Here We Rest, the latest record from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, wound up at the top of many best of 2011 lists (including mine) for good reason. It is a strong collection of songs performed by great musicians. The album cover is quite nice, too -- a beautiful, strange painting of two birds fighting over a ribbon, all against a scuffed blue background. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Browan Lollar, the gifted artist who played guitar on that record and painted the album cover.
Lollar's a self-taught artist who generally paints on wood. "I finally found this medium that worked for me and have stuck to it, for the most part, for the past ten years. I paint on wood, I etch into the wood, and then I’ll add color to it." Lollar says this approach is "forgiving. You can add color, and you can take it away with sandpaper and then you can add accents with color pencil on top of the ink, and then you can add accents with, like oil based paints. It takes all of it." For Here We Rest, Lollar took that process a step further. "I distressed the hell out of it. I remember throwing it around, scraping it on the concrete outside my apartment, made it look real rough, kinda ragged."
Lollar painted the Here We Rest cover with the record in mind. If you've heard it, you know that the album conveys a distinct sense of place. "The whole feeling of the album was like Alabama Pines." That song, one of the best on the record, includes this verse, "You can't drive through Talladega on a weekend in October. Head up north to Jacksonville. Cut around and over. Watch your speed in Boiling Springs. They ain't got a thing to do. They'll get you every time." And the chorus: "Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines. Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines." Sometimes the Alabama thing is a little more subtle. Isbell and the band cover Heart On A String, which lands the listener right in Muscle Shoals, Isbell and Lollar's home area. Even when the record ventures out of Alabama, it stays in the South. Stopping By stops by in Atlanta and Never Could Believe is about a lady from Tennessee. Understandably, Lollar thought that the cover ought to convey some Alabama southernness. "I wanted something that tied in with the whole Alabama reformation, the New South thing after the Civil War. But I didn’t want it to be blatantly obvious. So I decided to do an allegory." Lollar explains that the little brown bird is a wood thrush, the "state" bird of Washington, D.C. The other bird is a yellowhammer, Alabama's state bird. The birds are fighting over a red ribbon as an "allegory for the Civil War. It seemed like it fit the album." The birds are situated just above the words "Here We Rest," which was adopted as Alabama's state motto by a reconstruction legislature back in 1868. The motto appeared on a white ribbon in the beak of a bald eagle on the old state seal. [Note: Alabama later changed its motto to a latin phrase meaning "We Dare Maintain Our Rights," which may (or may not) be a better state motto, but it would suck as an album title.]
When the self-titled Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit record was recorded, Isbell knew his guitarist painted, so he asked him to come up with something. "Jason had seen my artwork. He asked, why don’t you do something for the record? I said I’d give it a shot." Lollar didn't count on how busy things would be finishing the record, though, and he never got around to painting something just for that record. "It was down to the deadline, we had been so busy trying to wrap up the music, doing overdubs and other stuff, and I didn’t have time to do any painting. Management was emailing me about it." Lollar reached into his stockpile and pulled four choices including the tree that ultimately became the cover art. "I photographed all of those paintings, cropped them and sent them to Jason. He emailed me immediately and said that’s the one. I offered to make it better, and he said, don’t touch it. I said I could put a border, but he said no. And we ended up using it."
Lollar is an improviser. He loves the way color will just pop out on sealed wood, but sometimes he has to come up with his own method of applying the ink or the paint. For the 400 Unit piece, he found just what he needed under the sink in the bathroom. "I actually painted that painting with tampons. Because of the ink. It's a larger painting and, with the amount of ink that I put on there, I was using little Q-tips and I ran out. I was living with my ex-wife at the time and she had a big box of tampons under the sink. They worked perfectly." The result is an extremely rich depiction of color on top of Lollar's black/gray tree trunks and branches, which take us back to the roots of his art, before he figured out the color thing.
