Telekom Electronic Beats

Interview: Optigram

Interview: Optigram Manuel Sepulveda, the artist behind Optigram, is an art director who has been responsible for a huge amount of fantastic record sleeves over the last few years. He’s worked for labels such as Hyperdub, Warp and Planet Mu and has created an œuvre that has something of an eighties retro-futuristic feel. Or just classy and geometric depending on your point of view. And, that’s not all: Manuel also runs the Citinite imprint and hosts the monthly radio show called Nitetrax on the London-based station NTS. Recently he has created the stunning artwork for F.C Judd‘s Electronic Without Tears album plus very soon there will be some new artwork for a new EP from Ikonika on her own label Hum+Buzz.

Hey Manuel. Where are you from and where are you now?
I’m originally from Santiago, Chile, but I’ve mostly lived in the UK (Winchester and Cornwall) and I’m currently based in London.

Did you studie art?
Yeah I did a graphic design degree in Bristol although I specialised in film. I can’t say I learned much from the experience though! It’s far more useful to actually work in a design studio, that’s where the real learning begins and I was lucky to have spent a few years freelancing at Blue Source in London who specialised in record sleeve design.

What do you like about creating album sleeves?
There’s a lot of freedom in most record sleeve projects to just explore and do what you feel; there’s not the usual client considerations/compromises that most other graphic design jobs come with. So the work can be very personal. Even when the artist or label gives you an initial concept it’s still fun to interpret their ideas in my own way and those early collaborative discussions can be really helpful. Sometimes the artist or label likes the finished piece straight away. Other times it may take them a while but I actually like that period of persuasion until it clicks with them.

Where do you get your inspiration from?
Partly from the music – I never start a project before having heard the tracks and will often have it playing whilst I’m working on the image. If the design doesn’t fit with the music then I’ve failed. Visually I get inspiration from architecture, modern art movements up until the 80s, commercial illustration from the 70s and 80s, comic books, technology etc.

How would you describe your style?
I was actually wondering that myself earlier this year and I realised that it’s all very rhythmic, the patterns and colours, which makes sense seeing as I have music playing in the background. I guess a lot of it is quite moody too. But some of it is more playful – silly even.

First cover you designed?
This Ken Ishii sleeve for Tangled Notes, for R&S Records (which I did whilst in my first year at art college).

Take us through an average day of designing for you.
Well I’m either working on a design or I’m not. The day around it can involve anything. Sometimes I put things off until the last minute becuase I want to think and rethink the idea in my head until I’m happy with it before beginning (at least, that’s how I justify procrastination). I never sketch out the idea beforehand. Other times I don’t think about it at all and just experiment with shapes and patterns until I feel something is working, and then push that around until I’m happy with it. Usually I like to then come back after a day or two of reflection and tweak things. The best thing is when I’ve been working late, then go to sleep, then in my dreams i think of something and attempt to recreate it the next day – nightmares can be very useful!

Which art directors you love?
I suppose Reid Miles (who did all those iconic Blue Note covers) was the first record label designer who I was really aware of by name. I also love a lot of the sleeve work by Hipgnosis from the 70s. But speaking more generally about graphic design, Paul Rand, Saul Bass and Ikko Tanaka will always be heroes of mine.

What have you got lined up for the future?
I’ve just finished the artwork for DVA’s album on Hyperdub which I’m really pleased with and am currently working on an Ikonika EP on her own label Hum+Buzz. I can’t really say what other projects are coming up because I don’t think they’ve yet been announced by the labels concerned. I had a really successful exhibition of my artwork at this year’s Unsound Festival and I’d love to do something similar again, either in London or elsewhere.

Tell us a bit about your side-projects Nitetrax radio and Citinite music.
Citinite’s been going for about five years now, and the style of artwork is very different to most of the work I do for other labels; it’s much more 80s-centric and fits in with the funk-oriented music. Recently I’ve started to commission other designers to do sleeves for the label; the first one was by Xosar for the Sexual Harrassment EP. The monthly Nitetrax radio show is something I started earlier this year on the internet station NTS and it gives me an opportunity to play both music that has inspired me in the past and that is exciting me currently.

Explore more over at his Optigram website here.

Published January 12, 2012.