Enjoy The Experience

May 15th, 2013

Figment is all about creating a musical idea or figment of a band.  In many ways, it is creating your own homemade records, sans music of course.  That’s why a new book “Enjoy The Experience:  Homemade Records 1958 – 1992” (Sinecure Books) recently caught my attention.  “Enjoy The Experience” is the largest collection of American private press vinyl records ever amassed and presented, with over 1,000 cover reproductions spanning a 34- year span. These covers are as unique as the artists that produced them, and while some are goofy, they are inspiring if only as expressions of the personal creativity that went into their recording.

The artists presented in “Enjoy The Experience” were all serious about their music, hoped to become stars, committed themselves to record, and opened themselves up to an industry that has little time for artists they don’t see as marketable.

So what is private press vinyl, and why publish a book about these virtually unknown footnotes in recording history?  We talked with one of the book’s editor’s, Johan Kugelberg, to find out.

Figment News:  “Enjoy the Experience” is the largest collection of the artwork from private press vinyl ever amassed.  What is a private press vinyl record?

Johan Kugelberg:  It is a record produced and paid for by the artist. Home-made in its execution and usually self-distributed, i/e sold locally as in at the venue where the artist is playing, the local church, the local bar & grill etc.

FN:  What type of artists created these albums?

Johan:  Any kind! Lounge singers, psychedelic rock bands, Christian youth ministries, country singers, etc. etc. and on and on. People who were not deemed to have what it takes for a mainstream record deal, but who felt the desire to express themselves on vinyl LP so strongly that they did it themselves.

FN:  Was it an inexpensive and easy way to get your music out if you didn’t have a record contract?

Johan:  It was difficult and rather expensive, and cumbersome, the absolute flipside to loading up your songs online. There were custom record companies that advertised in the back of magazines.

FN:  I see Paul Major, the rare record dealer, contributed to your book.  Are these records coveted by collectors because of their limited production or the unique artists that recorded them?

Johan:  Paul was the first and the greatest to document this stuff: When I started receiving his catalogues in the mid-80s they brought about one of the greatest aesthetic AHA-experiences of my life. Paul acted as an educator and a catalyst, spreading his enthusiasm to the rest of us. I love these records cuz they are fantastic, constantly reminding me of everyday life creativity far from the cultural depletion of corporate mid-management.

FN:  Album cover art is a big part of the book.  Where the covers designed by the recording artists themselves or were they designed for the artists by the custom record pressing companies?

Johan:  There’s all kinds of examples in the book: Sometimes it is the artist, sometimes the artist is using a generic design, sometimes the cover is designed by their nephew/niece/mom/girlfriend/boyfriend/buddy at work etc.

FN:  Are there any covers in particular that stand out to you?

Johan:  One of the points of the book is that as you look at more and more of these record covers you come to realize that what is at hand is a vernacular: A visual everyday narrative of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of what Paul Major calls ‘real people’.

FN:  Were the artists that recorded these albums purely fringe artists or did some of them go on to bigger and better things?

Johan:  Calling them fringe artists is missing the point: When you perform at the local bar & grill or local church you aren’t a fringe artist, you are an artist performing at the local bar & grill or church. The intro in the book discusses this.

FN:  Is there a way to listen to any of the albums presented in the book?

Johan:  Yep.  The book comes with a bunch of downloads, there’s also a list of our favorite jams in the book where you can Google or YouTube and find the music, there’s also a double CD double LP anthology released by Sinecure Books and Now-Again Records.

FN:  What do you hope people take away from “Enjoy the Experience”?

Johan:  That core sense of happy humanity that the art of everyday life can distribute.

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Find out more about “Enjoy The Experience”:

Check Out or Buy The Book

Listen to The Music Of Some of the Artists In The Book

 

 

I’ve long been a fan of Gary Burden’s work without even knowing it.  I’d venture to guess most of us have been, with such iconic cover designs as Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”, The Eagles’ “Desperado”, The Doors’ “Morrison Hotel”, Jackson Browne’s self-titled debut, Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush”, Crosby, Stills & Nash’s debut record, and more recently My Morning Jacket’s “Evil Urges” and “Circuital” album covers under his belt, just to name a few.  He’s a collaborative artist who has worked closely with other artists like Henry Diltz as well as the musicians whose covers he’s designed.  His collaborative spirit makes him the perfect judge for this year’s Figment Album Cover Design Contest, and we’re thrilled that he agreed to collaborate with us!  We recently spoke to Gary about his experiences as an album cover designer, his process, and what it’s like to have created such iconic album covers.

Figment News:  You began your design career as an architect.  How did you make the transition to designing album covers?

Gary Burden:  I met Cass Elliot of The Mamas & The Papas, and she had just bought a home in Laurel Canyon. She asked me to design and remodel it for her. We liked each other immediately and became good friends. Once she saw and understood my visual orientation she suggested I make the album cover for The Mamas and The Papas. She said; “So what if you’ve never done it before, just do it.” Good advice and the rest, as they say, is history.

FN:  What skills did you learn from the discipline of architecture that you could apply to album cover design?

Gary:  In architecture I learned about creating three dimensional spaces that originated with two dimensional drawings (Plans): Three dimensional spaces I could walk around in, fully formed inside my head long before they existed in physical reality. I applied that knowledge to creating worlds within a two dimensional space inside a 12 inch square and making it live.

FN:  Your work is quite synonymous with the 1960 and 1970 Southern California music scene.  What was that musical community like and how did it influence your work?

Gary:  Yeah! How cool is that? It was a simple case of being in the right place at the right time. I got there because of my love of music and in that moment I discovered a world I had only dreamed of. At that time I was wearing three piece suits and bow ties surrounded by very orderly uptight conservative people. Suddenly my hard edged black and white world bloomed and was filled with a profusion of color and LOVE. Also important to me, for the first time I could imbibe openly in smoke-filled rooms with my friends what I had hidden and done in secret. Smile.

FN:  You began designing covers for artists like The Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell and Steppenwolf among others.  What was it like working for such successful acts so early in your career?

Gary:  It was also early in their careers and the beginning of what became the world of rock and roll as a whole. I didn’t weigh these artist’s celebrity or what exactly that meant. I didn’t think that much about stardom. To me they were my friends who were doing wonderful things and making unbelievably great music and they invited me to come along and be a part of that with them. My contribution was making real and tangible, visually, ideas expressed in their music.

FN:  How do you typically work with a client?  Is there a basic process you use to determine what they want or do they entrust you to come up with the design?

Gary:  It is always a collaboration. I listen to them, I listen to the music and that generally informs me what it wants to look like and say, visually. As I often say; I have never made MY album cover. I lend my expertise to a project in service to the artists and the music. It’s always about the music.

FN:  What design tools do you use to create your album cover artwork?

Gary:  I draw continuously. Every day I sketch and am able to look at things on paper in my sketch books before deciding on a solution. That is how I figure things out and try different possible solutions. Coming from the pre-computer/digital era and never having been interested in graphic arts when practicing architectural design I learned by doing. When I started I had to figure things out on my own.  I had good taste but I didn’t know “the rules”. The beauty of that was that I didn’t know what one should never do so nothing was out of the question in solving a design problem. I challenged printers to try things they were never asked to do in more conventional work. I often pissed them off by pushing them into areas where they were uncomfortable but invariably in the end they were happy for the experience and we all learned new things, together. Now-a-days I can try every possibility on the computer before committing to the one best solution. My wife, Jenice Heo, who I work with now is not only a fine art painter but she is a whiz on the computer. I, on the other hand, am pretty much an analog person. Back in the day there were several days lag time between each step of creating a piece of art and involved other people to make prints, retouch etc. and I waited for each step to unfold before I could make my final decisions and come up with the best solution to any design problem. In many ways it was cooler then because it was very hands on work.

FN:  How much interaction do you have with the musicians you work with on an album cover design?

Gary:  A lot. As I said, I haven’t ever made my own album cover. I make their album covers, so I like them to participate every step of the way to the solution. I want them to love and embrace what is on their album cover. That artwork is speaking for them to the audience often before they hear a note of the music. Jackson Browne said the album cover is like an American Indian’s war shield with his personal art on it that came to him in a vision. A power object.

FN:  You also collaborated for many years with photographer Henry Diltz, and continue to collaborate with other artists, like Matthew Hollings, to bring your cover designs to life.  What do you look for in a collaborator, and what is the process of finding the right collaborator like?

Gary:  I have a very clear vision that I have already figured out every way from Sunday before a photo shoot is set up. Unlike most projects where a photographer is a big part of providing props, locations and wardrobe for the shoot I have always done all of that myself. Certainly things happen once the camera is involved but for the most part the final result is much like what was in my head and in my sketch book long before the photo shoot. The main reason I worked with Henry and to some extent other photographers to take the actual photograph is because I was intimidated by the camera itself. I didn’t trust myself to take the pictures because what if I had the wrong exposure or forgot to put film in the camera or whatever and spent the entire day on location with no results to show for it! Nightmare! It has been the source of some frustration to me because I had to rely on a third party to capture what I was after. I did set up the location, subject etc and composed the image in the camera before handing it over to the photographer to push the button but it wasn’t like actually seeing the moment myself through the lens and firing the shot at just the moment when it felt perfect.

My friend Conor Oberst insisted that I take the pictures myself when we made a cover together in Mexico. I rented a camera and headed off to be a photographer with great reservations and a real fear of failure. The good news for me was that cameras nowadays are for the most part automatic and nearly fool proof. That photo shoot was so successful that I immediately went out and bought the same exact camera equipment I had rented. More and more I like taking the pictures myself. It gives me that last bit of control to get exactly what was in my head onto film. I love the photos I took of Jerry Lee Lewis where it was all me. BTW I am a committed fan of film not digital images. I believe there is something missing in a digital image that always lives on the film run through a camera. It’s like my love of music recorded analog and released on vinyl as opposed to digital music. Something is lost in the compression typical of digital music. That something which is the intangible “feel” and emotion of music. Neil Young says, and I believe as well; “Vinyl records sound too good to download.”

FN:  Speaking of Neil Young, you’ve had a working relationship with Neil for over 40 years.  How did that relationship begin and how have you maintained it for so long?

Gary:  I first met Neil at Cass’s house when he had his 1948 Buick hearse parked in her driveway and I was just getting started in my new life as an art director. Long before that I used to go and see Buffalo Springfield at the Whiskey when they were the house band. We hit it off immediately but it was several years before he asked me to make a cover for him. That was “AFTER THE GOLD RUSH” and it was a great fulfilling experience. I learned a great deal about the meaning of collaboration from working with him and that has never changed in the forty five plus years we have been working together.  He is a great artist, a complete artist on every level. I’d say he is one of the few real geniuses I have ever known. He also lives in the same places out in the ethers that I do and we have deep cosmic fun together. He is a very hilarious person along with being a deadly serious artist who will never let any obstacle stand in the way of him realizing his vision. He’s my friend. I bought my first home from him when he sold me his Topanga house (For exactly what he had paid for it!), he was our best man when my wife Jenice and I got married in our back yard in Malibu to the tunes of “SUCH A WOMAN”. I love him dearly and I am a better artist and person for knowing him.

FN:  Collaborating can be tricky business over many years, but it seems to have only solidified your friendship.  Do you and Neil ever clash over ideas?  And how do you deal with it when it happens?

Gary:  I wouldn’t say “clash” because as I have said I don’t make MY album cover I am there to help him make HIS album cover. Holding on to “my” idea would be a dead end street and fortunately I continuously learn from him. Some times I don’t immediately “get” what he is after but together we sort it out and we have great respect and patience with each other. In the end we continue to blow each others minds which is a great basis for collaboration and friendship.

FN:  Do you collaborate with Neil and other musician’s in-person or do you use the internet to send ideas back and forth?

