All posts tagged art

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘Women Of Letters’, curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire, December 2011

    A book review for The Australian, reproduced below in its entirety.

    Love letters for weird families and those nights best forgotten

    Women of Letters: Reviving the Lost Art of Correspondence
    Curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire
    Penguin, 412pp, $29.95

    A fine cross-section of humanity – largely womankind – is on display in Women of Letters, a book born from a series of live letter reading and writing events “celebrating wine, women and words” in eastern capital cities in 2010.

    The events were founded by writers Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire through their desire to “showcase brilliant female minds”, and also in the name of a good cause: all royalties from the sale of this book will go to Edgar’s Mission, an animal shelter in Victoria.

    Comprising 69 authors, many of whom are well-known Australian musicians, writers and actresses, and 16 topics, Women of Letters contains many surprises, joys and profound learnings. Here are but a handful of moments that this reviewer felt most appealing:

    Comedian Judith Lucy’s letter “to the night I’d rather forget” taught her “the invaluable lesson that it is never a good idea to combine alcohol with being a f . . kwit”. In a letter “to my first pin-up”, Adam Ant, former Triple J Magazine editor Jenny Valentish reflects on music journalism: “writing about tortured artists for a living, my keyboard is constantly awash with salty sentiment . . . I’m like a professional enabler for these people”. Actress Claudia Karvan and comedian Virginia Gay take a literal interpretation of “a love letter” by addressing theirs to the concept of love itself, with very different outcomes.

    In a letter “to the moment it all fell apart”, musician Amanda Roff strikes on speculative fiction so absorbing that John Birmingham would give a nod of approval. “I remember lining up outside Melbourne Zoo, waiting for the army to sell the last of the meat,” she writes, taking the reader deep into her post-apocalyptic world.

    This freedom of the open brief offered each writer the ability to choose how much of themselves to reveal. Many opt for brazen honesty. Singer Missy Higgins is particularly touching when writing “to my turning point”: she discusses her first experiences with depression. “I’m thankful to you, dear Turning Point, for . . . showing me that I’m not alone, that it’s OK to be sad.” In “to the letter I wish I’d written”, musician Georgia Fields asks, “Why am I still, at 27 years of age, so paralysingly terrified of what people think of me?” she writes. “Why can’t I just relax and be myself?”

    The few blokes who appear in these pages generally opt for sentimentality too, especially when writing “to the woman who changed my life”.

    Bob Ellis writes to his wife: “You are more than I deserved, and I less than you deserved, and this is too hard.” Rocker Tim Rogers is brutally honest in his self-assessment while writing to his ex-wife. “I wanted to thank you for what you’ve done to me. It wasn’t intended to be a love letter. But what changes someone more completely than love, and loss?”

    Comedian and actor Eddie Perfect comes up with a great line while writing to his wife: “I don’t know what a family is, how to define it, other than as a collection of people who bind themselves together and get weirder and weirder until no one understands them.”

    The highlights are so plentiful that I must mention a few more: Crikey editor Sophie Black writing “to my first boss” about her 1993 work experience at New Idea (“in one working week, at five dollars a day, I learnt enough to put me off journalism for the next decade”); Jennifer Byrne’s decision to read a heart-wrenching letter written in 1910 by a dying explorer on a fraught expedition to Antarctica; Noni Hazlehurst writing “to my ghosts”, which turn out to be the “gloriously impulsive, intuitive, emotional” voices in her head, and radio broadcaster Fee-B Squared writing “to my nemesis”, her bad back.

    Women of Letters offers a joyous bounty of many voices, writing styles, laughs and regrets. Having read this book, I feel as though I know humans and their various conditions much better.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist.

    This review was originally published in The Weekend Australian Review on December 31. For more on Women Of Letters, visit their website.

  • A Conversation With Alex Grey, American visionary artist, 2011

    In early January 2011, I was scheduled to interview the American visionary artist Alex Grey [pictured right] for The Australian ahead of his first Australian art tour. The problem was that at the time, my home city of Brisbane was in the midst of some of its worst-ever flooding.

    Due to a sketchy internet connection, I didn’t want to risk the possibility of a Skype video call dropping out mid-interview, so I sent through some questions for Alex and his wife Allyson to answer via email. Their answers formed the basis of my 800 word story for The Australian, which you can read here.

    Our full email interview is below; Alex’s answers are included verbatim, without editing. Examples of Alex’s striking art are embedded throughout this interview.

    ++

    Andrew: Many readers of The Australian would be unfamiliar with your work. How would you describe your painting styles to those who haven’t seen it before?

    Alex: My best known works are paintings that “X-ray” multi-dimensional reality, interweaving biological anatomy with psychic/spiritual energies in visual meditations on the nature of life and consciousness.

    Is there an intellectual rationale behind your work? Has this changed much over the years?

    My work has been called visionary because I’m a painter inspired by glimpses into the subtle visionary realm, which is the source of all sacred art. There is more of a spiritual motivation to the work. The philosophical framework from which one could view the artwork is an integral and consciousness evolutionary perspective. This is a crucial time for humanity when all the world religions are becoming familiar with each other. Art can play a special role in bridging these traditions, thereby helping to make peace in a volatile climate. A planetary civilization is dawning. We need fresh iconography that points to a sustainable relationship of humanity, the web of life and harmony amongst nations.

    What do you aim to communicate in your art?

    Life is multi-dimensional and all beings and things are interconnected. The cosmos is a continuum in which every creature plays an important part. Our bodies are marvelous gifts of biological evolution that we have the good fortune to experience in our brief life span. Life is a miracle. Love is the highest principle and experience and is the way of all religious teachings.

    I’m interested in each of your painting methods. What materials do you use? After visualising a piece, where do you start, in terms of the actual painting? Do you prefer to spend long periods of time painting, or is it split up into many shorter sessions?

    We both paint with acrylic but prefers oils. We paint on linen and on wood panels. In Alex’s art, everything starts with a vision that results in a drawing and a redrawing over and over again until it is refined enough to transfer the image to canvas or wood. We both love painting for long periods. Sometimes when we have painted together for as long as 20 hours straight.

    We are also founders of a church on 40 acres of land with over a dozen employees and many volunteers. We have many responsibilities that fill our days. This is not a distraction from the artwork. This is a realization of the “great work” which is to build a temple of art that we call the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors.

    Do you listen to music while you work?

    Almost always. Sometimes we listen to wisdom teachings on audio.

    Which artists do you listen to?

    Bach, Beethoven, Shubert, Shpongle, Ott, Fats Waller, Led Zepplin, Tool, loads of trance music, Toires, Heyoka, Crystal Method, Animal Collective, Bob Dylan, Canned Heat, Joe Satriani, John Fruscianti, Moby, Peter Gabriel, The Beastie Boys, Clash, Stones, The Beatles. George Harrison and Sting are mystics. Recently, at Daniel Pinchbeck’s documentary film premiere of 2012, Sting came up and hugged Alex. We were starstruck.

    Our daughter Zena queues us into a lot of new music.

    Your larger pieces are often reduced in size to appear in various media – books, calendars, postcards, and on the web. Do you find this dismaying at all? Is anything lost in the art, when it’s reduced from the original size?

    It’s a representation of the work for the purpose of reaching a wider audience. Reproductions are not just smaller, they are NOT the original. To the see the original is a more direct hit. There is still power in a reproduced image, though. It’s just through a glass darkly. An artwork has power when it is iconically viable from the size of a postage stamp to the size of a billboard.

    We produce or license images and sell them to benefit the building of a sacred temple.

    Many people – myself included – first found your work through Tool album covers. I believe your work has been used by some other musical acts, too. Was there any hesitation in being involved with these projects?

    Or am I just THAT sort of Rock Whore? Am I just a trollup in a beret? Just kidding.

    No. People had told me that I would love TooI. I was having an exhibition in Santa Monica when Adam Jones became interested in my work. This motivated me to listen to their music. I was kind of a late comer. Allyson and I were immediately bowled over. We’re huge fans and look forward to seeing them on our last night in Australia.

    I’ve met Adam Yauch of The Beastie Boys. We are both rather avid scholars of Tibetan Buddhism and we hung out once at a Dalai Lama event. That was so cool.

    We love the guys in S.C.I. and are particularly friendly with Michael Kang who we often see at festivals like Burning Man. What fine musicians they all are. It’s an honor to know such artists.

    My work appeared on the last Nirvana album cover, In Utero. I heard that Kurt Cobain liked my work but I never met him or went to a Nirvana concert.

