From Ink to Emo

The man behind Strhess Fest draws what others can only shout.

Converge frontman Jake Bannon (center) will be - showcasing his art at Strhessfest.
Converge frontman Jake Bannon (center) will be showcasing his art at Strhessfest.
The true talent of Cleveland artist Derek Hess has always been his ability to discover the beauty and heart within bands that most people see only as harsh noisemongers. As a concert booker at the now-defunct Euclid Tavern in the 1990s, he brought rowdy bands like Cop Shoot Cop and the Jesus Lizard to Cleveland. His distinctive promotional posters for the underground rock elite feature everything from a grenade-throwing baseball player to angels perched on a buffed Michelangelo.

Among Hess's most memorable posters are the two he created in 2002 for the New Jersey screamo quintet Thursday. The first features a figure reaching out of a pool of water, his ruddy fingertips reaching skyward -- depending on your interpretation, in either an act of cleansing baptism or a last dramatic gesture before drowning. But on the second poster, the figure has cradled itself into a heart-shaped bundle, its sinewy arms bathed in warm reds and pinks that subtly pulsate with life. The dual images encapsulate the uplifting urgency of Thursday's tunes, along with the friction between its alternating screams and anguished whispers.

"He has definitely helped to spread the word about what we have been trying to create with music, and a lot of people have been listening to what he has had to say," says Thursday vocalist Geoff Rickly, whose band headlines this year's Strhess Fest, the artist's annual one-day festival, now in its fifth year. "The idea of making art because it is rewarding spiritually and creatively first and foremost is something we may share with Derek. Music and art are always going to be intrinsically connected. If you are passionate about what you are creating and are trying to honor your instincts in an honest way, the end result, whether it be a print or a song, becomes something bulletproof. Derek's artwork displays this trait. It is apparent that he lives for what he creates."

Other Strhess Fest bands that Hess has either enthusiastically endorsed on his website ( or illustrated include Stretch Arm Strong, Spitalfield, and Converge. From well-known acts like metal marauders Shadows Fall, throttling post-hardcore technicians Planes Mistaken for Stars, and punk-poppers Midtown to up-and-coming gothy screamers Wires on Fire and moody emo growlers Beloved to a local act like Cleveland hardcore upstarts At Wits End, the established and baby bands are united by their tendency to favor creativity over familiarity. (There will also be a gallery containing contributions from nine artists, from the pop-art modernism of Bask and prints from Converge vocalist Jake Bannon -- who collaborates with Hess -- to work from Darren Doane, a noted punk-rock videographer, and Asterik, a website-design studio known for its rock T-shirts and CD packages.)

"Most of these bands are for a kid that's a little bit more open to suggestions and new things to approach and new lyrics," Hess says. "This is not an ICP crowd. These kids are much more receptive and are not 'That doesn't sound like blah blah blah, I hate them.' They just grasp that intensity a lot of these bands are just singing about. So then they may be more open to the art as well, which is just as intense as the musicians. And a lot of it is saying the same thing, but visually."

Another Strhess Fest band, Indiana's Murder by Death, released a 2003 disc titled Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?, a concept album centered around a small town attacked by the devil. It's an evocative, cello-based maelstrom of dark indie rock that's ideal sonic fodder for visual representation. In fact, cellist Sarah Balliet mentions the possibility of filming videos for every song on the album, and she says she's inspired by fan-drawn art the band receives through its website: "It's good to know that we're doing something that makes other people want to do something," she laughs.

"It really fits the music," Balliet says of Hess's work. "It's just so emotional, and it's just got that look that the music is going for. How he draws people . . . it's almost like you're just looking through the people and you can see their muscles. Its almost inside-out-boy kind of stuff, which is very appropriate for the musical movement that is very much about what's on the inside emotionally for people."

But, as Rickly points out, Hess's art isn't "exclusionary," unlike the way many musical-genre divisions -- screamo, post-rock, post-hardcore, emo, etc. -- cram bands into stifling pigeonholes. In fact, Hess's own shift toward creating more fine-art prints and original drawings and fewer concert posters demonstrates his desire to blur the boundaries between so-called high-end art and everything else.

"A lot of people have seen his work and been inspired in some way," Bannon says. "[People] that have been involved in the community that may have not have really paid much attention to fine art and illustration. His work has a very fine-art feel, even though it's rooted in contemporary illustration. It opened that world up a little bit to kids who otherwise thought that fine art and the intellectual aspect of art was a dirty word or a dirty phrase."

Indeed, encouraging the widest possible dissemination of ideas and creative thought is vital to Hess. For instance, this summer's inaugural Strhess Clothing-sponsored, nationwide Strhess Tour -- which Shadows Fall is currently headlining -- hits smaller cities, such as Williamsville, New York, and Clinton, Iowa, which might not have many other tours passing through.

Moreover, Hess finds it odd when a band's core fans become upset at its signing with a major label, since it "gives the band a bigger voice and reaches a broader audience. Just because that kid on MTV likes them now, it's good for [him]. That means [he] is starting to hear something good.

"[At Strhess Fest] we're doing the hardcore, screamo, emo-core, whatever," Hess says. "And then we're doing straight-up emo stuff. If you break out CD packaging and read the lyrics, and you didn't know which band was which, you would never know what that band played. Except for a couple, of course -- maybe Himsa, you'd know that's about serial killers.

"But in general, they're all singing about pretty much the same thing. It's just presented differently. Which is nice about the art. Everybody's working in the same direction -- it's a like-mindedness. It's just presented differently by each artist. That's what makes that artist unique. This is what makes each musician unique."