I had the pleasure of catching up with Dan Blakeslee, who is the artist for two of the most iconic cans in Craft Beer - Heady Topper and Focal Banger. When we spoke to Dan he was down south working on art and playing some shows. Dan is a kind hearted, hard working and extremely talented artist who I felt has a lifetime of adventures and great stories to share with us. His humility and passion were obvious immediately and made for a comfortable catch up that reaffirmed this project was on the right path.
Below you will find some excerpts from our talk that I feel give unique insight into the artist as well as his music, process and his work with the Alchemist. Enjoy!
16oz. Canvas - AJK: I appreciate you’re taking the time to speak with me. I’m pretty excited.
Dan: Yeah, totally.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: So the premises is I’m big into Craft beer and just think that the way the things are going recently with the advancement of canning and just really, the breweries explosions over the last couple of years that, one of my favorite things is the artwork. Sometimes it proves not to be the best tasting beer, but at least visually it looks pretty good before that moment.
Dan: Right, exactly, yeah.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: And I think what you’ve done is pretty amazing. I think that you probably at the time didn’t think how much of a kind of epic can that would be, the Heady Topper Can.
Dan: Yeah, no idea. You know, it’s like John like he was like every time I would -- the first thing I did for him was a -- what was meant to be just a coaster, they're open up the brewery and then they ended up using it on like their window and making shirts or something like that and making some other things. And then eventually he asked me if I would do his first beer label, and he had no idea of the success that they would gain from it. Like I just knew that every time I came in and visited them to talk about sketches or whatever, he was always like tinkering in the brew room like he was like, “man, we’re close, we’re close. I think it’s going to be something really special” and turns out it was, you know.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Right. Yeah, it’s pretty cool if you’ve never used it before there’s The Wayback Machine. It’s part of archive.org which is to storing of data and kind of historically -- it’s good for live music and other entities, but they’ve what they call The Wayback Machine. And you can go back to their website, going back to 2007-2008, they take different web crawls I guess. I’m not as tech savvy in that area, but it’s really funny you can see the blog post where they announce that they’re going to sell the bottles and people are asking why, you know, I thought you said we’ve never going to be able to, do that because then you can’t control it and you can just kind of see these small, you know, snapshots of the evolution of what is now
Dan: Like in advancements -- you’re right.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
Dan: Wow, that’s awesome. I’ve never heard of that thing.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah. I’ll send you a link. It’s pretty --it’s pretty cool.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah. So, tell me a little bit about yourself, you know, I read your bio, you know, it was on the website and for folks who want to check it out, you know, danblakeslee.com. We’ll have links up on the site.
Dan: Yeah, yeah. So, basically I grew up in southern Maine and then went to art school like after high school down in Baltimore and sort of like once I graduated from there. It’s kind of funny the sort of like the evolution of how I started to make like beer labels was actually going way back like in 1994, I had been doing -- there was so much art that I had to do at art school for all these different projects and classes and everything. I was so burnt out and I told myself after art school I'm like, “Man, I need a break.” And two years before that, my sophomore year, I started playing music and I found that it really helped me get through the rest of school, otherwise I just would have been freaking out like there was just so much -- the workload was so like astounding, what they had you do and -- but it’s good because it prepared me for what I’d be doing now. You know back then like doing eight hours of drawing in a day like, “What the heck, that’s crazy” you know and now it’s like, “Oh, it’s regular.” It’s like, you know, preparing me for you know, what’s to come. And now -- and then so after art school, I actually ended up playing a lot of shows. I started --I was working in a lobster restaurant and playing shows and I decided to take a break from doing artwork altogether, but in order to play shows, I had to make posters. So, I was making posters for these concerts that I was doing and I was doing one at the Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where they have Smuttynose, and the owners of Smuttynose saw it and they asked me to do some beer labels. So, I did some beer labels for them for their small batch brews like early on back in probably '96 maybe, something like that and that’s how I got back into doing artwork.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Okay. So, you’ve been a little burnout with school and kind of having just kind of create for deadline and not create for the kind of the art or the passion of it.
Dan: The joy of -- yeah, exactly.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Okay. I’ve been to the Portsmouth brew house --.
Dan: Oh nice.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, for a period of time, my sister lived in New Hampshire and, you know, we would go up there and have a good old time. It was a good spot and they always said, yeah, the smaller New Hampshire or local New England breweries that we couldn’t get in Connecticut or where we’re originally from in Philadelphia.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: So that’s great. So, you playing shows kind of forced you to self-promote and create some of your own materials?
