Ultimate Ears chose Pendleton as our first craftsperson for the Best in Craft series because his work is eclectic, diverse, and deeply connected to music, both on a professional and personal level. How many visual artists do you know that have won a GRAMMY Award?
Ultimate Ears talks with Don Pendleton about his “Best in Craft” Collaboration
Art is a universal language, and different mediums of artistic expression--whether visual, music, performance, or otherwise--are inextricably linked. For artist, illustrator, and designer, Don Pendleton, music provides a strong source of inspiration in his work and musicians have long sought him out as a collaborator. Ultimate Ears chose Pendleton as our first craftsperson for the Best in Craft series because his work is eclectic, diverse, and deeply connected to music, both on a professional and personal level. How many visual artists do you know that have won a GRAMMY Award?
Pendleton’s body of work has appeared in galleries and installations around the world and graced a wide variety of canvases, from large scale murals to skateboard decks to album covers. In 2015, Don earned a GRAMMY Award for Best Recording Packaging for Pearl Jam’s tenth studio album Lightning Bolt. Though we learned that receiving this honor was a complete shock to Pendleton, as we spoke to him about his relationship to music and how it inspires his process, the award made complete sense in his hands.
But that was just one element of our colorful discussion with this fascinating (albeit humble) artist from Kettering, Ohio. Our conversation with Pendleton explored what it means to be a craftsman in 2020, how he has evolved as an artist, where he finds inspiration, and his experience working with the Ultimate Ears on his Limited Edition Artist Series of CSX earphones.
On your custom Ultimate Ears earphones, there are some owls. What is the symbol of the owl?
When I was young, my dad used to sit at the kitchen table and he painted a lot. One of the earliest paintings that I remember him doing was of a barn owl that he had a photo of. I don't think it represents any kind of certain symbol. I think it just became this icon of what I associate art to be in some ways.
Have the earphones opened your mind to music in a different way or helped you get into the zone? Have you noticed anything unique about them?
When I first started using the earphones, the first thing I noticed was the depth of the music that I hadn't heard before. I've always been a boombox type of guy. When I put these on, the first thing I noticed was the layers of the music and how more dramatic music is, and the certain parts with the drums and bass. That's not something that I'd really heard before. So, listening to something like Elliot Smith where it's just acoustic guitar, you can literally hear things like the fingers going up the frets and these little subtleties that you miss when you're listening through headphones of a lesser quality.
"I don't want to over dramatize it, but it's going from black and white to color, in some ways, because of how rich it is."
Having the external noise blocked out is something I had never experienced either. So, honestly, I like listening to music more through these. I really do. It makes the music better.
It’s really hard to use words to translate a stimulation experience that’s non-verbal. So what you’re describing is a visceral reaction to a perfect fit.
I've heard people describe this in the past, when they have a better sound system, or listen to something on vinyl that was recorded at a certain time with all the right equipment hooked up, and they say you can feel it - you don't just hear it.
"Let me just put on my iPod or whatever and just play it. But you really do hear these subtleties in the recording studio, and the things that make music human. You know that somebody's hands are behind it and somebody's effort's behind it. You feel and hear those things and I've heard people talk about it. I didn't really believe it."
What does being “best in craft” mean to you?
Best in craft means just trying to create something the best that you can. I think it's ignoring competition, ignoring other influences, and trying to build something in your own way and make it as good as you can. I've learned over the years, you can take on projects and just get them done, or you can design something and just design it. Or, you can push it and make it as good as it can be. And that's the challenge as an artist.
Are you “best in craft”?
I try to be. I think that's the challenge. If I'm going to make something from scratch, I can sleepwalk through it or I can take it on and challenge myself to do the most creative project that I can do. So, as an artist, I think that's what everybody faces. Do you want to get it done? Do you want it to be better than this brand or that artist? Or do you want it to be the best, where you look at it and you're proud of it, stripping away all of the external opinions and the critiques.
What does it actually mean to control your environment? That’s an interesting concept. What does it mean for you specifically? Both physically and mentally.
I put myself in a mindset, which can be music, the lighting, or the temperature, even. All of the elements that make you feel comfortable, relaxed, and creative can induce a mentality of creating something that's different.
How did you come up with the name Darkroom? Is that a photography reference?
