Interview: Jacob Escobedo

words by Nate Pollard | Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

There are few artists more at-home collaborating with musicians than Jacob Escobedo. So it’s fitting that he has spent the last few years as vice president of creative design for both Cartoon Network and Adult Swim‘s Creative Group, often fueling the creative direction of their many musical side projects. From The Shins and Broken Bells, to T-Pain and Vampire Weekend, Jacob’s album art is usually as iconic and memorable as the music itself, relying heavily on densely detailed retro-futuristic landscapes and figures that are simultaneously new and ancient.

Taking a break from the Williams Street offices, Jacob answered a handful of questions about his art, his failures, his addictions, and a severed goat head.

You do illustration and design, but I learned from your site tagline that you also work with severed goat heads. Tell us a little about that.

My first lesson in art was at the age of eight. After a meal of goat tacos at a friend’s house on a ranch in Dry Valley, Nevada we ran outside to play. In the back yard, framed by the door, I saw a broken refrigerator with a severed goat head bleeding out over the sides. A deliberate display of the grotesque, a devastating installation set up for me. The blood running down the sides of the white refrigerator in perfect lines created a candy stripe effect. It was vivid and shocking against the background of barren desert surrounding. And I never forgot that feeling of discovering this brutal beauty. It embodied the three elements I feel are important in art: simple, memorable and striking. Without the goat head, the refrigerator was nothing. So, the goat head has become a symbol for me — you have to have a severed goat head in your work or it’s just a dead refrigerator. I have a goat stamp at work that I use when something has it all.

Illustration by Eric Lacombe

Illustration by Eric Lacombe

Having collaborated with Danger Mouse, David Lynch, The Shins, Gnarls Barkley, Jack White, and Norah Jones through your position at the Cartoon Network, you’re probably as entrenched as an artist can be in the worlds of music and design. What do you feel are the rewarding aspects of creating work so closely tied to music? What are the downfalls?

I feel like I’ve geared my life toward making visuals for music and television. I’m obsessed with both. Certain albums have defined important stages of my life. Joy Division’s Closer was one of those albums. I grew up in this big Mormon family, and I remember at the age of 12 or 13 going into a Kmart and buying the cassette and listening to it all the way home as the desert rushed past the windows of the van. It was the darkest thing I had ever heard. The visuals of that cover still haunt me. It signified a shift in me, an independence from my parents and all that I was surrounded by.

I look for these elements of contrast in all music. Constantly searching for something that puts you in a different space in your head. To me, it has been a natural journey into this field of work. Illustration, animation, design, music, art direction…all of it is one thing for me. The only downfalls are that I don’t have enough time to do it all. I have to really focus or I stall out. So everything around me suffers as I work through consuming projects. I have to drop out of communication a bit to get work done. That seems to be a problem sometimes. I don’t participate in social media at all. I’m fairly disconnected because I fear the distraction would consume me.

Jacob's Williams Street Office

Jacob’s Williams Street Office

Adult Swim has really championed some weird and disparate voices in art and animation over the years. Behind the scenes, what is that collaborative atmosphere like?

It’s a pretty great environment. I feel like Williams Street is my second home. It’s hard to think that I’ll have to get another job at some point in my life. This has been one long weird dream for me. I walked in the doors in 1999 and have never left. I have a lot of respect for all the creative people that inhabit this place. Dave Willis from ATHF, Carl Jones of Freaknik and Black Dynamite, Michael Cahill who writes all the bumps, and, of course, Mike Lazzo who’s driving the whole thing. He has created this interesting space of experimentation and has trusted the instincts of everybody around him. It’s a rare thing.

We find it amusing to see how far we can push things without getting in trouble. We have a collection of really funny emails from Standards and Practices. I’ve also been able to collaborate with some of my favorite visual artists of all time: Gary Panter, Ben Jones, Al Jaffee from MAD magazine, Wayne White. That alone has made it all worth it.

It seems like they let you do whatever and the results are always interesting, if not completely successful.

We fail a lot. But, we have this environment that allows us to learn from those failures. Or, we just roll with it. That’s what I think makes it charming.

Jacob's Office at Cartoon Network, photo by Branden Collins

Jacob’s Office at Cartoon Network | Costume by Branden Collins

You often digitally create or augment your pieces. Where is the balance between traditional art and art manipulated by Photoshop and other digital tools?

I feel like the computer is just a tool along side my Micron pens and my X-Acto knives. I like warming up a hot glue gun as much as I do turning on my computer. If I don’t use a pencil in the process I don’t feel very connected to the thing I’m creating. So it always starts there, and then I often finish in Photoshop or Illustrator. In general, I like handmade art more than computer-generated art. If the final piece has flaws, that’s a good thing.

Describe your involvement in creating the Broken Bells video for The Ghost Inside, starring Christina Hendricks. Is the process of conceptualizing live action aesthetics less comfortable to you?

I worked up a bunch of style frames that kicked the whole thing off, and then they took it from there. Live action work is more and more a part of my world. I’m constantly on shoots for Adult Swim and Cartoon Network with the addition of live action.

Most artists are severe coffee addicts. Confide in us your dark coffee secrets.

I like a straight espresso shot or two. Really gets me going. I also enjoy a good espresso con panna, which is espresso with whipped cream. Mmmmm. And if I feel like a real treat, I’ll make espresso at home, add a dash of vanilla, a sprinkle of cinnamon, a spoonful of hot chocolate, a bit of milk and stir that all up. I call that an Espresso Bell Grande. It’s like a dessert.