We spoke with David Babbitt about his experiences doing graphic design for Touch and Go Records, befriending Tom Morello in middle school, teaching David Yow how to use Photoshop and why ’90s design has aged poorly.
I never went out to make a career in rock. I was at the right place at the right time.
I understand that you have worked at Touch and Go Records as a graphic designer. As somebody with a visual art background, can you tell us that story? What were your connections to the independent music world at that time?
I was lucky. I never went out to make a career in rock. I was at the right place at the right time. The opportunities and experiences, friends and acquaintances the industry provided me with are why I traveled the path I did.
I attended the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD), at the time a small art college in the Third Ward. It is quite large now. Down the block from where I lived in the Bay View neighborhood a club had just opened called Café Voltaire. I was aware of the schedule but school took up all my free time. I passed on Black Flag there because the next day was Boy Dirt Car opening for Big Black. That was a show I wasn’t going to miss. Boy Dirt Car was one of big industrial bands in America before industrial went disco. Big Black had just released Racer-X and Jeff Pezzati was on the bass. At the show I worked up the nerve to approach Steve Albini and speak to him. He was as gracious as I was awkward and shy. He remembered the cartoon fan letter Jim MacAyeal had drawn that I made an appearance in. That was my first show at a club. I had seen bands in garages, smaller theaters and bigger venues but never with 300 people in a 120-person-limit venue filled with the smoke of a brick of fireworks. I was but a fly on the wall for that show but my brain was exploding.
During my first year of school I took an Intensive Foundations course taught by Chuck Vansen in a very old-world manner. We were assigned complex color and design projects that would require working through the night once or twice a week. Random colors and shapes decided by dice rolls. All so our brains would be exposed to infinite combinations good and bad, all while concentrating on perfect technical execution. These shapes and combinations sank into my subconscious, randomly springing to mind for years to come, especially in the shower. Chuck Vansen was subsequently fired because of the work load his classes required. Some parents expected art school to be fun. I later went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and that was more what those parents had in mind. I owe a large debt to Chuck Vansen. He taught me and many people how to “see.” And after learning to “listen” my career in rock clicked.
I went to MIAD with the intention of becoming an industrial designer – on par with Phillipe Stark, I fantasied. One of the required classes was called “Problem Solving.” It was a contemporary take on a traditional logic course. A semester-long project was assigned in the first class. A list of 100 names was handed out. All we had to do was to identify them all. Remember this was before the internet. The names were from all over: art, pop culture, architecture, history, science, each one very interesting in their own right. After the list was passed out and project explained we were allowed the rest of the class to fill in all we knew without any research. I filled in information on two thirds of the names. Far more than any of my classmates. I attribute this to the high school crowd where originality and knowledge was currency.
While on break, it may have been Thanksgiving, I went back home to Libertyville. From Libertyville I made the drive to Wax Trax! Records in Chicago. I now had reason to approach Marco Pezzati, who worked upstairs at Wax Trax! and of whom I was a bit star-struck. I knew of him from his show on Antidote radio and he had a bin at Wax Trax! named for him – “Marko music.” I didn’t know until years later that he founded Naked Raygun with Santiago Durango or that Jeff was even his brother. Mark O helped identify most of the remaining names on my list and fill in information on names I’d already identified. Mark Ohe went on to be the art director at Matador Records for two decades.
At the end of the semester, John Luttropp, the professor of the problem-solving class, arranged for the class to have a party at Café Voltaire during the day. I asked if I could spin records because I identified all the names on the list. He said sure. I had never played music for more than a handful of friends. What I had with me wasn’t near the norm of the day. I had all my Wax Trax! singles, Big Black’s Bulldozer EP, the Elephant Table compilation, Portion Control and others in those veins. A handful of my classmates attempted to enjoy what I was playing, others let it be known that it wasn’t what they liked but I didn’t care I was having the time of my life. While this was happening, a band was loading in. Once done, they sat down for pasta with the club’s owner. One of them, a really tall guy with even taller hair came over to say he liked what I was playing and that it was the coolest music he had heard all tour. He then asked me if I was the DJ for that night’s show. The club’s owner interjected that I was. So, my first DJ gig was for Skinny Puppy.
It was at Café Voltaire where I met the people who shaped the direction of my career in rock.
I became involved with the performance/music group PMT (Pioneers Of Modern Typography), the aforementioned John Luttropp, Frank (Francis) Ullenberg and the club owner Scott Shanke were the core performers. Each show was built around a theme. Original music was written, costumes and sets were built. All on a shoestring budget. Many other creatives in the Milwaukee scene lent a hand. I helped out with building sets, did some performing with them and came up with the concept for the Drama-Trauma show. A great example of teamwork and collaboration. There is a listing of all involved on their Facebook page.
