Neil Krug’s work with bands and musicians from Cage the Elephant to Bonobo to Tame Impala — and especially his landmark collaboration with Lana Del Rey, now in its eighth year — has established him as one of the most in-demand photographers and art directors in the music industry. Yet this is only one corner of Krug’s deeply passionate, startling and visionary work. With influences that include everything from the painter Francis Bacon to 1960s exploitation films to trippy Sesame Street animations, Krug has immersed himself in some of the most vivid imaginations of the past and has concocted something totally new —what Krug calls his “poison.” In 2021, it is just the intoxication we need. Here, Krug talks about his influences, collaborations, and why it’s so important to fall in love with what you do.

MICHAEL TISSERAND: You just returned from a photo shoot in Wyoming. How has your work life and your location work been affected by the pandemic?

NEIL KRUG: I have a really fantastic team. My producer has been able to navigate those things with the most responsibility and great precautionary measures. We found a way to stay creative and productive.

TISSERAND: You continue to divide your time between location and studio work?

KRUG: That’s kind of how it always is. Intense periods of location work and then lock yourself in the studio for the next month or two.

TISSERAND: What does that intense location time look like? Can it be physically punishing? What was it like in Wyoming?

KRUG: That in particular was maybe the most physically demanding thing I've ever done in my life. I wasn't even certain I was going to be able to do it. Long days in the sun, lots of mountain climbing and lugging heavy equipment and other … things. I can't get too specific because the project's not out yet.

TISSERAND: Are there ever times when you bring all that equipment thinking you are going to do one kind of shoot, and you end up with a new idea and doing a very different type of project altogether?

KRUG: It’s not so much that you go into a shoot thinking one thing and then while you're there it changes radically. It's usually something that I'll find in the edit that I didn't necessarily pay that close attention to on the day that I was shooting. The edit is always revealing.

TISSERAND: Are you thinking of a particular time?

KRUG: Every project, almost. You’re shooting at such a rapid rate that you don't have time to think about what is going to sing the loudest.

TISSERAND: It’s like in the Michelangelo Antonioni movie Blow Up, which you've called an influence. You just don’t know what you might find in that photo.

KRUG: Absolutely. It’s not that I rely on that. It’s just that I kind of know it's there. I trust my shooting ability and I don't overthink it, so when I go to the edit, I'll be surprised by what I may have done.

You’re working so hard that you kind of go into a fog of execution. You're reacting to what's going on and you don't have a lot of time to do things. When you get back to the studio, you know it’s all there.

TISSERAND: I’m going to try to remember that: Enter the Fog of Execution.

KRUG: Some call it a meditation. I call it a fog.

TISSERAND: Did you always have that feeling of trust in your own work, or is that something you've had to learn over time?

KRUG: That would have been incredible, had it been there at the beginning! I don't think I had the maturity or the ability to get there. It's just something that has happened over time. It’s just getting more connected, more spiritually attached, to what you're making. I think falling in love with what you do is the great gift you can give yourself. Because then you want to protect the work and you want it to be special and unique.

TISSERAND: That’s another great thought, that falling in love with your work is the great gift you can give yourself.

KRUG: Why rush it? Why give it the least amount of consideration? It should get the most consideration.

TISSERAND: These past few days, I indulged myself in some of your early influences. It was a good excuse to bury myself in Spaghetti Westerns and Elio Petri movies and exploitation films. How did you first find your way to those works?

KRUG: I've tried to trace it back. It must have something to do with escapism and with not connecting to my Midwestern upbringing. I probably reacted the strongest as a kid to things that transcended what I saw around me.

I remember the first ’60s exploitation films I saw when I was very young and feeling some sort of cosmic connection to that imagery and sound, and the look and the feeling — not quite knowing why it spoke to me, but just feeling that it did.

TISSERAND: What were those early films?

KRUG: I remember seeing The Trip from Roger Corman. Not even a particularly fantastic film. But it's just a charming time-capsule film about Peter Fonda having his first LSD trip. And I remember feeling sad when the film ended that that hadn’t been my experience. I wanted it to be me.

And then seeing Night of the Living Dead for the first time or anything that felt that it was connected to the other side. I always thought that great film or great art or great records is like going to another side, another dimension. You just want it to feel like you're participating in whatever it is that that is.

