Interview: Artist Butcher Billy on creating those wildly popular, darkly funny horror novel covers based on 80s ballads

The illustrator tells us how Stephen King and the dark, hidden meanings in pop songs from Lionel Ritchie and Chris De Burgh inspired his latest brilliant project.

Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart

Butcher Billy's latest project again puts a darkly humorous spin on the pop culture of decades past. Gere he's applied the iconic cover design style of early Stephen King books to 80s 'pop classics' (as well as some earlier songs that would have be played next to them on pop radio stations back then).

You can see them all in this story, while listening to this Spotify playlist of the tracks we've created for you.

Those novels followed a simple but effective layout. The author’s name took up the top third of the cover to make them easy to identify – as readers would be buying them for King’s brand of formulaic horror rather than based on the details of the plot. Below this would be a depiction of something horrific from the book – usually an object or person, often vignetted – plus the short title of one or two words.

And it worked – giving you an enticing instant idea of what the book contained (which was especially tantalising to my 14-16-year-old-self when they were kept in a locked glass cupboard in the school library, only available to sixth-formers).

Paul Young’s Every Time You Go Away

In Billy’s pastiches, the titles of the songs he’s chosen take the place of the King's name, with the book’s title replaced with lyrics.

Much of the fun comes from the choice of lyrics and the menacing interplay between them and the choice of imagery. Paul Young’s Every Time You Go Away is among the most saccharine of love songs, until the a knife and a hand in bag inform you that the following line ‘You take away a piece of me’ is to be taken literally.

Chris De Burgh's Lady in Red

Neil Bennett: "Why did you want to bring together Stephen King and 80's synthpop (and other pop) classics? Are you a big fan of both (or either)."

Butcher Billy: "I've always been a big fan of horror and pop music in general, and realised both genres have been huge inspirations in my career. Actually they couldn't be more different from each other, so naturally I began to think about twisted ways to bring them together.

"Particularly the Stephen King reference came in the way that he always brings a dark turn to an average day-to-day situation, in which nothing is what it seems to be."

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Lionel Ritchie's Hello

NB: "Did you want to tie all of the covers to particular Stephen King books – ie Hello's reference to It's Pennywise the Clown – or were some more about tapping into the overall feel/themes of his novels?"

BB: "I initially wanted to just play only with the overall dark feel of the novels and also of course, the vintage design of the original early covers - particularly the ones that Stranger Things borrowed inspiration for its logo typography.

"Big, bold, bright red serif types that occupied almost half of the cover space only with the author's name – I loved that. However as the series evolved other references came along that were simply too good to miss. I didn't go as far as drawing Lionel Richie as Pennywise - but, believe me, I thought about it.

The Bee Gee's How Deep is Your Love

"Apart from that there are other homages that are harder to spot. For example, in How Deep is Your Love, the flat yellow and black is a reference to Saul Bass' poster design for The Shining's movie adaptation. You can spot some of Carrie and Children of the Corn in other pieces as well."

The Police's Every Breath You Take

NB: "The stalker-like interpretation of Every Breath You Take is well established, but I don't think anyone's brought out the darkness inside Hello, Lady In Red or Heaven Is A Place On Earth before. How did you choose the songs? Was the contrast between how the song presents its title/lyrics and how you've interpreted them the most important thing?

BB: "Yes, Every Breath You Take is almost an anthem to stalking – a series like this would feel wrong without it. Mainly I chose the songs as a combination of personal favourites and a potential for a twist in the song titles and also the lyrics.

"On the interpretation, once I set the concept of the series – which is to look at the dark side of love through the lenses of pop culture – it became quite natural to see them from another perspective."

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Hall and Oates' Maneater

NB: "Do you have a favourite?"

BB: "That's a tough one – right now I'm in love with a lot of them. However I think Hall and Oates' Maneater has a quality that sets itself apart. The song choice is a bit of a departure from the concept as it's not really a romantic heartbreak song. However the twist was impossible to miss.

"Paul Young's Every Time You Go Away was one of the last from the 17 pieces I designed – the concept was just starting to feel tiring. I quite like when that happens because it usually is when the craziest ideas come along – I can't really explain how I added a Louis Vuitton reference to it."

George Michael's Careless Whisper

NB: "Were you surprised by the success of your Black Mirror comic covers?"

BB: "I really was, especially because I didn't plan it to be a series. I just designed one piece and the response from the public and Charlie Brooker made me keep going.

"Thanks to it I'm working in the production design on a couple of episodes for the new season."

Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart

NB: "Why do you think retro horror – especially a knowing, post-modern version of it (I hesitate to say 'ironic') as seen in Stranger Days – is really popular right now?"

BB: "Nostalgia? What certainly helps is that so much of what's being created today is simply not interesting enough. You naturally look back at the roots of the genre. 

"This is what directors and producers are doing right now, [why there are] so many remakes and reboots. This is no guarantee of quality, but I am looking forward to the new takes on It and The Mist."

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The Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Loving Feeling

NB: "What's the secret to nailing a spot-on pastiche of a vintage book (or comic) cover?"

BB: "I would say it's a well-balanced combination of knowing the culture and been reckless."

Belinda Carlisle's Heaven Is A Place On Earth

Butcher Billy is best known for a series of artworks from the end of 2016, which brought him to widespread attention. The Brazilian artist and designer had created a reinterpretation of five episodes of the cult TV show Black Mirror as 'Golden Age' comics. They went viral on social media, shared by artists, illustrators, designer – and fans the show after its creator Charlie Brooker retweeted Billy's work and asked about buying prints of the work.

Billy then went on to produce covers for all 13 episodes – which were equally well received. The project also lead to an invitation to work as a production designer on the forthcoming fourth season of Black Mirror, which is the dream outcome of a project like that for most artists.

Tears For Fears' Head Over Heels

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Nazareth's Love Hurts

The Smiths' There's A Light That Never Goes Out

Depeche Mode's Strangelove

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Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive

Read next: Black Mirror episodes turned into Golden Age comic covers by artist Butcher Billy.