Pete Fowler is a multi-talented and prolific artist, illustrator, toy designer, skateboarder, DJ, musician, and monster creator from Cardiff, South Wales, perhaps best known for his collaborations with Welsh band the Super Furry Animals.
Since the early 1990s Pete has been sharing his psychedelic world visions with us in almost too many forms to count. Among his recent artistic preoccupations have been his hugely successful and ever growing family of Monsterism and Monsterism Island toys, new music from his psych band Seahawks, skateboard graphics for a wide range of clients (including Panic and Unabomber back in the day) and a host of commercial projects. Recent shows in the UK, Europe, US and Japan are further testament to his huge popularity and scope as an artist.
His work has heart, passion, humour and showcases a dazzling imagination – a little like his conversation, as we were lucky enough to discover when we interviewed him recently.
First of all, how did you get into art and skateboarding? Do you see them linked?
I BMX’d before I skateboarded, and rode for a shop in Cardiff with a few mates. But as soon as I got into skateboarding the artwork on boards and t-shits really interested me. It was around the time when I was leaving school and going into 6th form and thinking about what I wanted to do. I did a little fanzine in Cardiff with a friend of mine which was maybe more fun that what I did in art school, where some people seemed so far ahead of me. So the whole skate thing, the mates I skated with, the gang mentality, shared aesthetic and sense of humour among my skateboard friends really fed into my art.
When I moved down to Cornwall to do fine art at uni, I used to skate loads and the two for me seemed like valid forms of self-expression. Just like everything I do now with art and music – I don’t really see a difference between artwork or music or skating. I’ve always felt they were linked. I used to skate with really creative people who were always making zines or taking pictures which all seemed linked in the self contained skate scene. A lot of the art wasn’t really seen outside the skate scene then, which I guess is really changing now.
Where there any skateboarders, artists or brands that inspired you at the time?
Yes, a lot of the skaters I really liked at the time were artists. Neil Blender was one of my all time faves, and I think many people have a soft spot for him. Obviously an absolute ripper but also out on his own with his artwork, and I liked that al lot of the artist/skaters weren’t out of art school, in the same way that they skated they painted or drew. Obviously you’ve also got the Gonz – not that I’m a huge fan of his artwork – but it’s the whole package with Mark Gonzales, and certainly some of his early boards I loved, same with Blender. So I guess they were my two faves really. But also other skaters of the era like Caballero, with his music – you see I was always into what else skaters did when they weren’t skating, for fun or as another outlet.
As for board brands, I loved the early Alien Workshop stuff and the early Powell Peralta stuff. My brother used to keep all his old decks, I think he had all the early Natas ones. I loved that 80s era especially when skaters themselves started to do their own graphics. The ‘Colour My Friends’ Gonz and the Blender ‘Coffee Drinker’ are just classic boards.
I remember your brother working at City Surf and he’d always have band names and other graphics painted on his grip
Yeah! I remember he had a really quite detailed and well painted Dinosaur Jr. thing on his tape. Going to so much effort is again another example of creativity in skateboarding. Personalising your board, you’d buy the board and shape you liked…but I’d always look at the graphics first!
That brings me to music and it’s influence on you. I know you’re really into and make music yourself, but also wanted to touch on your work for the Super Furry Animals, as your album cover artwork is possibly what many people know you best for. How did that come about?
It was a pretty random thing really. They had an album out before I started working with them, and I remember hearing that and their first EP, which I really liked. They saw some work I did for a free magazine in Cardiff. It had one of my paintings on the cover, and I’m not sure who in the band saw it but they liked it and were thinking about it for their second album – so I got a pretty random call from someone at Creation Records, their label at the time. It was pretty amazing at the time as I was really into them as a band, and obviously there was the whole Welsh connection as well! It was a really big deal for me at the time and it was one of the things I did that took my work to a wider audience.
For me music’s really closely linked to art and skateboarding – whether the music itself, the soundtracks to videos you learn about new bands through, the energy of a live gig, the album artwork, punk’s DIY ethos: how has music influenced your work?
Well I always listen to it when I work. I’ve collected records for a long time, I’ve been DJing for years and I make music with my friend John as Seahawks, so it’s always there I think. And again music and skating was a big thing. Everyone I used to skate with was really, really into music – not necessarily the things you would expect skaters to listen to at the time, like hardcore – but bands like Love, lots of psychedelic things, so there was always loads of music around and everyone was always sharing and swapping music which was kind of inspirational and influential.
So it’s always there in my art, whether it’s literally so with a guitar or synth in an illustration or painting, or in less obvious ways. I wouldn’t say when I hear music I hear colours, or things directly jump out ,but you kind of just soak it up and how it comes out isn’t up to you. It just finds its way in there.