I worked at a skateboard company called Alien Workshop from about 1998 until 2005, where I would mostly sit in a dark room and work at a computer in order to keep the monitor colors accurate. I spent so much time in there, that I felt like a bat or some kind of nocturnal animal. Even though the name references photography, it's more just about illustration and creativity.
Being an artist isn't the romanticized version that people see. A lot of it is isolating. It's not really a group project and you can't even really bring in somebody else unless you're collaborating.
"You have to focus on controlling your environment. I'm most creative when it’s just me and the canvas, or me and a sketchpad, or me and a computer."
What does a typical day in your life look like?
There isn't really an average day for me. I usually stay up really late and paint into the early morning, I don’t just jump out of bed and try to be creative and make something. I warm up with emails and texts and then slide into some Darkroom creative stuff. Darkroom is a company that I'm working on right now that has skateboards, apparel, and accessories. So, kind of do the fun stuff first and then work towards the stuff that I've got to do, that I'm obligated to do, that's not as creative.
What is art to you?
Art is what you choose to surround yourself with. We have talked about the environment and what it can pull out of you, and what kind of mood it can put you in. So whether art is visual or whether it's music, it's whatever kind of stimulus that you choose to put into your system. Food, even, I think would fall into the art category. I think Andy Warhol probably had the best point of view: he worked on commercial artwork and also fine artwork and films. It wasn’t the stereotypical painting on the wall. It wasn't the Campbell's Soup can.
"At the end of the day, art is something that you learn to live with. It becomes a part of your life, and all of those things that you surround yourself with that affect you and make you who you are. I think that's art."
When I close my eyes and think about who I am at the end of the day, I’m a builder. I built my house with my own two hands, I built businesses. These are the same skills. What are you? You said you’re an artist - is that what your business card would say?
No. I'm a jack of all trades because I design, and the design interacts with the art and the illustration and the painting. They all play off of one another and feed one another. I never really wanted to be one thing. I want to focus on creativity and build things with my hands--starting with a blank page and ending up with something that is complete.
If you could do anything with your life, what do you want to do?
I just want to make something from nothing, whether it's on a piece of paper or three-dimensional or a video or audio. For example, I play guitar. I'm horrible at it but I love to do it. So, I think it feeds the other things I’m working on. Whether or not I'm focused on one illustration one day, or a painting the next night, it all, to me, is just this idea of making something from nothing and doing it to where it feels like an extension of myself.
You mentioned you’re a guitar player - what is that creative process? When you’re playing guitar, do you find yourself in the same mindset as when you’re making art?
I do. When I first started playing the guitar, it felt like I was learning a new language because both the cognitive and creative sides of your brain are working. You’re learning certain chords and patterns so when you bring those together, it's a lot like painting. You've got the physical technique, the muscle memory involved, and the creative aspect of where you're going, from chord C to chord G. Or, with a painting, from one line to the next.
What is music to you? How does music affect you?
Music helps to put me in a certain mindset and bring myself into a zone where I'm comfortable and feel creative. Music can become a part of what you're doing in some subconscious way. There are certain artists, songs, eras and bands that I really connect to that make me feel more creative at times.
What are some of those bands that make you feel more creative?
I'm a big fan of Elliott Smith and musicians that have created something the way that I'm creating art. When they pick up a guitar, they don't necessarily need the studio or the mixer or other band-mates, even. Sometimes there can just be one instrument and one artist, and I appreciate that angle of it. For example, Nine Inch Nails had Trent Reznor who created this landscape of sounds and music but he was doing it himself and mixing it himself.
"I had an agent one time who said that great art either seduces you or repulses you, and I think the same can be said for music. If it draws some kind of reaction then it's good music in some way."
You're the only visual artist I know who has won a GRAMMY award. Do you know any other visual artist who has won one?
No, no. It was just something I didn't expect. There are really talented musicians out there who haven't received a GRAMMY and then there's this guy in Ohio that spends his days doodling in a sketchbook and somehow, I've got one. So, it's kind of a weird part of my life, I guess.
So, the connection between your art and groups like Pearl Jam and Phish. You are connected to different cultures - art culture, skate culture, music culture - why Pearl Jam?
