There are artists who act as a crossroads for passions and beauty, compasses empathic needle always pointing to a new destination, between music, art, photography.
Hajo Müller has represented this for me, ever since I came across his sketches for the deluxe edition of "The Incident" by Porcupine Tree in 2009.
Perhaps best known for his long collaboration with Steven Wilson (whose artwork he curated in the recent and wonderful "The Harmony Codex") Müller is much more than the man behind the iconic cover of "The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) ".
Born in 1965 in Düsseldorf in Germany and then studying Graphics and Illustration in Trier/Trier, Hajo has among his other important collaborations with Mariusz Duda (Riverside/Lunatic Soul) for which he has lately edited the artwork for the "Lockdown Trilogy" and "AFR AI D" to be released next November 17.
The last two releases of Wilson and Duda was a good opportunity to ask him to have a chat about some of the key points of his long career as an illustrator, photographer, designer.
The genesis of his passions, the inspirations that accompanied his, the different collaborations over the years but also his thinking on a divisive and highly topical issue such as artificial intelligence with particular regard to the pros and cons of its massive use in the creation of images.
- How did your interest in art, illustration, photography come about? Is there a specific moment that you consider to be the spark that ignited these passions?
Ever since I can remember I have had the need to create my own visual worlds. When I was 4 years old, I went to the movies with my aunt and uncle to see Disney's "The Jungle Book". I was completely blown away! The images, colors and the emotions they evoked were pure magic for me! In the beginning, the impetus to draw myself came more from films such as John Huston's legendary "Moby Dick" film adaptation from 1956, but later also from Marvel or DC Comics. I still love “Batman” as a character.
At the age of 17, it was clear what I wanted to do professionally. What I wanted to spend my life doing! For a long time, I even wanted to work for someone like Disney. Luckily, and with the help of a wise and patient professor, I discovered my own visual language step by step while studying graphic design. I actually found that even more exciting than working for Disney... although I still admire many of their films to this day.
To this day, it’s not the most important if I use illustration, photography or design. It just has to be the “right” thing. On the other hand, it is and always has been important to me to have this range. I think every story, every artwork deserves its own means, its own way or its own visual concept of approaching it. You need a certain range for that for my opinion.
- How would you describe your style if you had to summarize it and which artists/art forms have most influenced it over the years?
Actually I try not to commit myself stylistically. That only limits the choice of a visual medium that “fits” for my opinion.
I would always describe myself more generally as an "image maker". My style, my visual means, depends as much as possible on the story. Many, even really excellent image makers choose the story for "their" style. I prefer to do it the opposite way – means which style suits which story. However, over the years you develop your preferences... sometimes with surprising results for yourself. For example, I have long been fascinated by the work of photorealistic artists or very realistic, classical painters. However, at some point I had to admit to myself that I lacked the patience for this.
Over the years I have also realized that my "preferences" have become more and more abstract, often enough with a strong expressive note. Nowadays emotion has become more important to me than a perfectly crafted picture, although I have consciously trained myself in a classical/conservative way. In other words, a path where excellent craftsmanship is important! And to this day I am truly grateful to have taken this path - it was the basis for my later range and I would always still recommend this way to young artists… always on mind that the young artists today often go a completely different way also because of the digital development over the last 35 years.
And since I'm quite curious, there have been a lot of great artists from various fields that have inspired me over the years. Apart from that, I don't like going to exhibitions, for example! If something impresses me - and something always impresses me - it is shown up later in my pictures. However, I have a great need to develop my "own/autonomous" things. On the other hand it is impossible not to be influenced! A lot of things are now the result of my often long walks outside, simply interesting visual constellations by chance on the street.
And the expressive power of children's drawings fascinates me.
As an "adult", I find it very exciting to translate this into abstraction, intuitively!
- As a longtime fan of Porcupine Tree first and of the entire body of work revolving around the figure of Steven Wilson (from No-Man to Blackfield to his solo career) I remember coming across your name at the time of the release of "The Incident" of which I bought the wonderful deluxe edition.
From there it didn't take long for me to fall in love with this dark and terrifying world on the one hand but also sweet and melancholic on the other.
The wonderful "The Harmony Codex" released last September 29, the latest example of your collaboration with the English artist (impossible not to mention the iconic artwork you made for "The Raven That Refuses to Sing) only confirmed even more my esteem for your creative universe.
In a sense the concept of harmony in the title is reconciled precisely to an album like The Raven, where in both we have an iconic and impactful cover while then greatly differentiating the two records on what is the purely musical plane.
Flipping through the majestic Deluxe Edition of The Harmony Codex reveals all the dedication and care in combining different art forms that converge among the 100-plus pages, among the lyrics of the 10 songs the story of Jamie and Harmony (the two brothers at the base of the dystopian/scifi-like short story Steven wrote at the end of his autobiographical book 2022).
Tell us about how the meeting with Wilson came about and in particular how the creative process for this new record of his took place, starting right from the genesis of the cover art.
Steven and I have been in contact since 2008, when I wrote to him with the friendly support of the record company at the time, Roadrunner Records, and sent him some of my work. I ever was a big fan of Porcupine Tree and it was a dream of mine to design a cover or something similar for this amazing band.
Just as it has long been a dream of mine to combine my work with that of musicians. Creating portraits of musicians was one of the motivations for me to start with photography.
However, I had only just started photographing at the time and applied to him with illustrations, but above all with photos... which from today's perspective was completely naive!!! Of course, Steven had much better and more experienced photographers at his disposal at the time, especially Lasse Hoile of course but also someone as Diana Seifert just to name two!
But he liked my drawings right from the start and said that I could send him something if I had something new at some point.
I was very excited and didn't want to lose this contact again - so I sat down and sent him a spontaneous, quite expressive drawing. It took about 15 minutes and was entitled "How I feel at the moment".
I scanned it and sent it to him directly by e-mail. An hour later he replied that he was looking for something just like it - we should stay in touch.
This was a very happy moment for me! And finally the “start” for everything that had to do with working for music in the following years.
About a year later he asked me if I would like to do 3-4 drawings for the tour for PT's new album "The Incident".
He liked the results I sent him so much that it became a 48 pages booklet for the deluxe edition.
The rest developed over the years until we ended up with "Raven..." in 2012 - which is still an emotional highlight in my work today! And the fact that Steven then took 2 of my stories as a reference or inspiration for the title track and "Drive Home" is still incredible to me today! But I think a lot has already been written about that. ;-)
In the years that followed, we met each on some things again.
Fortunately, my photography has evolved and over the years it has become more and more of an option for him to use. Examples of this are his portraits on "Home Invasion" or the cover for his biography "Limited Edition of One".
For "The Harmony Codex" he wrote to me just before Christmas 2021 asking if I would be interested in working with him on this project - of course I was!
The result of this question was 18 months of exciting, inspiring but very relaxed collaboration with him and Carl Glover ;-))
Over 100 finished illustrations (several are to find in the Deluxe Edition), collaboration on the design layout for the Deluxe Edition and well over 100 completed promotional portraits.
What I really appreciate about working with Steven is that on the one hand he says very clearly what he wants - on the other hand he gives me A LOT of space in my work, gives me a lot of freedom for my own ideas and suggestions! He is generally very open and is happy to take my ideas and suggestions on board - this is definitely not the normal thing!
He trusts me in what I do - I am very grateful to him for that! I've worked in advertising for over 20 years - for example, it's very, very often the opposite in this business!
If I then able to give him back this freedom with corresponding results - like with "Raven" or now with THC... then everyone is happy and that's how it should be!
The cover for THC is a collaboration between Carl and me, in this case, funnily enough, with almost reversed signs. Carl is actually primarily the designer, and I'm more the illustrator. In this case, however, Carl - who is an excellent architecture photographer - took the wonderful picture of the skyscraper in the fog. Myself designed the logo for THC, turns the photo upside down and added some structures… that’s it.
Steven made sure from the beginning that the stairs or the staircase should have an important role in the pictures because it is an extremely important element in his story.
After initial "representational" attempts to design this staircase, it quickly became clear that a different, more universal approach was needed. Versatile! And right from the start it was clear that we wanted something completely different visually from the "Raven".
Here it was to be a mixture of graphics, photography and illustration. The shape of the staircase we have in the logo is generic and immediately identifiable. The 10 different colors stand for the 10 songs as well as the "colorful" emotional world in which the character "Harmony" lives.
The squares stand for pixels, the more analytical view which in turn characterizes "Jamie". At the same time, the album is an amazing mixture of digital/electronic sounds and "handmade" sounds.
So: squares/ pixels- digital sounds. Colors - handmade, organic "sounds".
And also the visual contrast of reduced, "hard" graphics with "organic/softer" picture elements tells of these 2 "worlds" in almost every picture.
- Next November 17, "AFR AI D" will see the light of day, where you have again collaborated with Mariusz Duda (Riverside/Lunatic Soul) after the recent artwork made for his electronic and experimental track, "The Lockdown Trilogy" ("Lockdown Spaces"/Claustrophobic Universe/Interior Drawings) but also for the wonderful covers of singles such as "Are you ready for the sun" or "Intervallum".
Going back in time, I would also like to trace the birth of this collaboration with Mariusz here and then learn how the theme of artificial intelligence helped shape the visual content of this record. Finally, what are your thoughts about this theme in the creative context? Do you think it will ever come to a time when AI becomes Deus Ex Machina ubiquitous creator and curator of what we listen to, read, or watch?
First of all, I would like to mention that I have been very lucky to work with three of my favorite musicians of the last 20 years. Steven Wilson was the very important beginning because it was (and still is!!) not only a great pleasure creatively but also opened doors for me with others.
Then, thankfully, came Mariusz Duda and the third in this row is the Swedish musician Thomas Feiner aka Anywhen. The fact that I work or was allowed to work with these three outstanding creatives makes me really very grateful!!!
I met Mariusz in person for the first time in 2016. By chance backstage at a festival. I dared to speak to him and through my work for the "Raven" he was able to relate to my work and my name. Thankfully we had a very nice connection right from the start and stayed in touch. In the beginning for making live pictures of Riverside.
In 2019 we talked for the first time about a concrete collaboration for a potential artwork, maybe for "Lunatic Soul". Then came Covid, the worldwide Lockdown and Mariusz's decision to build up his "electronic music" existence, the "Lockdown Trilogy". No band pseudonym, everything purely under his name, which he had probably had in mind for some time. He asked me if we wanted to work together on this rather personal project and I have to say that I still feel honored to be able to visually accompany him here.
AFR AI D is about dealing with the explosively topical subject of AI, including the understandable uncertainties associated with it. There are quite a few people who equate this topic with the industrial revolution... minimum! Rightly so in my opinion! We are still at the beginning, but it will change a lot more massively. As always with such fundamental developments, there is a huge opportunity to do a lot of good and helpful things with the new possibilities.
But human mankind are unfortunately far too often only interested in power and/or money, so I’m afraid that it will also destroy… a lot.
I’m sure about that unfortunately.
For the album, it made sense to work with AI, which is already a great support as a tool. It still has its flaws, but the possibilities are incredible. We were able to complete a whole series of high-quality images within a few weeks, which I wouldn't have been able to do so quickly without AI. However, we have emphasized that AI is “just” a tool here - not the sole clock generator!
Each of the finished images is a mixture of AI and our own "handmade" elements. This is important!
And yes, AI will soon change a lot of things, when it comes to creativity. but also for many other fields! There will certainly always be a need for people who operate this technology and know what they are doing - i.e. who have had any kind of training or studies… in the visual field for example talking about “my” kind of work.
And you will never be able to replace everything, especially in directly human interaction. But due to the enormous speed of technology and the incredible and rapidly growing wealth of visual possibilities, there will be far less of them than before. You simply won't need all these people anymore. It will jeopardize or even make superfluous many of the jobs in the creative sector that we have known up to now.
As an illustrator and photographer, who tries to pay his daily life from my art I have an ambivalent relationship with this development. I really enjoy working with it, it’s often enough pure fun and amazing. But at the same time I know that it will also make my job redundant sooner or later…. probably even sooner. Also and above all because it massively changes the financial framework conditions.
For example: with Midjourney you pay €70 a month for the most expensive subscription option and that allows you to use it commercially. With this option you can easily “create” thousands of mostly proper or at least impressive images within a month. Okay, of these thousands of pictures "just" about 150 or 200 are finally useful. But this is still an enormous output for just a month. Which illustrator or photographer can compete with that?
Sure, legal issues have not yet been clarified, copyrights etc. What is important! And not everything works yet, you still have to be a little "visually flexible" if you know what I mean. There are still often enough “mistakes” in the prompted results.
But that will take another two years maximum, probably much less - then it will be sorted out. And then, at the latest, many things will be turned upside down.
It IS already a massive devaluation of creative, artistic work - something that artists and creative people have trained for many years to achieve an adequate result is now happening in front of you on the screen in less than a minute. In four variations! Not always, but more and more often. It's completely insane!
- Do you have any other projects currently in development that you can hint at? Who would you like to engage with "artistically" in the near future?
I'm currently working on several somewhat smaller projects. They have to be finished first and then... we'll see.
As I said, I'm already very lucky to be working with three of my all time favorites. That's already A LOT! But beyond that, it would be great to work with someone like Nils Frahm, for example. That would be great!
But I think he prefers different ways visually compare to the things I usually do. And another dream - Paul McCartney.
Since I know that he is also a passionate painter, we might have something to talk about…maybe ;-D Well... a dream but I think dreaming is allowed ;-)
- If one wanted to have a 360-degree look at your work, what are your platforms or sites of reference?
Well, I’m not really busy in the social medias I have to confess. No Tik Tok or anything that way… I’m old ;-DD
Facebook…. sometimes… a little bit.
The most recent things you can surely find on my Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/ha.jo.mue/
Beside this my homepage: www. hajo-art.com
But this page was updated the last time I think 20 months ago so… oh man, I HAVE to update this! Urgently!!! So surely more a kind of “basic” reference.
- In thanking you again for your time Hajo I leave the last words to you.
Oh, it was absolutely my pleasure Riccardo and thank you so much for being interested in my work! Nothing more to add ;-))
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