A Rational Conversation: FYF Fest's Sean Carlson on Taking DIY Spirit to the Next Level Without F***ing Up...
A Rational Conversation is a regular column by writer Eric Ducker where he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s recently entered pop-culture consciousness.
This weekend brings the 10th edition of the FYF Festival, an annual Los Angeles tradition that began in 2003 as the Fuck Yeah Fest – a clusterfuck indeed of local acts playing clubs and makeshift venues on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard in L.A.'s Echo Park neighborhood. Having long since adopted a less curse-wordy name, FYF Fest has developed into a two-day event held outdoors at L.A. Historic Park just outside of downtown with an international, 70-plus act lineup that this year includes indie royalty spanning My Bloody Valentine, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and FLAG to Solange, The Breeders performing Last Splash, No Age, Baroness, Waxahatchee, and Death Grips (we’ll see what happens there!).
Since its start, FYF’s primary organizer has been Sean Carlson, a scrappy promoter that many L.A. music fans rooted for, even when his events went awry. Carlson put on the first FYF when he was 18, but as he approaches 30, he’s become much less reckless and has tried to take a more professional approach. This tactic has included bringing in Goldenvoice, the company best known for the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival, to handle some aspects of the FYF Festival. Ducker got on the phone with Carlson to talk about how he and the festival have evolved over the past 10 years.
Eric Ducker: In watching the FYF grow, what’s always interested me is the ambition. There are different types of ambition: I’m talking about having big ideas, not the connotation of wanting to make a lot of money.
Sean Carlson: In the first year of FYF, I had never booked a show outside of a D.I.Y. space. I was 18 and bored with the shows that I was going to in Los Angeles. Earlier that year, I was travelling across the country with friends and I went to a show that was in multiple venues – you could walk in and out of rooms and see all these bands; it became almost like an art walk. For me, at 18, that was really exciting, but that show had bands mostly from the same genre. When I got home, I thought I’d be great to have a mix of bands that would never play with one another, and then there would be comedy and art, too. It was a very ambitious idea, and I had no idea what I was doing. The first year it was free: I thought 100 or 200 people would show up, and 2000 people showed up. There was no schedule, bands didn’t know where they were playing – 10 bands showed up and just drove off. But it had a sense of community because it was all local bands, all local artists, and all local comedians: there would be, say, a crust-punk band playing next door to Zach Galifianakis doing comedy. It was a very ambitious idea that year. In Los Angeles, people don’t get put in situations where they have to talk; it was almost like a social experiment. Each year the festival has changed in a sense because I’ve been getting older. I still have very ambitious ideas, but I try to make them more realistic. I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot, like when I did the F-Yeah Tour in 2008, where we bought a school bus and 20 of us, 27 at some points, drove across the country.
Eric Ducker: Is it possible to find a balance between ambitious ideas and technical realities?
Sean Carlson: When you’re a young kid, you’re fearless. We did a show that was the second Mess With Texas [held during 2008’s South By Southwest conference]. The first one we did was in a club in Austin. For the second one we thought we should make it really big: The Breeders wanted to perform, and Graham [Williams], who does Fun Fun Fun Fest and Transmission Entertainment, was all for it. We got Waterloo Park in Austin, and we put it all together without really doing a budget because we were so excited and it was so new to us. On the day of the event, we didn’t have security, and we had our friends working as staff. There were ten-thousand people there, and it all worked out: there were no fights, and people were happy. But it shouldn’t have worked out that way; it could have gone wrong. I was so young, and luckily got by. So now it’s become doing something that’s not a massive risk, but I know is going to make sense in the end. There have been times when I know I’m going to lose money on a event, but I know it makes sense for us to do it – we’re going to learn from it, and we’re going to grow, and people are going to build trust in us. And other times it’s just stupidity, and I won’t go down that path.
Eric Ducker: Have you become more risk averse?
Sean Carlson: No. The lineup for this year’s FYF is much bigger, so there’s more risk involved with it. It’s just smarter risk. There are times when it’s like, 'This makes no sense.’ And there are other times when it’s a good investment – we may not see the money immediately, but it will make sense to do this.
Eric Ducker: So you’re saying the risk this year at the FYF Fest is spending more money to get the bands you have?
