Interviews are an odd beast. Whether done virtually or in person, it's hard not to feel like you're forcing something that isn't fully sincere, whether it's putting someone on the spot or just not knowing that person outside of the image you've already constructed. You want to engage in a real conversation, to probe into the darkest recesses of your subject's soul. But you also have to conduct it in a way that they'll actually have time to answer the questions (thoughtfully, if you're lucky).
In attempting to construct a personal approach to interviewing artists that I admire, I often feel like I'm overwhelming them with my own thoughts, nesting questions within questions as I try to wrestle some narrative with which to shape my line of inquiry. I also just ask way too many questions, though that's not something that'll be easy to alter. Often you'll hear celebrities complaining of press junkets where they spend the whole day answering the same question, but I can't help but fret that those I interview would prefer a boiler plate inquiry to my barrage of questions informed by reading all of their existing interviews. I mean, I'm just as tired as they often are of hearing the same questions and giving the same answers, but let's face it: most artists, or at least myself and those I admire, fucking HATE self-promotion. Sure, we may be in the minority, but many of the talented souls I have had the pleasure to meet are often eager to move onto the next project rather than discuss something that's already in the rearview mirror while I'm eager to get some deeper clarification about some probably insignificant they may have not even really considered or cared about. Hey, at least when I put "great attention to detail" on my resume I at least mean it;)
Last November, a long-time friend and fellow music lifer Peter Agoston--who on top of running his own booking agency also runs a great podcast reflecting on his decades in the NYC music underground The House List--put me onto the Austin, TX-based artist and musician Jaime Zuverza. Having just started to conceive of a life actually pursuing my passions rather than doing 9-5 jobs it seemed I was supposed to do, I put this site together last September--happy anniversary, er, me!--and got down to digging into and interviewing visual artists alongside musician friends I had always wanted to interview. Seeing that Zuverza was an artist specializing in album and poster art, I made the unfounded assumption that this was someone Peter had worked with as a promoter and thus was just being the extremely friendly, connective dude he is, putting two like-minded individuals in touch.
Taken by the southern fried cosmic desertscapes and the narrative-like continuity that spread from one work to the next, I mentally shelved Zuverza alongside a number of other prominent album artists due to his seemed to employ the smooth geometric curvature, heavy masking, and airbrush aesthetic that has made the latter one of the most in-demand album artists of our generation. Whether by design or just a slow process of me getting my head out of my ass, the interview request I sent that he so quickly agreed to soon became a waiting game of epic proportions and I'm grateful for it as my perception of Jaime's has completely changed over the past eleven months. He even turning in an earlier draft I was about to publish back in March before he acknowledged that he may have rushed a bit and wanted to give an interview he was actually happy with, something that is basically my MO to accommodate.
After all, in this post-gotchya journalism era, interviewers can come off more as click-bait minded opportunists more interested in the story behind the art than thoughtful interlocutors eager to put as much weight upon the art itself as the context surrounding its creation. As summer came around, I still had no interview, but my regular checking in with Zuvera had started to foster a familiar and friendly rapport as I respected his desire to turn in the best content he was capable of and, well, I'm not sure what he thought of me. But as summer came around, I got an email informing me he would be coming to a venue in Bushwick, Brooklyn a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment with his band, Hidden Ritual. While at the particular moment I found myself wondering why I couldn't just get my goddamn interview, I soon realized I had an opportunity I don't always have with those I interview and that was to actually meet and hang out with him.
Arriving at the venue and seeing some other old friends who were playing that night, I soon forgot about Zuverza until a handsome man with a subdued, warm smile and the type of eyes that radiate kindness soon approached me and asked, "Are you Nick?"
