Iconic visual artist Derek Hess, known for his work designing album artwork for the likes of Unearth, In Flames, Converge, and Sepultura, is embarking on a book tour for his release, 31 Days in May: A Visual Journey. The book is a collection of art that focuses on mental illness, specifically Hess’ own battles with alcoholism and bi-polar disorder. What started out as a series of social media posts last year quickly blossomed into a full-fledged book. Hess will be having a signing at San Francisco’s Loved to Death Art Shop on Sunday May Sixth.
SF Sonic sat down with Hess recently to talk about his inspirations in the art and music worlds, how this book idea came out, and the book tour, among other things.
SF Sonic: Alright, so, I had a couple questions that I just wanted to ask you first, just relatively general questions, and then we’ll get into some more specific ones.
Hess: Sure. That’s fine.
SF Sonic: Awesome. So, I’m really interested what made you get into art initially, specifically creating art based around music?
Hess: Well, I came up a music fan, and Queen concert was my first gig in ’77, and it made the impression.
SF Sonic: Oh, wow.
Hess: Yeah. I mean, it changed my life. I was a kid, and so immediately in art class, I started drawing Queen, and then Kiss and all the big ones of the late 70s, and I can’t hold a note. I can’t play anything, so what I can bring to the table as far as music goes is my artwork.
I did some CD covers. I also booked a club for six years where I did all the concert posters and flyers for as well, so I had my hand definitely in the industry at that point from 89 through 95 during the concert poster resurgence. I got in the right time when Kozack was doing his thing and Coop was doing his thing and Taz was too, and so that’s how I got started in it, in music.
SF Sonic: Awesome. So I know you mentioned some musical artists that really inspired you when you were coming up, but what about some visual artists that really inspired you during that early period of time in the late ’70’s? What were your influences then?
Hess: Oh yeah. This comic book artist named Gil Kane. G-I-L, K-A-N-E, made a huge impression like that Queen concert did. He uses perspective in amazing ways, forces it, it’s forced perspective. He’s an anatomical genius, or was, he’s since passed. And he was drawing Captain Marvel, Captain America, Green Lantern.
The Atom, several others. So, I was into comic books, and I was into concerts when I was 13, 14, 15 on up. So Gil Kane was big. Gene Colan was another big one. Jim Steranko was another big one. Jack Kirby, of course, was the guy.
SF Sonic: Oh yeah.
Hess: Yeah, it was comic book art, was the big influence on my drawing.
SF Sonic: Awesome, awesome.
Hess: That and Black Sabbath Heaven and Hell record.
SF Sonic: Haha, oh man.
Hess: Because the cover was of the angels smoking and playing poker, and after that record came out I just started drawing angels, and I still draw ’em today.
SF Sonic: That’s awesome. Yeah it’s crazy. That album just turned 38 years old I think, yesterday.
Hess: Wow, wow. Yeah, Derek’s getting old.
SF Sonic: Yep. So just switching gears a little bit now. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your own mental health issues and how they have impacted your art, ’cause I know this is something you’re really passionate about, and that’s really the centerpiece of what the new book is all about.
Hess: Well, with artists and artwork, you tend to draw on what you know. Draw, I don’t mean to be a pun.
SF Sonic: Right.
Hess: As far as what your imagery is going to be. And you’re gonna draw on your own experiences. Initially, I was diagnosed as clinically depressed. That’s situational depression, the clinical kind. So my work was depressing, and as I was treated for depression, misdiagnosed bipolar people tend to be treated for depression. What happens then is the other half of the disease, the illness, comes out, which would be the mania half, so it drives it out, and that’s when they get diagnosed with being bipolar. That happens a lot, and that’s what happened with me.
So I was drawing these depressed images, sad images, but then I started getting them with an edge, and more of an urgent kind of feel to ’em, which was then the mania coming out. And now I definitely, no pun intended, draw on those passions, although I am pretty baseline right now. I’m doing well as far as managing my own mental health right now, bipolar.
SF Sonic: That’s really great to hear. I actually had a friend who had a very similar experience not too long ago, where he was initially diagnosed with depression, and then it turned out that he did in fact have bipolar disorder the whole time.
Hess: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, it’s common.
SF Sonic: Okay, so what gave you the idea to do 31 Days in May? What was that moment when you decided, oh this would be a really cool project for me to take on?
Hess: Well, the project happened last year, May of 2017, where every day of May, I took an image of mine and a description that was related to the image as far as mental health goes, and I posted them on Facebook and Instagram every day. So May 1 was an image and then an explanation of what description of how it related to mental illness. May 2 was another image, May 3, 4, 5, 6, and so on.
So that really went over well as far as response goes, tons of emails about it. People liking the idea, saying how they could relate more to the art, how it relates to their own personal mental issues, and so on and so forth. So we’re like, when I saw we, me and my business partner Marty Geramita, were like, wow, why don’t we just put this together as a book and put it out in May, and call it 31 Days of May.