    Are there any Tool collaboration projects forthcoming?

    No. There is nothing planned at this time.

    I believe you both teach (or taught – past tense?) Visionary Art at The Open Centre. What are some of the values that you try to instill in the students who take your courses?

    We have taught visionary art at many centers all over the world. We recently taught a workshop in Moscow with a Russian translator and then in Mexico City with a Spanish translator. We look forward to teaching a three-day Visionary Art workshop in Byron Bay, January 25-27 [2011].

    At CoSM, the art and spirit educational nexus is called MAGI — Mystic Artists Guild International. We teach art as a spiritual path. We just had a workshop before the Full Moon ceremony called, “Visioning Your Highest Intention.” The purpose of MAGI is to form a higher social organism of inspired minds capable of building sacred space together. Sacred space has always been created by the intertwined wills of people dedicated to a divine purpose. Creating and sharing sacred art can be a form of worship and service, introducing a transformed world view to community and activating cultural renewal. The MAGI bear gifts of beauty for the newly born vision of planetary civilization and universal spirituality. Mystic artists are called to an authentic and disciplined manifestation of their visions.

    I’ve read in High Times that you work in your loft, where you prefer to have your family and library nearby. How do you deal with distractions while working? Do you have an ‘artist at work’ sign posted somewhere?

    Allyson and I have worked within eye shot of each other for thirty-six years. We are each others best friend and most honest critic and advisor. I like to work near all my source material of imagery and philosophy.

    Zena grew up here. When Zena came, Allyson and I had already been together for thirteen years and had already developed our rhythm as artists. Zena has been the greatest gift of our lives.

    What is a distraction? The path to building a temple is a big project. The project IS our art so we are always making our art.

    We are trusted filters for each other. We always have the others best interests at heart.

    Arguably your most famous works, The Sacred Mirrors, took a decade to complete. What do you recall from that time? Did you realize that you were creating works that would come to define you as an artist?

    Painting the Sacred Mirrors felt life defining. Allyson inspired and later named the Sacred Mirrors series. The idea would never otherwise have been realized. At that time, they were the most affirmative statement I could make as an artists to connect the human and the divine, a dissection of the self through the layers of body and soul. The paintings pointed in the direction of a new kind of figuration for me, something I call, “Transfiguration,” the physical body in relationship to transcendental light. The work has a universally sacred aspiration.

    The other beautiful thing that the Sacred Mirrors memorialize is one of our most profound psychedelic experiences. The Universal Mind Lattice visually recounts a meltdown of the physical body into the white light torroidal fountain and drain of energy. What really completely reformatted our psychic hard drive was that Allyson and I did drawings of the same place. We both saw our infinite interconnectedness with the great web of all existence, a love energy flowing through all beings and things.

    What is your proudest artistic achievement?

    Yet to come.

    I was reading an article about the New Year’s Eve just passed, and the scope of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors [CoSM] in Wappinger. It seems like a massive undertaking, yet having not visited, it’s hard to picture. Could you help me out by describing the space?

    The mission is formidable and ultimately doable. Collectors have actually donated works back to CoSM to be part of this great project. Many artists resonate with the practice of art as their spiritual life.

    CoSM lives on 40 wooded acres in the Hudson Valley of New York, 65 miles north of New York City, walking distance from a railroad station running from Manhattan’s Grand Central Station. CoSM has six buildings and a barn and one by one we are make them beautiful and enjoyable as we design and prepare to build the sacred temple. A small staff lives on the property and many volunteers come to joyfully serve the project. We started holding Full Moon ceremonies in our home in Brooklyn in 2003, had a spiritual creative art center in Manhattan for five years, and now an artists refuge.

    What does the Chapel mean to each of you?

    The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors is yourself, the temple of your body and the temple of your spirituality. Art is a fusion of those elements. God/love is what brings them together. Love is the secret name of God. When you surrender to love you see through God’s eye. That is what you see when you are staring at a Sacred Mirror.

    Building a Chapel is the work of a community. If we all get along we can make something beautiful together. If we do not get along, our progress is impaired in making something beautiful and of having a sustainable relationship with the planet.

    Unless I’m mistaken, you seem to both now thrive on the notion of patronage – you’re financially supported by your fans and followers, who pay you to express yourselves through art. Was this always the goal?

    We travel because we are invited. To make art and have others love it and want to see it is a terrific honor. Every creative person yearns to live by their creativity. Our art is our ministry. We decide what art we are making and we make it to serve the greater good. Many creative people are considering the ethical energy that they are putting into their manifestations. A moral element deepens the narrative.

    Do you remember if there was a particular moment when you realized you were a self-sufficient artist, who no longer had to take on projects for commercial clients?

    I live and work to serve others.

    At 17 I painted Fun Houses. At 19 I painted billboards. At 21 I worked in the Anatomy department at Harvard Medical School, preparing exhibits on the history of medicine and disease and preparing cadavers for dissection by medical students. At 26 I was a medical illustrator and for ten years I taught anatomy to art students at New York University (NYU). Chapel of Sacred Mirrors became a non-profit organization in 1996 and at age 45 I stopped doing medical or other types of illustration work. Since then, I paint, sculpt, study, teach, lecture, write, work everyday as a co-founder and director of CoSM, now a church.

    What would retirement look like for you two? It seems hard to imagine you giving up your public roles as CoSM owners and operators. Finally, what would you each like to be remembered for?

    For as long as we are breathing we will be working on this project. Why retire from a life you love? We’ve been given a project to dedicate our lives to. What a gift! It will involve many visionaries who are our friends. Everyone is welcome.
    We’d like to be remembered for a universal spiritual message that reunifies the sacred visionary imagination with the art of our time.

    Of course, we’d like to be represented by the completed and sustainable building of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors.

    ++

    To learn more about Alex Grey, visit his website.

    Elsewhere: my story for The Australian about Alex Grey’s first Australian art tour, published in January 2011.

  • Mess+Noise album review: Art Vs. Science – ‘The Experiment’, March 2011

    An album review for Mess+Noise. Excerpt below.

    Art Vs. Science – The Experiment

    On debut album ‘The Experiment’, Art Vs. Science understand that repetition is the foundation of dance music – but it’s a trick that wears thin, writes ANDREW MCMILLEN.

    Popular culture generally exists to meet demand. Most artists spend their lives attempting to offer works that resonate with as wide an audience as possible. By tapping into popular sentiments, savvy artists can short-circuit the often lengthy process of artistic acceptance. Case in point: Art Vs. Science, who – legend has it – formed on the spot while its three members stood watching Daft Punk playing in Sydney some years ago. The crowd was going bonkers for two dudes in robot suits atop a glowing pyramid. They probably stood and wondered aloud: “Why not us?”

    Following on from a high-profile spot at Splendour In The Grass in 2008, thanks largely to debut single ‘Flippers’ – whose goofy chorus was comprised entirely of “Hey! Ho! Use your flippers to get down!” – and nearly topping the 2009 triple j Hottest 100 with ‘Parlez Vous Francais?’, Art Vs. Science have emerged with their first album, The Experiment. True to form, it’s packed from top to tail with brash electronica, delivered with their now-trademark dance-punk attitude. Here, we hear guitars furiously tapping away at fretboards during oh-so obvious breakdowns that lead into slamming synth-led choruses; all custom-made for hands-in-the-air dance festival sets. (By the by, this is a band who’s known for performing live covers of ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ and ‘Boom! Shake The Room’ to tents full of peaking munters).

    In isolation, The Experiment is a dull record, because these songs won’t come to life until they’re heard and felt in a live environment. A five-minute instrumental rave-up like ‘Meteor (I Feel Fine)’ sounds foolish playing on your home stereo (though interestingly, it’s the closest they’ve gotten to sounding like Daft Punk). Several songs here are based around single words or short phrases – ‘Higher’, ‘Bumblebee’, ‘Sledgehammer’ – which seem to be included for the sole purpose of giving crowds something nonsensical to shout amid the pulsing synth din.

    For the full review, visit Mess+Noise. For more Art Vs. Science, visit their website. The music video for their song ‘Finally See Our Way‘ is embedded below.

  • The Australian story: ‘Alex Grey art tour’, January 2011

    An artist profile for The Australian. Excerpt below.

    Grey area of spirituality’s personal connection

    To look at the art of Alex Grey is to look inside oneself, literally and figuratively. The American artist is best known for his psychedelic paintings that combine human anatomy with allusions to infinite time and space.

