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Capturing the Analog Spirit of Daytrotter with Illustrator Johnnie Cluney

To see more Daytrotter artwork, check out @daytrotter and @johnniecluney on Instagram. For more music stories, head to @music.

Since its modest beginnings in 2006, Daytrotter (@daytrotter) has become an institution in the indie rock scene, allowing artists famous and unknown to record unedited, analog performances like a Midwestern version of the BBC’s iconic Peel Sessions. Though not all of the site’s productions are recorded in the Horseshack, Daytrotter’s original recording studio, each and every one of them comes with an illustration by in-house artist Johnnie Cluney (@johnniecluney), a longtime pal of founder Sean Moeller.

The 33-year-old Rock Island, Illinois, native was never formally trained in the arts, a somewhat unbelievable fact given the quality of his portraits. “I’ve been drawing forever, but when people started to notice it was probably fifth grade,” he says. “People were stoked on these Ninja Turtles or Wolverine or whatever I was drawing in my notebooks. It’s all folk art, self-taught.”

Johnnie was chosen on the strength of black-and-white gig posters he made for local acts, switching to color images at Sean’s request. “I was really freaked out to work in full color but I came up with that box shape. I like to work in enclosed areas,” he says. He started with watercolor then gouache on cheap paper, and has since graduated to using Prismacolor markers and Micron pens, creating four images per page of standard, $8-per-pad drawing paper, and touching them up with Photoshop after they’re scanned.

While he originally balanced Daytrotter with a full-time job in a music shop, Johnnie eventually dedicated his professional life to the studio as its popularity and workload grew. “After the first three or four months, we were doing two a week and then the most we were doing was five a day, Monday through Friday. That was insane. I don’t know how I made it through that.”

Like the recordings, the illustrating process is fairly simple — the musicians get photographed in the studio, and then Johnnie does his magic. To date, he’s done well over 5,000 of these portraits, some of which are housed in file cabinets in his house while others sit in various stacks. With the studio becoming a destination for any act touring through that area, Johnnie — who also fronts the Americana-leaning group Bedroom Shrine — now gets requests from artists as to how they’re portrayed. “There has been a couple, like, ‘Make me look cool’ or ‘Make me look sexy.’ I’m like, ‘Come on. I’m turning you guys into a cartoon. Deal with it,” he says, laughing.

Johnnie’s workload won’t be decreasing anytime soon, now that Daytrotter has opened a new studio/venue across the Mississippi in Davenport, Iowa. “We were due to move. I don’t even know how we began in our old studio. We had no heat, no air. It was on the third floor, no elevator. Right there alone you’d be like, ‘Why would you invite these bands to come record there?’ This new space, it’s night and day.”

Sounds like the perfect place to stack another couple thousand of his unmistakable illustrations.

—Dan Reilly for Instagram @music