As Rick Wakeman once said, Roger Dean is the only one who’s been “in and out of the Yes camp” more times than he has. Starting with ‘Fragile’ in 1971, Dean has designed the covers for many of the band’s albums, as well as their famous logo. Other groups he has created artwork for include Asia, Uriah Heep, Gentle Giant and Budgie. As a result, his name has long been associated with progressive rock, and he is best known for his otherworldly landscapes filled with surreal structures. However, his work extends far beyond album covers: one of his main interests has always been architecture, and, fascinatingly, he is currently working with a group of scientists and engineers on designing a Moon base.
His exhibition opened at Trading Boundaries in the heart of the East Sussex countryside a couple of days ago, and it runs until 10th December. I sat down with him at the private view on Friday 3rd November.
Much of your work has been inspired by the Chinese philosophy of feng shui. Where does this interest originate from?
I first heard about feng shui when I was a child and lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years. And I did my master’s degree looking at the psychological effects of buildings; what kind of spaces make people happy and what kind of spaces make them unhappy. While I was doing my thesis, I revisited feng shui. Now, at the time, in the 60s, there was nothing published about it in England. But I had a little teeny book that was published in Hong Kong by an English vicar who wrote about feng shui, so it was in English, and I found it very interesting. It was kind of tangential to the real meaning of feng shui, but he was looking at how the two cultures, Chinese and English, interacted with each other. He was amused to find that the Chinese thought the English had a very powerful feng shui of their own, and they were very annoyed that the English wouldn’t share it. The evidence was that, for example, they would put an army base in an area, which was very poor and unauspicious. And the army engineers drained the site and planted bamboos, so it moved from being very swamp-like, full of mosquitoes and malaria, to a perfectly good site. And the Chinese thought this was some form of feng shui.
So it was all done for practical purposes.
Yes, very practical. And what I learnt from that was that for a lot of feng shui, there was a very practical reason. Feng shui was hidden around with a lot of mysticism and poetry, and yet, very often, there was a very straightforward practical reason for doing exactly the same thing.
How does this philosophy influence your paintings?
I was mainly using it for my architecture work. A lot of my paintings have pathways, bridges and other structures as the subject matter, and to a certain degree, there’s an awareness of feng shui in there.
You also spent some time in Greece as a child.
Yes, but I can barely remember it. I was only four years old when we first went to Greece.
So you weren’t really influenced by Greek architecture or art then?
No, no, no! I was just bored silly by it at college.
Are there any real-life landscapes anywhere in the world that you find particularly outstanding and inspiring?
There’s lots! The American deserts were very influential. And there are a lot of very beautiful Chinese landscapes, but I never saw them. I only say them in traditional watercolours; I never saw the actual sites. So the main ones I’ve seen have been the deserts, the giant redwood forests, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley – all that kind of stuff. It’s just wonderful.
Many of your landscapes could only exist in dreams. Are you interested in dreams at all?
I don’t recall ever including any dream elements in any of my paintings. I have wondered about it as recently as today… But I’ve never done it.
But your work has a lot of symbolism that’s similar to the symbolism in Surrealism, and the Surrealists were very interested in dreams.
I think ideas come from deep inside one’s psyche, and they come entangled with symbolism and things like that. So my work is not disengaged from symbolism, but I don’t consciously seek it out either.
Are you interested in the Surrealist movement?
To a degree. I’m very interested in Dali’s work, because he was a consummate craftsman. For the same reason, I’m less interested in Magritte, because he was less of a craftsman. But I’m interested in any art that has creativity and craftsmanship at its heart. And that can be true of music, as well as art. A lot of modern art doesn’t have creativity or craftsmanship at its heart.
Do you like any of the art that’s being made today?
Occasionally, I see things and think: “Oh, wow, that’s interesting!” I know some extremely talented artists who work in a parallel universe to the art world. The art world doesn’t embrace them, and they don’t care.
But many of the greatest artists never really fitted in to any movement.
No. And I think the art world these days essentially focuses on the predictable and the mediocre.
You once said that Rick Griffin’s artwork for the Grateful Dead’s ‘Aoxomoxoa’ had a big impact on you. What exactly did you find so interesting about it?
When I saw that, it felt like being led out of prison. I find that both graphic design and architecture are thought not as an aesthetic or as a profession – they’re thought as a belief system, a theology, with delusions of rationality. It’s deeply, deeply repressive.
Like a religion?
Yes, like a religion – and as meaningless as most religions.
But do you think it’s still possible for artists to do something as interesting as you found Rick Griffin’s artwork 50 years ago? Or has everything been done before?
No! There’s no end to it. If human beings live another 1,000, 10,000, 100,000 years, there will always be new art and new music. It will never be all done.
Let’s talk a little bit about your album designs. Do you enjoy listening to most records you’ve created covers for?
I have to like the music to some degree, yes. Bear in mind that I’ve very often been asked to do a cover for a piece of music that doesn’t exist – especially in the past, when the cover had to be finished before the music was recorded. So there have been times when I finished the cover and I listened to the music and I thought: “Wow, this turned out good!” And there have been times when I thought: “Whoops, this is not so great!”
Which band have you found the easiest to work with?
All musicians are relatively easy to work with, because they expect me to know my job and get on with it. Whereas other clients spend a lot of time trying to tell me what to do. And I say: “If you’re this clear about what you want, then you don’t need me.” I really don’t like working unless I have a free hand… Musicians tend to give it to me.
They don’t usually have a specific idea of what they’re looking for?
They very rarely have a very specific idea. They don’t usually have ideas that are visual – sometimes they do, but very often they are more intangible.
Do you often say no to albums?
Unfortunately, I’ve said no far more often than I’d have liked, because I simply can’t do everything. I usually get asked about two or three times a day, and I only do four or five a year. So there’s a limit to what I can do. Don’t forget, I’m not just doing album covers.
Which album is your favourite to listen to out of the ones you’ve designed covers for?
I don’t really know. People say to me: “What’s your favourite album painting?” And I say: “Well, it’s usually the last one I’ve done.” It changes. I could say the Badger one, I could say ‘Close to the Edge’ by Yes. I’ve listened to them all. Some I’ve listened to a lot, some not so much.
What type of music do you mostly listen to?
I listen to all kinds. At the moment, I’ve got a Rameses cover on my desk. That was a fairly obscure cover I did. I’ve also got ‘The Master-Singers’ by Wagner, two Led Zeppelin albums, an Elvis Presley album and a Dvořák violin concerto on my desk.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just got back from a conference in Hawaii. I’ve been asked to design a Moon base. So I was there with a whole bunch of people from NASA and Boeing and other scientists and engineers. They want to built a prototype here on Earth somewhere, probably on a volcano in Hawaii, because the conditions there are similar to what’s on the Moon. So that’s my current big project. There are a couple of paintings from that project here. There’s one called “Moonbase”, which is based on some of the ideas for the project.
Why did they ask you to be involved in this project?
It’s a very harsh environment on the Moon. If you were out in it, you would die, so you have to be very well-protected. The radiation would kill, the vacuum would kill, asteroids would kill. So we have to design a Moon base that protects people from those physical problems. But there are other problems, too, like mental health. Because of my previous work on the psychology of the built environment, I have some insight that’s important when you’re looking at the mental health of people who are going to live there for a long time.
Visit TradingBoundaries.com for information on the current Roger Dean exhibition and the upcoming live music events.