Artist and illustrator Rodney Matthews is famous for illustrating many of rock and metal’s finest sleeves; from Magnum and Nazareth to Praying Mantis, Eloy and a whole host of others, but his sleeve work started many years before the that classic era. Before that still, Rodney was a drummer, playing progressive rock and jazz.
Still very productive, a good place to start is his website, www.rodneymatthews.com
Also, of the three books published on Paper, Countdown To Millenium (only recently out of print) contains a pretty comprehensive illustrated discography and examples of other work issued as posters and book covers (Rodney illustrated many books by novelist, poet and Hawkwind lyricist Michael Moorcock).
Your style is very distinctive, what influences you and what are your favourites?
My style has it’s origins in the graphic design I did between 1960 and 1970 at first The West of England College of Art, Bristol and then at Ford’s Advertising, Bristol. My work still retains some of the humour and principals of graphic design even though it’s basically illustration. I have always held a fascination for the design and colouration of natural forms – creatures, plants, rocks and mountains etc. and this is evident in my work. The paradox of the rose flower, for example, with a fragrant flower protected by cruel thorns, sums up much of my artistic statement. I know you’ve heard this before, but I haven’t yet done my best piece of work, and my favourite is not necessarily my most popular. I’m quite fond of the first record cover I did for Tiger Moth.
You’ve come a long way from graphic design; how did you get into album and calendar designing?
My album work came about as a result of my involvement with the design of event posters in the late sixties, early seventies and from playing in my own rock band. I made the acquaintance of musicians such as Thin Lizzy, who gave me my first record cover job in 1969. I was able to get work from small record companies in Bristol, which gave me art samples to show other national companies like MCA, United Artists Records, Transatlantic, Arista and Jet. These days most of my work comes from inquiries to my website.
Your own music was pretty progressive with a Jazz influence. Who influenced you and why did you give up playing?
I like the best of many different music genres with progressive rock and jazz topping the pole as you say.
When I was a child I listened to the old 78 r.p.m. Jazz records my father had collected, and was impressed to the point where I started to thrash one of his old drum kits enthusiastically. In time I started listening to the instrumental groups like The Shadows, Ventures and Sandy Nelson, followed by The Beatles and the whole Psychedelic and progressive movement.
During the sixties, while still at art college, I took lessons in jazz rudiments for drums and started to throw these into the rock music of my progressive styled music. Some influential names worth mentioning are swing drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, Brubecks drummer Joe Morello, and later, King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull etc.
I gave up playing rock in 1974 but continued to keep my hand in playing in various jazz bands in Bristol and, later, North Wales.
Rodney Matthews artwork for Magnum's 1993 release, 'Archive'
Your album designs have become probably more synonymous with Magnum as anyone else. Did you build a special relationship with them?
I first contacted Magnum in 1980 just in time to design their ‘Chase the Dragon’ cover. This, incidentally, was originally titled ‘The Spirit’ and was supposed to be a gatefold cover with my illustration ‘Sanctuary’ being the centrefold image. Jet Records went cheap on us! Magnum went on to commission more illustrations from me than any other band I’ve worked for and Tony Clarkin in particular became a good friend. He usually had a good idea of what sort of design he wanted and usually proceeded to scribble an idea on the proverbial beer mat!
You’ve even recorded with Magnum’s Tony Clarkin. How did that come about?
I had a need for some guitar work on a few instrumental tunes I’d done with session musician Rudi Dobson. At the risk of ruining his career Tony offered his services and threw in a couple of sessions in his recording studio, Zella in Birmingham. The tunes were influenced by my paintings, ‘Sanctuary’, ‘Almost Home’ and ‘The House on the Rock’.
Nazareth were one of your first major commissions, while with Praying Mantis you’ve also done the band logos. How did they come about?
Nazareth contacted me for artwork after seeing my calendar for 1978 Wizardry and Wild Romance (Michael Moorcock). They flew me up to their residence on the Isle of Man to discuss the job which was inspired and titled after the novel ‘No Mean City’, a story of gang warfare in Glasgow during the 30’s. The resulting image featuring ‘Friendly Fred’, proved to be very popular as a subject for car and truck custom paint jobs, and sold as well as a poster. Praying Mantis commissioned two covers for 7” records, a single and an EP, and albums ‘Time Tells No Lies’ and Predator in Disguise’. I suggested doing logos in the style of the artwork (to avoid record company in-house efforts) and also the record centre for ‘Time Tells No Lies’
A lot of work in the early 80s came through Heavy Metal Worldwide; Eloy, Scorpions, Bitches Sin. Were you grateful of the work at the time?
Heavy Metal has been a good customer, headed by Paul Birch who has also become a good friend. H.M. also owns FM Records for which I have also worked. Indeed, during the 80’s I was grateful for the work in the heavy rock genre HM provided, particularly as Punk the scene sweeping the world did not fit comfortably with my art style!
Section of Rodney Matthews artwork for Magnum's 'Foundation' boxed set
Of the albums and genres you’ve illustrated, what have you enjoyed or connected with the most? To me Eloy matched your work perhaps the closest.