SF Sonic: Nice!
Hess: So that’s where the idea came from, and it being a book we could add more pictures. ‘Cause we don’t just want 31 images in a book, you want a whole bunch.
SF Sonic: Oh yeah, definitely.
Hess: It being an art book. So say May 1 would have that initial image, and then it would have three or four more pictures to go with it. Then May 2 would have the initial image that we did the year before, and then more artwork with it, and that’s how it came about.
SF Sonic: Awesome. Well that sounds great, so just keeping on that topic, have you ever done a book tour like this before?
Hess: No. This is something very new to me.
Yeah, never done a book tour. I mean I do art shows in other cities, while I go out there and spend the weekend and come home, but I never did anything where it’s gonna be consecutive dates in a row.
SF Sonic: Okay.
Hess: So we’ll see how I hold up on this. I remember when I was booking the club about how bands were just killing themselves getting to city to city, loading up, going and meeting backstage, playing, loading back up, and heading towards the next city in the middle of the night. That’s not gonna happen.
SF Sonic: Yeah.
Hess: I’m gonna at least get a day off here or there. But, I definitely am familiar with the trials of being on the road from a viewer, from a… you know…
SF Sonic: Oh definitely I get that sentiment, totally.
SF Sonic: So what are you most excited about in terms of this book tour? Are you excited to visit a certain city, or see a certain friend in a certain city or what? Something like that?
Hess: Well, definitely it’s gonna be cool going to these cities ’cause I know a fair amount of people, especially on the West Coast. It’s gonna be nice to see all those people. And one other thing I really liked about this tour is that we’re hitting smaller markets, we’re hitting Augusta, GA, and Syracuse, NY, and Orlando, FL, Fort Meyers, FL. Orlando may not be small, but Fort Meyers is a little bit smaller than that.
Hess: It’s gonna be really cool because there’s like a demand. We wouldn’t be going there if people weren’t asking us to come there, so that’s gonna be really cool. It’s not like we’re forcing ourself into a market, where I wanna do a show in Atlanta so we need to find a place that we can do it at, and we speak to the place and they’re like be, kind of medium warmth to it, lukewarm to the idea; whereas Augusta approached us, and they’re very excited about it, so we’re gonna go to Augusta. So, yeah I’m really pumped that I’m hitting these smaller markets.
SF Sonic: Yeah that sounds awesome. So just shifting gears a little bit, I’m gonna ask a little more of a fancy, sciencey question, because this is something that I’ve dealt with and a lot of people around my age, young millennials, have certainly dealt a lot with. Do you think this modern world of over-stimulation, with all the apps and the social media, and all the updates, and all just the constant barrage of staring at screens and all just what we have right now in our culture – do you think that is contributing to more mental health issues and exasperating mental health issues?
Hess: It’s an interesting question. I don’t know. I could see it kind of working on the anxiety side of mental issues. Just the constant deluge of imagery, imagery, imagery. Then the interaction that people are getting with Instagram and Facebook that you normally wouldn’t get with people and may not even get if you were face to face with this person, you wouldn’t have the same kind of interaction.
That goes into the bullying that kids go through in high school. If the person’s predisposed to be depressed or something, if they start getting deluged with hate email or just anxious email that you need to do this, or you need to do that to be this way or that way, it could definitely trigger it, and even if it’s not a mental illness, it might be situational depression, but that could just drive a person. I think that’s really tough. I don’t know. I don’t know how kids do it these days. I’m lucky that I didn’t have to come up with that.
SF Sonic: Yeah, it’s been interesting for me just because when I was growing up, all this stuff had just started to be a thing, but no one had iPhones. People weren’t posting all these photos. There wasn’t a whole lot of user-generated content. Now there’s just a barrage.
Hess: That was the MySpace days, right?
SF Sonic: Yeah, yeah. Myspace days like, very little barrage of the same kind of things that you see now. It’s probably 100, if not 500 times more extreme now than it was thirteen years ago.
Hess: Yeah, could you imagine where it’ll be in another five years?
SF Sonic: Oh, god. I don’t wanna think that far ahead.
SF Sonic: Alright, so there’s definitely a certain edginess to a lot of your drawings. It certainly reminds me of a lot of classic metal album covers, and metal music videos and that kind of thing. So I was just wondering, what has the reception been like just in the rock and metal community since the announcement of 31 Days in May?
Hess: You know, I really don’t know. I haven’t had any contact with that industry since the book has come out. I definitely have a history with them because of after booking the club in the ’90’s, I definitely got involved with the hardcore scene, doing CD covers for Converge, metal stuff like CD covers for In Flames, and things like that. I know those people, a lot of those people support me and have supported everything I’ve done since then, which I feel very grateful for, but I don’t know how it’s going over with that community.
