Publicity photos are strange beasts. No matter how many times I’ve been involved in the writing, production, or design of an album with The Orange Peels, it almost always comes as a surprise. It’s always three months or so before the release date, and it’s always the last thing we’re thinking about. Amidst rehearsing the new material, deciding on what to include in the set, planning record release shows and where to go on tour, the call from the label or the publicist arrives. “Hey, when can you get us your new publicity photo? We need it by early next week.”
I guess one of the reasons I’m always blindsided by the request is that I always dread committing to an image that will represent our music in the press for the next year, and one that will probably live online for the conceivable future. So how do you do this? I’ve always been envious of my high school chums in The Mummies for this very reason — at least I was until I actually smelled the home-made bandage costumes fermenting in a milk crate in the corner of their old rehearsal space in “Bruno” California one day. Bands like Kraftwerk have similarly micromanaged every aspect of their visual appearance in publicity photos.
We’re not a faceless garage band, or a robotic Krautrock band. We’re . . . um, well, a band that does whatever we’re doing at the moment. On our first album Square (1997), we were a sharp-dressed, short haired young pop band swimming against the tide of post-grunge slobs with bad tattoos and ironic bowling shirts. The image we used was shot in the green room of La Luna in Portland Oregon the moment after we’d just come off stage at the biggest show we’d ever played. On a BMI showcase bill with John Cale and Cake, we had just been offered a joint by Krist Novoselic when we sat down on a backstage couch and the photographer snapped a photo that captured the excitement of the moment.
For our second album design (So Far, 2001), I had used midcentury modern elements of the Eichler house where we had set up our new home studio. Our publicist said he thought the idea was great, because it tied the style of the music to a style of architecture. What this meant for the band photo was trying to capture the feel of midcentury optimism and design.
Jill purchased a set of matching turtleneck sweaters for the band and we invited our friend Trent (from the aforementioned Mummies) to photograph us. The house shots turned out fairly well, but were a little restrained feeling. It was when we got into Larry Winther’s vintage Volkswagen bus (built the same year as our Eichler house) that things started to take shape. On that album, we made the pages of Architectural Record, USA Today, and even the New York Times.
By the time we were ready to release our third album, Circling the Sun (2005), the band’s lineup was completely different, and our sound had begun to stretch out. The more earthy, seasonal compositions seemed to want a more natural landscape. I started designing the album cover with images that Oed Ronne and I had taken on a band camping trip in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
When the concept was finalized and the album tracks were mixed and mastered, we returned to the location on Black Mountain with a couple cameras and a tripod in tow. Shooting hundreds of photos in that magical time around the July sunset, we totally lost track of time and ended up sprinting 7 miles down the trail in the moonlight, just barely missing a parking ticket by the on-duty ranger.
During the making of 2020 (2009), we had another unexpected change of personnel. Basically, everyone who had ever been in the band and quit had come back for at least a cameo on the record. The album itself was much harder rocking than anything we’d tried before — perhaps the result of having four lead guitar players in and out of the lineup during the recording. It made for a unique, rough-edged take on our ethereal pop. The album design I was working on was almost completely text-based, with some sunshine and nature elements layered behind. Maybe it was an attempt at marrying the architectural feel of So Far with the organic California sprawl of Circling the Sun? I don’t know. In desperation, a few days before the photo was due, we hung a black sheet (which had mysteriously ended up in our van after opening for ABC at The Edge in Palo Alto) in our hallway underneath a skylight and began shooting photos. Eventually, we ended up piecing together this shot out of individual head shots because it was too difficult to fit us all into the frame.
Sun Moon (2013) was kind of a watershed for The Orange Peels. The live band that went out and toured the 2020 album actually stayed together long enough to record a proper collection of songs. The resulting recordings were swift, immediate, and unlike anything the band had ever done. From the start, it just felt like a new era for the band. The art direction was simple, geometric, and totally open to interpretation. What is a Sun Moon, anyway? Scrambling again for a photo, we found ourselves wearing colorful Mike Nesmith-style skull caps (hand knit by Suzie Racho), and posing in the atrium of the Eichler. Suzie took the photo using a new 20mm pancake lens we had just bought. Eventually we took additional publicity photos for the release, and the San Francisco Chronicle did a great photo shoot with us for a feature in 96 Hours, but it was the hat shot that was used just about everywhere else.
In the year leading up to Begin the Begone (May 5, 2015), Jill and I had been through a hell of a lot — surviving a horrific car crash, escaping Silicon Valley, and retreating to the redwooded Santa Cruz Mountains — and the new album would embody the strange and wonderful journey. With lyrics, atmospheres, and song structures that reflected the events, the album design began to take shape. A sparse treescape with blue-green tones emerged as a backdrop, and an image of us from USA Today from the 2001 So Far days surfaced — not the actual photo, but the half-tone print that ran in the print edition. Layering current and past lives, the design was complete.
My original idea for the publicity photo was pretty simple: shoot the band in the trees at the new Boulder Creek house. Again, time snuck up on us, and the “We need the photo by early next week” call came in. We had already planned a rehearsal at Gabriel’s house in the Oakland hills, and we could have shot in the trees there. But I thought, “We’ve done this before.” There’s got to be a way to visually describe the band moving its headquarters from the sleek Silicon Valley Eichler to the rambling redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains. One stop to the hobby shop on the way to rehearsal provided the answer. Walking out of there with $32 in model railroad landscape trees, I was pretty sure I had just wasted some band funds.
With a glossy white end table, a projector and screen, a dozen fake trees, and the beautiful afternoon light we somehow made it work.
Behind the scenes of the Begin the Begone photo shoot: