What do The Crow, Drive, Stranger Things, Gary Numan, Hannibal, Marvel, and Dark Horse have in common? John Bergin.
It was 1980 and John Bergin was walking across a field in rural Maine. It was perhaps a place of beauty — at least for the serenity. However, it’s also the type of place that has enough scarcity of art and action to drive a teenager to just plain want more out of life.
Bergin, a 14-year-old visual artist, carried on his shoulder a boombox that served as a primary connection to the outside world.
As he listened to the music, something extraordinary happened: Gary Numan’s “Cars” came on. That wobbly synth at the beginning stopped him in his tracks.
“What. Is. That. Sound?” Bergin said. The Lakeshore Records art director and Renaissance man — a coinage I don’t use lightly — told Vehlinggo recently that he had, of course, heard New Wave bands at the time. He was interested in keyboards and all of that; but something about Numan’s approach reached out and grabbed the young Bergin.
“It’s a song on the verge of chaos, filled with instruments that sounded like they were breaking,” Bergin says, “and all of it is backed with huge, anthemic guitar riffs.”
This was more than a revelatory moment for the young Bergin, though. He didn’t know it then, but it was also a window into his future. In due time, Numan would score Bergin’s much-lauded animated film, From Inside.
“I’d love to go back in time to that moment I first heard Gary’s music and tell myself, ‘Hey, 30 years from now you’ll be working with [him]!” Bergin says. “I’d think I was crazy.”
Today, Bergin is the one in the scoring chair, returning to the sound of his earlier synth-based analog/electronic works. He’s just released the first EP in a series: the score for Sophia Died’s forthcoming novel Crash & Burn, a work Bergin had a hand in writing. It’s an 80s-inspired coming of age story — albeit one with car crashes and murder.
“I used a synth-heavy sound to recall that time period,” Bergin says. However, “I wouldn’t call all of the music ‘retro.’ Some of it definitely is, but it’s referencing the time period and putting my own attitude or point of view on it — instead of simply mimicking.”
This is true. Like Kyle Dixon’s and Michael Stein’s Stranger Things score, which Lakeshore released this year, Bergin’s Crash & Burn has its references and moments of homage to the 80s, but is ultimately grounded in a contemporary sound. It doesn’t get lost in a nostalgia exercise. There’s no novelty here. It’s a dynamic, often compelling score.
The milestone comes after a long career that has seen Bergin draw for the pages of Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Heavy Metal. He’s released respected albums with his various bands, including Trust Obey. He’s designed vinyl album packages for the likes of the recent Drive fifth anniversary special edition vinyl and Mr. Robot, among hundreds more. He’s even done A&R for Lakeshore, picking up the likes of Vehlinggo stalwarts OGRE and Dallas Campbell and the Stranger Things soundtrack duo. This is just a brief, wholly non-comprehensive summary.
The bottom line is that Bergin is a creative man; and as with so many creative types, the flint for his imaginative spark was an environment with few overt diversions.
‘I Had to Create My Own Worlds’
When Bergin was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, there was no internet for the public to use like there is today. That seems like an obvious thing to write, but let that sink in. It’s tough to think about now, but there was no mysterious “world wide web” to offer an escape. Add to that the television situation: There were only three channels, for the most part.
Luckily, he grew up surrounded by people who supported his ever-expanding imagination.
“I… had supportive parents and a couple of really great teachers who went out of their way to make sure I read great books and saw great art,” Bergin said.
The foundation of his artistic expression was, and is, visual art. Specifically, illustrations.
“I’ve always been drawn to illustration,” he says. He liked it more than other forms of art, because of its versatility: Illustration can involve comics, painting, photos, sculpture, and even music. Comics in particular appealed to him, because they’re “such a great blend of visual and narrative storytelling.”
It wasn’t just the sparse rural area he lived in or the family and teachers who inspired Bergin, it was also the era. Specifically, the early ‘80s. For example, consider the summer of ‘82 — the films alone were a hallmark. There was Blade Runner, Road Warrior, The Thing, Tron, Conan the Barbarian, E.T., Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Poltergeist, Pink Floyd: The Wall, among others.
“Those are the monolithic films we’re still feeling the effects of today,” Bergin says. “That’s the kind of stuff I grew up with.”
As the ’80s wore on, and as Bergin came of age, he set his sights on somewhere outside of New England. He ended up in Philadelphia, where he started performing music and ultimately formed Orifice, his first band. The group sounded like “Big Black meets Bauhaus,” he says.
Philly served as a bit of an awakening, giving Bergin access to so many great industrial, electronic, and punk bands.
“It was the kind of exposure I’d been dying for,” he says.
Music That’s ‘About Something’
In general, the darker sounds encased in those above genres drew in Bergin because “the music tended to be about something,” he says. “It was usually very conceptual.”