Gary:  There is nothing like sitting in a smoke-filled room together and looking one another in the eye.

FN:  So you and Neil are eye-to-eye in a smoke filled room, can you take us through the process you two go through to create an album cover? “Psychedelic Pill” for example?

Gary:  The “Smoke Filled Room” was a metaphor.  To explain in words the step-by-step process is difficult, but I’ll take a stab.  It happens over a period of time and many telephone exchanges, and drawing from me, and mock-ups from Jenice.  It starts with Neil having a vision that he shares with me.  That inspires lots of ideas that I work on in drawings, lots of drawings which I edit and hone to a fine point.  Then Jenice and I work together on the computer shaping it further.  Then turn that back into hand made artifacts that we share with Neil.  It’s like sculpture wherein you have a block of stone which you carve into and remove everything that isn’t part of the solution.  Each and every cover we make is different but our process is basically the same.

In the case of “Psychedelic Pill”, Neil wanted it to be a pill.  We took that as our basic mandate.  First step was to find illustrators who could render a super realistic pill.  We went to medical illustrators and finally found a team who could do what was needed.  While the pill itself was being rendered we decided that we would put the pill in space, so we found beautiful deep space images and laid that out, then because of the nature of the package itself, three disc package, we chose different angles of the pill for each panel, and decided the order in which you would see the pill coming towards you.  It took many passes but finally we had a pill that was everything we wanted so we put it where we wanted it in the background and made a mock-up which we shared with Neil.  In the meantime, I found this amazing type font created in the ninth century on some religious tracts.  I modified that while Jenice built the words letter by letter, then I hand colored each letter one by one, and Jenice assembled the art and that was sent to Neil for his approval.  We had found the type of paper we wanted to use and finalized the package itself, then worked with our printer to prepare all of the pieces.  Then we spent many days on press getting everything just right;  the color of the pill, the background colors, and the colorful type.  Just like that, there was a finished cover that started with Neil saying he was seeing a pill, a psychedelic pill.  We insisted that we not go back to the psychedelia of days gone by but psychedelic for the Twenty-First Century.  Lots of words, do you get the picture?

FN:  I do.  Incredible.  You won a Grammy for your work with Neil on his 2009 box set “Archives Vol. 1”.  How did it feel to be recognized for your work together?

Gary:  I had been nominated I believe three times before winning the Grammy. How perfect it was to win with my wife and Neil. All three of us. It was very sweet and it was Neil’s first ever Grammy win! That is mind blowing. I had lost out enough times to have taken refuge in thinking that because I was not a part of the Grammy “clique” I would never win one and Neil had become known as a “Grammy grouch” because he had never won either and he was vocal about his disdain for the Grammys. That night, after the win, we both became big supporters of the Grammy award. Neil won a Grammy the next year for his music.

FN:  You continue to work with new artists like My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst and Monsters of Folk.  How does working with artist now differ from your earlier work?

Gary:  I cherish being an old dog continuously looking for new tricks to do. This younger, next generation, of singer/songwriters is coming from exactly the same place as the first generation of artists I worked with and it is like deja vu all over again. I continue to learn from my new brothers like Conor Oberst and Jim James and am honored that they chose me and that we share a lot of good times together professionally and personally. I am blessed on so many levels that I wouldn’t know where to begin giving thanks specifically. Suffice it to say “Thanks” for all of the gifts I have been given in my life and for the friends and collaboraters who have given me this good life and so much love.

FN:  One last question about collaboration.  When you worked on The Eagles debut record did you really take the band out in the desert, have them all take peyote, and then shoot the back cover shot around a fire as Glenn Frey asserts in the recent “History Of The Eagles” documentary?

Gary:  Yes!  I hasten to add; no one was hog tied and force fed anything.  It is my belief that if you are in the desert you should be in the desert.  It was a mutual agreement and what came of that commitment has certainly served the band well.  No?

FN:  With music moving to the digital medium, do you think there is still a place for album cover art?

Gary:  OMG YES! I meet many young people who didn’t have the good fortune to grow up in the era when I started and haven’t always known album cover art but invariably they are drawn to the artwork that can come with music and they tell me they feel that they missed out on something important. I agree that they did and work hard to make sure they get an opportunity to experience visuals with their music. We actually still make vinyl packages for the artists we work with. Proof that something is missing that people still want to have a piece of is that vinyl is the only segment of the music business that is growing. People who had great cover art miss the “feeling” generated by listening to music on vinyl, pops and hisses and all. They miss holding the album cover in your hands while listening to the music and they seek that out whenever they can. Today we do little tiny images for digital releases. I’ve gone from creating in three dimensions making physical structures that you could walk around in and live in to a twelve inch two dimensional square to a five inch two dimensional square to itsy bitsy digital images. Has something been lost in all of those transitions? I think yes!

FN:  What role do the record companies play in your work?

Gary:  Not much. I must say that I have always had the good fortune to work with artists who were the masters of their own fate and where the companies played a very limited role. So on that level not much has changed for me. I believe that this period of time today where record labels are fast fading from view has opened many very rich opportunities for individuals and artists wherein they can have a bigger role in shaping their own destiny.

FN:  But going back to The Eagles, is it true that you designed The Eagles self titled album cover to fold out to a poster, but David Geffen thought it cost too much so he had it glued together?

Gary:  Yes!  Glued it shut so the inside spread was upside down when you opened the cover.  We shot both the front and back covers and used the images for all of the advertising and marketing.

FN:  In addition to designing album covers you’ve also worked in a number of other visual mediums, including creating stage designs for a number of bands, directing music videos, producing and appearing  in a documentary “Under The Covers” on your album cover art, and conceptualizing and co-producing the 13-hour Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Show that aired on HBO and ABC-TV.  Has working in these other visual mediums helped or influenced at all your work on album covers?

Gary:  I have always believed that an artist can shape any medium they choose to work in and I love having the opportunity to expand my horizons and to tell stories in lots of different ways and mediums. I am a visualist and a story teller. I take pride in the fact that even though they are increasingly smaller two dimensional canvases I can tell a story with what I create. I also love having the opportunity to work larger and include extended time and dimension to my work. Over the years I have longed for the opportunity to make movies and to that end along the way I have acquired various literary properties to base motion pictures on. Finally, that is beginning to pay off and this year I will have two feature films in production; one is Edward Abbey’s THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG (1975) which I have had under option since early 1989. That film will be directed by the team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish and Paranormal Activity 3 & 4) which is a story about the environment we all live in that needs to be told. The world needs to know this story which will play a huge role in saving what is left of the environment. It will be a very wonderful movie that will both inform and entertain. The second film is a novel I have loved for more than sixty years and always wanted to bring to the screen; Lynd Ward’s GODS’ MAN (1929) which is a “novel without words” telling a very large and important story in 150 wood cuts. No words. It is a story based on the tale of Faust and what it means to sell yourself to the devil for material gain and power. Like Robert Johnson with his guitar at the crossroads. It puts a face on and shows the cost of greed. Eventually you must give the Devil his due.

FN:  Who are some of the album cover designers whose work you admire?

Gary:  There are many, so lest I forget to include anyone who’s work I admire and learn from continuously suffice it to say “Many”.

FN:  You’ve created some iconic album covers over the years.  What do you think makes an album cover iconic?  What do you look for in an album cover design?

Gary:  Telling the truth visually and good luck helps in cover art having a sustained life. I am attracted to art that challenges and informs at the same time. Timing plays a role as well because if you are in tune with the moment your visuals will resonate forever. BTW my personal favorite of all the covers I have made is Neil’s “ON THE BEACH.”

FN:  What advice would you give to someone interested in designing album covers and other artwork for bands?

Gary:  Follow your heart, surrender to the music, embrace collaboration and bring everything you have and can find to the table. Tell the truth and have a good time. Having a good time in doing the work even when the task at hand is deadly serious is evident in what one produces. I believe the audience perceives that and appreciates it.

FN:  Is their a band, current or past, that you always wanted to work with but never got the chance?

Gary:  The Beatles certainly, though I did have the good fortune to work with Paul and Linda McCartney on a book I art directed for them. In all of the years I have been making art for music I have always operated on the belief that doing good work will lead to other opportunities to do more good work. I never promoted myself or had a representative out there selling me to the world at large so I reckon there are plenty of opportunities left unclaimed by me and there are plenty of artists I would love to collaborate with before I hit the dead end on this road of life. To that end I have recently hired a representative and I am going to be seeking out those artists whose music touches me to offer my services. I believe it ain’t over until it’s over so I am forging ahead and thinking of myself as an old dog continuously in search of new tricks to do. Stay tuned.

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Find out more about Gary Burden:

View Gary’s Discography

Watch clips from “Under The Covers – A Magical Journey:  Rock N’ Roll in LA in the 60’s – 70’s”

Read Gary’s Stories About Some of His Work

 

 

In 1967, a billboard was erected on the Sunset Strip heralding the debut album from the rock band The Doors.  It was the first of it’s kind, but not the last.  Over the next decade or so, Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards popped up all over the Strip featuring one-of-a-kind hand painted artwork promoting artists ranging from The Beatles to Randy Newman.  Author and photographer Robert Landau, began photographing these billboards at the age of 16, and his new book “Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip” showcases these photos along with interviews and commentary from some of the top designers, illustrators and record executives involved with creating these landmark commercial art pieces.

We’ll be running a contest to win a copy of Mr. Landau’s book, so stay tuned to Figment News to find out how you can enter, but first we thought it appropriate to sit down and talk with him about the billboards, their impact on popular culture and how a teenager from LA came to document these fleeting but important works of rock art.

Figment News:  Why a book on Rock ‘N’ Roll Billboards in this digital age?

Robert Landau:  To show precisely what hand-painted billboards in the classic rock period looked like. In their day, these state of the art billboards had a slightly imperfect but more human look thanks to the interpretation and brush strokes of each billboard artist who worked on them. Also, once the exhibit time was up, these billboards were whitewashed and painted over with new images, so Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip is perhaps the only document of these amazing commercial art works.

FN:  How did the practice of creating these billboards get started?

Robert:  Billboards began appearing on the Sunset Strip as early as the 1920s. They displayed ads for cars, cigarettes and occasionally movies. However it took Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra Records, to see the possibility of using them to promote rock albums when he was ready to release The Doors debut record album. Recently transplanted from New York to Los Angeles, Holzman was aware that many of the key radio DJ’s drove to work along the Sunset Strip and he wanted to catch their attention. The Doors billboard in 1967 is considered the first rock and roll billboard.

FN:  You started taking photos of these billboards when you were a teenager. Why?

Robert:  I was 16 years old and just getting interested in photography. At the time I was living a block from the Sunset Strip near Tower Records. When I wandered down to the Strip with my camera I couldn’t help but notice these giant renderings of all the rock stars whose music I was listening to. I would also see the guys from the billboard companies installing them or touching up the paintings. Those billboards were primarily meant to be viewed by drivers in passing cars, but when you are on foot and up close, the billboards have a surreal quality that I was aware of even at that age. Also many had no advertising copy and great artwork that made the Strip feel like a giant outdoor art gallery. This initial work led me to a life-long interest in photographing the unique urban landscape of Los Angeles.

FN:  How active were the actual bands in the creation of their billboards? Or was it purely handled by their record labels?

Robert:  The great unsung heroes of the period were the art directors, designers and photographers (both freelancers and people employed by the record companies) whose job it was to create the album covers and design packaging for the rock stars. I made an effort to talk to as many of them as I could for the book. These visual artists created iconic imagery like the Beatles Abbey Road by designer Kosh, or the Eagles debut record, designed by Gary Burden. They were often friends with the musicians they depicted and would work to include them in the process. Some musicians were more visually minded than others and would have ideas or concepts for the imagery. In Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards, Kosh explains that the Abbey Road design was initially based on a sketch by Paul McCartney. After designing the record album, many took a hands-on approach to adapting their design to the outdoor billboard format.