By the time I was in my early teens I had made up my mind that I was going to do something visual with my life. I didn't know what that meant yet. I was going to be a painter, be a director, be a photographer. I just remembered I wanted to participate. I've always felt that way and it’s probably been the saving grace in my life.

TISSERAND: Was anything in school or at home leading you in this direction, or was that the stuff that was pushing you away into these works?

KRUG: Probably pushing away. I think it was more reactionary. There wasn't much around that would help boost those influences with the exception of my dad's record collection. I was always into Hendrix and Uriah Heep and Yes and prog rock and there's definitely a connection to hearing some of the sounds at a very early age that spoke to me in the same way that visuals did, and the films I just mentioned. I think that's all connected.

My parents, God bless ’em, are wonderful people. But when those influences really start to hit they were supportive but also were scratching their heads.

TISSERAND: But there was Hendrix in the house.

KRUG: Maybe in suburbia Kansas, that's a little radical.

TISSERAND: Your hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, was, as I understand it, not an unhip place. But I guess you didn’t cross paths with William Burroughs when you were growing up.

KRUG: I knew that he was there and I had seen that George Condo had been in Lawrence visiting Burroughs to do shotgun paintings, this was in the ’90s. But I was a little too young.

I was aware of the beatniks when I was in junior high. That was the trendy esoteric thing to get into Jack Kerouac books and William Burroughs and someone had a copy of Junkie. Then you get to Allen Ginsberg and Frederick Nietzsche and oh my goodness, everyone thinks they're the smartest kid in class.

TISSERAND: Did I read that you’ve listed Sesame Street as a visual influence as well?

KRUG: That’s true. Some of the stuff is so wild and free and funky. When I'm a kid and I'm watching that in the ’80s, I'm not aware of aesthetics or what that means. It's just speaking to me.

TISSERAND: What was one that jumped out at you?

KRUG: The most obvious one is the pinball song. (Starts singing) One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. It's like the funkiest piece of music. The Pointer Sisters sang it, and I was obsessed with that as a kid. And also the trippy animations that would be interludes between the segments. There's one called “The Letter V” that obviously took some of its inspiration from Yellow Submarine. I've never seen anything like that in recent years.

TISSERAND: It's also a merging of sight and sound, music and visuals, in a really unique way. More like a comic than the types of illustrations of texts that made up so much of kids' television during that time.

KRUG: There's an animation called Lost Boy Remembers His Way Home which is fantastic, of a little boy getting lost on his bike and coming across all these sort of bizarre things. And it's very much influenced by what those artists were probably taking in at that time.

TISSERAND: It sounds like, at the time you were absorbing all this, that no one actually put a camera in your hands, but instead you just grabbed it yourself.

KRUG: It would have been in junior high. I bought a Sony video camera in 1998 and I started just filming everything and making little blips of videos. I had saved up all my money and was able to buy a computer, which just absolutely blew my mind. I had like a thousand dollars. It was like a miracle. I was able to go get whatever the PC was at the time from Circuit City and I could do my own editing and it was absolutely mind-blowing.

And I think those were the first formative things, of me putting things together and trying to figure out what I was doing. And it wasn't actually until the end of my teens and my early twenties that I actually started picking up still cameras. I found that I loved both equally. And I think what's happened is that one has overtaken the other. Not intentionally. It’s just like a gravitational pull.

TISSERAND: What’s some of the first work in which you can see a point of view beginning to emerge? Something that was uniquely yours?

KRUG: I was in my early twenties, in Kansas before I moved to Los Angeles, and I was working with my friends Ainsley Burke and Kalee Forsythe on a project called Invisible Pyramid. I remember working on that and feeling like something had arrived. And I think that was where it all began.

It was one of the first things I actually took seriously. From there, it was trying to continue that feeling with everything else that I've done.

TISSERAND: What was it about that work?

KRUG: Finally, I was shooting something and what was coming back was exactly how I always wanted it to look. It fit the criteria of what in my mind felt special. The colors, the atmosphere, the look, the way that I was starting to edit. The commingling of what I had been inspired by but also my own original take on it. And it felt like that had value. And once that was established, I felt like I could forge ahead.