Sean Carlson: That is a larger risk. And a lot of people are scared to do that. They’ll go with what’s easy, and book the same bands over and over again, and that’s one thing I can’t do. I’m not interested in just repeating myself, and if I ever do, I’m going to stop this.
Eric Ducker: That’s the thing with ambition: if you think big one year, you have to think bigger the next year.
Sean Carlson: That’s really true, but you don’t want to think too big. A lot of people want to try to get the biggest band possible, and they end up getting them, but they don’t sell the tickets, or they don’t have the infrastructure for it. For the FYF Fest, I don’t want to take the biggest risk any more; I want to put on the favorite show for the fans and myself. I want them to think about it every day of the summer and just get excited. That’s my goal. Instead of the risk element, I just want to put on the best show possible.
Eric Ducker: Do you think you’re making fewer mistakes now, or do you just accept that mistakes are going to get made and you’ll learn from them for the next time?
Sean Carlson: Now there’s so much planning for the festival. There are so many people involved. Everybody is focused. It does take me a long time to make decisions, and it drives the people that I work with a little bit crazy, but they understand and know that I can’t make impulse decisions. I used to when I was young, but I can’t make them at all any more because the fans and the bands are at stake. I can’t do something that will jeopardize their comfort at the festival.
Eric Ducker: Was there one event where you decided afterwards, “I can’t let this happen again”?
Sean Carlson: Absolutely, [FYF Fest] in 2010. I don’t want to throw who was in control under the bus, so I’ll say FYF was in control, and we didn’t have enough food and beverages at the festival. There were long lines, and people were upset. If you wait in a long line, you’re going to be upset; if you wait for an hour, you’re going to be very upset, and that’s what ended up happening. From there, I decided that we needed to partner with Goldenvoice. Paul [Tollett, Goldenvoice big cheese and Coachella co-founder] and I met; we had been friends for a long time, so it was a very natural relationship going into it. I told him that I needed help with the infrastructure. I could do the booking, I could handle promotions and the marketing. With the infrastructure, I wanted to be involved, but I wanted someone else to take the lead on it, and that’s where Goldenvoice came in. They’ve done an amazing job.
Eric Ducker: As FYF has grown, it has taken on some of the traits of what have become the accepted American festival practices.
Sean Carlson: I get hate mail all the time. If I just did the same thing over and over again, I would quit. I look at FYF like this is my band with my friends. As I said before, the second I start repeating myself, I’m done. I don’t need to do this for the rest of my life. Hopefully I will; hopefully I will continue to be inspired enough, but I don’t need to do this in a club because people like the intimacy. It was great [to do it in clubs], and that was a great way to start, but why do that over and over again? We do over 50 shows in L.A. a year, from 50-person capacity to 600-person capacity spaces.
Eric Ducker: Are things like two-day passes and VIP-passes just the reality of doing a festival now?
Sean Carlson: You can look at it another way. The two-day pass is an interesting thing. As a festival, the hardest thing is to go to two days. If you offer single-day tickets, a majority of people will just go to one day; they don’t want to make the commitment. We offered the single-day tickets right when we went on sale, and the amount we had allocated sold out immediately. It would have jeopardized the festival and its future had we continued to put them on sale. When booking the festival, at least in my mind, the ending moment is seeing My Bloody Valentine, and hopefully being there the entire time, not just showing up at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. There will be people who do that, but there’s this big picture, and I want people to experience the whole thing. It’s only two days, it’s not three days. We’re doing later start times – doors are at 2:00 p.m., and it starts at 2:30 p.m. or 3:00 p.m. each day – so the majority of people will be able to go home to their beds and can eat breakfast at their house. Two days of 12 hours of music is too much. It really throws you off when you stay at home. When you stay at a hotel or you camp, you can totally do 12 hours, because that’s the destination. But when you go home, you’re not going to want to go back for another 12 hours.
Eric Ducker: As someone who doesn’t always make it out to Coachella any more, one of the bummers is that so many bands don’t make it to L.A. on that tour because of the radius clause. Have people had issues with FYF, because this is another Southern California festival that keeps bands out of clubs in L.A.?
Sean Carlson: There are always people who want to see My Bloody Valentine or Beach House or Roky Erickson in a club, but it’s one of these things where I can do my best to provide the festival experience for them, but I can’t do both. It just doesn’t work. We’re selling tickets right now, but we’re still a ways away from selling out, and until you’re selling out before the lineup is announced, you shouldn’t be booking club shows around that. There are some festivals that do. Lollapalooza has dozens of club nights around Chicago, and it’s just another source of income for them and the bands, but we can’t do that.
