We Spoke to Johnny Clayton, the Guy Who Made Aphex Twin Creep Us Out
A rare chat with the man who helped make early Warp Records so visually memorable.
There it is: Richard D. James' face, distorted just so and blankly shit-grinning ahead. His eyes are famous for peering out from the demonic children, pimps and strippers that inhabit the collaborations with director Chris Cunningham, but years beforehand, they stared out from record covers. The first time around, it was a cartoon-ish horror; the second time round, the animated allure had left, replaced by a sense of malice. Those portraits glare down from Aphex Twin's full-lengths …I Care Because You Do (1995) and Richard D. James Album (1996). Those portraits are as iconic as modern electronic music gets.
The back of the …I Care Because You Do booklet assigns virtually everything involved with the album to James, but one extra name stands out, scrawled-out in tiny and messy handwriting: "Design help from john." john is otherwise known as Johnny Clayton, a friend of James who ended up being one of the design brains behind Warp and electronic music's most notorious face. When I say this over the phone to Clayton, he is modest about the idea. "That's the thing, it definitely came from Richard," he says from his current digs in Kent. Clayton began his design career after graduating from Kingston University in 1990 and jumping into a bevy of freelance work, mainly for corporate resources. The corporate jobs paid the bills, but left little flexibility when it came to creative ideas.
In 1992, Clayton had moved into a flat in Hackney alongside a number of fellow university graduates. James, a friend of a friend, joined their lodgings, as did Jonathan Hawk, aka Global Goon. Selected Ambient Works 85-92 had recently been released, and James' reputation preceded himself. It worked out tremendously: Clayton would work on design briefs from home, while James and Hawk would burrow away on new music. The living quarters (commemorated in the liner notes to 1996's Hangable Auto Bulb EP as "36 Clithole Crescent") was a bustling if cramped creative space, and soon collaboration was brewing between the tenants.
According to Clayton, the design help on …I Care Because You Do was more of a tutorial towards James. "I was the guy that got him into using Photoshop and using a Mac," he tells me. "I taught him how to use Photoshop, and he started playing around with his own self-image. That's what led to that cover. And also, when he was selling gear online, stuff that he was handwriting on was propelling the value of the equipment, so we thought to just use his own handwriting on the cover."
He balks at the idea of having been considered the designer for either of the two credit Aphex Twin releases on Warp, stating continually how the process was collaborative. Through James' record label Rephlex, Clayton began working for James' friend Tom 'Squarepusher' Jenkinson. The cover to Squarepusher's 1996 debut Feed Me Weird Things held yet another credit for Clayton's "help". "I just came to an idea [with Tom], saying 'here's a camera, go do that, come back and then we'll play around with whatever you give me'".
Through his time working on cover design for Rephlex, Clayton maintained a fairly hands-off approach, aiming to instead pull the most personal depictions possible out of James and Jenkinson. He tells me that outsider art was an influence during this period, with that artistic movement's spontaneous and anti-intellectualised practises echoed in his incorporation of household materials. Years before Photoshop became the essential tool for graphic designers in the music industry, Clayton was showing his clients how to use the program themselves, and allowing James to play with his image.
For both Feed Me Weird Things and 1997's Warp debut Hard Normal Daddy, Jenkins was told to take inspiration from his hometown of Chelmsford, discussing with Clayton about his youth spent there. The photos for each record reflects these discussions. Sheds where illegal raves were held, bus rides spent amongst traffic, gasworks looming over the industrial estates - whatever showed a personal side to Jenkins' heady music.
As I speak to him about his period of working with Warp and Rephlex, Clayton sounds proud but slightly reticent with taking credit for certain pieces of work. He appears to be uninterested in branding himself, in the way that Warp's famed Designers Republic became a design brand over the Nineties. "I always aim to be quite anonymous," he said. "I didn't have a big ego. I just really wanted it to be really personal to the artist." I tell him that it's a good aesthetic to have. "The thing is, it's an aesthetic to have," he responds. "I don't think it's the only way to do it – the way Designers Republic did it was with a really strong footprint on all the work. I think that's a totally valid way, but there's room for different approaches."
Clayton has continued to work in design, moving onto work for major labels post-Hard Normal Daddy and continuing his connection to electronic music and club culture by putting together commercials for compilations from mega-clubs like Cream and Twice As Nice. He left the music industry behind in 2007, and continues to freelance. He still partakes in side-projects, including designing the literary magazine Matter, and is eager to take on more projects. However, working in the music industry has shown how design has broken down in the past decade.
"For me, in terms of working in design, there's almost nothing to do in the music industry. I mean, what would you really be doing? Design is of far less importance than ever. I think video still has a certain degree of importance, but what are covers now? They're little thumbnails that pop up in Spotify. You can have a little visual language around that that matters, but not so much now. I mean, can you imagine Richard doing his portrait thing now, how striking that would be now? Where would you see it - as a thumbnail on iTunes or something?"
I half-joke that the Richard D. James Album would probably be presented as a gif these days. Clayton sighs, agreeing at the daft (yet probable) idea. "It definitely doesn't feel like it holds the same kind of weight." In the meantime, he continues working away, happy but humbled by the reputation from working with Warp and Rephlex. "I think that there's lots of lessons I've learned from working in the music industry - about understanding youth culture and the semiotics and the visual language around it, all the different aspects around it…."
He pauses for a moment, one, two, three… "but I'm not doing so much cutting-edge stuff at the moment. I have to pay the bills." He laughs, downplaying his work again. As the most prominent assistants in defining Warp's – and electronic music's – visual image, he's earned that little bit of ego.
You can follow Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy on Twitter here: @danielmondon
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