The Art of Quicksand’s New Album ‘Distant Populations’
A conversation with Walter Schreifels and artist Tetsunori Tawaraya
There has always been something uniquely enthralling about the artwork of Quicksand, the NYC post-hardcore band now touting a decades-long career. Their album and poster art has always been able to capture the tension at the heart of the group’s music. Songs that are defined by their explosive musicianship, razor-sharp lyrics, and headbanging bounce. Highly melodic pop sensibilities wrapped inside the caustic exterior of hard rock compositions that deal with self-isolation, fear, anxiety, and the shifting ground of our society and communities. It’s this world that songwriter and guitarist Walter Schreifels, bassist Sergio Vega, and drummer Alan Cage explore in deeper terms on their upcoming fourth full-length album, Distant Populations, out on August 13. For the album artwork, which itself tells a narrative that compliments the themes explored on the album, Walter and the team, enlisted Tetsunori Tawaraya, a Japanese musician and artist, known as the guitarist and vocalist for the noise-punk band 2up and for his graphic illustrations. Tetsunori is originally from Miyagi, currently based in Tokyo, Japan. He started drawing portraits of people and musicians in San Diego, CA in the late 1990s and has since prolifically created science fiction and experimental graphic novels and band art ever since.
In this new interview for Making Ways: The Art of Music, I spoke with Walter and Tetsunori about the inspiration and process behind Distant Populations, and get to know the artist through lines that connect so many of Walter Schreifels’ projects — from Quicksand to Rival Schools, Walking Concert, and Gorilla Biscuits. You’re in for a treat, so dig on our conversation here. And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter and podcast for more interviews at the intersection of art and music.
How did you first get turned onto Tetsunori’s artwork?
Walter: I discovered Tetsunori’s work very organically and in a pre-internet style. There’s an amazing comic shop near my house called Desert Island. I’m not well versed in comics but I do like illustration and am interested in fanzine culture and Desert Island is a hub for both, plus they’re always playing cool vinyl records in the store and have turned me onto some great music, so it’s one of those rare remaining places where it’s just nice to be there, look at stuff and hang out. Tetsunori’s work was featured on the cover of a free paper that Desert Island leave out in the store and was immediately struck by it. I loved his glowing color palette and amazing detail, the alien characters and the environments he creates for them really take me into that world.
Given the themes of the new record, isolation in society, lack of connection, mass fear — What did you see in Tetsunori’s work that connected the music with his visuals?
There’s a fine line to walk addressing heavy topics and putting them out there in a way that can also be fun and exciting. I saw Tetsunori’s universe as a place that we could play out these themes, create our own mythology that reflects but is also an escape from the weight of our actual world, kinda like Star Wars. In four panels Tetsunori created a whole saga with protagonists to root for with our music as the soundtrack.
Has there been an underlying ethos to the artwork you’re drawn to for all your projects?
Mainly I just want something that works but looking back I can see some patterns. I tend to feature a couple or more figures in some sort of action on the covers (Slip, United By Fate, Start Today, Open Letter To The Scene) and I lean toward green color schemes for some reason (United By Fate, Slip, Manic Compression, Interiors) so while color-wise Distant Populations is like nothing I’ve gone for before, the figures part is consistent. I suppose having figures on a cover, whether that’s Alex Brown and I jumping on the cover of Start Today or the runners on United By Fate or the alien with the staff on the cover of Distant Populations (who we dubbed “The Philosopher”) doing battle with the circular monster, they give you a bit of story to draw you in. Traditionally album covers would have posed photos of the bands on them which is awesome but I’ve never gone that route, so I guess these figures work as stand-ins for that.
And does it change dramatically given the band/music you are making?
I suppose there are some basic criteria that I’m looking at with any given project but the bands and records are all different with their unique story arcs so you have to customize it to match the aesthetic and say the right thing about the music within. Ideally, the cover art and the album title work as a team, that can actually be a determinant factor. For example, I liked Amy Grantham’s image for Quicksand’s Interiors as the cover before we had the album title. With Distant Populations, we had the title first which made it fun to work with Tetsunori to build out the artwork around that concept.
How important are visuals to you in the music you love and the music you make?
Very important. The Ramones are great no matter what but their look and aesthetic are key to why they’re one of the most important bands of all time. The first Bob Marley album I bought was Survival, at 12 years old I knew next to nothing about Reggae but looking at that cover, allowed me to see it as a struggle for black people, the political and historical context was right there in all of the African flags on the cover. It was teaching me something about the world and made a big impression.
Any specific memory that really resonates for you?
