Brandon Heart: The So What! Interview
Brandon Heart’s journey to prominence in the world of rock’n’roll art has been one of endurance, willpower, and spirit. Steffan Chirazi hears the story of the man behind the heartfelt art that is this year’s All Within My Hands Month of Giving star piece.
For all intents and purposes, when I set eyes on Brandon Heart via the now “normal” lens of zoom, he could be the drummer in a desert stoner rock band. A scraggy beard sits beneath glasses and a baseball cap, a warm yet somewhat shy smile peering out from underneath, with three skull images sitting behind him; for some reason I hear Fu Manchu. Yet behind Heart’s thoroughly amenable personality sits not a percussive stoner, but a giant horror-buff with the likes of Friday the 13th having underscored much of Heart’s early motivations.
“My parents let me watch horror movies, Cheech & Chong, and stuff when I was pretty young, and yeah, those Friday the 13th movies were pretty big for me. From probably twelve years old, I was fascinated by them,” he laughs, “but it wasn’t just the gore side. It was the mystery side of horror that grabbed me too. One of my all-time favorite horror movies is the original John Carpenter’s The Thing. There’s a scene where [the main character’s] head comes off and it turns into like the spider creature! Just iconic. And there’s a sound effect during it that’s kind of like a buzzing, just a very tense like ‘dddddd.’ As I was watching there was a similar sound near me, there must’ve been a fly stuck in the window or something, but just this buzzing sound all night. As a kid, my little imagination could just picture that spider head thing creeping across the floor, and I remember tucking up against the wall, just terrified to go to check out what it was.”
Though he moved to San Diego in his 20s, Heart was raised in Lancaster, CA, “which is just high desert, there’s nothing much really out there.”
Enter a loyal friend, the VHS machine, and it’s sidekick: the rental outlet, which would help take Heart on those imaginative journeys life wasn’t supplying.
“We had this this tiny little video store with this tiny little section of horror movies, and I would just stand and look at these VHS covers in amazement. The art was crazy,” he recalls. “I think those Friday the 13th ones with like the silhouette guy with a knife, and then just the dark forest were very cool. Nothing really even there, but it was so spooky and haunting, you know? There was another for, I think, The Cabin. It was a terrible movie but there were eyes, a tree, and a big knife, all really detailed – painted and realistic looking. The Thing also had some great ones with painted monsters. In terms of actual movies, Alien is probably one of my all-time favorites, and The Shining is another. That old lady in the bath terrifies me, I still go to the bathroom and am, like, ‘oooh.’”
Music also drove a lot of Heart’s early interest in colorful imagery.
“I was into heavy metal from the get-go, you know, Mötley Crüe and Twisted Sister and Judas Priest were some of the first records I ever owned, which was kinda accidental,” he chuckles. “Back in the day, they had these record subscriptions that my mom would get, where for a penny you’d get several albums and so on. So my mom would say, ‘Here, you want to pick some?’ So I’d randomly pick some stuff. One time she accidentally got Judas Priest Defenders of the Faith. It had the cool artwork, I’d never heard it before, I put that on and oh-my-God. Still to this day one of my favorite records.”
I have to ask whether a mullet was employed during this time; it’d be rude not to.
“Well, I probably had kind of just long hair for a while, and then I cut it into what they called a rat tail,” he starts. “It was funny, when we were in junior high, they walked us through the high school before we went, it was like being walked through a prison. But all the girls were like, ‘Wow, if you grew all your hair that long you’d be the hottest guy,’ so eventually I cut it and yeah, I had long hair. And yeah, I had a mullet too, I had the spiky hair and then long in back…”
We always confess in the end (yes, dear reader, I had one myself). I wondered if there was a gang of rockin’ mullet-heads in Lancaster?
