After I got sick of punk, there were two types of scenes that I paid attention to. The first consisted mainly of guys with basketball jerseys and sleeves full of tattoos talking about the crew that they belonged to, and singing about retribution or betrayal. This scene scared the living shit out of me, and I did as much as I could to avoid going to any show that included bands whose names I could associate with constipation whether it be Turmoil, Despair, Strife, etc. The shows these bands played resembled homoerotic rugby matches, and I hardly had the balls to get myself involved in that.
Then there was the other scene, and this one was for the weirdos. The kids with Star Trek haircuts, the ones who liked Joy Division as much as Nation of Ulysses, the ones that twitched and shrieked on stage, and the ones who actually carried the torch from the early days of Dischord Records and the underground scene that it was a part of. Some of the bands had really intense name like Ordination of Aaron, Heroin, Chokehold, and Struggle, while others were less serious like Charles Bronson, Harriett the Spy, and Crimson Curse.
These bands stretched out across a decade, from the early 90s into the early part of this millennium. They didn't all sound alike – falling under various banners like screamo, spock rock, artcore, grindcore, or in some cases, bands like Indian Summer and Cap'n Jazz whose labeling of emo, or emocore, wasn't the punchline to a bad joke like it is today. This was the sort of music I gravitated towards, and the DIY spirit that many of these bands went by was a valuable lesson to a generation of kids who were looking for something a little bit more real than the cookie-cutter pop punk that was becoming the norm, or the aggressive, and often times violent hardcore scene that seemed to be more interested in being metal than Negative Approach.
One thing that stands out in my mind that connected the power violence (a tongue in cheek term) of a band like Spazz, with a group of positive-minded screamers like Reversal of Man was the incredible artwork that went into making each LP or split seven-inch stand out. Labels like Bloodlink, Ebullition, 31G, Witching Hour, and Lengua Armada all found new ways to reinvent the medium of the vinyl record be it spray painting on cardboard or paper bags to make covers, or silk screening designs onto the vinyl. There was no getting around the fact that these labels and bands put out visually stimulating albums – regardless if you liked the music or not.
J. Namdev Hardisty would seem to agree, as he has put together the book DIY Album Art: Paper bags and Office Supplies (Mark Batty Publishing), a collection of covers from many of the bands and labels mentioned above, lovingly archived in one beautiful testament to a scene that best embodied the ethics we are told punk is supposed to embody.
What's your personal story of getting into the punk/DIY scene?
I mostly grew up in Newport, Rhode Island. I got into skateboarding around 1985 and the corruption began then: punk rock, grafitti, rap music, zines, the usual story. Around 1993 I got really into the new hardcore scene that was emerging with labels like Ebullition, Bloodlink, Gravity, Gern Blandsten and started going to tons of shows, making zines, buying way too many records and meeting people from all over the world through good old-fashioned letters in envelopes. Just in the RI/CT/MA area there was so much amazing stuff going on and the over-all plurality of the punk/hardcore scene was inspiring. I can remember seeing shows with Converge, Los Crudos, Shotmaker and Rye Coalition all playing together; a scenario I can't envision now. By the late 90s, my wife Kim and I felt kind of isolated, uninspired and aimless and we started studying art. In 2000, we moved from Rhode Island to Minneapolis to attend the Minneapolis College of Art & Design. We graduated in 2003, me with a BFA in Graphic Design and Kim with one in Photography and having met a ton of amazing people. Now, I find that at age 32 my interests are pretty much the same as when I was 12: making things about punk rock, rap, skateboarding and art.
Did you ever run a record label?
In the 90s, my wife Kim and I ran a short-lived label called July95 that was pretty much a disaster. I think it was the confluence of teenagers, bands that had already split up and being broke as hell. And my rather intense ADD. That said, we put out two fantastic records that have held up to the test of time: the I Am Heaven 12″ and the Mandela Strikeforce 7″. Lots of lessons learned from those days; communicate, have money first, press smaller amounts of records, jump ship if things aren't going well.
I helped start the Providence-based record label Corleone in 1997 with Brian Oakley. We put out a couple of records but my interest dropped off once I got really into graphic design and moved mid-westward. Brian has kept the label alive for more than 10 years, though and we (The MVA) help him out with ads and putting packaging together for records.
Now I run the “occasional” record label Hardisty-Disk. I put out small runs of noise, electronics and weirdness every so often. We have new or re-packaged releases on the way from John Wiese, I Am Heaven and Terrorclops. Its more about fun and productivity than running a record label.
Were you in any of the bands represented in the book?
Lets see, I was in one terrible band that will be left unnamed even though no one will have remembered it or heard of it. I'm taking that to the grave. I don't think I have the patience for learning an instrument. That probably helped me focus more on making zines and putting out records; being more of a publisher/curator than artist. If anyone wants to start an Unwound rip-off band though, holler at me.
A lot of these records you present in the book fetch high prices on Ebay. Have you ever paid a high price for a record?
Not to doubt your research but I wonder how many of these records are actually fetching anything. I just spent some time searching for records that seem like they'd actually be worth something–Crudos, original Gravity releases, Indian Summer records– and they were all on eBay but no one was bidding. Ok, there was one bid for the Clikitat Ikatowi LP but its was $9.99 (pretty reasonable). I saw two shockers though–an original pressing of the Honeywell LP (only 300, I think?) going for $5 which if I didn't have it I'd pay $30 for it easy. The other was someone with Buy It Now on the Ordination of Aaron LP for $67.50. No one in their right mind should pay $67.50 for that record. Its not bad, its just not a good use of $67.50.
