually think it's printed quite well. We went to Hong Kong to make sure as much as we could that it was printed the best we could get it. So I think I feel reasonably happy. It's always a problem with printing, covers or books, that you're reducing original photograph and original transparency — you know, a continuous tone and a full range of colors — you're reducing them to four colors only, and printing on paper in dots. It's always difficult to get a result that is absolutely close. But I think that within those practical difficulties it's not too bad.

FS: Good luck with the book and thanks for talking with us on "Floydian Slip."

ST: It's been a pleasure, Craig. Look after yourself.

storm thorgerson

Sept. 30, 1997

Oct. 29, 1997

Interviewed by
Craig Bailey

Storm Thorgerson online