John Yates made his name in the punk-rock underground as house designer for Alternative Tentacles, the record label owned and run by the Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra. Via his nom de plume Stealworks, he has designed classic album covers for bands as diverse as Bad Religion, Jawbreaker, and The Phoenix Foundation, as well as packaging design and book covers (including notable work for City Lights, PM Press, Haymarket Books, and Verso Books).
Recently Yates has taken on a project of love: Punk Note, a series of radical redesigns of punk and hardcore albums covers, all in the style of famed Blue Note Records designer Reid Miles. The work is striking and pays respect to both Miles and the musicians' vision and style. We decided to reach out to Yates to find out a bit more about the series, and his plans for the future.
You were the long time designer for Alternative Tentacles and have done many projects since, but what sparked your interest in graphic design initially? Did you attend art school?
I didn’t even know what the term “graphic design” meant when I first discovered that I was just attracted to artwork on records as I was to the music itself. But it was my discovery of music — punk — that connected the two for me. I think I always leaned “artistic,” as I would always be drawing or making things as a young kid, but until punk entered my life, none of it really made much sense.
I did not attend what would be considered a straight up art school, but I did attend two different technical colleges in the UK, grad-uating both. I studied art history, photography, printmaking, general art, graphic design, and editorial design over a four year period.
What is your background when it comes to music, and did you alway intend to do work that related to music?
I discovered music, and punk in particular, as most do, in my early teens through peers at school. I remember vividly the first time I heard The Stranglers on a school trip to France via a friend at the time. It was just so different, to me, and seemed to give me a voice I lacked, but didn’t know I lacked. Like every other teen at the time I started seeking out more and more music, and with that came the lifestyle and the mindset, I suppose.
I had no idea that I could make a career out of music, unless you happened to be a musician, so no. It wasn’t until I started doing a zine, and decided to send a copy to my favorite record label at the time, that I realized it might be possible.
When did you move to the US, and how did you end up working at Alternative Tentacles? Was that your first design job?
I moved to the States in 1988. I was providing freelance work for Alternative Tentacles while in the UK (for their London office), but spent a summer in San Francisco volunteering at the label. Then I got offered a full-time position, if I could return the next year. So, I jumped at the chance. Goodbye Thatcher England.
It was not my first design job, though it’s the only one of consequence. I worked at a small design shop immediately out of college for about a year or so, maybe two? The benefit of it was that it allowed me full access after hours to start my own zine using their equipment and supplies, so I figured I’d stick around. Mostly the job involved (very poor) illustrations for adult school medical textbooks. Insanely dull, but it paid the rent, and had fringe benefits, as mentioned.
On to the reason for this interview… I was really impressed by the Punk Note series. What was the impetus behind it?
In my time doing record cover design, I have on occasion dabbled with my version of homages to Reid Miles, the graphic design genius behind the iconic Blue Note jazz label aesthetic (together with Francis Wolff, who provided the majority of the photography). Having lost my job in late March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself with some time on my hands, and way too much time living inside my own head due to personal reasons. I needed something to do, and decided to actualize some ideas I had notes on. The Punk Note series is one of them.
Combining the Blue Note aesthetic through a punk-rock filter seemed like a fun idea, as well as a nice creative outlet, and therapy. My grandparents were jazz listeners — my nan being a jazz singer for a small period of her life in her younger years — and I was always exposed to jazz as a child. I recall the odd Blue Note title from their record collection, so I suppose it was deep inside to some degree. Essentially, this series (200 titles, from 1965 to 1990) was therapy.
While you tackle some obvious classics in the series, you also go a little deeper in your choices. Are you a record collector? Also, are you a jazz fan, or just a fan of Reid’s design work?
I was an avid record collector, but not insanely so, as I just couldn’t afford to be. However, back in “the day,” I, like many others, used to trade tapes of bands. I traded within the UK (where I am from originally), but also with some penpals in the US, so I got exposed to a lot of music I probably wouldn’t have if I had restricted my sources to local record shops and the music press (which is all you had back then). I also had a good friend at a record store who turned me on to a lot of great music I wouldn’t have known about.
I am a fan of jazz music, but only of a certain period, which reflects the music my grandparents listened to and that I was exposed to. My gramps was really into big band stuff, whereas my nan was more into singers. And they had crossover with more traditional '50s and '60s jazz artists. Later in life, after my punk teen years, I revisited jazz for myself, and expanded my interests there. I love it as background music, especially when working, but I wouldn’t pretend to have any real knowledge about it. I just know what I like.
You recreated a few Crass sleeves for the series, and in the past created a fantastic Gulf War poster which is very reminiscent of Gee Voucher’s work with the group. Is the art of Crass an influence on your own work (or political poster-art in general)? Who else do you count as an influence?
Crass, and Gee’s work in particular, were a huge influence on me. I wouldn’t even pretend to be anything near as good as she is, because I am simply am not, but I was hugely influenced by her work, Winston Smith’s work for Dead Kennedys, and then, by extension, other sociopolitical work. I loved pop-art when I studied art history, particularly the work that had something to say (I know, all art has something to say, but it didn’t necessarily speak to me) and that asked questions. Art always had to have a point for me. I’m not particularly attracted to art for art’s sake, which is why I see myself as a graphic designer and not an artist. Well, that and the fact that I cannot draw or paint or do anything else associated with what would typically be seen as an artist.
At this point you’ve created dozens of alternate covers; is this a long-term project for you, and will the art be compiled in any way beyond Instagram?
I produced 200 covers, and have been releasing them in batches of 10 a day. I just posted batch fifteen this morning, so I am almost done. I started with my birth year, which also happened to be the year The Sonics album came out (1965), and decided to call it a day at 1990. At first I just wanted to do a few favorites for the hell of it, but then I got a bit obsessed and, as I said previously, it turned out to be good therapy for me.
I’m not sure what other options I would have to release the work, honestly. All originals are only 4"x4" format, but they are 300dpi, so could, in theory, be printed. I don’t have any plans to do anything with them, other than the Instagram posts.
What else are you working on these days; any projects you are excited about?
There are a couple of other personal projects I am trying to work up from sketch ideas, but I’m not sure when, or if, they will see the light of day. I was pretty pleased with the most recent actual record artwork project that I worked on for the band Be Well, but that’s about it at the moment. I also work on books covers, so there are a fe oof those starting to roll in for the new season. I lost my regular job due to the pandemic, so if there’s anyone out there with design needs, please do reach out!
Follow John Yates on Instagram
Contact John through his website Stealworks
Interview conducted by Lee Greenfeld © 2020