Take Cover! Dave Graney & Tony Mahony's 22 year relationship
Dave Graney and Tony Mahony don’t exactly finish each other’s sentences but they’re very comfortable in each other’s company. The conversation is easy and peppered with stories of shared houses and shared time. Their first meeting, however, is hazy. They finally decide it was the late '80s, after a show with Graney’s band, The White Buffaloes.
"I think I asked if I could take a photo of Dave and not the band," Mahony says, laughing.
"I used to go around to Tony’s and get really tanked, smoke lots of pot and play records,” Graney explains. “We had a prodigious appetite for booze then."
"That was when Dave was a smoker and a drinker," Mahony says. "There were a few green moments after too much pot and booze."
Their unique artistic collaboration dates back to 1990 when Mahony directed a video for the White Buffaloes’ 'Robert Ford on the Stage'. The first album cover they did together was a live set for the Coral Snakes, ’92’s The Lure of the Tropics.
Since that time, Mahony has art directed almost all of Graney’s albums, singles, greatest hits packages, internet-only releases, photo shoots, posters, label logos, books and videos [they took out the 1997 Best Video ARIA for 'Feelin’ Kinda Sporty'].
It’s an association that’s lasted through a myriad of different record labels, image shifts, mood swings, band and line-up changes, and a wide-spectrum of budgets. All the while showcasing their shared obsession with cars, comics, pulp fictions, gouache paintings, colour pencil illustrations, collage and shapes.
The only other band/artist relationships to come close is Storm Thorgerson’s work with Pink Floyd and Radiohead’s resident artist since 1994, Stanley Donwood.
Both Graney and Mahony are unique artists, full of outrageous concepts and not afraid of wild ideas – from Dave as Evel Knievel to the bizarre anthropomorphised cat and buck slick for We Wuz Curious. Or, the outrageously literal reading of Knock Yourself Out to some striking electric blue shoes that grace Graney’s latest, Fearful Wiggings.
"I always trust Tony’s judgement," he says.
"We’re kinda similar," Mahony admits. "We both grew up in weird country towns. Mount Gambier for Dave and Yarrawonga for me, both of them were famous for their lakes and not much else."
Graney laughs. "Tony called Yarrawonga – ‘The Land of the Freckled Cleavage’."
Things got off to a relatively austere start for Graney’s breakthrough album, 1993’s Night of the Wolverine, and his top 10 smash from the following year, You Wanna Be There But You Don’t Wanna Travel. A clever close-up for Wolverine and a magic hour open road scene for You Wanna Be There...
However, it wasn’t ’til these albums were repackaged in the wake of Graney’s 1996 ARIA win for Best Male Vocalist that Mahony began flexing his artistic vision.
“We were in the world that had been fired up by grunge rock,” Graney explains. “But the things we liked were from outside of that. It was hard to try and sneak things through – things of our own interest in the commercial area.”
“The original Wolverine cover was very influenced by a Charlie Rich album, Pictures and Paintings,” Mahony explains. “That’s one of my favourite pictures I’ve ever taken of Dave and the band.”
The re-packaged version of Wolverine was inspired by controversial photographer Larry Clark. You Wanna Be There had Dave depicted in full stunt cyclist mode.
"I like both covers," Graney says of You Wanna Be There. “The original one fitted in more with the normal rock period of 1994. The motorbike one was more of our kind of imagery.”
The Soft ‘N’ Sexy Sound saw Graney’s persona become grander and even more at odds with the grunge fashions of the time. The artworks for the album and its singles were rooted in ’50s style pulp noir art.
"I always loved colour pencil illustration and the idea of commercial art,” Mahony explains. “On that cover we went pulp, we both loved writers like Jim Thompson and Richard S. Prather."
Iconic Point Blank actor Lee Marvin and a Dodge Challenger featured on ’97’s The Devil Drives.
“It was part of Tony’s iconography to have muscle cars,” Graney explains. “They feature throughout with Supermodified  probably being the richest expression of the car fixation.”
“As a kid I used to buy American hot-rod magazines and I loved drawing cars,” Mahony adds. “My first accomplished drawing at primary school was of an E-Type Jaguar. I’ve been drawing them ever since.”