Yes, my artwork seemed well suited to Eloy’s music, and you’re not the first person to mention it! I did enjoy working with Eloy very much, and often listened to the music while producing the artwork. The Eloy albums were: Planets (1982), Time to Turn (1982) and Metromania (1984). I would not turn my nose up at any further commissions!
How did you become involved in the Christrian Thrash scene? Was it prompted by your own beliefs?
On the surface of it, I considered it a long shot, as I was not aquainted with ‘Christian Thrash’ at the time. So many friendships and commissions etc have since come out of it that I believe it must have had God’s hand on it.
It started with a letter from Dave Williams, manager of the band ‘Seventh Angel’, who had seen the article about my art in the magazine ‘Kerrang’. I discovered that Dave and the band had received word (while praying about the cover for their album and about my involvement) that in my studio was a suitable piece of artwork. In fact I had done a poster design (which had not at that time been published) sometime before featuring a scene from the Revelation titled ‘The Five Months of Torment’ which happened to fit the visual requirement of their record titled ‘The Torment’!
Thereafter I was introduced to many other musicians requiring similar ‘fire and brimstone’ imagery. And yes, I’m a Christian, it’s the only way!
What are your current projects and what are your plans for the future?
As it happens, I am currently working on an image for a Rock record cover for an Italian Record company. The picture will also appear in my calendar for 2006 titled ‘Ensemble’. My job before that was a logo for a new U’S. magazine, Vertigo, specialising in extreme music and extreme sport. In the longer term I have several animation projects for which I am seeking the elusive (sympathetic) financier!
Selected Rodney Matthews Discography
* Many but not all are available as CD if you know where to look.
** Many of the DVDs are currently available through Classic Rock Productions
*** Many of the FM LPs were also issued as picture discs.
**** For more information check out the website or the book Countdown To Millennium, published by Paper Tiger.
20th CENTURY STEEL BAND Yellow Bird Is Dead
Al JONES Jonesville
AMON DUUL II Live In London
Art ROSENBAUM Five String Guitar
ASIA Different Worlds Live
ASIA Who Will Stop The Rain (single)
BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST Caught In The Light
BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST 25th Anniversary Concert (DVD)
BITCHES SIN Predator
BOLA SETE Ocean
BRINSLEY SCHWARZ Golden Greats
CAPTAIN LOCKHEED/STARFIGHTERS Ejection (EP)
DARLINGTON STRING QUARTET Shostakovich
Dave CARLSEN Pale Horse
Dave EVANS Elephantasia
David STONE / Allan SCHILLER Delius
DETRITUS Perpetual Defiance
DIAMOND HEAD Am I Evil
DIAMOND HEAD Living On Borrowed Time
ELOY Time To Turn
FULL MOON Full Moon
Geoffrey WOODRUFF Live
GETHSEMANE ROSE Tattered ‘n’Torn
Hamish IMLACH All Round Entertainer
HAWKWIND Welcome To The Future (2CD/DVD box)
HUNT & TURNER Magic Landscape
Ian A ANDERSON A Vulture Is Not A Bird You Can Trust
Ian A ANDERSON Singer Sleeps On As Blaze Rages
MAGNUM A Winter’s Tale (DVD)
MAGNUM Chase The Dragon
MAGNUM Kingdom Of Madness (1988 FM reissue)
MAGNUM Magnum II (1988 FM reissue)
MAGNUM On A Story Teller’s Night
MAGNUM The Eleventh Hour
MOTHERLODE The Sanctuary
NAZARETH No Mean City
OLD PETE Christmas Story (6” LP)
OLD PETE Old Pete (6” LP)
PIGSTY HILL LIGHT ORCHESTRA Piggery Jokery
PRAYING MANTIS Predator In Disguise
PRAYING MANTIS Time Tells No Lies
RODD & MARCO Jurassic Church
Rudie DOBSON The House On The Rock
SCORPIONS Lonesome Crow (FM reissue)
SEVENTH ANGEL Lament For The Weary
SEVENTH ANGEL The Torment
STAIRWAY No Rest No Mercy
Stefan GROSSMAN Aunt Molly’s Murray Farm
Steve HACKETT Horizons (DVD)
TIGERMOTH Howling Moth
TRADIA Welcome To Paradise
TYGERS OF PAN TANG Crazy Nights
Various Contemporary Ragtime Guitar
Various Guitar Wizards (DVD)
Various Hard Rock Anthology (DVD)
Various Hillbilly Jazz Vol 1
Various International Classic Rock Festival (DVD)
Various Progressive Rock – The Ultimate Collection (DVD)
Various Progressive Rock Anthology (DVD)
Various Some People Play Guitar A Lot Of People Don’t
Various The Great White Dap (7”)
Various This Is How It All Began Vol II
VENI DOMINE Fall Babylon Fall
VENI DOMINE Material Sanctuary
WAKEMAN, Rick 2000AD Into The Future
WAKEMAN, Rick Son-Rise
WHITE METAL WARRIORS/Various - Last Ship Home
Interview © 2005 Joe Geesin