"For a long time I was confused – I hadn’t taken any classes, I always wanted to use color, but I couldn’t." Lollar, whose father was a Baptist preacher, taught himself the basics of art on a church pew. "Honestly, I’ve been painting so long I can’t remember when I started. My mom used to give me pencil and paper to shut me up in church. So, I would sit there and draw, and I wouldn’t cause any problems. I went from there to fingerpainting. I have always loved doing it, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. It’s always been a pastime of mine. Then, when I was a teenager, I started doing portraits for people and school and it gradually grew from there."
I learned about Lollar's visual artistry through Twitter. He mentioned that he had some prints for sale and we were fortunate enough to acquire one called Murder In The Sky. There's that black tree again, this time off center and less substantial. The tree, its branches and those black birds are juxtaposed against the blue of Lollar's sky. The print has a great look, so I asked about print making when we spoke. "That process is still evolving for me. I’ve got a friend named Vicky Antoine, she works with me on the prints. She’s really, really picky about the color saturations and the color correction. Giclee printing, it’s a type of inkjet printing . . . she’s able to get the prints to where they look just like the paintings. I’m really picky about the prints I sell to people, I go to great lengths to make sure the print looks as good as the original."
On the art front, next up for Lollar is a show in Florence. "I’m doing a big show that will be in Florence next month. I’m painting on top of old prints that I found at the Salvation Army. I’m adding ridiculous things to them. Those are all framed, like big wooden frames." One of those is If We Fish They Send The Deathbots (pictured here without the frame):
So what are Lollar's influences? "The biggest influence, without a doubt, is Byron Wilkes. He’s passed away now, died about two years ago. He was one of my best friends. He lived in Florence. I grew up knowing him, I met him when I was about 17. He owned a comic book shop in town. He was an artist, an institution in Florence. Everybody on the wrong side of the tracks knew him, probably knew him very well. He was an endless source of input and inspiration. He was a great artist himself, but it was his critiquing, he would just sit there and look at it and really work with you on where he thought it was going . . . yeah, he was great." [Here's a linkto a piece out of London about Wilkes that is worth a look.]
"I also really like a lot of comic book artists. Robert Crumb is a big one. I love his color. The first time I saw some of his stuff, I was like, wow, that’s how you do color. I like Todd McFarlane a lot. I think he’s really good. And Gustav Klimt. I really liked his contorted and weird-looking limbs. Anytime he painted somebody it was like their bones were gnarled. There was a genius way he did color. And Dali, I loved Dali, I mean any teenager loves Dali. I really like things that are broken just a little bit, that are distressed and not perfect at all."
Although the subject of this piece is Lollar's visual art, we couldn't do an interview without discussing music. No longer a member of the 400 Unit (he says there's no scoop on that, it was just time for him to move on to something else - he has nothing but good things to say about Isbell and his former bandmates), he's now one of two singer-songwriters in a new group, the Pollies. The other is Jay Burgess, who was in Sons of Roswell. The bass player, Chris James, was also with Sons. Reed Watson is on drums, Daniel Stoddard is on keys and pedal steel. Ben Tanner also plays keyboards with the Pollies as he does with the Alabama Shakes. "I guess you could characterize [the Pollies] as Southern rock, Southern soul rock . . . Jay and I approach the song for the song first. We’re really concerned about song forward music. We write really personal stuff. So it comes off as singer-songwriter but we spend a lot of time in the studio on the musical things. We like everything from Kanye West to My Morning Jacket. We’re just a loud rock band." Lollar says that the Pollies are in the home stretch on their first record and should have it out this summer.
To close this piece out, here's another album cover by Lollar, this one for the Fiddleworms. I'm guessing that right about now he's painting something for the new Pollies record. Hope he bought plenty of Q-tips.
All photos are by Browan Lollar except the old Alabama state seal, which I'm guessing is in the public domain. Inquiries regarding Lollar's art can be directed to him BrowanLollar@gmail.com. He's also on Twitter, @browanlollar.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines.