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Microdot Creative formed in 1990 and are one of the leaders in Music related packaging.They are most recognised from their work with huge profile acts, such as Oasis and The Verve back in the mid nineties, in which two of their sleeves rightfully made the top 100 in “Q Magazine’s Top 100 covers of all time.” Having recently surpassed their twenty year anniversary, they are still as passionate as ever about creativity, not just within the music industry, but with other industries too. The main man behind Microdot is Brian Cannon, and Mel and I were lucky enough to head out to his studio at Wigan Pier for an interview. 

The studio itself is situated in an old converted factory. Brian is a man who loved the Manchester scene, back in its hay day of the 1980s, and was a frequent visitor to The Hacienda, living near the very core of this significant musical movement and embedded in history. Upon entering the front doors, I could immediately feel the vibe of the old “factory” sensation. Artwork of Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles was plastered on the windows next to the stairs. The hallway on the first floor was fairly bare, almost desolate and it was very dark, but it reminded me of Joy Division’s, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ video, where the band play in an empty factory, and something magical comes out of something so seemingly empty. It filled me with a sense of history and nostalgia, even more so when I could hear the Happy Mondays album firing out from beyond the studio doors, something Brian has a licence and love of doing, playing his music as loud as he pleases. Upon entering the studio, I noticed plastered all over the walls, huge framed pictures of previous work Microdot has undertaken, a very idyllic hall of fame aura about it. The photos were mainly of Oasis and The Verve. My personal favourite, in which Brian had a photo sat in front of, was a picture of Richard Ashcroft, wearing a billboard stating, “I stand accused, just like you, of being born without a silver spoon,” an epic line from The Verve’s classic track, ‘This Is Music’ against the so called upper classes and pretentiousness in the mid nineties. After I’d absorbed the spectacle that surrounded me, I realised that I was here for an interview, and eventually began: 

NIGE: How has Microdot managed to establish itself as one of the leaders in music related packaging?

BRIAN: Well, it’s been a long, long slog. I’m primarily renowned for working with Oasis and The Verve and by working with high profile acts, you get a better profile yourself, but the bottom line is the quality of the work itself, which comes about as a result of the way we worked. I’m a great believer in intense research and leaving nothing to chance. When you’re working with a band as big as Oasis were, we only had one go at doing some of the shoots, so everything had to be bang on first time round. You have to bear in mind that we shot all this on film, none of it was done digitally; we were in a pre digital age, so weeks and months would go into the actual preparation. For example, the album cover for Definitely Maybe looks like they’re all sat around at Bonehead’s house and we just snapped it, but we spent weeks working out the composition, building it all up before we did the final shoot. So, it is a lot of hard work, with the research, preparation, striving to be the best we possibly can in every single job, getting better as we’re going along, and creating new ideas all the time, but I’m obviously helped by working with such high profile clients.

NIGE: What’s it like operating from Wigan, as opposed to more high profile Cities, did you ever think of moving your company to the big smoke?

BRIAN: Definitely not! I was looking at my jobs today and I’m doing a web site for a guy in Moscow, some stuff in Los Angeles and a project with a band in San Francisco. None of this would’ve been possibly ten or fifteen years ago, because you had to be within courier distance of your client. All you need now is to be anywhere in the world with a laptop. To get a big space like this in Manchester, you’re looking at it costing four or five times more. Because budgets aren’t what they were in the music or graphic industry, you’ve got to keep a handle on your overheads, but it suits me. I can walk to work everyday; it’s cheap, plenty of space and has everything I need.  My clients are thousands of miles away so what’s the advantage of being in London or Manchester?

NIGE: Where do you get a lot of your inspiration from?

BRIAN: Well we’re known for doing music projects, so the first step is to listen to the music, studying the lyrics and whenever possible, hanging out with the bands to get inside their heads and see where they’re coming from. That’s why The Verve and Oasis’ stuff was so good because we lived in each other’s pockets. I didn’t know either of them before I started working with them, but we became close friends and I ended up going on tour with them. I was the only person on the tour bus who had nothing to do, I just went along for the ride, it was great! Over the period of time you get to know what these people like, what they don’t like, and the way they work, which can only be good for the creative process and understanding where they’re coming from.

