Illustrator Luke Preece: “So much of what I do is influenced by metal”

World-renowned illustrator Luke Preece discusses his work with No Music On A Dead Planet, working with Metallica, and how metal has informed his artistic style…

Illustrator Luke Preece: “So much of what I do is influenced by metal”
Phil Alexander

The last show that Luke Preece went to before lockdown hit was at the Underworld in London on March 12, 2020 to watch a triple heavyweight bill of Cruelty, Palm Reader and headliners Employed To Serve. “As a last gig, that was a pretty great to go to,” he smiles, recalling a night that feels like it happened a lifetime ago.

Despite the curtailing of his show-going endeavours, Luke has been a busy man during the pandemic, his reputation as one of this country’s pre-eminent illustrators placing him in high demand. The fact that he works across a number of different sectors has also helped in that respect.

Metal fans may well know him for his design work with Metallica. He’s the man responsible for the …And Justice For All and Atlas, Rise! shirts, and a host of long-sold out poster art prints on their 2019 WorldWired run. He’s also worked with a whole raft of other acts, and he helped rebrand Music For Nations, the venerable UK record label which was reborn in 2015.

But Luke’s work extends far beyond music. His illustrations grace innumerable video games – including in-game elements for the Gears Of War franchise as well as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2. His artwork has also appeared on Santa Cruz skateboards and in 2000 AD – the iconic comic where Luke started out as a graphic designer some 15 years ago.

Armed with a distinct, precise style inspired by his love of metal, science fiction and fantasy movies, Luke’s latest piece of work is for a good cause: namely the Music Declares Emergency charity and their No Music On A Dead Planet campaign. Having previously been championed by artists as diverse as Brian Eno, Radiohead and The 1975, the No Music… campaign is now targeting the rock and metal community in its bid to raise awareness around the all-important issue of climate change.

Key to that awareness-drive are the two shirts, which Luke has designed and are available now. All of the proceeds go to ecological charities, all of whom are actively working to change governmental policies in a bid to avert the natural disaster that is staring us in the face.

We caught up with Luke to discuss his approach to designing these shirts and his wider work. The softly spoken Midland-born artist also took time to show off his latest vinyl acquisitions – including a brace of Kerbdog reissues (“I love that band, they should’ve been huge!” he enthuses) and a copy of Paradise Lost’s Draconian Times – as well as talking about the state of metal as a whole.

How did you get involved with the No Music On A Dead Planet campaign?
“This is one of those classic cases of knowing someone who knows someone. A friend of mine, Joel De’Ath, who used to work at Music For Nations knows Nigel [Adams – co-owner of Hassle Records] from the campaign, and they were looking for an artist to design a shirt that could represent the metal side of music. I spoke with Nigel on email and I spoke with Fay from Savages [who co-runs the campaign] and we got on really well. I like what the charity represented and I got involved. A lot of my work ends up on T-shirts or album covers or in video games and things like that, so it was nice to do something that gives something back. It’s been really great to work with them all.”

What inspired the artwork you created for the shirt?
“I had a look at all the other designs they’d done previously and the No Music On A Dead Planet slogan was the kind of thing that dominated. So I did the first design based around the text. I asked myself, ‘What would be a metal way to the message across?’ The idea of a globe burning was the idea that came to mind. Then I thought, ‘Let’s make it a skull with the globe burning in the forehead because that way you’re marrying the human element with the idea of the world.’ Basically, it just needed to say, ‘If we don’t sort this shit out, we won’t be in a particularly good state.’

“I did that, and Fay came back and said she really liked the skull with the globe burning element, and was there a way of doing another design where we could blow the skull up? So I did a second design where the skull was bigger and it felt like the aftermath of everything. So that was the idea behind the second one and I entitled it Aftermath, essentially. It was pretty simple and I hope it’s impactful enough for people to want to buy a shirt. I want metal fans to see it and want to wear it to help out a great cause.”

On a personal level, what have you learnt from working on the campaign?
“I’m no expert on this stuff, but obviously Fay and Nigel know an awful lot about it. But on a personal level, I’m a father and I have two daughters. Before having kids I was probably oblivious to a lot and I didn’t think about much that went on, drifting through life like a typical 20-something-year-old. But having my children made me view the world differently – as cheesy as that sounds. When they asked me to do the work on this, I thought, ‘Finally, I can work on something that contributes to something that matters.’

“The one thing I’ve learnt is that being an artist, I can help raise awareness by creating a piece of work. That isn’t something I’d thought about doing, but the great thing about Music Declares is that they’ve set up a platform where musicians and artists can get involved. I feel my art has more meaning to it because I’m contributing to something that really fucking matters. It’s not just an image on a shirt, it’s so much more than that. And that’s what I’ve learnt.”

Lets talk about you and how you started out. What inspired you to draw?
“I started doing illustration and art from a very young age and most artists will probably say that. When I left school I played guitar and I always wanted to be in a band. I think it’s a common theme among artists, they play an instrument as well. I was in lots of really shitty bands and I realised that being in a band was really hard. I always did artwork, for friend’s bands and stuff.

“Whilst doing that I was working as a graphic designer for a design agency. Illustration was always a hobby and I got approached by a gallery in America to do some work. I did a poster for Danzig for his Blackest Of The Black festival [in 2017]. I didn’t know what I was doing and I think the guy contacted me because he knew I liked metal. I didn’t get paid very much money at all. It was just like, ’Cool! I get to do something for Danzig.’ And then it went from there and I just started doing gig posters, a lot of which were screenprinted. Prior to that I’d worked for 2000 AD for many years as a graphic designer, not illustration. But through that I got to meet a lot of artists and writers.”

Your stint at 2000 AD mustve been quite inspirational.
“Yeah. I started there around 2004 and I worked there for about nine years whilst playing in bands. I was commuting from Birmingham to Oxford every day and then playing gigs at night, and not really sleeping. This was when I was a lot younger and I still had energy! I was always into the metal scene and I wanted to tap into that still by doing gig posters. Then I left 2000 AD and started working in video games. I did bits of concept art for video games while continuing with my own art. Every artist’s goal is to be able to do what they want to do. Now I’ve got to a point where I am able to do that.

“Then I got to work with Metallica on posters and T-shirts, which has been a real honour. In 2019 I was on the guestlist when they played Manchester and it was surreal to see my artwork on their shirts behind on the merch stand. My wife was like, ‘Oh, my god, look there’s a person wearing one of your shirts! And there’s another one! And another!’ It all culminated in that really, because they’re one of my favourite bands and they’re the band that really got me into metal.”

How significant is your love of metal as an influence on your artistic endeavours?
“It’s one of those things where you don’t realise what you’re doing until you take a step back and realise what’s happening. I realise now that so much of what I do really is influenced by metal. I think of specific album covers as being an influence. The sleeve to Sepultura’s Chaos A.D. is a big influence, and a lot of Pushead’s artwork for Metallica, too. Jim Phillips at Santa Cruz, too. I got to work with Santa Cruz, which was great.

“It all comes from that old school screenprinted style of art, working with limited colour palettes. But there are definitely things that stand out to me. Michael Whelan is the man who did all that Sepultura stuff – Beneath The Remains, Chaos A.D. and Arise. They’re classic sleeves, and it’s probably because they remind me of my childhood that I go back to them, because I started listening to Sepultura when I was around 12 years old after seeing the video for Arise on Headbanger’s Ball or something like that. I’d record it on VHS and watch it in the morning. ‘Wow! Gas masks and crucifixes!’ And there was Max Cavalera with his BC Rich! All that stuff influences me massively. I listen to lots of newer metal bands now, but I always go back to that old stuff: Pantera, Sepultura, Faith No More, Helmet, and even some Biohazard. I blast that stuff our all the time when I’m working. I’m just trapped in the early ’90s, basically!”

Video not playing? View on YouTube

Theres the nostalgia trip, but there is a new breed of heavy bands that have really come into their own in the last few years.
“Yeah. Gojira – what a band! I saw them with Code Orange in Birmingham a couple of years back. They’re such a great band. I think they’re also influenced by Sepultura. The new track, Amazonia – you can’t watch that video without thinking of Roots, with the tribe and stuff. It’s very cool. I love that band. With regards to new bands, Code Orange are amazing. It’s a shame that they released their new album [Underneath] just as lockdown hit. I just thought they were going to have a massive year and that was taken away from them.”

