Ioannis – we don’t sell physical, but merch is huge. So, the priorities have changed.

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Ioannis, a Greek artist that made hundreds of record covers, designed artwork, posters, t-shirts and so on a huge variety of bands from Deep Purple to Fates Warning and from Allman Brothers to Blue Oyster Cult. We talked about his memories of Greece, the first two rock albums he ever bought, what created such a huge impact on him to begin designing album covers professionally, what makes a cover great and which he considers his best works. In his immediate plans is an exhibition of his work in Athens, Greece. Interview: Yiannis Dolas

Rockpages.gr: What do you remember from Greece?

Ioannis: I left in 1968 when I was a kid, but then we returned. My parents sent me back thinking that they were going to return to the US, so I stayed with my aunt and uncle around 1973. T.Rex were playing and Zeppelin, Deep Purple were a huge band in Greece that year… so, I remember the first two albums I bought. Deep Purple’s “Machine Head” and Uriah Heep’s “Demons And Wizards”.

I was going to Greek high school. Ι lived in Zografou. I remember that when I went to the United States the American comics made a huge impression on me. So, that artwork that Roger Dean did for “Demons And Wizards” made a huge impression on me. So, we were having a physics class and the professor was quoting today’s lesson and instead of writing notes, it was a boys school – at the time boys and girls were separate at schools – it was called “Arrenon” (= ancient Greek word for “male” in plural, used in everyday life), I started drawing the wizard from the cover with pencil on the desk. And I got completely absorbed in it. So, 20 minutes into the class I had drawn the whole record cover of “Demons And Wizards” on the desk. Then I noticed that it was too quiet. I realized that nobody was talking. I stopped and looked up and there is the professor looking at me. And he says in Greek: “looks like we have an artist here”. I had to stay after school to wash every desk and there were 40 of them! That was my punishment.

So, later, when I met Mick Box and we started working I told him: “you owe me”, and he asked why. “Because I suffered for my art for you”, I replied.

Rockpages.gr: Do you still visit Greece? Do you come often?

Ioannis: Yeah, actually it was going to be this year, but because of Covid it was canceled. My friend Spiros Lazarou, a great guy, he is setting up an exhibition at the Underflow gallery in Athens. So we will probably do it later this year, or early next year. And I am really looking forward to that, because it will be great. I have so many Greek friends, followers, musicians, managers… heavy metal is really big in Greece now! I am psyched! And a lot of the bands I did are very popular in Greece, especially Fates Warning, Warlord and of course Deep Purple and Uriah Heep.

Rockpages.gr: Have you worked with any Greek bands and artists?

Ioannis: There was a band that approached me, War Dance. They are still friends of mine… Tasos (Pananoudakis)! I did it for them because I just liked the music and his enthusiasm. They’ve been several of them that approached me, but I haven’t really followed through on it. I think it’s going to be fun to do some. I think that great Greek bands are coming up professionally.

Rockpages.gr: How do you usually work with a band or artist? Do you listen to the music first?

Ioannis: The band usually approaches me. Somebody in the band is a fan of my work, or likes what I do. I am brought in very early into the process and we sit down, we listen to the music, we discuss ideas, the approach. This is how things come about. This is how I worked with Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, King Crimson, even Fates Warning. Because, what I see is a perfect fusion of art and music and that’s really the exciting part for me, sitting down with a musician that I like, or a band that I like and the guy plays me this piece of music and says “hey man, what does this make you think about? How do you see this?” and I listen to the music and say “this is what I see, when I hear this music”. I can be lucky enough sometimes and the guy would go “wow! That’s really cool! It’s really cool that my music makes you think like that. I like that. Let’s present it this way”.

So, I see the music as a soundtrack to my art and vice versa. The band sees the art as an interpretation of what they are playing.

There is great albums that have lousy record covers, let’s face it! But, it still that doesn’t change the fact that they are great albums. When it’s perfect, when it combines… then it’s a very strong concept and the examples I can give you is Derek Riggs for Iron Maiden. Would Iron Maiden be a little bit less better if it wasn’t for Derek’s art? No. If you combine that great music and the visual of Derek Riggs with Eddie that he created, that art of his, it’s a very strong concept. Or, YES with Roger Dean. YES music would have been any less? No. But, you listen to YES and you look at the way Roger Dean interprets their music with his art and all of the sudden it opens up all of this worlds, these ideas and gives the band and look an image. Storm Thorgerson with Pink Floyd. The artwork he’s done for Pink Floyd, or Hugh Simon, Rush. When you have that great pairing I think it’s incredibly effective, incredibly effective.

Rockpages.gr: What the best cover album you’ve made so far?

Ioannis: There are a few that stand out, I guess. I like the way “Wake The Sleeper” came out, because it was the first album Uriah Heep had done in ten years and Mick wanted to sort of re-start the look of Uriah Heep. And it was a challenge, especially when they had people like Roger Dean who worked on their previous covers.

Fates Warning “Awaken The Guardian” is a really popular art of mine. I sell a lot of prints of that artwork.

The Allman Brothers album “Where All Begins” that’s one of their strongest, their most famous pieces. They used it for backdrops, t-shirts, posters… so, that has its own style.

