The illustrations come from the mind of a 33-year-old Oslo-based illustrator, designer and comic book artist named Bendik Kaltenborn. Kaltenborn and Terje met about ten years ago in a branch of the Dutch chain Free Record Shop, where they were both working, and quickly bonded over what Kaltenborn calls "crazy nonsense stupid humor."
"Stupid" is a word Kaltenborn uses a lot. For him it's almost a guiding principle: a catchall term for chaos, not taking one's self too seriously, and the connections made by a subconscious mind left to wander. On the cover of Terje's Spiral single, an athletic sock morphs into a goose—a change that has nothing to do with the function of socks or geese, but everything to do with their form and color: loose, squiggly and pure white. It's a simple image, but clever; a subversion of meaning. When I confess that it makes sense to me, Kaltenborn laughs. "I guess it's a kind of logic," he says, but sounds skeptical of becoming too high-minded about it.
When Kaltenborn and Terje met, Kaltenborn was beginning to get noticed for his
work with a six-member comic-book collective called Dongery. (Initially, Terje had approached Dongery with the idea of each member illustrating a different album cover for him. Kaltenborn started with It's the Arps, at which point Terje apparently changed his mind.)
After taking a Master's degree in Stockholm, Kaltenborn returned to Oslo in 2008, where he continued writing comics and started to pick up freelance work. His projects are a hodgepodge: magazines, book covers, posters for movies and theater performances. He's illustrated office walls and made announcements for Norway's Ministry Of Local Government And Regional Development that have been posted in the Oslo airport. Even when Kaltenborn's imagery isn't recognizable (though it usually is), his typographic sensibility stands out: tall, skinny, assertive but goofy, with letters tilting left and right like stilt performers caught off-balance.
Most of his work these days is for The New Yorker: his illustrations often complement the humor column, "Shouts & Murmurs," and the event listings in the beginning of the magazine. His cover for Terje's single Strandbar actually grew out of a drawing he'd done for The New Yorker—a "mood report," he calls it—trying to capture the spirit of Brazil's Carnival, which he has attended with his cousin for the past three years. (This is the first year he's had to take work with him—a good thing and bad.)
"When doing 'normal' illustration, there's this idea of adding something to the text," he says, talking about his work for places like the New York Times. From a design perspective, the difference with music is that you don't have an accompanying text until you actually open the album and play it. "It's such a big responsibility," he says. "You're giving a face to something."
Normally when Kaltenborn designs a cover for Terje, there are no guidelines or concepts—Kaltenborn just puts on the music, opens Photoshop and sees what comes to him. "It's improvised," he says. Often, Terje trashes several drafts before they settle on something that works. "He wants something wild and crazy," Kaltenborn says, "but he's also a perfectionist."
It's Album Time, Terje's debut full-length, was the first time Terje had a preconceived idea. "He said he wanted a portrait," Kaltenborn remembers. "Something that played with the idea of a cheesy '70s album cover." The result is an image of Terje slouched lecherously over a piano bar with his shirt open and a Spring Break's worth of tropical drinks clustered in front of him. "It's still portraying him in a goofy way," Kaltenborn says, "but it's a little more down to earth than the covers for the singles."
Shot as a photograph, the image would be straight-up depressing, but transformed by Kaltenborn's flat style and bright colors, it looks almost celebratory: the last hurrah of a sinking ship. In a Kaltenborn comic strip called "My Stupid, Stupid, Stupid Uncle," a loud, square-headed man is late to a meeting with his Japanese clients because he is lost in a reverie about giving his parents a grade for their birthday. (A businessman in spirit, he can quantify anything, even his feelings about his parents.) After some deliberation, he settles with great and masculine finality on an A÷.
When he finally makes it to his meeting, his clients look tired and irritated. He doesn't notice, of course—he's too proud to. Instead, he sticks his hand out with a dumb, big-toothed grin and shouts, "Banzai!" Like the cover for It's Album Time—or any great comedy for that matter—the scene is absurd, but leavened by a sadness so deep that only a joke can suffice.
This past November, Kaltenborn released a book in Norway called Liker Stilen, which collects various comics—some as short as a page, some much longer—that he's made in his spare time over the last several years. (Kaltenborn says the book will also be released by the Canadian press Drawn And Quarterly sometime next year.) The book's title translates to something like, "digging the style." "It's laid-back and cool," Kaltenborn explains. "But a little arrogant."
The book's cover depicts a suave young guy with his head tilted back, looking like he's savoring a particularly expensive piece of cheese. When Terje saw the image, he named the character "Preben," which Kaltenborn says is a typical upperclass Norwegian boy's name. "Liker stilen," he says—"It's something that this character—this Preben—might say." The image inspired two track titles on Terje's album, "Leisure Suit Preben" and "Preben Goes to Acapulco," which Terje pressed up as a seven-inch for Kaltenborn's book release. Both of them thought it was funny but neither needed to say why.