They're amazing. When they play live, just watching the talent that each guy has with their instrument come together is really something. I think that's kind of what you want when you're trying to fix visual art with music and bands. It’s creating this connection where there's a flow, a consistency, maybe, between what the band makes and the art that you're associating with it. So, whether it's an album cover or a gig poster, you want to find that thread.
What bands can you list off the top of your head that you’ve done art for or collaborated with?
Sometimes it gets lost in my head. Foo Fighters, I was really proud to do something for them. Death Cab For Cutie was a band that I started listening to back in the early 2000's when they were on a little tiny label and then they had some success. Trey Anastasio from Phish, and 311. There are a lot of bands at this point.
All of the art in my house is predominantly made by someone in my family, whether it’s my kids or parents or relatives, there's something about it that creates a memory. There’s always meaning. The owl seems like it's a memory of your father, which is beautiful.
Even with music and visual art, anything that gives you a certain feeling, where there's nostalgia or it reminds you of a specific person or a specific event, that's what we want in our lives. That's what we want around us. That is art - just having this personal connection to visuals and immediate association with something that you see.
You said you designed your house. I take pride in my physical surroundings too. Your house is like a 3 dimensional part of your art.
I bought my house in 2003. I try to fill it with things that I like, whether that’s art or just sometimes even the shape of something. I think it helps your mood when you wake up and you're surrounded by things that you like. When you wake up in a hotel room where somebody else chose everything that is there, you know you're not in your zone. When you're in your home, you're surrounded by stuff you picked. My house was built in 1969, right around the mid-century modern era, and it felt like me when I walked into it. I could even picture where I was going to put stuff from the very first time I walked through the door. It makes being quarantined a lot easier when you're in a place where you feel comfortable and you feel creative. So, I'm grateful that I have a space like that.
There is a connection between skateboarding, art and music for you. What is that through line?
Absolutely. It’s this thread that started when I was about 13 or 14 years old that's connected all of the things that I really care about and I've been lucky enough to do it professionally. And to get up and to love what you do, I think, and to be able to connect with 15 year old me or 14 year old me that started off riding a skateboard and was looking at the graphics of the boards I was riding, and looking up to these guys that were pros and listening to music. Now, I am able to do this stuff and have a hand in the direction for some of it. And I still love it.
"To still really care about something that I started out loving when I was 14 years old--if there's a peace of mind for me, as an artist, it's that. It's that I still do something that I love and care about."
When you’re in the zone skating, is it the same feeling as when you’re in the zone while creating art?
Sometimes. I think I can get to that point where I'm in the zone but at this age, I think it takes so much effort. And I'm so concerned about falling on my wrist or getting hurt. Something I was never worried about as a kid. But I think my biggest fear is not being able to paint or not being able to click a mouse or something. So, I'm just a little more cautious and I think having those constraints in the back of my head, thinking, "don't fall, don't mess up," makes it not as fun. But I still get those same feelings, or at least similar feelings of getting in the zone, doing something that I love, and forgetting about everything else.
"If you can find something that will allow you to forget about the bad parts of your day or the bad parts of what you've got to do tomorrow, keep those things around because that's what makes life awesome."
If you were not an artist for whatever reason, what would you be?
I don't even like to think about that because it's so much of who I am. It's so much of my past. It's so much of the people that I know, the people that I care about. So, that would be a tough one, really, to try to project and think what I would have done in an alternate world or taken an alternate path because I think, anything I would have done, I would have put everything into it. But I don't think I would have gotten as much back as I have from being an artist. It's like a puzzle piece. I think, at a young age, I fell in love and I just never fell out of love.
How does music inspire you?
The connection between artwork and music has always been there. For me personally, it's just about being inspired. I visualize the music, and that works its way into the artwork. There’s an undeniable connection between rhythm, bass, and the way that music is composed, and the way that you're putting together artwork. So, to me, it inspires me. It makes me more creative when I listen to music while I'm working. And it's an important part of the process to get into that zone to where you're thinking in terms of shapes, and color, and all these different elements of what makes artwork good.
What does music mean to you, in your life, personally?
Music to me is a soundtrack of every day. We hear music in the car, you hear it while you're working. And you have these direct memories connected to the lyrics, and the songs, and the albums. It affects my mood sometimes, and it makes me feel better, it makes me feel more creative. It's that background part of what I do that people see in the foreground. Without music, I think I would be a lot less creative, I'd be a lot less motivated.