Wax Poetics - Cover Story - Steven Julien
By Mijke “Margie” Hurkx and Sofia Zemame Berkhout
Edson Sabajo and Guillaume “Gee” Schmidt met each other in the ’90s at Fat Beats Amsterdam, where Edson worked many years. They quickly became friends and started working together, while also promoting parties and hosting radio shows. They brought new excitement to the Dutch streetwear scene by starting their own independent sneaker store—Patta—in 2004. With stores in Amsterdam, Milan, and London, the Patta fashion emporium has grown to be an important hub for the respective creative scenes, with local and international music being the backbone of it all. Wax Poetics’ collaboration with Patta is a natural outcome of our recent move to Amsterdam, resulting in this article series, where record-collecting artists discover the story behind their favorite record sleeve.
Steven Julien, previously known as FunkinEven, was born to West Indian parents and raised in West London. The skilled DJ and producer fell in love with synthesizers after starting out in music as a dancer, MC, and beatmaker. Today, Steven Julien has become one of the U.K.’s most authentic electronic musicians. His Apron Records is an incubator for artists who create honest electronic music, nestled somewhere between jazz, house, soul, boogie, and techno.
Clear blue skies, a cozy seat, the finest wines, the tastiest treats. Wouldn’t we all love to live like the woman in the painting? Floating on top of the world, in crystal-clear surroundings, with the most delicious dishes drifting around for grabs. Where is this place? Where’s Cockayne? Although the record sleeve for Soft Machine’s Land of Cockayne album portrays a land of plenty, Steven Julien wasn’t necessarily drawn to this cover for its original meaning. He’s purely intrigued by the way the composition creates a surreal scene, reminiscent of his own creative endeavours. “During lockdown,” Julien says, “I discovered that collage art was my new passion, because it allows me to take a situation and make it into whatever I like.”
London native Steven Julien found it difficult to pick just one record, because he simply had too many to choose from. In the process of selecting the one favorite to best fit our artwork-centric aim of this article, he ran down a pre-selection of five sleeves, including albums by Weather Report, Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, and Phil Asher (“rest in power”), who had been Julien’s mentor for a decade. His selection showed the multifaceted artist’s many inspirations; Steven simply had so many stories to share. Two records stood out because of the hodgepodge of imagery that’s displayed in a unique composition. “To me, it’s a representation of organized confusion, but very well organized into one piece,” Julien explains. “Listening to Soft Machine, Weather Report, or any other progressive rock or jazz fusion band, you can’t really pinpoint what it is. Is it jazz? Or rock, or soul, or is it boogie? It’s basically everything in one, which is how I see myself as an artist as well. And my Apron label…I resonate with that idea,” he concluded.
The colorful artwork of Land of Cockayne, similarly sets a curious scene, and features a painting of a seemingly wealthy couple in an opulent glass home, which is suspended high in the sky above the peaks of buildings. Not only is the home suspended in the sky, but the couple and certain objects are also apparently weightless, the man even appearing to be pushing against the glass ceiling. Everything is floating. Is the whole land of Cockayne high? A logical question, admits Julien, leading us to the question, is there any actual relationship between Soft Machine’s Land of Cockayne and the drug cocaine? In the same line of thought, Julien points out the image of a pig in the sky, which he noticed on the back of the record sleeve. “I just changed my Whatsapp status to pigs can’t fly straight. And there’s a pig on the back of the cover. Not flying straight,” he says with a laugh. Intrigued as we are by this cover, it naturally becomes Steven Julien’s choice record for further investigation.
During a call with the album’s art designer, David Dragon, we learn that the record sleeve was one of his final projects during his time at the art department at EMI in London. Dragon designed a plethora of sleeves in that period, but at the time, speaking with bands or artists about the music or additional album concepts wasn’t always possible or practical. It would make a tremendous difference when he did. Dragon explains how difficult it was to research a theme or story behind the music to conceptualize a visual without having the internet at hand. “I used to go to a bookshop to find out more, and then easily spend a fortune on books without really finding anything relevant.” He did manage to speak with the creator behind Land of Cockayne, multi-instrumentalist Karl Jenkins, when he was designing the sleeve, but unfortunately, he can’t recall Jenkins’s motivation behind the album title. “It’s such a long time ago.”
Personally, David Dragon wasn’t so much into the progressive rock genre in which Soft Machine is categorized. “We got commissioned to do sleeves for all kinds of stuff, and this album just came up.” He did meet the original drummer for Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, years before, during his art school years in Canterbury. “He was in a local band at the time called the Wilde Flowers, and the nucleus of that band went on to form Soft Machine,” Dragon explains. “I remember Robert was a really interesting guy with interesting ideas, he was quite well-read.” However, by the time this album was recorded, the band no longer included any of the original band members, and was composed of just Karl Jenkins and John Marshall.
Dragon mentions that he discovered the title of the album actually refers to the mythical “Land of Cockaigne,” a land of plenty that is found throughout medieval literature. It is described as a land of abundance and decadence in a satirical, Franciscan friar’s mid-fourteenth-century poem. Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicted the mythical place in his 1567 oil painting entitled Land of Cockaigne; his critical portrayal of the seemingly idyllic Land of Cockaigne presents a scene of gluttony and laziness. Dragon worked with illustrator Roy Ellsworth, referring closely to the poem and painting in creating the record cover in the design process. In his research, Dragon also found that the word “Cockaigne” was used by Edward Elgar in the title of his composition “Cockaigne Overture,” performed in 1901. “I remember that we made the decision to make it visually up to date.”
Although what Dragon describes as the “glass palace” is not taken from the Bruegel painting, Ellsworth in fact included Land of Cockaigne as an artwork on the wall of the palace within his own painting on the record sleeve. Dragon mentions that the man in the painting was inspired by a 1963 David Hockney painting entitled Play Within a Play, which features a man standing pressed against glass. He explains that “Roy decided to paint a man floating, trying to get out of this land. Because this land of plenty had its downside as well as its upside.” While many aspects of the sleeve were designed in relation to the mythical land of Cockaigne, some were merely coincidental; for example, Dragon explains that the woman on the sleeve was simply painted in the likeness of Ellsworth’s wife. The pig that couldn’t fly straight on the rear cover? Taken directly from Bruegel’s painting, where a roasted pig can be seen running in the background.
While it’s an easy step to relate the wealthy and extravagant scenes of the ’80s with the use of cocaine, this was not an intentional reference in the design of the record sleeve. Dragon explains that the potential interpretation of “Cockayne” as the drug cocaine caused some nervousness from the side of the label before the release of the record. “Somebody in the company actually went as far to say that it couldn’t be released with that title. And I remember being like, well…it’s not cocaine, it’s Cockayne. It’s a land, not a drug. I pointed out that Elgar, the British composer, had done it, and there wasn’t a fuss about that, the [Elgar] record still being available without anybody seeming to be bothered about that.” Ultimately, the title of the record did not cause any public controversy, only sparked curiosity.
Having found that the Land of Cockayne depicted on the record sleeve has no relationship to the drug, one is left to wonder what the Land of Cockayne would look like if it were recontextualized in today’s age. Perhaps it would include images purposefully alluding to drug use, perhaps not. Each person’s idea of excess and abundance will vary, as does each person’s interpretation of any given piece of art. Much like what Steven Julien has been doing with his collages, Ellsworth transposed images from Bruegel’s older depiction of the mythical place into a new and intriguing context.