FN:  In your book you talk about some of the designers and artists that were involved in the creation of these billboards. Who were some of the ones that stand out for you?

Robert:  Well I mentioned Kosh and Gary Burden, but there were several others I’d like to mention. Roland Young of A&M records, John Van Hamersveld (who did the incredible Exile On Main Street for the Rolling Stones), photographer Norman Seeff and designer Mike Salisbury.

In the back of the book there are thumbnails of each billboard with a credit listed for all of the talented people who had a hand in their creation. Speaking of designers, I’d also like to mention designer Frans Evenhuis who did such an amazing job conceptualizing and laying out the book.

FN:  Are there any billboard designs that you think are particularly iconic?

Robert:  Besides the Doors debut and the Beatles Abbey Road, there are several other truly iconic images that captured the spirit of the times: Crosby, Stills and Nash harmonizing in the night sky over the Strip’s non stop traffic, Marvin Gaye over the Old World Restaurant across the street from Tower Records, Pink Floyd’s simple image of a pig, dog and sheep with no advertising copy for their record Animals, and one of my all-time favorites; the billboard that depicted two giant chrome pin balls with eyes peering down from the Strip that was for a recording of the Who’s rock opera Tommy.

FN:  Did it become somewhat of a status symbol to have a billboard on the strip?

Robert:  Yes it quickly became an important milestone for rockers to gauge their level of success, much like landing on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. In fact there is no proof that these expensive and creative billboards helped sell many records but both the music artists and the record companies who were making tons of money at that time liked them, so there was definitely an ego or vanity element involved. But this aspect is also what allowed these images to veer away from traditional advertising approaches and pursue more artistic visual approaches.

FN:  Why didn’t these billboards show up in other cities? Or did they?

Robert:  There were a few other places where the occasional hand painted billboard appeared like in Times Square in New York. For the most part ads appearing in other cities were smaller printed versions of the artwork. Los Angeles and the Sunset Strip are unique due to both the car culture here and the open space of this city as opposed to more dense Eastern cities. The Strip with its wide road meandering around the Hollywood Hills combined with the gigantic 14 by 48 foot billboards and the on-site presence of both record companies and iconic night clubs like the Whisky a Go Go was the ideal place for Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards to become an art form.

FN:  Do these billboards still exist or have they largely disappeared?

Robert:  These billboards no longer exist, with one exception. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip” is the only record of these rock ‘n’ roll hand-painted billboards. Those images were never intended to be anything more than fleeting advertisements, but they became iconic rock ‘n’ roll images that were wiped away shortly after they were created. Few of the boards were up for more than a month and then they were painted over.  The rock n’ roll billboard era ended when MTV and VH1 diverted music-industry advertising dollars from hand-painted billboards to music videos.

The single exception, the only remaining piece of art from this era, is Paul McCartney’s painted head that extended off the top of the Abbey Road billboard that appears on the cover of the book. Shortly after that board went up on the Strip in 1969 amidst crazy rumors that Paul was dead, some mischievous teens climbed up with a small saw and lopped off Paul’s head as a prank. Its been missing ever since. However when my book was released I offered a free signed copy through my Facebook page to anyone who could lead me to Paul’s missing head. The next day I received an email from the person, now in his sixties who had taken the head. It hangs proudly on his living room wall, and thanks to him a small but important piece of rock and roll history has been preserved.

FN:  If you were a rock artist talking to a billboard designer what three main points would you want emphasized in your billboard design?

Robert:  Billboards, unlike DVD covers or magazine pages need to communicate their message in mere seconds. The designs have to be simple and bold and don’t need much in the way of words or copy to clutter them up. They need to be read and digested by someone passing by in a car for about 7 seconds at most. The other great asset that has to be maximized is their enormous size, so bigger really is better when it comes to billboard design. A good billboard image is one that is simple yet provocative and has the effect of a time bomb that goes off in your mind after you have seen and digested it.

FN:  Where can we find out more information about the book and your other work?

Robert:  Thanks for asking! Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip is available in local bookstores or on-line through the publisher, Angel City Press, and other traditional on-line outlets.

Prints of the images in the book are available through me, Robert Landau at [email protected] and people can follow me and the book’s progress at the Facebook page.

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We’d like to thank Robert Landau for taking the time to talk with us. We’ll be announcing a Rock N’ Roll Billboards contest that will be judged by Robert real soon, so stay tuned to Figment News for more info!

Since creativity and art are such an important part of Figment, we thought it only appropriate that we select a judge for this year’s Figment Album Cover Design Contest that was really an “artist.”  Someone who is, and seeks to be, creative in every progression of their life and career.  Chris Mars is an artist.  Whether he’s making music, solo or as a member of The Replacements, painting or making films, he is always creating art.   We spoke to him about his progression as an artist, his creative process, and the parallels of music and art.

Figment News:  Most people know you as a musician, but you’ve been drawing and painting for many years correct?  How did you get started as a visual artist?

Chris:  I had done much drawing as a kid as far back as I can remember so visual expression was integral to me all along. Visual art comes more naturally to me than music.  Eventually I simply took up art again full time.

FN:  How does creating visual art compare to creating music?  By that I mean, is your creative process different or similar?

Chris:  In writing music for my solo records, I found that I had to wait as often as not for a melody to come along.  With visual art, I don’t have to wait, it is immediate – I converse with drawing or the paint and shape it in real time.  With music, the inspiration needed to be fostered.  With painting, it is a constant.

FN:  What was it like making the transition from musician to full-time visual artist?  Are the two worlds that different?

Chris:  After the Replacements, and after I expressed myself musically with my solo records, I felt I had thoroughly exorcised music from my system.  I could then let the visual art flow completely and it was a feeling of freedom devoid of rules and typical structure, for me, like going from a box to an open field.  Eventually the music bug returned, but my engagement is more of an aside these days…generally as accompaniment to my films.

FN:  You’ve been very open about the fact that your art is inspired by your brother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 15.  What is it you hope to convey through your art about your brother and his mental illness?

Chris:  First and foremost I paint as a need to express myself and to convey my own vision. Beyond this I would like to think that through the communicative nature of art – any medium – others may identify with what is expressed in a way that might make them feel less alone.

FN:  Do you think the arts – visual, musical, physical – are a good way to address issues of this kind?

Chris:  There are many ways to address these types of issues; art is what I know, so for me the arts work well as a vehicle for expression. In general I think the arts are a very good way to address issues of many kinds, political, social, personal.  Instruments, paint brushes, keyboards, pencils – all just, at their best, tools of expression.

FN:  The imagery in your work could be described as “dark” or “macabre”.  Is that your intention?

Chris:  It is not an intention so much as how it comes out of me naturally. I have always been attracted to textures and shapes in nature that carry a worn character to them – a rotting tree with bark patches missing, rust, cracks, decay… Nature is so rich and varied in the way it expresses itself biologically, wonderfully bizarre creatures and fungus and insects – all this can be considered less desirable by some yet it is as much part of the world as anything else. This is analogous to how people are varied as well, so for me it is not dark, it is simply turning an eye toward the beauty that lay beneath the veneer considered by some a more “pristine” vision of the world.

FN:  You work in a variety of mediums – paintings, pastels, scratchboards and film.  Any one favorite, and what are some of the unique challenges of each?

Chris:  Painting first, then drawing, then film followed by the sounds and music that go with film, today in that order.

FN:  What artists have been most influential to your own art?

Chris:  Influential is odd to determine, since nature and my own experiences have the greatest influence on my work.  But there are many artists whose work I admire – visual art mostly the expressionists and the surrealists – Beksinski is a favorite, Albright, Dali, too many to name.  In other media, Guillmero Del Toro, David Lynch.

FN:  You art has been exhibited all over the world.  Any upcoming exhibitions you’d like to let us know about?

Chris:  I have been invited back to Le Musee Halle St. Pierre in Paris for another exhibition in conjunction with Hey Magazine.  I will exhibit about ten or so scratchboards this time, and it will open this January.  I also have work in Arizona, New York and Los Angeles currently, with San Francisco joining in soon as well.  My website has a full list of upcoming exhibitions.

FN:  How important do you think visual art is to a band?

Chris:  I’ve seen poor art with great music inside and great art with poor music so if music is the focus I would hope that it stands on it’s own, though it sure can’t hurt to have some well done art and well done music together.  I had bought my share of records because of a great cover, so I think if you’re not familiar with the music, the visual art is especially important.

FN:  When you were making music how involved were you in the visual identity of your music?

Chris:  With the Replacements not at all save for a few poster illustrations or outtake tapes very early on.  With my first solo record, I think I was as excited about having my art on the cover as my music inside it.

FN:  Do you feel it’s important for an album cover to tie in with the theme of the album or is that not as important as a cover that grabs someone’s attention?

Chris:  I think it’s better that it tie in and be somehow cohesive with the sound. There is enough crass imagery designed to grab first, but if it lets you down, what’s the point?  Again, if the music is strong, this should do the grabbing so perhaps the intent of the visuals might be to fit first rather than grab.  Sometimes a genre or a sound has a look, and this can help people find the music they’re looking for.

FN:  What do you look for in an album cover? What types of design catch your eye and make you interested in hearing the album?

Chris:  Something subtle typically, something that’s naturally cool and doesn’t have to try too hard.  And if there is a good painting or tastefully done graphic that expresses the right tone – this could mean words only, or visuals only, or both together – all this can be effective.

FN:  Was album cover art something that inspired you to begin creating visual art?

Chris:  I would have to say no.  I liked punk.  The graphics were music graphics; they didn’t inspire me visually.

FN:  You have lived and worked in Minneapolis, MN your entire life.  It seems like an incredibly creative town.  Do you agree and if so, why do you think that is?

Chris:  I do, for me there is a lot of natural beauty to Minneapolis, with its many lakes, trees, streams and rivers. The seasons are very defined, going from lush summer to cold and dormant winter and all the beats in between. It is a good environment for creativity. There are a lot of artists, musicians, theater… Creativity is present everywhere, but Minneapolis inspires me.

FN:  Many of our Figment players are interested in design, art and music.  What advice would you give them if they are looking to carve out a career in any of these disciplines?

Chris:  Pull as much as you can from your own individual vision and emotion. Find the expression that is uniquely yours.  You can borrow influences from wherever you want but in the end it should express your own voice, yours and yours alone.

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To find out more about Chris and his art we suggest you visit the following:

Visit Chris Mars’ website.

Follow Chris on Facebook.

Watch Chris’ animated films.

Watch Chris’ music videos.

Editor’s Note:  We’d like to thank theHoseman for submitting some of the questions used in this interview.

 

Creativity is something that we all possess in some form or another, but many of us discount our creative abilities. Maybe we think we don’t have what it takes to be creative or we doubt that any of our ideas are original enough to be inspiring, so we let them die. In his new book, Steal Like An Artist (Workman Publishing Company), Austin Kleon talks about creativity and the 10 things nobody told you about being creative. Here’s a short trailer about the book to give you an idea of what he’s talking about:

Steal Like An Artist Book Trailer from Austin Kleon on Vimeo.

We had a chance to talk with Austin about his new book and the idea that while nothing is original everyone can be creative by stealing like an artist.

Figment News: You have a new book out called “Steal Like An Artist”. That’s an interesting title. Why did you call it that?

Austin Kleon: “Steal Like An Artist” is a riff on a quote generally attributed to Picasso, which says, “Bad artists copy, great artists steal.” The idea of the book is that you are a mashup of what you let into your life, and that the way to better creative work is to surround yourself with the right influences, work hard, and play nice.