“Yeah, there were a few of us,” he laughs. “We lived a trailer park, so all the kids got together, and it was all punk, metal, and skateboarding at the same time. We were the ultimate bored suburban kids just looking for something, some kind of outlet. That’s around the time when my buddy was like, ‘check this out,’ and he showed me a Powell/Peralta Mike McGill skateboard. Just with classic skull with the snake around it, VCJ. And that was it. I had never even… I didn’t know what skateboarding even was at that point, ’til he showed me this. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ Just the art itself. And then he loaned me some Thrashers and Transworlds [magazines], and I just going through that and seeing all that artwork I was like, ‘I want to do this artwork on skateboards.’ Well, actually I wanted to be a pro skater, but at about fifteen I realized I wasn’t gonna make that, so I focused on the graphics and stuff like that.”
It's fair to say that the swerve towards skateboarding also took Heart’s musical tastes towards the edgier, louder spectrum.
“It switched from kind of being the glam metal of Mötley Crüe, and now we’re getting into Metallica! It was probably punk first, like the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Misfits, Vandals, and someone eventually handed me Master of Puppets on cassette, and I was like, ‘Wow! Longer songs and the guitar solos!’ But it was all kind of the same to me. It was all just punk, I guess. You know? Metallica or Dead Kennedys, it was all just exciting and cool.”
Heart started walking down the art pathway with pencil and then pen to ink at first, fueled by some pre-eminent – and somewhat crazy – artists.
“It was as a teenager that I realized I should maybe be more serious about this art thing,” he smiles. “I had taken $100 for my birthday and bought a bunch of nice sketchbooks, pencils and stuff, and started taking it seriously. So I turned to my main influences, Salvador Dalí, HR Giger, and M.C. Escher, and just that really bizarre stuff, but I didn’t have that level of skill. It was all pen and ink, but melting clocks and weird exteriors and stuff like that. But then it started to mix with the bold, simple Jim Phillips type skateboarding artwork too, so I started developing away from the painterly stuff into a more pen and ink style.”
Things progressed well for Heart, and having developed a keen interest in comic books, he realized that to supplement his “independent study” in High School – “High School wasn’t really my thing,” he grins – Heart started taking art classes at community college.
“I had a really great teacher, Frank Dixon, at Antelope Valley College. If you look him up online you would see hints of his style in my work. And he was really good with color theory and composition. Most of my strong fundamentals came from him, so a big shout out to Frank!”
Imbued with life and confidence, Heart hit the sidewalk and started pounding pavement, keen to break into some cool jobs.
“As a kid I was sending stuff to Powell-Peralta,” he starts, “through the mail, just trying to get in that way. And the artist there at the time, Sean Cliver, actually sent a handwritten note back that said, ‘Love your stuff, it looks great, but we only need me.’ I’d go to Comicon year after year and stand in line with my portfolio, trying to get in that way. I’d stand in line for hours, and then some people would be like, ‘Meh, not impressed at all.’ Some were like, ‘Really good, if I had any jobs to give I’d give you one.’ One time somebody ripped me so bad I didn’t draw for about a year. I gave it up.”
I can’t help but let out a “WTF?!” I despise bullies, especially towards creative youths trying to find their way. This sounds like Heart ran into a straight-up asshole. He confirms this.
“I don’t remember his name. He was an editor at a comic book company called Top Cow, which is a kind of a subsidiary of Image Comics. Big old buff dude, big old good-looking guy, too, and he just said, ‘You’re wasting my time, you’re wasting your time.’ He completely bullied me. I was devastated. And the only thing that brought me back was that not drawing for a year made me more depressed. So I was like, ‘I have to do this.’ The thought of working fast food or anything, I can’t do that. I need to be creative because I’m kinda introverted. I appreciate some honestly in a critique, but this was over the top. He devastated me.”
Thankfully, this despicably negative person didn’t do enough damage to keep Heart from his work.