I would imagine it’d probably go over fairly well, because a lot of metal guys are depressed and angry and anxious, and right there on the edge. This artwork’s kind of depicting that.
SF Sonic: Yeah, definitely. So being as I’m writing for SF Sonic, and we’re based in the Bay Area, I’m gonna ask some Bay Area specific questions now, because we’re really excited to have you on May 6th. So I was just wondering if you can share any memories you have of being in the Bay Area, whether it was for an art show, or a music show, or anything like that. Do you have anything that you really like about the Bay Area that stands out?
Hess: You know I’ve only been there once. I had a show in Oakland, over at the Dennis King Gallery and that went over really well, but that was in the 90s. And there was something restaurant there that I really dug, something with a rose? Was it garlic restaurant? You know what I’m talking about?
SF Sonic: Oo, gosh, I don’t think that’s there anymore.
Hess: Oh, drag, ’cause that was really good.
SF Sonic: Yeah, there’s a lot of great food in the Bay Area, but–
Hess: Oh, I’m sure there is. I’m excited about it. I like going into different cities and trying the restaurants out. I’m sure there’s probably killer food in San Francisco, it’s gotta be.
SF Sonic: Oh yes.
Hess: But other than that, I only was there once in the 90s so I don’t have any–I was only there for like two days, so I don’t really have any great memories. It was positive, it was a positive experience, definitely. I liked the city, but didn’t give it a lot time to explore it.
SF Sonic: Okay, well, we’re really excited to come out and cover a little bit of the show on the sixth, at the Love to Death art shop, and it’s been great I think for me, just with my own personal experience having had a very close friend who has dealt with mental illness over the past couple years, I think it’s been really inspiring to read the book, and I think it’s really uplifting for a lot of people out there who do need that help and that support. And I just think it’s such a great artistic endeavor that you’ve done.
Hess: Oh, great, well thank you. And the book again, it’s my personal kind of journey through it, and my personal insights to it. I get a lot of emails with kids asking me, well what do I do about this, what do I do about that, and it’s like I don’t have the answers. Some people think that because I’m putting this book out that I am an official person who can help diagnose, take care of people. It’s definitely my story, but if my story relates to somebody else and can help somebody else, then I feel very satisfied.
SF Sonic: Yeah, definitely. Well just to wrap up I was wondering if you had any questions you wanted to ask me. I always kind of like to flip things around at the end of an interview just to spice it up a little bit, since I’ve been the one asking you questions the whole time.
Hess: Oh great. Well, number one, what is the publication we’re doing the interview for? Is it online, website?
SF Sonic: Yes, SF Sonic is an online website that covers music in the Bay Area. I’m the metal guy, so I go to all the metal shows, and all the rock shows, and write about them, and interview bands, and write about new music, things like that. So this is actually the first time that we’ve really covered more visual art, and I’m really excited that we’re doing so.
Hess: Cool, hey what do you think about that new Ghost?
SF Sonic: It’s pretty cool. I’m not the biggest fan of them. I’m more into the super hard edge, like At The Gates, In Flames kind of sound. But I saw Ghost open for Iron Maiden last year, and they were awesome. They put on a great show, and they sounded great.
Hess: Oh my god, I wish–that tour skipped our market and I wanted to go to that so bad, ’cause I love Maiden, came up on Maiden of course, and I dig what Ghost is doing. I’m sure that probably a killer show.
SF Sonic: Yeah it was pretty awesome I gotta say. I was able to get pretty close to the front, and I think I’ve seen Maiden like seven times, and each time it’s just been incredible.
Hess: Yeah, Maiden can do no wrong.
SF Sonic: Yeah.
Hess: They’re one of the bands, if you put an Iron Maiden sticker in your car, or a Black Sabbath sticker on your car, you’ve got credibility.
SF Sonic: Right.
Hess: Across the board.
SF Sonic: Instant credibility.
SF Sonic: Well, Derek, thank you so much for doing this interview, and I’m really looking forward to meeting you in person on the sixth, and I wish you the best of luck on this whole book tour. I think it’s a really, really great thing that you’re doing, and I think the metal and rock communities are definitely gonna be very excited to have you come around.
Hess: Oh, cool, well hey thank you very much. I definitely appreciate the support, and we’ll see you in a week or so.
SF Sonic: Yeah, it’s coming up pretty fast.
Hess: Yep, yep.
SF Sonic: Alright.
Hess: Starting Phoenix on the first.
SF Sonic: Nice, alright take care Derek.
Hess: Alright, you too, thanks man.
Derek Hess is bringing the mental health awareness tour to San Francisco’s Loved To Death art shop (1681 Haight St) on Sunday, May 6, 2018, where he will sign copies of 31 Days in May. Entry is FREE.
Photos by Angelo Merendino.