Tommie Phillips has one foot in the past and the other securely in the future. Having lived through the psychedelic sounds of the ’60s, the progressive rock of the ’70s, the revival of both in the ’90s and the death of numerous music formats and their subsequent resurrections, he’s seen just about every sonic trend come and go.
An artist, Phillips also watched as album art devolved from highly detailed, hand-drawn LP covers to boring, digitally rendered CD jackets — and then nearly disappeared altogether when downloading stole the show. Now, after years of working as a digital designer, he’s returned to the things he loves most: music and making album art.
“Initially I was enamored with Photoshop and digital art,” says Phillips. “I thought it would be the next big thing, [but] over time it became so commonplace. I realized that my specialty was illustration.”
Now Phillips, a Boulder resident, is getting more and more work as an album-art illustrator, a once-dead profession that is seeing a revival with the resurgence of vinyl. It all started, oddly enough, with connections made possible by the Internet and modern technology.
Phillips, known professionally as Tommie Molecule, went to art school at the American Academy of Art in Chicago in the late ’70s, then transitioned to the digital world at that city’s School of the Art Institute. He spent the better part of the ’80s and ’90s doing high-end photo retouching for Burrell Colour Lab in his home state of Indiana. But working long hours staring at a computer screen burned him out, and he moved to Colorado for a fresh start.
For a time he did pre-press and graphics work for the Colorado Daily newspaper, fully embracing the digital world but becoming less and less happy with the lack of artistry involved. And when the Daily was acquired by Scripps in 2007, fate began to push Phillips back toward the art he loves. After the company consolidated operations with the Boulder Daily Camera, he was let go. Then, while hiking, he shattered his ankle. A short time later, he suffered a detached retina in his left eye and had surgery three times to repair it, with no luck.
“I’m 100 percent blind in my left eye,” Phillips says. “It took me a year to read and draw again because of the way the brain processes depth perception. That was the hardest thing, learning to deal with drawing with one eye.”
But learn he did, eventually gaining a new perspective on his art. And that’s when he connected with Steve Nardelli and the Syn.
Though not as widely known in the United States, the Syn played an enormous role in the evolution of progressive rock in the United Kingdom and beyond. Born from a London R&B group, the Syn — which featured Nardelli, Chris Squire and Peter Banks — transitioned to playing what would become psychedelic and progressive rock. Through the late ’60s, the band influenced a number of future heavy hitters, and when the Syn broke up, Squire and Banks went on to help form the prog powerhouse Yes.
“To the British people, the Syn doing ‘The 14-hour Technicolor Dream’ was like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young doing ‘Woodstock’ for the festival,” says Phillips. “That was the high-water mark of the British psych movement.”
Inactive for decades, the Syn re-formed in 2004. And as Phillips was relearning how to draw a half-dozen years later, he also tried to reconnect with the music of his younger days. “The initial idea was working up my fanzine, The Lost Chord,” says Phillips. “I was approaching them to interview them for the fanzine.”
Nardelli and Phillips traded messages on Facebook, with Phillips showing off the hand-drawn cover he was working up for the zine. Nardelli liked what he saw and asked Phillips to draw the cover art for an upcoming release by the Syn, Live Rosfest.
“I’d seen some of his drawings on Facebook, and he did some of the Syn,” Nardelli remembers. “I was very impressed and asked him to come up with some ideas for Live Rosfest, [which] was being prepared for release at the time. The result was his masterwork that is now the cover of that album.”
Phillips has a talent that has nearly disappeared from today’s music business, Nardelli says: the ability to take the creative vision of a musician and translate it into a physical work of art.
“The cover of an album is a window to the music,” Nardelli continues, “and Tommie’s art is so compelling and unique in today’s music scene that it creates a perfect introduction to bands like the Syn, both retro and modern at the same time. We live in a high-tech world, and that has impacted the way music is made, presented and listened to, everything geared to instant electronic formats. Tommie’s art represents a golden era of music and vinyl LP covers, at its best, a pure art form in music and design. [His] artwork has the potential to reconnect music to an old and new audience, something proven by the very positive way the Syn album cover has been received worldwide.”
No doubt part of that appeal is the throwback feel of what Phillips creates. His artwork has a distinctly psychedelic look that he attributes to the music and art he absorbed throughout his early years.
“I grew up loving the work of Roger Dean and Barney Bubbles,” says Phillips. “Those are my two main influences. That cover was based on two or three covers Steve liked from the ’60s: Martin Sharp’s cover for Cream’s Disraeli Gears, the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, and the work of Barney Bubbles, who did the Hawkwind covers. The idea was to have a retro feel to honor the origins of the band, but also to have a modern feel. It was retro in feel, but modern-looking.”
Nardelli, he says, called the artwork for Live Rosfest “the perfect window to the songs on the set.”
Inking the cover for the Syn’s live album has opened doors for Phillips that he thought were closed forever. He’s currently working on the band’s new full-length, Trustworks, slated for release early next year. He’s also landed a number of other album-cover opportunities thanks to the positive reception of Live Rosfest.
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“To me, hand-drawn packaging is a lost art,” Phillips says. “To take a stab at honoring that tradition has been a dream since I was a teenager. That’s the biggest part of the whole thing, the most exciting element to me. Given the fact that I had the time to address it properly, the amount of time to work on it, to actually listen to the songs and visualize the imagery of the songs and translate that to a cover, kind of makes me unique.
“It’s a way of honoring the lost art of album covers as well as progressive music.”
Reach Tommie Phillips at email@example.com.