Piet Parra is a man of many talents. He designs, illustrates, and now he’s in a band called Lele. (Piet provided the illustrations for the Lele track “Breakfast”). Anyone who has walked the streets of Amsterdam recently has spotted a Piet Parra, even if only from the corner of their eyes. His hand-drawn art work has graced many a flyer and poster, aswell as the occasional big brand campaign, CD covers and company logos. And let’s not forget the T’s of his Rockwell label. His themes and motifs have become the unique (and often imitated) trademarks of Parra’s personal style: colorful letters, a world populated by hybrid humans, his 1970s retro-style drawings. And then there’s this thing he has for voluptuous women. Submarinechannel called Piet up on the phone to discuss music, humor, drawing, and the meaning of his strange made-up words.
An interview to read, this time. Piet Parra is one of the hippest illustrators in Holland. He’s also in a band called Lele (of Lele’s “Breakfast” by Parra and Sandder). His hand-drawn art work has graced many a flyer and poster, as well as big brand campaigns, CD covers and the T’s of his Rockwell label. The unique trademarks of his style? Beaked humans, 1970s retro-style drawings, vibrant colors and voluptuous women. We called Piet up on the phone to discuss music, humor, drawing, and the meaning of his strange made-up words.
Why Hello Piet (pronounced Pete). First off, I would like to congratulate you with your international break through and of course your staggering success with Rockwell.
Thank you. I have been really busy actually. That’s the only drawback. But all of this is awesome of course. And I’m really happy you guys are picking up the video clip for “Breakfast” because it’s been flagged on youtube. Someone thought it was inappropriate. It’s really very irritating. The same thing happened with our “Skinny Jeans” video clip. So it seems someone out there does not like us. It’s kind of funny. But whatever, I guess the lyrics are slightly crazy, if someone finds that offensive, well, they are most likely Americans.
That’s possible. Your illustrations are already quit graphic. Throw the lyrics in the mix and that only emphasizes the raunchiness. But you can’t do anything about offending people, can you?
Laughs slyly. No I can’t. It’s my style. I could work with the lyrics, so coming up with the idea was easy. That is, with the text of Pepijn, our singer. I just sat down and listened to the song and what ever I thought of, I drew. Very simple thinking. I didn’t really think the whole thing through. It’s just words and images and what ever I imagine. It’s all done in an old school style. Sandder edited the whole thing, but I did the illustrations. Frame by frame. That was really great, because I usually work with things or images that stand still. Just posters and flyers and that kind of stuff. Now I could make it all move, and to be honest that was difficult because I had to think of the postures and what the characters would do.
Your posters and Graphics remind me of a 1920’s poster style. Can you tell me what inspires you?
Yeah, well, no, I can’t really. Everyone has their own ideas, and they always differ greatly, about what my work reminds them of. I have heard that before, but some people also say my stuff looks very seventies, and others think it’s really nineties. I guess that just happens when you draw a letter by hand. That’s how they used to draw, so it isn’t very farfetched. I draw by hand, but I am not one to copy other peoples work. I just can’t. What you see is just my handwriting, when I draw a letter A, that is what it looks like. Of course there are loads of different fonts that you can use as graphic designer and as the years go by you develop and change and learn how to be a better illustrator. So for Lele I designed a new alphabet, which is bit more graphic. Take the album for example. I don’t know in what decade you could place that. It’s almost eighties, I would say. But when I draw slightly fatter letters people often say “oh, that’s seventies or sixties”. I guess it just depends on what kind of letter I draw or type. Everyone will place it within their own context. That’s just an easy way to look at things. The things is, whenever a random person designs or draws a letter, it often quickly leads to comparisons.
Okay, and your single “Breakfast”: It’s about fucking but then in reference to food on the breakfast table.
No, it’s not! Well, yes it is. But that’s all Pepijn. He just sits there and comes up with these things in a very short period of time and then that gets recorded. It’s not like we sit around and say; “Okay, now, let’s write a song about fucking”. Definitely not. This is like a puzzle, you know, trying to say something but using other words.
You see, we make new new wave music. Just a little bit of everything, you can’t really describe it. Our album consists of 15 songs with a wide range of styles. We sit down together to make music and we just have fun together. If there is a magazine lying around that happens to be about boats then we will talk about boats and Monaco and those kinds of things. The feeling that comes with whatever conversation we are having, that’s what we make our music with and about. It’s just random. Every time we get together it’s different. Just the other day we recorded a whole new bunch of songs. They probably won’t come out until about 2080 what with the music industry and all. It just isn’t normal, how long you have to wait to get things done. But, that is a whole different story. The new songs are more poppy and sort of minimal again. So, every time it’s all different. But, new new wave. I like that.
You took the “Breakfast” lyrics very literal. Did you ever consider illustrating it differently?
This is the first time I worked with motion, and yes, I did take it all very literally, because that’s what it is, graphic and literal. If I had been vague and difficult about it all, and tried to incorporate a second layer, I don’t think people would have understood the whole thing. It was hard for people to understand the song in the first place. It seems more like a house beat, and our last track was more of hit. This really is very different and I wanted it to be accessible and not complicate things too much.
So, how would you describe your over-all style?
That’s a hard question. But if you listen to the album, for example, I think you can tell what tracks are mine and which are not. I work fast As soon as I get something into my head, I want to transfer it onto paper as fast as possible, within minutes, be that lyrics, music or illustrations. I think that’s my style. It just came about because I wanted to have things translated quickly. It seems useless to me, to make elaborate and extensive designs and spend hours perfecting something. If you are used to working quickly, and you have been doing it for years, I guess you become good at it. So, I would describe my way of working as fast and free-style. But I really should mention, that as the years have gone by I have started to spend some more time on designs. It surprises me sometimes. When I look back at work from about four years ago, like stuff from Rednose District, those pieces are a lot looser. I wanted to be done really quickly back then. Maybe the older I get the more patient I become. But I’ve also become a lot more anal. I will say; “no, that has to go a bit more to the right.” I never used to do that. Maybe I went from being Piet Parra to being Piet Precise.
I guess you also improve your drawing skills. I really could not draw at first. But as I started doing it every day, I slowly improved and you really do notice that. Now I am just not satisfied with a so-so illustration.
My dad is an artist as well. A real renaissance man. But I never really bothered much with painting and drawing when I was younger. When your dad does it, it just isn’t cool. He didn’t force me into it, thankfully. If he had, I would not enjoy designing now. Besides, I was real busy skate boarding.
And what about your international breakthrough?
Well, if you can even call it that. I mean, it’s about two year ago now. I had a show in London. And someone there was apparently interested in my work. That someone ended up being a London-based agency called Big Active. I had no idea who they were or what they did, but when I told a friend about it, he was all like “What!? Wow?! You have to!” So I checked it out and it ended up being one the best agency’s to work with as a designer and illustrator.
So, that has been the commercial side of things. Things moved quickly. I did some illustration work for advertising agencies. Then there are the little shows, I still do those. That ranges from little boutiques that sell Rockwell Clothing who want a night of drinks surrounded by some posters on the walls, to art galleries that really think of my work as art. I kind of just work everywhere. Some people see it as art, others don’t. It doesn’t matter all that much to me. I consider it art, I guess. However art is a big word. I was asked to go to Vienna with a Dutch delegation and do some art thing there. But when I look at the work of the others, mainly ‘real’ artists, who went to art school, I just don’t see myself fitting in. They show up with all these sketches and studies and careful choices in material. And then there is me, I show up with some posters. But that’s just what I do, and I am not ashamed of it anymore.
I focus on developing my illustration skills. I draw everything myself. That makes me happiest. It hasn’t been typed or traced. It’s just my drawing and that’s it. And that’s why it’s art.
And about the motion in Breakfast?
Yeah, that was a lot of work. Especially since I had never animated before. Jezus! And Sandder helped a lot. He did the editing. I just made the drawings. We kind have a double process going on. I draw everything onto paper first and then I scan it in and trace it in Illustrator, so that it becomes vector. That way I can scale it. Then Sandder took all the single frames and put those into a program to do the editing. He also took care of the timing, made sure it all matched up with the beats. I would be drawing and after thirty frames I thought, oh well, that’s more than enough, but with that you only actually fill a second and a half. It’s completely crazy! That’s why some parts are repeated. Otherwise we would still be working on it.
But animation is so cool to make, I would love to immerse myself into it some more and be able to draw a hand peeling an orange in a few frames. I just want to become better at my trade and learn how to think in motion.
Care to share more about people and beaks?
Sure, there are a few reasons. The most import is that when I draw people, or I see how people are drawn, you see certain characteristics. For example; you draw someone with a little mustache, you automatically think to yourself “Oh, someone with a mustache”. But if you have a person with a beak, and they all have beaks, they become generic. A lemming of sorts. All of a sudden it’s more about their posture and the things they do then about their physical characteristics. The text becomes more of a focal point. You can’t really make them laugh or cry either. So it’s always very dry. I think that’s funny, so I kept using them. It’s just a bit “Blue”. A bit Flage. Like the name of our album.
And what does that mean, Flage?
Flage is just a word you use when things don’t really go your way. You booked a hotel and you get there and it’s small, and your room has no windows and the TV is broken, then you say “Flagggeee”. That feeling.
And Lele? How do you pronounce that and what does it mean?
Oh, that very simple. It’s le le, they way the French say it, luh luh. Like the the. In Dutch when you say it connected to each other, lele, it sounds exactly like the word “lullen”, which means to talk bullshit.
And Lele, you were already talking about your next album, but will you guys stick around? Most of you are involved in other things.
Yeah, it’s everyone’s third or fourth project. At least, for Pepijn it is. He also sings with De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig and he writes for different publications. Rimer has Comtron and another band called De Gebroeders Plonk. This will be my first music gig though. I do have Rockwell and my work and I like always made my own music. but this is the first real band I am a part of. It is not something that is just a project though. The end is nowhere in sight. It’s just really a great friendship and we love making music together. So I think there will be some albums to follow, still.