I guess they are different ones from different styles. There is not one particular that I’d say “that’s the best I’ve done”, because I am always looking for the next one.

Rockpages.gr: Sadly recently Bill Tsamis died. I saw a message that you posted on Facebook. What are your memories working with them?

Ioannis: I never got to meet Bill, although I loved his music. During the time that I did “Awaken The Guardian” Brian Slagel said to me, “hey, I have this band called Warlord and they are doing this greatest package thing and as a matter of fact their guitar player is Greek, I think you’ll like them” and I thought that the stuff was great and he asked me if I wanted to do the cover. “Well, I don’t have enough time”, but he insisted: “you have artwork that could match, what about this piece?” I was going to a comic strip for “Heavy Metal” magazine and I’ve done some paintings and Brian looked at one of them and he said, “the title of the album is “Thy Kingdom Come”, I think this will be perfect for Warlord”. So, I gave it to them. I already knew Mark Zonder and a couple of years later he became the drummer for Fates Warning.

I’ve spoken to Mark, probably about a year ago, because they were thinking of possibly working together again and they didn’t have much of a budget, but I said to Mark “I really don’t care what it would cost. I love to do it”. But, it was around that time that Bill started having health problems. And then this happened and it was heartbreaking, because people discovered how great they was late. Especially the way heavy metal has grown in Greece and they had a place to go to and play. People appreciated the music and the whole style came back. So, it was really sad and unfortunate, I’d love to have seen them playing again.

Rockpages.gr: What are the virtues of a good album cover?

Ioannis: I think a good record cover represents the band properly but also at the same time it sets a mood for the fans. It helps identify who they are. It becomes a good merchandisable symbol. One of the strongest examples I can give you is Pink Floyd “Dark Side Of The Moon”. When Storm came up with that idea and showed it to the band we was based on their light show. Pink Floyd had an amazing light show at the time. But, also the way they interpreted the idea. If you told somebody what’s the title of the album, “Dark Side Of The Moon”, most people would come up with some obvious ideas. Probably, a shot of the moon, there will be this, there will be that… The way Storm interpreted it with a prism and the symbol and all that was such a different idea. But, from a marketing point it was incredible because, back in those days, when he showed it to the record company EMI they said “oh, it’s great. Where is the title going to go? Up here? And the name of the band? There?” – “No, that’s it! Black cover, prism”. And they had a meltdown: “are you out of your mind? We’re putting out an album that doesn’t have the name of the band on it?”

You look at something like Apple computers and they don’t have to say “Apple”, they just show you a symbol. He was so ahead of it’s time and he got it. And in the years to follow, of course it was an amazing album for Pink Floyd, it has become the most identifiable symbol of all time. Anywhere you go around the world, on t-shirts, on the side of vans, on motorcycles you see that prism and you go: “oh, Pink Floyd”. It’s a phenomenon. That’s a successful record cover.

Rockpages.gr: Is the work of a cover artist affected by the digital age?

Ioannis: My first record covers were in the ‘80s. And we were switching at that time from vinyl to CD. I remember people going “well, that’s the end of record covers, people buys CDs now, who cares”. The point that they miss is what designers like me are brought to do is create a look for the band. The palet changes, but the mission is the same.

Mick Rock is a really good friend of mine. Mick has done the record covers for Queen, David Bowie, he is a lot older than I, he was very famous in the ’70s for the “Queen II” cover and so on. He said to me: “there will always be a job for me and you as long rock’n’roll people are ugly”.

Iron Maiden was Iron Maiden, but Derek Riggs created a look for them. It didn’t matter if he did it back in the days of vinyl, or if he does it now. Because, you are brought in to present a band, so there is the logo designs, it is their way to the market. Merchandising is very big now. Yeah, we don’t sell physical, but merch is huge. So, the priorities have changed. When I am on a meeting with a band, the first word from their managers is “what kind of merchandise will you design? What can you come up with for us?” So, they can sell t-shirts, because that’s where the money is: touring and t-shirts.

Rockpages.gr: Which ones would you say that were you defying moments in your career?

Ioannis: In 1985 I was working on a project and I did a band called Heaven and the manager of the band was Paul O’Neil, which I was a very good friend at the time and Paul later switched the band to Savatage and then it became Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But, they were signed to Columbia and they were a big band and I got paid and I was doing well, and then there was this small bunch of guys who showed up with no money, they were broke, and actually one of the was Greek, Jim Matheos, which I liked, they were Fates Warning and I did it and they became one of the greatest bands around years later. So, you never know sometimes. In music you have to follow your instincts and not do it just for the money, or fame.

Rockpages.gr: Last question, what is your next artwork, what are you working on right now?

Ioannis: Ah, there’s a lot going on… I will be doing something for the Allan Parson’s Project, but for metal I am working with a band called Trauma. They approached me, I really liked what they are doing. They were Cliff Burton’s original band from San Fransisco, they came out at the same time as Metallica. They had their following and I listened to their record and it was amazing. They will be doing the tour of Europe, I am sure they will be playing Greece, with Ross The Boss. They asked me to do the artwork, I just finished that now.

There is a couple of other things that are major that I can’t say anything right now!