FN: On your website you call it a “manifesto for creativity in the digital age.” Do you think creativity has changed, and if so are you espousing a new way to go about being creative?

Austin: Creativity hasn’t necessarily changed — it’s still a matter of makers taking what came before them and remixing it and transforming it into their own thing. What’s changed is that now we have the internet, which allows us to gather influence and get our work out there in a way we never could before.

FN: The book is based on a list you created for a talk you were giving at a community college in upstate New York. What was the genesis of the list and can you give us an idea of what the main themes you touched on in that talk?

Austin: Sure — I was nervous about giving the talk, so I went for a walk with my wife and asked her what I should talk about. She said the best talk she ever heard was just a list of things the speaker wished she’d known when she was starting out. So I decided to steal that idea and went home and wrote up the list. The talk was really about demystifying creativity — it isn’t about being a genius, it’s about gobbling up the right influences and doing the work.

FN: I was particularly drawn to one item on your list – “The Secret: do good work and share it with people.” Do you think the social aspect of the web allows for greater creativity? And by sharing, are you fine with people being allowed to riff off or derive other works from someone else’s original idea?

Austin: It’s all about the interconnectedness of ideas — the web makes it easy to spread and mix ideas. I think it was Steven Johnson, in his book WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM who said that ideas get better when they bump into each other a lot. And the great thing about the internet is that it’s easy to steal ideas—the bad thing about the internet is that it’s easy to steal ideas and do nothing other than present them as your own without improving them or transforming them into your own thing.

FN: Clearly the old model of controlling access to creative works is breaking down. What do you think the future holds for creativity?

Austin: I try not to make predictions about the future. Thing is, all these ideas are actually really old — the way to be creative is to soak up everything, let it swirl around in your brain, and then pull it back out and try to form it into something. The future is made out of things from the past.

FN: Do you think anyone can be creative?

Austin: Yes. Absolutely.

FN: Now that you’ve published your manifesto on creativity do you think you, and others, will continue to change it over time?

Austin: I hope so! It would be horribly boring if in 20 years nothing changed and I was giving out the same advice

FN: Figment is all about creativity and imagination funneled through a shared love of music so if you’re up for it we’d love to give you a quick creative exercise. If you had to create a fake band what would you call it and what type of music would the band play?

Austin: Not sure about the name, but it would be a mixture of 60s soul and 60s garage rock — my two favorite genres.

FN: Okay, what real bands did you steal from to create your fake one?

Austin: I grabbed The Sonics and put Otis Redding in front of them.

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One of the primary reasons we started Figment was because we wanted a way to express our creativity. We love music, but we weren’t going to form a real band. A fake one? Why not? It allowed us to flex our creative muscles through logo and cover design, writing and even marketing. When we started the site we did wonder if anyone would share our interest in creating fake bands enough to maintain a site like Figment, but rather than just wonder we decided to put it out there to see what would happen. It was a little scary, and yes, some people made fun of us for wasting our time on site devoted to fake bands. But happen, it did, and now four years later we’re thrilled to see all of our players expressing their creativity. What’s even better is that it’s become a creative outlet for musicians and non-musicians alike. We hope it inspires not only fake bands, but real ones. So we hope you’ll pick up a copy of Austin’s book and continue to “fake it until you make it!”

Watch Austin’s presentation at The Economist’s Human Potential Summit.

Check out Austin’s Blog

Check out Austin’s previous book “Newspaper Blackout”.

If you found this interesting you should also check out:

Everything Is A Remix

Visual Vitriol

September 2nd, 2011

I was in the last place you’d expect to find a book celebrating the street art of Punk and Hardcore music, Barnes & Noble, but as I stood among the latest bestsellers and self-help tomes I found myself enthralled by Visual Vitriol:  The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation. The book looks at the history and folklore of punk and hardcore music through the art inspired by it.  To David Ensminger, the book’s author and a Professor of English and Humanities at Lee College outside of Houston, TX, Visual Vitriol is “a way to trace the social discourse of punk:  it examines the ways punks talk about themselves.”

Ensminger’s introduction to punk came courtesy of his older brother, and it’s these moments of discovery he celebrates in Visual Vitriol.  As he began to play in punk bands, create his own hand-drawn xeroxed gig flyers, and later edit fanzines, he realized that this Do-It-Yourself (DIY) artistic community was indeed an urban folk art movement.  As he writes,

“By examining flyers we can map out the punk landscape.  They are not mere advertisements.  They are mini-histories compressed onto yellowing, flimsy paper.  Sometimes they are the only means by which we can document the existence of short-lived bands or sites.  I imagine them as archival mile markers and assertive mementos, a way to witness the social milieu from which they arose.”

While I was never a direct participant in the punk or hardcore community, I’ve always appreciated the genre for its DIY aesthetic.  The pure visceral reaction one gets from a punk song is strong, and it’s a reaction that seems to form lasting bonds between those who feel it, no matter how disparate their backgrounds.  I got that same reaction looking through Visual Vitriol, and it made me want to not only talk to David about it, but to share it with you as well.

Figment News:  First of all, congratulations on having put together one hell of an interesting book.  What inspired “Visual Vitriol”?

David Ensminger:  Thank you. At the very end of the 1990s, I became heavily focused on punk gig flyers, which I collected since the mid-1980s, while growing up in Rockford, IL, about 70 miles west of Chicago, where my brother attended the Art Institute. He exposed me to punk rock from about 1980 onwards, regularly brought me copies of fanzines, records, and clip art and encouraged me to make my own art, music, and writing. He was the genesis of DIY in my life, along with my father, who was very hands-on: he carved wooden figures, like ducks and Santa Claus figures, using tools inherited from my grandfather. Now, my father paints watercolors as well. Plus, my family has a long history of collecting objects: my father collects coins, my sister collected spoons, and I collected comic books, until I traded them all for punk records.

Over a decade ago, the book Fucked-Up and Photocopied surfaced, and I was mesmerized by the variety and history of the punk posters they published in this glossy, coffee table style art book. I had already amassed a hundred or so, many made by myself for bands I drummed for since the late 1980s, so I immediately sought out as many as possible from around the globe, to present in a more close-to-the-ground approach – bring the posters to the public. I proposed a massive flyer exhibit to the Lawndale Art Center here in Houston, which is an alternative art space with a longtime connection to punk (bands like Black Flag played one of their former spaces), and I collected material from around the globe. People like Andrea Manges in Italy, Scotti from Au Go Go Records in Australia, Randy “Biscuit” Turner of the Big Boys in Austin, TX, and many other people, including Suck Zoo Han in South Korea and others in Japan, England, and Canada provided with me with an intense array of gig flyers. That event, complete with my band Magnetic IV playing the opening, set-off my decade-long involvement to highlight, preserve, and promote punk flyers as one of the most vivid forms of democratic, instant, vernacular, Do-It-Yourself art of my generation.

FN:  The book traces the history of punk through concert flyers and posters.  Do you think the imagery these bands used was as important as the music in establishing punk rock as a musical and cultural force?

David:  Well, I would say that all the material culture of punk, like gig flyers, graffiti, stencils, clothing, fanzines, and music worked in tandem to produce the culture’s sense of identity. The flyers propelled and witnessed the movement, providing a documentary backbone that offers information about the punk era in a microcosm. They reveal the economics of the underground (from the cost of printing a flyer to the cost of a show), the visual aesthetics of a generation (from cut’n’paste guerrilla style to utilitarian blandness), the psycho-geography of scenes (the location of the clubs, the warnings to concert goers), and the fuzzy ideologies of the community (expressed in handwritten rants and the graphic fare).

We traded them, or used them as paper stock, writing on the back of them, for they were supplied as ‘gifts’ from mail-order record companies, shipped along with records and T-shirts. BYO Records would send them with a handwritten note from Becca, one the employees. Years later, I purchased her fanzine collection on eBay. My mentor Daniel Wojcik at the University of Oregon, a former Los Angeles punk, has letters written from Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies on the back of flyers he received in the mail as youth. They were the traded ephemera of our generation, along with bootleg cassettes and cheap fanzines, but they were also part of the mail-art movement, often by accident.

As a teenager, I ordered “classic” late-1970’s flyers, like The Damned’s first gig in LA, and the first gig of the Dead Kennedys, through the business of Dirk Dirksen, an infamous show promoter, who offered them for purchase on heavy archival stock. So, flyers offered me a history lesson as well. They mapped out the visual aesthetics of the earlier era in ways I could understand, graphics-wise. They were art tools kits, forming a template for my own forays into flyer construction and dissemination.

FN:  You talk about creating posters and flyers for your own punk bands.  Do you have any formal art training or were you one of the many DIY artists who produced this form of urban folk art?

David:  I did not attend any art classes as a student, neither in high school nor in college, except for history courses. However, I did take an Industrial Arts class, which allowed me to explore various outlets, including typesetting, photography, screen-printing T-shirts, making buttons, and other media. Our female teacher allowed us to explore the campus and equipment, so my friends and I immediately started making buttons celebrating bands like The Descendents, DIY T-shirts using our own art, and typesetting the text for my punk band’s demo cassette.

My brother, on the other hand, was deeply trained in art and entered college right at the cusp of mail-art, Xerox art, and conceptual art. His friends were sending mail-art to Alaskan fanzines and playing in noise bands, ala Boy Dirt Car, early Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers, and he sought out punk gigs from the likes of The Cramps and Black Flag, so he melded both worlds. His own painting deeply distressed my family, who believed it was too raw, ugly, and cynical, not at all like his early still drawings that lined my parents’ hallway. My Dad taught him how to draw human figures as a small boy, so to see him absorb punk’s nihilism was a shock.

My brother always encouraged me to make art, in ways that made sense to me. When my sister dropped me off for a weekend in a rough downtrodden section of Chicago, where he lived in a partial basement flat, he immediately gave me some paint and a board and said, make something. Partly, I suppose, he attempted to keep me busy, but I think he genuinely wanted me, even at age 10 or 11, to find some kind of mode of expression. That night, he wanted to roam the city, so I scanned a Chinese book he had lying around the kitchen, chose a character/letter I liked visually, and then we spray-painted it on a T-shirt, so I could be sufficiently “punk” to ride the bus through Cabrini Green, the tough housing project. A handful of years later I made my first flyer for the classic punk band The Adolescents at Rotation Station, a roller skating venue near my high school that hosted terrific punk bands.

So, yes, I learned the naïve, crude, rough’n’ready style not by looking at art books but by flipping through fanzines, listening to my brother, experimenting in class, and mimicking the music that pounded my ears.

FN:  A lot of the art in the book is very crude in nature – either hand-drawn or cut-and-pasted and then Xeroxed.  Was this a direct expression of punk’s DIY culture or simply done of out necessity since many of these bands did not have record deals, promotion, etc.?

David:  The style was part of both traditions – an art ideology and an economics of survival. No doubt, visionaries like Jamie Reid (Sex Pistols) and Winston Smith (Dead Kennedys) understood the impact of ugliness, of the ripped and torn, and the cut and re-assembled. They were keen observers of art history, and later illustrators like Pushead (Septic Death, Metallica) and Shawn Kerri (Germs, Circle Jerks) were skilled and adept, but for punk material they often relied on skulls and corpses, though they could draw anything. Kerri sketched comics for the likes of Hustler, which were lewd, rather than crude. So, yes, punk’s sense of displaying ugly, mutant, and distressful material was part of the core aesthetic in the time of beach wear and soft rock, in the time of Me Generation consumption and the mallification of America. It was also a reaction to the splendor, craft, and naturalness of some of the hippie era styles, which tended to disgust some punks.