TISSERAND: You did this work in Kansas. What did California mean to you at that point?

KRUG: I’d always been fascinated by California, but my only knowledge of it was through films. It was just shortly after the Pyramid project and a few other projects that I was getting asked to come to Los Angeles to shoot musicians. And one project led to another, so I kept returning.

I had gotten myself a rep, and then my rep called me and said, “Mick Jagger is kind of interested in having you shoot some publicity for some project.” Then a few days later, I got a call and my rep told me, “Well, they were going to give it to you but they thought you lived in Los Angeles.” That was kind of a game-changing moment.

Even prior to that project not happening, I kind of felt like every time I left here, I was leaving the party a little too soon. And not to be disparaging to Lawrence in any way, shape, or form — I love it, that's my hometown — it's not a place where the kinds of things that I'm doing happen. It was time to start a new chapter.

TISSERAND: California has changed the way we view light itself. There is the way that the sun shines in California, like in a Brian Wilson melody. And California is also about the way that light plays on movie screens. Do you find something in either the mythical or the natural California that has entered and changed your work?

KRUG: The main feeling that I have here is that this is the Wild West and anything can happen anytime.

I'm self-taught, so I've always kind of just chased what has interested me. The first time I came out here, what blew my mind was that you could do everything so quickly. You could be in the desert in a couple of hours, and you can be at the ocean and in another few hours you can be in the forest or you could be in downtown Los Angeles. I remember feeling like there's this universe of imagery that exists in this one place, and coming from the Midwest that's kind of a mind-blowing thing.

TISSERAND: The relation between landscape and humans, between nature and structures, is a big part of your work. The work for Kevin Parker and Tame Impala, The Slow Rush, really hit me. Living in New Orleans, I looked at all the sand in those photos and thought of images I’d seen of water coming through houses.

KRUG: That was Kevin’s idea, to go to Namibia and shoot it that way. I think of that project as the collaboration between Kevin and myself. He wouldn't necessarily call himself a visual artist, but he has a very good visual point of view. I've known him for probably a decade now and he just called me and said he wanted to go there. Initially I thought was no way the label is going to pay for this but thankfully, he is in a position that that was not an issue at all. So we went and we took my team and what you see is what we did.

There is something haunting about that collection of work. Being in an abandoned mining town in Namibia where an entire community lived and that now is just essentially ruined. There was a particularly eerie feeling being in those homes and in those hospitals and in those cafeterias. Once we came back to Los Angeles, Kevin and I sat in my living room and put that together. And that's when I kind of took control of the work in the way that I do, which is there are no rules. I'm going to reconstruct some of these spaces to suit what I believe complements the music that Kevin's making.

Those spaces speak so loudly when you're there that I just tried my best to strip it just enough to make it its own thing, if that makes sense.

TISSERAND: When I read certain descriptions of this project and other work you’ve done, the word “nostalgic” comes up from time to time. I don't understand that word in relationship to your work at all.

KRUG: I don't either. I sort of get annoyed when people say that. It's suggesting that whoever is writing that doesn't have much familiarity with contemporary work out there. I think it's a lazy label. I wouldn't consider The Slow Rush nostalgic artwork. I just think it's contemporary photography done for a contemporary record.

TISSERAND: Nostalgia speaks of a longing look back at a past that probably never existed in the first place. But moving forward with all these inherited images, that’s the exact opposite of nostalgia.

KRUG: I could understand if everything was pastiche, if everything was styled a certain way and everything was a vintage facsimile, then I would understand that point of view. I’ve even met people who’ve said, “Oh, you shoot film, how old school.” Well, film still exists. It’s still here. I'm not manufacturing it in my room.

TISSERAND: Yet you do make very deliberate decisions about what kind of technology you're going to be using and considering how that will affect the final work.

KRUG: Oh, absolutely. And I often have a weird kind of sensibility, where I'm trying to make the analog things I do look more digital, and I'm trying to make the digital things look more analog. It kind of doesn't make sense. But everything is a specific choice, you know? And sometimes the choices are just for variety. If I feel like I've done the same thing two or three times, it’s my natural inclination to want to just chuck that out and go do something completely different.

