An Interview with Spencer Drate

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David Byrne of Talking Heads and Spencer Drate (Photo Courtesy of Spencer Drate)

In the world of album design, there aren’t many who have accomplished what Spencer Drate and his partner Judith Salavetz have. Over the last 40 plus years, this legendary duo have designed albums for the likes of the Talking Heads, The Ramones, Joan Jett, Lou Reed and so many more. Some of the most iconic albums in the history of popular music have been designed by Spencer and Judith. While they were nominated for Grammy early on, recently there has been a wave of recognition for their work, with selections of their album designs being showcased in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, AIGA and the MoMA archival collections, plus major museum shows.

Today, I’ve got Spencer Drate with us. We talk about his accomplishments, staying busy during the pandemic, and much more. Dig in to find out, but first, head over to Spencer and Judith’s Facebook to learn more about their work. Cheers.

Andrew:
Spencer, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. This last year has been rough, right? How are you holding up during this seemingly ever-raging dumpster fire?
 

Spencer:
I am holding up very good and have been being interviewed with my design partner Judith on Zoom a lot. I was interviewed on the Making Vinyl webinar series and on my HDTV interview series on best designed music packaging. Also, on Rock Radio, we’ve been being interviewed, and we’ve been doing the interviewing on Blogtalk radio on the famous thing in pop-culture: music, film, music design, music authors etc. Radio and Zoom have become bigtime in the COVID era.

We are also doing college lectures on album design. We are actively designing for vinyl. My design partner Judith Salavetz and myself are very active in different areas. So, it’s not been too rough for us.

Andrew:
Tell us about your backstory. What was your musical gateway so to speak? How did you develop your own signature style when it comes to design?
 

Spencer:
I have been gifted in my music design life. Schooled by the best Yale faculty and strong in type design. I fell into great music design first by being hired to design for Sire Records and designing for The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Pretenders, Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, The Dead Boys, Richard Hell and The Voidoids etc. Then later, I teamed with designer Judith Salavetz (my design glue!) and together we’ve designed for U2, Bon Jovi, The Beach Boys, Billy Squier, Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, Marshall Crenshaw, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts etc. We both are now in MoMA, AIGA and The Rock Hall of Fame archival collections, plus major museum shows. We both have been nominated for the 2019 National Design Award. We’ve designed for 23 Rock Hall inductees. I was GRAMMY nominated for my design of Talking Heads Fear of Music album. We do not have a style. We design to the feeling of each album by listening to the music, with great visuality combined by great typography and the best album graphics. We are also GRAMMY and Making Vinyl judges on album packaging committees.

Andrew:
I think it goes without saying that you love music. With that being said, who are some of your earliest and most important influences? What drew you to work within the music industry?  

Spencer:
I always loved music. My first 45 was Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.” I was originally a book jacket designer and won many design awards, then I met someone who needed a “type guy” such as the illustrator for Richard Hell and The Voidoids album Blank Generation and that threw me into Sire Records and all that I designed for at Sire. In my time there, we never had any design changes…they loved my designs.

We have authored 21 visionary major pop-culture books such as Designing for Music (1992), 45 RPM (2002) and Five Hundreds 45s (2010). These books feature major music designers I have respected in my music design life. Such names as Stefan Sagmeister, Art  Chantry, Peter Saville, Stylorouge, Vaughan Oliver, John Pasche, Malcolm Garrett, Martyn Atkins etc.

I worked for the some of the best record owners such as Seymour Stein (Sire Records), Chris Blackwell (Island Records) and Ron Alexenburg. They all loved my design and mentors. An example is that Chris Blackwell only wanted me to design USA parts for U2’s Achtung Baby.

Talking Heads – Fear Of Music (2006, CD) - Discogs
Talking Heads – Fear of Music (1979)

Andrew:
You’ve had a hand in the visual aspect of countless major pop-culture driven books, Grammy award winning albums and archival collections which have been displayed in major museum and gallery shows, but let’s go back. Initially, what drew you to visual art? How did you end up in the proverbial deep end of this business?  