Theyll be back. Listening to you speak, it does seem as though working with metal bands is where you heart lies…
“Yeah, I love working with metal bands, but I do work across a lot of areas and I’ve done a lot of work with video game developers, which is great. I’ve done a lot of work with Microsoft on the Gears Of War franchise as well. I’m still doing stuff for them. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. The images are fun and if you go back into the history of the game, you’ll find that the guy who art directed Gears Of War 1 was a massive 2000 AD fan. All of his mood boards and inspirations come from artists like Simon Bisley and people like that, so all of these things come full circle and they’re all related in some way.

“I’ve also worked on the Tony Hawk game recently, which is great. All of these things just come out of the blue. ‘Would you like to work on a Tony Hawk game?’ ‘Oh, alright then!’ That was just two skateboards that I designed that were put in game, but then they kindly sent me versions of the physical boards that are hanging in my studio.

“These last couple of years, I’m getting to do these really cool jobs. ‘We saw your work on a Metallica T-shirt’ and things go from there. So the work I do with bands gets seen by other industries. ‘The art director of the game is a massive Metallica fan and he wonders if you’d design a skateboard’. They find me online and ask me things like that and, my long-winded answer, is that I love it all the same. If it’s a fun project, then I’m up for it.”

You havent reached a point where youre unaffordable yet, then?
“Not quite yet! Some clients have a large budget, let’s put it that way. But you do get some jobs that come through where they don’t have a budget for the artwork. So I have to be really into the project because I don’t have the time to do everything. It’s about finding that balance. Some people do see art as a throwaway thing. ‘Oh, it’ll only take you an hour, won’t it?’ ‘No, it will probably take me about a month to put that together for you.’”

So what advice would you give any budding artists who are starting out?
“The one thing I would say is keep practising. I think everyone thinks there are quick fixes and you get all the work. It’s not like that. There’s years of grafting and there’s also a lot of rejections along the way. A few years back when I was trying to get into more music stuff, I got ignored. Or you get told your work is shit. You have to accept that that’s going to happen a lot, but just keep going. Be approachable and talk to everybody. I know a lot of people who are really good at art but they don’t know how to speak to people or they don’t know how to send an email out because they’re afraid of that rejection. Just presume you’re going to be rejected and maybe one-in-10 people might just give you some work. You’ve got to keep getting better at what you do, but also do it because you genuinely care, not because you want a lot of likes on Instagram. Be into the thing you’re doing. I’m a massive metal fan and that has led me to do what I’m doing now, so be genuine.

“With regards to education, I went to art college in Birmingham and I gave up. I’m not sure that’s the best bit of advice, but I gave up because a job as a graphic designer came up and I wanted to learn from that and make money. There was never a hard and fast rule, or a grand plan. It was because I was into stuff. I felt that I was willing to learn and I figured that if I was into what I was doing, things would go somewhere and that’s what’s happened.”

And you work hard, too…
“That’s definitely important. The other thing I should point out is that social media really can help if you use it well. Instagram helped get my work everywhere. When I did that Metallica work, they tagged me in those posts and then you get so many people coming to you. That’s how Microsoft came to me about Gears Of War. ‘We need someone who can draw that kind of gritty metal stuff.’ I designed some stuff for them and they added one of my images to a can of Rock Star energy drink and I was named on the can as well, so that went everywhere too. It was for Gears 5 where you bought a can of drink and type in the code that’s on there into your Xbox and you get my weapon skin on your gun. It’s quite crazy when you think about the avenues that these things can lead down.”

So whats next for you?
“I’m working on more Gears Of War stuff. I’ve done the artwork for the new Employed To Serve album. As well as doing the illustration work, I like to do the entire sleeve design for them so I’m doing the vinyl, the CD, the T-shirts and the long sleeves. I’m just working with Justine [Jones, ETS vocalist] on finalising all of that. Basically, I want to give them a pack of everything they need. I’ve also just landed a job with AC/DC, although I can’t tell you what that is just yet. I’m roughing out some stuff for them. I think I might also be doing a cover for 2000 AD this year and I’m also doing some artwork for the Copenhell Festival. So I guess I’m pretty busy, really. I do have that fear of it all drying up, but I think right now things are pretty good.”

Discover more about Luke at lukepreece.com
Buy his No Music On A Dead Planet Shirt via musicdeclares.shop
And sign up to Music Declares And Emergency at musicdeclares.net

Check out more:

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?