Once a derelict hipster complained that what I was playing (Tackhead’s “What’s My Mission Now”) wasn’t music and he didn’t understand why kids liked it. His questioning was confrontational and he seemed ready to fight. Suddenly, Bobby Brabant, a DJ at one of Milwaukee’s big nightclubs whisked him away. I didn’t recognize him as Johnny Thunders. Apparently, his band didn’t make enough to make it to their next gig and he was playing a solo show at Voltaire for “gas” money.
I also spent a great evening having a heart-to-heart with the filmmaker Richard Kern the night Pussy Galore was there.
More important to me than the bands and celebrities that went through Voltaire were the people who worked there. It was though two of the bartenders I got my two big jobs in the music industry.
During this time, I gravitated from design to art courses–sculpture and print making in particular. Outside of school, I was getting traction in the local art scene. I was young and full of enthusiasm. Sculpture was a discipline just further afield of industrial design. I was young, why not give it a go. Also a field trip to Kohler Wisconsin influenced this change of mind. There I saw a big white room full of industrial designers, heads down at drawing tables, busy drawing faucets and commodes. I wasn’t ready for this to be my life just yet.
After attending MIAD, I went to the SAIC to focus on a life as a sculptor. The first big revelation I had was how important a support system of friends and resources are. To be more precise your friend’s resources are.)
Leila Eminson from Café Voltaire and Atomic Records soon moved to Chicago and ran Invisible Records with her then-husband Martin Atkins. It was at a house party they threw on their roof that I got to see the third show by The Jesus Lizard. Before the show I was chatting with Mac. We were both new to Chicago at the time. David Yow bouncing around and making people laugh. I was not prepared for the transformation to come. Martin lit up the two flood lights in coffee can casings he made. No PA, just amps. The Lizard was as fierce and as tight at that show as they would be for their run in real spotlights. The homemade lights drew thousands of moths. David kept spitting them out. The moths nearly clothed shirtless David (his pants stayed on this show). Leila went on to tour manage and eventually was David Bowie’s PA.
When I needed a job to make ends meet, Leila suggested I call up Bill Meiney and Mike Nash at Interzone. Interzone made many of the T-shirts for Wax Trax! and for Chicago bands like Naked Raygun. It was at Interzone I started designing T-shirts for bands, like A Split Second, Revolting Cocks, Naked Raygun…
Through the Wax Trax! scene I met Brian Shanley. He designed many of the iconic album jackets from the label and many of Ministry’s early records. I got to assist Brian on a Cassandra Complex cover; I had an early Mac Si and an early version of photoshop back when it was a Barney Scan program. I basically played the role of recording engineer for him. I also assisted him on some photoshoots. It was the first time I worked closely with someone I was a fan of.
Later the other bartender and manager of Voltaire, Diane Stevenson, moved to Chicago to live with Corey Rusk. Corey was looking for someone to help with ads for Touch and Go Records. I started doing those on the side.
While hanging out at Wax Trax!, which is what one would do with free afternoon time back then, I met Peter Wright from Mute Records. He was at the store with Renegade Soundwave. I told him about Interzone and gave him a card. Some time passed and Peter Wright called Bill Meiney to see if we wanted to handle the merchandizing for Laibach’s Kapital tour of North America. At that point Interzone had only printed and distributed shirts. This was whole new endeavor for the company. I was tossed into the merchandising game with no practical experience, just advice from The Young Gods’ tour manager and Chicago’s very own Sean Joyce.
We were stopped and denied entry to Canada because the weekend crew at the Niagara Falls border had never heard of Slovenia.
Touring with Laibach was at once a highpoint in my life and a changing point. The band was made up of doctors and lawyers and such – very educated people. Their company was eye opening to many of the issues we are dealing with today as a world community. The experience showed me that touring is grueling and not my thing. I had driven people and gear around the Midwest for local bands like Rights Of The Accused and Ministry/REVCO. This was different. The long sits between shows were tedious. It didn’t help that the band spoke amongst themselves in Slovenian. I caught myself laughing with them but not understanding a word.
We were stopped and denied entry to Canada because the weekend crew at the Niagara Falls border had never heard of Slovenia. There was no paperwork at the crossing stating Slovenia was a sovereign country. Because of this we didn’t make the Montreal show. Instead, we spent two nights on the US side of Niagara Falls. Hotels were not budgeted for so we slept on the bus. There was no power on the bus because no truck stop or campground was budgeted. The band was excited to see fellow Slovenian Nicola Tesla’s laboratory and share knowledge about him.
Touch and Go is a really special label. It has delivered amazing music for so many years. I’m curious as to how it worked from the inside during your time. Can you describe that with an anecdote or two?