Eric Ducker: The festival scene in the United States is expanding so much right now. Is the goal at this point to sell out before you even announce the lineup, or to switch to two weekends, as Coachella has done in recent years?
Sean Carlson: I’m not even thinking about that. I’m not thinking about selling out a year in advance or doing two weekends at all – I’m thinking about what’s making it a better fan experience and a better band experience. I’m thinking about how we incorporate different genres of music, and do it in a respectful way. How do we make it a smoother festival? How do I make the 35-year-old watch a band and be next to a 16-year-old kid and not be uncomfortable? Coachella is one of the few festivals in this country where you feel comfortable. There are other festivals around the country, and I don’t need to say names, but if you’re older, you feel uncomfortable, you feel alienated, and you don’t want to be there. I want the fans to be able to stand next to each other and have a good time. I just want this to be a better festival experience.
Eric Ducker: At what point did you start thinking about the fan experience? How many years in?
Sean Carlson: I’ve always thought about the fan experience, but I thought about it differently. In 2009, the fan experience was the ticket price, because I was so young and had the Dischord ethic where it needs to be cheap – it has to be 20 bucks. I didn’t know anything about budgets; I just thought, “Let’s do this! We’re going to do it in the park.” And we lost over $100,000. Everyone that we lost money to, I called and said, “Give me some time.” I didn’t have a loan, I didn’t have anyone to bail me out, so I just worked as hard as I could and did tons of odd jobs, and within a year was able to pay it off. Then I started to realize that I’m hurting the fans by making it cheap. Granted, they’re more interested in going, but when they go, they’re upset. We did one more where we thought we stepped it up, but we didn’t, and that’s when we brought in Goldenvoice. Paul and I met and we decided to make it a better experience. That’s obviously going to bring the price up, because we’re building a larger infrastructure, but they did a great job. The fan experience is massively important. I’m always going to get heat from kids because it’s $99 now for a two-day pass, versus $20 three years ago, but if it was $20, it would be miserable. There would be no water misters, there would be no shade infrastructure, there would be no Port-A-Johns. 500 kids would be stoked, and the rest wouldn’t want to be there.
Eric Ducker: Are there any other crucial changes you’ve made over the 10 years of doing the festival?
Sean Carlson: I think it’s about trying to be focused. I used to be hotheaded because I was young, so I would make impulse decisions. Now I’m very slow with things. I see some business people who want to conquer the world and expand and expand, and I’m really just content with what we’re doing and just making it the best it can possibly be. There is so much room for growth with FYF. It’s nowhere near where I want it to be. I want to make it a better festival, make it better run, smoother I think it’s another four or five years until it gets there, but it’s working towards getting there.
The Daily Swarm Q+A: Alex Edkins of METZ on Tour Angst, New S**t, and the Physical Communion of Live Performance...
When METZ recently played the most recent edition of the Pitchfork Festival – resulting in one of the weekend’s most satisfying and hailed sets – it was a fittingly epic climax to the band’s incredible rise over the past year. Since the release of METZ’s eponymous debut album in 2012 on Sub Pop, the group – guitarist/singer Alex Edkins, drummer Hayden Menzies, and Chris Slorach on bass – went from a relatively unknown punk/post-punk trio from Toronto, Canada to one of current indie music’s most ascendant entities – making Pitchfork’s _Top 50 albums of last year, and recently being named to the shortlist for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize
As the band has made its way through those milestones, METZ has revived a kind of sonic and ethical integrity to heavier music that recalls the heyday of, say, Touch and Go Records and Amphetamine Reptile – angular, individual, and uncompromised; along the way, METZ has honed one of the most intense, vivid live shows around. We spoke to Alex Edkins about METZ’s journey from here to now, as well as where the band might end up next…
The Daily Swarm: Metz has had a crazy year of album releases, world touring, and more. What do you make of all of it, hindsight?
Alex Edkins: It has been crazy, and we feel really fortunate to do it all. We’ve been on the road straight since October of last year; this summer is going to be all festivals, so it’s a bit less taxing. But it’s been a rewarding year for us. and we’ve been really happy with how the record has been received.