I never refer to other record sleeves because you run the risk of becoming derivative. I’d say a lot of the stuff I’ve been inspired by is fine art, like Rene Magritte, the Belgium surrealist painter, who did a series of images through picture frames. Definitely Maybe is inspired by The Flemish Renaissance period of the 15th Century, whereby there is a narrative going on telling a story. I’m also into a lot of films, No Come Down (B-Sides and Outtakes) by The Verve is inspired by Reservoir Dogs, which I was into at the time, with the clothing and psychotic vibe. I’d also say that anything that surrounds me that I come into contact with on a day to day basis can be inspirational. Half of the time it can just come out of thin air, from images stored in my head for years.

NIGE: You’ve mentioned that you wanted to be involved in more none music projects, do you have anything specific in mind?

BRIAN: The way I look at it is that the music industry is on its last legs, nobody’s selling any records. As much as I love doing this, passionately, you’ve got to earn a living and there’s not much money in music, unless it’s the big acts, but that’s still a fraction of what it used to be. For a business necessity, I’ve moved into different areas, but there’s no point in doing things for clients who wouldn’t get where we were coming from, for example, a super corporate client who’s really conservative, I wouldn’t get passed the first door. I’m more interested in and have worked with clients like Levi’s, Converse and Absolut Vodka. The thinking behind that is that they sell to markets that who are more likely to be going to gigs. Still, I’d be interested in working with clients where there isn’t an obvious music connection, but who would let us get on with it, kind of like a ‘burst pipes’ analogy, where if your pipes burst, you call a plumber and don’t stand over him giving him advice, you just let him get on with it and I like to work the same because I know what I’m doing. With corporate outfits, decisions are made by committees and no one’s got the balls to say, “right we’re doing this” and subsequently, you get a diluted wishy washy version of events, because no one can make a concrete decision.

NIGE: Yeah, within the big corporates, they’ve gone all politically correct and everyone has to be careful what they say, with terminology, you can’t say this, you can’t say that.

BRIAN: Yes, you’re dead right, everything has to be by the letter, but I kind of just do what I like really, it’s too late once I’ve said it [laughs]. It’s fair enough being a bit of a renegade. I mean, I’ve not offended anyone or done any offensive work. Sometimes, I might have had some bizarre working practices, not so much anymore, but in the nineties it was crazy. Actually, I found an old diary of mine from the mid nineties the other day and how we got any work done I just do not know, it was mayhem! But the proof is in the pudding, there’s a solid body of work and no one could argue with it, so what does it matter what we got up to in our spare time or when we finished the jobs because the results speak for themselves.

With times being harder, like at the moment, people take less risks and that’s bad for creativity. When did anything creative come out of safety? Look at all the great artists; there all a bit mad at the end of the day aren’t they? That’s what makes them great artists; I’m not suggesting that I’m a great artist, but having a bit of a “Fuck it” attitude isn’t bad, is it?

NIGE: I heard that Microdot has set up a record label, could you elaborate on any developments with that?

BRIAN: Well, we’ve just finished the video for The Glassheads; their second single, do you want to see it? [Brian plays us the video]

The video is filmed in Wigan and the song certainly has a northern feel to it, portraying a northern lad that had dreams but has found himself stuck in the tedious life of working 9-5 and in his mind, wants to breakout of his current situation. The song is very catchy and has some edgy riffs to it. I was impressed to hear something good come out of the North West again. I certainly look forward to hearing more from these guys.

Yeah it’s good fun, and videos are something we do too. I’ve always fancied doing a label. There’s bugger all money in it but it doesn’t cost anything to do. You don’t have to go to a posh recording studio anymore, you can do it yourself. This is the first one we’ve done on iTunes, so we find out at the end of the week if anybody’s interested or not. It’s something we enjoy doing and a lot of people seem to like it, but it’s all good fun and it’s an ongoing thing.

NIGE: What kind of music do you like?

BRIAN: I’ve got quite a broad spectrum of music taste. Punk rock got me into it in the first place. I’m a massive Sex Pistols fan, Beatles, Stone Roses, The Verve, Oasis and The Smiths. All the obvious stuff really but then again the obvious stuff is the good stuff, that’s why it’s obvious.

Because the music industry is done in, a band like The Verve just wouldn’t get to Urban Hymns anymore. Their first album only sold 20,000 copies, which these days would be quite a lot, but it was bugger all back then. The second album did marginally better but Urban Hymns sold seven million. Nowadays, they would have been dropped before then because they weren’t selling enough. As a result, talent is being developed anymore, it has to be an instant return and success, otherwise it get’s binned and that is detrimental to creativity. I think generally across the board, creativity is stifled.

