With a name like We Buy Your Kids, it’s pretty easy to say that the creative team of Sonny Day and Biddy Maroney have a very distinctive creative style as well as a sense of humor. The duo based out of Australia have been making art for decades, but decided to combine their efforts in 2006, when they began making tour posters on their living room floor. From humble beginnings, Sonny and Biddy have kept themselves busy with clients ranging from big to small — including pop culture mogul Mondo, the Sidney Opera House, AirBnB magazine, Playboy, and a host of movie and music production companies.
With their business together only beginning in a living room just under 15 years ago, it’s amazing to take a look at what Sonny and Biddy have accomplished. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to exchange emails with the two of them and find out just how this creative powerhouse got it’s start, and where both of them find the influence and drive to create such bombastic images.
Chloe Maveal: We Buy Your Kids has gained quite the cult following over the past few years because of you two! How did you come together to start such an ambitious project? When did your individual journeys with graphic design really start?
Sonny and Biddy (AKA. We Buy Your Kids): At the start, our ambition was to get free CDs and gig tickets but we blew those goals out of the water. It’s pretty much about caviar and premium streaming services these days. But to answer the actual question, we started this thing out of the front room of our old apartment, screen printing gig posters on the floor. Biddy studied design and worked as a designer and illustrator and Sonny was drawing, skating, making coffee and working at an art gallery. And drawing. We both had long day jobs and thought all of this would be a bit of fun to collaborate after hours.
CM: Have your styles always come together nicely when it comes to designing as a two-person team?
WBYK: Yes, it was weird how easy it was. Our individual styles were quite different, but there were shared sensibilities and influences. To quote Jack Donaghy “It’s a third kind of heat” when we work together. Our individual styles have sort of grown and overgrown together into a third style we work in as WBYK.
CM: The style of many of your images tends to lean into a 1960’s/1970’s retro aesthetic, yet they also look almost entirely digital and modernized. How do you keep both of those elements in balance?
WBYK: That’s just the path or where the path has taken us. Something in the combination of our individual handiwork ended up looking quite 60s/70s. It might have been the rounded cloud-like forms we used to meld illustrated parts by us both together, a result of an illustration going back and forth between us until final. We’re both children of the 70s, so it’s not surprising as that’s the aesthetic we grew up with. Perhaps because we started collaborating together on screenprints, we enjoyed making things look as tactile as possible, like even our digital work could've been screen printed. Embracing the flaws of hand made work, those things that can make images look so unique. These days Sonny tends to work analogue, he paints, he draws. And Biddy works entirely digital, taking Sonny’s sketches and rendering them as colour illustrations in Photoshop - more a collage of pattern and colour than actual drawing.
CM: I can’t help myself and have to ask specifically about the type-faces that you use. I was looking over the covers that you all have done for Ho Che Anderson’s Stone and Maurice Broaddus’ Sorcerers here at NeoText and fell in love with the lettering you chose for the title images. Is coming up with type-face like that a similar process to creating the images themselves, or is it a whole different kind of monster? Do you end up trying out a million different options before landing on one that you’re both happy with?
WBYK: We have two approaches going on there at the moment - when the type is huge and hand drawn or part of the image that has probably come from Sonny. Biddy is more a fan of the typeface set traditionally above the image. Choosing fonts for these has been so much fun, there’s been an excuse to buy a few fonts that have been on the desire list for a while and have suddenly been appropriate to use. Those font choices are probably where our influences come through unfiltered - they’re a great way to establish a tone directly, to support the qualities of the character or storyline via subliminal references to particular themes from past novel covers or movie key art. It also provides Biddy with some justification for all her hours spent down the rabbithole of fontsinuse
CM: Your client list is pretty extensive and goes on for ages! You’ve worked with the Sydney Opera House, several movie studios, Mondo, MTV, and several others. This goes way beyond just being a design house. How do you keep your specific brand when having to be so flexible for so many different types of clients and audiences? What do you consider a We Buy Your Kids project and how do you decide what to say yes to?
WBYK: We are often amazed and enthralled at the clients who want us to make pictures for them. Working for Mondo has really helped form the way we work today. Working on the first 2 solo exhibitions we did for them really consolidated our working style and our confidence to do what feels natural to us. Whatever it is in our work that people respond to, we find that we are usually completely on the same page. So we’ve found most musicians we’ve done work for are bands we’re fans of. Something must just click between us, the vibes are right. We don’t consciously try to broadcast ourselves as a brand, we just do what we do and naturally how we do it. We’re lucky that that has attracted clients on a similar wavelength and some really interesting projects.
CM: In a lot of your movie posters there’s a less literal route taken to some of the classics. More often than not, the images that you create are something more of a metaphor for what happens rather than what literally happens in the film. Why take this approach to making film and book images, and how do you decide which thing you want to hone in on to make it the most eye-catching?
WBYK: We think the most important thing a poster should do is ask a question, invite the viewer to wonder more about what is this movie/book/album? You don’t get curious if all the answers are right in front of you. We usually avoid drawing a scene from the movie, we like to approach the design as a way to explore a character or capture an overall sense of the story.