The Daily Swarm: What inspired your self-titled album?
Alex Edkins: I guess it’s just like any band. You’ve put together enough work, and if you think it can make a cohesive thing, there comes a time to put it out to the world with no real ambition other than to wrap that chapter up and document it. We also love recording, so we went about it, took our time, and that was the record that came out of it.
The Daily Swarm: Would you say your style reflects any part of the Toronto scene you came out of?
Alex Edkins: I think it’s more just the combination of the three of us and our musical tastes. Toronto has got a lot going on: there’s some punk rock, indie-rock, hip-hop, and avant-garde stuff all over the map. So I can’t say that what we’re doing reflects Toronto, but we like that because everyone’s doing their own thing and we stick out like a sore thumb. But Toronto is an absolutely great place to be making music, and there is a supportive community there.
The Daily Swarm: How did the members of Metz come together?
Alex Edkins: Hayden and I grew up in Ottawa, where we ended up being introduced by friends in the same kind of punk/hardcore scene. We started METZ there, where we’d lived most of our lives, and just wanted to try something new. We wanted to change scenes and still continue, so we moved to Toronto, where we met Chris pretty quickly.
The Daily Swarm: Will you continue to release with Sub Pop?
Alex Edkins: Yeah, we love them: Sub Pop been nothing but supportive to us, and we hope to continue putting out records with them. We sent them our demos the old-fashioned way. From our first meeting, we really felt a kinship and bond with them. They all really love music, and do what they do because of it.
The Daily Swarm: Does METZ have something new in the works?
Alex Edkins: We’ve got time booked off to write new stuff. This fall, we will be recording the new record.
The Daily Swarm: Have there been any challenges along the way?
Alex Edkins: Since we’re not young guys, just being away from home. We’re in our early thirties, and leaving home behind is tough. Chris and I are also both getting married soon, so we’re lucky to have people who support of what we’re doing.
The Daily Swarm: METZ has become as famed for its live experience as it has the band’s recorded music. Is there something you want fans to take away from your shows?
Alex Edkins: Going to my first punk shows, I remember that physical aspect of it where you just feel your whole body shake. You never forget that, really, and I think that it’s one of those aspects of live music. It’s not just an audio thing; it’s also physical, where there’s some kind of communal feeling with all of the people you’re there with. For us, we just want people to sweat, dance, and walk away just feeling amped. That’s what we get from it.
The Daily Swarm Q+A: James McNew of Yo La Tengo Explores What Drives Indie Rock's Most Eternal Band Ever...
With the recent closing of the legendary Hoboken, New Jersey indie-rock nightclub Maxwell’s, it wasn’t hard to include Yo La Tengo in the memories evoked: over the years, the trio comprising guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan, drummer/singer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew became as close to a house band as Maxwell’s ever had. Of course, Yo La Tengo has gone on to become one of the most beloved, and most stalwart, outfits epitomizing indie rock, having recently put out its latest album, Fade – the thirteenth full-length effort released by the band since its mid-'80s inception. And while Yo La Tengo may have gotten its start in humble East Coast dives like Maxwell’s, we caught up with James McNew at the 2013 Pitchfork Festival, showing just how far they’ve come – and how much farther they have yet to go.
The Daily Swarm: In January, we finally got to hear Yo La Tengo’s new album, Fade. What was different in your approach on this album?
James McNew: We worked with the great Chicago musician/producer, John McEntire, for the first time ever. It was really the first time we had worked with a new producer in decades, so this proved a pretty revolutionary way of making a record for us. Coming to Chicago to work with John, and giving ourselves over to his process and the way he likes to work, was a fantastic experience. And really, there was nothing more behind it other than, “Hey, let’s do something different.” I guess that’s an unusual thing for a band that’s been making music for so long and using a similar process every time. But as we get older, I feel like we get to be less and less afraid of trying new things.
The Daily Swarm: What has been the largest change in Yo La Tengo’s music over the course of the band’s existence?
James McNew: Maybe just our confidence and our strength. We’ve been together for so long, we’ve developed a real kind of ESP in the way we play together. Playing bass when Georgia is playing drums – well, there is really nothing like it in the world. I’ve played in other groups with and without drummers, so anytime a drummer picks up sticks and sits behind the kit, it’s like I’ve never played bass before in my life. It’s such a joy to play next to her all the time. But the longer we do it and try new things, it’s still really fun, which is the main motivation behind everything.
