Ultimate Ears Talks With Legendary Artist Frank Kozik About His Career in Music and Art
Frank Kozik believes that artists must take the time to study their craft, knowing that you can’t break rules until you learn them. Credited with single-handedly reviving the lost art of the concert poster, Kozik’s creative career began creating culturally gripping, graphically compelling posters for brands ranging from Sonic Youth to Nirvana. No stranger to the music industry, Kozik managed his own record label, Man’s Ruin Records from 1995-2001, releasing over 220 singles and full length albums including the first Queens of the Stone Age single.
Kozik left the music industry in 2001 to devote himself to his fine art and the then emerging vinyl art toy movement, creating iconic characters including The Labbit. Kozik’s work is rooted in simplifying complex ideas, with Kozik spending a lot of time thinking and learning about profound subjects such as human behavior, evolution, and the connections between music and art.
Our “Best in Craft” interview with Kozik got us thinking about what it really takes to be a craftsman and a creative innovator, and how seemingly simple artwork may be the most complex of all.
Check out the interview below, and get your own pair of custom special edition Kozik x Ultimate Ears Pro CSX earphones here: SHOP NOW
ON BEST IN CRAFT
This is a series called “Best in Craft.” What does “Best in Craft” mean to you?
Historically people have looked up to arts and down on crafts, but without craft there is no art. Every great artist has to learn his craft first. The myth of the natural artist -- I don't believe it. Mozart had to learn. You can't break the rules until you learn them. You look at Picasso and you go, "Oh, my child could do that." But no, because actually Picasso was classically trained, he could do a beautiful, perfect, classical-type painting, completely realistic. He understood it so well that he was able to break the form down into its basic elements and its basic dynamic energies.
I think that if somebody is really a craftsman, their interest and their need to learn new stuff in their craft never goes away. I'm 58 and I'm still fantasizing about, oh, I'm going to learn how to sculpt. I'm going to do some big sculptures next. It might take me 20 years to try and do that but I think part of being a craftsman is you never stop developing. You never stop practicing the craft. You can't just sort of put it all down, walk away, and come back and expect to make it really nice again. You have to have a constant flow. You've got to keep your muscle memory up. You've got to keep your brain memory up. You've got to keep your eye, your inner eye, open and uncluttered by other people's stuff.
What is your best craft? What are you best at?
I think I'm pretty good at color composition and breaking planes in two dimensions to create effects continually. I spent a lot of time thinking about how posters work in the mind's eye. I'm not the world's best illustrator. I don't have a great, unique style. I'm an okay painter. Sometimes my paintings are good. I have good compositional ability. I have the ability sometimes to tell a story with very few elements, which is important in our world. I have a good color sense. People always talk about the color. Even the people at Pantone are like, "Oh yeah, we know about you." These are generally things that nobody really gives a lot of interest to in the viewer world. They're just going, "Oh, that tiger is wacky." They're not thinking about, like, "Well, that tiger's actually pink and blue."
I think that my strength lies in the underpinnings of what makes the visual process work for the human mind, combined with a high level of organizational ability. I can get a lot done in a short period of time. There's not a lot of rough drafts and pretty much here or there, it works. I've been able to do a massive amount of successful work in overtime. I'm equally comfortable in front of or behind the camera. I can be the artist, I can be the art director, I can be the employee, I can be the owner.
You've been with Kidrobot for a long time. Kidrobot has come into my life in different ways just because of my time spent in the toys and games world and I've always thought, "Wow, whoever's designing these definitely has some sort of secret sauce." So here I guess I'm talking to the person.
My involvement with Kidrobot started a long time ago. I pretty much started doing stuff with Kidrobot in 2004 after their first year. For 15, 16 years I would license characters to them, do special releases on their platforms constantly, and I was working with all the other toy companies that used to be around, too. In 2014, the new owner approached me to see if I would come on board as the Creative Director/Chief Creative Officer. I hired up creative staff and we've completely revised the company. I've expanded the company into China. We have a major distribution partner there, one of the few companies that actually sells into China from the U.S. It's gone quite well and continues to grow.
