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Interview: The creative behind Hot Creations’ cover art

We spoke with Hot Creations creative mastermind Mikey Brain for a closer look into what makes him so distinctive.

As far as influential and distinctive branding goes, you will be hard-pressed to find something as globally adored and wildly creative as leading house music brand Hot Creations

Spearheaded by the iconic figure that is Welsh DJ Jamie Jones, Hot Creations has been a cornerstone in the electronic music community for well over a decade now, and it continues to grow with seemingly boundless potential.

From its beloved palm tree logo and its wild and wacky EP covers to its undeniably quirky and unparalleled sonic signature, it’s clear that Hot Creations is a stable led by artistic vision and expressive freedom. 

One of its major figures in driving that vision is Birmingham-bred artist Mikey Brain. Mikey is the man behind Hot Creations’ famous EP covers and a lot of the club branding/artistic design at venues like DC-10 Ibiza whenever they host HC’s revered Paradise parties. 

We got up close and personal with Mikey to gain insight into what it takes to create such a globally appreciated brand image and get to know him a whole lot better in the process.

Mikey, most people will know you as the man behind most of Hot Creations’ incredible artwork and branding. Talk us through how that came to be?

I met Jamie through my good friend Adam Shelton (Eon records/A_future) around 16/17 years ago. A big group of us used to travel to London and stay with Jamie and various other friends.

We would all go to Secretsundaze and eventually to Jamie’s warehouse party ‘DJs can dance’ and hang out afterwards at parties and after-parties around east London. Many friendships were forged at that time, and the London crew came to Brum to parties Adam put on at the Rainbow (Below). 

Over the years, Jamie became successful, and our paths didn’t cross as much anymore (occasionally at the odd rave or afterparty). Years later, I had bumped into Jamie a few times and told him my artwork was picking up. Then a mutual friend who works with Jamie passed on my website. 

Jamie called and asked me to do 5 EP covers; that was 6-7 years ago, and I have been designing EP art ever since. Jamie already had a strong brand identity at that point, with the Palm logo. I worked on creating unique and original art to coincide with the existing branding, and I have tweaked it ever since.

How do you come out with such creative and wild pieces? Are there any specifically heavy influences at all?

In the early days of my art, it was dark, vivid and abstract. I used to sell pieces locally in Birmingham and was on a few online platforms. I had a fair few pieces in the Rainbow pub (home of the Below parties in Birmingham), which often tweaked people out when people were partying up there! My style remained like this for many years, although I became more illustrative over several years, mainly to broaden my skill set.

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When I started working with Jamie, he challenged me to make things a bit lighter, less gnarly. I think the first ever feedback he gave me for the initial art for his ‘Planets and Spaceships’ EP was “I like this but, it is dark and weird.” I went away and experimented with colours, techniques and approaches. The aim was to keep my abstract roots but to direct me to a new path. The result was the body of work I have done for Hot Creations, which is now near 150 EP designs, poster and event designs (Hot Creations events) and various commissioned work for the Paradise creative team.

It’s a huge challenge to keep things fresh and inventive (especially when there are 2 releases a month), so I constantly seek new inspiration, themes, and methods. I have done everything from hand-painting to digitally creating the art and have gone from character style work to abstract. As an artist, I am heavily influenced by art, culture, and design. I am constantly referencing other artists, styles and themes. I think it’s important to acknowledge this whilst trying to be as original as possible. Almost everything in art has been done before. Most of what you do is a hybrid of what went before you with your spin (although I don’t agree on imitating others, you have to have your intentions).

I am heavily inspired by 20th-century painters like Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Jean Miro, Bridget Riley. All of these artists are unique in their way and have been trailblazers. I love modern graffiti and public art/street art. I was lucky enough to grow up in Brum and was surrounded by amazing work. I love the work by Gent48, Newso, Phil Blake, N4T4, all midlands artists that have many pieces in and around the UK. I also love the vision and scope of some of the big international artists like Okuda San Miguel, Felipe Pantone and Greg Mike, all of them doing original work on huge scales, pushing boundaries.

Tell us about your music taste? I assume you are a big fan of Jamie and HC? What other styles are you into?

House and techno music has been a huge influence in my life. I have been immersed in it both culturally and musically. Most of my friendships, relationships and art opportunities have arisen from being a part of the scene, and obviously, that comes with a love of the music. 

It would be impossible to list the artists that I love as they are so varied, from the obvious to obscure. I have been a fan of Jamie’s music from the start, his early releases on Freak and Chic were exceptional, and I was a fan from then, really. He has gone from strength to strength with his productions, and Hot Creations has such a huge volume of releases; it is such a productive label in that sense. 

I love Jamie’s approach to discovering new talent; lots of prominent producers caught their lucky break with Hot Creations releases, and that’s such a positive way to run a creative company. On the whole, I have a varied taste in music. 

