To gaze at the cover of “Oczy Mlody” — the latest album by psych-rock lifers the Flaming Lips — is to feel confused. Slime bursts from the silhouette of a neon pink head. Bronze air vibrates. The album’s title is displayed in amorphous purple font that is at once ancient and futuristic. It looks like wall art from an alien head shop. The image is the work of Lexington, Ky.-based musician and artist, Robert Beatty.
While gathering material for his new book, “Floodgate Companion,” Beatty posted an early version of this image to Instagram. Not long afterward, Lips singer Wayne Coyne began leaving flattering emoji-heavy comments and later wrote to Beatty seeking permission to use the picture. “He didn’t even know that I did album covers,” says Beatty, who was a bit moved by the Coyne’s out-of-the-blue adulation. “It was strange for me,” he says. “They were such an important band for me as a teenager. They were one of the only weirder bands that you could see on TV.”
Now 35, Beatty emerged from the mid-’00s American underground music scene where he designed concert fliers, record covers and released experimental albums as a member of bands Hair Police and Three Legged Race.
At a moment when the LP cover has taken on a diminished stature — shrinking from a 12-by-12-inch cardboard sleeve to a iPhone thumbnail — Beatty’s work remains eye-catching. His drawings and digital airbrush paintings mulch vintage counterculture — old sci-fi paperbacks, ’60s ’zines — with a grotesque punk-inspired sensibility.
As a result, he has become a sought-after album cover artist, creating designs for musicians that are both fringe (Don’t DJ, Steve Moore) and popular (Real Estate, Tame Impala). He describes his first book, “Floodgate Companion,” as a sort of lookbook of otherworldly design concepts.
Below, he discusses a selection of his most notable record covers.
“Challenger” is notable for being one of the first record covers where Beatty employed the digital airbrushing technique that would become his calling card. “That was the cover that was really the beginning of all of this,” he says. “It caught a lot of people’s attention.”
Musically speaking, the record offers a gritty take on drone and minimalism. However, the cover image — a fountain of vibrant psychedelic glop blasting forth from a cracked eggshell — suggests a more uplifting tone, framing the sounds as transcendent rather than foreboding. “I felt like it would be the cover that I never lived down,” says Beatty. “At least, until I did that Tame Impala cover.”
The basic concept came from the Australian psych-rock band’s guitarist, Kevin Parker. “He came to me with a lot of reference images of fluid dynamics — the way that air or water molecules flow around obstacles in their path,” explains Beatty. The result is part physics textbook, part lava lamp. Looking at the image now, the artist sees a few parallels to another zone-out classic, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Both use simple imagery — light traveling through a prism, lines bending around a sphere — to imply a narrative of transformation. “I’m doing all these record covers and I’m just remaking ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ on accident.”
A literal interpretation of the album’s oblique title, the image depicts a hallway lined with exotic exits. “It’s kind of based on old cartoons where somebody would go in a door in a hallway and come out on the other side of the hallway,” says Beatty. According to Beatty, John Dwyer — who leads the Los Angeles-based garage rock band — has an affinity for grotesque comedy and horror imagery. “He wants the things that other people make me take off of record covers,” he says. “Things that are a little too grotesque.”
Each song on the Philadelphia-based guitarist’s double record is given its own image. “That’s a very prog thing to do, I think, to have a sort of storybook that goes along with the record,” says Beatty. Some of the images are fairly straightforward, while others take gonzo liberties. Forsyth wrote the song “Boston Street Lullaby” while sitting next to his sleeping son. Beatty took that inspiration and came up with a serene-looking E.T. fetus adrift in warm cosmic light. “It’s one of those times where somebody asked me to do something endearing and I wind up with something that’s alien and kind of frightening.”
The Brooklyn-based synthesizer ensemble asked Beatty for an image that evoked mythological themes and Renaissance art. The result is a landscape painting with a Middle Earth sensibility. Inspired by a book of photographs by Japanese film director Shuji Terayama, Beatty decided to place the painting in a frame. “It feels like you’re hanging it on the wall somewhere, rather than viewing the scene from your own perspective,” he says. “It’s a step removed from your reality.”
This cover, for the Los Angeles-based electronic music producer Eddie Ruscha, falls among Beatty’s more abstract works. Amid a haze of tie-dye smog, a pink blob follows a gleaming circuit board through a portal into another dimension. “I don’t think Eddie gave me much to reference for that one, explains Beatty. “He wanted it to be a glowing aura of somebody’s spirit who had departed this world — [a depiction] of something moving from one plane into another.”
This cover designed for by experimental electronic composer Daniel Lopatin forgoes Beatty’s airbrush techniques in favor of graphic design. “There’s a very simple movement and decay represented in those falling bars,” he says. “In [Lopatin’s] music, there’s often a thread of things building up and then collapsing underneath you. It’s almost like he was composing songs and then disassembling them, like if you had a wall of dominoes and you flick one. It’s trying to convey that feeling through the imagery.”