The Daily Swarm: What has it been like as one of the longest-running bands on Matador Records’ roster?
James McNew: It’s weird, because we’ve been in the family for a long time – I think even longer than anybody else, with the exception of Jon Spencer. But it’s been great. It’s also wistful in a way, because bands don’t last forever, and there are lots that I miss. But it’s also nice to meet new people sometimes.
The Daily Swarm: Over the years, the members of Yo La Tengo have worked on things outside of, or different from, what the band does. Is anything in that area coming up for you?
James McNew: Well, Georgia released her own project about six months ago, which was a solo guitar record called Little Black Egg. It’s just one long guitar composition, and it’s really beautiful. I’ve made a bunch of records over the years as Dump, and my first two records from the early ’90s just got rereleased on vinyl. There was a Dump record that came out recently on a label called Grapefruit, which will hopefully see the light of day in another dimension. But really, there really hasn’t been much time to do much other stuff. Since Fade came out, we’ve been on the road constantly. We did play a show as Condo Fucks at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, before it closed down. The only other thing we’re doing now is a project with the filmmaker Sam Green that is a live documentary on the life of [futurist visionary] Buckminster Fuller. We wrote about 40 minutes of music for it, and we sit in an orchestra pit area and play as the documentary is going on.
The Daily Swarm: What else can we expect to see over the next year or so from Yo La Tengo?
James McNew: Lot’s more touring. We’re putting together a small recording project where we’re collaborating with an artist named Jim Woodren, who is an artist from Seattle. But it’s an animation project for a company in Japan that will be five minutes long; that’s our only real non-touring project for the next year. But, before long, we will start recording something again too…
A Rational Conversation: Designer Michael Carney on Robin Thicke and the Current Epidemic of Awful Album Art...
A Rational Conversation is a regular column by writer Eric Ducker where he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Last week Robin Thicke released his latest full-length, Blurred Lines. With it, the contemporary blue-eyed soul singer has finally attained superstar pop status via the album’s mega-smash title track; however, the cover imagery indicates business as usual for Thicke – continuing his streak of six absolutely awful, terribly designed album covers, dating all the way back to his solo debut, 2003’s Beautiful World, when he just went by Thicke. (Strangely half of these albums feature multiple images of him on the cover, because sometimes one Robin Thicke is not enough.)
Not to bag too hard on Robin Thicke, but how exactly do so many bad album covers keep happening to one artist – and in pop music in general? These questions are particularly frustrating, especially with so many talented designers and art directors out there, eager to work on creative music projects. Ducker got on the phone with a luminary in this area, Michael Carney, the esteemed art director for The Black Keys. Carney is the brother of the band’s drummer Patrick Carney and is responsible for the group’s album art, merchandise and other aspects of the visual look. He won a Grammy for recording packaging for his work on the group’s Brothers. Carney has also done album art for acts including Dr. John, Lady and Other Girls – when it comes to music packaging, he knows of what he speaks._
Eric Ducker: I have very limited schooling in graphic design, but I fundamentally know that Robin Thicke’s album covers are bad. Can you explain to me why that’s so?
Michael Carney: This is a weird subject because I try really hard not to insult other people’s work – but I also get really bummed about people doing bad design and art. It’s not really fair to single Robin Thicke out as having bad album covers, as this is a much bigger phenomenon that goes on within true “pop” music. Though his covers are bad, I think they’re on par with what other people who have #1 pop-chart hits are doing with their album art: Put the artist’s face on the cover if they are good looking, put the artist’s name on the cover really big, make it look like it was created by someone who is vaguely aware of current trends in design – and do it all in two days. From my perspective as someone who has spent his entire adult life trying to make a living as a visual artist, seeing an album cover that looks like a Pfizer advertisement is a major bummer.
ED: You say these bad albums are part of a bigger problem that goes on within pop music, but you also say that there really isn’t any thinking going on behind the scenes. Many thousands of dollars – sometimes millions – are spent making these records and marketing them. Why does the ball seem to get dropped on the visuals? They know these albums are coming out, they have time to plan – so why do they look slapped together?