    Grey, 57, describes them as “visual meditations on the nature of life and consciousness”. They are intricate images depicting open-cut bodies, bathed in glowing light or what Grey calls “spiritual energies”.

    “My work has been called visionary because I’m a painter inspired by glimpses into the subtle visionary realm, which is the source of all sacred art,” he says. “There is more of a spiritual motivation to the work than an intellectual rationale.”

    With his long, ponytailed hair and dressed head to toe in black, Grey looks nearly as striking as his art. He has a warm, avuncular presence that may recall Gandalf or Albus Dumbledore: fitting, really, as Grey portrays himself as wizard-like, a man who strives to be seen as not quite of this world.

    If his art looks familiar, it may be from the album covers he has designed for the American band Tool: 2001’s Lateralus and 2006’s 10,000 Days. The band is about to appear at the Big Day Out, and while Grey is not part of that line-up, he and artist wife Allyson are in Australia at the same time for a series of art workshops.

    Grey has been a career artist since he was a teenager. At 17, he painted carnival funhouses; at 19, billboards. Two years later he got a job in the anatomy department at Harvard Medical School, where he was charged with preparing exhibits on the history of medicine and disease, as well as preparing cadavers for dissection by medical students.

    His observations there informed his own art-making, leading eventually to Sacred Mirrors, a series of 21 life-sized paintings. It took 10 years to complete, but his job as a medical illustrator ensured that his skills were constantly in use.

    For the full article, visit The Australian. More Alex Grey at his website.

  • IGN Australia story: ‘Advice: Careers in the Games Industry’, December 2010

    A story for IGN Australia, which I compiled as a result of asking members of the Australian game development community for their games careers advice while writing my previous story for the site, about the games education sector. Excerpt below.

    IGN Advice: Careers in the Games Industry

    How should you go about entering the games industry? IGN talks to the pros.

    As a supplement to our feature story about the Australian games education sector, IGN asked 10 members of the game development community for the best advice they could give to those looking to gain employment within the local market. Our thanks to everyone who participated in creating this feature.

    Jane ‘Truna’ Turner – coordinator, IGDA Brisbane / co-founder, 48 Hour Game Making Challenge

    Play games. Read books. Watch movies. Understand your world, so that when you’ve learned some hands-on, practical skills, you have ideas to make new, exciting forms of games. Generate your own enthusiasm, and your own, new industry. Don’t go and be a little worker; go and make your own world. I think games are just beautiful. Design is powerful. Game design is utterly powerful. You’re playing with culture and philosophy and fun and image and audio; the whole kit and caboodle. Don’t just think about making new forms; think about pushing the boundaries with it.

    If you go to uni, you’re in the ideal position, because Duncan Curtis – one of the guys who started 3 Blokes Studios – I think it was him that coined the phrase ‘the uni advantage’, which is: there you are. You’ve got your mates, you’re used to not sleeping, you’re used to living off noodles, you haven’t got a mortgage yet. You can actually afford to set up a little company and see what happens, and explore. You need to do it for a portfolio anyway; why not start making experimental pieces, put them up on Congregate, do some iPhone dev, do some Android dev? Little, fast, experimental work.

    John Passfield – Chief Creative Bloke, 3 Blokes Studios / co-founder and former Design Director, Krome Studios

    One of the big things we look for when we’re interviewing people is their portfolio. Whether it be as an artist showing your work, or a programmer and having a playable game; that just puts you so far ahead of other people when you’re applying for a job. And even a designer, if you have a little walkthrough video. One of the guys we hired at Krome for Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 2 – Rob Davis, a graduate, who’s now working at Microsoft Games Studios in Seattle – he had a walkthrough of a Ty The Tasmanian Tiger level that just blew everyone else away. He’d thought about it, and made a level up. He couldn’t program, or really do art, but he did a simple little walkthrough video, and explained his thought processes. That was amazing. It gave him such competitive advantage.

    So many people come for an interview, but they don’t really have anything to show. And clearly, if they’re going for a particular job, it’s really important to have something [to show] that applies to that job. If you’re applying for an iPhone developer, even if you can’t program, if you just mocked up an iPhone game on screen in Flash or something, or as an animatic using whatever tools you’ve got, that would definitely put you way ahead of other people – as long as it’s an interesting [game] concept. That simple process of coming prepared with an example of your work, targeted to who you’re applying for. That’s how you put yourself ahead of people. The staff we’ve hired at 3 Blokes are those who’ve had workable demos up on a place like Newgrounds or Kongregate.

    When I’m looking to hire, I look for enthusiasm in the medium, the platform that we’re making games for. That’s really important. And also – team fit. Games is a collaborative process. And obviously, if you’ve started a degree program, it’s important to see that you’ve finished a degree. It’s really good to show that you’ve finished something. Degrees are good, because it shows that someone has the wherewithal to stick it out. Holding a degree answers a lot of questions about somebody when they come in.

    For the full article, visit IGN Australia.

  • IGN Australia story: ‘Australian Games Education: A 2010 Report Card’, December 2010

    My second feature story for IGN Australia. Excerpt below.

    Australian Games Education: A 2010 Report Card

    Do you want to work in the games industry? The good news is that over two dozen education institutions across Australia offer games-related degrees. But how valuable is having a degree? Are they keeping up with the changing face of development in Australia? And with so many studio closures how many jobs are there anyway? IGN AU finds out…

    In the wake of Krome Studios’ significant downsizing in mid-October, one fact became very clear: finding employment in the local game development industry was going to be harder than ever before. Though Australia’s largest gaming company surpassed over 400 employees across three studios at one point, their gradual decline eventually returned the vast majority of that talent back into the national job pool.

    All industries move in cycles, and though the Australian game development sector is at a low ebb right now, it’s myopic to believe that things will stay this way forever. Though Krome’s wave broke upon the shore and left a great many stranded – as the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall – other sectors of the local industry are experiencing periods of unprecedented growth. Krome’s downfall served as a two-prong reminder: that large-scale game development is a high-risk business, and that relying upon overseas publishers’ work-for-hire cheques in a volatile world economy is among the riskiest business in the games industry.

    Disheartening though the events of October 2010 were, as I sifted through the detritus of vindictive former Krome employees and their shattered CEO Robert Walsh, one question kept flitting through my mind: what did this all mean for students graduating with games degrees in 2010? Here they were, about to enter the job market – many of them bleary-eyed, owing to marathon all-nighter sessions spent completing their final projects – only to be shuttled to the very end of the queue. They’d stand behind former staff from Krome, and the handful of other development companies who’ve shuttered in recent years; behind anyone who ever took on a temp QA (quality assurance; game testing) role; behind existing games graduates, many of whose only industry experience is submitting their portfolio to every studio with an email address, and – if they were lucky – participating in a brief internship, arranged on behalf of their educational institution in their final trimester.

    What else but passion could drive these people? To give up several years of their (often young) lives, to willingly put themselves tens of thousands of dollars in debt, just for the slight chance that they’ll be able to make a living making video games in Australia? The answer must be passion, if not madness. Yet here they are: hundreds of them, each year, graduating with degrees in games design, art, animation and programming. On the other side of mortarboards, robes and well-deserved handshakes awaits uncertainty, self-doubt, and a high likelihood of unemployment – within the game development industry, at least.

    Put simply, making games for a living sounds like fun. Given that gaming is the world’s fastest-growing entertainment medium – last year, for instance, Australian consumers spent over $2 billion on video games – it’s unsurprising that tertiary education providers were keen to institutionalise game development, just as they’ve done for practically every other form of creativity. As I discovered, though, investing in a games-specific education in the hopes of obtaining employment within the local industry is a decision of similarly high risk as building your company’s business model around ever-shifting economies and the mood swings of international publishers.

    For the full story, visit IGN Australia. At 6,000 words, it’s the longest article I’ve written. A huge thanks to everyone I spoke with for this story.

  • A Conversation With Damian Kulash, OK Go singer/guitarist

    OK Go singer/guitarist Damian KulashOK Go are an American pop band. I don’t want to cheapen their career by naming just its apex, but it’s the easiest way to refresh your memory: they’re the band behind ‘Here It Goes Again‘, better known as ‘the treadmill video‘.

    On February 13 2010, I spoke to OK Go’s singer/guitarist Damian Kulash [pictured right] on behalf of Rolling Stone Australia. He’d been up all night shooting a second music video for their song ‘This Too Shall Pass’. The first video couldn’t be embedded anywhere outside of YouTube because of the restrictions put in place by their parent label, Capitol Records, which is owned by EMI Music. The band’s response was to upload an embeddable version to Vimeo, write an open letter to their fans explaining the situation, and seek outside funding to conceptualise and film an entirely different music video. [You should click the above links to watch the videos, if you haven't already seen them.]

    Shortly before Rolling Stone’s May issue went to print at the end of February – confusing, right? – OK Go left Capitol Records, effectively undermining my story’s relevance. [More on that experience here.]

    Below is the full conversation I had with Damian, which is one of the last interviews the band gave while still signed to a major label.

    Andrew: Before we start, are you totally sick of talking about this whole issue?

    Damian: The politics of the music industry are… tiresome. I’ll put it that way. It’s important to me and I’m fascinated by it, but I’d much rather be thinking about making things, than how to distribute them.

    What kind of response have you seen from your fans in regard to your letter?

    It’s been pretty positive. My letter has been received by some people as a polemic, or as a big screed, but truly, the letter was just an explanation to our fans about why certain things weren’t available to them, because I think people really didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t see it as a big political move; it was just an explanation to our fans, and we’ve gotten very good response from them. I think they’re just happy that we treat them like adults.

    What kind of response have you seen from the record label? I read your interview on New TeeVee where you said your main contact at the label wants as badly as you do for the video to be embeddable.

    I think most folks at the label probably share our opinion that things should be easily distributed. There are a lot of competing agendas within the record label, so I’ve gotten a wide range of responses. The digital department of EMI France actually tweeted the letter and was distributing it because they felt it was a defense of their position. Other people felt like it was an attack. It’s a big company, so there’s been a wide range of responses.

    Beyond your fan base and record label industry people, the general public has also paid attention to the letter. I refer to your quote in Time about how you think there is a quiet majority who are just interested in seeing how the music industry works these days, and seeing your explanation from the inside.

    That’s definitely been the basic response that I’ve felt. I obviously can’t quantify it, but the loudest comments in the music industry in general are mostly from people who hate labels and who hate major labels and feel the industry is set up to screw musicians. I don’t feel like that’s generally representative. I think it’s easy to hate the machine. You really get those comments from people that actually try to make a living making music. It’s mostly people who have this purist idea of what music should be to them; give up their day jobs because they want their musicians to be absolutely conceptually totally pure and not ever have to worry about money for them.

    I read your Mashable interview where you said that a year or two ago, EMI switched the embedding stuff on all of your videos, but you didn’t pay much attention as you were making your new record at the time. Looking back, do you wish that you had paid attention? Would you have done anything differently back then?

    OK Go singer/guitarist Damian KulashWe have to pay attention to how our records and our videos and everything is distributed because we make ‘em and we care about how they get out there, but I wouldn’t be a student of the music industry’s technicalities if I wasn’t convinced that the animating passion in my life is making things, and how the distribution of them affects that. I know it sounds incredibly circular, but I don’t particularly care if the music industry works until I make something and it fucks up the way I want that thing to be shared with the world.

    I’m glad that when I’m writing music and recording music, in between records, I’m not spending my time trying to figure out the solution to the logistical problems of the music industry. Those are some things that we have to pay attention to out of necessity, not because we like paying attention to them.

    There is a quote from you in the letter where you say, “Unbelievably, we’re stuck in the position of arguing with our own label about the merits of sharing videos. It’s like the world has gone backwards.” As musicians, you must feel that having these kinds of conversations about the business side of music drains your creativity or your time that could be better spent creating music.

    It seems to me like there are a couple of things. One, the music industry is very clearly in an incredible crisis and that’s what makes this story complex. There is a lot to talk about because we’re up against what appears to be a sort of unresolvable problem. People want to talk about it. Two, I think a lot of us feel incredibly passionate about music and by its nature – almost by its definition – the important part of music kind of defies words. To me, what makes music sort of magical – what makes music the thing that I live for – is that you can communicate things like music’s four-dimensional emotions instantaneously. It’s like emotional ESP.

    I think when something comes along, something to talk about in music, something very rational or logistical and sort of left-linear logical, that’s attached to the distribution of music or to the manufacturing or production of music, then at least there is something to sink our rational brains into and some people really want to talk about it. Maybe this is something of a stretch as an argument, but we do a lot of interviews and it’s impossible to answer substantive questions about music because music is a feeling, not an argument. Whereas, everything that surrounds music – how it’s distributed, the politics, and the money behind it – gives you something hard and logical to talk about. I think that’s sort of why there is so much fascination on these things.

    Bob Lefsetz wrote in response to this situation that “if the labels want to maintain control, they have to first get the hearts and minds of the artists.” As an artist who deals with labels on a regular basis, do you share his view?

    OK Go singer/guitarist Damian KulashYes, in essence they do. I think that the value in music from which we derive the money in music can no longer be generated by limiting access. The way you assess value in most commodities is related to supply, the whole supply and demand curve. The reason you have to pay to have most things is because someone else restricts your access to them or you have to pay for the access to them. There are certain things that don’t follow that model and music has sort of jumped the barrier, I think.

    Twenty, fifteen, or even ten years ago, music was a physical thing that could be bought and sold. Even if conceptually the music wasn’t, there was a way of controlling access to it: you either owned a CD or you didn’t. Either you had access to it or your friend did, or you got it from a library. More likely, you bought it and had access to music.

    Now that has sort of broken down and the music industry is not going to be able to get that genie back in the bottle. You have to find a different level to work with, and I think that – whatever the financing situation is, no matter which body is financing the logistical mechanics of music – that body will have to have a better relationship with musicians and record labels. Record labels deal in very black-and-white terms with this restricted access thing, and now everyone is going to have to believe in a new model simultaneously, otherwise money won’t be generated for music.

    By now you’re all too familiar with the arguments surrounding this YouTube issue, having lived them out and told the world about it. If you can comment on it, I’d like to know how EMI rationalise the ‘disable embedding’ decision to the average web consumer – the one who just wants to share their cool videos with their friends?

    There has been a conceptual shift between videos being advertisement and videos being product. They’re sort of ‘on the fence’ still. All labels still want their videos to be seen far and wide, but they also want to be paid for them to be seen far and wide. Whereas once upon a time it was just amazing that there was a website out there [YouTube] that would actually help you distribute your advertising. Now, there is a website out there that is actually distributing your product without paying you for it. I think that’s how they justify it. They want people to see it like: “we paid for that thing, how come you won’t pay us for it?”

    Do you think that the thought of the average web user even comes into their equation, or is it all just discussed in terms of profit and shareholders, as you alluded to in your letter?

    They’re not such morons that they can’t take into account what people want. Labels don’t have a singular mind. It’s not like one big beast with one agenda. I think a lot of people at labels understand what people want and are frustrated with the way things are working. I think there hasn’t been a very clear-eyed assessment of that shift in music videos from advertisement to product, or in general, of the attempt to blur promotion and monetization. There used to be an obvious revenue stream, and that was selling records [CDs]. Since that is shrinking so incredibly fast, now all the things that you essentially pay for to promote that revenue stream are now things that they’re trying to turn the tables on and get money for actually having done.

    I don’t think they’re incapable of thinking about what people want. I think everybody suddenly is trying to eat the hamburger at the same time that they’re still milking the cow. You can’t have it both ways.

    Final question Damian, and it’s a bit of a philosophical one, so take a deep breath. If labels continue to herd viewers into absorbing their artists’ content in specific web destinations like on YouTube, what are the wider ramifications for the nature of sharing content online?

    American pop/rock band OK GoFirst of all, I’ve been talking this whole time as if I have a kind of answer, like I know exactly what’s going on and there is an obvious path forward. I don’t know what the ramifications will be. The first step that seems obvious to me is we do need something like record labels to perform some of the functions record labels traditionally have. This is what I think the critics of major labels often miss, is that for all of their exploitative, greedy, and short-sighted policies, they did provide a risk aggregation for the world of music making. They invest in however many young bands a year and most of them fail. Those bands go back to their jobs at the local coffee houses without having to be in tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal debt for having gone for it.

    If we don’t want to be just a domain of the independently wealthy and people who can take time off from their jobs for a couple of years to see what happens, or finance their own world tour while they figure out exactly how to make the number at the end of the column black, then somebody has to be doing this risk aggregation.

    Historically, when a band did well, or an artist did well, the profits could be so substantial that they would cover the other nineteen losses that the failed bands meant for a record label. A label could take the very extreme numbers of the music industry: you might have a less than 1% chance of success, but if you do succeed there is a massive reward, and it sort of evens them out over dozens or hundreds of artists a year.