“I got back on the horse and kept trying,” Heart sighs as he remembers those times. “I had a job putting in hardwood floors which made me miserable, just really, really down, like, this is not who I am. I finally just looked through the newspaper for any other job. I’d have worked at Aaron Brothers, anything to be near some art, anything. There was this ad for the Art Institute of San Diego that was an open house, so I checked it out. I was walked through this place, just artists, people doing art everywhere, art on the walls, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I need to be here. This is where I need to be.’ I was 25 at this point, so a little late to be going, but still. Then I was given the prices… and I just sat in my car and cried. I’m like, ‘Dude, I can’t afford this.’ But eventually I called Grandma and asked if she could co-sign some loans. And my grandmother co-signed the loans and made it happen for me. So I focussed on animation and learning the digital aspect of things. My fundamentals were pretty strong already, so it was more about learning just the digital and professional side of things. Being able to just stand up in front of a room of people and pitch an idea, stuff like that. And eventually I met my boss who I work for now at the Lincoln Design Company, and I’ve been working for them 15 years now.”
It is a superb story, and further proof to anyone reading that never, ever, ever let a bully stop you from following your dreams. I have first-hand experience of such a journey myself, so hearing Heart recount his triumph over asshole-versity was empowering stuff. The strength gained was all drawn from Heart’s deep determination and sheer need to be what he is. There were no friends to prop him up or tell him what to do.
“I didn’t know really any other artists, I was on my own,” he says softly. “Eventually, when I finally started working, it was at a place called SoupGraphix here in San Diego, working there and getting stuff out. The internet was helpful, being able to post things on DeviantArt. Just from posting things on DeviantArt, Chris Siglin, who was the merch guy for Blink 182 for a while, reached out to me and hooked me up with the band. So Chris was a huge push at getting my stuff out there and doing the gig posters and stuff. I think he even pointed Metallica to me in the first place. So the internet’s definitely been a huge help. From there, I met Maxx242, and now I have a whole network of artists I know, and people know me and it’s great. One of the best things that happened to me, was when Fighting For Dreams (F4D Studios), Maxx, and Tim Soto started really helping me with the promotion and sales of posters, as well as new projects. At first it was me handling not just the creation of the posters, but also the packing, shipping, and customer service behind them. I nearly stopped doing posters until F4D came in and offered to handle that stuff, so it really is an important relationship. And that Metallica [referral]? I mean, yeah. I couldn’t even have imagined this. Fifteen-year-old me is like ‘Oh, my gosh.’”
The latest piece Heart has done is for the All Within My Hands Month of Giving shirt and poster, and having got to know Heart a little more, it is clear that the piece combines several of his deep-rooted interests and fascinations, including that large eye.
“Haha, the eye, it’s good you brought that up,” he laughs, “because I never really thought about it, but yeah, it’s always a thing for me. Maybe it’s kind of that ‘windows to the soul,’ there’s just something creepy about that eye looking at you. What does it want, what is it thinking? I also have a weird thing any time there’s a scene in a movie that involves eyes, I just feel scared. So it’s also like a weird phobia, likely eye trauma and things like that. Overall, the image is just creepy. I’m big comic book fan, and any time you turn to a page and there’s that panel with the eye, that’s always a focal point. It’s just a human thing, you know? We’re always looking. When you really want to talk to someone, you look them in the eye, you know? So it’s probably more of a subconscious thing, as well as looking cool where it is. Funnily, whenever I am doing a human face, I build out from the eye.”
As any artist worth their true free salt will tell you, the piece is whatever it means to you.
“I want you to interpret it in your way, however it makes you feel,” he states. “To me it’s not necessarily supposed to be scary. He kinda has a mean look, but you don’t know, maybe that’s hope and he’s just angry at the bad things that happen, you know? The challenge with this piece was it’s for the charity, so we can’t go too death-and-destruction with it. But it had to be tough and ‘Metallica,’ so I tried to go with that.”
Before we conclude our chat, I can’t help myself, I have to ask a two-cent pop quiz question: which current artist would you like to meet and have a chat with?
“Oh, I love Rob Zombie,” Heart answers immediately. “I just think about the movies, and him as an artist, an actual painter and just, yeah. I’d love to meet that guy someday. I saw him and Sherry at Comicon once, but they were kinda doing their own thing, I didn’t want to bother ’em. But maybe next time I see him I’ll go up to him and say ‘hi.’”
I tell Brandon Heart it’d be impossible for him to bother anyone, he’s simply not a bothersome sort of guy whatsoever. That he’s also a damn fine artist himself is a rich bonus.