The music wasn’t simply selling something. Instead, it told a story or sought to make a statement. That, to Bergin, was a powerful thing. Bands like Big Black, Bauhaus, Swans, Godflesh, Einstürzende Neubauten, Alien Sex Fiend, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, and Skinny Puppy — “Think about those bands and the music they make,” he says.
“It’s all very visual and envelope-pushing,” he continues, “not in the sense of just creating a spectacle, but their songs tell stories or make statements.”
He noted that industrial and goth were particularly experimental with the sounds they used. Neubauten, for example, used 55-gallon barrels, concrete blocks, and cardboard boxes for percussion, Bergin says.
“That was pretty experimental for the time… and I loved it,” he said.
From ‘The Crow’ and Nothing to Jarboe and Beyond
In the early 90s, Bergin started a solo project called Trust Obey, which would later add guitarist Brett Smith and bassist Patrick Hopewell (with drum machines and synths as constants).
A few years later they recorded a soundtrack for The Crow comic book called Fear and Bullets — a collection integral to the creation of the legendary book (more on that later). Graphitti Designs released it as part of a deluxe, limited-edition version of the novel.
As Trust Obey finished the soundtrack, The Crow film, starring Brandon Lee in a role that would ultimately kill him, went into production. It was at that time that Bergin met Trent Reznor, whose Nine Inch Nails did a cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” for the film’s popular soundtrack.
“He had just started signing bands on his new label, Nothing Records,” Bergin says. Reznor signed Trust Obey, who recorded Hands of Ash for the label around 1995. Although that label never released the album — the record biz has a lot of twists and turns — Fifth Colvmn Records did so about a year later. The band is still revered for its heavy and evocative sound.
Bergin would eventually release music with several different projects — C17H19NO3 on his own, Tertium Non Data with Smith, Blackmouth with the legendary Swans member Jarboe, among others. He worked with such labels as Relapse, Invisible Records (for which he’d later serve as art director), and Crowd Control Activities. Overall, it was a fascinating time.
“I’m flipping through memories to pick out some crazy over-the-top rock star story for you, but I have to say the most memorable moments are the times I spent working on music with friends,” Bergin says.
“Until the mid-90s, I’d spent most of the time working by myself, so if there’s anything I learned in that period, it’s how great it can be to collaborate,” he continued. “Not to say there’s anything wrong with a singular vision.”
“The thing I learned, though, is that work that is single-minded has only one way in for listeners,” Bergin added. “An audience will either understand that single point of view and love it or hate it. When a work is more collaborative — when there is more than one point-of-view working towards a common goal — audiences will find more ways to connect.”
Even as his music career was taking off, Bergin never stopped illustrating. In the early 90s, Caliber published Bergin’s first comic, Ashes. It was then that he met Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman, who would go on to invite Bergin and The Crow creator James O’Barr to join his new publishing house, Tundra. While at Tundra — notable for publishing Alan Moore, among others — Bergin released his much-loved From Inside novel.
Tundra published The Crow and some other books before shuttering, and in its wake Eastman bought the legendary Heavy Metal magazine. Bergin would eventually go on to work on books for Dark Horse, Marvel, and DC.
“Tundra was a great springboard that helped me get the attention of other publishers,” Bergin says.
From Inside is Bergin’s most notable work from the Tundra era, earning immense praise.
It’s a “fully painted” 350-page graphic novel about a pregnant woman on a train crossing a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Fast-forward to 2008, when Bergin made it into an award-winning feature-length animated film and in 2014 saw it re-scored by none other than Gary Numan.
“[It was] literally a dream come true,” Bergin says. “It was amazing… and an absolute honor to have him score [the film]. He’s a legend.”
In general, Bergin describes Numan’s music as experimental, even with its accessible core.
“He approaches songwriting from a very emotional direction — it feels personal,” Bergin says.
Combine the unusual and emotional sides of Numan’s work and you have the perfect match for From Inside, according to Bergin.
“We’d be going through a scene, listening to his cues, and there would always be some moment in the music that made my heart skip a beat — surprise note or idea that perfectly underscored the emotion of the scene in a way that I would have never thought of,” Bergin says.
Bergin, being the renaissance man, naturally created the packages for Lakeshore’s digipak CD and vinyl releases of the soundtrack.
A Soundtrack for a Book Is More Natural Than It Seems
Fast-forward some more, and we’re at the first Crash & Burn EP, which precedes a second EP coming next year and full-length — both EPs and new cues — later. Then the novel itself comes out after that, of course.
So how can Bergin speak to a book that isn’t out yet? How can his music comment without that component? Well, it’s not a wholly impossible task. For starters, Bergin always incorporates a healthy amount of visuals into his musical releases.