There are a few tools in the tool shed now and I think I'm always trying to add a few every couple of years that shake it up a little bit. The weird obsessive-compulsive need is to try and find perfection, which is stupid. Perfection is not something that should be taken too seriously in art-making.

TISSERAND: What’s the last tool you brought into the shed and what are your plans for it?

KRUG: I was given a beautiful sixteen millimeter Minolta still camera a couple years ago that I’ve used a few times. It looks like a little James Bond weapon from the ’60s. It has the most satisfying shutter-release sounds I've ever heard. If you had this device at airport security, they would definitely pull you aside and question you.

TISSERAND: What have you shot with your new spy camera?

KRUG: I've shot a lot of portraits with it that I have not yet released. I slowed my output down a couple of years ago. There was so much stuff that I've accumulated visually that I just got to a point where it needed to be properly curated and organized. I think last year didn’t feel like a particularly great year to be dropping the most exciting project I've been working on. I don't think people are in the right spirit to embrace this kind of work right now.

TISSERAND: In many ways a pandemic is the natural world saying, “Not so fast. Whatever little mining towns or whatever other project you've built up is not going to last.”

KRUG: My entire family got Covid, back in Kansas. Everyone in my family was terribly concerned about me being in California because of news media reports, and I'm the only one in my family who hasn’t caught it. I'm glad to be alive and blessed to be in the position that I am, where I'm still working.

TISSERAND: This is such a cataclysmic time. Is that entering your work?

KRUG: So many of the things that I respond to have kind of a bleak look to them anyway. I don't mean that in a cavalier way. Especially with regard to the work that I've made for Phantom project, there’s such a volcanic look to some of the work. I'm almost pretending in my head that I'm Pasolini and I'm trying to invoke some of the feelings that I’ve felt whilst watching his films. I don't want to suggest that I'm even remotely close in scale of talent — just that sometimes, when I'm trying to get into a different mode, I kind of pretend to be someone else. What would these artists do if they were here right now and using these tools?

That's kind of as far as I take my influences. It's not a facsimile. It's more like, “Well, is the spirit there?” That’s what I'm chasing.

TISSERAND: How incredible it would be to walk down a busy city street and expect to see billboards plastered everywhere, and instead come across these narrative photo essays. How did your work with Buildhollywood’s Your Space or Mine project move your vision onto cityscapes?

KRUG: That was just a situation where the company introduced itself to me and asked if I would be interested in participating in that billboard collective. And I was honored. I mean, I'm as indie as they come. Getting that kind of showcasing in a hundred and twenty different locations across England is something I'm incredibly humbled by. Also that work looks so vastly different from anything you would see in England, landscape-wise, that I think it did its job.

TISSERAND: It reads like a dream narrative.

KRUG: Exactly.

TISSERAND: And you’re not picking up a book or an album to look at it. You’re walking right into it.

KRUG: That’s the hope and the goal.

TISSERAND: Will there be more coming?

KRUG: There is a lot that has been shot that has not been released yet. Essentially the first stage and the second stage are completed, and more of the second stage is going to come out. I think it still has one more chapter that needs to be told. And I think a third stage will probably be the bleakest version of it. The grand finale, if you'd like.

TISSERAND: You worked closely with Kaiman Kazazian for those images. In many of your projects with artists, it feels less like you are documenting and more like a collaboration.

KRUG: Absolutely.

TISSERAND: I went and searched out the Lana Del Rey fan sites to see what they thought about you. And I'm here to tell you: They seem to love you. Fans see your work as part of her work, as well.

KRUG: When I’m collaborating with Lana the thing I'm always trying to pay attention to is that this is someone who trusts me implicitly, both as a friend and as a visual collaborator, to capture the moment. Then from my point of view, I’m going, “Well, what do I want to see? What would be interesting to me?” And I think it's the melding of those two ideas: her dream vision mixed with my dream vision. I think we've achieved something unique in that respect over the last seven years.

There's a mood that comes across us when she and I are working together. We kind of fall into it, almost like a dance. Whatever that muse is, it kind of comes into the room or comes into the space, and everything has that feeling about it. I don't really know where that comes from. It's probably just her.

I value that collaboration. I'm honored to be a person that gets to work with her on that intimate of a level. I respect it and I also am very protective of it. I want it to feel like it has a poison to it that isn't in any other work. It’s a dish that I make just for her. No one else can get it.

