For artist Mathieu Bitton, what you hear and what you see are one in the same. Colors and music notes have similar shades; lyrics and hand-drawn lines have similar emotional messages. Each genre of music in Bitton’s collection has its own visual world in his head – jazz takes on certain hues, while rock n’ roll is another vibrant texture completely. For Bitton, one simply does not exist without the other. And this special way of merging both mediums is what has lead Mathieu Bitton to be one of the music world’s most sought-after designers, creating album covers and packaging, as well as videos, photographs, logos and more for some of the most iconic artists and records of the last century, in addition to earning him a Grammy nomination for his artistic achievement. His vast and incredible body of work has seen him designing album art for a who’s who of musical history, including Prince, Lenny Kravitz, Sting, Miles Davis (most recently, he designed the incredible packaging to the Bitches’ Brew 40th Anniversary Edition box set), Marvin Gaye, Jane’s Addiction, Bob Marley, Quincy Jones, James Brown, Taylor Swift, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Dolly Parton and many more. If there’s an album cover that moves you, inspires you or impacts you, the odds are pretty high that Mathieu Bitton created it.
Born in Paris, Bitton’s cultural upbringing was as varied as his music collection; his passions mostly centered around R&B, the Dada Surrealism movement, 1920’s Jazz Age art and France’s first real rock star Serge Gainsbourg. “Growing up in Paris, you are surrounded by art and architecture, museums everywhere. Everything is visual, from street sign design to cars, theaters and posters on the walls. But I think the black music interest came when I picked up my dad’s Screaming Jay Hawkins LP,” explains Bitton. “And all those visuals were so stunning to me, more shocking, contrast-y and inherently controversial.” Bitton fell in love with the synergistic world the album created for him, but aurally and visually, and began obsessively collecting albums at a young age, scouring Parisian flea markets on the weekends to buy R&B, soundtrack, soul, jazz and funk 45’s and LP’s, sometimes purchasing them solely for their album covers. This enthusiasm for African-American music extended itself to another medium that, like jazz and R&B, perfectly merged its own brilliant visual references and sounds to carve out its own cultural corner: Blaxploitation films. As with his other interests, Bitton was instantly drawn to the extremes and musical textures of the genre. “To me, Blaxploitation is another type of surrealism. The drive comes from the combination of absurd, louder and larger than life egos, colorful and often ridiculous characters. But it started with the soundtracks, and as I got older, I built a massive collection of original film posters. I think those have influenced me more than anything.”
With these influences worn squarely on his sleeve, in 1982, Bitton took a trip to Los Angeles at age 9 to visit his mother, who had moved there. It was this trip that changed everything for Bitton, merging his disparate interests into one fully-formed idea that opened a path to where he is today. Yes, on this particular jaunt from Paris to Los Angeles, Bitton was truly shaken to the core by his discovery: he found Prince.
”I heard the album 1999 and my life was changed forever,” Bitton says. “I was a big Michael Jackson fan, like everyone else then, but Prince encompassed everything I loved about music, visual art, performance and perversion, something I’d started studying through Serge Gainsbourg, my first musical idol. He was everything I loved about everything I loved, black or white. The perfect mix. And he played every instrument on his albums, which fascinated me. The best feeling in the world was being able to buy my own tickets to my first Prince concert at the Zenith in Paris in 1986. It was like seeing the best of what I’d missed in the years prior to my birth. He was Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Mozart all wrapped into one.”
Deciding he had to be in the music industry, in 1987 Bitton moved at age 14 to Los Angeles, bringing his extensive Prince collection with him, and eventually starting a Prince fanzine, which marked his first foray designing. Despite his love of American music, he found inspiration lacking in L.A. upon his move. “Unlike Paris, I found design in general very underwhelming in L.A. But I think my aesthetic sensibilities were born in Paris and enhanced in America. From the time I was little, I was a big fan of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Tristan Tzara, Francis Picabia, and others. Combining that with the album covers, photographic prints and posters that graced my walls, I came up with a perfectly flawed blend that became my aesthetic.”