The parent company that owns Kidrobot just recently acquired (pop culture subscription box company) Loot Crate,and so I'm starting to build a creative team over there and we're starting to design some of those products. One of the things I do is basically wear several hats, run the creative, some of the marketing, a lot of the licensing aspects for Kidrobot - curate the artists and so forth. It was an organic process over the years. It was never a plan. It just worked out quite well.
It strikes me that a lot of your stuff and what you do with Kidrobot is not necessarily for kids. It's for kids of all ages, grown ups more likely. But there's something. You have said previously that you are fascinated with Hello Kitty.
I was fascinated with Hello Kitty because all my Japanese friends thought it was trashy. They thought it was weird that a grown man was interested in it. I tried to explain to them that it was a perfection of form because it has character enough to stand on its own, but it's enough of a blank to become the mirror of your desires, the mirror of your identification. You can look at this little thing and it could be yourself, it could be what you see in others.
I'm fascinated with characters, and Hello Kitty is the perfect example of that. It runs the gamut because there's not a big story. I wanted to do the same thing and so I came up with this Labbit character and it actually worked. I mean, I've sold millions of them! He's cute, but he's a little sleazy. That's the idea, and so people tend to - not only do they identify with it because they like it and it's cute - but since it's a little dirty, everyone likes to be a little dirty. He's a little unshaven, maybe he smokes and drinks. He's definitely not a vegan. He's Hello Kitty's booty call at 3:00am. He might borrow some money off her and never pay her back. That's kind of the concept of that toy. It's cute but a little dirty.
I have a real fascination with that because it's easy to do a crazy drawing with every nut and bolt and every leaf on the tree. What's hard to do is draw a simple, perfect shape on a blank wall. That's hard. As a designer, I have all different kinds of styles and aesthetics that I enjoy, but at the core of it all is the quest to design really, really basic, eternal symbols.
In a really long-winded, twisted way, that's what these toy characters all about. There's an initial level of the fun thing. There's always a gag or whatever. But on a deeper level, what I've always pursued is the ultimate simplicity right at the very edge of it becoming nothing, because if you find that boundary zone, then people get really involved with it. Why? I don't know. I think it's something trying to fill the void we all have. I don't know what that is primarily, but it's probably bits and pieces of lots of evolutionary traits. But the really endearing characters across the board, they're never the hyper-complex ones. They're always the really simple ones, and that's the quest.
Why is Labbit called Labbit?
Originally, it was going to be the Smorking Rabbit. I did the first iteration with a company called Bounty Hunter in Harajuku in Japan. In those days it was really hard to make stuff in China. He knew a guy in Hong Kong that knew a guy and we got this toy made. And when it came back, they had translated it as, they had done the Chinglish thing to it. It came back as Smorking Labbit instead of Smoking Rabbit and it was the coolest name ever, much cooler than anything I could ever invent. So some anonymous guy at the factory screwed up the packaging, but I was stoked because he gave me the perfect name. So I didn't invent the name. Some anonymous person in a factory somewhere in China invented the name, and I co-opted it.
What is your intersection with music?
I grew up in Spain, under Franco. There wasn't a lot of music that wasn't state approved. I would occasionally leave Spain, spend time with my father. My dad was kind of like an enlightened 60s middle aged drunk, and he would listen to rock music and stuff like that. So I would get exposed to snippets of rock and roll music as a child and I was fascinated by it because we didn't have it at home. And I came over to America in the mid-70s, probably when America was at its most delightfully hedonistic ever. When I came over in 1975, 1976, it was all good. Sex, drugs, fireworks--it was a complete 180 from what I grew up with. I was an outsider to America so I never really fit in until the punk scene came along, which was for the people that didn't fit in. I remember the first time I went to a club in Austin, called Club Foot. All the misfits were there. There were the punk rockers, the new wavers, the weirdos, gay community. Weird, old, burned out, acid freak, redneck cowboys.
I got really,deeply involved in the underground music scene in Texas. Naturally I tried to be in a couple of bands. I have no talent in that direction whatsoever. But what I could do was put together these little Xerox fliers, so that's how I started.