Dan: Right, right, right. Yeah, and it was nice because like they -- what I like about what they had me do, they let me have great freedom in doing the artwork and same with John from the Alchemist, John and Jen you know, they had their input but they wanted me to feel free like to have like creative expression. So, it was really crazy at first when John was explaining what he wanted me to do with you know, the hops -- he said, you know, I want the hops like exploding out of his head like kind of like ripping his like skull apart almost and I took it literal. So, the first drawing was really kind of graphic, like really pretty out there graphically and he goes, “Okay, tone that back a notch and have it --“ you know, and then he, you know, gave me some art direction and we ended up going in the direction of where the label is now.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: That’s pretty great. Yeah, good but I think you’ll just scare some of our patrons away with that one, yeah.
Dan: Right, exactly yeah so that’s what he said he wanted to do and then I showed him and he’s like oh wow, okay, yeah.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, more hops yeah, less blood.
Dan: Right, right, right.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: How would you describe your aesthetic or the medium that you typically use?
Dan: It’s definitely a question that comes up often. Awesome, it’s like you know, I’ll meet someone in you know, if I you know, like oh, what kind of art do you do or what does it look like and I’m like oh my God, that’s like the biggest question. It’s like but I would say it’s sort of whimsical, dream like sort of imagery that sort of yeah, like I’m still like stuck on this. It’s like one of the hardest things to describe, but it’s like my favorite mediums are like first and foremost, I’m focused primarily on drawing and etching. I like having the essence of like 19- like early 1900s poster art that’s sort of like I really I gravitate towards that style of like really stark imagery, but I also like a lot of little hidden details that’s one of my things.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Some Easter Eggs?
Dan: Right, exactly.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah. I noticed a strong black and white theme you know, which I personally am a big fan of, I really like that I think you it’s amazing what you can do you know, with those just two colors with the shadows and shading and to the etching you know, as you were saying you can definitely see that, a lot of that has an old kind of throwback which you know, to your music if a tie in has like a folk overtone to it, a little Americana.
Dan: Yeah, yeah, I feel like the music as well as art sort of has this rustic feel to it. I don’t like you know, some art that I do there’s like some clean lines but I like it -- I like it to have like a little loose energy to it.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, I think it’s fitting.
Dan: Yes as far as the music definitely like folk Americana sort of genre I guess, yeah.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, it’s definitely a throwback to the period where even the 60s and 70s where poster art you know, with such an important, which is important thing I was, you know, the auction shows, they go and they, people bring their junk and there was one episode recently where a woman had found her brother’s posters from like 60s and 70s from the the Fillmore. It was amazing. So, it definitely has that throwback you know, some of them have you know, I think like an angelic or/and some mermaids so they have a little bit of you know, lore to them.
Dan: Right, right, right.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Now, do you have an idea in mind? So, you like a show coming up and/or is it you have a sketchbook and you’re always just kind of creating?
Dan: Yeah, I mean yeah it kind of depends like certain shows I’ll make it based on either you know, something to do with the show itself or the bands that are playing or you know, the town or is it in a seaside town or is it you know, or like mix of a bunch of things but I do also have a sketchbook not like that I sort of you know, all these different ideas are stored away in this and if I feel like I can’t come up with something then I’ll dig in sketchbook and find something in there to use. But I also, I don’t do as many show posters as I used to because I am up to about 600 of them now.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Wow.
Dan: So, I’ve been recycling a lot of them because I mean it takes just so much time to draw one and it’s like you know, I’m not getting paid for it.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Right.
Dan: And you know, lord knows that most of the shows I’m not getting paid that great either so I’m like oh, I’ll just reuse this old poster.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: You have to be efficient.
Dan: Even though I’m trying to -- I’m trying to you know, take that up a notch or several notches. So I do have a like a batch of like 50 to l00 posters that I have done in the past, that I’ve been reusing a lot. But I try to reuse posters that people might have not seen for like 15 years or 20 years.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: I think that’s just impressive in and of itself when you look at your timeline, to be doing it for 20 years you know, I think that in and of itself is pretty amazing.
Dan: Thank you man, I appreciate it. Yes, it’s crazy when I have the realization that it was like my 20th year playing music and doing artwork, it’s sort of like kind of knocked me out. I'm like oh my God, I’ve survived two decades, I’m broke but I’m happy as hell.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, I think that – yeah, well happiness is kind of, it’s a term you can define differently. So, that’s impressive. Yeah, in a previous life I was involved with radio and from there, met some great bands you know, I was only able to stick in the game for five years, so 20 years is amazing.