MC: Because they are slapped together. The people who I work with at the factory that manufactures physical albums have said that pop records, rap records, and so on always have the art turned in, like, one week before the street date, or something equally absurd like that. But that’s not really the cause. It’s as simple as this: no one involved in this stuff cares. The labels don’t have art departments like they used to, and the people they do have are overworked, so in most cases the management company picks up the slack. At a lot of the major labels, and even the smaller labels, things like artist development exist, but they don’t exist in the same way as they did. It seems like a lot of that is moving into the management companies’ purview. Say you’re some new indie band that’s coming out: in some ways you’re going to benefit more by signing with a big management company than you necessarily would by getting signed to a major label. A lot of my work comes through management companies, not labels. Also, the public does not punish artists for having bad design, ugly merch, or a complete lack of anything even close to an aesthetic. “Punish” is actually not the right word; I just mean that these albums sell regardless.
ED: Why do you think we’ve gotten to a place where this practice is the norm?
MC: This is a difficult subject to try to explain, but it’s really big picture: there are a lot of reasons from what I’ve seen and what I know about how the record industry is operating now. I started when I was 19; there were really small indies, and the labels I was working with got bigger. Now it’s like I’m working with major labels, but it’s not the same companies as before. It’s like seeing the industry after it has started to fall apart. With The Black Keys, we work with Nonesuch, and they’re really good about how they work with the visual artists. We’re in sort of this sweet spot where Nonesuch is through Warner Bros. Nonesuch has a very hands-off indie way of working, and we can push it through Warner Bros. We work with Warner Bros. for marketing. I don’t do web design, but when the website is getting built, the band and the management follow my lead. When we’re planning marketing, everything that goes into a record, I’m giving my two cents. In some cases, that’s a huge two cents; in others, it’s me looking at mock-ups and saying, “These are fucking ugly – you didn’t use the font I sent you.”
ED: What you’re saying is that the band, which is busy with stuff like touring and recording, has hired someone else – in this case you – to be their gatekeeper when it comes to their visual taste.
MC: I started working with The Black Keys when I was a freshman in art school. My brother is the drummer in the band, and I’ve known Dan [Auerbach] since I was 11. It’s a really abnormal situation. My aesthetic has been really influenced by them on a personal and creative level. And as the band gets bigger, there are more things that go into putting an album out, and both Pat and Dan are very involved. On some records, Pat will take the lead on working with me on creative, and on other ones Dan will; on others, it’s both of them. I have a lot of experience doing everything from flyers for house shows to global marketing campaigns for the biggest rock album of last year. I’ve been through all of it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be successful with every artist that I work with.
ED: Here’s my thing. You’ve won a Grammy, you’ve worked with a very successful band that is tied to a major label. That’s as big of a cosign as you can get. I don’t understand why for a pop star, his label or his management wouldn’t say, “Let’s get someone who is known for doing good work to do the album cover.”
MC: I look really good on paper now, but honestly, part of the answer in these situations is – and this is a nerdy analogy – if you play Dungeons & Dragons or a videogame, you have the skills you can give to your character. From what I’ve gathered, if you’re a management company, you’ve got things that you’re good at and not good at. Robin Thicke has a number-one hit on his hands. To me, that says his people are fucking awesome at getting songs on the radio, and maybe getting endorsement deals. Maybe art and design isn’t their thing, or part of their equation for the success of an artist. To be honest, and it’s something that I hate to say out loud, but this almost proves that to have a pop hit, you don’t have to have good album art. But I also look at it like I would like to think that you would want to.
ED: That’s the other thing. I know people have varying taste levels, but I feel like every time Robin Thicke puts out an album, I hear people making fun of the album art, or I see it on “Worst Album Cover of the Year” lists. Maybe that stuff never gets back to him or his people, and maybe they don’t care, but I would imagine that at some point that would affect their egos.
