Behind the Artwork: Zach Jaeger & Fela Kuti

Yesterday, Knitting Factory Records released Fela Kuti’s the Best of Black President Pt. 2 which is an extensive collection of the legendary Afrobeat pioneer’s music ranging from 1971’s “Black Man’s Cry” to 1992’s “Underground System”.  This release is part of Knitting Factory’s ongoing commitment to make Fela Kuti’s music available to the public.

The above artwork for “Best of Black President Pt 2” was revived by a Columbus ex-pat  Zach Jaeger . Mr. Jaeger  has worked on several of Knitting Factory’s Fela efforts including  Fela: Live In Detroit 1986, and the Ginger Baker compiled Fela: Vinyl Box Set 2 . I talked to Zach about how one goes from taking photos for Columbus Metal Band Teeth of the Hydra to working on important Fela Kuti releases and more.

How long have you been working on the Fela Kuti reissues?

It’s been a little over 4 years now. The beginning phases were a little slow as far as compiling art, information, and data so I don’t really think it jumped off until 2010. It’s been non-stop since then.

For “Live in Detroit 1986” you used actual tickets from the show, and posters? What approach did you take when utilizing those objects?

We weren’t sure what we were going to do with that once we got it (art wise). We were working on having a TDK master cassette tape that the concert was recorded on being cleaned up (including blending the split where the engineer had to physically flip the cassette mid concert to continue recording). I was starting to concept the art when we received the poster and ticket stub from the actual show. It made perfect sense to make the poster the cover and re-appropriate the ticket to be the back of the record. When I found out that a TDK-SA90 cassette tape was used to record the show I went through a huge box of cassettes I had and found one. I brought it in and scanned it and adjusted everything to fit the liner notes. Where all the info about the cassette would be I changed to reflect all the technical info about the 1986 recording. I wanted to do something only analog audio nerds could really respect, I am one. The packaging even had to be approved by TDK, they loved it.

Did Ginger Baker have any special instructions for Fela: Vinyl Box Set 2

None to me personally. He chose records from an era where he was largely involved with Fela. He wrote an amazing preface that I think really put his personality on paper. It’s sort of vulgar, things are spelled wrong, there is a lot of slang that people don’t use in most parts of the world. Anyone who has seen Beware of Mister Baker will understand the elegant crudeness of his words.

What’s your take on the original design of Fela’s albums?

I love them. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with an amazing person and artist named Lemi Gharioukwu who painted and designed a lot of Fela’s records. He has a way of making something bright, colorful, and eye popping while also making it sort of dirty at the same time. This is a style i’ve been fond of since I was a kid and apply to my own art. Getting to talk and work with Lemi is a big honor for me.

What is the next Fela release?

Best of the Black President 2 will be out February 5. We have something else in the works but I’m not quite sure if I can talk about it yet.

Were you a Fela fan going into the reissues?

Yeah, I got turned on to his music while I was still living in Columbus, but it was extremely hard to find (which is why i guess I’m doing all this work now). As the internet progressed and people started “trading” albums online my collection started to grow and I became much more into him. His music is very upbeat and likable even with songs clocking in close to 30mins. At the point you might think you’re getting bored he changes it up.

After spending so much time with Fela; what do you think the grand lesson of Fela Kuti is?

I think Fela’s political agenda’s are some of the most important parts of his music. All of his music and lyrics has a distinct message involved. He was essentially a punk rocker who stood up against systems that impoverished people, revoked human rights, empowered people full of greed, started wars, etc. It’s not all that different from bands like Crass, but instead of abrasive guitars and snotty vocals you have something you can dance to.

You have also done work for people like Emily Wells. Is there a general philosophy difference between working on a new project vs. “reviving” classic?

Working with Fela is different cause its already done. It’s the same difference as a restoration painter fixing the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling in comparison to actually painting the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Working from scratch on something alows idea’s to flow amongst people and eventually me working with the musician(s) to achieve their vision. However, on both Fela and projects like Emily Wells (who is a lovely person and excellent musician btw) I strive to (re)create something that fulfills them and is the same visual quality as the music they worked so hard on.

You used to live in Columbus. You did photos for Teeth Of the Hydra. How does a Midwestern metal kid end up working on a Fela Kuti project?

I’m still not entirely sure how that happened myself, but i’ll try to give you the short rundown. Moved to NYC to work in photography, did that, hated it. Started working at the Knitting Factory venue as their designer and eventually began doing booking and promotions there. Two of my friends started a label called Partisan Records and i’ve been their sole designer ever since. Knitting Factory Records was re-opened and Partisan merged with them and now we all love Fela! Everybody say Yeah Yeah!

You are in a band called Chron Turbine? I was looking online and the art looked pretty cool. What was your process and approach on that?

Chron Turbine is about 3 dudes having fun together. We aren’t the most serious batch of people. That is definitely reflected in our lyrics and art. The name of the record is “Skull Necklace For You”, it’s a pun on the saga of the black metal band Mayhem (watch Until the Light Takes Us if you are not familiar). Basically we wanted to make something that was themed like an old black metal record but was as dumb as it could possibly be.

What part has CCAD and what part did Columbus DIY influence your design?

Thinking back on it CCAD played a big role in my development as an artist overall. I went there mainly for Photography and Printmaking and sort of learned the design stuff on my own. However, the fundamentals for composition, concept, and what type of message im sending with my art were all firmed up there and have allowed me to progress and expand my creative vision. It’s a tough school, they really put you through the ringer both artistically and intellectually. It definitely gave me some backbone to build on.

The DIY scene played a log into it too. I was in bands since the age of 16 and was usually the one making the fliers and patches. The punk aesthetic was burned into my brain at a pretty early age. There were a lot of late nights at Kinkos making cut and paste fliers with stolen Kinkos cards. I would make my own patches in the bedroom at my parents house with a crappy screen i hand painted the knock out for. I still do a lot of that stuff in similar ways but know i have Photoshop and I use some friends labs when i need to screen something.

Any favorite album covers?

Pretty much anything by Storm Thurgeson or Roger Dean. They are both pretty pinnacle in the history of rock art. I’ve lately been a lot more into the packaging as art more than putting a picture and a logo on a record sleeve. Stephen O’Malley does art direction for the recollection of Groupe De Recherches Musicales (GRM) on the Editions Mego label and I really love the direction he’s taking it. Every release has the same “template” for the packaging but they are all accented in a different color theme. The packaging is all done on heavy stock with sharp debossing and most of the color is Pantone spot. So everything is very precise and geometric, it really compliments the music. Anyone into early experimental and music concrete should definitely check it out.

You worked at the Knitting Factory for sometime. Being from Columbus what advice would you give Columbus bands after seeing how things work from booking a venue.

I think first and foremost you need to decide what type of band you want to be. Are you some friends that play for fun or do you want to make a living at this? Because in all honesty if you want to make a living you should quit your job, buy a van and hit the road for the next 3 years and play as many shows in front of as many people as you can. Make connections with other bands and promoters across the country and get your music in front of people and build fans. Labels and booking agents won’t pick you up solely because you are a good band. They need to be confident they can sell your product, in which case your product is you.