I was heavily influenced by Hip Hop, Punk and Stone rock in my formative years. I love most music with integrity, to be honest. I have been known to DJ everything from reggae/funk/soul/old school to golden era hip hop/disco. I used to play in the bar at Below, and I currently DJ at weddings, which I love! 

For me, the most important thing is not to be fickle or too devout to a particular type of music; appreciate music for its merit despite its genre. It is ok to dig a country and western track from time to time; it doesn’t make you any less cool.

What piece of art are you most proud of to date?

I was asked by an old friend, Nic, to come and paint a huge mural at his ‘WigWam’ resort in Goa, India. Nic used to promote amazing Sunday parties in east London called Lokee (possibly the best raves I have ever been to) but had moved out to Goa permanently with his girlfriend to open WigWam Goa. 

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I had done some selected work at a bigger size and loved the opportunity to paint on buildings, so it was a perfect opportunity. This was a two and a half story project, and the wall space was amazing. As soon as I arrived, I had a really good feeling about the potential piece, and the whole vibe felt right, the place, my friends, the setting. 

I took my girlfriend with me, and the trip itself was special for several reasons. We conceived our child the weekend we arrived, and I also proposed to her there just after I had completed the mural. For these reasons alone, the trip was bound to be memorable! 

The painting process was great, and I was very happy with the outcome. It was pretty tricky conditions (30 degree Celsius heat and a scaffold made of bamboo), but I pushed through and finished on schedule. 

The piece is available to view on my Instagram. I would also recommend anyone to visit WigWam Goa in Mandrem; it’s a magical spot.

Have you always wanted to be an artist?

I can remember loving art from a young age; I got an A at GCSE and remained passionate throughout my teens. I always wanted to go to Uni to study art, and I was building a portfolio and moved to Sweden when I was 18. 

I had a studio in the corner of my flat in Sweden and mostly concentrated on self-portraits for a while, then moved toward abstract work. Life went on, and although I was an abstract painter, it was more a passion than a career. 

I always felt that I would be an artist despite my job, situation or circumstance like it was an inherent thing I did regardless of whether I would be successful at it or not. 

I started selling work around 2006, and things took off from there, really. That being said, I have often worked in other jobs to pay the bills, so you could say that it is still my ambition to become a permanent full-time artist!

There are a lot of psychedelic aspects to your works; are you a spiritual person?

I am inspired by common themes that have passed through different societies through time, such as union, shamanism, religion, folklore, myth, ritual, mathematics and science. The ‘third eye’ in my work often represents enlightenment. I find this subject fascinating as everyone’s interpretation of enlightenment is different and personal to them. Yet, the quest for enlightenment has been a common thread since the dawn of man. 

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I am a Humanist and an atheist, which seems to shock people when I tell them. People tend to misconceive atheism in particular. The biggest misconception about an atheist is that we do not believe in anything, yet it is the opposite; we believe quite a lot. I will explain. First, I will start with Humanism, then atheism. 

Humanism is an ethical approach; it seeks to affirm people with the responsibility to be better people and create a better society. The idea is to create a sense of purpose within our own lives, push toward improving society, improve social justice, and do the right thing because that is the logical and fair thing to do. 

Humanism moves with the social zeitgeist, rather than relying on the ethics of scripture from thousands of years ago or the fashionable rituals of the current spiritual times. A humanist relies on taking responsibility for their actions and being an agent of change. I hate the concept that you are at the hands of fate, or the universe is some sort of Amazon delivery service that you can make requests for things/manifest destiny. 

Not only does that negate a sense of control, but it also allows for less moral culpability for one’s actions. I believe your decisions impact your destiny (albeit within various structures outside of your power, but that’s a completely different debate). I do not believe divinity is guiding us. 

When I think of the concept of divinity guiding life, I immediately ask why some innocent people get a raw deal, but others are ‘blessed’? This is a tricky ethical landscape, especially when people start suggesting that you have ‘invited in’ negativity or bad fortune. This mindset favours the middle class healthy and fortunate and doesn’t seek to rebalance social injustice. 

We shouldn’t rely on the universe for social harmony, and as much as meditation has its benefits, I am doubtful rituals alone will save us either. We all need to ‘do the work’, fight for what is right and be the best version of ourselves. Atheism usually stems from a sense of wonder and curiosity, except that wonder and curiosity are focussed on science and reasoning as a foundation. 

I am in complete awe of the universe around me, and when you look into it, the mathematical and scientific explanations can be as mystical as spirituality. A prime example of this is fractal geometry, which I am heavily inspired by. These are the inherent mathematical patterns you find within all aspects of the universe (living and nonliving). A prime example is the morphogenesis of branching patterns. If you think of the structure of your veins and arteries, or a naked tree in the winter, or the airways of lungs, these are all living. Yet, they follow the same pattern and design of river estuaries, lightning bolts and other non-living tributaries. 