    Something sort of needs to be doing that unless we want music only to be the domain of the independently wealthy. I think then you have to figure out what that means for content distribution. Somehow, some sector of the business has to be able to make a significant reward off of the success of that one-in-twenty, or that one-in-fifty, or that one-in-one hundred in order to keep the system running.

    At the same time, we all want this magical, wonderful, instantaneous global distribution – via the internet – to make music ever easier to get to and to make it more universal and more accessible. We have to figure out how to get the money that people are willing to spend on music into the hands of musicians, and into the hands of those risk aggregation bodies.

    Right now, it seems people are willing to spend money pretty freely on music. They just tend to do it more on hardware or on their broadband connection. People are willing to pay for extremely fast connection to the internet so they can download big files. They just don’t particularly care for paying for the file themselves, or see that as something they should be doing. People will pay a lot for an mp3 player. They don’t expect that part to be free, so to get people to value their music in that way, then we should figure out how to look at the system from a macro perspective and figure out a reasonable way forward.

    Thanks Damian. I admire your ability to speak coherently about the music industry, especially after an all-nighter. [The band had been up working on the second video for 'This Too Shall Pass', which is embedded below.]

    I don’t know how coherent I’ve been, but if you can whip that into shape and make me sound like I was, then more power to you. I appreciate it.

    [You can read more about this story for Rolling Stone Australia here.]

  • “What Makes A Great Live Performance?” for Creative Deconstruction

    [A guest post for Refe Tuma over at Creative Deconstruction. Original post here.]

    This is a guest post by Andrew McMillen, a music writer based in Brisbane, Australia. Andrew is coordinating blog content for an Australian music event, One Movement For Music, which debuts in October 2009. The blog at OneMovementWord.com contains interviews with artists and speakers appearing at the event, Australian music news, as well as guest posts exchanged with the likes of Creative Deconstruction’s Refe Tuma.

    The Temper Trap: well-readFor both music fan and critic, the most exciting live music experience is the great unknown. Bearing witness to an act you’d not previously heard, but becoming completely immersed in their art. Becoming an instant convert to their cause. Becoming willing to hit the merch desk immediately after they’re done playing in order to buy something – anything! – that the band have created; to have, to hold, and to listen. Those are the kinds of performances that music critics such as myself love to write about; they’re also the kinds of performances that A&R folk spend their careers trying to witness, in order to sign and release the act’s music on behalf of their label.

    I’ve been a live music critic since June 2007. Two ‘great unknown’ performances stick in my mind. The first was in September 2008. I was reviewing an industry showcase event for the Brisbane-based Big Sound music conference. Four bands each had thirty minutes each to show their wares and attempt to build rapport with a crowd largely comprised of wary industry vets and conference delegates. Second on the bill were Melbourne band The Temper Trap [pictured right], of whom I had no concept. Their first couple of songs were enjoyable, if unremarkable. Then they played the track ‘Sweet Disposition’, which is embedded below.

    The singer’s high vocal range elicited the kind of spinal shivers you can’t manufacture, and the beauty of the chorus hook brought tears to my eyes. Four minutes later, my accomplice and I traded incredulous, “what-the-fuck-just-happened?” looks. One of the most passionate, astonishing and affecting single performances we’d ever seen, is what. I wrote:

    “Witnessing support bands unexpectedly and effortlessly capture the complete attention of an audience is always a joy to behold; the thirty-minute set that unfolds before me is a stellar example of this phenomenon. The Temper Trap’s brilliant pop contains all of the expected ingredients, but with the added spice of Dougy’s incredible voice. The performance of new single Sweet Disposition is one of the most moving, inspiring events I’ve witnessed this year. Outstanding.” – Andrew McMillen, Rave Magazine, September 2008

    No surprises, then, that The Temper Trap used the resultant industry interest to sign a record deal, tour the world and release their debut album to wide acclaim. In a Japanese hostel in June 2009, I saw the video for their track ‘Science Of Fear‘ on MTV, and smiled at the progress the band had made in nine months. This is the kind of rare success story – predicated on pure passion and talent – that unites music fans, music critics and industry professionals.

    My second example is less impressive in market reach, but closer to my heart. In November 2008, I accepted an assignment from my editor to review a couple of local bands on a rainy Thursday night. With a different friend in a tow, and little more than a hope that the bands would be entertaining enough to fulfil our craving for live music – and the necessity to describe the proceedings in 200 words – we were witness to a similarly inspirational performance.

    Hunz, a.k.a. Hans van Vliet. He's totally checking his Facebook.The second band were an electronic pop trio called Hunz [pictured left], of whom I was vaguely aware, based on the animated YouTube short that a workmate had shown me months earlier. My friend and I stood close to stage, among a few dozen of the seemingly equally-ignorant. Before long, we were spellbound by their skilful contrast of dark electronic sounds against uplifting pop melodies. I was one of several to buy the band’s CD from the singer/keyboardist at set’s end, and thanked him for the performance. I wrote:

    “Hunz augments electronic samples with his unique voice and live drum and bass to produce an enchanting sound. Why haven’t we heard him earlier? Blame ineffective promotion, blame infrequent performances; it doesn’t matter, as there’s several dozen new fans appreciating the trio’s thoughtful, restrained pieces. The frontman graciously accepts our hastily-spent cash in exchange for his remarkable debut, When Victims Fight.” – Andrew McMillen, Rave Magazine, November 2008

    That particular musical discovery stuck with me for months. Hunz’s album was never far from my Winamp playlist or iPod scroll-wheel. I shared their music far and wide; months later, I met the man behind the band, singer/keyboardist Hans van Vliet (a.k.a. Hunz). Our mutual appreciation – from humble musician, to music critic and passionate fan – forged a friendship that soon led to an offer to become the band’s manager; a role I continue to inhabit and cherish. View an animated YouTube clip below to get an idea of the band’s sound; visit Hunz’s Bandcamp page to download some tracks for free.

    These two examples are atypical of most live performances I see. While I can eke enjoyment out of the vast majority of shows I attend, my housemates could attest to the regularity with which I arrive home and state a show was merely “okay” or “good”. The reality, though, is that “good” isn’t good enough; “good” means I probably didn’t buy your CD after the show, and that your act probably won’t win their way into my playlist.

    I often read about how there’s more music being played and listened to by more people than ever before, and how the live show is where artists traditionally earn the most coin. Since the role of the music critic – in my mind – is to sort the gold from the pyrite, it’s vital for touring artists to develop an engaging, memorable show that’ll convince guys like me to champion bands like yours. When I review live music, I want to rave about bands I love, instead of painstakingly pinpointing my disappointment. As both critic and fan, I want to be excited and inspired, not bored and unimpressed.

    Written by Andrew McMillen for OneMovementWord.com.

  • A Conversation With Ross Zietz, Threadless Art Director

    Patchy Ross and Patchy RedI’ve worn Threadless shirts almost exclusively since 2006. So I when I found out that their Art Director, Ross Zietz, was visiting Brisbane on Wednesday, 27th May as a guest speaker for the Portable Film Festival, I hooked up an interview with him for FourThousand. I researched like a good journalist and found that I owned two of his designs, ‘Pandamonium‘ and ‘Loch Ness Imposter‘. So I wore one of them when we met, to show that I’m a fan. Kind of like how gangs wear colours so that they know who not to fight.

    But Ross wouldn’t fight anyone. He’s a gentleman. He spoke with me about t-shirts for 45 minutes, before speaking about t-shirts for another 70 minutes to the Portable Film Festival symposium crowd of 40. During the discussion, Ross had to repeat answers to a lot of the questions that I’d asked beforehand. Poor guy. 

    A: Hey, Ross. I read that you joined Threadless as the janitor.
    R: (laughs) Yeah, back in the day. Do you know that whole story?
    A: Well I knew that you had submitted designs to the site. Then an opportunity came up at the company, and you took it.
    R: Yeah. I went to school at Louisiana State University, and studied graphic design there. One day I was researching for a project at a bookstore, and there was a little blurb in a magazine about Threadless. So I checked the site out, and submitted a shirt that night. It was a really bad shirt, but I kinda just got hooked. It was a cool way to get feedback, and it was outside of what we had to do for school. It was like an escape, where I could just do what I wanted.

    It was a year or two after that, right after I graduated from design school, when they posted a blog about how they were looking to hire somebody. It wasn’t for a graphic design position, it was for a – as they worded it – “helper dude”. I was about to accept a design position at a place in New Orleans, but I looked at the Threadless opp and thought – “why not?” Because I’d been to Chicago, and really liked it, and kind of wanted to get out of Louisiana as I’d been there all my life.