I started working for Touch and Go doing freelance work. Corey had recently expanded into manufacturing and distribution. He made it possible for labels like Drag City, Thrill Jockey and Merge to get their start. He had assembled a team of like-minded personnel to handle manufacturing, sales, distribution and publicity. Touch and Go provided stable financial footing that a label starting out on their own would have taken a few years to develop.
The labels that were manufactured and distributed didn’t have to develop credit and standing with vendors and distributors. In the ensuing years these labels (should these be bands?) Trance, Invisible, Skin Graft, Atavistic, Dim Mak, Warm, Emperor Jones, Suicide Squeeze, Le Tigre and others were able to operate at a level alongside labels like Mute, Sub Pop and Matador. To do this we had to be very cost-conscious and keep waste down to ensure returns for the bands and labels. I have worked jobs before and since, for small and large companies, none of them were as efficient and flexible as Touch and Go.
The expanding TGDS (Touch and Go Distribution) required that Touch and Go move from the mezzanine space on Claremont to a new building. The Claremont building was originally built as a movie studio in the silent era. The T&G offices were on a wooden mezzanine, originally used for lights and cameras, that looked down on an auto parts packaging operation on the main floor. Towards the end of our stay there, the floor was extended to be a full floor but the ceiling stayed head-bumpingly low. Corey then bought a three-story building in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago and spent a year building it out.
My office was at the far east of the new building. The computer setup was on a custom loft above what used to be a bathroom with room underneath for flat files. The nice wood floor stopped at the edge of the loft and what was under the loft was damaged concrete. The desk top was curved so I could swivel around and reach everything. I painted the windows black so the daylight didn’t have any effect on what was on the monitors. I also didn’t keep any posters or images from bands in the office. That was so when I would be working with bands they would be less likely to compare and contrast with other work. The office had a bench I got from the Greyhound station in downtown Chicago. It was fiberglass and had formed seats but many bands claimed it was comfortable, even enough to sleep on.
The work atmosphere was unique. The common denominator was that we were there because we believed in what we were doing. Those that didn’t share that belief and work ethic didn’t stay around long. A handful of us still assist some ten years after the implosion happened.
Corey’s doing-it-for-the-bands approach engendered the same motivation in the staff. Granted, people would mess about and have fun there but fucking off to the point of being a problem usually was dealt with through peer pressure before it became an issue. Corey cared about us as much as he cared about the bands. One band member came down with shingles and Corey paid the medical bills. When I was hit by a car and broke my neck, Corey picked me up at the hospital when I was released.
One thing Corey did that set Touch and Go apart from the other big indies of the time is he provided the full-time staff with health insurance and a retirement account. That was more than just saying he appreciated what we did. He acted on it. Because of that we had the same core of 12-15 people for nearly twenty years.
The story of the Butthole Surfers’ court battle with the label is well-known. It hurt Corey and the staff who felt a personal connection to the members of the band. One thing that I haven’t seen mentioned in articles about the Butthole ordeal is that Corey kept putting out records from Trance Syndicate, King Coffee’s label. He told us that Trance was separate from the Buttholes and not to let that situation affect our personal dealings with Trance or King.
When Girls Against Boys signed to Geffen Records they told Geffen that they still owed T&G one more record and were going to do it. When the day came for them to leave they all came to Chicago and hosted a cookout for the staff. Class act.
When Yeah Yeah Yeahs moved on to Interscope, they invited the T&G staff to their shows and every time we outlasted the Interscope people. I like to think it is because for Interscope, it was a job, but for us, the YYYs were our mates.
Friendship was a big factor when Corey decided which bands we were going to work with. One of the first examples of this I saw was at a company meeting. Corey told us that Silkworm’s van had broken down and because Matador had the cash to rescue their tour they were not signing to Touch and Go as had been expected. Corey told us that they were still friends and not to get weird around them. They did eventually make it to Touch and Go where they released some of their finest records. (Yes, I am biased.)
Around the same time was the announcement about a band that was also as good as on T&G. Corey had gone to NYC to finalize things with a guy who was in a legendary band of the time and planning on going solo. All went well business-wise, but at the show Corey observed how the “star” treated the crew and the rest of his band. He told us he didn’t want someone treating us like that and passed on the deal. He passed on many big name post-punk bands for similar reasons. The bands he did work with became as much family as the staff was. Uzeda, upon landing from Catania, cooked us all a fabulous pasta dinner. They profusely apologized because the salami they had with them for the meal was confiscated at customs.
In 2002, Shellac curated All Tomorrow’s Parties at the Camber Sands Holiday Resort in Rye, England. About a third of the bands were on T&G and Quarterstick. Corey closed down T&G for the days bookending the weekend and flew us all there. All we had to do was feed ourselves. It was like going to summer camp with your coworkers. You could write a whole article just from that weekend. Christian and Rachel from Rachel’s became the house string section for the festival – they are that good that bands kept asking them to sit in. They couldn’t have had much time or space to rehearse. Michael from Silkworm became part of a football sideline, complete with their own chant. He stood up from his drums and led them in the chat at one point in Silkworm’s set. I got to see Cheap Trick from 15 feet away and they took me back to my fourteen-year-old self. Thanks again, Shellac of North America, that was a magic weekend.