NIGE: What do you make of the music scene in the North West and particularly in Manchester today?

BRIAN: I don’t know much about it really, I’m just an old fuddy duddy these days, hanging around in here most of the time in my own little world [laughs]. I don’t listen to much new stuff but that’s because nothing really grabs me. I don’t really go to a lot of gigs anymore. The last band I was into as a paying punter, apart from The Verve and Oasis because I was working with them, was both The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays in the Hacienda days. It sounds corny, but you really had to be there to get it and describe it. The whole time was astonishing and there’s nothing like that going on anymore, but it was great while it lasted before the overuse of drugs and shootings came into it.

NIGE: Do you think Manchester has lost some of its spark since the Hacienda closed?

BRIAN: It’s a funny one to answer because you have to bear in mind that they were such exceptional times and it’s incorrect to use that as a yardstick, because if it was like that all the time, everyone would be dead. I’ve always had an affinity with Manchester. I remember that I moved back from London to Whalley Range because I was going Manchester every week and having to get the train so I thought I might as well live there, so I did while that scene was going on.

NIGE: Where do you think Microdot could’ve been if it was formed ten years earlier at the start of The Madchester scene?

BRIAN: Well I had some lucky breaks when I formed it, like meeting Noel Gallagher by chance, but who knows, it’s something we’ll never know. I think it’s lucky we formed when we did because we just smashed it through the nineties, working with all the best bands, apart from Blur obviously, that wouldn’t have been allowed for obvious reasons.

NIGE: Anyone you’d have loved to have worked with from that era?

BRIAN: All of them, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Happy Mondays, all bands who I love. I wouldn’t have wanted to work with anyone who I didn’t think was great, but I loved all them bands and would’ve loved to have worked with them. I would’ve liked to work with Arctic Monkeys from the modern scene, I think they’re great, but I’m open to anything new that’s original.

MEL: What do you think of Beady Eye?

BRIAN: Rubbish! Capital letters RUBBISH. I think they’re embarrassingly bad. I’d be interested to see what Noel Gallagher comes out with though.

NIGE: How important is it from a creative point of view to spend a lot of time with the band? You mentioned that you spent a lot of time touring with Oasis and The Verve in their early years. How did that affect creativity?

BRIAN: In my case, I thought it was invaluable as I understood where they were coming from. A result of that was that we never had to re-shoot anything. I’m not suggesting everybody would have to do that because it’s impractical, but for us it was essential.

NIGE: What’s the best shot you’ve ever taken?

BRIAN: I don’t do much of the photography, more the directing, but I never took the shots from Oasis’ or Verve’s albums. I came up with the ideas and brought different people in for different jobs. I have done some shots though, one of Richard Ashcroft in New York. I do my own stuff these days. It’s so much easier with digital rather than film, because you had no idea what was in the camera in them days and I wasn’t confident enough to do the actual shoots. I remember on one of The Verve’s covers (‘This Is Music: Singles 92-98), I was stood upstream with a dustbin full of blue food colouring dyeing the river to get the effect. That was one of my favourites.

NIGE: The range of companies you’ve worked for outside of music is quite impressive as well as high profile, who’s been the most fun to work for?

BRIAN: It’s all pretty hard work and an uphill battle a lot of the time. It’s not much fun outside of music because you’re dealing with the marketing team, who are all squabbling with each other and don’t know what they’re on about, but I’m pleased with the results. It differs from music because when I was working with The Verve, it was ace because we just got on with it and did it, and that’s the way it should be.

NIGE: Do you think the use of alcohol, drugs and excess enhances creativity within the music industry as a whole?

BRIAN: Definitely not! It kills it if anything. From personal experience, getting hammered all the time doesn’t make you more creative because you’re too fucked. If you look at anyone who’s been through it, like John Lennon, they always end up saying, “Don’t do it.”

NIGE: What’s the best rock n roll story you’ve heard or witnessed?

BRIAN: My favourite has to be about a band called The Dead Boys. When the lead singer died, he wrote in his will that he wanted all his mates to snort his ashes. I thought that was hilarious, whether it’s true or not, who knows, but it’s a great story, incredible! People ask me to tell some Oasis stories, but there’s not a lot to tell really. It’s no more excessive than what you might get up to with your mates. We were just a bunch of young working class lads, drinking, getting hammered, listening to music and dancing around having a good time.

