Cover designer interview – Tom Phillipson by Angela Stengel


Tom Phillipson was a creative boy long before he designed the cover for this issue of Cyclic Defrost. ‘I guess it really all started because my Grandma used to paint flowers on porcelain plates,’ he muses. ‘I never really did learn how to draw flowers, but she did teach me how to draw. From there I always tried to be creative.’

Tom is a graphic designer, a radio presenter and an electronic musician as well as being a founding member of the DumpHuck collective. He stresses that DumpHuck is not a record label even though music is a big part of it. He sees it as a group of designers that are not out there to brand the world with a DumpHuck logo, but to push the DumpHuck way of doing things. His designs can be seen on DumpHuck album covers, his voice heard on 2SER radio and his music heard on both.

One of DumpHuck’s major projects has been the release of four compilation CDs entitled Beat & Squelch. These albums are brimming with Australian electronic artists who have donated their tracks to the compilation, with profits going to Amnesty International. ‘It was around the time of Freedom so we thought we should do something to raise funds. We just thought ‘Yeah, let’s do it for Amnesty because they’re good kids.” A broad range of artists have featured on past compilations, including Quark Kent, Tim Koch, Superscience, Telemetry Orchestra and Purdy. ‘With Beat & Squelch we’ve always wanted to allow artists who haven’t been over-released or over-exposed to get out there without having to sell out and sell their soul to do it. They can have exposure without having to compromise what they do.’

Tom is currently working on DumpHuck’s latest release which is an Alphatown live cutup CD recorded at Frigid. ‘The learning process hasn’t stopped, but we know enough to be able to do everything without really making a mistake. We’re not saying that mistakes don’t happen because we actually like the mistakes. We try to endeavour to have a mistake on every product. At first it was just spelling mistakes because we’re all appalling spellers. There has always been a defect in the product in some way ‘ generally speaking. We try not to make them too big ‘ we hide them. We don’t actually put them in intentionally but we don’t look too carefully either.’

Despite seeming like a creative-project-producing machine, Tom admits to being bad with deadlines and creating things on demand. ‘If someone can give me a project just by saying ‘XYZ’ then I can create ‘XYZ’. But if they say ‘pick a letter’, I don’t have an idea what they’re talking about. Creatively everything I know has just been stuff I’ve learnt myself and it’s partly the reason for it.’ When he was asked to design a cover image he felt it was the perfect opportunity to pull out a recent creation that was without a home. ‘I had a brand new robot and nothing to do with it ‘ so that’s how the robot came to be on the cover,’ he said. He may make it sound easy, but he also notes that the ideas usually have to be further worked through with whoever is soliciting the project. In this case Seb Chan, editor of Cyclic Defrost asked if he could make it look less like a giraffe.

His obsession with robots started with Astroboy. ‘I would watch it religiously every day when I was a little kid, then we got a video recorder back in the early ’80s and it meant I could record them. So I did. Then I watched them over and over and over. From that I started watching other mechanical stuff such as Transformers. I know it’s daggy, but I have always loved robots. I wouldn’t say I’m fanatical about them, but I would have to say that one of my favourite things to watch is Neon Genesis Evangelion.’ Yet Tom is not won over by all robots. He divulges that real robots, such as the armed ones built for combat that the US has been experimenting with disturb him. ‘That sort of shit scares the crap out of me. A couple of months ago I saw some news footage from Israel of a robot checking out a suicide bomber, and it was armed with a M16 rifle. There is enough violence in the world – I don’t need my toaster oven giving me shit.’

Another creative project that Tom amuses himself with is creating music under the name of Funkenbubble. He drifted into the music industry through his involvement with community radio station 2SER but had always been interested in music, particularly hip-hop, before he started creating it. ‘With new music technology it’s not about learning an instrument, but learning a machine. You learn the parameters of what it does and however you interact with it is what the music is. I still don’t know how to play an instrument or read music. I do everything from hearing stuff. It’s not as if I start with a sound in my head and I think I want to make that. I find things and put them together and mess them up.’ He remarks that he creates his artworks, which often incorporate mixed media and an unknown outcome, in the same random way. ‘I’m not actually sure what is going to happen when, for instance, I paint something and put crackle medium on it and then set it on fire.’