CM: What is your background with things like genre fiction? Were you big sci-fi and fantasy people growing up? What sort of films and artists have influenced each of you the most?
WBYK: Sonny is a massive Star Wars nerd, a Marvel apologist, a Ninja Turtle, a Trekkie, a Whovian, and a gamer. Genre is where he feels at home, things like The Terminator, Alien/Aliens, Robocop, Tarantino, Predator, The X Files, Steven King and Jack Reacher keep him warm at night. Artists like Norm Breyfogle, Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Sal Busecema, Kirby have all driven him creatively.
Biddy has always been more focused on crime fiction, growing up with her Dad’s comic book collection and love of EC comics and particularly the 80s reprints of Crime SuspenStories, watching Kolchak: Night Stalker etc. Over stylization and whatever kind of noir Charles Burns is. We’ve both definitely bonded over Italian giallo movies and Japanese psychedelia. Those are art styles and vibes that have definitely influenced us. We both really enjoy anything super styled - from Sex and Fury, Hausu, to Nicholas Windn Refn, Peter Strickland, the list could go on and on.
CM: It sounds like you both are very much in the “style over substance” crowd when it comes to pop culture influences. How does taking in information like form how you approach art yourself? Clearly there’s substance in the pieces that you both make, but do you ever take the “nope-- make it look cool before it has to mean something” road?
WBYK: Style — in this context — just gives us so much joy. In terms of the artworks we consume, we are so lucky we get to truly dive right into an aesthetic world you can wrap yourself up in. It’s the pleasure of escapism, the wonder at when an artist has created another whole believable world on screen. Sonny’s concepts are aimed at substance over style, he aims to focus on a character trait, a concept in the work is that perhaps not the most obvious or literal. He is often sketching concepts that relate to a feeling or abstract notion. It’s hard for us to explain the use of “style” in our own work because it’s largely just our natural signature. We are obviously hugely influenced by the past but aesthetically our “look” is simply how we express ourselves. We are happiest when that energy translates into the image, so our “look” is very much a product of us really enjoying the content we’ve been asked to illustrate. We always come back to the motto of “don’t fight it, feel it.”
CM: Has there been a favorite band you’ve gotten to work with thus far? And just for my own curiosity on a broader spectrum — do you have any “dream clients” that you’re just dying to work on something for?
WBYK: For Biddy the answer to that question for many years was Goblin, and we got to do them a poster back in 2013, so in terms of bands there’s a long list and we’ve been so lucky to have ticked off quite a few names. For Biddy that number one ticked off name is Broadcast, with Jesus and Mary Chain close behind. And dream client, maybe Stereolab? Film titles or production design is a huge life goal for us both - to have our work actually in the film. Biddy has always had a fantasy dream of working on something in the titles / production design realm for Mark Gatiss. That would be extremely cool. As for Sonny, he’s a little more vanilla. He just wants to work for Nike or Reebok or Honma golf - he is becoming the modern sportsman and wants his drip to be suitably ill.
CM: So when you get a new client or brief, what is the process like for you two? Can you unpack for me a little bit of what goes into starting a WBYK project and how it goes from there?
WBYK: These days a project is usually started by Sonny and finished by Biddy. Sonny will do all the initial sketches and concept work. Once that idea is signed off Biddy takes it and builds it up in colour / patterns in Photoshop. Usually. There are always exceptions to the rule and sometimes one or the other will do a whole job themselves. It can pass back and forth between us as well. We sort of preempt each other as we work. It just flows and we find somehow we just get each other's motivations or intentions with where to take a piece.
CM: About how long does it take for you both to get through a project? Between conceptualizing, traditional sketching, and digitizing everything, that sounds like a hefty undertaking. Even for two people!
WBYK: It really does just take as long as we’ve got. And sometimes we have to bend time to meet the deadline. We both like working rapidly though, so the energy stays in the project. It’s always jobs we have done super quick we are most happy with. Our cover for HC Anderson’s Stone was turned around in lightning speed and we are both very happy with it and like that it retained the good vibes we had for the project. Our Mondo poster for The Fly is the quickest poster we’ve ever done and probably our best. It’s hard to say exactly how long the concept stage takes for Sonny. He turns out sketches and ideas almost immediately, but how long does a good idea take? These exciting projects like NeoText get the most rapid response from him. Time to create the illustration in colour varies wildly again but we prefer when there's only 2 days or so spent on that render. That’s the optimal scenario, but of course sometimes you just lose your mojo a bit or the client has different ideas and you can enter a limbo world of taking in changes. Because of the nature of our work, putting in a hundred hours can just feel like you’re torturing it to death and over working it.
CM: Just to wrap thing up…how exactly did you end up here with us at NeoText?
WBYK: To be honest, we’re still not convinced this isn’t all a dream. Like most of the amazing opportunities that have come our way it was a happy accident. The bosses saw our work in the first Mondo art book and hit us up.
We’ve been around pretty much from the start, it's always seemed too good to be true and we’ve been waiting for Neotext to realize they had made a huge mistake.