Even the bands that just passed though the building were, for the most part, on the same trip. I was between apartments for a month and staying on a buddy’s couch. One night his girlfriend was coming over, so I made myself scarce. I grabbed a couple blankets and a pillow and crashed out in my office. Fugazi and Shellac came over to the office that night. They set up to play the dice game Kuruki on a pool table we had in the mailing room. Ian came into my office while I was sleeping to grab a chair. He quietly apologized to me and asked to use the chair. No one ever mentioned my sleeping in the office, not Corey or anyone at the label. Maybe Ian kept it to himself or the others were cool with it. It was a small thing, but it had a big impact on me.
Please tell us about your childhood and early relationship to creative work. I understand you’ve crossed paths with some interesting characters in school, too. Can you tell us about that?
I grew up in Libertyville, Illinois with the kids who would be the class of ‘82-‘84.
For middle school, I went to an experimental “open” school. I was friends with Adam Jones (Tool) and Jimmy Broustis (X-Tal, Shotwell) from 5th grade on. I met Tommy Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, Prophets of Rage) at my neighbor’s 13th birthday party. When we would hang out at Tom’s house watching TV and talking, he would be playing his guitar constantly. His mom, Mary Morello, was a teacher at our high school; she helped us all out in many ways. I was having personal problems at home and she stepped up when she didn’t have to and most people wouldn’t. The Morellos are very good people.
In high school, I hung out with Maureen Herman’s (Babes In Toyland) best friend, whose older brother, Hugh Brown, did actual album covers by cool bands. He attained a mythical status among us. Only Maureen actually met him, I believe. These and others from this clique would go on to do great things in their respective fields.
Jim Naureckas, one of the principal film makers and key members of the underground newspaper at our high school, went on to a long career as the editor of Extra!, the magazine for the media watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.
Jeff Schmitz, who had a career as a pro golfer and went to prom with Maureen, turned me on to Touch and Go with his frequent spins of Negative Approach’s Tied Down (who, I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting to sound at all like they did with that Snidely Whiplash cover). I am now doing covers for Jeff’s band Nothing Of Merit.
At the time the bands, shows, movies and newspapers that this group created seemed the normal and right thing to do. Nothing else was going on unless you made it happen. Even before crossing paths with the Big Boys, “go start your own band” were words we lived by even if we didn’t know the phrase yet. There is a whole slew of stories about that group of kids from Libertyville. Look up the band Electric Sheep.
Inspired by Eno’s “King’s Lead Hat,” we messed about in my mother’s garage banging on metal before discovering the likes of Neubauten, Boy Dirt Car or Test Department. It was the discovery we were grooving on. No aspirations for anything other than that. When we discovered others were further along that path it vindicated what we were doing. We may have shared three to five tapes total. One afternoon, my friend Jim MacAyeal and I co-opted an older friend’s Sabbath cover band and we quickly recorded a hardcore song. That song made it to WNUR’s Fast and Loud show.
Discovering new bands required work. Older kids in the neighborhood and the records Hugh would give his sister were early sources for exciting new music. Libertyville at the time was surrounded by farms and not yet part of the suburban sprawl of Chicago. We had Dog Ear, a head shop/record store that carried most of the major label releases of the time, but not much more. They did carry the Chicago Reader, Chicago’s free alternative weekly that would list the schedules of the nightclubs so we knew what we were missing and, for the most part, too young to go see. On some nights, if the weather was right, WVVX’s Antidote Radio show could be heard. I would tape shows by Bud Sweet, Terry Nelson, Marko Pezzati and Leslie Stevens, then try to identify the name, if the song’s title wasn’t listed, and search out the records. With the advent of Discogs, I am still finding titles from those broadcasts. The shows on Antidote Radio would sometimes be sponsored by a record store in the City called Wax Trax!.
Frequent pilgrimages were made to Wax Trax! It was as magical as all the stories and the documentary made it out to be. For a few years going in there would be like going to another planet. Sounds never heard before would be playing. Some of the employees looked like nothing I had ever seen before – Frankie Nardiello (Thrill Kill Kult’s Groovie Mann) looked like a Krishna the first time I saw him. Others looked like they could be your parents. In fact, there were little kids running around behind the counter (future friend of most of Chicago, Julia Nash and her brother, Aaron) because the owners, Jim and Dannie, were parents. I took chances on used records and fanzines based on covers. On one visit to Wax Trax!, they had a display of some of the 12” singles they had started putting out. I got the lot of them, expecting that Naked Raygun’s Flammable Solid single to still be there on my next visit. Life is full of regrets. Some you get over, some you don’t.
