Ralph Steadman is the anarchic artist behind some of the most memorable illustrations of the 20th century and beyond. He’s also drawn to music: Besides honing his amateur trumpet skills, Steadman has produced his own record and has designed numerous original album artworks.

Starting on May 4, 2018, select pieces by Ralph–including some exclusives–will be on display in “Gonzo Notes,” an exhibition at the Sonos stores in London and New York.

Ralph Steadman’s work with Hunter S. Thompson helped change the face of journalism. While his contribution to Gonzo, a journalistic style that shook up the established idea of what constituted “good” journalism in terms of style and subject matter, his lesser-known works are the album covers that Ralph has designed intermittently over the years. Working with musicians as diverse as Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Ed Harcourt and, most recently, the rappers Travis Scott and Quavo of Huncho Jack, Ralph’s distinctive style shines through on all.

Just like his illustrations, which combine savage brushstrokes and ricocheting splashes of ink with razor sharp lines and protractor-precision circles, he is freewheeling and instinctive in his approach to interviews: Lengthy, verbatim recitals of Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, and Edward Lear jostle with still-fierce diatribes against the world’s political ills.

We spent some time with Ralph at his residence in the Kentish countryside, moving between his magnificent home, the local pub, and his garage-turned-studio where he began to get to grips with his Sonos speakers. He discussed his creative processes, his rich relationship with music and, frankly, anything else that Ralph, one of the world’s great social entertainers, felt like talking about.

This record playing now is a nice way to ease into the day. What’s this?
This is Billie Holiday; such a beautiful voice. [He switches to Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, a slightly more chaotic and somehow fitting soundtrack to the splashes of ink he has begun to make on the paper.]

Do you listen to music while you work? Perhaps you could pull out some favourites?
I like [Marcel] Duchamp very much. He was playful and mischievous—you could certainly draw a line to Gonzo from his work.

What about the record you yourself made? Do you have a copy of that anywhere?
[He finds a red seven-inch-record with two songs that he wrote about Leonardo da Vinci, one of his most enduring inspirations.] The title of this comes from a Sigmund Freud quote about da Vinci, The Man Who Woke Up in the Dark. That quote also inspired my book I, Leonardo, a first person-narrative book about da Vinci that I both wrote and illustrated. You know, Hunter said to me, “Ralph! Don’t write. You will bring shame on your family.”

[Ralph exchanges the record and for a beautiful few moments he is transported, singing along to the music he created almost four decades ago.]

Mixing colours… the parts create the whole
Mixing colours… don’t you need some magic in your soul?

You’ve been creating art in one form or another for decades now. Do you still find yourself coming to the studio regularly?
When the urge takes me, yes. Sometimes I worry that I’m just a pollutant with all this new work I’m creating. I wanted to change the world with my art, but did I? If I did, looking at the state of it now, it was for the worse!

Can you share some recent projects with us?
I like this [pulls out an abstract piece]. I poured dirty water onto it, which has a wonderful effect, although the water had to be really dirty and needs to sit for a long time. I couldn’t paint that. With this piece [he walks over to a cartoonish but nightmarish depiction of people dressed as Disney World characters scaring children], I’ve always wondered about the people in it, wearing these costumes. They seem so sinister. Do children actually like this?

Do you know who this is? [He points at a black and white photo of a naked man with his back to the camera.]

No, who’s that?
It’s Louis Armstrong! I took it in Zaire. [Famously, Ralph and Hunter were sent to Zaire in Africa to cover the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. They never made it to the fight, however, because Hunter had sold the tickets for marijuana, and Ralph was forced to illustrate the fight via the TV of a hotel bar. Quite where a naked Louis Armstrong fits into all this is never really made clear.]

It sounds like your creative days differ a little now from the times spent running around hotels in Zaire?
Oh yes, of course; they have to. I couldn’t make any of these books again [he gestures to copies of his book, I, Leonardo]. I actually drew its cover in this house. Then we moved the studio to where Sadie, my daughter, lives today and then, finally, into the garage where it is now.

You’re still working on commissioned pieces though occasionally, right?
Yes, I did. For The Who, for instance. Do you remember Brian Auger and The Trinity? Julie Driscoll? I did a drawing of them dancing in the street and it was like a Hogarth picture almost.

Your latest though is perhaps one of the more unexpected musical collaborations you’ve become involved with. What do you think drew the rappers Travis Scott and Migos’ Quavo behind Huncho Jack to your work?
I don’t know really. I think anything messy—anyone who likes a mess would be drawn to it. Perhaps there is that counter-culture subversion going on. They wanted that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas thing—that gonzo thing; the bats, the cacti, and the straight lines.

Before I started working on the album cover, Travis was supposed to call us at seven o’clock, and we ended up sitting around the phone in the kitchen waiting and waiting and waiting! In that time, I actually wrote a poem, it’s in my notebook.

Could you read that for us?

No long wait, dude on the run,
Sitting here wondering, having no fun.
Rap out a song, meaning to call you,
No number to do that, where the fuck are you?
Could be a winner, could be a lot,
Could be a hitter, Travis Scott.
Scott on the landscape, Scott in shit,
Scott said he’d ring me about a disc pic.
This is no rap, this is no dice,
This is a torture, worse than head lice.
Give me a signal, give me a sign,
Give me an eye-poke, give me more wine!

They should have featured you on the album.
Yes, they could have rapped that, couldn’t they.

A lot of the words used to describe your art are often associated with certain types of music, such as savage, surreal, and darkly humorous. Have you ever come across music that you feel mirrors your visual work somehow?
The Austrian-Hungarian composer György Ligeti is one that I listen to a lot. I also love the Trumpet Voluntary, played by Willem Breuker and his kollektief. Do you know Breuker? The tune goes like this [Ralph mimics a familiar-sounding trumpet tune with his mouth]. But their trumpeter, whose name I don’t know, plays it and then goes like this at the end [he approximates a wild, free-jazz/avant-garde-type array of trumpet notes]. It’s staccato, but then it goes all nonsense—it goes all over the place. Like ink does, in a way.

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