"Jaime!" I exclaimed as a gut feeling welled up inside that this was indeed a soul I would get along with more than just fine. Wearing an outfit that screamed effortless El Paso cool--not to mention the snazziest boots I've seen this side of the East River--the night was a sublime affair made all the more special by the fact that I deeply enjoyed his band's set, not realizing from our previous correspondence that he was the de facto frontperson of sorts. Playing a brand of sedated latin-informed psych with a cinematic sheen that recalled Pram performing the songs of Ennio Morricone, I spent the rest of the night getting to know him and his lovely bandmates. I learned that despite his youthful gleam, like me, he was a bit older than he looked, a late Gen-X'er seemingly unencumbered by the type of stress that New Yorkers tend to internalize and by which they can get consumed. Basically, the guy mellowed me out in a way that belied a mutual familiarity and understanding, as if this was someone I had known for at least a decade.
It wasn't until the next night though that I began to lose my perception of Jaime and started seeing him for the delightful and kind miscreant he was. After inquiring about my demisexuality, we talked about the aesthetic, at-times superficial beauty of humans with a type of considered awe that has stuck with me since. "I love make-up," he said at one point after I voiced my displeasure for it. Having met my share of skeezballs over the years, there was an elegant and kind perversion emanating from Zuverza, a wholesome kinkiness that one wouldn't necessarily see in his imagery. And reading his interview below, it's clear that he's an artist that relishes the pyshicality and athetlicism that art can involve.
Soon, joined by a high school friend of his from El Paso, I learned that these two friends had come of age alongside a favorite band from my teen years: At the Drive-In. Of course, as these were childhood friends who grew up in the El Paso hardcore scene, this was no gossip session but rather a sweet and funny exchange about weird parties and batshit-crazy shows, painting a picture of a time when a less digitally-connected group of young creatives had only their own resources with which to express themselves, whether through music or art. It becomes clear that growing up with the internet has perhaps instilled Zuverza with that old-school mentality that great art takes hard work. Or maybe he just has one of those unmistakable voices and an indefatigable work ethic all his own.
Taking in Zuverza's work, objects, motifs, and themes start take form, but even when certain 'characters'--he was a comic book nerd after all--reappear, they often do so in wholly new contexts and styles. Trust me it can be easy to oversimplify a body of work that is still very much coming into its own, something Zuverza himself willingly admits as he continues to find that voice that is his and his alone. After all, that's what getting older should be about; getting to know who you actually are when you strip away all the bullshit society has encoded upon your self and gaining the confidence to give expression to that person that's always been there, just maybe buried a bit under ego, superstition, and a tad repressed sexual desire.
In this crazy world of ours, I'm beginning to distrust those who advertise their own sanity and speak with unwavering conviction more and more. We are erratic, eccentric animals who are motivated by a counter-intuitive mixture of desire and love, greed and charity. Zuverza's vistas might not be gardens of delight, but who really wants just pleasure. A pinprick always spices things up. And perhaps that's what Zuverza's posters, murals, and album art does; it pricks the eye, it achieves a punctum in making a visceral connection with the viewer as it bears some resemblance of the familiar but twisted and rendered other. By augmenting and displacing a wide range of everyday objects and landscapes, over-running them with minute detail like a psychedelic Where's Waldo, Zuverza creates images that challenge and engage, interrogating what we think we know about a specific medium or even shape and transmuting that assumption into cosmic enlightenment. Of course, don't take my word for it, just experience his wonderful words and work below.
Z: Hi Jaime, thanks for taking the time to chat. So could you just give us a bit of your background info about where you grew up and what about your childhood and/or schooling led you towards visual art? Did you grow up in an artistic household? Did you flirt with any other types of non-visual art, such as music or writing or were you always the kid in class doodling?
