Artist and musician Niklas Åkerblad, AKA El Huervo, talks us through the inspiration for his Absolver vinyl artwork, adding layers to make a piece feel magical and his colourful philosophy.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Face it — El Huervo is just cool. He’s definitely cooler than me, and he’s probably cooler than you too.
As well as making significant artistic and musical contributions to indie hits Hotline Miami and Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number (among others), Swede Niklas Åkerblad — AKA El Huervo — nonchalantly conducted his interview with Laced With Wax via Skype on his smartphone in between practising skateboarding tricks (apparently our chat gave him enough positive energy to land a new trick).
In a previous interview, we found out more about Åkerblad’s artwork for the Hotline Miami Collector’s Edition Vinyl (second pressing available via LacedRecords.com), but on this occasion we chatted about his pieces for the Absolver soundtrack vinyl — the genesis of the concepts, his creative process and his love of working with chilled-out Frenchmen.
Recently released by developer Sloclap and publisher Devolver Digital, online multiplayer martial arts game Absolver (available on PC [Steam] and PS4) enjoys a soundtrack composed by probably the busiest man in games music, Austin Wintory (Journey, ABZÛ, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate) — with a smidgen of help from Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA.
Or, of course, you can buy it on double vinyl and CD (est. shipping late Q4 2017) from LacedRecords.com.
Sidling up to Sloclap
Åkerblad is no stranger to collaborating with developers associated with video game publisher Devolver Digital, having first teamed up with the dev duo behind Hotline Miami, Dennaton, in 2010. It was therefore no accident that he encountered members of Absolver’s Paris-based development team, Sloclap, during a well-lubricated late night at the Devolver mansion during E3 2017 in LA.
“I’d seen the game before and I was a fan — and perhaps a little bit fanboy-ish when meeting them. We had some interesting philosophical and intellectual discussions and I had a little plan in the back of my mind to get them to ask me to do the Absolver vinyl cover. I just put it out there and they said [in a thick faux-French accent] ‘Okaaay, we wheel see wet ’appens.’ They liked my stuff and we took it from there.”
Niklas Åkerblad in the LA sun during E3, behind-the-scenes at the Devolver compound:
Their late night tête-à-tête was “more about life, games and art in general, but we also chatted a bit about the meaning of Absolver’s masks and martial arts. During the days [of E3] when everyone is sane, they were busy showing off their game at the booth, but during the evenings… That week was fuelled by alcohol and [various things], so it’s hard to recall all of the details!”
To get him started, Sloclap sent Åkerblad every single piece of concept art that they’d created for Absolver including this image, which ended up as both ‘key art’ for the game and also features in the CD edition of the soundtrack:
“I spent a couple of days going through everything. It was just an ocean of awesome pictures that were very inspiring. They also sent me all of these documents about the lore. Beyond playing the beta [an early version of the game], that material helped me get a better idea of what the game was; I could grasp the emotional idea behind it all, which made it a lot easier to have a powerful vision of what the vinyl artwork should look like.”
Working with Sloclap on the commission (alongside Laced and Devolver) turned out to be a breeze. “They’re awesome guys, plus I really like working with French people because you can go deep with things and no one even raises an eyebrow!
“Sloclap have a strong passion for what they’re doing. They previously worked at Ubisoft and had awesome jobs before, but they wanted to create their own game. If you want to support that kind of behaviour, play the game! Of course it’s their first title so they’re obviously still learning the ropes, but the combat system is insane. I don’t understand how they can achieve something so organic from something that’s basically binary.”
The launch trailer for Absolver:
Sadly, Åkerblad didn’t have access to the finished soundtrack whilst embarking on his pieces: “I got to play the beta so what I knew about [composer Austin Wintory’s ‘Asian noir’ score] mostly came from there.” He admits that it was a long shot — creating psychedelic artwork to accompany Wintory’s subtle, Eastern-tinged soundtrack — but one that paid off. “Once the cover was done and the game was released, I felt like it all fits together.”
In the case of the Absolver vinyl set, he enjoys the juxtaposition of music and art: “It’s good to let things [be the way they are] and surprise people. You shouldn’t expect things; you should always be curious.” He cites being pleasantly surprised by a delicate string ensemble cue in the otherwise bombastic sci-fi epic, Destiny 2. “It’s really cool when something like that happens. As long as it works [in context], then [a juxtaposition like that] opens up new chambers in the minds of the players.”