“When The Devil Drives came out in ’97 there was a lot of pressure to make a leap into commercial radio,” Graney says. “But we were still presenting the record company with really self-contained imagery, the whole story, the package. Just get out of the way, here’s everything, just put it out.”
Little changed continuity-wise when Graney disbanded the Coral Snakes and moved from Universal to Festival Records in 1998. It did herald Mahony’s fascination with collage. The Dave Graney Show cover is gathered from hundreds of tiny pieces of paper and, like Sgt. Pepper’s..., contains iconic figures of the day.
"I’d never done a collage before,” Mahony says. “I was full of artist’s enthusiasm. I made Dave’s face out of Pamela Anderson’s breasts and his forearm is [former AFL footballer] Stewie Loewe’s forearm. Frank Sinatra’s in there. The Last Detail starring Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid. Gwyneth Paltrow is taking a photo. Busta Rhymes. I think that’s Robert Maxwell and some girlfriend of his before his demise.”
Mahony’s most enigmatic cover is also Graney’s favourite album – 2008’s We Wuz Curious.
"I love them all and play songs from all over the place,” Graney says. “But that one has real poise and focus. The cover looks like it belongs to a prog-rock masterpiece. It’s full of intimated ideas. I do like the steampunk technology – transferring the brains and the bodies."
"I’ve always liked to anthropomorphise things – transfer animals into humans,” Mahony explains. "It’s a collage, it’s basically a combination of every idea we’ve ever tried."
Graney’s favourite cover is 2009’s Knock Yourself Out where he’s depicted as a boxer with a fearsome right hook.
"Tony is very literal with ideas and this is his literal compulsion taken to ridiculous levels."
Mahony’s best-loved collaboration is the collage he did for Graney’s 2011 memoir, 1001 Australian Nights.
"It’s full of things I’ve loved all my life," Mahony says, "like the flying horse Mobil logo and the Cars for Cash sign. I just wish they hadn’t chopped so much but we had to fit in the Nick Cave quote."
"At the launch of the book this drunken girl was on me,” Graney laughs. "She said, ‘I would’ve just put that quote on the cover. I’m into marketing.’ Fuck off!"
Over the two decades, the artwork has inspired extreme reactions. One wag on the internet said of Graney’s latest work, Fearful Wiggings, ‘The cover makes me sad about growing old’.
Graney laughs when he hears it but refuses to bite. "There’s nothing you can say to that. That’s mordant wit from a dumb person."
"Dave came around and he had these great blue shoes on," Mahony says. "I really wanted them to feature."
"I wasn’t dressing up for a photo shoot," Graney says. "Working with Tony over time, I’ve got to know that photography is mostly about lighting. It’s not about throwing shapes or pulling faces. Sometimes you have to sit still and let the photographer wait for the light or find something. It was all quite spontaneous and accidental, like the album in general."
"If I’m taking a photo, I’m really just looking at shapes," Mahony explains. "I knew the stool would work and the aim was to get those blue shoes. There’s a strong line cutting through it. It’s got so many shapes going on in it. It’s Fearful Wiggings so it had to have some mystery about it and if you don’t show the face, you’ve got your mystery. And you’ve got your blue shoes as well."
Recently, Mahony directed his first feature film, The Mule, written by Saw’s Leigh Whannell and starring Angus Sampson. He’s also just done the True West cover art and video [The Science Test] for Kim Salmon’s latest venture, Kim & Leanne.
But he’s loathe to give up his work with Graney. And the feeling’s mutual.
"I did one album without Tony [2006’s Keepin’ It Unreal] and it was a mistake,’ Graney admits. "It deserved a Tony cover. The only reason I wouldn’t use him is because we can’t pay him enough."
"I’ve never had a working relationship like this with anyone," Mahony says. "It is a unique collaboration. I’m sure there was pressure for Dave to change or try out other artists/video makers. At times there was lots of money to do things, big budgets for record covers and video shoots. That doesn’t exist anymore but it’s irrelevant to the ideas. The ideas came the same way then as they do now. You just do it without the budgets and they’re still good fun to work on."
Dave Graney’s Fave Album Art Of All-Time:
Blue Oyster Cult – On Your Feet or On Your Knees
Tony Mahony’s Fave Album Art of All-Time:
James Brown – Take a Look at Those Cakes