Niklas Åkerblad AKA El Huervo AKA Beard talks about the aftermath of Hotline Miami’s breakout success and his emerging artistic philosophy.April 2016 saw success for the Kickstarter campaign for the Hotline Miami Collector’s Edition Vinyl, launched by Laced Records in collaboration with game developer Dennaton and publisher Devolver Digital, to the tune of £156,899 (the initial goal was £40,000). Currently available in its second pressing, it turns out that this was to be the last official release associated with the the series.
As we approach the fifth anniversary of Hotline Miami’s original release, we thought it would be cool to catch up with renaissance man Niklas Åkerblad (pronounced: or-kay-blood): as well as contributing music tracks to the Hotline Miami and Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number soundtracks under his music monicker, El Huervo, he created iconic game covers for both games and artwork for the respective vinyl releases.
Niklas Åkerblad’s covers for Hotline Miami (left) and Hotline Miami 2 — the latter featuring a self-portrait of him as the returning character, Beard:
“And who do we have here?”
Åkerblad first struck up a friendship with Dennaton’s Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin around 2010 in Sweden, whilst they were still developing the core idea of Hotline Miami (eventually released in late 2012). The three developed an artistically intimate relationship: “I was doing tonnes of other stuff myself [and] wasn’t really getting involved. Then the collaboration just sort of ‘happened’. We were hanging out and they were looking for music for the game. I had just released a mini-album, Do Not Lay Waste to Homes…, which they listened to and picked out a couple of songs [Daisuke feat. Shelby Cinca and Crush] that they thought could fit in the game.”
Söderström and Wedin were so inspired by Åkerblad’s track Daisuke that they decided to use his likeness for the (only) friendly character in the game: Beard. “They wanted to include a nice character because everyone else is so corrupted and evil — so they chose me! Then it felt perfect to have one of my songs play during those sequences.”
Here’s the first time Hotline Miami players meet Beard, soundtracked by El Huervo’s Daisuke:
Two further El Huervo tracks, Turf and Crush, also prominently feature in the game; Rust (El Huervo remix) was also included as a bonus track on the vinyl.
You can check out the full Hotline Miami soundtrack on SoundCloud:
“It's like it’s from a movie or something, right?”
In developing Hotline Miami, the Dennaton duo — developer Söderström and graphic artist Wedin — were unabashedly drawing on various influences including the 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys; 2010’s ultra-violent movie adaption of the comic book Kick Ass; and the 2011 film Drive (also an adaptation of a novel, also ultra-violent).
Whilst Drive is set in the modern day, it has a strong 1980’s vibe communicated in part by its soundtrack. In a similar fashion, Hotline Miami, set in 1989, knowingly mucks around with period trappings — but its soundtrack is as rooted in 90’s instrumental hip-hop and 00’s synthwave as anything from the 80’s itself. In our interview with ToyTree, composer for the Quake-a-like first-person shooter STRAFE, we proffered a term for this mashed-up approach: ‘refracted retro’.
Niklas Åkerblad’s painting of Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin — the ‘Dennaton Posse’:
Did the team know that they themselves were creating something iconic — forging an aesthetic that would captivate so many fans and, in turn, inspire budding creators? Åkerblad responds: “From what Dennis [Wedin] has been saying, they just wanted to create something that they wanted to experience — and I felt the same. It was just a matter of trying to do something cool. We were trying to distil all the cool things that we had experienced to that point and get it in there, whilst doing something that we felt was truthful.
“A lot of [the aesthetic of the game] is thanks to Dennis — he’s an incredible beacon like that. If he was living in some tribal society thousands of years ago, he would be a really powerful shaman because that’s his main superpower: to tap into these things, unconsciously. If I told him that, he would probably just say ‘thanks’ and laugh a little bit at it!
“When Dennis introduced the animal masks, that really felt to me like ‘wow, this is really going to tap into the hive mind’. That idea is still around: fashion companies are adorning their little mannequin dolls with animal masks. That’s something that really broke through and has become a huge thing. It felt vibrant.”
Protski’s artwork for the Hotline Miami Collector’s Edition Vinyl disc sleeves, featuring masks (from L-R) Don Juan, Richard and Rasmus:
“I told them: ‘this is going to be something huge’ and they were like ‘no, we’re probably going to sell a couple of thousand copies’. I reiterated: ‘no guys, you’re going to be millionaires doing this shit!’ I think that scared them a little bit. I guess I wanted to create a little bit of a reality check in trying to be that voice that could still be intimate but also look at it from the outside.”
“So you came back?”
In case you hadn’t noticed, vinyl is back — El Huervo has released several (as well as cassettes!) — and video game vinyl releases are the new hotness (obviously). They serve a dual purpose: a high quality audio experience for those with the equipment to enjoy it; and a piece of tangible merchandise that helps fans commemorate a game which they might only possess and have experienced digitally.
