Meet the Mind Behind Foo Fighters' Trippy 'Sonic Highways' Album Cover

Illustrator Stephan Martiniere discusses the inspiration behind his metropolis mash-up

Foo Fighters' 'Sonic Highways' album cover.

Stephan Martiniere has helped design the Hunger Games world and the Guardians of the Galaxy galaxy. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, his Madeline specials won a handful of awards, and a few years later, he began drawing the "Where's Waldo?" comic strip. More recently, the illustrator (who was born in Paris and lives in Dallas) oversaw the visuals for the Myst 5 video game and helped Disney and Universal create real-life theme rides. The bee in the Cheerios commercials? That was him too.

Earlier this year, Martiniere got the chance to design his first album cover, helping one of his favorite bands, the Foo Fighters, represent their "Sonic Highways" concept in striking detail. On a recent evening, the self-described "night owl" described how he became a part of the Foos' universe.

How did you get involved with the Foo Fighters' Sonic Highways project?
I got a phone call from a company several months ago, at the the time they were launching the advertising campaign. They knew my work, and they knew I'm particularly good at handling highly detailed cityscapes.  

They were looking at doing a cover that would be kind of a representation of all those cities that the band had played in. And they were looking for a painting that would be highly detailed because from what I understand, they were planning on shrinking up that image into nine different segments, each one representing one of the cities that they did. I just jumped at the opportunity because it was very exciting – it was the first time for me to do a CD cover. And you know, I'm a big fan of the Foo Fighters, so it's like, can't say no to that. 

What was your process of making the album cover?
This particular cover was very similar to the work I usually do, except I had to be extremely detailed – more than usual. Once I know exactly what the idea is, what the message in the image is supposed to convey, I don't necessarily need much more. So I started laying out all the foundations of the paintings with all the references and stuff and then after that, it's a really step-by-step process. I showed them a first pass in terms of where I'm going, in terms of color palettes, the ideas of the lights and the kind of detail that I'm starting to put into the illustrations. And then we go back and forth with the art directors all the way to the finish.

When you create visions of science fiction worlds, what ideas are you trying to convey? How do you go about creating these worlds?
Once I understand what needs to be extracted and needs to be conveyed, I do a lot of research to find associations of imagery that relate to that world or that subject or that idea. Then I let kind of my brain go crazy: As I'm researching through books and through the Internet, it creates some kind of domino effect. Images trigger some other ideas and then I try to get a deeper sense about how to approach the idea of a concept. It doesn't have to be necessarily always a big idea. Even an object: An idea for an object is relevant because even if it's a weapon or a creature, it still has to convey something. There's still a kind of emotional content that needs to be triggered from that material, so I'm always try to find the right references to get my brain going into thinking about more ideas. 

Have you heard the Foo Fighters album?
Not the whole thing: a few of the songs, but not the entire album yet. I was a big, big, big fan of them, so I'm kind of looking forward to hearing it. To be honest, I'm waiting for the CDs to come my way because once I did the work they promised me they'd send me a bunch of them. 

Beyond this, what excites you in art, technology or in science fiction right now?
Everything that represents a visual challenge. I work in a lot of different fields in the entertainment industry. I worked in film, I worked in theme parks, I did book covers. I do a lot of other works in animation, in games, so I'm always interested in what is going to not only excite me but challenge me to push the envelope artistically. That's one of the big drives for me in terms of taking on new assignments, especially when I have these opportunities.

In the case of the Foo Fighters cover, it was definitely a challenge because I had to do something that was really big in scale and highly detailed, and think just a little bit outside of the box because I'm usually more specialized in science fiction and fantasy. This had to be something that's much more conventional but still conveys a very unique mood – something that's a little fantastic without being a pure science fiction or pure fantasy.