MC: When big artists have good album art, they’re going to the MoMA and calling a living artist who is in the MoMA. It’s not like, “Let’s find somebody making good album art”; it’s like, “Let’s find somebody who is a hugely successful visual artist and let’s ask them to make album art.” That’s not always the case. The truth is that in terms of other people doing what I do, I don’t know a lot of them. You read interviews with really big name older designers or art directors and a lot of times they’ll say something like, “I worked at CBS from 1972 to 1983 doing album art before I started my other design career.” That’s not happening in the same way now. I don’t know how many people there are out there living and breathing album art, where that’s a huge part of their career. For me, you see the big artists not looking to people who cut their teeth doing album art. It’s kind of disappointing, but I understand why it happens. The other thing is, I’ve had meetings with country labels about doing design work, and country music is the one genre that still sells, hands down. If you’re talking merchandise, they’ll do 5 to 10 times as much merch sales. They sell to a demographic in America that still buys physical copies and that still buys merch, but I’ve seen the templates that you have to design within for country, and they’re dictated by Walmart. Like flat out, there’s going to be a Walmart sticker – a two-and-half by three-inch sticker – on the front of the album, so you have to design this cover you can still identify with this big white sticker over it. It’s crazy. The fact that country artists rely on selling albums through Walmart, and Walmart puts these big stickers on them, is why country albums are all kind of weird looking: they need to have this weird spot of negative space in the same place on every album.
ED: I understand that there are commercial responsibilities in making and distributing music, and I don’t believe that everything around music has to exists for solely artistic reasons, but…
MC: But why is it so bad? Why does it have to be bad? Why can’t the labels go to Walmart and say, “Put the sticker on the fucking back”?
ED: I can’t imagine that this album art would make the albums more popular. I know we’re harping on Robin Thicke, and I’m not trying to call out the designers and art directors who probably had to make these album covers under shitty situations, but I don’t know how this sells anything, how they make the albums more appealing. I believe the point of an album cover is to make potential buyers intrigued by it, but I don’t understand what’s intriguing or interesting about them. They look bad. I don’t see them being anyone’s taste.
MC: Let’s assume they were probably made by someone who works in-house at the label, just because it doesn’t look like something by somebody that was hired independently. (And if that’s not the case, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to put somebody on blast.) But if it is a guy who works at the label, he probably has to turn in six options after they go, “Here’s some photos, here’s the name and here are maybe three sentences about what the artist wants that are maybe impossible to interpret.” Then he’s got to shit out some comps in, let’s say, a week. In reality, maybe it’s two days.
ED: It feels like there’s this desperation in the music industry, like, “Okay, we lost; now what can we do to even get a little bit of our power back?” And the fundamental stuff goes by the wayside.
MC: The visual look that the entire popular record industry is putting out to the world looks like an industry in its twilight years. It looks like its death flail. Not to be melodramatic, and I guess I’m kind of being melodramatic, but it’s like desperately grasping at straws. This is all weird for me because the Keys are how I got into my whole career as an artist, and obviously it’s really important to me, and I think with the Keys our take on this is that our fans appreciate that we think about everything that we make. But then at the same time, I had a day job up until two years ago in corporate fashion doing t-shirt graphics. I left to go out and do my own art, and last year I made it a point to do as many album covers as I could, and it was not feasible. I hate to say it, but you’d be shocked at some of the things that go on in terms of how album art does or doesn’t get made. Things I’ve experienced in the last year of what labels are going to pay or how they approach it, it’s like a chicken with its head cut off.
ED: Is it worth it for someone like you, who has a positive and fulfilling relationship with a band, to even try to work with a pop artist? If Robin Thicke’s people came to you and said, “You know what, you’re right, we can do this better. We want to work with you” – is that worth it to you?
MC: Sure. My take on it is, if someone is game to do something cool, I’m up for it. The problem is when people aren’t really trying to do something cool. “Cool” is probably not the right word, but my creative process is not that you send me a photo and I Photoshop it. My creative process is that you play me the record, tell me the title, tell me what you think it’s about or what it’s not about, and then I try to come up with ideas and try to figure out a way to do it. I take this big-picture concept approach to it that’s kind of a leap of faith for people, because you’re basically trusting that if I tell you we need to do a painting of a dog, then I can make a painting of a dog.
ED: Also, you run the risk that they say upfront, “We want to do something better,” but then you turn in your comps and they’ll tell you, “Well, we can’t really see his face” or “His colors are red and blue, we don’t do anything with purple or green.”