On the other hand, copy machines itself offered their aesthetic and economic appeal. Toner was inconsistent, quality itself varied from machine to machine, and many times flyer construction was quick and furtive, especially if a show was only days away. Sure, some entrepreneurs like Dirk Dirksen (Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco) printed offset flyers, in bulk, which tend to look more artful and finely-designed, but a kid in Tulsa often relied on different skill sets, technological options, and materials available, which might have been no more than scissors, stick-on letters, and a pen. A few bands like The Dickies were signed to major labels, but the rest relied upon their own members and fans to spread the word, and more often than not, wheat paste their flyers, sometimes en masse, like Black Flag, across light poles and freeway underpasses. So, flyering became not just about art, but about events as well, the infiltration of contested space and the surveillance of local police and neighbors. Flyers evoked not just more flyers, but lore as well.

FN:  Do you think the digital age has had an impact on the visual style of punk?

David:  Sure, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. It depends if you are a purist, I suppose. Some designers like Russell Etchen may still use old-fashioned means, like cut and paste, but also use a design program for the finished product, melding both worlds. Last night, I ventured to Hot Topic, looking for discount vinyl records, and discovered a small batch of flyers stuck in a display rack. None were designed by hand, but they did the “job.” They promoted, they symbolized, and they spoke to me. Granted, fewer are made and distributed, due to simply being spread virally on social networks, and they tend to look more “gentrified” or like amateur design school, but what I miss most is that hand-made element, the imperfection and shadow-lines, the cut-off portions due to misplacement on the Xerox machine glass, the white-out or rub-out of mistakes, or even handwritten messages, like phone numbers or addresses added after printing. Those vernacular touches are very important to me, just as much as the wear and tear of the flyers exposed in the elements of cityscapes — the torn, solarized, faded, and yellowing process, the fissure.

FN:  For all of punk’s association with white males, you do a great job of shining a light on how diverse the punk culture really is with chapters about the involvement of women as well as the Hispanic and gay communities in helping to define the punk rock ethos.  Why do you think a lot people simply associate punk rock with angry white men, and what are some of the biggest contributions these other groups made to the punk community?

David:  Walter Benjamin once said, “It is more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical reconstruction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.” For me, that means preserving the works on paper of myriad anonymous artists that forged this instant art meant to be short-lived. It also means using the flyers to document the participation of women, people of color, and gays (like my brother) and lesbians in the multicultural punk sphere.

I am pained when I see the people I witnessed, experienced, or knew fade from history or between the cracks of the dominant narrative simply because punk historians actually don’t know their history very well or don’t see beyond a pale shade of white. I very close to my sister growing up and spent endless hours listening to her Gun Club, 999, and Iggy Pop records. My first wife and I attended the same punk shows as teenagers, like Fugazi. Women worked on my fanzines No Deposit No Return and Left of the Dial. Women have played with me in innumerable bands, including my current unit No Love Less.

Hispanics, women, blacks, and gays and lesbians have always been a huge portion of the backbone of punk culture. Black music formed a template for punk, and anyone who has listened to The Jam and The Clash already knows this. Just recently, the bass player for The Carpettes told me when the band formed, they played Chuck Berry covers. One of the first gigs TSOL played was for a Black Panther, and Luther Vandross is one of singer Jack Grisham’s favorites, just like John Coltrane has shaped the output and outlook of Mike Watt (Minutemen).  If the New York Dolls and Stooges, both steeped in black traditions, were proto-punks, then punk is directly linked to black music. Plus, black artist Barry Jones made the iconic Roxy club collages and Don Letts shot the footage for the film D.O.A., capturing punk circa 1976 at its apex. Lastly, before I push too much, the Bad Brains, despite their sexism and homophobia, made an indelible impact on punk, transforming it into hardcore via their jazz-skills.

I curate a whole blog dedicated to the work of Randy “Biscuit” Turner (a small chapter in the book addresses him as well), a rare “out” gay punk-funk pioneer who made well over 100 hundred gig flyers for his band the Big Boys without utilizing typewriters or computers: he relied entirely on inky illustration, cut and paste, collage, mixed media, and the rigors of copy machines.

Black people didn’t immerse in punk? Think again. I have over 250 flyers of bands playing gigs with black members, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Meanwhile, my interview with Deaf punk Muslim filmmaker Sabina England is my most read post on Popmatters, and my oral history of the Deaf Club debuts next months in Maximum Rock’n’Roll, replete with many flyers to document the club’s existence in punk history.

FN:  You talk about the emergence of hardcore and how many in the punk community felt it lacked the heart and soul, intelligence or in the case of John Doe, the humor of punk.  Why do you think this subgenre created that impression and do you agree with it?

David:  Well, I do point out the many hardcore bands were linked to humor as well, like the Meatmen and Gang Green, so a lot of the older punks were simply jaded, which 7 Seconds attacked in the song “Out of Touch,” which I should have mentioned in the book. I also think that hardcore bands actually retain a great deal of intelligence and forethought, from MDC to Strike Anywhere, but their messages are sometimes lost in the anomie, aggression, and adrenaline of their audiences. So, I don’t agree with those assessments per se, but I do recognize that some women literally felt pushed out of the scene in the mid-1980s, due to overt aggression and sexism, but others clung on, transforming hardcore punk eventually, like the Riot Grrrls and garage rockers as well, not to mention full-on punks like the Lunachicks.

Wendy O, Williams was herself proto-hardcore, as was Alice Bag of the Bags, so they proved that women were not soft or weak, but many of the male bands clung to old notions inherited from the master narrative of American culture. Some punk men refused to change; the same could be said of homophobic and racist punks too. I do think that hardcore lacked some of the stylistic variety that punk offered, since the earlier generation seemed to embody an umbrella genre that could fit early B-52s, Cramps, XTC, and Television. Hardcore didn’t seem to offer that inclusivity, but bands like Soulside and Beefeater did invoke hybrid forms that challenged the status quo, the rigid templates, and the funnel effect. Not all people believe they belong in the same category as Minor Threat, but I do. Bands like The Dicks, Mydolls, and Really Red here in Texas proved that punk-in-the-hardcore-era did not have to exude chainsaw riffage and caustic vocals bolted to 110 mph beats.

FN:  What role did fanzines play in inspiring and promoting punk rock art? You ran a fanzine called “Left of the Dial”.  Does it still exist in some form?

David:  The quick impulse is to argue that fanzines represented the crucial civic media center and emporium of grassroots punk culture. A whole book could delve deep into the profound equation and marriage between the discourse and material culture of fanzines and punk ideology and identity, so any attempt here is a bit futile. So, I will answer the question by exploring the personal impact of fanzines on me.

Punk rock was my high school, more so than my own high school, which mostly bored me. I felt, like many punks, a strong sense of the trans-local — part of a group of people strewn throughout the world, connected by music and fanzines rather than my neighbors. The fanzines were not just JC Penny catalogs of punk product but a primary source of my knowledge and insight into punk issues, mores, and style. By the mid-1980s, I had a subscription to Maximumrocknroll (I contributed to them as a writer since 2005), read Flipside voraciously, and even had copies of regional zines like Non-Stop Banter and Last Rites, both from Chicago.

After reading the input from readers in the editorial pages, and seeing the reviews of bands I knew, like The Flex from Rockford, I knew that zines offered a two-way form of communication and connectivity, community and coherence. So, I decided to make my own mark, just like the early days of punk, when Sniffin’ Glue stirred culture from below.  The whole idea, reinforced to me by Steve Shelley of the Buzzcocks, was punk offered fans an option: one did not have to be a mere consumer, passive and exploited, but could become a force of culture, an active agent in making and maintaining a culture of his or her own. I stole a line from Henry Rollins and turned it into my fanzine name, No Deposit No Return, sought a few nearby bands for interviews, managed to use some clip art and early computer graphics for design purposes, and asked my dad to copy the whole thing for me by the dozens after-work at his factory, which he did. I had published little film reviews in the school paper, but I felt real ownership and accomplishment, empowerment and possibility after mailing out my ‘zine.

Years later after graduate school I was bored and restless and started sending reviews and poems to papers and magazines. Thirsty Ear in Santa Fe, NM was generous enough to allow me to write for them on a regular basis, including interviews with everyone from the Violent femmes to Merle Haggard, all of which I relished. But the magazine only took requested sizes of articles, which often left me with excess material. Simultaneously, I was hired as a full-time college instructor, which boosted my income, providing me some to invest in a magazine of my own making. I asked a handful of local designers like Russell Etchen to guide me through the process and help me forge the magazine, and I used that excess material, like Ian MacKaye (Fugazi, Minor Threat) and Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys) interviews, and new interviews with TSOL and Gary Floyd (The Dicks, Black Kali Ma), to hit the newsstand with a  tour-de-force. Plus, I offered no reviews, just all interviews, and some original writing by band members, like poems and memoirs.

We survived for five years, totally without debt (though I spent over $20,000 on the project), switched designers and helpers, but our distro went bankrupt, Tower Records disappeared from the map, and I switched efforts to the web, where the magazine existed until the last few years, when I became a frequent writer for other publications, like the Houston Press and Popmatters. Left of the Dial will again rise from the past, this time as a collection of interviews, along with newer material, to be published in 2013 in book form.

FN:  What was the connection between skateboarding and punk?  Did skateboarders have an effect on the imagery used in many punk rock flyers, posters, fanzines, etc?

David:  I dedicate a whole chapter to skate-punk culture: the impact was truly momentous, which can be felt every time one flips through an old Thrasher magazine. Many members of bands like TSOL and Minor Threat actively skated, and I did too, albeit with a really ‘wounded goose’ quality. My parents have a photo of me caught midway down our driveway, doing a handstand on a skateboard decked with stickers and homemade painted logos, jeans tattered and bleached. I built an awful quarter-pipe, but did not follow the dimensions accurately; instead, I ‘winged’ it, making an almost impossible curve to skate, which was more like a killer curve than a cool slope. I listened to Bad Brains and Raw Power endlessly as I skated, and I still enjoy riding sloped streets, although my wife steadfastly bans them from the house or my possession.

To put it concisely, skating and punk turned “nothing” like parking lots and light poles, into something, like street art galleries or museum of the streets and launching pads for acrobatic tricks. They re-envisioned the space of cites numbed by codes and rules.  Skaters invoke a kind of freedom that struts and symbolizes, and they are pro-active – people usually don’t skateboard in basements. Both flyer makers and skaters search the topography of the city, the ins and outs, for kicks, for places to “play” – to make music and art, and to engage in sport.

They both encourage the art of possibility, not the doldrums of restrictions. They were also often unsanctioned acts, unlawful and furtive, reckless and restless.  There is a reason why the Black Flag biography is named Spraypaint the Walls — because punk was a verb, was a dictum: “Do it.” Take place. Make freedom. Penetrate and poeticize the streets, much to some people’s chagrin. If you scour my book, you’ll see dozens of images of skeletons, many riding skateboards, “shredding” and embodying the notion “skate to hell” or “skate to destroy,” but not to damage physical property per se (you want to keep skating those pools, right?) but to destroy taboos and notions of restraint and control. Plus, punk flyers and skating could be genderless manifestations: flyers and skateboards don’t care if you are a women or man, black or white, abled or differently abled. They are platforms and modes, and you can re-tool them as you see fit.

FN:  Speaking of imagery, there seems to be some common images that appear again in punk rock art.  Whether it’s monsters, skeletons, skulls, religious or military iconography there seem to be a lot of common threads.  Why do you think that is?

David:  As mentioned, flyers are like one-sheets and newspapers, in hyper-condensed form, displaying the terrible macabre of the modern world, with its droughts, financial collapse, civil wars, injustice and poverty. They show the often hidden ugliness of the machine age, of science gone bad/wrong, or creatures mutated and anguished. They borrow from Goya, from B-movie monster matinees, from Rat Fink, and Leon Golub, exposing the wounds in society’s skin.  The gore and transgressive motifs suggest carnality and deadly instincts but also serve as warnings and creeds.