Many of the faces I came to recognize on those trips I would meet and become friends with once I moved to Chicago after my time in Milwaukee.
Can you provide a detailed list of every record you worked on? Do you have any drafts or behind-the-scenes images of you making them?
Oh jeez, I have been posting much of the packaging I have worked on online but it is slow going. I am trying to get the artists involved to share their stories. A “behind the art” kind of thing. There are a lot more out there that I helped with on a technical level. One of the major printers we did loads of business with actually contacted me recently in regards to technical questions about prepress and printing. But an overall list would take a while and I don’t want to miss any. Not in the completist sense, but I’d want to include the hundred or so jobs I did just to help out friends. I don’t want to run into “you listed them, why didn’t you list us.”
Images of art in progress or versions not used touch on my feelings about extended releases. The album is worked on to be delivered as a whole. I don’t feel it is my place to share what the band didn’t want to include in the album proper.
Releases full of bonus tracks and demos are rarely fulfilling to me. Slint’s “Cortez The Killer” is an exception, but this is a live track so it really doesn’t fit that criteria. Bands take time and think about what it is they want on their album. Album art is the same way for me. I have been offered good money to raid the archives for folks but without the request coming from the band themselves I would never remove parts. With the digital age, many of the covers have been reconstructed from the original parts after the films had been lost. That said, some things like Larissa’s art boards for Laughing Hyenas’ records fully qualify as works of art on their own. Maybe they will turn up in the reissues.
When a band is more hands-off, I tend to listen to the art they have provided me with, be it a photograph, painting or a sketch. Hopefully there is enough in the art to provide direction.
Have you ever collaborated with other artists on major decisions, or are you mostly a loner when you create?
Very rarely has cover art been entirely of my own conception. Most of the musicians I have worked for are extremely creative. In design, every client knows what they don’t like. Finding out what they do like is the trick. Helping the band/musician to realize their aesthetic vision has been my guiding principle. Finding the balance between my own opinions and the band’s vision is frequently tricky – when to give an answer to bolster confidence in the case of something not being to my tastes but fitting with the band’s aesthetic. These are case-by-case decisions. Sometimes a series of options are needed so they can see different solutions.
When working on Blonde Redhead’s Fake Can Be Just As Good with Kazu Makino, she expressed remorse that she couldn’t do the art all herself. She had no problem coming up with ideas and methods. This concern prompted an epiphany. My answer to her, one I keep coming back to keep me focused, was to think of me as she would a recording engineer. I know how all the gear works, how the printing processes work and what is required of the art by the labels and distributors. I am just a keeper of the studio so to speak.
On some occasions, a yes-man kind of answer was requested to move things along. These were uncomfortable situations. Luckily this was rare and usually from the few bands that had managers or A&R men. One of the visionaries I worked with for a few of their early records is the band Living Things. I worked closely with Lillian, the eldest of the Berlin brothers. The designing of the records went fine, for the last one we spent a day fine-tuning along with his future wife, the videographer Floria Sigamondi. The cover image was a still from a video she had directed for the band. Working with Lillian and Floria was a treat. Lillian had passion, Floria had vision, and I provided technical experience. When it got to promotional items I dealt with the record label, Dreamworks. The people at Dreamworks had little understanding of what they had. Living Things were cut from the same cloth musically and politically as the MC5 were. Dreamworks kept asking for imagery “more punk, like Linkin Park.”
One of the odder reactions when creating art with a band – which probably speaks volumes about the type of people making music in the underground – was making sure all the band members were equally represented. For example, The Delta 72 was releasing a Japan-only instrumental EP. Gregg Foreman provided a live action shot to feature on the cover. The cover also has an image of the keys of a Farfisa organ with a red tint. Taking a cue from the music and inspiration of James Brown live performance posters, I cut out the image of Gregg doing a scissor kick while swinging his guitar and made it bigger and intruding into the keyboard image. Gregg liked that one the best but didn’t want to overshadow the other musicians in the band. So we went with the version where the image was untouched. Total respect to Mr. Foreman.
Another example of this reaction was when I was working with Kazu on the aforementioned Fake Can Be Just As Good. The three images on the cover were taken with an early digital camera (the first I had been exposed to) that Kazu bought in Japan. She and the Pace brothers took photos of each other in the bathroom of one of their apartments in Italy.
She showed me the photos she liked and the ones she thought she should use. The photo of Amedeo where he is oddly framed, with his leg seeming to come out of his chin and filling half the frame, was the preferred image but she was concerned about offending him because he looked odd. I was operating without any idea of the personal dynamics of a band, which I rarely do. I made a point for the image. We prepared a proof to show the brothers and Kazu sold it. I still feel that image makes the cover. It harkens back to the Dada movement.
