Steve Averill’s life in Irish rock, from the sleeve to the stage

The album cover designer and former Radiator from Space opens up about the late Philip Chevron, designing for U2 and being a non-musician

Radiator from Space, Steve Averill has had a life full of creative output. Here he talks about the early days as well as working with U2, Elvis Costello and the Script. Video: Darragh Bambrick

 

You wouldn’t recognise him walking past you in the street, but Steve Averill is Ireland’s most garlanded pop-culture designer, and the man who has overseen every U2 album cover – from Boy to Songs of Innocence – as well as the band’s associated single releases and merchandising.

Not being accosted by passersby is something that suits Malahide-based Averill. Now in his early 60s, he is a gentle and serene person motivated more by quality of work and love of music than any nonsense regarding friendship and association with one of the world’s most popular rock bands. Averill goes all the way back to U2 and before – he was the lateral thinker who gave them their name, and the musician who, as a member of Dublin band Modern Heirs, played at Howth’s Presbyterian Church Hall “on the same night that U2 played their first gig as U2, and that Virgin Prunes played their first gig”. Adam Clayton, adds Averill in a did-you-know aside, played in each of the bands.

Factor in Averill’s position as an early member of The Radiators from Space, and his zeitgeisty appearances in too many Irish bands to list here (they include SM Corporation, Tell Tale Heart and, bringing us right up to date, Trouble Pilgrims), and you have a culturally clued-in person with the weight of history behind him but who doesn’t live in the past.

Averill started as a designer and art director in the late 1960s, going from a printing firm (“a disaster, because it was nothing to do with design”) to Arks Advertising (“some members of Horslips were there, so that was quite a cool place to work”).

 

Rock aesthetic

From being employed by Arks and other agencies (he is now senior art director with Amp Visual) – and with music a constant companion – he slowly developed his own freelance work aesthetic. In the mid-1970s, he co-founded The Radiators from Space, designed their record sleeves and, via a series of self-started design companies, put Ireland on the map in terms of contemporary album cover art.

It is, he agrees, a long way from working with cardboard. The design process, he claims, not unreasonably, has changed dramatically. With the arrival of computers, “you had to completely rethink what you were doing, but the process became easier and the outlook of what you could do became much broader. It also meant that you were, quite quickly, producing finished cover art; there was little chance of bands looking at it step by step. Previously, when you had pieces of artwork on a bench, people had no idea how it got from that to a finished cover. Now, people somehow think there’s no process to it at all – that you just press a few buttons, and, as if by magic, there’s the album cover.”

Collaboration is the key to good album cover design work, says Averill. His relationship with U2 is unusual in that it has lasted so long. Aside from Pink Floyd and Storm Thorgerson, he says he is amazed there are so few long-term partnerships between bands and designers.

“U2 and I have a strong relationship, but they have said from the first album onwards that if we don’t come up with the goods then they reserve the right to go elsewhere. And I know that on a couple of occasions – when they’ve been unsure – they’ve had other people work on ideas. The positive is that you can’t fall back on your laurels and think you’ve definitely got their next album; you’ve got to come up with graphics that are world-beating.”

It isn’t all about design for Averill. Music holds his interest as much as ever. He left The Radiators from Space because he felt his voice wouldn’t fit the more sophisticated and complex post-punk songs that co-member Philip Chevron was writing. As a non-musician without a synthesiser, he says, he knew he couldn’t be the Brian Eno of the band.

Non-musicianship is, he claims, quite liberating, “except when someone suggests that I come in when they hit the A chord, because I don’t have a clue what they’re on about. I’m still a non-musician. I wouldn’t have a clue about chords, but I have a good enough ear to know if the tuning is wrong.”

Averill is back with a couple of music projects. Firstly, there are remixed, re- released tracks from his 1980s synth outfit SM Corporation. “Listening to something you’ve done 30 years ago, with no intention of releasing it, was curious. And, you know, it’s actually not that bad.”

 

Heat from the Radiators

And then there is Trouble Pilgrims, a Radiators from Space semi-offshoot: the band is named after the Radiators’ third album, released in 2006, and it features fellow Radiators original member Pete Holidai. Averill, a wise observer of rock music, Averill is well aware of the age factor.

“We’re all conscious of that, and in a sense – without any eyebrows being raised – we’re the generation of band that’s moving into the area where previously jazz and blues musicians lived. It’s really finding a level where you can do it without making yourself look totally stupid. We believe at the moment we’re doing fine; we’ve found a level.”

Design work will continue, as will music. As far as Averill is concerned, his life is one long creative journey.

“I just like to have creative juices flowing, and so I’m still engaged with it, still embracing it. I love it when a piece of music drops through my letterbox or into my computer inbox that I haven’t heard before. I listen to a lot of psychedelic, electronic, Americana music, and if I hear music on the radio that I haven’t heard before, and like. Then I’ll pursue it. I’m open to anything and everything.”

Chevron Lives: A Tribute to Philip Chevron takes place at the Sugar Club, Dublin, on November 23

 

STEVE’S SELECTION: TOP 3 CHEVRON SONGS

  • Television Screen “Although prefaced by a quote from B Bumble and the Stingers’ Nutrocker, the debut single from Radiators from Space was a barbed attack and astute observation on the status quo of the time. It was, per Philip’s aim, a song about that time in Dublin.”
  • Under Clery’s Clock “Perhaps Philip’s most personal song, this explores, without overt sentiment, the turmoil of an unrequited love. It relates to Philip’s sexual orientation, but like all the best songs dealing with the turmoil of love, is universal, allowing the listener to place themselves under that clock, on that street, at that time.”
  • The Dark at the Top of the Stairs “From Trouble Pilgrim, a Radiators album that contains some of Philip’s best writing, and songs that didn’t receive the attention that his songs on Ghostown did. It was inspired by the image of the ‘falling man’ on 9/11, and tried to explain the choice that a person in that unthinkable situation is faced with.”
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