They tell us to stop pretending and see the filth and atrocities, and to live up to democracy’s best ideals – maximum liberty, justice for all, and a sense of humanity, with a deep undertow of compassion. Not in all cases, obviously: sometimes they are just death-culture fantasies, the masturbatory excesses of grime and gore. So, the message is never stable or core: it is unstable. The monsters reveal layers of symbols: we make monsters, like Frankenstein, or we behave like monsters, like a skull tank, killing children and women, or we feel monstrous, like outcasted, alienated youth shed from families and friends.

The anti-military vibe is woven deep into political protest but also as an undercurrent of ghastly immersion as well. Some people are shocked and dismayed by calamity but others yell out ”Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.” So, I think the art stimulates often-contradictory responses, but in the book I try to navigate the pop terrain of undead iconography in punk, iconic in bands like the Misfits, in order to understand how the same era of post-Vietnam could produce Leif Garrett and the Dead Kennedys, suave all-night disco and “Death Disco” by Public Image Limited.

FN:  Who are some of the artists you feel had the greatest impact on punk and hardcore art?

David:  I’ve mentioned some already, but I will make a personal stab, since I don’t share the same tastes as some collectors who might suggest that Frank Kozik is noteworthy and more important than, say, the members of The Avengers and Mydolls, women like Penelope Houston and Trish Herrera that made flyers. Kerri and Pushead are truly definitive, along with Raymond Pettibon and Winston Smith, and their work commands fairly high prices in the market. But many artists I showcase in the book offered plenty of unique style, from Jaime Hernandez (of Love and Rockets fame) and Victor Gastelum (of SST fame) to B. Otis and Ric Cruz, whose material was abundant and finely-wrought but not as immediately recognized by the masses, though collectors flock to their work in small fervent numbers. Many more exist, and I am deeply fond of local Texas work by JR Delgado, Charlie Esparza, Tim Kerr, and Randy “Biscuit” Turner.

FN:  Speaking of Randy “Biscuit” Turner, the afterword of your book is all about his art.  Who was he and why did you choose write the afterword about him?

David:  Randy ‘Biscuit’ Turner was a pre-eminent punk-funk singer who melded soul music’s deep sonorous singing and traditions with punk’s urgency and intelligence. He was also gay, funny as hell, and an intensely focused outsider/visionary artist. He cared much less about his hardcore punk singles and much more about shopping the ‘last call’ thrift store with Exene Cervenka of X, where he could pick up battered and lonely plastic items for his mixed-media collages, one of which I just purchased. He was a performer, bar none, unafraid to explode gender roles and expectations. He could wear a pink tutu, he could wear a hockey jersey, and he could wear a massive Mardis Gras outfit all in the same few days, completely grounded in his sense of being outside the norm, even for Austin. He also made at least 100 flyers, which I have archived on my site dedicated to him (www.randybiscuitart.wordpress.com).

He did not depend on typewriters or computers: his work indulged the old-fashioned methods I have described earlier, but most of all he enjoyed free form illustration and keen cut-up collages. To me, his works melds the visuals of Funkadelic with the Weirdos, black art with white ruckus. He also did not obey the punk conventions of nihilism, gore, and cynicism: he was Day-Glo when others were moody and pallid. He drew poodles having sex instead of corpses. He was the singer of my band for the last five years of his life, The Texas Biscuit Bombs. Our double record, replete with colored vinyl and Biscuit art, is available from me, having been released in France last year. He was a comrade, a friend, and a poet. The book honors him, and I thank him for his life rife with poignancy and purpose.

FN:  Any advice for the budding punk or hardcore artists on Figment?  Should they stick to hand drawn art or are there ways to maintain that punk DIY ethos when using programs like Photoshop, etc.?

David:  They should stick to their gut impulses but also attempt to stretch their perceptions, styles, and output. I think high-energy flyers made quickly and accessibly via programs is fine and functions well, but they should always experiment with hand-made options as well, whether it means buying antiquated typewriters just for the fonts or re-using paper for unexpected results. They might think of the pieces less as functions of sheer utility and promotion and more like an art project, in which chance, spontaneity, and randomness are well worth exploring. Hybrid styles are the calling card of the future, including retro-futurism, remixology and deconstruction, appropriation and painstaking originality. Just “Do it.” Like the band DOA always touts, “Talk minus Action equals zero.”

If you’ve enjoyed this interview you might also want to check out more from David Ensminger:

Watch a short film by Lo-Fi Cinema on Visual Vitriol

Black Punk Archive

Punk Women Archive

Midwest Punk Archive

San Francisco Punk Archive

Read Some of Visual Vitriol

Check out the Visual Vitriol Blog

Listen to David’s band No Less Love

 

Man, if money didn’t matter then I might tell you something new

You can’t tell people what they want to hear if you also want to tell the truth.

The Hold Steady “Soft In The Center”

Let’s be clear about one thing right out of the gate, I’m a fan of The Hold Steady, but that’s not the only reason why I sought out Tad Kubler to judge this year’s Figment Album Cover Design Contest.  No, I sought him out because in addition to being a great musician, he’s also a very good designer and photographer.  His work adorns the covers of several of his band’s album covers and he’s actively involved in every creative aspect of his band.  He’s also one of the most straightforward musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure to interact with, as evidenced by his initial reaction to our offer to be this year’s judge:

“Ok, so forgive the comparison, but this is like Dungeons and Dragons for record collectors, right? Am I understanding this correctly? And that’s not anything but a compliment.

I don’t know why anybody would want to run their own label in this day and age of what the music industry has become. I sometimes wonder why anybody would want to be in a fucking band, for that matter…”

It was that kind of honesty that made it imperative that we get him to be this year’s judge and thankfully he took us up on our offer.  Better yet, he agreed to talk with us about his music, photography and design work.

We mix our own mythologies, we push them through PA systems.

We dictate our doxologies and try to get sleeping kids to sit up and listen.

I’m not saying we could save you

But we could put you in a place where you could save yourself.

If you don’t get born again, at least you’ll get high as hell.

The Hold Steady “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”

Figment News:  What it’s like being in a working band these days?

Tad Kubler:  It’s a very interesting time to be involved in the music industry. I wish there were a way to sum this up quickly and briefly. Because it’s a conversation I have to be part of frequently.  Probably more often than I care to be.

You have the paradigm under which the music business operates. And then you have the pace of technology. And in between both of those is the consumer AND the “artist”, for lack of a better word.  It’s a mess, quite frankly. But we’ll see. In some ways it effects what we do and how we do it. I may be acting naïve, but I prefer to operate under the assumption that we do this because we love music. And the rest of it, isn’t all that important. That said, we are running a business. We have people that work for us. There are contracts and business managers and lawyers and health insurance plans and all the other things that can distract you from the joy of rock & roll (there is indeed “so much joy”). But when it’s all said and done, being in front of a room full of people doing what you love with people you love, just staying in the moment and being present to experience that joy… It doesn’t get any better than that.

FN:  Did you always know you wanted to play music for a living or was it something that started out as a hobby and grew into a profession?

Tad:  For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be in a rock band. AC/DC. Kiss. Van Halen. Led Zeppelin. That’s what I wanted. I never thought it would happen. Maybe I did, actually. But it was never something I counted on.

FN:  You and Craig Finn were in a band together prior to The Hold Steady called Lifter Puller.  What did you learn from that experience that helped you when you formed The Hold Steady?

Tad:  There are so many differences between both bands that it would be hard to compare the experience. I think if anything, it created a level of trust and friendship between Craig and myself. And because The Hold Steady began really as a means for all of us to hang out and have fun together, anything else that came after that was a pleasant surprise. Obviously, that’s changed over time. I think as the band has grown, so have our expectations. But I really believe that enjoying ourselves has always been the most important thing. Craig and I have an interesting relationship. When we’re off the road, we can go weeks without ever speaking or seeing each other. And there isn’t anybody in the world that can push my buttons the way that guy can. And quite frankly, I’m not even sure he’s aware of it. But making music with that guy and getting on stage with him most nights has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I have such a tremendous amount of respect for Craig and all the guys in the band. It’s a pretty wonderful thing. You can take it for granted at times. But sometimes when we’re playing on stage, I just look around and take it all in and think to myself, “We fucking did this. Holy shit!”

She said I just can’t sympathize

With your rock n’ roll problems.

Isn’t that what we wanted?

Some major rock n’ roll problems.

The Hold Steady “Rock Problems”

FN:  What’s it like being a thirtysomething rock star?

Tad:  If I see one, I’ll ask them and let you know…

FN:  It’s my understanding that Craig Finn writes most of the lyrics and you write the music.  Is that correct?

It is. But I think it’s more accurate to say that I bring in ideas. I suppose there are times when I’ve brought in a song that was complete from start to finish. And it’s not as though I come in and say, “I wrote a song, guys; here’s how it goes”. We always work things through as a band. But I think we work best as a band when we work through ideas together. Bobby, Galen and I spend a lot of time just playing together. And Finn brings a lot to the table in the songwriting process. Craig has a great ear and has such a love for music. He listens to so many different things. So his contributions to the songwriting process is invaluable. I enjoy getting everyone in a room together and being creative.

FN:  How do you guys collaborate on songs?  Do you work on stuff alone, demo it and then bring it to the band or do you work together on songs?

Tad:  We don’t have one specific way we work. I’m always doing demos. Sometimes I’ll bring in a few different parts that I think work well together and we’ll just start to play. Other times, Craig and I get together and I’ll sit down with a guitar and he’ll have his notebooks and we’ll start to throw around ideas. Craig and I have recorded songs on the back of the bus and made rough versions to put on everyone’s ipod so they can come up with ideas. Sometimes we sit in my living room and write. Or in his kitchen. I’ll sit at the table with a guitar and he’ll pace back and forth singing to himself. I actually write in front of the television a lot. Watching basketball or Law & Order, Friday Night Lights, Californication, Discovery channel… It sometimes feels like when I’m not paying attention to what I’m doing, or just letting my mind drift when I have a guitar in my hands, that’s when things just come up. That sounds idiotic. But it’s true.

Don’t bother talking to the guys with their hot soft eyes

You know they’re already taken.

Don’t even speak to all those sequencer and beats boys

When they kiss they spit white noise.

The Hold Steady “First Night”

FN:  When I think of your band’s music I think arena rock riffs mixed with punk energy.  How would you describe The Hold Steady’s sound?

Tad:  Rock & Roll. I think if I have to spend any more time describing it than that, we’re missing the point. Jeff Tweedy said something really brilliant: people spend a lot of time talking about music. But music happens in the moment. And that’s what it’s about. The moment. Anything beyond that, you’re really just trying to catch up to it.

FN:  All of your band’s albums are on independent labels. French Kiss and Vagrant Records in the U.S. and Rough Trade in Europe.  Was that a conscious decision?

Tad:  I’m not sure what that means. It was a deliberate decision on who we chose to put out our records. But we didn’t deliberately choose independent labels.

FN:  What do you think the future holds for major and independent labels?

Tad:  I don’t know. As I’ve said, there are a lot of people talking about what a shit state of affairs the music business is in. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. It seems to me that most labels, indy or major, have a difficult time keeping up with technology and therefore the consumer. I think the industry is becoming leaner and meaner. Maybe that’s a good thing.

FN:  Clearly bands have to work a lot harder these days to get their music heard.  How important is marketing to a band’s success, and how involved do you have to be in the band’s promotion?

Tad:  I don’t think that’s true. I think technology has made it ridiculously easy to get your music heard. The internet is humming with new bands. There’s enough technology out there to broadcast your every thought and every word. And I think that may be problematic. I hear people talk about posting on someone’s wall and YouTube hits and Facebook me and tweet it and all kinds of things. Everyone has a voice. Everyone can be heard. There’s no quality control anymore. Some would argue that it’s helped level the playing field. I don’t know if I agree with that. Not to be a dick, but I don’t know that everyone should be able to broadcast every thought that tumbles through their head…

Shoes and socks baby, socks and shoes.

