James Gilbert

Creative Director
Studio Contents

James Gilbert is a designer and director crafting captivating brands for creators and innovators. James has over a decade of experience working for varying size brands from small start ups to global household names. Together with his wife Rachael he runs two companies—Studio Contents and Totem—from a 200 year old watermill in Cumbria. He also set up this site.

What influence does music have in your life as a creative?:

If I hadn’t ended up seeing sense and concentrating on being a designer (my skill) I would probably still be making music (my passion). Music played a huge role in my life. I grew up in Stoke-on-Trent where there’s not much to do, so music and specifically making music was a bit of a saviour for any disenfranchised youth. When I was at school I was into grunge and rock music but in my teen and formative years I discovered hardcore, punk rock and prog. Some of the stuff I discovered around that time was really life changing. These bands were doing the things I’d always wanted music to do. I was massively into DC hardcore, Dischord records and bands like Fugazi, Kersosene 454 and Hoover as well as the lighter more melodic side of hardcore Cap’N’Jazz, Braid etc. It was driving, political, emotional stuff whilst being clever, complex and intelligent. I played in various bands around that time and it was amazing fun.The hardcore scene was predominantly American and I saw so many good US bands tour and play really intimate gigs to 30 or less people in small venues across the country. The UK had it’s own small hardcore scene which to this day has, criminally, never got much (if any) recognition. Bands like Spy Versus Spy, Solanki, Month of Birthdays and Baby Harp Seal lead the way. Spy Versus Spy were friends from Stoke and when I went to Uni as an art student in 2000 they asked me to design the cover to their ‘Little Lights’ album. I was young and naive and it was my first experience of ‘design’ as I now know it. A huge learning curve, but so much fun. It really helped a 20 year old me to realise that graphic design was a thing, and more than that a thing I wanted to do.

As I dabbled in this exciting new world of design and typography, discovering and assimilating an entire back catalogue of the Japanese design magazine IDEA (it still gives me butterflies today) in the University Library (!!!), my music tastes started to expand and mature. I made a natural progression into post rock and electronica, discovering more avant-garde and experimental artists. Acts like Tortoise, Sam Prekop and Sea and Cake from the Chicago scene; Autechre, Aphex, SKAM and Warp from the UK; Unique oddities like Smoke, Suicide, the Notwist and Susumu Yokota. Through my twenties I consumed so much music— I’d often not finish listening to tracks before starting another (I still do that, much to my wife’s annoyance). All of these artists paved the way for the kind of music I listen to today.

The great thing about being a designer is that you can listen to music whilst you work. Somehow I’m still able to listen to music and concentrate on design. I wouldn’t necessarily do that when writing a proposal, but when it’s getting stuck into Illustrator, Sketch or In Design I always have my headphones on. I mean design still takes thought but it’s like it requires a totally different type of concentration, in fact I’d go as far as to say music helps. I have quite a bit of vinyl but rarely buy it anymore unless there’s an album which really impresses me. Mostly because it’s so expensive but also because it’s just more convenient to use a streaming service like Spotify and my NOCS NS2’s. I think the last record i bought was ‘Andy Stott— Too many voices’—which is amazing by the way. I use Spotify nowadays and I think they’re getting a lot better with the selection of music that’s available but it’s still frustrating when there’s an album you want to listen to and it’s not on there. I have a huge playlist called ‘TOLISTEN’ which I just throw anything that seems remotely interesting into. I put that playlist on shuffle and when something stands out I take a note of what it is and add it to another genre specific labelled playlist for later.

I listen to such a variety of stuff now. So much so that I hate the question “what kind of music are you into?”. I feel a bit like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, I just need INPUT! I might listen to Tibetan throat music (I shit you not) one minute, followed by some Detroit techno, then an Indian Raga, back to some hardcore from my youth, a bit of jazz, even some opera! It’s such a journey discovering new music and I love the thrill of finding a band or artist or even genre that you’ve never heard of before but that’s just brilliant. It’s addictive. I want to delve as deep as I can to discover as much as i can. There’s such a massive, kaleidoscopic universe of music out there, right? Why wouldn’t you want to do that? To discover all those hidden gems?

At the end of the day I don’t want music to be prescribed, predictable or to be judged by stuff that’s gone before, I want music to intrigue and challenge, to excite and inspire; and by that I mean in it’s composition, in the quality of the sounds and in the production techniques used as much as in evoking an emotional response.

If it does those things that then it’s worth a listen.

Tell us about your playlist:

OK. I won’t go into too much detail here as I’ve already gone overboard with my above diatribe! I could have put together any number of playlists dealing with specific genres or periods in my life, but to start with I thought why not just put together some tracks which I’ve loved over 2016.

Rhythms and synths, some lovely post rock vibes, some light techno, a bit of deep, contemplative ambience, some ‘world’ influences and —surprising even me— Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (who knew?)!

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20 — 2016

  1. Kotos – Mala, Asociacion Juvenil Puno
  2. Believe feat. Redders & Rider Shafique – Sam Binga, Redders, Rider Shafique
  3. Parc Jenne Mance – DJ Voilà
  4. Ghosting – Rival Consoles
  5. Rings of Saturn – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  6. Simb – Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Force
  7. Alioth – Tape
  8. Motion Capture – Snow Palms
  9. Terra Nullius – Petrels
  10. Zeiss – Kit Grill
  11. Vineland – Tolouse Low Trax
  12. Interlude 3 – Mickey Pearce
  13. Premonition – Snow Palms
  14. Sound of the River – Mala, Sylvia Falcón
  15. Visions Not Happy – DJ Voilà
  16. Stratus – Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
  17. Rules, Ropes & Strings – Peder Mannerfelt
  18. Waldgeist – Petrels
  19. Farewell, O World, O Earth – Murcof, Vanessa Wagner
  20. Cloud of Forgetting – Swans