This is just one aspect of the beautiful and inherent mathematical design within the universe, both living and nonliving. This is one example of many fractal patterns in the world. I’m equally fascinated by the cosmos, the notion of infinity, quantum mechanics; each subject is as awe-inspiring and mystical as the next, but with the scientific process as the driving force behind the discoveries. 

That’s my spirituality. So, in a nutshell, I share the qualities of a spiritual person; I seek similar outcomes (self-improvement, a better society, answers to the big questions), except that my belief is rooted in ethics, math, science and the quest for knowledge.

Do you think there is a direct link between art and mental health?

I know from my own experiences that art helps me improve my mental wellbeing. The various processes and approaches are often cathartic, and then the feeling of accomplishment can help ease my anxiety and gives me a sense of control. I think it could be argued that there is more than one direct link between art and mental health. There’s the notion that art, as a practice, can help manage mental wellbeing. This is highlighted in my example of catharsis above.

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There is also the notion that viewing and experiencing art can improve mental wellbeing. This could be visual, musical, written or performed. People from all warps of life find entertainment and comfort in experiencing art in its varying forms. 

Then there is the notion that art can be a vehicle to depict and express our mental wellbeing. Prime examples of this would be Van Gogh’s erratic impressionistic style, Edward Munch’s Scream painting, Mark Rothco’s mood inspired colour paintings, or the intense poems and paintings of William Blake. These artists are known to have struggled with their mental wellbeing, which is reflected in their work.

There are loads of examples of the ‘troubled genius’ through time in all aspects of music and the arts, so this notion of psychiatric illness and the arts has been a common thread through the ages. What troubles me about this observation is that it somehow indicates that it is the art itself causing insanity, like it’s some strange uncontrollable urge devouring the artist’s mind. I do not think this is true. 

I think in modern times, we can challenge this narrative and highlight the therapeutic element of art. Art therapy (mental health, stress, dementia care) and the use of art in both recovery and rehabilitation are key examples of this.

If you could only own items from one specific era, what one would it be and why?

I am amazed by our current era and the potential future. I am from a generation that bridged the analogue and digital world; I was brought up as they created the internet, as mobile phones were first introduced, before the MP3s. 

The most tech I had at 16 was a Nokia phone and a portable CD player (both fairly groundbreaking at the time). Before that, we commonly used cassettes for both audio and visual and for recording video. If my 16-year-old self could see some of the gadgets I have now, he would lose his shit! 

Apple watches and video phones – the notion you can face to face with somebody on the other side of the world on a gadget in the palm of your hand would have been so futuristic for kids in the 90’s, but today it is a very normal part of life. 

That said, I am fond of retro and vintage items; I used to manage a vintage shop in Birmingham years back. I love retro sportswear; I have a small collection of retro Jordan trainers. I love old suits and tailoring, neckwear and ties. 

I love old analogue equipment; due to the size of the technology, it often had to incorporate an element of design. One of my favourite items is a 1970’s Grundig radio and record player within a furniture piece, passed down from my nan. It still works, and I even managed to modify it to plug a phone into it! I guess I love the duality between old and new.

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What is your earliest musical memory?

My mom has photos of me dancing around the living room with my siblings at toddler age to ‘Top of the Pops’. By all accounts, I was always into music from a young age. I have no real memory of this. 

My earliest significant musical memory would be dancing with my family to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by Gerry and the Pacemakers. Although I was born in Birmingham, my mum’s side of the family are from Liverpool, and we had a lot of family parties when I was young. 

This song was more than music; it had a cultural significance for my family; it felt emotive when it was played at the end of the night, quite often embracing and singing together in the middle of whichever dancefloor we were on. Due to the Liverpudlian heritage, I am an avid Liverpool supporter, and the song still gives me goose pimples to this day, especially when I am at Anfield.

If you could offer one piece of advice for young creatives that are still in the experimental stage, what would it be?

Stay productive, and do not worry too much if you feel you haven’t realised your intentions. Almost every creative I know is self-critical, sometimes to the point of detriment. I can hand on heart say I am never fully satisfied with my results. This is why peer feedback is important. It’s important to keep all of your work, do not throw it away; it is your journey. 

When you feel ready, it is also important to get your work out there and share it with peers. This is far easier nowadays due to social media platforms; you can post images of art on Instagram, share tunes on SoundCloud. 

Request honest critical feedback from other artists/creatives, but be prepared for honest feedback and be reflective about your work, practice and intentions. 

Don’t let critical feedback deter you; stay true to yourself, either take it on board and develop (if appropriate) or ignore it and continue doing what you feel is right. Just do you.

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Mikey’s work can be found across a large portion of the Hot Creations back catalogue. You can also check him out on Instagram, where he posts a lot of his work too!

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