Moving to New York City to continue his studies at NYU, this time focusing on journalism, Bitton took a job at the design and concept firm Graj + Gustavsen in 1993, which helped him pay for his schooling. Like all of the best artists, Bitton’s talent and incredible creative eye for merging music and graphics were not recognized at first. He freelanced in the fashion industry, working as an art director and graphic designer, handling everything from marketing to hang tags to labels, t-shirt designs, embroidery designs and more. He knew deep down that he wanted to create for the music world, but also knew he had to go through a natural progression of design jobs to get there. He also began managing a band on the side, eventually meeting music industry executives and label people, some of whom learned of his other life in graphic design. A friend at Mercury/Polygram Records asked if he would do a logo for her label Loose Cannon; and thus, Bitton’s design ascent within the music industry began.
Suddenly, by the late-90’s, Bitton was one of the most sought-after artists within the music community. He began designing for Polygram Records, which led to other jobs immediately. “It became a virus; other people would see the work, word of mouth,” he explains. “I started doing projects with artists that I was very passionate about, like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. And I collected all these records, so it was surreal. Truly surreal.”
It was also around this time in 1997 that Bitton met acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino. In addition to his work in the music industry, Bitton had decided to put together a poster book from Blaxploitation films. When he heard Tarantino was planning something similar, Bitton took it upon himself to go out to L.A. and meet his team, impressing upon them the importance of them doing a book together. Tarantino agreed instantly, bonding with Bitton over their shared love of the genre, and eventually having him design film posters for his company.
From there, Bitton’s career simply exploded. Over the next thirteen years, he worked as the art director and designer on over 700 albums, books and posters. He created dozens of corporate, band and event logos, including the 2008 election campaign design for youth activist organization Rock The Vote, as well as the re-launched BMG label Buddha Records, Tommy Mottola’s Casablanca Records and Strummer Records (Universal). He also became one of the film industry’s leading soundtrack designers, working on art for films such as Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise and most recently Kevin McDonald’s Marley documentary on the reggae legend. He was commissioned by lauded artist Philippe Starck to paint and design murals at his redesigned East/West Recording Studio in Hollywood, collaborating with Ara Starck. He was asked by acclaimed producer Rick Rubin to design a logo for Laird Hamilton, which Rubin proclaimed looked “really amazing, classic and timeless.” He has been invited to appear numerous times on the BBC’s radio shows as one of the premiere voices about black art and film culture, being included in documentaries about Curtis Mayfield, Blaxploitation and more. Bitton even designed a bottle of rosé wine for Morton’s Steak House and a wine bottle for Ledbetter Wines.
More recently, Bitton has begun working more within photography and film, something that evolved out of an ongoing relationship with acclaimed rocker Lenny Kravitz. “Film is a natural medium for me,” Bitton says. “It’s photography and sound mixed into one. I started making little videos and behind the scenes movies for artists I managed or was an art director for. I made a music video for the ‘Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign To Save Darfur’ that was selected by Warner Bros. as the bonus iTunes video for the project. I have known Lenny since I was a kid and we’ve stayed in touch on and off over the years. It wasn’t until we reconnected in Paris in 2008, through our mutual friend Jean-Baptiste Mondino, that we clicked creatively.” Bitton was asked to produce and create the packaging for the 20th anniversary re-edition of Kravitz’s seminal recording Let Love Rule, and eventually started photographing Kravitz on the road, creating his tour merchandise designs and joining him every night to document the tour. He just finished producing and designing the deluxe edition of Kravitz’s second opus Mama Said as well as completing his first feature length film on Kravitz.
Bitton’s documentary Looking Back On Love follows the journey behind the making of Kravitz’s recently released 9th studio album Black And White America. The film follows Lenny Kravitz on his travels from the Bahamas to New Orleans, from Miami to Paris and New York to Los Angeles, always coming back to the Bahamas to finish the album.
An in depth look at the sessions that initially started out as a 3-month recording project, Looking Back On Love is a full on rock and roll music production. Viewers will experience the Bahamian culture through a “fly-on-the-wall” look at Lenny’s life and watch the artist create and record the songs at his newly built Bahamas home studio Gregory Town Sound. The film includes exclusive interviews spanning two years and showcases the artist discussing his creative process, his influences and the recording of the songs themselves. The spotlight is also on Lenny’s recording techniques, showcasing his musical partner Craig Ross, New Orleans legend Trombone Shorty and long time collaborators George Laks, Harold Todd and Michael Hunter at work at Gregory Town Sound. Studio guests Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem discuss the album’s cover and the film reveals, for the first time, the full photo sessions by legendary Jazz photographer Herman Leonard, who also visits the Bahamas for “his last” vacation with his family several months before his death. A whole segment of the film is dedicated to his life and relationship with Lenny. The film also features in depth examination of the album’s title song, Lenny’s personal history about his upbringing in a mixed family, the election of President Obama and the message of love that Lenny been preaching for over 23 years.