NIGE: You’re obviously into a lot of the British music scene but what do you make of the American side of the past and present?

BRIAN: There are some great American bands; I’m a massive Nirvana fan. I also love The Byrds and The Beach Boys. I’ve been to America a lot and seen a lot of gigs there and you realise how British the British music thing is. America is the home of rock n roll and always will be. I suppose the scene is always up and down, similar to England, but I’m struggling to think of a band I like from America at the moment.

NIGE: Hypothetically speaking, outside of music, which period of history would you liked to have worked in and photographed?

BRIAN: Still have to be the 1960s, music or not, or 1950’s America. The 60s was probably the best, because there was so much political change going on, social upheaval and free love. I suppose being in San Francisco in 1967 would’ve been incredible, even without the music.

NIGE: What’s your take on the internet, and availability of music downloading, social networking and sites such as YouTube, Spotify, do you think they are detrimental to the industry?

BRIAN: It’s got to the point now where it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks anymore, it’s here and that’s it and we just have to get on with it. Music will always be around, but I do struggle with the notion of how bands will sell records and make money in the future, as the sales are getting less and less. My opinion is that maybe in five or ten years, no one will actually sell any music, it’ll be given away for free in the hope to get big enough to get corporate sponsorships. I think we’re pretty much there anyway with some bands. It is a funny time though, I don’t see how bands can make a living unless they’re big, but how do you get to be big? Also, I don’t understand how EMI are still going. I was there the other week in this huge building that employs thousands of people and I wondered how this was being funded? They’re not selling any records so inevitably it’s going to come crashing down sooner or later. Thom Yorke (Radiohead) predicted the complete demise of the music industry by 2010. I think he’s a little out but I see where he’s coming from. But, you can’t whinge about it because there’s no turning the clock back and that’s the way it is now. I will say though that I’ve yet to meet anyone who says downloading music is better than owning the actual record.

NIGE: I believe you perform lectures at Universities up and down the country, could you tell us more about this?

BRIAN: This all came about via an email from The British Music Experience Museum in London. They were doing a series called “Visual Identity”. Every week they got someone in to give a talk to a paying audience. At first I thought, “What am I doing here” but it was great and I thoroughly enjoyed it. These people paid to hear me speak so they were obviously fans of what I did in the first place. There was a guy interviewing me, Michael Parkinson style, so it was dead easy. On the back of that, one of the tutors at Manchester Metropolitan University heard I was doing this and asked if I could do it in Manchester, so I did the same thing there. I asked how I could do more of these talks and he suggested contacting Heads of Courses, which I did and I’ve done about half a dozen or so in the last month. I really enjoy it though! I remember when I was back at University attending lectures and there were people who talked, who I respected and it impacted me, so to do the same in return is very flattering.

NIGE: Finally, what is the most important piece of information you convey to the students above all else?

BRIAN: I’d say all about research and planning. If you believe in what you’re doing, then keep persevering. The first three years of Microdot was just scratching a living, but I refused to give in because I knew I was right in what I was doing. I don’t know why I knew, but I did and eventually I got there in the end.

Brian and Microdot still have a burning passion when it comes to creativity within music. I found him to be a real genuine guy, insightfully honest, and displaying a beautifully typical Northern charm, full of wit and humour, with some excellent stories to tell. If any bands are looking for someone experienced and creative within the artwork side, or even the recording side these days, I would certainly point you in the direction of the man behind the famous sleeves of Oasis and The Verve, someone who certainly knows his music, been there and done it and will tell it like it is, whilst conjuring up an admirable body of work. Brian did state that he would be interested in working with any bands out there and not necessarily at a huge price. It would be a fair swap to spend within a given budget and have Microdot’s name attached to the sleeve.

Brian has recently been the subject of a special five page feature in ‘Computer Arts’ Magazine, the biggest selling design magazine in the world. This is testimony to how highly respected he is within the industry.

I thank Brian for his time and letting us interview him, it was a real pleasure. I also thank him for showing Mel and I his portfolio of past work, it was a trip down memory lane for me personally and a real honour to be interviewing the man behind the artwork of several albums that I’ve owned and loved for years. I wish him all the continued success in the future.

Interview and words by Nigel Cartner 14/05/11
Photos by Mel
Album covers by Brian Cannon


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