    So I applied, and got an email back from Jake [Nickell, Threadless founder] the day after. He said that they were interested in hiring me, so they flew me out a couple of days later on St Patrick’s Day. The job interview was actually at a bar, and we drank some green beers. So I got the job the next day, and I was like, “All right! I guess I’m gonna move to Chicago!” I moved there the next month, and when I started there, I was like the ninth person that they’d hired. And I was probably the first person to join who wasn’t already a friend of Jake. Jake and Jacob [DeHart, Threadless co-founder] both had their own friends, and that’s how they brought the company together. That’s why everybody’s so close in the company. So I was one of the first that wasn’t part of the clique. At that time, we all packed and shipped shirts, and kind of did everything.
    A: So Threadless had a warehouse space at that time, I take it.
    R: We had a warehouse space, but it was like a quarter of the size that we have now. That’s when we were doing our early growing, I guess you could say. That was 2005.
    A: So there were only nine people in 2005, and now you’re up to..
    R: Around 80. 80 during the sales. We hire a bunch of temps to help us ship out shirts. And a lot of the time, the people who work as temps end up getting normal jobs, too.
    A: When you applied, were Jake and Jacob aware of your design skills?
    R: They were, yeah.
    A: Had you had a few designs printed?
    R: At that point I four or five printed. And that was one of my stipulations when they hired me. I told them that I really wanted to still be able to submit shirts. Because to me, it seems like if you work for the company, and you get chosen to be printed, it still kind of looks shady. So when I was hired, I started doing designs under different aliases. But yeah, that’s how I got the job!
    A: Do you wear your own shirt designs?
    R: I feel weird wearing stuff I designed. I don’t really own any of my designs. I let my mom, and dad, and girlfriend wear them, but I’d feel weird wearing them myself. Imagine if someone saw me wearing it, and came up to me: “Hey, you designed that shirt!” I don’t know if that’d really happen, but I’d just feel weird doing it.
    A: But it’d be advertising for your work.
    R: That’s true. If somebody was like, “Hey, I really like your shirt!” But that’s one of the great things about Threadless, when people say that kind of thing. Because we don’t brand it at all, so when people see the shirt and complement the design, that’s when you tell them about Threadless.
    A: That’s the reason that I got into wearing Threadless. I used to wear surf brands and stuff when I was growing up, and I got sick of that. So I started wearing band shirts and Threadless. I found the site in 2006, and I really got into it, because I’d rather wear a cool design that I know someone made, rather than wearing a brand that I’ve never associated with.
    R: Exactly. I think that’s really cool. Especially when the shirt designers are from all over the world. That’s really neat.
    A: Does it still blow your mind to see people wearing your designs?
    R: It does. The first time I saw someone wearing one of mine was ‘Pandamonium‘, and it was a girl at concert. I was with some friends, and they told me that I should go and talk to her.. because she was kind of cute too (laughs) But I didn’t do that, because I didn’t want to be like “Hey, I designed that shirt!”
    A: “That thing you’re wearing? I made it!”
    R: “I’m on your shirt tag!”
    A: Really, man? I totally would approach people like that if I were you. It’d be a great introduction, because they’ve obviously taken the time to find your artwork, like it, and buy it. You’re too modest!
    R: That’s true.
    One of Ross' Dave Matthews Band designsA: I saw that you’ve done some band work for Dashboard Confessional, Dave Matthews Band and a couple of others.
    R: The first one I did was for Hellogoodbye. All of those artists, or their managers, saw my shirts on Theadless and got my email through the site. They said they liked my style, and asked if I’d be interested in doing some shirts for them. I was like, “Hell yeah!”. Because when you get a gig like that, it just seems awesome. It all happened though Threadless, and it happens with a lot of other designers. Once they get printed, and their name is out there and on the shirts. I know a bunch of others that’ve gotten to do shirts for bands. I know that Dave Matthews has done a bunch of Threadless designers. I’m actually doing some for Phish when I get back. That was through the Dave Matthews people.
    A: Do they give you design briefs, or do they ask you to come up with something?
    R: They tend to show me a bunch of stuff that they like, and have me go from there. It’s always interesting, because when you do a t-shirt for a big band like that, the most you’ll get paid is.. I did two shirts for Dashboard, and they paid me $1500 total. I thought that was a lot. But when you compare that to Threadless paying out up to $2200 for one design.. I know it seems strange to some people, but that is a lot of money for a non-spec work. And I know there’s no guarantee that you’re going to win, but at least you can have fun doing it.
    A: Who would you most like to design a shirt for?
    R: Doing something with a band who have a crazy, art attitude would be cool. Someone like Radiohead would be awesome. Any stuff like that where you can have more freedom. It’s fun doing that stuff; it’s fun to challenge yourself. I have no idea what I’m going to do for Phish. I’ve seen their older shirts that have fish smoking weed, but I’m going to try and come up with something cool. Right now, Patagonia is a company who I think is really cool. They’re kind of like an outdoorsy brand, and they’re really green and organic and all of that stuff. They’re based in Ventura, California, so they’re really into surfing and stuff. They work with some designers, like Geoff McFetridge, and I think it’d be really cool to design some stuff for them. I don’t think I could though, because I work for Threadless.
    A: Do you get many bands approaching Threadless to do contract work through the site?
    R: Yeah, we’ve done some Threadless Loves promotions.
    A: I saw you had Hot Chip on there recently.
    R: And a lot of other bands, like Josh Ritter and The Decemberists. I think we’re gonna start doing some more stuff like that, and maybe even do some bigger bands, too.
    A: It sounds like a pretty good idea to me, for musicians. To source artwork from a crowd of people who’re likely fans of the act, in most cases. And if a fan’s artwork wins, they’ll tell all their friends about it.
    R: Exactly. The bands that approach us are really cool about it, but the ones that aren’t cool about it are the ones that want the band’s name on the shirt. We haven’t really done a shirt with a band’s name. We run it so that the band will give a theme, and then the design community will take that theme and go nuts with it, and then the band will pick a winner.
    A: I saw that Design By Humans have been doing that a lot lately.
    R: Yeah. I’m not going to talk shit about them. They go through one merch company that uses a kinda weird licensing thing. But they do a lot of huge bands.
    A: Fleetwood Mac, Kings Of Leon.
    "Stand in front of this yellow door, put on this shirt and wear a scarf."R: Lil Wayne, too. It’s cool, but I didn’t like the shirts that got chosen. They got some amazing subs [submissions], but again, those artists require that the band name has to be pretty prominent on the design. It’s not to say that we wouldn’t do that in the future, but I think that we like it so that when you see the shirt, you think of the band, but it’s not necessarily overt.
    A: You take more of a subtle approach.
    R: Yeah, that’s it. Subtlety!
    A: I guess that’s something that not a lot of artists would be down with that.
    R: Yeah. That’s why the artists that we partner with are more into the whole ‘art scene’, I guess.
    A: So you score a lot of designs each day. How long does it take you to know if you like a design?
    R: I think it’s cool if when you see a t-shirt, and you don’t have to get it right away. When you walk by somebody, you usually see it for like two or three seconds. So it needs to be something that’s pretty simple and straight-forward. That’s just what I like, or whether it looks good or pretty. But the ones that are really intricate – the ones you have to look at real close – I think they’re cool, but that’s kind of more stuff to hang on a wall, rather than to wear on a t-shirt.
    A: That’s funny, because I told a friend of mine that I was doing this interview. She said that she thinks that she prefers plain shirts to any kind of design. She thinks that designs just belong on walls, which I totally disagree with.
    R: I guess I kinda see that, because I wear a lot of plain t-shirts too. I like the idea of being able to express yourself with a t-shirt.
    A: Because a shirt is a statement.
    R: Yeah. I like spicing it up a little bit, rather than wearing the same plain, uniform kind of shirts each day. It keeps people different, I guess. I do love some shirts that are really crazy, but I like simple stuff. My favourite artist is Geoff McFetridge. Do you know who that is?
    A: No.
    R: He’s pretty amazing. He does a lot of real simple, kinda goofy stuff, but I’ve always been a fan of his. Check him out – he actually just did a Select shirt for us ['Frowns Are Flesh', pictured below right]. That was pretty damn amazing – this guy, who I’ve idolised for so long, did a shirt for us. That was cool.
    A: I’ve noticed that most Threadless shirts over the years have relied on a centre image on the chest, whereas elsewhere there’s a bit of a trend to use the whole shirt.
    R: Yeah. We do that [giant designs] more now. Our best-selling shirts lately have been the all-over prints. One thing that I really like about Threadless is that we print enough shirts that there’s a range. I don’t mean to put down Design By Humans, but it seems like their shtick lately is just kinda giant prints.
    A: Definitely.
    R: It’s almost too much, and I think it alienates some people. It’s kinda cool that we can spread out. This [points to shirt - 'Party Animal' by John Hegquist] is a new one. Just a real basic, simple print on the front. But we’re working all these new printers now, too, that have presses that can do these crazy big prints. But there’s not many in the Midwest. We’re based in Chicago; they’re more in LA, which is where Design By Humans is located.
    Ross modelling a double-sided Geoff McFetridge Select designA: American Apparel are there too, aren’t they?
    R: Yeah. They’re the ones that make our shirts. But we use two printers out of Chicago, and one of them is getting a brand new giant press, so we’re looking forward to seeing what we can do with that. But lately we’ve been doing more big prints, because that seems to be the trend that’s been coming for three or four years now.
    A: Do you think that centre, chest designs kind of define Threadless’ style? Because when I think of Threadless, I think of the simple, character-based shirts, or the clever situations.
    R: In the past, yeah, but I think we’re doing a bunch more random stuff now. If you look at our homepage, you can see that a lot of our new ones are trending toward giant prints. And another cool thing that we do is the Bestees, where you can vote on the best t-shirt that we print each month, and the winning designer will get another $2,500.
    A: Oh yeah, I heard about that. That’s ridiculous!
    R: It’s crazy. Three out of the three that’ve won so far this year are giant tees. [he shows me on his laptop]
    A: Oh yeah, that red one is awesome. ['The Red' by Dina Prasetyawan]
    R: Yeah, these big prints are all the rage right now. And I think they’re cool, but I like simpler stuff.
    A: Do your designs have a particular style?
    R: I don’t really have a style. When I come up with something in my head, I have to make it look like that. And I think that is probably one of my problems, that I don’t have a distinctive style. I’m more about the idea than having a style. But no, I’m styleless. (laughs)
    A: I’ve seen your stuff, and it’s pretty varied. You range from character-based ones like this, to ones like ‘Infinity MPG’.
    R: I found out that one ['Infinity MPG', pictured below] just got ripped, actually. I don’t know why I’m mentioning this, you probably don’t care.
    A: No I do, because I saw that ‘Pandamonium‘ got kinda ripped off a while ago too.
    R: They basically just stole the idea and made another shirt called ‘Infinity MPG’. And I was like, “oh well”.
    The ORIGINAL MPG. Accept no substitutes.A: How do you feel about that?
    R: It sucks.
    A: I guess there’s a good way to look at it – it was such a good idea that they wanted to take it off..
    R: It’s kind of flattering, yeah. There are even people who started a website called ‘Infinity MPG’ after I got printed, and sold bumper stickers and all these things. It’s not like I invented the idea that by riding a bike you use less gas. (laughs) I can’t get mad at that. I think it’s cool. As long as it does something beneficial, it’s cool.
    A: When people submit to Threadless, they still own the copyright of the image, don’t they?
    R: The only thing we get is garment rights. So basically, we can put it on a t-shirt, or a hoodie. But the artist can make prints of the design and whatever else. We have some wall rights for wall graphics. We work with a company called Blik, and they do crazy wall coverings. They’re a great company to work with, and that’s why we have some of those rights.

