If you happen to pass Donny Phillips, say, in the bread aisle at City Market, you might see his tall stature, stylishly unshaven face, and the tattoos peeking from the sleeves of his jean jacket and say, “Who’s this rock star?”
And you’d be close. Phillips used to be a rock star as drummer of the California-based hardcore punk band, The Warriors, which Phillips started with his twin brother Danny and their best friends from high school (the Warriors was the high school mascot). The band was signed by Eulogy Recordings and then toured, which ultimately led to an introduction at Warner Bros. Records. That was where Phillips’ life and career began to go a different direction.
Aside from drumming, Phillips did all the design and illustration for The Warriors’ releases, which caught the eye of the art department at Warner. When Danny quit the band to go back to school, Donny quit too, with a job waiting for him as a designer at Warner. He was 20.
Phillips worked in Warner’s street marketing department, designing things like stickers and posters, stuff street teams across the country could hand out at shows. After a year, his work caught the eye of the head of the Warner art department and Phillips was hired as a junior designer. Over the next decade, he worked up to art director, then senior art director before leaving to start his own operation in 2014, KIHL Studio, with his wife, Kaylee Carrington, though he still works on retainer as a contractor with Warner. This allows him to live and work in Durango, a place he and Carrington all but chose off the map for its easy lifestyle and natural beauty.
Over the years, Phillips has designed album covers for the likes of Green Day, Mastodon, Linkin Park, Gary Clark, Jr., Seven Dust, and My Chemical Romance.
DGO caught up with Phillips and chatted about what it’s like doing high-profile art, his favorite projects, clients that are hard to work with, and what it’s like walking into a record shop and seeing your work.
What was it like in the early days at Warner?To get the gig, I kinda had to fake it to make it. I wasn’t a classically-trained designer. I knew a little Photoshop; I knew a little Illustrator – just enough to get by to get the kind of DIY, punk aesthetic, hardcore album packages I did for my own band done. That was about the extent of my knowledge base.
I didn’t go to school, totally self-taught, and my boss who was going to hire me to the art department asked me if I knew InDesign, which is the industry standard for laying packages out. I didn’t but I said I did, just to get my foot in the door. My seven years at Warner Bros. was like my education. That was like my college. I learned so much just Googling stuff.
What was your favorite project over the years?I’ve done stuff for some really big names. I’ve done stuff for Madonna, Seal, Eric Clapton – a bunch of really big names. But always my favorite projects are for my friends’ bands or bands I have a personal connection with because generally there’s a mutual trust so they’ll tell me to just do whatever I think is right for the project.
What’s an example?So, there’s a band from Southern California called Stick To Your Guns and I have good working relationship with their singer, Jesse (Barnett), who was a fan of my band when I was doing that … He approached me to do their album “Disobedient,” and ever since then, I’ve done work for all his side project bands.
One of my favorite clients now is this brewery from Southern California called Casa Agria … it’s been a great working relationship in that they’ve given me full reign to do whatever I want. And I get to inject a lot of my illustration work into their labels.
Have you ever gotten projects that were intimidating off the bat?The Green Day Greatest Hits cover I just finished I was stressing about pretty heavily. It’s probably going to be one of my more high-profile illustration-centric projects. And I felt like there was going to be a certain amount of scrutiny. Because they’re illustrations of the guys on the cover, so I had to get likenesses accurate. Honestly, it was probably one of the easier, most smooth projects I’ve done lately.
It’s weird – I’ll work with some really big clients and I expect that to just go totally south and can go any which way and it’s going to be a stress fest. But if I can keep my own tendency for self-deprecation to a minimum, that’s usually the biggest hurdle for the project.
But then I’ll work with a small, up-and-coming artist – some teenage girl who has one single out – and that will be a total nightmare. Twelve rounds of revisions … because you’re working with a client who’s not familiar with how the creative process works. But then you have a band like Green Day who’s gone through this process countless times … They know where to insert their ideas and their opinions and where to let you take control and do your thing. But these younger artists, they end up shooting themselves in the foot because they don’t know what they want aesthetically. They don’t know who they are personally and so they second-guess everything and they’re listening to what their manager has to say and they’re listening to what their aunt has to say about, like, what shade of pink to use and shit, you know?