One evening in my office, Joey Burns was trying to describe the look he had in mind for one of Calexico’s tour CDs. I got where he was going; I had seen his doodles in the past so I feigned the need for visual aids. He sketched out what he was thinking of. When he and John had left the office I scanned them in and added very simple color to the drawings. The moment he realized he was the one who drew them was high point for me.
Sometimes bands come to me cold with no ideas at all and we talk. One instance like this was with John Schemercal of Enon. We were talking about what he wanted to do for the record that would be High Society. Our discussion led to our mutual admiration for the Sparks covers. Ron Mael has done the art for every Sparks cover. I shot off an email to the label Sparks were on at the time asking if Ron would be interested in doing the cover and what his rate was. A month or so passed, and John had found the O-MATIC Plus Corp to do the cover art and the record was underway. I had forgotten about the email when I got a call from Ron Mael himself. He told me how moved and honored he was to be considered but he was busy finishing up Lil’ Beethoven so he couldn’t do it. We spoke for more than an hour. He told me we were the first people to approach him about art in his career. He was proud of his visual work and happy to know there were bands out there that recognized that side of his work. It would have sucked to say “Sorry, you are too late,” or maybe John would have recorded another record just to accommodate the art.
I like it best when the band is involved, shares opinions and provides direction. One of the most nerve-wracking projects for me was working on art for the Mekons. Most of them are fine working artists themselves. All those thoughts of art college critiques would come back to mind, but for the most part they would stand back and let me get on with it. In their case, the silence was as unnerving as bands having arguments over art with me in the middle. The cover to their record OOOH! was created with chap sheets the band had made in the studio while recording. All they requested is that I collage the sheets together. I fell back to my silkscreening days and approached the art as I would have one of my own projects. Letting the images speak to each other informing me where to place them. The GM at Touch and Go said it was the ugliest cover he had ever seen, but Jon Langford told me it was perfect. There is no point in trying to please everyone or even everyone in the band.
When a band is more hands-off, I tend to listen to the art they have provided me with, be it a photograph, painting or a sketch. Hopefully there is enough in the art to provide direction.
Once I talked down a band from breaking up. The tension of creating the art was amplifying other tensions in the band. I lent an ear and urged them to remember why they made music together and what they saw in each other as people.
But just as no good deed goes unpunished, I walked into my office where a different band was hanging out in a bubble of quiet animosity. Not quite noticing this, I said something to the effect of “Why the long faces? The tour is over.” That burst the bubble and one of them announced “The band is over!” I don’t know if that was decided before or at that moment. Either way, I felt like dirt.
In the ’90s there was lots of design that was inspired by what the computer could do. Wacky stretched text and images. It was all a blast the first time you did it, but it aged like sour cream in the sun.
How has technology changed your approach to graphic design over the years? What computer programs did you use at the beginning? What are you using now?
At Libertyville High School I took technical drawing classes where I learned to use pencil and ink. I also took photography and graphics classes, and spent much time in the darkrooms, on occasion mixing projects to see how a negative I shot for photography would work on the stat camera and how stat camera tricks would work in the photography darkroom. The one module I didn’t do in graphics class was typesetting, it would have meant a day not in the darkroom. I had no idea how much of my life would be spent typesetting, nor did I want to mess around with the old-fashioned photo-electric typesetter.
When I started art college there were no computers. Wax and stats were the order of the day. In my second year, the design department bought a 518K Mac. This was for teachers only. In my third year, the school opened its computer graphics department. The department consisted of three, Watasch 400 graphic workstations. The Watasch machines were custom built. Only ten or so were ever built. They came equipped with an 8” floppy drive and a 20mb hard disk. My roommate got into the classes when they were first offered. When she was working on projects after hours, I would go in to visit and ended up working on her projects while she would have coffee and a smoke.
The head of MIAD’s computer lab was Bob Solem. He also published a Xerox magazine called See. Each issue of See had a theme. See would have opening parties at a local bar with a band that would create a show that corresponded to that issue of See Magazine. Pay your five bucks and you were as good as in the issue.
At Interzone, the company that printed T-shirts for Wax Trax! bands, I used a traditional stat camera and darkroom. We had a Mac Plus, but that was the computer the whole company used. The Plus could be used for basic typesetting. The paper output would be waxed up and films shot. Shooting halftones required a special screen and some burning and dodging skills.
When I was at Interzone making T-shirts, Macs were just gaining a foothold in the graphics world. I would use them when I could borrow them before we got one. Most work was done traditionally with waxed layout boards. Half toning for T-shirts was a skill because of the angles of the halftone screen and silk screen could cause moiré patterns.