Then I started working at clubs. I ran into a club owner, really great guy, Brad First, legendary guy. He believed in the power of advertising. He was willing to pay me to do larger, multicolored posters for his clubs. One thing led to another, that led to me getting a production artist job. I have no formal training. Then I got a production artist job at a cool t-shirt place where I learned how to do a lot of stuff right. Then I walked from there, taking a bunch of their clients with me, and went full-time freelance in 1987 doing whatever. All kinds of weird graphics, t-shirt designs, punk rock stuff, always stuff that was a little kooky, a little bit on the edge. Bit by bit it built up into a pretty big deal and I moved out to the West Coast in the 90s.
I started out in music. The context for me, for my art, was music. I'm not Van Gogh and I wasn't into painting nature. I was part of a really vibrant music scene in which it was important to not just be an observer but to be a participant, and the way I could participate was to do these posters and t-shirt designs for bands and stuff.
I started a record label in the late '90s that did quite well for five or six years. We did about 220 releases. The deal was, you record whatever you want, however you want to record it. I'll release it. But in return I get to do the album cover that I want to do. And everybody was into that.
To me, there's actually a total connection because my art started in the music scene. I worked in the music business for 20 years, in every role from a bouncer at a club, to owning a record label, to being an A&R guy for Polygram, of all things, for a couple of years, to making music. I made MTV music videos in the '90s.
Who are some bands that you've done art for?
Alice Cooper, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix anniversary stuff, and then a billion punk rock bands including the Sex Pistols. Every American band, all those bands like Sonic Youth. We broke Queens of the Stone Age. That was one of the bands from my label. Sleep, High on Fire, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, The Ramones, Debbie Harry.
ON WORKING WITH ULTIMATE EARS
Tell me about the art that we've got on your earphones.
One thing I like to do with Labbit is sort of a pompous grandiosity. There's another design where it's like the conspiracy pyramid. He's on top and then the banks and the lawyers. I'm originally a collage artist so this iteration, it's like Labbit and I co-opted part of the Sherwin Williams “cover the earth” paint logo, which is a great old logo, and it's Labbit. He's dogma. He runs the earth. He's the puppet master, they all work for him, whether it be Trump or the Gnomes of Zurich or Bohemian Grove Bros. They all answer to the man and that man is a small rabbit with poor hygiene.
I always try to do designs and stuff to where it's like something is happening a little bit off screen, or it looks pretty innocuous but the more you look at it the more you realize there's something else going on behind this basic imagery, or something is about to happen over here. I think it's much more clever to, say, infer the violence. There's media, there's TV shows and movies that are really great because they won't show the actual death. They'll just infer it offscreen, and a lot of times it's much more effective.
I kind of always did the same thing in my designs, because when you involve the person that's looking at the design and they activate their thought process, and they're like, "Well, obviously something weird is going on here, what is it? What is that drippy stuff?" Or, "Why is that thing looking over there, juxtaposed by this other weird symbol and thing?" There's no big master plan, but I do try and work a lot of that stuff because I enjoy puzzles and ambiguity and I found early on that it engages the viewer, and if the viewer's engaged, it's a successful item or design, or a successful communication.
Have you noticed while you were listening on your Ultimate Ears, have you noticed new things in your favorite music?
What I noticed right away is that it doesn't seem like you're listening to headphones, except maybe really good old ones. It doesn't seem like you're listening to earbuds because there's such a real tonality. It's really nice and full. It's not buzzy. The end result is really good but what was most striking to me was the richness on the bottom end is something I haven't experienced with another set of earbuds.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I always like really heavy, slow, doom, sludge kind of stuff. So there's Wind to Hand's first record, for example, was a great record. I listen to a lot of doom and sludge music. I really like these new wave retro channels which are really cool -- electronic composers who fixate on a genre of '80s films, such as cult films or science fiction films, and make fake background music that's really interesting.
Is that what you're listening to when you're creating?
Yeah. A lot of ambient type of stuff. I also like old bluegrass music. There's a lot of modern stuff coming out of LA. There's a band, there's a female performer called Papi that I'm really obsessed with. She does some really interesting things she's doing musically and visually.