When I’ve been making music for the last couple of years it’s been really DIY. It’s only really now we’re starting to work in studios. Up to now, everything has been done from a little home studio or on the kitchen table with lots of things plugged in everywhere. And I really like that DIY aspect of pure creativity really, having fun, in the same was as when I used to make a zine in Falmouth with two friends, a proper kitchen table thing with silk screen T-Shirts in the front room. It’s a similar approach I think. It just feels like you’re doing things which are a different creative process with different tools really. I like to think I can put similar things into lots of things I do then things start cross pollinating if you know what I mean. Something that comes from the music can come across in a painting, something from a painting will come out in an illustration or a print.
So to answer the question music is always something that’s there and always an inspiration or a mood enhancer. You know, you listen to music to match your mood, and that might affect what you’re creating. Or you can change your mood by listening to different kinds of music. I know some people who can’t listen to music when they create but I’m the opposite, I couldn’t not. I don’t really like silence when I’m creating something – I usually open iTunes probably before I open Illustrator!
Good quote for the piece there! I have one of your ‘Sounds of Monsterism Island’ compilations CDs and wondered if you could tell us a bit more about Monsterism and how that whole thing came about?
When I first moved to London I was doing a lot of editorial and figurative work for magazines like GQ. Those were mainly illustrations of humans, but the monsters and other characters were always something I had in my sketch book and I didn’t really see another outlet for them commercially at that time. I started to paint more and the characters came out more and thinking about it, it was probably starting to work with the Super Furries that gave me the confidence to get it out there. They liked the monster stuff, so I started to use it more in my artwork. That slowly developed into more and more characters, and after a while, having all these creatures, I started to think about where they’d live. And I started to think about their backstory so Monsterism and Monsterism Island was created.
Then I had an exhibition in Japan where I was showing sculptures, and I was approached by Sony Creative Products with the offer of some toys. That was the first toy project I did, and as I started to work on them, and create information cards for each one, it really started to kick off for me as a place to be free to create exactly what I want. There were no rules, apart from any that I might set, and after a few years of working on tight briefs for magazines where the subject matter was perhaps not something I’d do normally in my work – as is often the case when you’re doing commercial stuff – it was somewhere I could have fun and set my imagination free by creating a world I could populate.
You’ve worked with various methods and recently more mixed media – what’s your favourite?
It’s difficult to choose any medium, but with everything I do – even sometimes the music – it always starts with a pencil sketch. Drawing is at the root of everything I do. It’s where I work out my ideas and develop stuff, so that’s probably my favourite medium. I really love drawing with pencil, pen and ink – it’s how everything starts. It’s how I think really.
Actually though at the moment I’ve got an iPad and I’ve got this Griffin pen for it and an app called Brushes which I’m loving this week.
Sometimes I get into something totally new and think it’s the best thing ever, then go back to a different medium and bring something new to it. But pencil on paper is always my favourite! If the world goes all Mad Max you’ll still have pencil and paper – an iPad would be useless!
So your luxury item on a desert island would be pencil and paper?
Yeah – a huge crate of pencils!
What other artists inspire you? Do you own or collect work by other artists?
It’s funny because sometimes I look at lots of other artists and illustrators work, and sometimes I don’t: because I see so much good stuff and just think ‘My God I’ve got to pick up my game!’ Which can actually be quite inspiring too!
There’s an artist called Felt Mistress who makes soft sculptures. I’ve done a few collaborations with her, a show on YouTube I’m involved with called The Stuffs which she makes the puppets for – she’s amazing, the way she thinks, her skill, and craft she has which I really appreciate.
There’s also a young Cornish artist and illustrator called Jack Teagle who mostly paints and makes comics, which is something I like to see these days. Ppeople working ‘analogue’ for want of a better word.
Then there’s a Japanese artist called Keiichi Tanaami that I collaborated with on the last Super Furries album Dark Days/Light Years. He’s amazing and I’ve always really like his art and the film posters he did. He’s done so much, so working with him on the album was a bit of a dream come true.
There’s also an American comic artist called Jim Woodring who I’ve always liked. He does a strip called Frank which is really inspiring – the world he creates in this completely different fantasy strip about this cat called Frank is often beautiful, often disturbing and nightmarish.
I’ve got a few bits and pieces – a Felt Mistress beetle, lots of prints by other artists. The last one I bought was one of Jack Teagle’s from his NoBrow show in London. I really like to see original work because I’m a bit of a geek and like to see how they’ve done it!