What does music look like? For a number of people, it looks like the work Arik Roper makes. The New York-born illustrator has worked with groups like MGMT and the Black Crowes, creating cover art that has helped craft the bands’ public personas. Roper honed his skills in the creative hotbed of the 1990s East Village. Living among the quickly-disappearing drug dens and artist spaces of Giuliani-era New York, Roper began building a cult following for his work with underground drone metal bands like High on Fire, Sunn 0))), Earth and many of the more legendary acts associated with the underground metal scene.
Roper’s role in music hasn’t always been on paper, though. In the ’90s, he was part of Hint House, a Harlem-based collective space where artists and musicians could work and play together, and where fans could gather to see a rotating cast of folk and psychedelic bands. His own band Matta Llama played regularly at the space.
These days, however, Roper relies more heavily on his artistic talents than musical ones. He’s illustrated books—including a tome on psychedelic mushrooms—designed snowboards for Burton, and has continued to work with bands on album art. His classically inspired illustrations have made him a titan in his profession, and his success goes to show that while some people can write music, others can definitely draw it.
Marc Santo: You’re from Richmond, Va., where there’s a kooky art scene. Whenever I bring it up in conversation, there are a few minutes of art talk, and then things move immediately to a discussion about GWAR.
Arik Roper: I was born in New York City, but grew up in Richmond. The art scene there is big, and GWAR certainly made their imprint on it. I worked for them in high school painting guts and gore for their live shows.
MS: Would you consider that your first break?
AR: It got me going, but I wasn’t published until I moved to New York in the early ’90s. I knew Bob Mack, who was doing Grand Royal magazine for the Beastie Boys out in Los Angeles, and they published a comic of mine. After that I did some graphics for the magazine and some work with Mike Mills for their X-Large store on Lafayette Street.
MS: I used to love Lafayette Street during that era with X-Large, Liquid Sky and all those great stores that had scenes around them. Supreme still does, but a lot of them died off.
AR: New York has obviously changed drastically. The scenes used to be smaller and more DIY. There’s almost a clear line that I can draw between the two New Yorks, and that happened in 1995 when Giuliani came to my block with a tank and battered down the door to the heroin den that was operating two doors down from me. Before that, the city was much more lawless and free. It’s much safer now, which is a good thing for sure.
MS: You and I were neighbors on that block on 7th Street. Whenever I locked myself out, I’d climb out your window and into mine. There were a lot of smack spots operating there.
AR: There was a heroin operation on the first floor that had been going on for 30 years. I remember coming out of the front door and seeing a line of like 100 people waiting to get dope. There were lookouts on the corners that used code words and stuff. It was really an old school operation.
MS: I must have moved in right as that ended because I never saw it that intense. I just remember seeing junkies shooting up between cars. It was ironically a nice block because of all the gardens, and the squat across the street used to throw great shows. There were a lot of interesting people on that block and in our building as well.
AR: Yeah, Darren Aronofsky and his writing partner lived on the top floor. Elizabeth Peyton lived there and so did one of the dudes from Interpol. I think Jack Kerouac lived there back in the day. I saw some pictures Alan Ginsberg took of him on the roof. There were always crazy people dropping in, too. My roommate was friends with Michael Stipe and Spike Jonze, and both of those guys stayed with us for a bit. The building had a creative vibe.
MS: The mid-’90s were a unique period because Williamsburg took off and a lot of the more interesting parties moved from the East Village to there.
AR: When I first moved to 7th Street I felt like I was in the middle of it all. Most of my friends would have to come to Manhattan and see me, but around the late-’90s, if I wanted to do something, I had to go to them. So I eventually became the commuter.
MS: One thing I thought was really interesting was the Hint House up in Harlem. You were involved with that, which kept some of the DIY spirit in Manhattan, even though it was way uptown.
AR: I didn’t meet those guys until the late-’90s, and they had already been doing their thing up there for a few years. I came in late, but Dave Nuss and the guys from No Neck Blues Band built it from the ground up. It was such a great space and it had a real collective vibe to it. It was the whole floor of a building that had rehearsal spaces and art studios. Everybody shared equipment and pitched in on rent.
MS: I remember I went up there to see some psych bands play, and people were walking around serving lentil dinners. It was such an intimate atmosphere to see shows.
AR: It was big enough to be a venue, but small enough to feel like you were watching someone practice. No Neck Blues Band always played, and we had a lot of folk and free jazz musicians come by. We basically brought in bands that we wanted to see play, so we had psych bands, and then people like Bridget St. John, John Fahey and Royal Trux. Thurston Moore became a mentor to the scene and really helped support and promote it.
MS: What was your band called?
AR: Matta Llama. We were very non-ambitious, but dedicated to what we did, which was get stoned and play for as long as we could without stopping. It was all in good fun. Nobody was trying to please a record label and get signed. Everybody just put out their own stuff and built up a following organically. I think people liked that it was completely independent.
MS: Your illustration work is associated with a lot of underground psych and cult metal bands. Is there a scene in New York City for the type of things you’re doing with your art?
AR: Most of what I do is commercial illustration and it really has nothing to do with New York. Most of my work comes from the West Coast and England. I think I’ve carved out my own niche, because I don’t know anybody else that’s doing what I do. I’m not really involved in any trend that’s happening, and I try not to make things that look like they were made this year or even in the last couple years. People have called it fantasy art and lumped me in that scene, but fantasy has such a terrible stigma to it.
MS: What’s that terrible stigma?
AR: I think people stereotype fantasy with socially inept nerds who use it as escapism because their worlds are so unfulfilled. There’s this kind of macho mentality with muscle-bound heroes, barbarians and all that clichéd stuff I find trite. There are some talented and amazing painters who’ve done that stuff, but all the clones around them have become so predictable. It’s not the category I want to put myself in. I’m more into bold graphic design and classic illustration, and I think that comes through in my work. I’m not always entirely aware of what I’m doing, but other people seem to recognize it. Some of the best things I’ve heard is that the works are timeless, and that’s cool, because I strive to make things with lasting power.
MS: You’ve done album covers for The Black Crowes, High on Fire, MGMT, and tons of metal bands. Do you only work with bands you like?
AR: It helps if I like the music because I’m obviously more inspired, so I’d prefer it that way, but if Lady Gaga asked me to do a cover I wouldn’t say no. I’d look at it as an opportunity to do something I usually don’t get to do. At this point bands approach me to do stuff for them, and though I try to not pigeonhole myself, they always expect a certain thing.
MS: You also illustrated a book on psychoactive mushrooms for Abrams. How did that happen?
AR: I used to do art for Arthur magazine, and a mutual friend of the editor Jay Babcock was an editor from Rizzoli named Eva Prinz. She had just moved to Abrams and began introducing radical ideas. She did a Black Panthers book, and “Free Press”, which was a collection of underground political magazines. I met with her because I wanted to do a children’s book, but before I could propose that, she asked me to do a book on mushrooms. She had just tested the waters with a pot book and thought she could do something a little more radical. Not that mushrooms are even radical, but Abrams has a prestigious reputation for doing fine art books. Months and months would pass and inally they were like, “OK, here’s the contract, sign it and hand over the artwork in two months.” I was like “Holy shit, this is so much work!” But it was such a great project and I think it appealed to a wide range of people because mushrooms don’t really have the stigma that other drugs have. If you even want to call them drugs at all. It did well. Not Harry Potter well, so it’s not like I can retire off it, but people responded well to it.