Guest cover designer: Cailan Burns interview by Renae Mason

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“I had too much to dream last night,” says the furry blue creature, one hand over his right eye, warm red love-heart shaped tears escaping his left.

Another cheeky character has keyboard teeth and plays in a fun band while a loveable monster grins widely and shows you his clawed paws. Welcome to the magical realm created by Cailan Burns, illustrator, space traveler, one half of the musical duo Pretty Boy Crossover, and our special guest cover designer, as he helps summon up the joy of the new season.

“The cover is about impermanence and spring,” he says. “Seasons come and go, people too. I like the way that flowers are so fleeting, the smell and colour existing for such a short time. We all get too hung up on attachments. Things like flowers and the beauty of spring remind me how you can’t hang onto anything. It’s all in flux, so just enjoy the moment. Don’t stop the love, let it pour out!”

His characters show no signs of emotional inhibition. They are vivid, free-flowing with an almost anthropomorphic life. They are scarlet visions of the kinds of wisdoms that dot childhood imaginations. For this reason, I wonder what Cailan’s own childhood dreams and ambitions were like? Do they reflect the current patterns that flow through his art?

“When I was a kid, strangely enough, I really wanted to be a stunt man. I had this book called Bring On The Stuntman – I thought it was so cool. I used to do all kinds of stupid things involving jumping off stuff or over stuff. Then I got hurt and totally wimped out and stuck to drawing. After that I was fixated on horror movies and wanted to be a make-up effects artist. I have to admit, I wish I had followed that one. What a great job that would be.”

Cailan’ early childhood was diverse, growing up in places like Alice Springs where his memories are populated with family day trips, camping, swimming in waterholes, climbing things and bush walking in a desert paradise. But it wasn’ to last forever as his family soon left for the culture shock of Washington DC.

“It was such a different world. Luckily we lived near a creek so I could continue exploring rather than vegetating on the couch,” he says. Other sources of curiosity beyond nature adventures started to have an influence: “I guess like most kids of the ’80s I was into all the pop culture of the time. Music-wise everything from breakdance to hair metal. Art-wise I was in love with Japanese cartoons like Astro Boy, Star Blazers and Robotech. I was also really into Dungeons and Dragons art and especially Iron Maiden album covers. I just loved how they scared me as well as inspired me to draw and paint better.”

With that background in horror and heavy metal are Cailan’ psychedelic characters ever frightening to kids, I wonder.

“I haven’t really shown my work to that many children, but I have been told by friends that have children that they really like them. I don’t think they are too scary, maybe more weird than anything. Kids like weird. I did. I loved Mad and Cracked comics when I was young. I still remember the first time I saw a Robert Crumb comic. Now that scared me!”

Even as adults there are some things that induce fear, partially because of the mystery that obscures a clear perspective of the bigger picture. I ask Cailan whether these kinds of unknown quantities influence his work and he responds with a unique insight on death: “I lost my mother when I was 25. I had such a strange time back then dealing with it. It really did my head in. I realised that up until then I had been in a dream. Life was non-threatening, then I saw how fleeting it all is and how “now’ is the only time there is. I like reading about different cultural views on death, things like suffering, karma, rebirth and impermanence. I have always been into this sort of thing.

“While I was living in Japan I started to draw a lot of hearts in my work. It started to become a sort of motif, the eternal heartbeat maybe. Or the eternal heart of the universe or something. I like to use the shape of the heart in many ways, as a character’s face or body, as a pattern on clothing or exploding from their heads like a fountain. Hearts can be cold and warm, jumping out of your body or broken. They are a nice subject matter.”

What other things inspire Cailan?

“Everything and nothing. I often come up with ideas for art or music whilst grokking over the sound of an insect or listening to rain on the roof. There is inspiration all around at all times, inside and outside. We can’t escape it.”

Now there have been rumours that Cailan did, once upon a time, try his hand at “conceptual art’, before settling on character design. It’s necessary to get to the bottom of this for the the idea is, after all, rather exciting. Imagine what kind of power his work could yield in a three-dimensional space? Floor to ceiling psychedelic swirls? Robotic characters that respond to human presence or touch? Better still, what would they sound like in 5.1 surround? Sadly enough, it seems that the whispers aren’ really true. Cailan describes his time at art school in Adelaide, as rich with experimentation, a true process of becoming.

“It was a lot of fun and I met so many interesting people. I went there straight from school, which was crazy because I went to such a bogan school. It was a real eye opener. I felt I had finally found my place in the world. I fit in so easily and it was refreshing that no one cared about how you dressed, what you were into or what music you liked. It totally changed me as a person.

“At art-school you end up trying so many things: sculpture, photography, print making, video art… until you find your place. Everyone was starting to get more into conceptual art and making things like installations and stuff. I dabbled a little but realised that I loved drawing and painting. I perhaps realised I even wanted to be an illustrator which was kind of a dirty word in the visual arts area.” In fact, it wasn’ until Cailan left university that he really followed this path.

“After I left, I started to get back into drawing characters and illustrations. I was really getting into movies like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. I was listening to music by Aphex Twin and Autechre, as well as getting into psychedelic ’60s music and art. This began to reflect in my own work.”

Cailan describes his style as a blend of “psychedelic muppets” and “Where the Wild Things Are kind of monsters.” He has a design process with a difference: “I like to start my characters from the eyes out. I’m not sure why, it just seems to be a good place to begin from. The eyes are important for conveying the feeling of the character so they sort of blossom out from that point. Some ideas come to me in dreams, or when I stare at odd things. You know when you see a face in a carpet or a blotch on a wall. Other ideas I guess are me responding to some other artists work, like visual sampling.”

Sometimes it all boils down to random interventions that force a change in approach or thinking, like the time Cailan’ computer died, returning him to his foundation practice of working with paper. He recalls, “Before I first went to live in Japan in 2003, I was really getting into making art on the computer. The day before I arrived in Japan my laptop broke. When I got to Osaka, it wouldn’t turn on. I didn’t how to speak much Japanese and I didn’t know where to go to fix it. So I bought a sketchbook and some paints and basically got back into drawing and sketching again. It was such a blessing it happened. I had forgotten how much I liked to paint and draw. I now use the computer more for collaging and composing the pieces that I scan. It is still part of the work but I try to keep the hand drawn and painted feel.”

Running in parallel to all this activity is his musical collaboration with Jason Sweeney in Pretty Boy Crossover, otherwise known as “PBXO’. Cailan describes the music they make as “filmic and dreamy” – “Sometimes we are a little pop and other times more moody and ambient. Not sure where we fit in. It is always changing but we are bedroom shoegazers at heart.”

They’ve been busy releasing albums since their first offering System Soundtracks 01 was met with critical acclaim in 1998. Their follow up albums built on this success and it just keeps flowing. This year they have been busy with their latest release, Different Handwriting. Despite what the title may suggest, it really is in keeping with the gentle stream of sparse minimal beats and densely compressed Joy Division-like guitar fuzz that has helped to define their sound for some time. What we hear more of is lyrical content that craftily complements the aesthetic borne of their fortuitous meeting of minds and sensibilities.

“I actually met Jason Sweeney through a mutual friend,” remarks Cailan. “I did some artwork for a friend who was putting on a performance or play of sorts. Jason was one of the writers of one of the pieces. I remember we were talking about music and he said he had a sampler. I was so impressed. Not long after, Jason came to my house one day and we switched on the keyboards, fired up the four track and 606 and made some music. That became our first collaboration and we haven’t stopped since.”

Fresh from a tour to support the new album, they show no signs of slowing down and Cailan and Jason are discussing ideas for new musical collaborations.

“I have this idea to have a limit on what our palette for sound can be” says Cailan. “I am thinking of sampling all sounds from an old film and making every song and beat and noise only from this movie. It will be nice to have a limit set on us to see what we can do without so many options.”

Did you know Cailan also has a quirky side-project, a relic from his days in Japan?

“I really want to finish all the music I made in Japan,” he explains. “It’s called “Mystery Twin’ and it is basically me and some old synths, egg shakers, flea market keyboards, a guitar and my computer. Sometimes my wife Yoshie will sing in Japanese on a track or two. She sang in English at first but her flow in Japanese was just so much more interesting. She picked up on a different timing in the song and made the songs sound cool. I hope I can finish it soon. I feel like it is something I need to put out there as my diary on living in Japan.”

“Art-wise I have a sketchbook of loads of ideas for paintings. So I will have to kick my butt into gear and get busy on them. I am also working on some wooden ‘baboushka dolls’ for an exhibition in Germany. Also, I recently joined an arts group called the Jacky Winter Group. It’s a bunch of awesome illustrators from all over Australia brought together by a designer and friend Jeremy Wortsman. He is promoting us to the world and hopefully lots of cool projects will come our way!”

“I would love to make a kids’ book in the future, and learn how to play keyboard and guitar better, speak Japanese better, and also figure out what life is all about. This world is such a weird place. It’s 2007 and we all still can’t get along. I thought we were going to be driving flying cars and all wearing matching jumpsuits. Damn!” All the big things then. One thing is for sure, he’ not in a hurry to quit Pretty Boy Crossover. “I find it easy to work with Jason. I guess we complement each other’s style. I hope we make music together for as long as we can.

“Bingo hall tour 2047.” Now that sounds like something we’d be into, right?

Find Cailan Burns at www.jackywinter.com and www.myspace.com/toomuchtodream.

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