We’ve managed to bag ourselves a rare interview with Jeffrey Everett, the man behind the hugely successful Rockets Are Red design agency, formerly known as El Jefe Design.
Since founding the agency in 2005, Everett has created posters for bands and artists including The Foo Fighters, Gaslight Anthem, The Menzingers, Frank Turner, The Raveonettes, Bouncing Souls, and Against Me!, to name just a few. He’s also worked on illustrations for companies such as Sony Entertainment, LiveNation, and Variety, as well as creating gallery pieces featuring Ferris Bueller, Doctor Who, Crimson Peak, Bob’s Burgers, and Howl’s Moving Castle.
He’s been the recipient of awards from The Art Directors Club, AIGA, and the AdClub.
Having had such a successful career for over a decade in the design industry, we wanted to take a peek behind the veil of secrecy that surrounds Rockets Are Red, learn a little about the man behind the agency, and while we’re there we thought we’d better ask about all those Luchador masks he’s included in his work?
What was it that first inspired you to step into the world of graphic design?
Short answer – I love illustration and things like book covers, cd packaging, t-shirt designs, etc… It felt like there was a way to be creative everyday and actually make a living at it. I ended up transferring out of my first college after I was told that going into design was a “sell out.” It seemed that picking a fine art field was a dead end in college. It felt like high school again with the football team being replaced with the fine art club. I just didn’t like playing those games.
Twenty years later, I am still supporting myself and my growing family by my creativity and imagination while a lot of the “artists” who proclaimed design a sell out are doing something else.
We don’t often get to hear about how Rockets are Red create its tour posters. Are all your designs created by you or do you employ other designers as well?
It is all me. I hired two high-end professional screen printing companies – Triple Stamp Press and Grand Palace – to print my work and make it look amazing. These are companies I have used for years and I trust completely.
About three years ago now I tried to bring on a few business people to help me expand and that just didn’t work. One guy was awesome and we remain good friends to this day, though we ended up going out separate ways. I have much respect for him and the work he continues to create with his gallery. The other group… yeah, not so much.
Ever since then, I decided to keep it small and I have changed my approach to the work. Keep it small, keep it lean, and keep kicking out the best work you can. At the end of the day, it all lands on me.
Why did you decide to change your name from El Jefe Design to Rockets are Red back in 2014?
No one could pronounce it or spell it correctly. People thought I was in NOFX. It was a good name for a few years but I found it limiting. I wanted to go back to the name I wanted originally when I was 20 listening to the Girls Against Boys’ song.
There are a number of iconic images that often make their way into your work, from Luchador masks to classic American cars and leather jackets. Are these chosen to reflect the artist you’re creating a particular poster for or is it something that you bring into your work yourself?
Luchadors and pro-wrestling is something I bring in because they are cool. Those are
limited to personal work or my work with professional wrestlers and affiliated companies. Masked Republic is run by quality people who, again, I have become friends with beyond design. Working with them makes me happy. I get my luchador ya-yas out doing covers for their zine, Rudos Can’t Fail, and producing shirts for my favourites wrestler like Pentagon Jr. and Dalton Castle. It is fun seeing Pentagon J. bash someone in the head while wearing a shirt I created for him.
For other images – cars, motorcycles, pin-ups – these are usually images I gravitate through from the lyrics and themes of the songs. They make sense in the world of those bands and their music. I wouldn’t use those images for an EDM band as it wouldn’t fit.
What’s the piece of work that you’re most proud of from your career?
Honestly… the last one I got done in time. I tend to look at all my pieces and see the flaws. I am proud of few pieces as all I see is how I could have made them better.
I am proud of working with people I respect like The Bouncing Souls, The Raveonettes, Laura Jane Grace, Frank Turner, and Gallery 1988.
I do feel good when I see people getting my work framed and hung or tattooed on themselves. I am glad I could make a connection with that person. I have a few tattoos from my favourite artists – Richard Sala, Edward Gorey, my boys – and would like to think they would think that is cool (my boys vary in liking them).
How would you describe the creative process that makes up the creation of one of your posters or other pieces?
I work quite quickly but I have learned to take my time figuring out what to work on. There are videos of Asian calligraphers who stare at the canvas for hours and then do a complete work in minutes. In their mind they are drawing everything and sorting the details before touching brush to paper. I am the same way.
I tend to only show terrible pencil sketches… no details pinned down. And I don’t show more than few sketches either. I want to focus on the concept and making sure this piece works in that bands world. I sketch in pen, then build to a more focused sketch, and then build it out on the computer.
How long would you say it usually takes to create a tour poster?
One week to concept, one week to design, two weeks to print without rush charges… Standard answer to everyone who asks. I am still amazed when people ask for tour posters to be printed and designed overnight.
That happened last month – a pretty large band asked for a poster to be designed in less than 12 hours and were shocked when I said no.
Is there a band you’re still dying to create a poster for?
Oh man – so many; Bruce Springsteen leading that charge. Pearl Jam. Off! Tim Barry, Angelo Badalamenti, Eddie and The Cruisers (because why not?), Faith No More, Jack White, Kvelertak, Letters to Cleo, Swans, Murder City Devils, Neutral Milk Hotel (if they ever tour again), Queens of the Stone Age, Iggy Pop, etc…
There are a bunch of bands I have done work for I would love to continue telling stories for like Gaslight Anthem, Against Me!, Rancid, Placebo, Frank Turner, Girls Against Boys, Henry Rollins, and Raveonettes. These are bands I love and have reams of ideas for. Maybe in the future.
Do you already have an idea in mind for bands before they commission Rockets are Red or do the ideas come after?
I have a sketch book of ideas filled with ideas. The latest Frank Turner piece has been sitting in a book for about a year until I felt it fit the theme of the tour – Lost Evenings.
But no, I tend to only think about next projects when they come up so I can be fresh and excited. I don’t want to cram a band into my thinking of what they are. I have done that before and it always ends with a bad product. Instead, if a band I like comes to me I want to discuss what they want to explore and more importantly, what they don’t want to do… And then I take it from there.
Bands like Frank Turner and The Bouncing Souls and Against Me! have exquisitely illustrative lyrics to pull from that I can quite literally pick a quote and get a poster from that. Against Me! had the new album, Shape Shift With Me, with the line “And all the devils you don’t know can all come along for the ride.” and I got an image of a bus being filled with devil business people. It worked perfectly.
Those ended up being a nice set.
Has technology affected the way Rockets are Red creates its pieces?
I think I still do them they way I have for a decade now. I have a way to do it and I keep doing it. I am pretty simple in my approach. With all the tools out there I keep refining my approach and when I feel I finally mastered it I can try something new. Until then, I keep plugging away trying to figure it out.
What do you think of the current working world for designers?
That is a multilayered question. I can talk about how design is pretty disposable now as anyone can be a designer and do proficient work if motivated. There are a LOT of incredible designers out there who are creating killer work and with social media that world is getting smaller and bigger all the time. It is hard for me to keep up and overwhelms me at times. Meanwhile anyone can find you and casually say you suck. I am not the most social of animals so putting myself out there for consumption scares the shit out of me. And I acknowledge that has limited me a lot.
I know a lot of people disrespect the role of designers and think the role is transferable to anyone else with Creative Suites. I have been told a few times that the band name sells the work and then I have seen those bands flounder in mediocre work. It bums me out. The bands, or more specifically – the managers, who get it REALLY GET IT and they are wonderful to work with. The others just want free work they don’t need to pay out of pocket for but lose thousands because no one wants to buy it in the end.
Any advice for any designers just starting out?
It is awesome working with your heroes. Remember that this is a BUSINESS and worth is valued in how you bring in money and how professional you are. Working for free or for EXPOSURE (!) disrespects the design field and will shorten your career. Stick up for yourself. You can’t pay your dues if you can’t pay your bills.
Fucking love what you do. Have it break your heart and have it be rebuilt through passion. Being a designer, especially one in the music industry, will destroy you if you don’t absolutely want to do it. There are bands I don’t listen to anymore because they lied and cheated me. There are also bands I would die for because they mean so much to me. There are people you meet that make it all worthwhile. Those are the moments that allow me to continue.
Ever considered moving into album cover design? We think you’d be perfectly suited
I have done a few! Doing a new one for one of the best DC hardcore bands ever! I have done ones for Gaslight Anthem, Crimes in Stereo, Bouncing Souls, Anti-Flag, and others where my artwork has magically appeared without me being told. Album art work is hard. It needs to work at vinyl size and then work at the size of iTunes. A lot of times the budget isn’t there and the companies don’t want to pay. Again – band name will sell it!
What are you working on at the moment?
I am finishing up a three poster set for Frank Turner’s Lost Evening US Tour and doing a few group gallery shows with the incredible Gallery 1988. I tend to keep myself busy which surprises me. I keep saying I will take a break but nope, something else exciting comes up.
The Gaslight Anthem, among others, have commissioned you on multiple occasions to create tour posters for them. What do you think it is that keeps bringing them back?
Well, with TGA that relationship has ended.
In cases of The Bouncing Souls, Frank Turner, and Against Me! I think there is a level of trust and respect between us. I have been doing this for awhile and proven my worth. I hit my deadlines, I understand the audience, I try not to pester them too much, and I earn them money.
Jovka, Turner’s merch manager, is an amazing person who I trust and respect. I listen to her advice and want to make her life easier. I want to produce my best work for her because she is such a rad person. Frank’s fans have been very supportive of me and I deeply appreciate that trust.
I spoke briefly to Laura Jane Grace at a book signing and mentioned the song Black Me Out being a theme for the last few years of my life. I think she had the same people in mind… It takes a lot to keep doing this.
That said, I am extremely lucky I get to work with bands that I love and I get to be picky. I think frankly, the passion I have for these bands produces good work. I have done “paycheck” gigs and never liked the results.
You can buy prints of all of Jeffrey’s work from the Rockets Are Red website here, and give them a follow on their Facebook page here and their Instagram here. Check some more of them out in the slider below.
We’re also running a prize giveaway of a full set of Jeff’s work, plus runners up prizes that you can find out more about here.