“Between the album’s booklet and the music, I’m giving a good glimpse of the story,” he says. The booklet has a synopsis of the story, some illustrations, and some highlighted scenes.
Bergin knows the inside and out of the story, because “writer” is one of the many titles he carries throughout this life. Specifically, Crash & Burn is based on a screenplay he had a hand in writing. In fact, he’s got several screenplays floating around Hollywood. Although he loves scriptwriting, Bergin defines them as a “story with no audience,” a frustrating prospect for a guy who believes that “art doesn’t exist unless it’s in the world.”
“Whenever I can,” he says, “I move my screenplays into a format that can exist in the world: novelizations, illustrations, comic book adaptations, short films,” and, of course, From Inside.
“I work in so many different media that I can always find an outlet,” Bergin says. “In the case of Crash & Burn, I thought it would be cool, and a little unusual, to tell the story through a novelization and a soundtrack.”
Bergin’s Wednesday story provides further insight into the dynamic between a written/non-moving-picture-based story and a soundtrack. He released the first installment of that graphic novel in 2014, and later gave it a score.
“There were two albums: one was a score, the other a collection of various artists’ songs,” Begin says. “Songs for the score album were treated as though we were scoring actual scenes from a film. I would describe the scene’s pacing and tone, using the comic as a guide. The various artists’ ‘song’ album was more about the characters and their themes.”
“With Crash & Burn, the score and the book are definitely integral to each other,” he says. “They’re both being created at the same time.”
Back when Trust Obey recorded Fear and Bullets, the score for The Crow graphic novel, the writing of the book and the score were a concurrent affair.
“… There was a lot of cross-feeding between the music and the comic,” he says.
Some of Trust Obey’s musical concepts made their way into the comic. This is because there were scenes Bergin scored that weren’t finished in the book as he was scoring.
“I’d think about those scenes and what the characters felt,” Bergin says. “Those thoughts informed the lyrics and the tone of the songs. Those conclusions then made their way into the final scene as drawn for the comic by James.”
“Some of my song lyrics simply became dialog or poetry dropped into the book as chapter dividers. Vice versa, some of the existing dialog from the comic became word-for-word song lyrics,” he said.
Sometimes, though, the score for a book is more complementary. Works like OGRE’s J.G. Ballard scores, “complement the books and maybe help familiar readers see the stories in a new light,” he says.
A Whole Other Way to Create
Bergin’s various forays into artistic expression have all come to a head in the past 11 years as art director for Lakeshore Records, a Vehlinggo favorite that has released so many film soundtracks that listing one percent of them would be just too much. So, I’ll just tease a sample of the ones you might recognize from the pages of this website: Drive, Stranger Things, Synchronicity, Nerve, and Mr. Robot. Bergin had a hand in all of them.
Before Lakeshore, though, Bergin was involved in album art. What I haven’t mentioned much in this feature is that he has found time over the years to design album covers. You might have seen his work for Ministry, Einstuerzende Neubauten, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, Gravity Kills, and more. He started doing this in 1988; his first was Naked Raygun’s Jettison.
“Album design is something I’ve always loved to do,” he says. “I still freelance for other record labels and bands, too. I just did covers for Robert Rich’s and Stick Men’s new albums.”
Designing albums has served him well as the guy in charge of the visual element of the aforementioned Lakeshore releases and so many more (like Hannibal, for example). He designs and directs about 100 releases a year for the label, and also does A&R.
“Lakeshore is a great label to design and direct for — so many amazing releases and so many great opportunities to run wild with design,” he says. This writer couldn’t agree more.
Mac Quayle’s Mr. Robot soundtrack is a big standout for Bergin, who worked with both composer Quayle and show creator Sam Esmail.
“I’m a huge fan of the show, all aspects of it — the writing, the cinematography, the music, the acting,” Bergin says. “It was amazing to collaborate with the mind behind it all. Sam cared deeply about every aspect of the album packaging and really got into making it something that complemented the show — something that fans would love to own.”
They designed the albums to look like old video game packaging from the ’80s.
“There’s the box the game comes in, the cartridge, and a manual with game-play instructions and tips,” he says. “Sam and I had a lot of fun researching the games we both played as kids and filling the design with lots of Mr. Robot easter eggs.”
In the idle expanses of rural Maine, studying every chord progression and nuance in the darkish synthetics of early ’80s pop and rock, Bergin was a young man looking for something more. This pronounced creative fire burned so bright that when he set forth into the wilds of Philly and beyond, he unlocked all of that pent up imagination through various and mixed media for all of us to enjoy. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad he did it.
This feature isn’t a comprehensive look at the life and times of John Bergin, but my hope is that it underscores an example of the vast potential for creative achievement when people are given the chance to thrive.