TISSERAND: Poison?

KRUG: Yeah, poisonous. That’s how I see it.

TISSERAND You’ve talked about trusting the editing process. Has Del Rey been surprised by what shows up after a shoot?

KRUG: One hundred percent. There are moments where I've come back with things that we've done that I don't think she remembered that we even shot. That happened very recently actually. That's the exciting bit, you know.

TISSERAND: What is it about her music that you value?

KRUG: For one, it's completely her own. It's always been that way, but even more so now. There's no one else in her lane. I'm always just completely blown away by what she's saying and how raw some of that is. If you're kind of thumbing through modern pop radio, it's as formulaic as it can possibly be. To have someone on the sort of seismic level to be that raw and honest in her songwriting, it’s admirable.

I've sat in the car with her and she's played me new music and I've been moved emotionally because of what I know about her life and what I know about what she's singing about — or what I don't know and what I'm imagining. It’s really a whole universe — that sound, that look, everything about it.

TISSERAND: Did your early work with your former wife Joni Harbeck for Pulp Art Book help you develop the way you collaborate with your photography subjects?

KRUG: Yes and no. That was one of the earlier projects I did, and there was a lot to be learned. When I look back at that work, I think what was the most exciting about it was it was the first time I'd done a lot of those things ever.

TISSERAND: Like what?

KRUG: The cameras that I chose, the location, the vibe. For years and years, I had this kind of loose dreamy idea of, “Well, wouldn't it be cool to take iconography from Italian movie posters or pulp novels and crime novels and try and give the imagery a look that suggests non-photography, or suggest something a little bit more illustrative.” That was the goal. For me at twenty-four years old, trying to figure out what that was going to look like. I wasn't entirely certain and that's what you see is me trying to figure out how to achieve what viscerally I was reacting to at that time.

TISSERAND: Which was what?

KRUG: Extreme imagery and an almost-no-fucks-given approach.

In terms of collaborating, in those days Joni and I were kind of a cracking little team. We would do those shoots very quickly and almost without discussion. I think she instinctually knew what to do and I sort of instinctually knew what to do as well. And it worked until it didn't work.

TISSERAND: What have you learned about working with musicians?

KRUG: Working with musicians has been an evolution. You learn how to pay attention to the little things. That’s where things begin — it's just listening.

TISSERAND: It seems like listening and paying close attention has always been part of your approach.

KRUG: I have one crack at this. I try to project into the future, when this thing is ten years old or twenty years old, and there's a kid looking at it for the very first time. Maybe no one will give a shit about that in twenty or thirty years, but that’s where I'm coming from, I'm a geek and I love art and I think it does matter. I do think you can influence things for the better. When it does connect I think there's a feeling that comes across to the person who's interacting with that work. It is a harmonious feeling — that whoever made this thing, it was treated with love and tenderness.

TISSERAND: I read that if you could work with any artist of the past, Buster Keaton would be high on the list. Is that because he embodied that “no-fucks-given” approach?

KRUG: Probably because he is one of the greatest artists to have ever lived and gave new meaning to what it means to perform. That kind of human doesn’t exist anymore.

Fun fact: For almost a decade an old friend of mine lived in a home that Buster Keaton built for his mistress in the Hollywood Hills. It was surreal to imagine what went down there almost a hundred years ago.

TISSERAND: Part of my preparations for this interview was watching Two Thousand Maniacs! and The 10th Victim.

KRUG: The 10th Victim, I love that.

TISSERAND: When some these visual ideas are translated to contemporary audiences by directors like Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch, even when done with intelligence and feeling, there are these notes of irony and detachment. I don’t detect those notes when you bring this aesthetic forward in your work. It feels like a very direct, immediate, passionate interaction with this style and these images.

KRUG: That's the goal. Just because I'm influenced by something doesn't mean I want it to look like that necessarily. Maybe it's the colors or maybe it's the spirit of something. I'm always hoping that that is shaken out and then whatever comes through is not that.

It's like a deep reservoir of things that feel like they come from another dimension. Where anything is possible, and nothing is sacred. And I react to that. When it's time for me to go do something, it’s already been digested. You're not thinking about it anymore. It’s taught you something.