Dan: Yeah, yeah, nice.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah. So with a lot of these being hand drawn with now technology being a lot more art friendly, do you scan them in and do you use any programs you know, Illustrator or Photoshop or are you still a traditionalist?
Dan: Yeah, I still always do the original but by hand with like you know, ink or you know, etching materials, but then -- and then I definitely do like scan them in especially when I like colorize them all, scan them in and then make the separations and then hand make the separations and make hand-made silk screen posters.
Yeah. So, they’re still like I feel that long, long, long ago my dad who has always been – he’s always been a computer savvy guy like he was – he knew about the internet like 1979, it’s really bizarre like he was telling me, not 79 no, no, like 87 or something like that. Anyway early on before most people even knew it was out there and he was trying to get me to help me in the way of of, you know, it might be used here if you want to transfer your artwork to the computer to try this you know, drawing program on the computer and I just couldn’t like I just didn’t feel right about it. You know, and I just -- just for me it’s like I’ve a lot of friends use those to do quick sketches and you know, this way they can just like it’s already in the computer, you don’t have to scan it and everything but for whatever reason I like to have the physical art in front of me.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, I think it makes total -- yeah, it’s amazing to see where people go because now they have a lot more options but yeah, it’s like --
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Still you know, I think it’s even rare, it’s like recording on analog versus digital you know, some folks still -- it’s lot more difficult to do in less takes, but I think that you still see people who don’t want to compromise them and it’s not to say that digitally is worse but I think that it’s -- It’s all these little decisions you have to make as an artist and so, I think that’s pretty awesome.
Dan: It’s kind of one of my favorite things and I learned this – I'm glad I learn this probably like 15 years ago, it’s like one of my favorite things about recorded music is when there you can hear like total mistakes or the little nuances you know what I mean that aren’t like so you can tell it’s like real.
You know and I sort of like I used to I remember on my very first album, I was so picky like oh man like that string buzzed or whatever or like I could hear you like you know, like something in the background and I would re-cut it and now, it’s like that’s one of my favorite thing like I have this album that was recorded in a barn in Maine and the owner of the barn was sitting there watching us or a bunch of people in lawn chairs watching me and my band and we were telling everyone okay, everyone be really quite you know, we’re going to do a take. We did a take and the guy who owned the barn, his dog walked by and he just like padded him on the back and it was right next to one of the microphones. We were like what the hell are you doing, and then that ended being the best take. We are like oh my God that’s perfect, exactly him doing that added so much to the music.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Right.
Dan: You know, I feel like those little mistakes in making -- having something be authentic instead of like you know, trying to record everything to a click track not that that’s a bad thing either you know, depending on the kind of music you do but I like it when it has like it’s not so shiny. I like it when it’s genuine.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, one of my favorite bands is The Band and that’s how I always think about it.
Dan: Oh man, exactly. It sounds like they’re recording in same room at the same time.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: So, how did you come being from Maine you know, come to meet John and come – were you just sort of a regular at the brew pub?
Dan: No, no. So it’s kind of crazy like I was playing a show up in Burlington, Vermont and I was sitting that day. Whenever I play a show up in that area, I always go up for a couple of days and hangout with friends and I make artwork up there and I was sitting in a café and making one of my show posters and I felt someone like looking over my shoulder and there was this guy like sitting at the next table over and he kept looking over my shoulder and then he just said to me hey, would you ever you know, want to make art for my brewery. I was like heck yeah --
16oz. Canvas - AJK: That’s excellent. So that was good and then you have reasons to keep coming back to Vermont right, you had to keep booking some more shows to show him what you worked on.
Dan: Yeah exactly, exactly.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: So, how long of a process was that from when you first met 'til the final product?
Dan: You mean for the first piece of artwork?
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Right because if I am not mistaken from your style, there is the one that says the Alchemist right, is that you also?
Dan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The very first one I did, there is a guy in a lab coat.
Yeah, that says the Alchemist that one was probably I mean over the course of like a few weeks between like showing them the sketches and reworking it and then you know, like scanning it and cleaning it up and everything, but it’s like probably I’d say about 15 hours in time, stuff like that or maybe 20.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Okay. Now is that character, he looks similar to the Focal Banger guy, is it the same guy? They look kind of similar?
Dan: Yeah, that’s what he wanted. Yeah, yeah, he wanted to get back to that guy.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: That’s pretty great. So, how from the process of it being on the can because it’s in a way it’s a label but it’s really -- I really like it because it uses the base of the aluminum and then it’s printed on top of it, which is pretty unique.
Dan: Yeah, yeah, yeah, like he was really specific about that for that can especially. And, yeah, I can’t remember -- I think, oh, you what know what it is, I drew it knowing that that was, you know, going to happen in the way of like, when you see the other one it’s on a silver can.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Right.
Dan: And -- I don’t have right in front of me but, yeah, I have that in mind when I drew it, he told me, you know, what he was looking for so.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: That’s excellent. Do they have character names?
Dan: No, no, not that I know of.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: (laughter) All right.
Dan: Maybe they’ve named them.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, who knows? So now, when it was first released, it came out in a bottle. So, did you do a label in the bottle first?
Dan: You know what I didn’t even know that that it came out of in a bottle form first.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, again, I remember, I’ve heard stories and, you know, collectors try to get, you know, I think it’s a pretty tough get. I think there is only, you know, 5 or 600 bottles, and then there was a first kind of --
Dan: Yeah, maybe they just did like quick like, you know, photocopy labels or something, or not photocopy but like, you know, maybe they just produced a bunch of labels until they, you know, got the cans up and going.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, yeah, it was in the Wayback machine. So, it was interesting and I’ve heard that, but it was interesting to see John write in the first person just kind of explaining to, you know, their community, their crowd, you know, the regulars that what they were doing -seem that to shake things up a little bit.
Dan: Wow. Now I wish I had one of those bottles.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, right, that’s what I was thinking. I was figuring I could sweet talk you after we finish here if you don’t have one of then we’ll see, yeah.
So, was it a smaller canvas or how large was the original?
Dan: The originals were about like maybe 8x9 or something like that, pretty on smaller scale because I was using a fine point pen to do the art but I think yeah, I think they are about both about the same size.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah. Looking back when the can, when I got into Craft beer trading that was like, the can, like that was end all be all. So, was there point when you’ve realized like how crazy it was that it was kind of this big hunt that folks were going up there, Vermont, just to get the Heady Topper cans?
Dan: You know what it’s so funny like the year that it came out like -- God, I’m trying to remember what year it did come out. I mean it may be 2004, maybe later. God I can’t remember. No, it’s got to be like 2007 maybe. But anyway yeah, when a friend of mine showed it to me they saw it in Forbes magazine -- was it Forbes? Man, I think it was -- no, it wasn’t in Forbes magazine. I can’t remember. Some magazine they showed me it was like the number one rated beer, Craft beer in America. I was like, what the hell. Like and I had no news prior to that. I hadn’t seen the rise to that you know, I just, I did the artwork and I think that year I was moving a couple of time, playing a bunch of shows, and just didn’t, you know, watch, you know, the progress and then all of a sudden it was like someone told me. I was like holy smokes.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: That’s pretty amazing.
Dan: I thought they were kidding me. I thought they were pulling my leg.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Some good old fake news.
Dan: Right, exactly.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: So, as a traveling musician troubadour, what's your kind of go to style of beer since, you know, that’s how we found you? What are you drinking these days?
Dan: You know what, mine is actually root beer because I've never had a beer in my life.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: What?
Dan: Which is weird, I know, I know. People are always taken back by that I've never had alcohol in my life. I’m 45, and I’ve just never -- I had like 7 different sips of alcohol growing up, and I didn’t like any of them. And so I told John, I said, well, if there is ever a day that I am going to ever think about having a beer, yours will be the first, and I’m sure I will be knocked out by because I’ve heard it’s potent.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah. If it’s your first beer, I mean it’s not boozy, it’s really, you know, it’s really refreshing. So --
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, maybe get a taster glass.
Dan: Right, yeah.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Excellent, excellent. And so with Focal Banger, how did that come? Because that was, you know, they originally were doing, just the cans with the stickers
Dan: Yeah, they were trying to figure out like I still don’t – like I haven’t been on their website in a while or Facebook to see where that’s going. They had, yeah, they had asked me about doing the artwork for it, and I was like, you know, heavy touring schedule. And I said, all right, I won’t be able to do it for like a half year or something like that because I was recording, and then doing artwork. So, they had some stickers that they made up in the meantime, and I was so happy once we finally like nailed down the design and got that into production.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: That’s pretty impressive. That’s a great compliment that they were willing to wait. I think that was during the expansion time.