In 2016, four years after the game’s original release, Åkerblad returned to the world of Hotline Miami to contribute the cover for the Collector’s Edition Vinyl, alongside Protski (a leading light among the fan community in terms of artwork), who designed the gatefold and disc sleeves:
Åkerblad also provided artwork for iam8bit’s 2015 Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number vinyl (Discogs), now sold out and not due for a repress (gatefold, cover and discs):
Does it concern Åkerblad that these deluxe vinyl sets might not even be played by their owner? “I actually had that in mind because I knew a lot of these people wouldn’t have turntables but they wanted to have an artefact. That’s why I wanted both vinyls to look really nice on a wall or if you opened it out and put it on a coffee table or whatever. To create good vibes in your home — have a better feng shui!”
Pictures of the Hotline Miami Collector’s Edition Vinyl in the wild, courtesy of Instagram’s @brenchu (left) and @sauceychaucey (right):
“Also the mystery of the vinyl entices people even if they don’t know it. People are so used to digitised information but here’s something that’s purely analogue. It’s almost like a talisman: ‘Can sound actually come out of this? It’s just a piece of plastic…’”
“Maybe we should leave it that way?”
The community around the Hotline Miami series has endured for longer than most game series enjoy. However, Åkerblad recognises that “everything fades sooner or later. Of course I’m happy that people are still stoked about it, but we’re done with it — we’re not going to make more Hotline Miami canon. That’s up to the fans if they want to do it. It’s in their hands.
“It’s done. We killed Jacket. With the most recent vinyl cover [for the first game], we really wanted to say to people: ‘This is us blowing Jacket up.’ He’s trapped in a nuclear explosion, in an eternal loop, because he’s cursed with the restart ability. He’s never going to get out. That ends everything.”
Niklas Åkerblad’s cover for the Hotline Miami Collector’s Edition Vinyl, depicting lead character Jacket being forever disintegrated:
“I approached the two vinyl sets a bit differently. With the Hotline Miami set [which was produced the year after the Hotline Miami 2 vinyl], it was in collaboration with Protsky so I had to think a little bit differently. I knew there were going to be three sides — [Below – 1.] Jacket from afar amidst the blazing fires and when you open it out, the first thing you see is this torn up face [2.] and this glaring eye looking at you to create a dramatic effect.”
Here’s a breakdown of Åkerblad’s illustrations for the vinyl.
(Below) “Laying down some base colours to see what I wanted the ‘feel” of things to be. I rarely do this.”
(Below) “Then I finalised the sketches, put them together and started colouring in the same range as the background throw-up.”
(Below) “Merging the background with the lines and getting all the colours in place before final touch-up.”
(Below) “Final piece where I added smooth highlights, shades and some scanned watercolour blorfs [sic] for more dramatic effect.”
(Below, left): “This was the first sketch I did in trying to understand what Dennis, Jonatan and I had been discussing.” (Below, right): “Just righting some wrongs with the design. D & J wanted it to be more religious, while I wanted it more like the first design — but that meant we wouldn’t be able to zoom in on the face like we wanted so they won.”
(Below-left) “This was the first sketch of the face which turned out to be the final design. We really wanted Jacket’s face to look seriously messed up from the explosion.” (Right) The final inside cover.
“How are you feeling?”The legacy of the Hotline Miami series remains strong: the games and their soundtracks continue to be revered and fan art still abounds. On the topic of ‘legacy’, Åkerblad is equivocal: “I guess it’s good and weird. I try not to think about it too much. That particular album [Hotline Miami’s soundtrack], affected me because a lot of people were crying out for more Daisuke and I had to choose between doing more of that style or following my own path. It was perplexing, I didn’t really know how to handle it.
“I solved it by going completely against it, going crazy. Over the next few years, I released two albums: the first one [World’s End – Bandcamp; Spotify] was getting all my own shit out on my own terms; the second [VanDereer – Bandcamp; Spotify] was trying to make something a little bit more like what people were telling me they wanted [the album included the track Rust, which featured on the Hotline Miami 2 soundtrack]. Not because I wanted to have more success but because it was an interesting challenge: how will it sound if I try to be humble, listen to the fans and try to do something with that? Will I be able to do something true or will I just become a shadow of my former self?”
Niklas Åkerblad’s painted covers for World’s End (left) and VanDereer:
“It’s always possible to cash in somehow… I try not to think too much about it because I don’t want to be an intellectual creator so much as an emotional one.” As a music artist, Åkerblad points out that he feels “like more of a shaman than a businessman. [Making music for a living is] not just about money: you have to understand less tangible things. A lot of artists that I talk to want to live off of it, but they’re tangibly analysing the market instead of trying to cultivate their sensitivity towards trends. Since everything is pretty shallow on the Internet, not a lot of people tend to go deep — but it’s in the depths that you find the means to discern these things.
“If everything’s shallow, people are going to look for something interesting. Trying to be as ‘real’ as possible is going to come back in style in a couple of years. It’s just a matter of trying to stay true to yourself. I’m an introvert. I can be extrovert if I want to but that uses up a lot of energy. I tend to sit by myself a lot and think — that helps to try to stay true to yourself. It’s hard if you’re always out there and meeting people and being on the surface of things.”