Prior to taking the job at Touch and Go, I bought a stat camera a design firm was selling – the big kind that mounts on a wall that separates the darkroom from the image area. I had used a stat camera to great effect at Interzone and for one hundred dollars the camera seemed a deal. I have never set it up. (Mom, I promise I will move that camera out of your garage one day.)
The first job I used Photoshop for was a tour shirt for A Split Second. Eric Zimmerman of UNGH, Crunch-O-Matic and the H-Gun video company worked at a computer firm that had a Mac IIX. Eric let me in after hours and showed me the ropes of Photoshop 93, the software bundled with Barney scanners.
Arnold Hidaka introduced me to Quark Express which at the time was the best page layout program out there. Arnold shared space with Infocomm, the happening service bureau in Chicago. At the time Infocomm was open 24 hours. Infocomm was a scene in itself. They had Crossfield drum scanners and large format Linotype-Hell flatbed scanners. Back in the days of film, Infocomm was the place to get your films made. The overnight crew had drum circles, and all that you would associate with drum circles around the fire-well.
In the ’90s there was lots of design that was inspired by what the computer could do. Wacky stretched text and images. It was all a blast the first time you did it, but it aged like sour cream in the sun.
I played with Pagemaker, mainly because Jason Nobel (Rodan, Rachel’s, Shipping News) used it so to finalize his records I had to use it. I played with the first incarnation of InDesign but it wasn’t until a few versions in that it eclipsed QuarkXPress and became my go-to program; Illustrator and Photoshop round it out. I do use Lightroom to fine-tune photos. The control Lightroom has is incredible. The front and back images on the last Bottomless Pit records were totally different color spaces. Making them look like they were shot on the same day with the same settings is due to the power of Lightroom.
I try to make much of what I do now look like it was made traditionally: softening type by printing and scanning it, subtle modifications that hopefully change the digital edge of having too perfect of a product.
I understand that you taught David Yow of The Jesus Lizard how to use Photoshop. Can you tell us about that? Did you teach Photoshop to any other Touch and Go musician?
When I was at Voltaire I was told to go see Scratch Acid and that I would get on famously with David. I had been at the club for a few nights in a row and had schoolwork to do, so I passed. But what they had told me turned out to be true. Before I started full time at Touch and Go, David Yow came over so I could show him how to use Photoshop. We got on famously and had a great day playing with Photoshop and shooting the breeze.
David had no problems using the Photoshop tools. He is an accomplished painter with an art school background. He mainly needed to know the workflow and what the icons and shortcuts were.
I was later told that this may have helped seal the deal with my joining Touch and Go full time. Funny thing is that when the implosion happened in 2009 and TG closed its Chicago office, David and I were working on The Jesus Lizard reissues. One of my last weeks in the office was one of the most fun.
Clashing colors and uneven patterns can have the same appeal as skronky free jazz or pure noise.
How would you explain visual elegance versus visual vulgarity? In your mind, is there a border between those two opposing concepts?
To me everything is grey, a continuum. As the question is posited it can easily be compared to music or cultural norms. There is no hard and fast answer because in the end it is from the eye of the beholder or the ear of the listener.
Visually you start with fully saturated colors and classic composition. 4/4 beat in the key of C. As one experiences more they pick up on genres and styles. The brain of a curious person keeps making order out of the presumed disorder it is exposed to. The unfamiliar becomes familiar, the uncomfortable accessible. Some people start seeking out the difficult because it presses new and hard-to-reach buttons. Visual art isn’t as demanding of an immediate answer as audible art, in that there is less pressure to state your alliance on an image in comparison to expressing your stance with music. When you sit with a piece of visual work and really let your mind accept it, many of the same sort of experiences and judgements take place like when you listen to music.
Clashing colors and uneven patterns can have the same appeal as skronky free jazz or pure noise. Flying Luttenbachers and Whitehouse come to mind. Few vanilla people, musically, would find enjoyment in those bands on first listen. But with an expanse of experience or a very curious mind there is much in both of these bands to appreciate. Like music, poor execution can be key to the images success and ability to emote.
It boils down to the perception of the observer, where their comfort zone is. Elegance and vulgarity and all points between are judgement calls. In regards to what I do when designing with a band, I have to adjust my point of view to that of the artist, setting my personal tastes aside and adopting the artist’s.
Finally, can you list and give us an example of 5-10 fonts you enjoy? Why do you enjoy them? What do they evoke within you?
My first real awareness of fonts as a thing were press-type sheets. The order yet organicity of them struck me. The seemingly random distribution of characters, sure they were weighted by use but not how we used them. Eurostile, Stop and Fette Fraktur were early favorites. Eurostile and Stop because of how futuristic they looked, and besides being fun to say and weird to spell, Fette Fraktur looked menacing.