Dan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was also like at the time where they were sort of like, they were like through the roof with all the Heady stuff and I was like moving that year or something, and I had like a ton of different art projects that I couldn’t -- like my fingers were constantly in motion like, you know, between making artwork, playing shows, you know, doing, booking shows, and, you know, writing emails and stuff like that. So it was like I can only do so many things at once and so there was definitely a little hiatus and I told them, but I said I’m committed to definitely doing it. So I think what we had done, we had done sketches early, early on but I told I wouldn’t be able to actually attack it till a little bit later.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Well, the sketches were well received then. It’s kind of like the yin and yang of the Alchemist beers with the opposite, one being black heavy, other one being the silver aluminum.
Dan: Right, right.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Yeah, previously you could only, you know, get it at the local restaurants and bars so when they opened up the new facility, and then you can get, you know, legitimate quantities of it. I think people are still kind of flipping out about it.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: On the can it says, don’t be a d-bag. Is that obliviously, you know --
Dan: Right, a douchebag. That wasn’t mine. That was John’s thing.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Okay, I was curious about that if that was one of your little hidden gems there.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Well, I appreciate your time. You said you have a new record, it’s coming out.
Dan: Yeah, yeah. It’s coming out in August this year.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Okay, excellent What’s the record? Do you have the title for it yet?
Dan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The title is called the Alley Walker, and it’s got me and the full band on it.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Oh excellent, excellent. Now, where did you record?
Dan: I recorded it in New Hampshire in a warehouse by a waterfall. It was nice to take little breaks between recording and go out to the waterfall and just kind of sit and kick back and, you know, before going back to do another round.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Now, what's the process for you, do you have all the songs before you show up or…
Dan: Yeah, yeah, yeah definitely yeah. I sort of -- the way that the band and I’ve done the last couple of records that we recorded together was to have all the songs ready to go. And then rehearsal like crazy like couple of times -- couple or a few times a week leading up to like a month or two leading up to the recording, and then just nail it out, you know, so they’re really like -- so we have them down. When we go there, so we’re not like, you know, we’ve done our homework when we get to the studio. That’s sort of – that’s sort of how I like to do it and I usually like to record like 15 songs and boil it down to 10. This way it’s like, you know, the other songs, okay they’re recorded which is good, they live on. But I want to only put the best stuff out there that’s sort of how I like to do it, I guess.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Now, is there a common theme for each album? How do you approach that?
Dan: You know, this one was actually this is kind of like a little story itself. It’s like I think about 13 years ago, I ran to an old friend of mine from art school that he was my long time like musical companion down at art school, and he was an amazing guitar player. And I always remember how he had like all this recording equipment in his room, like when we were in art school and everything, and he was really sort of like, he was kind of like gear head. And he is from Kentucky, and randomly I was driving around Portsmouth, New Hampshire and there was a car that was like following me every direction I went. I’m like okay, I am going to go on this weird little alleyway road, like who is going on this thing, who will follow me. I just thought it was just coincidence and then they followed me in there and I got out of the car and I'm like what the hell’s your problem?
And out hops my friend Ron from art school, and we -- I don’t know how the hell, he knew it was me from the back of my head. And we haven’t seen each other in 10 years and we start talking and he asked me if I’d been, you know, writing songs or recording. And I said, man, I haven’t been recording. I just didn’t have the dough or the time or whatever and he is like, okay, come up to my place in Portland, Maine, and we’ll -- we’ll record some of the songs. I have a microphone and computer and like whatever and I go up there forgetting how much of a gear head he is. He has all this like vintage amazing equipment, and it was much more advanced than he had described to me. And before we went to record, I said, man, I don’t know what to record because I have 45 songs that I wrote that are unrecorded like I have no idea what to pick. And he quickly thought and he put four pieces of paper in front of me. Blank pieces of paper, and he said, take 12 songs or however many, and put them one each piece of paper and that sort of like worked well together the songs, and then he calls it an album.
So, the first piece of paper was an album called Lincoln Street Roughs and it was the first one that he and I did together. Then the second piece of paper was called Tatnic Tales, and it was a country folk record and we recorded that one. And then the next one was called Owed To The Tanglin' Wind and I also written out a piece of paper for this one called the Alley Walker which was going to be a more electric, a little more electric sounding album. And by that time I get to the fourth sheet, it’d been like 10 years and I realized I was like, oh man, some of these songs like I -- it was so crazy that I hadn’t recorded any of these songs because I’d been waiting to put them on this one album. And so, it’s kind of like a throwback of like newer and older songs. So it’s sort of like an eclectic folk record, it’s acoustic base but it has a lot of electric elements in it.
Dan: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s coming out in August.
16oz. Canvas - AJK: Excellent. Yeah, a couple of your records I was listening to in the last couple of days are up on Spotify