Interview: Bryan Theiss of Frankenseuss Laboratories
Bryan Theiss is an album cover artist and art director, best known for his work on album art and music videos for the multi-genre guitar virtuoso Buckethead. Theiss works in a wide variety of art media to bring his visions to life–he’s done pencil and chalk sketches, ink drawings, watercolor paintings, digital art and graphic design, animation, sculptures, and even cake decoration! As you can see from his art website, his vivid imagination, keen design sense, and mind-boggling originality shine in each and every art piece that he creates, whether it be a kooky celebrity portrait, his unique rendition of a movie scene, or a wonderfully bizarre original concept.
In this interview, Bryan gets candid about his influences, his beginnings with Buckethead, his artistic process, and much more. So put on your labcoat and come learn more about the mad scientist behind “Frankenseuss Laboratories”!
1. Thank you, Bryan, for letting us interview you! First off, I’d like to ask, what first got you interested in drawing and art in general?
I enjoyed drawing when I was little, and my mom was smart enough to put me in an art class and a local framing store to encourage me. I remember another kid in the class liked to draw Garfield, so I went and tried to learn how to draw him to compete with him.
2. What are some of your biggest influences, be they artistic or otherwise?
Movie posters, especially painted ones from the ‘70s, Disneyland, giant monster movies, Dr. Seuss books. When I was younger I was a big fan of Pedro Bell, who did the album covers for Funkadelic. I even wrote him a fan letter and got an amazingly detailed response. This was in the days before email was common so he actually mailed me a hand written letter with art on the envelope and everything.
3. Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
I love watercolors, but these days I mostly do linework on paper, scan it in and color in Photoshop.
4. You go by the name “Frankensuess”. How did you acquire that name?
When I was in high school I had a half joking rap group and that was my rap name, combining my interests in classic horror movies and children’s books. I was a terrible rapper but spent a lot of time making album covers and liner notes and stuff.
5. You’re well-known for doing work for Buckethead. How did you come to know him?
I was obsessed with P-Funk when I was growing up so I had the first Praxis album, Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis) because it had Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell on it. That became my favorite album for a while and then my friend who played guitar showed me an article and some columns from Buckethead in Guitar Player Magazine, so I found out about the chicken coop and the park and everything. After I got the Bucketheadland album I drew some pictures and sent them to the address, and he liked them. So from there it developed over the years, I did more work for him. I don’t consider myself a great artist but a lot of what I’m good at I really learned from working with him over the years and getting a lot of practice.
6. I heard that your art for “3 Foot Clearance” was inspired by a Power Man and Iron Fist comic. Did you read a lot of comics when you were younger? How about now?
I only dabbled in comics as a kid but as a teen I became obsessed with The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Sandman and those kinds of things. These days I actually read more comics than I ever did, especially mainstream super hero stuff like all the Batman titles. But my favorite comics ever are the Lone Wolf and Cub series and the ones written by Alejandro Jodorowksy like Metabarons, Technopriests and The Megalex.
7. Are “Frankenseuss Laboratories” and “Frankenseuss Animatronics” supposed to be related to Bucketheadland? If so, are they in the park or just associated?
We’re a lab that works in conjunction with the park.
8. And is there a particular reason that the one song on Kaleidoscalp, “Frankenseuss Laboratories”, bears your name?
I think it was just a nice gesture to me, because it sounds like me working on an experiment or something. But now if you Google Frankenseuss it mostly brings up references to the song!
9. The “E-Z Bake Crematory” you did for Bucketheadland 2 is one of my favorite pieces you’ve ever done; it’s so genius! Where did you get such an awesome idea?
I found that vintage toy oven at an antique mall and it was in KFC colors so it reminded me of Buckethead.
10. The titles “Slaughterhouse On the Prairie” and “3 Foot Clearance” were your ideas; were any other songs or titles that you came up with or that were inspired from your artwork?
I didn’t intentionally name “3’ Clearance” but that was what was written on the rollercoaster sign in my drawing so it made a good title. There might be other ones but I can’t think of any off hand. Buckethead always has millions of titles.
11. The animation you did for “Real Talk" is a unique mix of 3D and 2D animation. What gave you the idea to do that, and how hard was it to do? It seems like a pretty complex project for one person!
Thank you! I saw the original R. Kelly video and became obsessed with that song. Then I found out there were all kinds of people on Youtube doing lip synchs of it holding their phones. I tried to think of a really ridiculous version of it I could do, like holding one of those phones they used to have shaped like Garfield. At some point I thought of the Lando idea and I thought instead of doing a lip synch I could do it with action figures. But then I thought maybe I could do it with animation.
I had learned a little bit about animating in After Effects from Syd Garon when we did Buckethead’s Secret Recipe DVD and when he did the video "Spokes For the Wheel of Torment,” so this was a good way to practice it. I did the entire video in order, so you can see how it starts out pretty crude and gets more elaborate as it goes along.
This was a side project that I worked on literally for years, but that song still cracks me up and I was able to put in tons of references to Star Wars things I love. I was sure to use only the original theatrical cuts for reference, not the Special Editions. And I was excited to include Bea Arthur’s character from the Holiday Special. My wife is as Star Wars crazy as I am so she gave me some great suggestions like using Darth Vader’s funeral pyre for the line about burning his clothes.
12. What is your favorite piece of art that you’ve ever created?
Right now it might be the fictional movie poster “El Topo II: Operation Alchemist” that I made for a VHS-themed art show at Scarecrow Video.
As far as covers I think my favorites are Bucketheadland II and Secret Recipe. And for sentimental reasons I like the pint glass I designed for my wedding.
13. How would you say your art has evolved over the course of your career?
I’ve definitely gotten more dependent on computers, but I still do at least part of everything on paper. Years ago I was really into putting stains and folds on everything but it has become a horrible cliche since then so now I prefer a more clean style.
14. Do you make art on a regular schedule (e.g. daily, weekly, etc.) or is more like when you get inspired or when you have to finish a project? Do you ever come up against an “artist’s block” or do ideas come to you very easily?
My problem is I don’t draw enough. I spend a lot of time writing, which I love, but it’s exciting when I have an art project to work on because I can use that part of my brain. I get a lot of ideas and I doodle a lot in sketch books, but there are definitely times when nothing really inspiring comes to mind for a particular album cover, and that’s a painful feeling. To solve it I have to just keep doodling and then turning my mind to other things and coming back to it.
15. When you are working on album art, how do you develop concepts to represent the music? Do you mostly go with what the artists asks for or are you able to use a lot of your own ideas?
I work both ways. A lot of times there’s a vague suggestion and I add my own spin on it. Other times there’s just a title (or not even a title) and I just come up with something from my imagination. That’s what I’m doing right now. Pike 55, The Miskatonic Scale, is a recent example of one where I had an exact description of what it should be (Buckethead sitting on a stool playing from sheet music with H.P. Lovecraft watching him). I originally was going to one-up the idea by adding a bunch of lobster demons materializing around the edges, but simple turned out to be better. I think it turned out really good. Sometimes I get suggestions of things to tweak but most of the time they’re happy with what I give them. Enter the Chicken is a rare example of one that we tinkered with forever.
16. Many of your art pieces delve into macabre territory, and you have work specifically based on horror movie characters. Would you say you’re a big horror fan? What is it about the horror genre that speaks to you?
I’ve always loved horror movies. Growing up my favorites were the Nightmare On Elm Street series, because I loved all the weird latex transformations and stuff in the dream sequences. When I got a little older Texas Chain Saw Massacre became my favorite. I think it just speaks to my sense of humor. I like really dark horror movies sometimes, but my art uses horror imagery mostly in a tongue in cheek way, kind of a Charles Addams type of humor. I could never be H.R. Giger.
17. I’ve heard that you’re a fan of the avant garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Which is your favorite of his movies and why?
Definitely Holy Mountain. It’s the craziest movie I’ve ever seen by far, but it actually has a good structure to it and a sense of humor. There’s not only nothing else like it, there’s nothing even remotely close. It’s amazing.
18. You seem to draw a lot of inspiration from musical artists. Who are you favorite musicians of all time? And what kind of music are you listening to these days?
I’ll always love Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and Parliament-Funkadelic. I also grew up on Public Enemy, N.W.A. and Wu-Tang Clan and those are still important artists to me. I listen to a lot of hip hop but mostly stuff from the '90s.
19. Do you have have any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
I did a cover for an EP coming out soon called Forget the Future by Anton Lemieux, it’s a really cool John Carpentery keyboard soundtrack type of thing.
20. Is there any kind of project you would enjoy getting hired for — a “dream job”?
If I ever got to do a job for Disney (especially Disneyland) or Lucasfilm it would mean a lot to me. Also if I could do something for Bootsy.
21. Any final words or thoughts you’d like to share? Thanks again for this great opportunity for fans to learn more about you!
I’m flattered that you’re interested. I’m not someone who makes a living with art, but I will always make it because I could never be happy otherwise. Always follow your dreams and create the things that you wish were in the world.
Thanks again to Bryan for the honor of this fascinating, heartfelt interview! We wish the best to you in all your endeavors and are excited to see any new work you come out with!