Rodney Matthews (Artist)

Rodney Matthews - artist

Art and music often seem to go hand in hand. Great albums are often accompanied by compelling and powerful artwork. It’s hard, for example, to think of Dark Side of the Moon without visualising the iconic prism of its cover, or to think of Led Zeppelin IV without seeing the hermit or the ‘Four Symbols’ which help give the album such a distinctive and magical feel. Art can both reinforce the way we feel about a band or an album and give us a means of expressing that feeling. We wear t-shirts, patches, badges and tattoos, proudly displaying logos or symbols and proclaiming our love for a band.

One artist who made an impression on me in my formative years, and who has continued to do so, is Rodney Matthews – a man with many artistic strings to his bow who is perhaps best known for his (ongoing) work with Magnum. Indeed, his cover for The Eleventh Hour album remains one of my favourite ever, dripping as it is in rich and provoking imagery. (There is an extended discussion of the album, including the artwork, in Words and Music.)

It was a real pleasure, therefore, to meet Rodney at the 2013 HRH Prog festival in Rotherham, and a thrill when he agreed to take part in the Words and Music Q&A Series. So, here we go …

Hi Rodney, tell us first, how big a rock fan are you, and what does rock music mean to you?
My taste in music is quite varied, encompassing the genres of classic rock, progressive rock, folk rock, jazz and classical.

Obviously, I listen to the music from the albums I design covers for, and like most of it, but if I’m listening to music for my own pleasure it’s most likely to be prog – King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd – or jazz – anything from New Orleans to the present day, which would include Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Dave Brubeck, Modern Jazz Quartet, Weather Report and so on.

Many of my earlier pieces were painted to the tune of a particular favourite at the time. For example ‘The Ice Spirit’ and Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge.

I believe you were a musician yourself for a while?
Artist Rodney Matthews playing the drumsMusician? Well, a drummer, that’s right. I ran several of my own bands from 1962 until 1974, and later played in various jazz bands until recently.

In the beginning we played Shadows stuff and general rock ‘n’ roll, following the various trends until around 1967 when we wrote most of our own stuff or plundered the classics.

Recently, I have dusted off my drums and commenced some recordings for my various projects, including an album with U.S. guitarist Jeff Scheetz.

Who was the first band or rock artist to make an impression on you?
The Shadows.

Tell us about an album, song or lyric that means a lot to you.
Let’s start with a song. That would be ‘Second Star to the Right’, from Disney’s original Peter Pan movie. I heard it when I was about 10 years old, and still whistle it to this day.

Then an album, a different one – I’m stuck between Dave Brubeck Time Out and King Crimson In the Court of the Crimson King.

And a lyric – I’m tempted to say something by Simon and Garfunkel, but in the end I’m going for ‘How far Jerusalem’ by rock poet Tony Clarkin. That said, it has a different meaning for me than the meaning he intended.

Obviously, first and foremost you are an artist – is it possible to say what art means to you?
After my family, art is my top priority, and has been ever since I was old enough to wield a pencil. I can’t stop myself day-dreaming artistic visions and scribbling ideas on bits of paper. Art has been my life for more than 60 years, and I would not have had it any other way. It is God given in its raw state, but I have had to work hard at it.

How do you see what you do as an artist?
At my most pretentious, I might consider myself a purveyor of truth via various allegorical processes, but I also like to entertain given half a chance (‘Alice in Wonderland’ or ‘The Gasbags’).

I’m pleased to learn that there are people who have been encouraged, challenged, or have had their imaginations enhanced by my stuff. I think you either embrace fantasy art or you hate it.

In my 1988 calendar intro Terry Jones expressed his view that “an imaginary world can give quicker access to universal truths”.

My art tends to follow my own character, in that it flirts from high and mighty aspirations, down to lavatory humour and back again. Sorry folks – that’s me!

Rodney's cover for Diamond Head's 'Borrowed Time' album

Rodney’s cover for Diamond Head’s ‘Borrowed Time’ album (1982)

Art and music can be closely connected, and often are when one thinks of some of the great progressive rock bands. How do you see the connection between rock music and art?
In my view the two are inseparable. I first became aware of the connection, when I was at art school during the sixties. Art students often played instruments in the common room (Terry Barnett did a tidy version of ‘The Cruel Sea’ on his Fender Telecaster, the very instrument he used to bludgen an aggressive yob at one of his gigs in the ass-end of Bristol one night!)