MC: Sometimes a lot of input is just a person wanting to feel like they’re in control. Sometimes you’ll run into clients or artists and they want to change a color so they feel like they’ve had a hand in it. This is part of any creative field. These are the issues. But I feel like in the music industry, it’s especially weird. The answer to the question about whether it’s worth it to make art for a big pop artist is: Totally. That’s like dictating culture. I don’t want to put my job on a pedestal by any means, but there is a huge amount of exposure that comes with that type of record that could be very valuable to an artist’s career, or it could just be that the fans appreciate it. Maybe the fans would get a kick out of seeing a type of art they’ve never seen before. The way I learned to do this was trying to remember the feeling of buying CDs or records when I was super young, and looking at them with no internet, no context. I try to keep that reverse-engineering thought process as my goal. If there is someone on this planet who will manage to see this album cover with no context, I try to design for that person and then build everything out from there. In terms of Robin Thicke and whoever is doing his art, I’m super stoked that there is someone doing that. I would to hate to find out that the person that did it had their feelings hurt by anything I said. Believe me, when I started doing this stuff and started hearing negative feedback about my work, it fucking gutted me, even to this day. And it’s one of those situations where nobody knows what was going on behind the scenes that made the final album cover what it is.
ED: That’s a very important point. They could have had multiple versions that were great, and we don’t know what got tinkered with and what they had to change, and then their name is still on there.
MC: As far as Robin Thicke himself, I don’t like the idea that if that guy reads this, he’ll be bummed.
ED: I don’t think we’ve been approaching this from the perspective of, “That dude sucks.” I’m genuinely flummoxed. I’m trying to get a sense of how it came to this.
MC: It’s like, “Who dropped the ball?” Well, the industry dropped the ball.
ED: Where is the miscommunication happening? Where are things getting mucked up?
MC: My opinion about this whole thing is that it’s a lot harder to succeed at this than it is to fail, especially at this scale. If you’re that big, everybody is going to want to have an excuse to say what’s wrong with what you’re doing. Even if Robin Thicke’s album cover was, in an alternate universe, agreed upon to be an amazing album cover, there would still be people saying it was bad just because of who he is. I’m not saying that as an insult to him. I mean that, with a music industry-obsessive public, with someone in his position you’re to find somebody to be mad about anything he does.
The Daily Swarm Q+A: We Talked To Jonathan Rado of Foxygen, and Dude Totally Didn't Melt Down, Okay?
Foxygen has proven one of the more controversial outfits in the indiesphere of late – not least for the group’s recent performance at the high-profile Pitchfork Festival. Indeed, the New York-by-way-of-Olympia, Washington-by-way-of-the Los Angeles suburbs-based duo of singer Sam France and instrumentalist Jonathan Rado has been posited for imminent self-destruction for some time now – if not due to “musical differences,” then perhaps physical demise. Surprisingly, this has all come to pass in the wake of a rather rapturous reception for Foxygen’s latest album We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic – a beguiling collection of stunningly first-rate, lovingly crafted popcraft hiding in plain sight as retro-ironic psychedelic shambling. However, don’t always believe what you read: when we spoke to Rado – often portrayed as the villain in Foxygen’s oft-hostile press – around the band’s notorious Pitchfork set, we found him quite amiable and upbeat about Foxygen’s future… Will wonders never cease?
The Daily Swarm: What inspired Foxygen’s recent album, We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic?
Jonathan Rado: Sam [France, Rado’s partner in Foxygen and the band’s frontman] came up with the title one day, and we thought it was kind of funny. But we wanted to make a cake-box kind of record – really, we just wanted it to sound classic. This one is also more straightforward, and we did it in a smaller amount of time: it became clear that we were able to work in an environment where it would only take nine days to make.
The Daily Swarm: What is it like for you to work with Jagjaguwar Records?
Jonathan Rado: They’re great! All of the three labels that we’ve worked with – Dead Oceans, Jagjaguawar, and Secretly Canadian – treat us well.
The Daily Swarm: When your latest album took off, did you start doing anything differently after that?
Jonathan Rado: I think we just got our live thing together a bit more. We had been touring and didn’t know what we were doing for a long time. All of our equipment was really old and breaking all the time, so we had so many shows that sounded awful.
The Daily Swarm: What were the challenges?
Jonathan Rado: Finding a stable band was kind of hard. Finding members to sort of drop their lives was difficult, and just really building our recorded songs to a live sound. We just never sounded good live until about six months ago.
The Daily Swarm: Are you working on anything new?
Jonathan Rado: We have a record written; we just have to record it. We’ve been touring for about a year, so we are going to take a break. So for the beginning of next year, you won’t hear too much from us, but then we will be back for more…