We spent the night last night in Newport News.

This chick she looked just like Elizabeth Shue.

We got bruised.

The Hold Steady “The Swish”

FN:  You’ve helped design a number of your band’s album covers.  What is that process like?

Tad:  That would be an awful lot of typing. I come from a visually creative background with photography, so that’s obviously helpful. I feel for me it’s really important to be involved in anything the band does creatively. I like to realize the finish product in it’s entirety. And it’s also a great learning experience. I’ve always felt that playing in a band doesn’t end at the songwriting process. I really enjoy being a part of all the creative output.

FN:  What do you look for in an album cover design?

Tad:  I think what I myself look for, or what anyone looks for is something that resonates with them. Right? I sometimes hear people talk about their relation to the band or artist. And I often hear people talk about looking for things that may indicate the people or person playing the music is somebody like them. You know, a lot of people talk about our band and say, “They look like regular guys”. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I think it’s fantastic on a level of making it easy to connect to the music and the songs. But I don’t feel that way about bands and artists I enjoy. For myself, I sometimes look for some kind of exaltation. And perhaps subconsciously I believe that I may not get that from somebody that looks like me, acts like me, thinks like me… I don’t know that I feel it necessary to connect with somebody like me. So for that, I want to look outside myself. So I may not want someone just like me to get me there. I know me. That’s boring. I need a certain amount of mystery. I want to make up my own version of the person playing the song. I want to make them more than human. Growing up, rock stars were from a different planet. Bowie, T. Rex, Bob Dylan, Kiss, Led Zeppelin – these people were deified. For good reason, I believe. And it was awesome. It gave me hope. Hope that there was something different than what I was seeing and experiencing. I want my rock stars held sacred. I want to listen to the music and hold the album cover and stare at it and imagine what kind world they live in.

FN:  Are there any designers or album covers that have inspired you over the years?

Tad:  Oh, shit. A lot. Stones – Exile,  Beatles – White Album,  Sex Pistols, Ramones, Fugazi, I could give you the laundry list.

FN:  You work as a photographer when you’re not recording or touring with The Hold Steady.  How did you get involved in photography?

Tad:  Weird story: I’ve always been interested in photography. Then, in about ’96 when I was living in Minneapolis, Bobby and I became friends. He introduced me to his sister and we started dating. She’s incredibly talented. And an amazing photographer. She got me into photography. So I took some classes and learned how to print. Then got into some of the physics of it – properties of light, etc. And started assisting. Kinda just grew from there. I’ve been working on a book for the last couple years that I’d really like to have out by the end of the year. It’s a major undertaking. I certainly bit off more than I could chew. Per usual.  And I still have a major crush on Bob’s sister… So Kris, if you’re reading, marry me?

FN:  Do you primarily photograph bands or do you shoot other subjects as well?

Tad:  I like to do portraits. Bands are hard to shoot do well. To be able to get 4 + people to all look interesting at once – very tricky. I’ve done editorial stuff. Music. Fashion. I love all of it.

FN:  Do you shoot your band’s promotional photos?

Tad:  I have in the past. But not so much now. No. I have a lot of friends that are photographers. Just call in some favors.

And when we hit the Twin Cities I didn’t know that much about it.

I knew Mary Tyler Moore and I knew Profane Existence.

I was keyed up.  Keys jangled in the stalls.

They counted money in the motels.  They mostly sold it in the malls.

And the carpet at the Thunderbird has a burn for every cowboy that got fenced in.

The Hold Steady “Stevie Nix”

FN:  All of The Hold Steady album covers are photographs.  Were you the photographer or did you conceptualize the cover and work with another photographer to actually shoot it?

Tad:  I shot the first two and did the layout with Seth and Tim (Les Savy Fav). The third and fourth I basically just art directed and had friends shoot.  And Finn is also involved in that creative process. It’s sometimes important to connect that lyrical narrative to the artwork in some way. He has a really great eye. I’m always blown away when I look at some of his photos from the road. And then the last album Finn and I let go of almost entirely. I’m not unhappy with how it came out. But I enjoy doing it too much to do that again.

FN:  I know from following your Twitter feed that you are an avid NY Knicks fan, so that begs the question…Carmelo Anthony trade…good or bad?  And since the Knicks’ season is over who do you think will win the NBA Title this year?

Tad:  I wasn’t into the trade. I think we lost our ass. And I don’t think Anthony is used to playing D’Antoni’s style of ball. And Billups has maybe two seasons left in him. Maybe. The only thing it will do is attract other players like Chris Paul or Dwight Howard.

I like the Bulls for the Eastern Conference. Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final was incredible. The Bulls are a very young, athletic team. I don’t think Miami was prepared for that. Miami thought once they got past the Celtics it would be smooth sailing. Not at all the case. I think Dirk and the Mavs really want a championship. But again, OKC is a young, athletic team. Dallas’ starting lineup are almost all 30 years old. We’ve got a lot of basketball left to play. And I think it’s going to be fantastic.

In bar light she looked alright.

In daylight she looked desperate.

That’s alright, I was desperate too.

I’m getting pretty sick of this interview.

The Hold Steady “Sequestered in Memphis”

Listen to The Hold Steady

Check out Tad’s Photography

Catch The Hold Steady on Tour

If you’re a fan of metal the name Eddie Trunk needs no qualifier.  Eddie has been sharing his love of hard rock and heavy metal with fans for over 25 years.  Whether its on his two weekly radio shows:  Eddie Trunk Live on Sirius/XM radio’s The Boneyard channel and the FM-syndicated Eddie Trunk Rocks that originates from Q-104 .3 FM in New York City or as the host of That Metal Show on VH1 Classic, Eddie has always brought fans of metal the best the genre has to offer.

In addition to his on-air talents, Eddie was one of the original executives at Megaforce/Atlantic Records, becoming Vice President of the label at the age of 25.  While at Megaforce he worked with bands like Anthrax, Manowar, Overkill, King’s X, and Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley.  He also worked for Loud & Proud Management where he helped shepherd the careers of bands like White Lion.

Clearly Eddie knows metal!  So when we heard that about the release of his new book, Eddie Trunk’s Essential Hard Rock and Heavy Metal (Abrams, 2011) we jumped at the chance to speak to him, and we’re pleased to announce that he agreed to provide us a copy to give away to the runner up in our 2011 Figment Album Cover Design Contest!

Figment News:  Why did you decide to write your new book, Eddie Trunk’s Essential Hard Rock and Heavy Metal?

Eddie Trunk:  I was always interested in doing a book at some point and would still like to do an autobiography once my days being active in the business are done, so this was a great way to get into that world. There are many personal stories in the book and incredible photos, so it’s kind of a hybrid of many things and people have really responded to it so far.

FN:  It’s certainly jam packed with anecdotes and stories about some of the biggest metal stars in the world.  What’s one of your favorites?

Eddie:  They are all so personal to me. Funny stuff like walking off stage with the singer from Tesla’s mic always makes me crack a smile. I get asked so much about when Axl Rose came into my studio in 2006 and that’s covered in the GnR chapter. The Dio chapter is super tough because I originally wrote it before Ronnie passed away, then went and rewrote it. That was a tough one.

FN:  You have two radio shows, Eddie Trunk Live on XM/Sirius’ “The Boneyard” channel and Eddie Trunk Rocks that airs live on Q104.3 here in NY and is syndicated elsewhere, AND you host “The Metal Show” on VH1 Classic.  How do you have time to do all these shows and write a book?

Eddie:  I’m lucky I have what I have and I don’t take any of it for granted, but I’m not even close to where I want to be in this world. I’m always looking at how I can expand on what I am doing with my current outlets and looking for more. Both radio shows are once a week, the TV show shoots a full season in like 10 days then they roll out, so it looks a little more non stop than it is. Don’t get me wrong, now with the book I am busy, but I welcome it and always look for more to grow my shows and spread the word on the bands and music.

FN:  You’ve been on the radio for over 25 years, and clearly the industry has changed a lot in that time.  What do you think the future holds for radio?

Eddie:  28 actually as of now. It’s a strange time for radio. I truly feel you have to be known for something and have a dedicated audience that tunes in for you and not just the music. You can get thousands of songs in an iPod these days. I never wanted to be an iPod. I think you need to bring more to the table as a host on radio than a nice voice that can backsell a playlist. Sadly computers are taking those jobs. So that’s why my shows are music and talk and interview intensive as well. I like doing that kind of radio, much more creative. But there are some new opportunities these days with the internet and podcasting that were not there before, not to mention satellite, so if you have a brand and name I think you can do something cool still.

FN:  How important of a role does radio still play in promoting new and established bands?  Do you think the internet has stolen a lot of radio’s thunder?

Eddie:  I still don’t think there is a greater substitute for radio when it comes to exposing music and news about bands. Its so immediate and personal to many. The biggest was MTV in the music days, but radio is still king now I think. You would not believe how many people in the middle of this country don’t use the internet that much. I hear from them all the time on the satellite show. They want to hit the radio in their car and get their dose of music and news. Sadly radio has been less and less adventurous in taking chances on new things, but it can still move the needle greatly. I’d love to do a daily show one day in radio, especially if I had creative freedom like I do now.

FN:  You’ve clearly seen a lot of great hard rock and metal bands live.  What bands would you put in your Top 5 live list?

Eddie:  Kiss, Aerosmith, Metallica, AC/DC, UFO, so many…

FN:  Getting back to your book, did you really share cucumber sandwiches with Robert Plant?

Eddie:  Yes, he called it a “salad sandwich” and it was just like cucumber and lettuce. Not my idea of a sandwich but it was a british tea thing, and if your hangin with Plant you go with it! I had the chance to do TV with him twice pre That Metal Show on VH1 Classic.

FN:  In addition to working on radio you’ve also been an executive with Megaforce Records as well as worked in artist management with Loud & Proud.  What was it like working for those companies back in the 1980’s when metal was really breaking through to the mainstream?

Eddie:  A whole different world than today. Labels spent a couple hundred thousand on a video alone. Records sold, bands toured all the time, people purchased music and CDs, the record stores and press were so much more of a factor. If you got a few plays on MTV and some radio you could score a gold album, now getting gold is so much harder.

FN:  Clearly metal and hard rock have changed a lot since the 80’s.  We’ve seen a lot of new genres spring up and despite being decimated by grunge and alternative rock in the 90’s its still going as strong as ever.  Why do you think metal is so resilient?

Eddie:  Its always been the underdog and been marginalized and underestimated. People think they know exactly the makeup of a metal fan and often they are wrong. I always hated the stereotypes with the music and fought against them. I love when people say I don’t look or act like a metal guy.

FN:  Any up and coming metal bands that you would recommend?

Eddie:  I have been heavily entrenched in the classic world. My radio shows are on classic based channels and so is my TV show. I still listen to and support new music that fits what I’m into and especially great new music from classic artists, but there is not that one band right now I can point to and say they are special. Hope I find one though.

FN:  What advice would you have for someone who is interested in working in the music industry these days?

Eddie:  So tough  now. Labels are dying. Be diverse in your experience and get it wherever you can. Its not learned in books but I would never discourage education. Have a backup plan for sure. I just think get the experience, get creative, and network the best you can, The future is in managing artists and these 360 deals I think. Most people taking all their business in house, so you either have to work for them direct, or provide a service as an indie that they can hire you for. But experience is key.

FN:  Figment is a site where being able to design a great album cover is really important.  What metal album covers would you put in your Top 10?