And speaking of chambers… according to an interview with Billboard, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA came aboard the Absolver project whilst there was only a sliver of work left to do on the music for the game. Nonetheless, the hip-hop legend teamed up with Austin Wintory on the track Risyn, Rogue Absolver:
For Åkerblad, the feeling of working on a project touched by a Wu-Tang Clan founding member was unreal. “To me, RZA is a legend.”
Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA:
Fellow Wu-Tang member Raekwon once criticised RZA as a ‘hip-hop hippie’, but Åkerblad could always identify himself with that idea. “I always liked RZA’s style because it was so weird, out there and broken. I’ve always taken that approach with my own music.
“So when I found out he was co-producing one of the songs, it felt like ‘Yessss... another milestone in my life!’”.
Creating the cover was a relatively fluid process, says Åkerblad: “It took a while to figure it out and I was a little bit shaky because I had been drinking too much coffee. I felt like I couldn’t get the lines right because my hands were shaking so I had to redo the cover a couple of times. Once that was done though, it came like water.”
Åkerblad ‘lays down the lines’ before adding foundational colours, using Photoshop all the way through:
There may not be any hidden messages in the pieces, but it was his aim to create a sense of mystery with them. Commenting on the ghosts that appear as horns behind the character’s head, he remarks: “Horns are a very strong symbol and can invoke a lot of emotions. To key someone in to what the artwork is supposed to mean, you need these symbols to give it that mysterious quality. It’s more fun if people find out for themselves [exactly what they mean].
“That’s a big part of the game; that’s why [Sloclap] left everything so loose with the lore. You’re supposed to honour these things whilst you’re traversing the world and create your own story about what’s happening. A lot of these things were left out of the game so the player can piece them together for themselves and create something personal. That’s when culture or art resonates with you the most: when there’s enough room for you to make something of your own. You have a relationship to it.”
Here’s the final piece for the vinyl cover:
The back cover of the Absolver vinyl:
Constructing the gatefold
In terms of designing the gatefold, “at first, it was in danger of just being two martial artists in masked pitted against each other.
“[But I wanted to] put something more in there, something larger than life. I felt like the whole martial arts thing was about a battle on a bigger level. [Sloclap] had created this mysterious world that was in ruins; and then you have the [player-controlled] ‘Prospects’ and ‘Absolver’ peacekeepers. What were they fighting for? It was very unclear. I wanted to have a primeval — or maybe even futuristic — vision of two core forces in this world, battling it out; try to capture two Absolver gods locked in an evenly matched battle.”
The Absolver soundtrack vinyl gatefold:
“It’s like a dream of what you and your character could end up as if you put all your thoughts, effort and time into [mastering the game]. You will become an Absolver god and become one of these foundational forces in the world.”
It was important to Åkerblad that the cover and gatefold art rewarded players who were invested in the deeper lore behind the game, as he had done with his cover for the Hotline Miami Collector’s Edition Vinyl. “That’s important if you’re creating an external artefact, like a vinyl set, for a distinct cultural work such as a video game. It has to have a deeper meaning so that it can live on outside [of the game] and be totem for the players who want to meditate on what everything means.
“I tried to [pose the fighters] on my own at first, and it didn’t really take. I decided to reference a few martial arts moves from the Indonesian film, The Raid — they use a lot of elbows!” This research, coupled with Sloclap’s Absolver concept art, enabled Åkerblad to ‘lay down the lines’ for the final gatefold piece:
Next came the foundational colours:
Some extra details, including shadows:
Here, Åkerblad has finished the sky and added some smoke in front of the characters in order to add depth:
“At the end of the process, I usually add various layered effects on top with some opacity and gradients to make everything more balanced. It’s all about adding extra depth and make the whole thing feel more magical.”
Here’s a GIF of the layers being added to create the final piece including, in the final image, a ‘power shimmer’ around the fighters’ hands:
A coat of many colours
There have been a few comments about how colourful the Absolver vinyl seems compared to the game’s more muted palette.
