Now don't ask where you can get your copy of the shoulda been Almanac, because unless you're a book reviewer on the 33 1/3 press list, or work/shop at the Strand bookstore, you can't have one.
All the same, since some elite souls can now read an early version of the introduction and the chapter on Chris Bilheimer's cover art for Aeroplane, I'd like to share the latter will anyone else who's interested. I chose this chapter for the preview book because it was so self-contained, and I was fairly sure no last minute revelations would come along to require that it be completely rethought... something that seemed constantly possible with all the other sections. But you'll still have to pick up the book to see Brian Dewan's drawing of the Magic Radio, the lost companion to his iconic Flying Victrola.
And in case you're wondering, yes, I did see the original postcard which was adapted for the front cover--or, rather, a digital copy stored in Chris Bilheimer's hard drive. It's not reproduced in the book, both at Jeff's request and by my own preference (the former obviously trumping the latter). Trust me, though: on some level, seeing the drumhead lady's face spoils things. Not looking through piles of circa 1910 European seaside postcards to find a duplicate would be an excellent use of your time.
With no further ado, an excerpt from the book:
There are no great records without great sleeves, and Aeroplane’s is a stunner. The front cover shows a group of old fashioned bathers—though with the odd cropping it’s unclear if they are waving from the shoreline or drowning in the deeps. The central figure, a curvaceous lass in a gold-starred red costume, gazes out from a perfectly neutral visage, in place of her face an oversized, well-used drum head. That same drum is found on the back cover, strung round the tallest of the stilt-striding musicians who march across a pastoral stage-set unsuited to their blare. Externally, the name Neutral Milk Hotel appears only on the spine, and on a sticker that Merge applied to the shrink-wrap.
The record cover was a collaboration between Jeff Mangum and Chris Bilheimer, R.E.M.’s staff designer. But the first bit of art came from the pen of Brian Dewan, a visual artist, inventor, filmmaker, carpenter and musician from New York. The iconic line drawing of the enormous Victrola soaring above a smoky city is his. Brian’s first Elephant 6 collaboration came when Julian Koster asked him to provide drawings for posters to be inserted inside early singles by The Music Tapes. These singles had three-dimensional pop-up sleeves that Julian and his friends painstakingly cut out with x-acto knives, a fact Brian discovered when Julian asked if he could recommend a good die-cutter. Julian supplied Brian with words and drawings, and Brian adapted this material for the poster, which featured land- and waterscapes decorated with mysterious slogans like "March of the Father Fists" and "Every time you light a cigarette with a candle a sailor will not return from sea."
Not long after the Music Tapes commission, Brian got a call from Jeff Mangum, who identified himself as Julian’s housemate. Would Brian be interested in doing some artwork for his new record? Intrigued by the tape he received, Brian agreed to draw two things for Jeff: a flying Victrola and a magic radio. That Victrola would become a shorthand symbol for Neutral Milk Hotel and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, but first it was just one in a stack of potential graphic elements that Jeff brought to Chris Bilheimer when it came time to design the jacket.
Chris Bilheimer was a fine arts student at the University of Georgia when he stumbled onto his dream job with R.E.M. in 1993. Grateful for the opportunity to make a living making art (and to make art on the best equipment “Losing My Religion” could buy), he was a notoriously easy touch for indie artists needing record covers or poster design. Chris had told Jeff to call if he ever needed help; for Aeroplane, Jeff took him up on the offer.
Bryan Poole recalls that Jeff “was always into that old timey, magic, semi-circus, turn-of-the-century, penny arcade kind of imagery,” examples of which he’d find in thrift shops on his travels. Among the pieces that Jeff brought Chris was a vintage European postcard of bathers at a resort, and this was the image that Chris—working closely with Jeff—cropped and subtly altered to create Aeroplane’s front cover. The other source material included a book of historic circus posters, a clip art book of cloud formations, Will Hart’s Elephant 6 logo and Brian Dewan’s aerial cityscape.
Although Chris Bilheimer mainly works on computers, his aesthetic is more analog than digital. The disparate images selected for the album design ranged from Brian Dewan’s crisp new drawing to the slightly grubby old postcard. How could all these pieces be given a visually cohesive look? Chris solved the problem by scanning the back of the postcard, and using the foxed, spotted, off-white paper as the background against which all other images were screened. In this way, everything appeared to be about the same age and printed on similar paper, with the overall effect one of slow decay. Chris even left a splash of dirt on the postcard—just above the girl’s waving hand—a touch that’s easily overlooked on the CD cover, but obvious on the larger LP jacket. The CD contained a piece of art absent from the album, two reproductions of tiny human figures beneath dramatic clouds. These images appear on the back side of the single sheet of paper on which the CD cover was printed, with the mysterious numerals “205/6” a carry-over from the back of the vintage postcard.
Instead of a standard lyric sheet, Chris arranged the song titles, lyrics (which Jeff provided) and other information like a broadsheet. Every song had a title except the one that starts “The only girl I’ve ever loved/ Was born with roses in her eyes.” He asked Jeff what to call the track. Jeff said he was thinking about calling it “Holland,” or maybe “1945.” Chris suggested he combine the two titles, which is how he named what would become his favorite song on the album.
Chris: “I wanted to have a little bit of a ‘circus coming to town’ feel without an obviously circusy-looking image. And so I laid out this whole thing and printed it out and crinkled it up and then scanned it back in and laid it on top of old paper. I work really hard to make things look like they weren’t made on a computer. Even though I’m not using traditional graphic methods—it’s the same reason bands like recording with tube amps and recording to tape instead of to hard drive—it has that tactile warmth to it. That’s what I try to do with graphic design. Especially by designing something, printing it out, fucking it up and then scanning it back in.” Most of the fonts used came from old typography books and were set by hand, although the headline is set in an especially handsome computer font derived from Vineta, an inline shadowed Clarendon designed in 1973 by Ernst Volker.
Chris had agreed to help Jeff with the design prior to hearing the record. Once he did, he was “absolutely blown away by it. I thought ‘holy crap, this is the best record in ten years!’” While this made him excited about the project, it also stirred up unexpected emotional responses. For example, during the design process, he and Jeff initially worked up a different back cover based around the lower portion of the vintage postcard, showing the woman bather’s feet trailing off into the water. Chris was very attached to the image, but Jeff decided he didn’t want to use it. Chris: “I remember almost wanting to start crying. And I was driving home, thinking, ‘I really need to back off and not be so emotionally involved. It’s not my record!’ I learned a really good lesson about designing. And ultimately I think he made a good decision.”
Although In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is not the most famous record Chris Bilheimer worked on, nor the best-selling, it remains the design he’s most proud of, and it occupies a prominent place in his portfolio, where music industry people regularly exclaim over it. Once he was bemused to find someone selling “really crappy, kinda high schooly pencil sketch of the cover” on eBay, with a description claiming it was the original layout; he emailed eBay and got the auction pulled.
Even after the art was completed and the album released, Chris maintained a relationship with Neutral Milk Hotel, often seeing them play at house parties and formal gigs around Athens. Chris recalls, “There’s three times in a row where I saw them live and I started crying. It was something you really couldn’t put your finger on. The music was really beautiful, and the lyrics might have been obtuse and not something you could directly relate to, but there was something in Jeff’s voice, just the sound of his voice, that encapsulated so many different feelings at the same time. It was just incredibly moving. I think the goal of most art is to transcend your medium or your surroundings— and that just happened at every show, for me, anyway.”
Buy Volker's Vineta (aka the Neutral Milk Hotel font) here for $24.75.
or have something engraved with it here (maybe a gravestone for a beloved turtle?)