TISSERAND: That poison you talked about earlier has entered your bloodstream.

KRUG: The drug is working but you forgot that you even took it, you know?

TISSERAND: I’m was looking at your recent portraits of Brandi Carlile. That’s not a lengthy collaboration like your work with Lana Del Rey, but even there you're putting a different light on her than what's been seen before.

KRUG: At the end of the day, all you're really doing is selling your point of view. It's all it really comes down to. Some people accept that point of view and some deny it. As many people that have appreciated the work, there's equally as many people that probably hate it with a red hot passion.

TISSERAND: I didn’t find those people in the Del Rey groups.

KRUG: Maybe not there.

TISSERAND: Looking for antecedents for the kind of portraiture work you do, I came across the photographer Bob Willoughby. There was one image of Katherine Hepburn in front of a mountain landscape that seemed to have the palette and vibe that I associate with some of your work.

KRUG: If you were in my home, you wouldn't see a lot of books by portrait photographers lying around. My taste and my influences have always been a little more bonkers. The most traditional stuff that I probably have in the house are Francis Bacon books and Andy Warhol and Magritte. I don't take in tons of photography. For years what I've gravitated to is, How do I make my Polaroids look more like Francis Bacon paintings? That's kind of where my frame goes.

TISSERAND: I was wondering how many historic collaborations between photographer and musician have rivaled the body of work that you and Lana Del Rey have created. There's not much that can compare to it. I’m thinking of Mick Rock's monumental work with David Bowie, but that didn't last as long.

KRUG: Well, that just blew my mind to hear that comparison. Annie Leibovitz and the Stones immediately come to mind. I think she shot them for decades. So yeah, she wins. She always wins. She's the ultimate champion.

TISSERAND: Have you had the chance to meet?

KRUG: Never met her. I think that I still have a lot to prove before I can meet someone like that. I'm probably a little too shy when it comes to that stuff.

Post-pandemic, I don't know if there's a raging scene like in Annie Liebovitz’s time with the Stones. I don’t know if that time exists anymore. Things are too fragmented now.

I will say in Los Angeles, something I'm very much aware of is that there is an insane kind of rivalry, jealousy amongst musician, artist cliques that probably exists in every big city, but definitely here. If you work with certain people here, then you're upsetting other people. You can never really win. It's like dating.

It's spread across label management, artists, friends. You always think of Jake Gittes in Chinatown: “L.A.’s a small town. I'm just trying to make a living and I don't want to become a local joke.” I try and do the best work I can and then I go home.

TISSERAND: You can always play the card that you're just a kid from Kansas and you don’t really know what they're talking about.

KRUG: The kid from Oz. What do you expect from me?

TISSERAND: What new direction would you like to take your work now?

KRUG: I would like to take everything that I've been doing and transition into filmmaking in a more realistic kind of way.

But there’s so much that I want to do that it'd be absurd to say it all out loud. Just to continue to be inspired and to feel connected to the work, and to let the work grow, is forever exciting to me. There are so many things that I haven't done that I'm excited by, challenged by, terrified to do because I don't even know how I'm going to do it. And that's the kind of thing that gets me up in the morning. Just the next day, you know?

TISSERAND: Last question: What’s a movie that most people haven't seen that everyone should make sure to see?

KRUG: Funeral Parade of Roses. I recently re-watched that. I had seen it when I was in my teens, there was a DVD company called Masters of Cinema that put out a PAL version of the film. So I had to source a PAL player in the early 2000s, a task that was ambitious for a 15-year-old. But I saw the film then. Then Criterion had the film available and I was able to watch it again.

It’s a film from the late ’60s by Toshio Matsumoto. I forgot how wild and free that film is. Visually, the soundtrack, everything about that film still speaks to me as it did when I was fifteen years old. I’m thirty-seven now. I think that's a testament of a great piece of work, that something that you experienced when you were a teenager, you still feel the same hit of energy twenty-plus years later.

The GoldTwinz, a new novella from acclaimed writer Jardine Libaire and cult photographer Neil Krug, is published on 19th Oct. Click here to order a copy.

Michael Tisserand is a New Orleans-based author whose most recent book is Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White — the Eisner Award-winning biography of cartoonist George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat .