Cover designers: We Buy Your Kids
By Alexandra Savvides
Looking at the art work created by Sonny Day and Biddy Maroney under the nom de plume We Buy Your Kids is like entering a fantasy world. Theirs is a space filled with whimsy, where each piece is not only visually stunning but also jumps off the poster, page or screen at you. At the same time, their world seems to radiate fun – fragile but flawed creatures grace their illustrations like moths to a flame, unable to resist the ornate home that Day and Maroney create for them.
Their work will be instantly familiar to anyone who has even a passing interest in tour poster and record promotion design. Creating identities for a number of musicians – including Les Savy Fav, Xiu Xiu, Clue to Kalo and Youth Group – and exhibiting in London and Barcelona with a fake movie poster for horror film Suspiria, the pair are no strangers to the other sides of the creative spectrum. Working together from a hub on King Street in Sydney’s Newtown, Day and Maroney started their partnership designing for the Popfrenzy label. Since then, their work has ventured beyond screen-printed posters to animation, album artwork and a plethora of other mediums.
Back to the beginning, then. They met seven years ago, after realising their work had been shown opposite each other at a group show at Firstdraft gallery, in Sydney. Maroney recalls one of their initial meetings. “I was so happy when he first came to my house and saw my drawings all over the walls. He seemed genuinely impressed. Maybe he’s just a good actor, but he said they were really ‘creepy’ and it was like the best compliment I ever received.”
As it turned out, they had both come from a creative background. Maroney was working in design and illustration, with the occasional group exhibition, whereas Day was working at Firstdraft as a director, drawing and exhibiting in that space. Collaboration was a mutual dream, even if it seemed a little far-fetched at the time.
It took a fortuitous intervention from Popfrenzy’s Chris Wu to finally make their collaboration bear fruit. Initially, Wu chatted to Day specifically about some art posters for the burgeoning label. “[Sonny wanted] something different and individual that wasn’t a press photo plus logo, or just the album cover. And that was something Chris had wanted to do as well. He was organising this massive tour that with Les Savy Fav, The Hold Steady, Pretty Girls Make Graves, The Gossip and others touring around Australia, so he asked us to do posters for that. That was like a dream come true, especially for Sonny since he is crazy for Les Savy Fav.”
“We had a screen-printing carousel at home at the time because Sonny had been asked to print up some shirts for a friend. We had a bit of a test run on a poster for a Damo Suzuki show that was disastrous. There was a heatwave, the ink was drying in the screen and then there was a blackout and we were trying to lug this heavy machinery down alleyways to friends’ houses to finish it. It was a terrible first go.”
“The design for that doesn’t really look like our stuff either – it looks a bit like any designer’s work. But it was all good after that. We made more in our own style and Sonny got the printing thing working pretty good. And seeing our posters at the merch stand at the Les Savy Fav show gave us thrills. We also got to do more posters for Damo Suzuki shows, and I’m much happier with them than that original one.”
When asked about the role that music plays in their work, the pair are unanimous, both loving the opportunity to work on predominantly music-based projects. “All our personal work, the stuff we show in exhibitions, is based on music, or movies. Those pieces are always named after songs too. That thrill we spoke of, of being at the Les Savy Fav show and looking over and seeing people walk away with our poster is just totally exciting. Being fans and then having this small involvement through the images you make – it’s awesome.”
Friendships also form the basis of a lot of their music-related commissions. “Biddy has a long history with artwork for Youth Group, and we just did another cover for the release of their last album in the US,” Day says. “We’ve done a lot of posters for them too. That stuff is always our favourite because they are dream clients, maybe because they are friends too – they will come and discuss what they are thinking or what we are thinking and it’s always fun to do.”
“The style of the work we’ve done for them over the years has really evolved too. The band’s evolved, and when you look at the covers Biddy has done, it’s a good chart of how her work has changed over the years, culminating in being We Buy Your Kids stuff. Even if we never get to draw them another thing, we’ve had a dream run making them a stack of different images over the last few years.”
It’s typical WBYK style to see fantastical creatures pop up; a giant black cat, an owl with a naval hat perched on its head, an almost gothic male Medusa dancing with a maiden. There’s ornamentation too, like their delicate patterns interspersed between more aggressive and bold elements. Maroney puts this down to escapism. “We’re not the kinds of illustrators who examine the everyday or comment on society – we are just about escapism, and the escapism that comes through cult horror stylings in particular. It’s entertaining and a way to deal with your anxieties – to make them kitsch and attractive. All the witches and stuff we draw are brightly coloured and really decorative, when in reality it’s skulls and death and things that aren’t pretty. But if you can make an imaginary world that looks appealing – it’s like make-believe playing when you’re a kid.”
This month’s cover is painted with the typically quirky WBYK brush. Decorative and almost tribal in its colouring and style, it’s a defiant visual statement. “It’s combining a few elements we use repeatedly, the way the facial features are drawn, but we wanted to make something that was compositionally very simple, but had a lot of detail and texture in there. I think it looks tribal too – which is good because it initially looked a bit metally, but we really like all the decoration that goes with voodoo and old witchcraft so we used a bit of that,” Maroney says.
“The face is supposed to look very still, in the middle of something that is very loud and busy, a bit of a commotion. I think it looks like an orc, in that Lord of the Rings movie, where it pops its head up from all the killing. Maybe the face on the back is the same orc, later in the day, reflecting on why he’s gotta be so bad, and feeling all emotional. Hah. If we had to name it, I’d call it Everything’s Alright When You’re Down, which is fitting because orcs are well-known to be Jesus and Mary Chain fans.”
See more of We Buy Your Kids’ work at webuyyourkids.com.