“A picture is starting to take form here…”
The multi-talented Swede’s art style — mashing up traditional Japanese and Mexican Día de Muertos styles — involves striking uses of colour, something which helps his pieces and album covers stand out, particularly on the Internet an especially on social media. “[My pieces] are also quite heavy. It’s not so much about kitsch or style, sometimes I also get a bit frustrated when I see colourful art out there — it seems like it’s lacking depth.”
Niklas Åkerblad’s painted covers for the two parts of his double album: (left) Do Not Lay Waste to Homes… (right) ...Where You Must Rest Your Weary Bones:
“I’m really interested in getting that very particular dynamic between the extrovert and the introvert, so usually the subjects [of my pieces] are pretty heavy and personal, but the use of colours is also very personal. The bright colours are [about being] extroverted. I just want [my art] to pop somehow — something has to come through. I’m a crazy guy. I’m not easy to live with and be around for extended periods. The colours are a way to be explosive like that.”
Niklas Åkerblad’s painting, Ronin 3:
“I’ve been trying to get into more traditional art galleries etc. Being an ‘Internet artist’ today is like being a comic book artist in the 70’s: you feel like you’re doing something deep but the art world in general is not really acknowledging that because you are still ‘low brow’. I think a lot of artists struggle with that. Just because you have an idea of what you are, what type of artist you are, that doesn’t mean that is the kind of artist you are. You have to also be humble and open to what’s actually happening. There is an old saying that musicians want to be visual artists, and visual artists want to be musicians.
“My paintings don’t necessarily need to be in a gallery to be ‘real’ though. I’m selling prints to my fans over the Internet and I think they’re really happy to be able to have physical copies.”
Perhaps those prints and the larger canvas of the vinyl record sleeve are a way of introducing younger people to art? “About five years ago, I wanted to sell big paintings for lots of money and become famous in big galleries — but now [all that] feels mundane. It’s more valuable to give art to kids because that’s what they need. They don’t need just Call of Duty or flashy games that are kitschy stuff, they need depth as well to be able to develop into nice balanced human beings. Being able to provide that to them [by way of prints of my paintings and vinyl] feels worth so much more.”
“Oh, you don't know who you are...?”
Åkerblad’s attitude to culture is that it is like the circle of life, and he is just one link in the chain. “With Hotline Miami, we didn’t think about it too much at all, it was more about being honest in the creation process because we all love that. When we consume culture, we like it when something feels honest, true to themselves.”
He avoids misquoting T.S. Eliot (who didn’t say ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’), instead accurately reciting from Eliot’s The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” And while we’re at it, here’s the rest of that paragraph:
“...bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”This clearly resonates strongly with Åkerblad, who was a bit stung by accusations in 2015 that he was stealing from game composer Akira Yamaoka by sampling guitars from Tears of Pain (from the Silent Hill soundtrack) for the Hotline Miami 2 track, Ghost.
“It was a homage to the great Yamaoka. I wanted to show my love for his music and use it in my own music as a communion. I think people should do that more. When you borrow something and put it in your game or whatever, it can be shallow. But if you steal it, make it your own and put it through your own filters… it will come out the other side as something totally different. People are scared of that. If I use a pose from an artwork that I really like and put it in my own piece, or use a sample that I like in my own piece because I want to honour it, some people, especially in the video game world, tend to frown upon it.”
Indeed, one artist that El Huervo’s music is reminiscent of is American producer, DJ Shadow, renowned for his omnivorous use of sampling to create atmospheric instrumental hip-hop. While discussing one of Åkerblad’s favourite games, Bloodborne, he points out: “They took almost everything from H.P. Lovecraft and instead of bashing it, people are celebrating it because [Lovecraft is] dead.”
“All of this other bullshit [copyright and the intellectual property regime] is just something created by modern society. It has nothing to do with creativity. If someone wants to use my art in their own art, go ahead! It’s flattering. Go ahead, copy my shit! I don’t care… That’s how it should be — it’s an ongoing [cultural] conversation. I hate the legal shit in between. I don’t understand why it has to be like that, the attitude of ‘I made this, I own it’. You don’t own it! You made it for other people to experience. That’s how art should work.
“You shouldn’t have to ask for money. You just have to hope that people realise that if they want more from you, they have to support you. And if they aren’t choosing to support you as an artist, maybe you’re just out of time, out of touch or have to work harder.
“Then again, society is run on money so it becomes a little bit of a conundrum!”
“It looks like you've been busy since we last met.”
Constantly juggling projects as usual, Åkerblad is currently working on a follow up to his 2016 album, VanDereer, more game projects and other paintings.
- You can check out more of his artwork at Elhuervo.tumblr.com (warning: you may need to wear sunglasses) and his music at Elhuervo.bandcamp.com.
- T-shirts and prints: Elhuervo.bigcartel.com
- Twitter: @Elhuervo | Instagram: instagram.com/Elhuervo
The second pressing of the Hotline Miami Collector’s Edition Vinyl is available at LacedRecords.com:
- US link – Lacedrecords.com/collections/hotline-miami
- Rest of world link – Lacedrecords.co/collections/hotline-miami