Here is a sample of colours drawn from key art and screenshots of the game:
And a sample of the colours used in the vinyl artwork:
Åkerblad is comfortable having stylistically departed somewhat from the game itself, “since they are two different parts of the same canon. Also, it’s just the vinyl… music can sometimes romanticise an idea that you have or open up new emotional rooms for you. I felt like it was OK that the artwork is a psychedelic dream of this place. It had to be true to the game and rooted in the world of Absolver, sharing the same symbolism. [The pieces for the vinyl] had to fit into the world, even if they’re way out there.”
As you can see from his other work, he’s no stranger to vibrant, eye-popping colour palettes, for instance this acrylic and oil painting entitled Entropy:
Has it ever crossed Åkerblad’s mind to try to contain his colourful tendencies? Not one bit: “For me it’s hard to work with desaturated colours — I’m not really sure how to do it! Maybe I should challenge myself more with that…”
He agrees that his approach to colour will probably change as he gets older: “As long as you personally maintain a fundamental curiosity, then you definitely evolve in that way. Maybe I’ll become one of these designers that does everything in black and white! Although I grew up in an architect’s home where everything was black and white so I don’t think I’ll ever go back to that. You never know. Maybe when I’m 70 or something...”
Åkerblad’s covers for the Hotline Miami Collector’s Edition (left) and his own El Huervo LP’s, World’s End (middle) and VanDereer (right):
“I never define a colour palette to begin with, because I don’t like the idea of limiting myself. I always just try to go with the flow when it comes to colours and see what happens, because you colour one section, move onto the next and then have to constantly balance the colours against one another as you go. To just pick a palette beforehand… I would feel restricted and weird.
“It’s what I like about art — that you can do anything. There’s a blank canvas. During the last ten years of his life, H.R. Giger [famous for his design work for Alien] said that he felt anxiety when faced with a blank canvas. I never really understood that. The beginning (and the end) are the most interesting parts.
“There are some tricks that you can use that become second nature to you. I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years so it becomes like a sixth sense. It’s like skateboarding, for example: if you intervene with your thoughts too much, you might fuck it up. You have to do it with your heart and trust your instincts — that comes from practising.”
He concedes with a chuckle that there may also be “a little bit of prostituting” involved in his eye-catching vinyl covers. “If you do something that pops, people are going to notice it. Vinyl for video games is a very niche cultural corner and just featuring key art from the game... people have already seen [that image] — you should give them something more.
“Not everyone [who buys game vinyl] even has a vinyl player. They just want the artefact, so that artefact should be something awesome and eye-popping in and of itself — something that you would proudly display in your home.”
Disc label designs from the Absolver 2xLP vinyl set:
Jonesing for indie
As El Huervo, Åkerblad has made a name for himself at the intersection of indie electronica, indie games and online art. Is he happy occupying these niches for the foreseeable future? Without doubt: “I just want to be in situations where creativity can be free, and see where that takes me. Right now it’s indie games and stuff like that and I really like this place.
“I like that I’m able to do weird shit, because in the mainstream there are a lot of producers and people trying to analyse stuff [as corporate overseers]. I don’t want to sound blunt, but I fucking hate that — it would be hard for me to do it that way. [That said] you never know what’s going to happen in the future.”
He isn’t phased by the supposed oncoming/ongoing ‘indiepocalypse’ — the idea that a golden age for indie developers will pass/has passed thanks to free-to-play giants hoovering up fans’ money and the sheer oversaturation of storefronts like the App Store and Steam. Crash or no crash, he agrees that the young indie games sector can always look to the development of indie filmmakers, indie “music, comic books, literature… Maybe not television!”
“[The indie space] is just about people that want to break out of the mold and do something different. ‘Where would we be without the dreamers that pay no heed to good advice?’ It’s just a natural thing for creative people to do, so it’s never going to go away.”
You’ll be able to hear the full interview with El Huervo as part of an upcoming Video Game Grooves podcast episode.
Austin Wintory’s Absolver soundtrack is available on deluxe double vinyl and CD from LacedRecords.com (est. shipping late Q4 2017).
The CD front cover was designed by the similarly multi-talented Costa Rican artist, Angela Bermúdez:
Constantly juggling projects as usual, El Huervo 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
As he's such a multi-faceted fellow with a lot to say, be sure to check out our previous interview with El Huervo, breaking down the art behind the Hotline Miami vinyl, as well as the early 2016 El Huervo interview with Vice and more recent profile by Kotaku.