Adoptions and Adaptations: The Distinctive Design of Sacred Bones Records

Zola Jesus
Zola Jesus
Photo by Julia Comita

Two new LPs from Sacred Bones Records were released on June 9: One from the Norwegian advent-pop songstress Jenny Hval and the other courtesy of the Texan anarcho-punk outlet Institute. Sonically, these two records are miles apart. Yet beyond their shared record label, both Institute’s Catharsis and Hval’s Apocalypse, Girl share identical cover designs. And if you crate-dig through other Sacred Bones releases, you’ll quickly discover a trend in the way this Greenpoint, Brooklyn label presents their artists, from Amen Dunes to Zola Jesus.

The two responsible for this consistency are Sacred Bones’ founder Caleb Braaten and art director David Correll. Both men moved to New York from Colorado, share a passion for various forms of peculiar music, and drew inspiration for the label’s look from the likes of Factory Records and 4AD, two classic British labels notorious for their visually stunning creative teams.

“That’s always been a deliberate part of Sacred Bones: We wanted to be distinctive and to be known for [our] design," explains Correll between sips of his Goose Island IPA. "That’s our background. Those are the people who have inspired us over the years. Peter Saville [of Factory Records] is why I’m a designer." It’s a mid-week afternoon, and Correll and Braaten are posted up in the East Village pub that Braaten bartends at as a side gig. 

Founded in 2007, Sacred Bones marked its centennial release with The Hunt’s The Hunt Begins in the fall of 2013. This week’s Apocalypse, Girl was technically released first, certifying Catharsis as the label’s most recent and 135th release. This number wasn’t found by counting back through the label’s discography one at a time; rather, each release offers its numerical position on the cover in the upper-left corner beneath the label’s logo. “SBR-135” therefore graces the front of Catharsis. And this is just one of a handful of characteristics Sacred Bones uses in its cover design.

Select record covers from Sacred Bones releases
Select record covers from Sacred Bones releases
Album Art

The majority of the text is on the right with the artist’s name on top, along with the phrase “an LP recorded in _” hanging below to declare the year it was created. Next comes an italicized album title followed by both Side A and B’s tracking order. It’s a simple, effective design that smoothly markets music that could be classified by the uninitiated as unmarketable. (Pharmakon’s Abandon, though a fierce, fascinating listen, doesn't necessarily hit the eager ears of the pop radio-hungry set.) It also builds a brand that allows lesser-known acts to be associated with established veterans such as Zola Jesus, The Men, Blanck Mass, the solo project from Benjamin John Power of Fuck Buttons, and film icon and director David Lynch.

This cover design has been dubbed the LP Template (“A very boring name,” adds Correll) and its origins are somewhat mysterious.

“Caleb – do you remember the classical record?” calls out Correll, trying to recall the album cover that inspired the layout. ”Um, not off the top of my head,” responds Braaten from behind the bar. And so it remains lost: Anonymously attributed yet repeatedly referenced. The lack of its design origins perpetuates Sacred Bones’ mystique, and these two operators aim to maintain this consistency. “Let's just say that it was inspired by old classical and jazz records,” Correll later writes in an email when the topic is brought up one last time. “And, in spirit/concept, Penguin Books.”

The font used in the cover’s lettering is called Sabon, a font associated with the Garamond family, and was designed by the influential German typographer Jan Tschichold. Correll says that Tschichold revamped his style later in his career and developed Sabon as a twentieth Century adaptation of a few hundred-year-old typeface.

Sacred Bones has reissued sixteen albums, including obscure punk treasures and the original soundtrack of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. When asked if there is a connection between using this modernized font and Sacred Bone’s approach to updating music, Correll is quick to confirm.

“That was definitely a thought,” he says. “Coming from the original classical record that inspired the whole thing and taking this vey traditional old school, classical look and then giving it a weird, modern, kind of twisted dark edge – that’s been very conscious.”
While there’s value in designing each cover in such a similar fashion, eventually some artists grew weary of its look and requested other options.

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“Over the years we started to get a pushback from bands,” explains Correll. “Some bands love the template and wanted to do it, but by the time they’re putting out their second or third record they wanted more artistic freedom on their own. But we still wanted to have the records to be identifiable to Sacred Bones. So we created this third LP template, which you can see on The Men’s Tomorrow’s Hits. You can see it on the new Moon Duo record. They’re just little tabs on the front and back that fold over and there’s this spine thing we do. But besides that, it’s all open.”

Correll works closely with the artists and sometimes they’ll come to him with a fully fleshed-out plan or with just loosely scratched ideas, like in the case of Zola Jesus’ Versionswhere she approached Correll with photographs and told him to run with it.

The third LP template is minimally designed, allowing for the most artistic freedom possible while maintaining the label’s brand. It’s a stroke of perfected symmetry. Sacred Bones has adapted and adopted a new template that satisfies both the artist and label’s artistic expressions.

“We wanted to give them that freedom and a little bit of flexibility but still have our mark on it. It’s pretty unobtrusive,” says Correll. “We haven’t yet had any push back on that – we might someday – who knows? We’ll find out.”

Zola Jesus, Blanck Mass, and Container will perform at the Warsaw on June 14. For tickets visit here.

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