There's something about metal artwork that calls out to those of us the blackened end of the musical spectrum casts its beckoning shadow upon. For some, the art becomes the gateway to the music before we are even aware of it; the pre-adolescent child sees Eddie on the cover of Number of the Beast before he even knows what metal is, and immediately Derek Riggs' preeminent spokes-zombie has him convinced that he has to have that album; the downtrodden teenage loner sees Vincent Locke's gore drenched cover of Eaten Back to Life and suddenly the worm has turned. These two artists, along with the likes of Dan Seagrave, Kristian Wahlin, also known as Necrolord, and Ed Repka have long been household names in the metal realm, but there are a few up and comers who are working toward getting their names mentioned in the same breath. One such artist is Derrick Nau, the man behind art and design company Apocalypse Nau, who also answers to the moniker Mullet Chad when pounding the skins for his band, the soul searing Ohio-based black thrash outfit, Skeletonwitch.
Nau knew he wanted to be an artist from the time he was a child drawing, as he describes it, “Venom kicking Spiderman's ass.” At that point, was there any doubt this kid was going to turn into a full-fledged metal head? By the time his early teens came around, records by the likes of Metallica, Emperor, Amon Amarth, and Immortal, among others, came to dominate his record collection. But though the music would inspire him to create some of his own, it wasn't the artwork on these albums that got him into drawing metal covers, as he explains.
“I the studied bio-medical illustration at The Cleveland Institute of Art, and so my work has a strong emphasis on realism and detail. I think a lot of work out there in the extreme music world can tend to have a lack of those elements. It is my goal to create visions that, although [they] are scientifically impossible, leave you thinking: 'Well, this horrifying demonic zombie could be possible after all.'”
Nau's trademark attention to realism that he has exhibited since his first designs for Skeletonwitch has won him a host of clients that make up a veritable A-list of the sweat soaked bus and van jockeys that make up the extreme metal elite in North America and beyond. Bands like Cattle Decapitation, Psycroptic, The Faceless, and Black Tusk have all come calling for designs. At times, the bands give him a tightly defined concept to work with, and sometimes he is given free reign to dip into the backwaters of the sinister side of his mind to give life to some twisted, unholy atrocity. With each new piece he creates, he is further etching his name into the proud history of memorable metal artwork. This music definitely lends itself well to the visual art form, and Nau takes a forceful stab at defining exactly why this is so.
“The easiest way to describe the relationship of the music to the artwork is that as a rule, metal music, bands, and fans have very strong personalities. The bands and fans don’t just enjoy the music; they live it, which creates a very powerful resource for visuals.”
The undeniable sense of loyalty metal fans have toward the forefathers of the genre and the groundbreaking artwork of their consummate albums of the genre as a whole also play indispensable roles in making the art just as important at the music.
“There is also a strong sense of reverence for the bands that are originators. I mean, any self respecting metal fan had better love the Judas Priests, Slayers, and Darkthrones of the world. So in addition to a long history of killer music, there is also a respect and a lot of homage-paying to classic artists and art throughout extreme music’s sordid history. So a combination of music with a lot of attitude, heart, and atmosphere with artwork to match has really cemented a long lasting aesthetic for the world of underground music.”
Nau drops the obvious names when going through his list of artistic influences, with the likes of Seagrave, Repka, Necrolord, and a more contemporary choice, Baroness singer and guitarist John Baizley, being mentioned before he gets into the art school side of things.
“Some of my favorite classic artists include Gustave Dore, Rembrandt, Degas, and Durer. Some more current guys are Ken Taylor, Adrian Smith, Daniel Danger, Florian, Aaron Horkey, and the almighty Alan Lee,” he says. “I really love creative and competent use of color, detail, atmosphere, and realism. In those regards I think these guys are some of the best. It’s really a feeling of ‘these guys are so amazing, I need to strive to produce stuff to the same quality that they do.’”
Much like his artistic tastes, Nau's musical preferences also cut a wide swath, proving that the best draw from a broad palette. From classical to the Man in Black himself, it's all there. The key ingredient is emotion.
“I really like Baroque era classical music and oddly enough I like a lot of older religious music. There is a lot of majesty and emotion in these types of music and that is worthy of attention and respect. I guess as a rule I like music with emotion and generally a bit of a darker feel or atmosphere. I like a wide range of music, from the experimental Ulver stuff, to The Smiths, to Johnny Cash. I also really love black metal.”
At this point in his artistic career, Nau is beginning to live the dream, creating art for many of his peers within the global metal family. He has reveled in the challenge of living up to the aesthetic preferences of bands that have a definite visual trademark to maintain, as even a cursory glance at his designs proves that his designs do indeed fit in with the past portfolio of the bands he has worked with thus far. A certain California vegan anti-human death metal band has been his favorite to work with to this point.
“I really enjoyed working with Cattle Decapitation because it was a challenge for me to live up to the strong aesthetic vision that the band has. I had to step up to the plate to make them happy which is definitely a good thing.”
With that being said, he still has many bands on his bucket list that he would like to work with in the future. His list runs the gamut from childhood heroes to bands that already have lifelong artistic relationships forged with pen, paper, and paintbrush partners in crime, but there's always room for the guy with talent and drive to spare.
“I would love to do work for Cannibal Corpse, Amon Amarth, Immortal, Satyricon, and Danzig. These bands music has been so important to me and it would be an honor to be a part of their creative process and to represent groups with such strong visual output.”
And, finally, what advice does Nau have for other young artists who dream of creating the next timeless piece of heavy metal art that will in equal parts offend the moral sensibilities of the mainstream, intrigue the wonderfully warped minds of the underground, and stand on its own as the work of a legitimate artisan?
“Work hard, don’t sell yourself short, and be willing to prove yourself,” he offers. “I sound like my dad.”