City Bass stands head and shoulders above most nights in Cardiff’s competitive night-life scene. This is partly down to the distinctive graphic design behind the promotion; original, identifiable and dependably on-trend, Alex Sullivan is its creator.
From his background in graffiti, Alex has developed a distinctive graphical style. Designing the entirety of City Bass’ promotion with maintained creativity, he has gone on to work for a variety of clients in both Music and Fashion.
After hearing about his up and coming work for a new brand, we met up in Chapter Arts Centre’s cafe. Amidst the Stanley Donwood exhibition, we spoke on design, fashion and Cardiff.
What is your background in Graphic Design and art in general?
I started with graffiti when I was sixteen and got really into that. I did a foundation course in Glamorgan in graphic design and that’s when I realised it was something that I wanted to do.
So you’ve always been Cardiff based?
Yeah, but from there I went to London to study a degree in Chelsea College of Arts and did three years there.
How did you find that?
Although I didn’t complete the degree, I learnt a lot of skills which have been a good base to build on and made some great friends. After leaving I decided to continue with Cardifferent.
So you actually set that up?
Yeah, I started that my first year at uni with Alex Priestley. When I left uni, I didn’t really know what to do. It was a great way to experiment and getting my ideas out there. From there, it went on to City Bass, which a few friends of mine started, and they asked me to do the flyers. I started getting a lot of interest from the artists and dj’s they brought down, like Midland. I started designing for his record label, and from there it’s all developed through word of mouth.
And now you’re here. Let’s go back to City Bass. When I first came to Cardiff, as a student, I was obviously bombarded with so much promotion for freshers/middle-of the road club nights/x-amount of generic student nights, all with uninteresting, badly designed posters/flyers. Amongst all the noise of promotion, your work for City Bass always completely stood out in terms of clarity of design and seemed to be so on-trend. You mentioned you knew the guys who ran it, how exactly did that come about?
Yeah, I knew the guys through Joey P who asked me to design a poster for the Altered Natives night and it just basically went from there.
So you’ve designed for every single event since then?
Every single one, yeah and collaborated with Snow Skull (Matthew Evans) on the Marquis Hawkes poster. I also ask City Bass for their opinions etc.
There’s definitely a consistent aesthetic to them, but you’ve worked with different styles within that, like playful abstraction, work with type, etc. I remember seeing an A1 of the Theo Parrish design and loving the type work on that.
What dictates the style?
For me, it’s a place to experiment. I get a lot of briefs that are very strict, want a continuous theme and don’t want to stem away from that; where as City Bass were always just like, do whatever you want, which is great. It’s the only project where I get to really experiment with type and imagery. That’s kind of the deal; because they are friends they kind of give me free reign. It’s a none profit organisation, all the money goes straight back into developing the night, getting acts etc.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Do you get design annuals, etc?
Yeah, I like to keep up to date with what’s going on, but then I have my favourite designers, artists, pieces of architecture; I try to look at different forms.
How much does the act/dj influence the work?
A lot. I’ve always been into this kind of music, so it’s great to be able to do artwork for amazing dj’s. I tend to listen to a track by the artist as I’m working on it. For the Theo Parish design, I was listening to ‘Solitary Flight’?
Great tune. I like made the background, took a picture of the clouds, played with the colours…
So that’s all you, no stock images?
Yeah, all me.
There’s definitely a natural relationship between the two; art and music, and especially current art and music.
Yeah definitely. Look at designers like Trevor Jackson, big in the music scene and an amazing graphic designer; it fits so well. Even more now, with audio visual stuff.
City Bass have created this “relevant” night, with reliably good acts…
…like what they want to listen to.
Yeah, and the design work reflects that, it all seems to work well as a package. Do you have a favourite?
It’s always changing… I guess the John Heckle one? With the ‘maze’.
That’s another of our favourites. So many posters cram in so much information, but yours never seem to be fighting for space.
Keeping things simple is key.
In terms of Cardifferent, we only became aware of it when you had Funkineven down and I saw the pictures of him wearing your tee.
Yeah that was for our fifth birthday.
And then shortly after, you brought that to an end. What was the timeline for Cardifferent?
Well, we went for five years, which was pretty good going, but it was quite a niche thing; with Cardiff being such a small city and having its name in the brand, it reached a point where it couldn’t really expand any further. It was a lot of work! One of our final ventures was launching a pop-up shop for nine days around christmas time on St.Johns street, which went really well. So much time and effort went into the whole thing.
You had quite a large catalogue of stuff, was it mostly screen prints?
Yeah, that was all done locally, by Visible Art. It was pretty difficult determining how much stock to get printed; we’d end up with boxes of stuff, but it always sold! We’re thinking about maybe re-printing a few of the classics, we’ve had a lot of people asking about it.
We noticed there were similarities between some of the Cardifferent designs and early City Bass posters; was that to tie the two brands together?
It was really my own designs which I thought would look good on a tee, but also fit with the music for the Wbeeza night, so they both tide in with some tweaking.
It’s impressive how far that went, did you have any background business knowledge?
What’s it been like working with Midland?
It’s been great. He just started Graded and I’ve been working on the branding and the sleeves.
Is that a big job?
At the beginning it was. I went through so many different ideas with him and he was very particular about what he wanted, which was really tough actually. But now, he likes to just maintain continuity, with slight variations in colour and shape.
And what about YOB?
That’s with Simon (Catapult founder). That’s pretty recent, he’s had that for a year or so? He’d made a few shirts, like cut and sew pieces and has now decided to go down the print route.
You can definitely see your style there, how does the design work for that?
He came up with some ideas, like the ‘Vos Enfants Se Révoltent’ tee, and I worked on the rest, but we usually talk about different ideas. He had a clothing label called Empty, which was pretty successful and he worked for Fenchurch. We’ve both been pretty busy, but are just going to keep pushing that.
I’ve also got another clothing label which I’m working on with a friend called Will Stewart, who’s an artist and does some amazing paintings.
What’s the idea behind that?
Just…cosmic! We’re going to try and tie everything into to it, like music and art. We’ve got the designs ready, we just need to get them printed!
So that’s what’s coming up in the foreseeable future?
Yeah, working on that and continuing with my freelance design. I’ve started doing posters for a club night and record label in Munich, called STOCK5, which is really cool. It can be pretty difficult with the language barrier, but it’s great getting my work out there!
AIso there’s a new club opening called the Qube in London which launches on the 7th of February, which i’ve just finished the branding for today. It was quite a specific brief but a great experience; I’ve enjoyed broadening my skills through catering to a different clientele.
Speaking of London, you were there for three years, so you obviously got to immerse yourself in it’s culture and we wondered how you think Cardiff compares as a city on that front? Capital cities like London, Paris, Berlin etc are all synonymous with art, music and culture in general, how does Cardiff compare?
Well, I’m pretty sure we are the youngest capital city in Europe, and I think there’s still a way to go with Cardiff. There’s a large amount of talent in Cardiff, but it seems a lot leave for different cities. The city seems quite strict, there aren’t really that many alternative venues for clubbing.
In size, it is difficult to compare them, especially with the centre being so small.
There are definitely more things going on though. Being a teenager in Cardiff, you just want to get out, move to London; I felt there was literally nothing happening. But coming back, there’s definitely a lot more going on.
Do you think there are enough outlets for creatives?
Maybe. I think there’s a disconnection between different scenes and I think your idea is great, in that it can hopefully draw people together. I don’t think you can really compare them, but who knows what can happen.
We’re hoping to feature Alex’s designs in one of the shop’s exhibitions; until then, check out the rest of his work at his site: alex-sullivan.co.uk/