Who’s been especially good or surprising to work with?I worked with this band called Disturbed. David Draiman – he’s got this tough-cookie persona. He’s got the metal jewelry in his lip, this really ornate jewelry. He’s got this shaved head; he’s really yoked. But working on a couple of their packages, I had booked a photo shoot. It’s a lot of wrangling. You’ve got to get the band there on time; you gotta make sure the photographer and band are on the same page aesthetically. Working with him, I was really nervous because of his aesthetic and outward persona, but he was super nice – highly, highly intelligent; really articulate.
What perceptions do people have about your job?The general perception about my job is that it’s really fun and you get to work with music, you get to work with cool clients and that somehow translates to a really fun, exuberant f*%#ing lifestyle. But it’s typically high stress. To be a creative professional in general – and it’s not just me; it’s anybody in the field – to be expected to hit an A-plus every time, the top of your game creatively at all times is really soul-charring. It can be really, really difficult.
Another misconception about what I do is I’ll do a cover that is really simple, streamlined, whatever, and they’ll think, “That’s so easy.” But they don’t see that I submitted a dozen options that ranged from type-driven to highly illustrative to photo-driven and this is just what we landed on after countless revisions.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?I love designing merch for bands. It typically doesn’t pay as well, so that’s frustrating because a T-shirt design can sometimes take as much work as an album cover but you get paid a third of the price. [Phillips designed the official concert T-shirt for Tom Petty’s final show at the Hollywood Bowl.]
What’s it like walking into a record shop and seeing something you worked on?My wife and I are both huge music fans, we both collect vinyl. We travel a lot so we’re always in record stores. I’m always super embarrassed and Kaylie, my wife, is always the one who’s like, “Oh, hey, you did that,” loud enough for everyone in the store to hear, just to put me on the spot … I think there’s a sense of pride that she has when she sees something that we’ve either collaborated on or she’s been there in the background as I’m working on it. But she’s removed enough to kind of make those overt gestures in public and I’m like, “I don’t even want to talk about it.”
Why?I don’t know. I mean, I work with a lot of bands that I don’t really care for their music. It’s hard to have a sense of pride in a package that I think looks cool; I just can’t stand the artist or the band.
But it’s awesome. Because I’m such a fan of music and I love not only the music but the culture of it, record stores are the church of what I do … that’s where I go to reflect and appreciate the scope of what I do. Most of what I do is out of the office in my house. To go into a record store or to drive by a building that has a billboard with an album cover that I designed on it, something clicks in my head: “Oh, I’m actually a part of the real world.” That makes a soul-charring week well worth it.
Are there any kinds of jobs or clients you would ever turn down?Typically, I would turn down a young pop artist that I felt either lyrically or just in what I see on their social media as poor lifestyle choices. It’s crazy … There are so many young pop artists who are in this arms race of douchebaggery, to just out-douche their friends on pool-side parties. If I don’t get the sense that they’re a genuine, earnest musician that are trying to tell a story worth telling, that’s when I’d probably walk away. And I do.
What inspires you aesthetically?I’m more influenced by musicians than other visual artists. Because I’m such a music fan, I’ll get a million ideas for something to do aesthetically from listening to a Nick Cave song than I will walking through the Museum of Modern Art. That’s why I always want to live in this music space. Because music is my muse.
I find that the more of other people’s work I look at, the worse I feel about myself. It’s a safer place for me to live in if I have headphones on listening to records sketching in my sketchbook than if I’m online on my design inspiration blogs and scrolling through my Instagram feed just feeling shitty how I stack up against other artists.
Working in such a high-profile medium, do you ever worry that you’ll do something that’s already been done and crept into your head?All the time. There’s the “Good artists borrow, great artists steal” line. I like when artists and illustrators will kind of take the fabric of pop culture and extract what they want to use from it and twist it and make it into something new. Because you’re always building on something that’s happened previously. So if you’re referencing something directly, that’s cool.
But there are some moments where I’m like “Ooh, that’s probably a little too close.” Especially in music, you have to be careful because if someone says, “Hey, I want a horse on the cover,” you have to really do your research to see every other album cover that’s ever used a f#@*in’ horse on it to make sure what you’re doing is not too close.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.— David Holub