I remember introducing Sergio (Quicksand’s bass player) to Tetsunori’s artwork and being so psyched that he liked it as much as I did. Sergio originally had the idea of going with a monster theme for the cover and so I immediately thought of reaching out to Tetsunori. When Tetsonori sent his initial sketches we knew straight away this was gonna be something very special.
Your career is filled with so many diverse collaborations — for you, what makes a great creative collaboration, whether that is in music or art + music? What are the qualities that drive a fruitful connection and great work?
I think trust is important, giving people room to make artistic decisions without looking over their shoulders. People do their best work when they feel free, by giving people space eventually you develop a creative flow and that’s where the magic usually happens.
We trusted Tetsunori completely and he was so generous with his time and open to our feedback, the dynamic really took flight, it was super fun and creative which is the best of both worlds. We weren’t just making something aesthetically pleasing as much as we were imbuing the Distant Populations universe with meaning, as a story onto itself, was a unique process for me.
Quicksand’s artwork has always been bold, iconic, and captured in eye-grabbing visuals that seem to represent the music’s abrasive beauty so well. Over the years, what is the aesthetic you are going for with Quicksand?
Thank you. I learned the process of making covers early on with Gorilla Biscuits and Youth Of Today. Revelation Records had a strong aesthetic overall that I also learned from. My bandmates give me a lot of space to develop the visuals to work with the vibe of the lyrics. With Tetsunori we were working with lyrics to build the Distant Populations story out of, this was the first time I’ve ever taken that approach. The basic goal is to have artwork that’s exciting and adds to the music within, in that Tetsunori truly knocked it out of the park for us.
Were you a fan or aware of Quicksand before the opportunity arose?
Tetsunori: Yes, I discovered the Manic Compression LP by Quicksand at a local record store in 1995, and have totally been digging their sound ever since! There was only one music store that carried hardcore music in the town where I used to go after school. Their albums caught my attention because the artwork was nothing like the other bands. Especially Manic Compression artwork was almost outsider art which was very raw and unique. It was very memorable and eye-catching even without having any vivid colors. I thought the artwork was just perfect for the sound. So, I totally knew their sound in advance and it was almost surreal when Walter contacted me for their album artwork.
Did you create while listening to the music, did you have early cuts of songs you could draw inspiration from?
At the time their music was not finished entirely, so I didn’t ask for it. Walter described to me the sound and lyrics from this album, and I slowly got into the whole world of Distant Populations. Maybe I asked him too many questions but he was very nice and told me all the details and the meaning behind all the words. I had listened to all their albums, so it helped me to understand their direction for this release.
What’s your creative process like overall and then specifically for this album?
I decided to make this series of album artworks on paper larger than 12” to capture the details. But first I shared some sketches with Walter and Sergio and we all chose which characters would fit in. Maybe we discussed the most for the front artwork and the rest of the panels came along naturally. I usually don’t make a colored sample, but I wanted to make sure both Walter and Sergio will dig the color and composition before inking the actual art. Everything was made with a paint marker pen on paper.
For you, how does the artwork relate to the music for Distant Populations?
There’re so many interesting words such as echolocation, true world theories, sanctuary, and philosopher from their lyrics and early concept, so I built up those words in my brain and transferred them into artworks. One of the concepts was creating a musical postcard sent from the Distant Populations universe to our own. We spent a few months talking about artwork and almost a half year creating all the panels, so I think the artwork became an essential part of this release.
What’s your earliest memory of drawing and creating?
I remember drawing one-eyed kid doodles on the back cover of the school notebook when I was 5. I also remember I drew the details of train parts, wheels and pipes, and had compliments from a teacher when I was 6 or 7.
You’re both a musician and an artist — does that duality help you in the music projects you illustrate?
Maybe I understand how important the album artwork could be for a band’s career because I’m in a band. That’s why I only accept the artwork offer from the bands I really like or the bands I’ve seen live in person. Some people say it’s just work to get paid, but I think designing album artwork is much more than that. It requires a lot of effort and responsibility so sometimes I can’t do a lot of them.
What was the creative process like collaborating on the artwork?
The communication was great, and everything went super smoothly because we respect each other. Nobody was forcing ego on anyone, we basically searched deep thoughts in each other’s minds, and I tried to create the characters based on it. We had a longer production time than the original schedule due to the pandemic, and it helped me to develop the ideas.
Be sure to sign up for our newsletter, subscribe to the podcast, and share this story with lovers of art and music. See more of Tetsunori’s work at https://tetsunoritawaraya.com/ and on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/tetsunoritawaraya/.