Some of his recent graphic design work includes layout of the Soundbyte and Virtual Museum sites for the Powerhouse Museum. The Virtual Museum site allowed him to get down and dirty with Flash to make a behind the scenes panoramic tour of the museum. This site has an industrial and mechanical aesthetic behind it with a high level of interactivity. ‘It was really fun actually. I love working on projects where I know it’s not just to sell a product. And while the museum is on some level a product, it’s also one that is educational and helps people. I hate porning myself out, especially when it involves my creativity.’ The Soundbyte site on which he worked is a music network which links schools and soundhouses to allow them to share information and create music together online.

The problem with leading a multi-faceted creative life is that it doesn’t always amount to a career, but Tom thinks this suits him perfectly. ‘I’ve never had a career and I don’t think that all the things I do make up a career ‘ I don’t have superannuation. I don’t think I’d really be into a career. I know that sounds weird. I get bored really quickly. I get bored doing the stuff that I do.’ So it really is a good thing that he is interested in many areas because it allows him to switch between creative media when a block sets in. ‘I’m not constantly always creative. I can’t be a designer 24 hours a day and I can’t be a musician 24 hours a day. It’ll be late at night and I’ll get an idea and I’ll sit down and do it for four to five hours, but after that I run out of steam and when I come back to it the next day it’s not the same’.

Working in a corporate environment doing graphic design would give him not only a regular job, but also an environment where someone would specify ‘XYZ’; yet this idea has caused him most concern. ‘I’ve always feared becoming an advertising whore ‘ a graphic designer who doesn’t care who they work for as long as they get paid’ he says, adding that he doesn’t have a problem with people that do ‘ it’s just that he could never do it. But he strikes me as the type of person who is better skilled at roaming free within the creative process. Being an advertising whore wouldn’t work for him because he confesses to not wanting to sell any of his work as he just couldn’t bear to part with something he had worked so tirelessly on. ‘I get really attached to one-off pieces of art, like paintings. It’s strange, I think producing CDs has done that to me. You know’ spending hours compiling a CD and then 4 weeks later having 500 of them – all exactly the same. It makes you look at single piece of work totally differently.’

Being an instigator of many things creative and being a nice guy has given him a few problems, especially when it comes to passing opinion on other people’s music. ‘I try as much as possible to be straightforward with people. We often get demos and people wanting feedback, but it’s hard. If you’re not going to get on the compilation then the feedback is probably something you don’t want to hear. I don’t mind giving feedback, but I learnt long ago that I don’t like lying to people and telling them their music is great.’ He mentions that he has rejected material from all of the contributors to Qubit, and that’s all part of being professional in part of a collective. ‘I kind of feel bad because I never reject what I do, but I guess that’s the thing. The thing is that I’ve never actually asked them what they think either. It’s bad. I should,’ he discovers during our conversation.

It is this sort of democracy that he believes is missing from the mainstream music industry because many of the people involved in the mainstream are only looking for a way to make money out of it. ‘So much of the music industry is based around bullshit. The industry is part of what we do, but the mainstream is so much about bullshit and talking and no action. It really drives me insane sometimes.’

For Tom the underground music scene is about people creating music for their own personal satisfaction ‘ after all, there’s no money in it. ‘People who are outside of what would be termed the underground structures look at music as being this thing of ‘How can I make a living from it?’ You don’t if you’re in Australia. You can do it if you’re extremely lucky or if you’re willing to do a lot of things that you don’t like. Or if you’re willing to really change what you do to fit what record companies want and know that at the whim of a label you might be cut off.’

Tom also feels that a major attraction to underground music scenes is the intimacy with which one can know many other people in the scene, including the musicians themselves. ‘I think the Sydney scene is relatively healthy. It’s smaller than everywhere else so you can form a personal relationship to those you work with. You can talk to acts after they finish on stage. It kind of makes up for not being able to make a living out of it ‘ you make a lot of friends’.

DP001 – Various Artists – Beat & Squelch 1 : Dancing on the Clouds
DP002 – Various Artists – Beat & Squelch 2 : Fire in the Bassbins
DP003 – Various Artists – Beat & Squelch 3 : The Future Was Yesterday
DP004 – Various Artists – Beat & Squelch 4 : Chansons D’amour Pour Mon Robot
DP005 – Digital Kitchen ‘ Sonic Professa
DP006 – Various Artists – Qubit : Live Sessions
DP007 -Deepchild – Chocolate Dubs

Anglea Stengel


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