I think five years ago, a lot of these records were fetching high prices but I think maybe everyone that wanted their Indian Summer 7″s got 'em.
Have I ever paid a high price for a record? Not really. I think I paid $40 for a sealed copy of Talking Heads “Speak In Tongues” with the Robert Rauschenberg art but that was probably a steal. I think I'd be willing to pay $30 for the “A History of Compassion & Justice” compilation on Lengua Armada that's in the book. It's screen-printed on paper towels and the line-up is killer. I tend to blow all my money on coffee so there's not much left over for 90s emo records.
Surprisingly, there were lots of records in my collection where when I looked back I regretted spending even $3 on them. I felt like I'd been had.
I feel like the market has sort of tapered off, but I remember seeing stuff like that Orchid/Jeromes Dream skull shaped album going for like eighty, or certain Gravity albums for a chunk of change. I wonder, do you think there became a point where bands and labels realized there might be more of an angle to sell the package more than the music?
I think you're definitely right that there was a period of people going nuts for certain records. I used to have 20 of the Eucalyptus comp on Tree and could eBay one every six months for $40, I wonder if I could get $10 now.
I don't know that the packaging was being sold over the records—and I'm talking last five or more years; in the 90s my answer is “No”—but I think we saw and will continue to see people use unique packaging as an enticement to push your purchase over the edge. That said, I think a lot of the late-90s/early 00s craziness (Arab on radar/locust puddle-shaped 7″, the sawblade shaped 8” on No Idea, silk-screened b-sides etc.) are more about the excitement of being able to make these things than a sales ploy.
The big point is now that recorded music is split from its format (which was ultimately a delivery device), you had better make something worthy of the materials consumed in its production and that deserves a spot in my home. A lot of people bemoan the loss of music packaging with the mp3 but I love it. I never have to buy a poorly packaged CD again and can instead save the cash for beautifully considered objects.
If you had to pick, do you have one record in here that you like the most?
I don't know if I can straight up pick one, but here's a three-way tie: Angel Hair “In Love With Jetts” 12″ (the original version that's in the book); Closer 7″ Indian Summer 7″. Jesus, that was hard fought. Those are based on visuals mostly. My favorite record to listen to would be the Angel Hair side of their split with The Fisticuffs Bluff 7″ or the Unbroken “And” b/w “Fall on Proverb” 7″.
It seems like the idea for presenting a lot of these albums as valid pieces of art would seem like a no-brainier. How did the idea come about to put it together as a book?
The first time I thought about it was when my friend Mike Perry was putting together a proposal for his book of hand-made typography, Hand Job. I had suggested that he look at Gravity Records and they stuff they had made. At some point I began working on some book proposals of my own and I thought it would be dope to do this book. When I first got all the records together I was actually going to make a proposal but keep it as “back-pocket” idea, kind of like if my “good” proposals didn't sell I'd pitch this weird one while I was there. Or once I made a first book, then I could say “Hey, I have this other idea that I want to do.” What actually ended up happening is that I was going out to NYC to pitch some ideas to a publisher and the aforementioned Mike Perry got me a last-minute meeting with Mark Batty Publisher. Since we didn't have anymore “good” ideas we decided to see if they wanted to do one of our dream projects: this book or a book of contemporary skateboard graphics. They did both.
You mention people like Scott Beibin (of Bloodlink Records) who lived in a different city from you, but of whom you got to know through common interest in a lot of the albums you present in this book – some of which he put out. I'm wondering if you made a lot of friends throughout the country due to a common interest in diy music, and if you keep in touch with them today?
Yes, I made tons of friends throughout the country and Europe. Getting letters in the mail was the highlight of my day. When we were putting this book together and relying on email, chat, MySpace, Facebook, etc. it really made me reflect on how amazing these tools that we have are. The idea that a band could spontaneously roll through your town and you could throw a show together via Twitter is fantastic. As far as keeping in touch with folks I was friends with then, not so much. I think that has more to do with me being really lazy about relationships than anything else. It's pretty clear to me that a lot of the people I know are still active in DIY/independent culture even if they're not specifically involved in punk/hardcore. It's not the kind of thing you can leave behind.
You tend to see retrospectives of 60s rock posters in museums, album art from various artists on t-shirts, etc. Do you think that the artwork contained in your book contains appeal on a broader level?
Yes and no. Yes in that this stuff is a collection of interesting objects. They're hand-made, idiosyncratic, obscure, creative, obsessive and occasionally beautiful and they came from an interesting context–intensely DIY with a belief in community over aesthetics that was shaped by (for the most part) young idealistic people. Very much a medium-is-the-message idea. So if you present the objects and explain the context I think you have a pretty interesting exhibit.
But, no, in that the rock artwork that gets celebrated in museums or on t-shirts is a symbol for something else. Its a stand-in for celebrity. Hipgnosis' sleeves for Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd are icons because they are amazing visuals connected to iconic music. Their other work is basically footnotes to the famous stuff. Peter Saville's cover for Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures might be the most iconic album cover of all time but its weight is from the synergy with the music. If I can get a bit Buddhist, its not coming from its own side. You see this even now in the gig posters explosion. The Wilco and Bright Eyes posters are going to outsell the Wolf Eyes poster regardless of quality. Unless Wolf Eyes get really fucking famous then we can flop my example.