    But there’s been times when people have had their design printed on a shirt, and they came back to me saying “hey, I want to do something with this design”, like making a print out of it. We just talk to the artist and they’re fine with it. That’s the cool thing about being so close with all the artists. If they have a want or a need, they can just talk to us, and make it happen.
    A: Here in Australia – and I’m sure you’ve heard of similar things in the US – I saw some designs for sale at a music festival market stall, and the majority of the shirts were Threadless rip-offs.
    R: They were telling me about this yesterday in Melbourne, too. I have heard that. There’s a lot of places in Asia that have that same thing. And we can’t really do anything about it. It’s so hard to do stuff outside of the United States with that kind of law. And especially if it’s just at a market. Were the shirts tagged and everything? Did it seem like a legit brand, or like they weren’t making too many of them?
    A: No, they just seemed like limited runs.
    R: Yeah, see, it sucks, but we can’t really do anything about. It sucks for the artist, too, because they feel like they’re getting exploited more than we are, because they’re not getting any credit for it.
    A: For sure. What’s the most important part of running an online design community?
    R: I like being open and honest. When we fuck up, we let people know that we messed up. We keep our community ‘in the loop’, and that’s what is most important. I also like being able to be close with the designers. In my position as Art Director, I receive their art, and I get to work with these amazing artists to try and make what they envisioned work on a shirt. And at the same time, if the community sees something like a fake Threadless shirt, they’ll blog about it and kind of police for us.
    A: It really is just a dedicated community built around t-shirts.
    R: I know, and who would have thought? And seriously, when Jake came up with the idea, he never, ever in his wildest dreams thought that it would get as big as it has. The growth was organic, and it’s just turned out really cool.
    Nothing I type here could be funnier than this photo.A: Tell me about the Threadless retail stores.
    R: We have two now. They’re both in Chicago. We opened the first one around 18 months ago, and then the second around six months ago. The second one was just for kids shirts, initially, but we’re going to change it so that it’s for both kids and adults.
    A: So the kids idea didn’t work out so well?
    R: Well it did, but parents would come in with their strollers and want to buy shirts for themselves, too. It makes sense to have everything there, rather than just do a kids store.
    A: I read that the first store didn’t have a lot of stock, but tended to focus on art instead.
    R: We tried to replicate the feeling you get when you’re on the website. We have a bunch of digital displays where you walk in, and you can get a headshot of yourself taken. We have a bunch of monitors on these mannequins in the window, so your head will show up on the mannequins.
    A: Is that a popular feature?
    R: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. It’s a pretty busy walking street, so a lot of people walk by and stuff. We do two weeks of stock at the store, so we only have like 18 shirts in the store at a time. I mean, right now we’ve had like 2,000 shirts printed, and in stock we have probably 300 designs, so we can’t necessarily have 300 designs in stock at the store. But it’s a pretty small little shop, and we just decided to do the most recent shirts, and cycle through.
    A: Do you have plans to expand the store range?
    R: Eventually, we’d love to. It’s just that right now, it’s just so hard with all of the money issues going on. But we definitely plan to do some more stuff overseas. And the cool thing is that Australia is our #4 country, sales-wise. It goes US, UK, Canada and Australia, so y’all are up there on our list. This is my first time here; it’s been great so far. I really love it!
    A: The whirlwind tour – you’re here for what, three days?
    R: I know! So quick. I was in Melbourne for the past two days and basically jetlagged the whole time. Tomorrow is Sydney, and then I have two days to relax. Actually, another Threadless guy is coming from New Zealand to meet me there. His girlfriend lives in Sydney, so we’re gonna hang out for those few days. He’s a cool guy. The community has these meet-ups once per year in Chicago, and we have designers and members from all over the world coming to meet us.
    A: The online community in real life.
    R: I know, it’s nuts. It’s nuts that they travel – well, not nuts – but it’s really cool that they travel that far just to come and meet everybody.
    A: Dedication! Brand loyalty! Hey, how many votes does it to convince you that a shirt you don’t personally like should be printed?
    R: We have a brand management team, and so when we look at the scores of shirts, we can see the highest scoring ones, but then we can break it down into how girls scored it, how guys scored it, how people that buy a lot of shirts scored it; all these different factors that we get to look at. That’s how we decide what gets printed. So there’s a lot of times where designs that I’m not really too keen on score amazingly, and I can’t deny it just because I don’t like it. If a lot of other people like it, it’s worth printing.
    He's that futuristic. Also, I'd never wear this shirt.A: How many shirts does Threadless print per week?
    R: A single batch is right around 1,000. But before we print them, we ‘weigh in’ the amount of votes. So if it scored well with girls, we’ll print more for them, and if it didn’t score so well for guys, we’ll print less. One single batch is usually between 800 and 1,000. Once they sell out, you can request a reprint, and the artist will get another $500 if the shirt gets reprinted.
    A: How many requests does it take for reprint?
    R: It varies, but if we do a shirt that sells out really fast, we’ll push that to reprint a little bit quicker, especially if it’s like a hot topic, or a hot style at the time. But when we look at a reprint request, we usually get more than 2,000 requests before we reprint.
    A: But you only print around 800 or a thousand at a time.
    R: A lot of times when people make a reprint request, they’ll do it multiple times.
    A: I guess that Jake and Jacob learned that the hard way.
    R: Yeah. (laughs) And a lot of the time when people request a reprint, they changed their mind when it’s back up on the site.
    A: The site has those $5-10 shirt sales throughout the year. Is that just to clear out the inventory?
    R: Yeah, it’s to keep everything clean. We’re starting to have $9 shirts on the site almost all of the time, now, but we tend to only drop to $5 for the crazy sales. But we do that just because we release so many shirts a week that stuff gets lost of the site, if we don’t clear it out. Like if we printed more than 800-1,000 shirts, the different designs that we have would just get too much, and too hard for people to find on the site. And that’s another thing that’s really hard: a lot of the time, shirts have titles that don’t really fit, so when people are looking for it, it’s kind of hard.
    A: Maybe that’s something that could be built into the site – shirt keywords.
    R: We do some keywords, but it’s always hard to keep track of that.
    A: I was submitting some photos on the site last week [note: uploading a photo of yourself wearing a Threadless shirt earns $1.50 in store credit] and it took me a while to figure out their names.
    R: It’s tough. It’s one of the things that we’re constantly working on – better ways to keep it so that shirts don’t get lost. Some really great designs get lost on the site.
    A: How did the Twitter tee range come about?
    R: We have a pretty good relationship with the Twitter guys. Our Chief Technical Officer Harper Reed is friends with them. Twitter put us on their ‘suggested users’ list, and now we have over 500,000 followers. It’s crazy for a little t-shirt company out of Chicago.