To be more serious, The Beatles were art students, and had it not been for Chuck Berry, might have stayed that way. The two ‘arts’ of sound and visuals are made for each other.

In rock and jazz, many albums have been enhanced or complemented by good cover art. Examples that come to mind are In Search of the Lost Chord – The Moody Blues, Fragile – Yes, Time Out – Dave Brubeck and Sergeant Pepper – The Beatles.

You are known in rock circles primarily for your album cover work and perhaps especially for your work with Magnum. How did you get involved with Magnum?
In 1975 I had given up my rock ‘n’ roll dream of becoming a famous and well paid musician, in favour of a career in fantasy and music-related art. I’d done stuff for Nazareth, Thin Lizzy Album cover from Magnum's 'Chase the Dragon'and others by 1980, but now as punk (which I did not like) had elbowed in, it left me only the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, of which Magnum are a part. I read an article in one of the music papers featuring an interview with Tony Clarkin. I thought to myself, “I like this bloke’s world view, and truthful talk”. Later, I listened to one of Magnum’s early albums and decided to contact Clarkin via Jet Records. He liked my imagery, and had someone commission the Chase the Dragon artwork.

Were you a fan of Magnum before you worked with them?
For a couple of months, yes.

I love your Eleventh Hour artwork and the added dimension it brings to Tony Clarkin’s lyrics. Did you consciously try to enhance the lyrics and themes of the album in your work? And, if so, is that the way you always work with Tony?
Strange as it may sound, I don’t often hear Magnum lyrics before commencing artwork. It works like this: Tony invites me to the studio as the album is being recorded, and, on any old piece of paper that comes to hand, lists his requirements for the image and usually sketches (poorly) the scene he has in mind. As the meeting goes on, he adds to and subtracts from his original brief (much like my old studio manager at the advertising agency), until I start to think, “This is crap, how am I going to make it work?” Somehow it works out in the end!

Regarding The Eleventh Hour album, Tony told me what he wanted, and I did it, but he does allow me to add a few of my own embellishments or ‘in jokes’, in most of the albums.

Cover for 'The Eleventh Hour' (1983)

Cover for ‘The Eleventh Hour’ (1983)

Some artists are very closely identified with the work they’ve done for certain rock bands, for example you with Magnum, Derek Riggs with Iron Maiden, and Roger Dean with Yes. In general has this been a good thing for your career as an artist?
Undoubtedly so. Album art has been a good ‘shop window’ for me over many years but because of changes in the way music is now sold, most of my current album art jobs are done at a loss.

Aside from Magnum, what would you say are the most notable album covers you have done?
Personally speaking, perhaps Tiger Moth for Tiger Moth, Arena for Asia, Time to Turn for Eloy, and The Mystery of Time for Avantasia.

Of all the rock-related work you’ve done, of what are you most proud?
Cover for Magnum's On a Storyteller's NightOn a Storyteller’s Night for Magnum.

Of everything you’ve done as an artist, of what are you most proud?
The Heavy Metal Hero.

What are you currently doing and what can we expect from Rodney Matthews in the future?
Right now I am working on Magnum’s latest release Escape from the Shadow Garden, another Clarkin idea, but with some Matthews additions.

I’m also (with my other hand) doing some work for the Atkins May Project, (Al Atkins and Paul May) and am working on a couple of my animation projects: ‘Oddney’s Otherland’ with Pipe Dreams 3d, London, and ‘Thunderbolt’ with Jamie Anderson, son of the late Gerry Anderson. Both these animation projects will most likely go the Kickstarter route – so stand by, with your dosh to hand!

This year I will be materialising (to flog and sign stuff) at the Steelhouse Festival (Sunday 28 July), Cambridge Rock and Hard Rock Hell (North Wales).

For news, gallery, show reel and more, visit: www.rodneymatthews.com or check out Rodney’s Facebook page.

Rodney and author Michael Anthony at HRH Prog

CHEERS RODNEY!

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