Spencer:
I intuitively picked graphic design in college. In the last several years, we have been going through a major period of recognition, with people now respecting our legendary album designs. We’ve been interviewed on HDTV, MTV, VH1, Volume, Sirius XM Radio, Zoom interviews, Rock Radio and other major media. As we say, our motto is, “It’s A Long Way To The Top!” (AC/DC).

Andrew:
Let’s talk more about some of the album packaging you’ve been involved with. Tell us about some of you proudest and most interesting moments in that regard.  

Spencer:
We talk about this fully in our Zach Martin (HDTV) interview, which can be viewed via our HDTV interview series on YouTube. Also via our HDTV 10 episode series about album/45s and special CD packaging on YouTube. These are a “show and tell” series with major stories behind each of our iconic album and 45 design.

There are so many covers that we designed that are legendary and award-winning. I will just list some in The Rock Hall of Fame archival collection and selected: Talking Heads Fear of Music (GRAMMY nominated), The Ramones Road to Ruin and End of the Century, Marshall Crenshaw (AIGA Cover Show Award), Victory, Lou Reed New York and Magic and Loss, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts Album. All of these are discussed in our HDTV series, with stories behind each album on YouTube. I could spend pages here for stories behind each album or 45s we’ve designed. We won many major music design awards and chosen for MoMA, AIGA and Rock Hall of Fame archival collections, plus major museum shows. What an honor. I was the FIRST album cover designer interviewed on MTV/VH1 after the design was completed for Billy Squier’s Don’t Say No, which is an album that went multi-platinum. We are maybe most proud of the GRAMMY nominated Fear of Music, which was up for best album packaging, co-designing with Talking Heads, in 1979.

Andrew:
Let’s move on and talk about some of the visually driven books you’ve authored and been involved with. Tell us about Designing For Music, Five Hundred 45s, and 45 RPM. How did these books come together? What were your goals? What is the through line within your work? Looking back, did you accomplish what you set out to with them? What’s the legacy?  

Spencer:
All our 21 pop-culture books are “learning tool” books so to speak. Designing for Music (1992) profiles some of the best music designers at that time and worldwide. At the time of release, 45 RPM (2002) was the FIRST book displaying the history of the 7″ sleeve. 45 RPM SOLD OUT! This book led to Five Hundred 45s (2010) book. We have a moral commitment to author visionary books that are important “learning tools” and reference books. We definitely accomplished what we set out to do.

Ramones - End of Century - Amazon.com Music
The Ramones – End of the Century (1980)

Andrew:
I touched on this before, but wanted to dig a bit deeper into it. Some of your work has been featured at the MOMA, AIGA and within the archival collections at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Furthermore, you’ve designed for 23 Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame inductees. Tell us more about your thoughts and feelings on those wonderful accomplishments. How does it feel to know your work with be a part of the living history within music forever?  

Spencer:
When you are designing, you do not realize that some of these musicians you’re designing for will become legendary and famous later. It is an honor to design for these musicians, both for myself and with Judith. We feel fortunate to have designed for U2, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, Bon Jovi, Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, The Beach Boys, Marshall Crenshaw, Richard Hell etc. To this day, we are still approached and still designing. “It’s A Long Way To The Top!”

Andrew:
You’re also involved with Making Vinyl, right? Tell us about your webinar series.  

Spencer:
I’ve known co-founder Larry Jaffee for years and Bryan Ekus since it started. We are judges on the vinyl packaging committee every year. Vinyl is very close to my heart and I support it on radio and HDTV. Bryan conceived a webinar interview series on different areas of vinyl and we were interviewed on “album design and our design life.” The vinyl resurgence gets bigger every year. Vinyl packaging entries in the GRAMMY’s and Making Vinyl are more frequent every year, with very intricate packaging and special printing. Long Live Vinyl! The event and entries are going strong.

Andrew:
You’ve got an interview series of your own, don’t you? Tell us about the creating of the HDTV Interview Series you’re involved with. Tell us about your involvement with VINYLTALK as well.  

Spencer:
Zach Martin (HDTV) interviewer with an amazing music background created the new HDTV. HDTV is TV to a new educational level. I felt connected to Zach and he loved our design. He started interviewing us for a 3 part interview series on YouTube. Then both myself and Judith created a 10 part HDTV interview series about a total of 175 “best designed” album covers. 45 covers and special CD packaging we selected in a “show and tell” format on YouTube.

