Comic book artist Alex Ross recently took on the Beatles, transforming some of their famous imagery into his painted, photorealist style. The Fab Four made his Guest DJ set song list, as did David Bowie, Queen and The Monkees. Alex also tells us the role of music in his creative process.
Hosted by Eric J. Lawrence.
For more: http://www.alexrossart.com
- The Beatles - "I Am The Walrus"
- Queen - "I'm In Love With My Car"
- The Monkees - "Sweet Young Thing"
- Queen - "We Will Rock You / We Are The Champions"
- David Bowie - "Life on Mars?"
Eric J. Lawrence: Hi, I’m Eric J. Lawrence, and I am here with comic book artist Alex Ross. Over the past two decades his unique approach, painted photo realistic depictions of heroes like Batman and Superman, have made him the go-to artist for many publishers as well as a multiple award winner and an absolute fan favorite.
He recently took on something a little different a series of illustrations of The Beatles, so fittingly he is here today to talk about music. Specifically some of the songs that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. Alex, thanks so much for joining us.
Alex Ross: Thank you for having me.
EJL: Well, what’s the first track you got for us?
AR: Well, it’s appropriate that I have a Beatles track as my favorite song of all time, which is “I Am The Walrus” by John Lennon. The song has such a - not just a haunting quality - but a transportational quality that it would take me very far away from wherever I am, in the world. And also an overwhelming theme that I’ve always loved in my favorite music is menace. I like the way it has an assault upon the listener.
EJL: Talk about being inspired by that song… obviously you’ve done this new project featuring The Beatles and the images I’ve seen are from “Yellow Submarine.” What was it about The Beatles imagery that sort of spoke to you as an artist?
AR: Well, it was a concept that was presented to me, to combine my artwork with this style of “Yellow Submarine” -- meaning the setting and characters and things, but now taking this photo-realistic style, as if it’s a film starring them in live action, as opposed to a cartoon. And extrapolating that further into a series of illustrations, is where it’s gone from now.
But as I go into working with The Beatles, my life long inspiration of admiring them, of following their music, and their visual image that’s always been such a striking thing, that’s something I’ll explore even further with different ages of their being.
Song: The Beatles – “I Am the Walrus”
EJL: That was “I Am The Walrus” by The Beatles. Well what’s the next track you have for us?
AR: Well, there’s The Beatles and then there’s everybody else. So my favorite rock band is Queen and this one song hit me when I was 16 years old when I first heard it and it stuck with me ever since and is the very outrageous song “I’m In Love With My Car,” written by the drummer Roger Taylor, who has this wonderful high falsetto voice.
It’s an utterly absurd thing in the way that the song is exactly what it says it’s about. It is about a man in love with his car, because he apparently he had this passion, but it has these homoerotic tones to it, in the language, that is very fun and slightly ridiculous.
Song: Queen – “I’m in Love With My Car”
EJL: That was Queen with “I’m In Love With My Car” as selected by guest artist Alex Ross. What’s the next track you’ve for us?
AR: The band The Monkees was one of my favorites growing up. And I know it seems outrageous because "Oh it's just some stupid show from the 60’s," but it was one of those things that first had incredible song writers creating work for it. But then the amazing thing happened with this band that happens rarely with an arranged group, which is they evolved into a real band. And they had hired these actors who ultimately all of them had musical backgrounds of a sort, but the most engaged of those, was the leader of the band, Mike Nesmith.
And from the very first album, the song “Sweet Young Thing” is what I would consider the best fiddle guitar combo ever. And I became such a huge fan of Mike Nesmith in particular that I followed him - and the band as a whole and all their iterations, all their various albums and solo projects. But this song in particular stands up as one of the highest and it definitely belongs in the number three spot for me in my top five.
Song: The Monkees – “Sweet Young Thing”
EJL: That was The Monkees with “Sweet Young Thing.” What’s the next track you got for us?
AR: Well I’m back to Queen again. Which is ironic that on my top five, I’ve actually got two Queen songs and not two Beatles songs. But, realistically, the song that kind of affects me lifelong for 40 years is “We Will Rock You” and its companion “We Are The Champions.” That had an immediate effect on not just culture, in terms of how popular it was, but I kind of liken it to being this musical brown note, that it has as an effect on you that causes an involuntary response.
You know, you have to sort of stop what you’re doing to hear it. It’s that powerful and pervasive. And I know it seems very sort of pedestrian and typical like “Oh really, ‘We Will Rock You' is going to be in your top five? Really?" And you know what, yeah, really.
Because have you realized that the lyrics of the song are effectively an insult to the audience who’s listening to it? It’s showing sort of the three ages of man, calling them muddy-faced, can-kicking disgrace of a boy aging into a bloody-faced, banner-waving, shouting in the street hard young man and then finally into a muddy-faced old codger who deserves to be put back in his place.
It’s really talking about you’re going nowhere. I mean it’s a threatening song -- like I said, I love menace. But it evolves into an anthem of triumph which, of course, becomes the song “We Are The Champions.” So the two are sort of one set, even though they are Brian May and Freddie Mercury compositions, separate. But they become one of the greatest rock pairings in history.
Song: Queen -- “We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions”
EJL: That was “We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions” by Queen and selected by our guest artist Alex Ross. What’s the final track you’ve got for us?
AR: Well, I want to include a Bowie track and it’s easy to pick out the one that has the strongest effect on me as being “Life on Mars.”
Again, there’s a haunting quality to that song that I just adore, but everything for me is about the cellos, cellos, cellos. Just that the strings coming in there have that extra oomph to them, that a guitar sound doesn’t always achieve. There’s a uniqueness to mixing classical instruments with popular music and I’ve always been drawn to that in bands, in concept albums, and I’m probably more of a big prog rock fan then is considered cool to be.
EJL: Are you able to listen to music while you work?
AR: Oh all the time, yeah. Usually I’ve got three things going at all time my work, maybe the television on in the background, but usually music and then being on the phone, with a friend.
EJL: I guess that’s sort of the pleasure of the artist, is that you can kind of do all of these things at once.
AR: Well in some ways there’s an automatic function in the part of what I do as an artist. But mainly in the painting form, I can speed through the painting faster in a way if my mind is being stimulated with all these other things. So it’s not just simply thinking about how long the paint is taking to dry, or how long I’ve been working on the same area over and over. You just don’t think of those things, you just do them.
Song: David Bowie – “Life on Mars”
EJL: That was David Bowie with “Life On Mars” selected by our guest Alex Ross. Alex, thank you so much for joining us here at KCRW.com.
AR: Thank you for having me.