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Neil Dell

Tell us about your background in design and how your got started.

My father was in 'the print' and worked as a compositor all his life - I remember visiting him at work from an early age (I still love the smell of letterpress ink in the morning) and watching him setting a page, and being taken round the plant and seeing the presses running.

I never really intended to do anything remotely similar but was reminded, years later, by her, of a conversation I'd had with my nan when I was 12 or 13 and she'd asked me what I wanted to do when I finished school/college and I'd replied 'be a commercial artist' - I'd really little idea of what one was or did at that point.

I swapped my stamp collection with a friend’s older brother for the beginnings of a record collection about the same time, and that was it. I knew I'd have to work in the music industry somehow.

I left college with a degree in Humanities with that aim and spent a year writing music reviews for the Bristol student newspaper, as a first step towards the NME/ZigZag or similar. The editor's principal requirement for the job was that you were prepared to do it all - source the albums/gigs to review, write the review, have it typeset and then lay out the page/s in each issue ready for the print process. In at the deep end.

Back to London to a job in the production department of a small publishing company (music journalism just seemed to drain my enjoyment once it became 'a job') - some writing, but far more marking up type and laying out pages… design, in fact. After a couple of years of dues paying and on-the-job learning I thought - 'I can do this now and maybe I'm a designer and maybe I know a little about type and should work for myself.' My father wasn't sure about the type thing though - commenting on a piece of work I showed him at the time that it was ‘good, but it's photo-setting, not proper type!’

Skipping over a couple of decades of mostly independent work and what I hope is largely good design (with some lamentable stuff along the way of course - I'm thinking of the 80s here) - I've managed to combine my love of music with something like a 'proper job' and find myself here, watching with amusement as my son attempts to manoeuvre away from the inevitable time when he finds himself in a job involving design/typography/print.

Neil Dell and typography

Which musical genres do you specialise in?

Soul, pysch/garage and jazz but I've designed folk, singer/songwriter, rock, pop, R&B, country, doowop and rockabilly releases in both vinyl and CD formats.

What are your creative influences and interests?

Being a vinyl-head, the history of album cover design and shelf of books I have on the subject; Graphis - The International Journal Of Visual Communication; i-spy Signs and Symbols; Victor Moscoso and other West Coast poster artists; Look and Learn Heraldic Animals series circa 1965; Poole Pottery; Reid Miles; London history; Hapshash; Saul Bass; Habitat; Powell and Pressburger; Abram Games; Martin Sharp; Brooke Bond Tea Cards; Ken Garner; Penguin books; David Gentleman; Intro's covers for the Blood And Fire label; Wim Crouwel...

Almost anything you can think of can be an influence - old shop sign lettering, a typeface from a radio and TV catalogue from the 1970s, a soft drinks can. Here's what film maker Jim Jarmusch said - “Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows … always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.’”

Musique shop front

What tools do you use in your design work.

Any/most of the above via an Apple Mac computer. Where possible I try to introduce analogue into the digital world - hand lettering maybe or found source material. Sadly my skill as an illustrator is only approaching limited.

Which Ace releases are you most proud of working on.

“Take Me To The River. A Southern Soul Story” - a great project: superb music, excellent pictures, interesting and informative note. And it won a Mojo 'Best Compilation' Award.

The definitive 2CD digipak issue of “Electric Music For The Mind And Body” by Country Joe And The Fish. Plenty of obscure West Coast posters, flyers and ephemera in the lengthy and authoritative note. Their second, “I- Feel-Like-i'm-Fixin'-To-Die” is very nearly as good.

“Sweet Inspiration - The Songs of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham”. Judging by how many people I know bought this it must surely rate as one of Ace's most popular and best releases.

The recent reissues of The Seeds’ entire output remastered with extensive bonus tracks. Booklets packed with unseen photos and memorabilia which contain, over all the volumes, the complete story of the band. A massive undertaking admirably overseen by Alec Palao.

Mick Patrick's ongoing French Girls series: “C'est Chic”, “Tres Chic”, Annie Phillipe - especially the luxurious vinyl issues. Doing what Ace does best - introducing unknown or obscure music to a new audience in an authoritative and stylish way.

Other random projects I'm fond of: “Follow Me Down - Vanguard's Lost Psychedelic Era” - my Victor Mocoso tribute cover; “A Soldier's Sad Story” and “Does Anybody Know I'm Here - Vietnam Through The Eyes Of Black America”; “Swingbillies”; The Flairs; “Bakersfield Rebels”; Walter Jackson – “It's All Over”; “On Vine Street/ Bless You California - The Early Songs of Randy Newman”

What advice would you give to someone trying to get into the industry?

Just keep knocking on the door. Try to find a niche where your interests/enthusiasm will give you a head start over others. Insist on designing flyers/covers/posters etc for friends bands/nights and when they are picked up by a major/become the new Fabric you'll hopefully be there with them. If that ideal scenario doesn't work out, then you have the beginnings of your portfolio of real work. 

Neil Dell type

What are you working on at the moment?

Just finished Annie Phillipe – “Sensationnel! Yé Yé Bonbons 1965- 1968” CD and LP for Ace. Working on some covers for a friend's side project - a township jazz funk noise. Logo for Housing Association website. Frederic Raphael book cover initial designs. At the drawing board stage (does that still have a meaning these days?) - potential book project of largely unseen photos from the punk era. 

Neil Dell's record collection

What is your favourite album/ single of all time.

Just one of each? Album: Matching Mole – “Little Red Record”. Single: The Beach Boys – ‘Heroes and Villains’.