Now in progress, we have also created a “Designing for Music” series, which includes famous music designers being interviewed with us on YouTube. Myself, along with with Judith also created “The Art of Vinyl Cover Show” (12″ and 7″), which is now on YouTube. VINYLTALK is a Facebook page that I created, and it is dedicated to the vinyl resurgence. We talk vinyl.

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Joan Jett and The Blackhearts – Album (1983)

Andrew:
COVID-19 has thrown a proverbial wrench into a lot of people’s plans and it’s been rough for us all. What does the future hold for you after things calm down and “normalize.”

Spencer:
We are in the progress in doing an expanded vinyl cover show at a venue. We are still designing and will always be active on radio and HDTV.

Andrew:
Let’s talk about the state of both the vinyl and music industries a bit. What are your thoughts on the resurgence?  

Spencer:
The vinyl resurgence is due to musicians and record companies producing vinyl and knowing the importance of the “vinyl sound.” Vinyl is still on the record company’s “A LIST.” I hope vinyl increases of course. There is lots of good news in regards to vinyl importance and production now.

Andrew:
Are you only into records? Tapes? CDs? Digital? Where do you like to shop for music?  

Specer:
I am a major “best designed” LP and 45 cover collector and bought many all over the world and I like to buy covers in record stores. Many are displayed on our HDTV interviews. We created “the Special CD packaging” area in my CD area in my house, which features a Lou Reed Metal Memorial Edition (pro only) CD packaging for Magic and Loss and Peel off Bananas limited edition CD packaging for The Velvet Underground 1993 Live Tour. We designed both. I cannot stand digital “sound.” Cassettes are on a comeback! I am into anything totally creative and great quality such as music, the fine arts, film, photography, music books etc.

Lou Reed: New York (Deluxe Edition) - Spectrum Culture
Lou Reed – New York (1989)

Andrew:
What other passions do you have? How do those passions inform your work, if at all?  

Spencer:
I love music, film, the fine arts, great design books and design magazines (we have been interviewed and profiled in some). Besides that, I am aware of things around me. For example, Judith got an album logo idea looking at a sign on a restaurant we were eating at. Reading great “designed” magazines and “design magazines” like Raygun magazine or Eye magazine stimulates the creative design mind. In film, it’s greatly designed opening credits. I profiled this in our Motion By Design book, filled with great typography design. Some examples to obtain creative design referencing. “It’s all in the mind”– John Lennon.

Andrew:
What does vinyl mean to you? More so, what does music mean to you?  

Spencer:
Vinyl is all about “the best sound quality.” Music, books and film are my life. I interview for music and film on radio and music on HDTV and we are “Designing for Music.”

Andrew:
Last question. You’ve maintained a strong DIY approach throughout your career, which is awesome. That said, what advice would you have for others just starting out? How does one stay afloat in a world that seems to be so abhorrent to creatives?  

Spencer:
If you are “very creative,” you survive. Most people are not that creative. Mediocre designers and there are many, have problems progressing to a high level. One has to believe in what they do starting out and you must be good at what you do. I believe you are born with these great traits. It is beyond schooling but you should go to a good school in your creative area to find out. I had the best. I was lucky, blessed and respected in my design life. In the end you have it or you do not and “It’s A Long Way To The Top!”

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Richard Hell and Spencer Drate (Photo Courtesy of Spencer Drate)

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Andrew has always felt himself to be a "jack of all trades, master of none" type of person. With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found Vinyl Writer in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Stories from the Stacks. Over time, the column grew into a website which now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process.
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2 thoughts on “An Interview with Spencer Drate

  1. […] The interview covers a lot of territory – Drate’s album cover designs, his work as a publisher and writer of several books on design for the music business and even his own recent participation on a couple of web-based video blogs we’ve covered in the past. Take it all in at https://vinylwritermusic.com/an-interview-with-spencer-drate/ […]

    1. Thanks so much for sharing our interview with Spencer Drate, whom we were honored to feature! We love your site. Please feel free to reach out if we can ever collaborate! Stay safe!

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