The fonts Neville Brody did for Face magazine were the most modern things around when I first saw them. Now they have attained the ubiquity of Hobo. Anything that is of its time will look dated. But I don’t think that is a bad thing. Every generation will find its own voice but says pretty much the same thing as the last, “we are unique and let us tell you why.” Well, I hope they still are.
Adobe Garamond was the first font I really fell for its subtleness. Times was everywhere, and it was the weight of the Garamond strokes and the balance of the ascenders and descenders that intrigued me.
My friend Jim Marcus (Go Fight/Die Warzau) started designing fonts for the T24 font foundry. His designs exposed me to many out-of-the-ordinary fonts. It was from watching over his shoulder that I picked up on designing fonts. Creating a well-designed font can take months. There are so many relationships in space/negative space, kerning between letters, ligatures. There is an incredible about of care and attention involved. And just like music, people expect them for free now.
When I took on designing typefaces it was for specific jobs I was working on. I tended to focus more on the quality of the line rather than going for shapes that hadn’t been seen before. For the Mekons record Natural I wanted an old typeface that didn’t look old-timey but did look old in that lead type sort of way. I used an old copy of Ben Hect’s A Thousand and One Days in Chicago as the source and went from there.
For Dead Child, I scratched the faces out of the black of exposed film; the rough edges I paid so close attention to getting just right were far too small to come out in the print. As a headline font it would be devastatingly metal.
You didn’t get much of people going off on ego-driven, treat-me-like-a-star trips because the response would frequently be “OK, go off and be a star. Good luck.”
Any final words for us?
The community of the indie rock world (I mean that in the business sense rather than the musical genera) is what has kept me inspired and involved with the scene to this day. The term “indie” seems like a misnomer to me. Granted, the bands, labels, promotional agencies, pressing plants, and booking agencies are independent from the major labels who as companies contained all those elements. “Interdependent” always felt the more fitting term. All these separate entities were beholden to treat each other fairly and with respect. You didn’t get much of people going off on ego-driven, treat-me-like-a-star trips because the response would frequently be “OK, go off and be a star. Good luck.”
This notion of interdependence guided me through this community. All these people have influenced and formed the life I have lead. I showed my daughter the movie A Different State Of Mind, the documentary about a Youth Brigade tour. When it was over I asked her what she thought. She said she was sad because those things can’t happen anymore. “Yes and no” was my response. The particulars have changed but you can still find community and adventure. The form it takes changes with the times. A good example is a box set for Dead Voices On Air where we all communicated over Facebook. Mark Spybey was in England, the photographer and other artist on the recording, Marco Roberti, was in Argentina and Yuen Wah, the guy who released it, was in Hong Kong. A different kind of community but a community nonetheless.
I was dependent on help from Justin Sinkovich, a former co-worker at T&G and the head of File 13 Records as well as the guitarist for The Poison Arrows, and from Megan Warmouth, a present co-worker at my day job, for editing and grammatical help.
Curated by: Julien Fernandez
Conducted by: Email
Published: October 12, 2017
Total questions: 10
Word count: 8326
Reading time: Thirty minutes
Neville Brody: Yes
Tour over: Band over
Mekons’ OOOH!: Perfect
Sour cream: Aged
Right place: Right time
Adobe, All Tomorrow’s Parties, animosity, archive, Atavistic, Big Black, Boy Dirt Car, brain, Brian Eno, Butthole Surfers, Calexico, camera, Corey Rusk, cover, Dada, David Babbitt, David Pajo, David Yow, Delta 72, design, Dim Mak, dirt, distributor, Dog Ear, Drag City, Dreamworks, elegance, Emperor Jones, face, feeling, frame, graphic, illustration, imploding, Interscope, invisible, Japan, Jon Langford, judgement, Killdozer, Le Tigre, ligature, magazine, music, Naked Raygun, Neil Young, Neville Brody, Niagara Falls, Nothing of Merit, Pagemaker, Photoshop, Pinback, Portion Control, Racer-X, Rage Against The Machine, record, Revolting Cocks, rock, Shellac, Silkworm, Skin Graft, Skinny Puppy, Slint, Slovenia, Steve Albini, Suicide Squeeze, tension, Test Department, The Jesus Lizard, The Mekons, Thrill Jockey, Tom Morello, Touch and Go Records, trance, underground, Uzeda, vendor, visual, vulgarity, warm, wax Trax, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, yes-man, Youth Brigade
About the curator
Julien Fernandez was born in Mayenne, France in 1976. He currently lives and works in Pescara, Italy with his wife, two kids and a dog, Lenny. He is captivated by structural relations between objects, animal behavior, contagion and magic, and is currently working on a mechanism that would classify mental images in the physical world. He also designs and envisions the day-to-day architecture of North of the Internet.
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