JZ: I was born and raised on the border in El Paso, TX in a Spanish speaking household. My dad often emphasized the importance of "doing" and my mom was often engaged in some form of creative endeavor. It was inspiring to see her making things so I started doing it as well. I grew up playing a lot of sports and for several years I was a tiny gold medal wrestler in elementary school. I think athleticism is an important part of the creative process for many reasons, but it sometimes gets overlooked. It helped me to trust thoughtlessly in my limbs which I find very useful when making things. When I type, my fingers can find the letters with great speed but if I think about it too much, and lose faith in my fingers, then my typing turns to dung. I feel that something similar happens when making. I also found that wrestling with an enemy/opponent was useful because it taught me to love them. How can I hate my foe if we're sharpening each other and are both wearing funny little outfits while the audience (who encourages us to tear each other's heads off) thinks our intense combat is adorable? I've been really digging the multi-layered idea of "loving your enemy" lately. Either way it seems that the only thing I compete against with now (other than "myselves") is my cat for space on this bed. As I write this, he sleeps at my legs and I can feel his soft fur on my right calf, but on my left calf his pointy claw is pressed up against my skin, reminding me to remember myself. He's like a cilice.
It was comic books that really got me into drawing though. When I was 11 me and a couple friends would hang out almost every day for a whole summer at a shop called Unicorn Comics in El Paso. The employee was a young artist named Juan Muro who was working on a comic book named "Grips" which I thought was great. We lived and breathed comic books, reading them and drawing them... it was tons of fun. Other than that I played a little piano, wrote high school poetry and when I was 18 I became born again and got an electric guitar.
Z: Where did you study art and what lessons from your education do you still find yourself applying today?
I studied painting and printmaking at UTEP but I stopped doing both soon after I left school (just like my teacher said I would). I've revisited painting occasionally through out the years and just finished painting a big mural which fills me with joy. When I graduated I preferred one-of-a-kind works of art over prints or reproductions. Now I constantly flip-flop between my opinion of which is "better", which has resulted in confusion. It seems it is a waste of time to weigh these two on a balance. At the moment I feel most comfortable making designs that solely exist in the virtual world and that serve to promote music. Sometimes the thought of one of my designs getting printed on 1,000 sheets of paper is a bit disconcerting. When I accumulate a stack of printed designs I cut them up and use them to scoop up my cat's hairballs. Either way there are things in the works and I will be screen printing many designs to exhibit and sell in the near future. Hopefully I can stop when I reach 999.
Z: Who were some of the first artists to really blow your mind, and whose work continues to inspire you? As you've gotten older, how have your inspirations changed and do you derive inspiration from non-visual art sources? What are some examples?
JZ: The first wave happened when I was around 7 or 8. It was the comic book art of Larry Hama (GI JOE) and Frank Miller (Daredevil), all those TSR artists who made stuff for D&D, and of course cartoons from the 80's. Then the next wave came at 14 when I got an art history book for Christmas. I thought the whole book was amazing but I became especially interested in religious art and the art movements that sprouted up in Europe in the decades before World War II. I think these two periods in my life have stayed on the throne although my appreciation for all kinds of art has grown for sure.
Non-visual sources of inspiration are: the fact that I may die at any moment, the idea that we are simulations living in a simulated world, hypnagogic experimentation, and mystical stuff. More specifically the ideas of __________,_______, the _______, and _________ism.
Z: One of the things that first grabbed me about your art is that I felt like I could see some of your influences and yet your work remains wholly your own. How do you manage to walk the line between acknowledging an artist's influence and letting it overtake your own voice? Do you feel some of your peers battle with finding their own voices? How did you come into your own?
JZ: I don't know if my peers are struggling to find their voice. It's not a topic that usually comes up when chatting. Maybe most peeps think they've found it already. In general it makes sense that those that know they lack have an easier time finding than those that never notice. I don't think I've totally found my voice yet but I'm getting to know myself more and more these days.
I think that most people are born with a "voice" but it seems that the voice always gets lost under layers of false "stuff." The goal is to toss all the heavy blankets off the bed, uncover the whimpering puppy, wake it from its nightmare, and nurse it back to waking health. When a body of work is created then another kind of body, made of subtler substances also begins to emerge. It is in that body that the voice can find a home and begin to grow. It is both a subtractive and additive process that is ongoing. Each step of effort will also hopefully remove a false layer and sometimes it's necessary to fast or go on diets or take laxatives in order to minimize the accumulation of new false layers. I find it helpful to go through periods where I stop reading, watching, and feeding from the outside world. In general my goal is to try to feed from my insides instead of reacting to external forces like a vending machine.
