Interview: Artist James Jean and Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda and Joe Hahn Talk Designing Art for "The Hunting Party"

Linkin Park and artist James Jean discuss the album art and promotional imagery for their new album, "The Hunting Party"

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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When looking for someone to design the cover art and promotional visuals for their new album, The Hunting Party, Linkin Park didn't have to search too far. Having been fans of James Jean's work for a long time, "the conversation just started naturally," said Mike Shinoda about the collaboration.

Jean is a Taiwanese American artist whose work is often populated by mythical beings and fairytale creatures. His canvases swirl with color and dynamism, and his work is full of energy. For Linkin Park's new album, he created aggressive imagery of warring men, appropriate for a title like The Hunting Party. After Jean sketched the works, digital artist Brandon Parvini rendered them in 3D, and the resulting images became the face of the new album.

We got in touch with Jean, as well as Mike Shinoda and Joe Hahn from Linkin Park, to ask how this explosive collaboration came to be.

In making The Hunting Party, we were striking out to make something visceral and aggressive.

How did you come up with the concept for The Hunting Party cover/promotional art?
James Jean: I had a few discussions with Joe Hahn and the creative team about the visuals, and we created mood boards and shared images that seemed to define a general direction. Joe wanted to create a universe inhabited by powerful characters and defined by strange landscapes. At first, the concept was as simple as creating a character or landscape for each song. But then we wouldn't know exactly what that would be until I started sketching.

Mike Shinoda: We try to approach our art—packaging, merchandise, tour visuals, videos, anything—in a holistic way. All the parts are interconnected, and by creating great imagery that can be used in multiple contexts, we can immerse the fans in a universe that is consistent and unique to each release. It's always a work in progress, but I feel like we've learned a lot and continue to make it better each time.

Why did you choose figures in battle, either armed with a bow an arrow or fighting? Is there a reason you went for this aggressive, masculine imagery besides the title?
Actually, at this point, there wasn't a title yet. Brad [Delson] sent me some overarching concepts, which were mostly about internal and external struggles. Metaphorically, these would take place on a battlefield. And as it is with many struggles, especially those that happen today, the boundaries between victory and defeat are hard to define. So in my imagination, these characters would be armed for battle but also have a sense of fragility.

As I started drawing, images would recur, like flesh tearing and transforming into different forms and brittle shards of crystal erupting from organic matter. The band has a long history and their evolution is much discussed and scrutinized, so these characters would be the manifestation of that evolution—complex mutations that express their discontent.

MS: The album title came from a piece I read about online. A Japanese writer proposed that Japanese culture might be in trouble because the young men were, as she put it, "sheep boys" or "herbivores." They sat and grazed, waiting for opportunity to come to them. They didn't go out and hunt for a girl, a job, whatever. We have been feeling the same about music; it's turned soft and safe. In making The Hunting Party, we were striking out to make something visceral and aggressive.

James, how long did it take you to create the work from the time you were asked?
I decided to create these drawings in a sketchbook. It felt more intimate that way and less precious. The intent was to have a separate team transform them into 3D assets, so there would be additional development on the characters in terms of lighting and texture. It took about a month to get 20 drawings done, and as I was drawing, the creative team would choose which characters to model in 3D. It was really an exploration, just coming up with as many rendered drawings as possible in a short amount of time to see which forms and ideas would work best. 

James, your work is often mythic or epic, with fantastical characters in very dynamic scenes. How do you think this aesthetic translates to Linkin Park's music?
LP is a synthesis of many influences, and I feel like my approach is similar in that I draw from disparate aspects of visual culture, from animation to folk art to contemporary painting, and use different media from traditional materials to digital tools to create my images. In that sense, the scope of the work tends to be vast and deeply textured, similar to their music, videos, and performances. 

When you tie great imagery to the music, it can take you to a different place.

James, did you listen to their music while drawing the album art? How did the music influence the final product, if at all?
I knew the band was changing course with The Hunting Party, and armed with key text from Brad [Delson] and Mike [Shinoda], my drawings were charged with their intensity as well as their rationale for that change. That was enough to get things going. But no, I was not privy to the music at the time. Joe Hahn banned me from listening to new stuff ever since I played some unreleased songs from memory on his piano and he was afraid I would leak it.

How was this experience different from working with other artists? 
JJ: With Talib Kweli [who James Jean designed the cover art for on Prisoner of Consciousin 2012]  I just had to create a single image. I had pretty much complete freedom in both cases, but with LP, it was much more extensive and integrated with the philosophy of the band and the entire visual direction for the album. Each drawing would inform the next one, rather than just exist as a stand alone piece. 

Joe Hahn: Starting with Minutes To Midnight, we had the imagery created by Josh Vanover. For Living Things, it was Brandon Parvini. This one, it is James Jean. For these last three, we've tried to maintain consistent imagery within those projects. Also, Brandon has played a pivotal role those as well with his computer based illustration graphics. 

How do you think working with artists in other fields lets you expand beyond your normal practice?
I find that many musicians are also visual artists, or at least fans of art, so working with musicians comes naturally. Now that I think of it, I'm actually a failed musician who now makes art. With The Hunting Party, I had never done this many drawings, so quickly, on one particular theme before. Also, this would be the first time my drawings would be so faithfully interpreted in 3D, so if anything was surprising, it would be how all the 3D work would turn out.

MS: Our music is a constant push and pull between a human element and a digital one. That's a theme that has come in and out of a lot of our art in the past years, and it appears here in a different form. The opportunity to work with a painter and illustrator of James' caliber is a real treat. One thing I'm drawn to in his work is the range of complex emotions he depicts at the same time. I like to think our music does the same.

JH: Artists that resonate with me over time are the ones that have incredible music and great imagery that succeed what they are as just merely images of people. That has taken many different forms. Some examples are Pushead's work for Metallica, imagery for Pink Floyd's Tool, and even the out there concepts from the Beatles, to name a few. The band is split on how important this is, but I do my part to push it forward. It's fun for me. Music, art, literature, and film are forms of entertainment that give people a momentary escape. When you tie great imagery to the music, it can take you to a different place. 

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