    A: It’s such a powerful medium when you have that kind of a follower base. Every time you post a link, it goes out to a huge amount of people.
    R: That’s the thing. We’re trying to figure out the best way to use that. We don’t want to drive people crazy and post too much. We don’t want to be annoying. So we’re trying to figure out what people react to. Because, yeah, when you have half a million people following you, you have to think about everything that you’re sending out.
    A: There’s guys like Trent Reznor who have a similar amount of followers. It’s the kind of thing that could be abused so easily. “With great power comes great responsibility.”
    Guaranteed to cause seizures as you walk down the street, or your money back!R: Exactly.
    A: Would you wear a Twitter shirt?
    R: Um.. (pauses)
    A: Come on!
    R: I’m not a big ‘words on t-shirts’ kind of guy..
    A: I didn’t think so!
    R: Me and two other guys are designing all of those Twitter shirts, and all of the Type tees, but I like more of the subtle stuff. Less ‘in your face’. I wouldn’t be too fond of wearing the ‘I’m huge on Twitter‘ shirt. But there’s definitely an audience for that stuff. It’s just not my cup of tea. But we are going to start doing more Twitter shirts that are going to be less about Twitter, and more about funny things that people said on Twitter. I think that we probably shouldn’t have done the launch using four shirts about Twitter.
    A: What can you recall about your first time on the site?
    R: I remember that first night that I went on Threadless, I studied the site for a little bit, and studied the designs that had been submitted. And I came up with a design, and thought “man, this shirt is going to be so awesome!” It was a heart on a sleeve, and it was the worst design ever.
    A: That was it? Just a plain shirt?
    R: Yeah, a plain shirt with a heart on the sleeve. I was like, “That’s so clever and creative!” So I subbed that, and it just got tore up. It was hilarious. But that’s what got me hooked, because I was like, “All right, I’ll prove these guys wrong! I can do some stuff that they’ll like, that I’ll like too!” And that got me hooked. But the community can be brutal. They can be mean. If you put some stuff up that they don’t like, it can be a real reality check sometimes.
    A: That’s a good thing though, right? You’d want criticism rather than praise?
    R: Exactly. You want honest criticism. That’s one thing I noticed when I was in design school. Our teachers would give honest feedback, but the students would never really give feedback. They probably just felt that they were trying to say good stuff. And so when you put it online – especially with people you don’t know – and they give you feedback, that’s when you feel like you get more of the honest truth from people.
    A: Was that hard to deal with at first, as an artist who’d been otherwise praised?
    R: Yeah.. no.. (laughs) I think you need that. It’s what keeps you humble, and what keeps you in check. You don’t want to get a big head about anything.
    Blue shirt, yellow field. Sounds like an Eskimo Joe b-side.A: The site gets over a thousand subs per week – what percentage is printed?
    R: We’re printing six new sub shirts per week, and we’re about to add two more per week. So it’s less than a 1% chance of being printed.
    A: But it’s not really chance, though.
    R: Yeah, it’s more based on skill.
    A: That’s the beauty of it: the most popular, or the best designs, will win.
    R: That’s one of the things that’s tough, because I do feel like there is a little bit of a popularity contest within the community. It’s not as bad as it could be, but you do notice that people who score well tend to always score well. I mean, a lot of times it’s because all their stuff is so good, but other times they just figure out what people want and they just duplicate that style, to make it work on a t-shirt.
    A: What’s your favourite printed Threadless design?
    R: The one you’re wearing is pretty great ['Pandamonium']. I also like ‘Loch Ness Imposter‘.
    A: I’ve got that one too. It’s pretty subtle, it takes people a while to get it.
    R: Yeah, it’s great. The one shirt that I designed that I wear is ‘Piece Of Meat‘, the one with just the steak on it. I don’t know why, I just really like that shirt. One of the shirts that I’ve been wearing a lot lately is a Select shirt that wasn’t even that popular, it’s a green one called ‘The Hills Have Eyes‘ [by Clayton Dixon]. It was like this little mountain scene with these hills that all have eyeballs, and this guy in a station wagon driving by. It was illustrated really well. It just looked cool on a t-shirt, and I liked the green colour. That’s the one I wear the most. [he points at a bowl of Smarties that I've been snacking on throughout the interview] Are these chocolate?
    A: Yeah, they’re called Smarties. When you were at college, did you imagine that you’d make a living off of directing the art that appears on shirts?
    R: No, not at all. I know that I basically just lucked out, and every day when I come into work, I think “this is an awesome job”. And now I get to come to Australia and talk about it!
    A: Again, it wasn’t luck, though. You were chosen for this. It was perfect for you!
    R: Yeah – it found me! (laughs) But no, it is really cool. When I was at college, I thought that I’d eventually get a job at a design firm or at an ad agency. Which still wouldn’t be bad, but it’s just that I like what I’m doing now.
    A: What advice do you have for young designers?
    R: Oh, man. (pauses)
    A: Would you recommend following your path – not to become Threadless Art Director, but in terms of getting printed?
    R: Do what you want. Do what you enjoy doing. I mean, for kids in school, it’s tough now, because you have to do these real strict assignments and stuff. But try and make each project your own, if you can. Use a grid. I love using a grid, even in strict illustrations, I’m real weird about that.
    A: Can you explain that? I have no design knowledge. What’s the advantage of a grid?
    R: It’s a sort of really anal thing, I guess. It’s a Swiss thing. But when you start working on a piece, imagine if there was like gridwork and lines going through it. If you can get ‘em to match up and stuff, it’s a lot more pleasing to the eye, usually.
    A: What, so being symmetrical?
    R: Not symmetrical. Just – at points. It’s one of those weird things that I’ve always done. There are definitely design teachers who are like, “Break the grid. Don’t use a grid.” For illustrations, you don’t have to use a grid. But when you’re doing stuff with type, and type mixed with imagery, I think it’s important to have some structure to it. That was one of the first things that we learned in design school.
    Zietz 'n' me. I'm wearing his Pandamonium design. *blush*A:Tonight’s discussion [for the symposium] is a bit different to last night, right? I’m told that you’ll be speaking about the entrepreneurial side of things.
    R: I think so. Which is not really my expertise, but..
    A: You can bullshit, right?
    R: I can do my best (laughs) But Portable [Film Festival], where Andrew [Apostola, Creative Director] works, they’re the ones that flew me out here. What we do with Threadless, they kind of do with films. They allow filmmakers that’re just getting started to get their films out there, so that people can see them. That’s kind of like how designers who’re just starting out can put their designs up on Threadless and get people talking about their work.
    A: That’s gotta be one of the best parts of the internet, how people can group off in different sections and just talk amongst yourselves. People who care about a topic can find their own niche.
    R: Exactly. All over the world. It’s really great.

    Aww. Thanks again, Ross. That was probably my best interview so far. If you want, you can stalk Ross on Twitter, Flickr, and Threadless.