Z: As a follow up to the above, your work seems to draw upon illustration, graphic design, collage, and an array of other image-making strategies. Is there one area in particular that you feel the most comfortable or can your work accurately be described as a hodgepodge of mediums?
JZ: A "hodgepodge of mediums" is a good way to describe my work. I'd like to think that the image and I engage in a symbiotic relationship and I'll use whatever is required to make the image convey what it should. The images I make aren't precious to me and I don't clutch on to them. I see them as a tool to communicate with an audience of which I am also a part of. I try to be attentive and If I do a good job then the image will continue to transmit "helpful messages" to the viewer.
I feel comfortable in those areas you mentioned, but it would probably be good to venture into areas that I don't feel comfortable in. A bit of struggle is always found in image-making but maybe introducing a medium that makes me uneasy would be an effective way to buck the automatonic tendencies that we all continually fall into. Maybe I'll try making images out of something unconventional like human mucus next. Or maybe I'll set up my work table next to the kitty litter box, or work in a room full of mosquitoes.
NZ: Typography obviously plays a big role in your art, particularly with band flyers and albums. What input do you tend to receive from bands in choosing a typography and how do you find the right font for the right band? Do you develop your own fonts? What is your favorite font and why?
Typography can be difficult and I understand why there are some people that devote their entire lives to the study of it. I do have some typefaces that I've developed. It would be great if every project had a unique typeface made for it but there usually isn't enough time/money. In my experience the bands that usually care most about these things are "metal" bands or "psych" bands. My favorite font right now is one called "Chucho" because it is soft, warm, and fluffy.
Each character in a typeface is a being with an infinite range of expression. People have been persecuted, killed or thrown in prisonbecause of their appearance, body language, or because of the look on their face. It can be serious business. I have a tiny jail cell under my table and when a letter doesn't conform I throw them in the slammer and let them rot a little. The letters who are most demonized seem to be X, J, Q, and Z. When these outsiders realize that no external help is coming and that they must rescue themselves, they begin to look within. There is a little ball of fine malleable matter that twirls and tumbles through this inner world. The more it rubs up against walls and goes through doorways, the more it acquires shape and eventually this mass comes to resemble a skeleton key which enables these characters to walk out on their own and be free. It is this transformative process that makes them the most exalted letters in Scrabble.
Z: You are heavily active in creating art related to music, from show flyers to posters to album covers and more. What is it about music that has made it a perfect outlet for your design work and art?
JZ: I enjoy making designs for bands because I get to support other artists. Musicians are my favorite kind of people because they create and spread all kinds of transformative stuff. I also appreciate that they get on stage and "bare their soul". I love musicians on a level that transcends my personal taste... I don't care what style of music they make, the fact that they're actually making stuff and "doing" is what I find important. I would also like to do work for other artforms such as literature, theater, and dance.
Z: Were you interested in album or poster art as a kid or student? What are some of your favorite album covers and posters?
JZ: I think before Napster (when music "lovers" started falling asleep) every music lover was interested in record cover art. Staring at the cover or lyrics while listening to a new record is not only fun but sometimes important. I think streaming music can rob the music fan of that sweet initial listening experience.
In my opinion the cover art for records made in the 60s, 70s, and 80s were mostly special or at least had wonderful components. Things started going downhill in the 90s and sometimes I like to blame the grunge movement for many ills, but I won't get into that because I'm probably totally wrong. There's too many beautiful record covers to list but I can never get enough of the imagery used in the mid 80s by metal bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Merciful Fate, King Diamond, Dio, etc.... the list is endless.
Z: What are your long-term goals as a visual artist? Do you see music maintaining a primary role within your work or do you hope to branch off into other industries?
It would be great to keep my focus in music but I'll go where ever this takes me. I've dabbled in animation and would love to pursue that more intensely, and I'm also working with a friend to make clothing. Eventually I hope to return full-time to my first love, painting.