One night at the Borgata in Atlantic City, Bitton took a short film of Kravitz lost within the bowels of the building. They placed the film online, where the internet gobbled it up immediately, passing it around until it ended up on CNN and MSNBC. The response fueled the duo to create more short films for Kravtiz’s fan base (one of which, “Lenny Crashes the Choir” was called the Top Viral Video of Summer 2010 by MSN), which resulted in Kravitz asking Bitton to shoot a documentary about the making of his new album in the Bahamas. The result will be Bitton’s first full film. “Film is a big passion of mine and will most likely be my next evolution,” Bitton says. “I am making little music films now but am planning on directing and producing features.” Bitton is also planning on releasing his first ever book of photography within the next year.
Ultimately, regardless of the medium, Bitton always comes back to music. “The one thing I have been told over and over – which I think is why I’ve been chosen to do such amazing projects – is that they are very often related to my passions and the music I know inside out,” Bitton says. “I can’t tell you how many times my personal record collection has been used for a reissue or a box set or compilation. I listen to the music constantly when I work on a project. With the Miles Davis Bitches Brew 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition project, for example, I read all the liner notes before starting it. I am told this is highly unusual for a designer, but it’s normal to me to be immersed in any project on which I am working.” It is this immersion that won him a Grammy nomination for a massive Jane’s Addition boxed set, packed with voodoo dolls, tarot cards, miniature sculptures and more within a wooden cabinet replica box, and continues to make him one of music world’s most important players.
“It’s a feeling I get that I cannot explain,” he says of his process and knowing that he’s on the right track with a design. “My instincts are usually right. Because I am a collector first, I design everything from the perspective of a collector and what I would want to buy, so with special packaging, I know exactly how to make it special, how I would want it to be special.” Even in 2010, when music has become an increasingly digital-only commodity, Bitton believes in the power of a record’s artwork. “Real artists will continue to make special packages, and labels will keep doing box sets and special editions. Vinyl sales have actually been increasing. There’s instant gratification from the internet and viral videos, so I see it as design-in-motion. But people do want covers at least; otherwise, you get a blank square on your iPod Touch, and unless you are listening to The White Album by the Beatles, well, that sucks!”
Bitton just received one of France’s highest decorations, the 2012 medal of Chevalier Dans L’Ordre Des Arts & Lettres (Knight in the order of arts and letters) from the French Republic.
-Jen Appel, Press Here Publicity
Praise for Mathieu Bitton’s work continues to reverberate through the music industry…
“There are a lot of great designers out there, but there are very few, if any, who have the depth of design, music, and culture that Mathieu has. He can design the cover, take the picture, do the website, do the film and remix the single…and he is funny too!” -Jeff Ayeroff, legendary art director and chairman at A&M, Virgin, Warner Bros. Records and the WORK Group
“The logo is really amazing. I gave it to Laird as a gift and he loved it. It looks classic and timeless to me.” Rick Rubin
“Mathieu is not only a talented designer but a passionate supporter, believer and organizer for our cause. He brought our mission to life through his work in 2008 and he continues to be an invaluable part of our team. His energy, dedication and creativity helped make 2008 the most successful year in Rock the Vote’s 20-year history and we are lucky to consider him part of our organization’s family.” – Heather Smith, Rock The Vote President
“Calling Mathieu a designer does not do justice to his the breath of the overall artistic vision he brings to an artist. His work as an intimate part of Lenny Kravitz’s team has given Mathieu the ability to photograph, film, market, and use his extensive musicology to create campaigns that can’t be touched. A brother in arms for sure…” -Gary Gersh, manager, John Legend, Soundgarden, Matisyahu
“Mathieu’s innovative design has recaptured the original cutting edge design of Bitches Brew and as further expanded upon it, taking it in a modern direction that stays true to the music of Miles! We are eternally grateful!” -Erin Davis – Miles Davis’ son
“My friend Mathieu is an art director of vision and taste. I’ve known him since he first entered the American rock art arena: his ambition and energy are boundless, as indeed is his talent, and like fine French wine, he only gets better with age!!” -Mick Rock, legendary music photographer
- MATHIEU BITTON - DA