Eddie:  Black Sabbath: Heaven & Hell, Kiss: Destroyer, Van Halen II, Motorhead: Ace Of Spades, Iron Maiden: Number Of The Beast, Judas Priest: Screaming For Vengeance, Rainbow: Rising, Rush: 2112, Metallica: Master Of Puppets, Ozzy: Diary Of  A Madman.

FN:  If you could form your ultimate fake metal band what would you name it?

Eddie:  Screaming Lords Of Metal

Map of Metal

April 11th, 2011

A little over a month ago, thedude sent me the link to a site called Map of Metal knowing that I am a huge fan of metal music.  Needless to say I was not only intrigued, but excited to see what it was all about.  What I found was a very cool graphic way to look at metal music – it’s influences, genres and various sounds.  So I sought out the maps creators, graphic designer Patrick Galbraith and metal historian Nick Grant, and they were kind enough to give me a walk through how they developed this incredible interactive map of metal’s history.

Figment News:  Let’s kick this off with the million dollar question….why?

Patrick: Basically I thought it was a good idea and I just felt the need to do it. Thinking about it now I find it interesting how changing the way you present information visually can impact the experience. In other words if I just made a table of every genre, the experience would be very different. It is my hope that some younger people who are only into modern bands can come to appreciate influential early bands and vice versa. Hopefully also people who don’t know metal at all can come to appreciate it a bit more and might be interested to dig deeper into it.

FN:  Are you guy’s big metal fans?  If so, what are some of the metal bands that inspired this project?

Nick: Of course we are! I personally listen to underground metal in the death/black/doom genres and of course the classics. Some bands that inspired the map are probably memorable figures such as Maiden, Candlemass, Celtic Frost/Hellhammer, Bathory, Darkthrone and Black Sabbath, but then again, most bands we listen to are inspirational in some way or other.

Patrick: Yes! Visually it would have to be bands like Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and many others that brought the imagery and fantasy elements into it through artists such as Frank Frazetta, Derek Riggs, Joe Petagno… just flip through a bunch of albums and you’ll know what I mean.

FN:  Why did you decide on a “map” as your diagrammatic representation of metal music?

Patrick: The very first version was just a basic flow chart but the original plan was always to make it into a map of some kind. I like it when metal is combined with a mythic style. The first design I did the style was more like an old worn pirate’s treasure map. However I thought it lacked visual interest especially up close it needed more texture so I had the idea of making it out of clothing and found objects. After that the visual style came together pretty quickly.

FN:  Was it hard deciding on the various genres that you would include?  How did you decide on the various related genres that you felt influenced metal’s development?

Patrick: There isn’t any formula. We just made all the connections we could think of and slowly sorted it all with research. The trick was removing a lot of connections and finding ways to simplify rather than complicate the map. It would be easy to draw up a ridiculously complex (more accurate maybe) chart, or simplify it down into more generalised areas but that wasn’t what we were aiming for. The focus was more on getting something that showed the progression of the music.

Nick: The map doesn’t discriminate different genres, it more or less casts a light over all genres and sub genres of metal and allows people to see which genres helped spawn the more modern sounds that have developed over the years.

FN:  What is your favourite metal “land”?

Nick: My personal favourite metal land is probably the darker areas of black/death and doom!

Patrick: I’m guessing by land you mean regions of the map. Developing the site forced me to be even more open minded to a number of genres so right now it’s too hard to choose. Originally there was going to be more separation for example Doom metal and its offshoots from Power metal etc. but the amount of crossover made it too difficult and it didn’t sit right. Design wise… the inverted hello kitty… also I like the Punk Rock Island with the bloodied union jack, which is a reference to Vivienne Westwood.

FN:  What kind of feedback have you gotten from fellow metal heads on the Map of Metal?  Anyone take issue with it and/or request a cartographic change?

Patrick: A lot of people asked for a zoom function, which I will probably add in at some point. I left it out because I wanted people slowly discover the connections and to see all the design details but I guess that is a bit self indulgent. Occasionally someone emails with something along the lines of “wheres metallica you fail”, and I have to point them to thrash. Generally speaking though the feedback has been really positive and the suggestions from the community have been great. I’m working on plans to leverage the community more in the future with something akin to uservoice, but which directly links to the site, but that’s all I can say about it at the moment.

FN:  Do you think the Map of Metal represents all of the genres that make up Metal or do you think the music will continue to grow and inspire more offshoots?

Patrick: In short, no it doesn’t list every genre, this is for a couple of important reasons. Firstly when you look at genres and the categorization of music different outcomes will require a different approach. In other words if I was categorising music for a music database or library I would do it very differently. However with the Map of Metal I wanted it to be more along the lines of a story about how the genres and styles have progressed and therefore I focused on using common everyday labels for the genres. Also the map no doubt has an America/UK bias to it in regards to how the genres have progressed and their labelling; people from other parts of the world would likely see things differently.

Will it continue to grow? Absolutely metal will continue to live on for a long time. However I can’t see it being possible for it to become less diverse that is just the nature of any form. Bands will continue to fuse metal with other genres spawning new sub-genres, micro-genres and so on… it is likely the internet will play a role in this too.

Nick: Metal is not bound by genres in any way, but I suppose it’s easier to define them as this or that. I think in the future many more strange kinds of genre mixes will appear, some better and some worse. The map is more of a guideline as to the differences in sound for people who are uneducated in the matter or curious to discover more.

FN:  Any plans to add a new country, principality or People’s Republic of Metal?

Patrick: New genres, yes. However at the moment I’m focusing on building other features. But after that who knows.

FN:  Do you think Axl Rose needs your map to find his way back to metal?

Patrick: You can always try sending him the link to find out.

FN:  If you could create your own metal genre what would it be called and what would be its roots?

Nick: Hiking metal; a mix between early Viking metal (Bathory) and hiking in the forests at night!

FN:  If you could form your ultimate fake metal band what would you name it?

Patrick: Placental Expulsion; hints to the name of a local dish here in Australia; it’s a combination of kebab meat on a bed of fries and smothered with ketchup and tzatziki, yum.

Plug In, Smile!

October 12th, 2010

Figment may be all about fake bands, but many of our players love to play “real” music as well.  So when we were planning our Figment Metal Concept Album Contest, we made sure to seek out a prize that any musician would salivate over, and the ZT Lunchbox Amplifier certainly fits the bill!  It’s an ultra-compact amplifier that packs 200 watts of power!  Good things really do come in small packages.  We were so fascinated by this amp that we sought out Ken Kantor the founder of ZT and designer of the Lunchbox to find out why it’s the perfect amp for both pros and consumers.

Figment News:  You’ve been a technologist, product designer and entrepreneur in the consumer electronics industry for over 30 years.  In particular, you have designed a number of innovative loudspeakers and audio technologies over that time.  How did you get into the audio engineering field and what products have you designed that you are the most proud of?

Ken Kantor:  I suppose my audio career first began to take shape as a blending between my fascination with science and my deep love of music and sound.  By the time I got to college, it felt very natural to study audio engineering. I learned the theory and math behind amplifiers and speakers.  I picked up practical construction and testing skills.  Also, I developed a lifelong interest in examining the ways that audio technology is interwoven with the history of music and performance,

During my engineering career, I have been fortunate to have been involved in a diverse range of audio projects.  I’ve designed really cheap computer speakers and very expensive home theater systems; I’ve worked in recording studios and guitar factories. I’ve done designs for museum displays, punk festivals, major orchestras, laptop computers and avant garde performance artists.   I guess what satisfies me the most is when I am able to mash up human perception with hardcore engineering to squeeze more sound quality out of a system than people expect.  “Diode, meet Neuron.  Neuron, meet Diode.”  Bringing sound to new frontiers is what it’s about for me.  Then, I like to start companies to try and bring these inventions into the world at affordable prices.  That’s where ZT comes in.

FN:  Are audio engineers tortured rock stars or is the other way around?

KK:  Fortunately for Figment, I think almost everyone in the modern world wishes they could be a rock star at some point.  So, yeah, I can’t deny those fantasies.   But, realistically, engineers tend to be people who are most creative when working within very disciplined and structured frameworks.  On the other hand, most rock and roll performers seem to thrive in a more chaotic environment.  (Or, at least, they make prettier train wrecks…)

FN:  What led you to found ZT Amplifiers?

KK:  ZT was influenced and inspired by the sound the classic guitar amps, and the quest to get that gig-worthy sound from a very small box.  Ever since I first heard, “I Feel Fine,” and “Satisfaction,” on a tiny AM radio, I’ve been researching guitar tone, building stomp boxes and fixing amps.  Gradually, I started designing my own speakers and amps. Throughout the following 30+ years, every time I learned something new about audio or hearing, I thought about how I might apply it to building a better guitar amp.  ZT is my opportunity to realize a lifetime of ideas and inventions.

FN:  Were did you get the idea for the Lunchbox Amp?

KK:  I’m not sure, but it was probably as I was carrying one of my big, old tube amps up the stairs!  It occurred to me that little amps have been somewhat ignored by other companies.  Almost all amp companies put their best effort into their larger products, and treat their smallest amps almost like toys.  So, ZT has taken a very different approach; we try to pack serious sound and power into small boxes.

FN:  Beyond its size, what makes the Lunchbox stand out?

KK:  It looks cool, doesn’t it?  We sincerely think it’s a great sounding amp, regardless of its size.  The Lunchbox has grown to become one of the best selling amps around.  No way that could happen based only upon its size.   In truth, lots of guitarists are buying the Lunchbox for its tone.  And, it’s just plain fun to play.  Plug in, smile!

FN:  So how does a solid-state amp the size of a toaster with a 6.5 inch speaker create such a big sound?

KK:  It’s the same old story in audio: everyone always believes the old technology is inherently superior, until someone finally figures out how to use the new technology to its full potential.  We think we have cracked that code.  About half of the story is in ZT’s proprietary new technology.  There’s a lot going on “under the hood” in both the electronics and the speaker, as well as how they work together synergistically.   The remaining part of the equation is time honored: we use excellent parts and very solid construction.  Powerful components plus build quality plus secret sauce equals Lunchbox.

FN:  Is this the ideal product for an aspiring musician or is better suited to a professional musician?

KK:  It’s definitely a product for serious players who value the essentials.  We don’t have a lot of effects and features built in.  Instead, we focused on getting the basics right.  Pros tend to like that, but so do a lot of weekend warriors.

FN:  I understand quite a few well known musicians are now using the Lunchbox both in the studio and live.  Why would they choose to use the Lunchbox over larger, more well-known amplifiers?

This certainly isn’t because of any advertising budget on our part.   Musicians really like the sound of the amp, and find it both convenient and inspiring.  Almost everyone who gets a chance to play a Lunchbox winds up wanting one.

FN:  How well does the Lunchbox hold up to the punishment of being on the road?

KK:  Better than I do. As I have said it’s a pretty solid piece of gear.  Several of the people at ZT are working musicians, including some who have toured on a national level.  We know what that is like.

FN:  What other products does ZT offer?

KK:  We currently offer three amps, one extension speaker cab, and some accessories such as carry bags.  Most recently, we introduced an “Acoustic” version of the original Lunchbox, designed to take a vocal microphone and instrument pickup at the same time.  It’s for folkies, singer/songwriters and a range of instruments beyond electric guitar.

The Lunchbox also has a slightly larger sibling called the Club that is a complete P4P champion. It can hold its own against almost anything.  It’s like an Lunchbox on Steroids, and with a few more controls and features.  Between the bunch, the ZT lineup has the needs of most bands covered.

FN:  We’re excited to announce that we’ll be offering ZT Amps as a virtual good in our new Figment Lucre Store very soon!  How does it feel to have ZT be the leader in virtual as well as real amplification?

KK:  Very cool!  I’m looking forward to becoming a simulated billionaire!