For music photographer Neil Krug, growing up in Kansas helped grow his imagination. “This was pre-cellphone, mostly pre-internet,” he recalls. “I wanted to create the world I grew up watching in movies and on TV.” After an early photo essay went viral on Flickr (“the original Instagram,” he says), in 2010 he published Pulp Art Book, a fashionable hardcover featuring vintage-looking Polaroid photographs of his then-girlfriend, model Joni Harbeck. “The very first people to jump on that were bands in Los Angeles,” says Krug, who moved to the city within a year.
Now 36, he’s one of the music industry’s most sought-after art directors, known for creating psychedelic, cinematic album covers for concept-forward artists like Tame Impala and Lana Del Rey while drawing on everything from expressionist art to anime. One cover can take two years, he says — “and we all know artists are pretty particular.” But with the challenge comes the chance to create a piece of history. “I get to tackle big questions, like: ‘How do we want people to remember this album?’ ‘What image can we create that tells this story?’ The trick, as always, is dodging the obvious answers.”
Before Del Rey — who was a fan of Pulp Art Book — met Krug in 2014, she thought he was dead. “All these years and we’ve never figured that one out,” he says today. The two soon started shooting images for her third full-length, Ultraviolence, and ended up with over a thousand photos; they spotted the cover almost immediately, which happened to be the first shot Krug had taken. “It was understated, it was haunting,” he says. “I wanted it to feel like the end of a horror film, like the last thing you see before the credits.”
When Krug first met with producer Simon Green (who performs as Bonobo) in the summer of 2016, Los Angeles was suffering some of the worst wildfires in the city’s history. They settled on two words — “beautifully sinister” — to guide the artwork’s concept and picked a location in the Mojave Desert. “My team and I shot the entire campaign in four hours,” says Krug. As they drove back into the city, he recalls, “it was like driving into hell. I wound up incorporating that feeling of doom into the edit.”
When Krug agreed to shoot the cover for UMO’s 2018 album, the music didn’t exist yet. “[Frontman Ruban Nielson] said, ‘I want you to shoot the cover first and then I’m going to make the record,’ ” recalls Krug. He used elaborate costumes and oddball props to evoke retro Japanese original video animation (OVA) and manga. He even refashioned a fencing costume as a spacesuit. Of the hundreds of images he shot, Krug was surprised Nielson chose this one, saying: “It’s pretty out there.”
Krug says Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker was adamant about traveling to shoot the cover for The Slow Rush, so they went to Namibia, in southwestern Africa. “The room you see was pretty destroyed and the sand was almost to the ceiling, so our production crew, including Kevin and myself, shoveled and sculpted it all morning,” says Krug. They closed the location to tourists, but by the time they returned at sunset, the sand had shifted in the wind. “I was a wreck at first,” says Krug, “but it looked so beautiful, like nature just needed to sort things out.”