The Book Report – Soundscreen Design

In an effort to expand our horizons and turn you on to some really cool new books concerning music, this is The Book Report, an ongoing series from guest contributor Christopher Ambrose.

Text by: Christopher Ambrose for The Sky Report

Soundscreen Design: Interview with Mike Treff

Soundscreen Design are makers of many wonderful things in this world, big music fans… and nice guys. The Brooklyn-based studio is the creator of refreshingly unsarcastic, music-educated apparel, well-curated and limited-edition rockstar-to-be journals and beautiful prints. They are also the publishers of the recent books Rock Paper Show, which showcases rock posters from the Flatstock exhibitions and Touchable Sound, which celebrates the art and packaging of the 7-inch record. Both titles reach the level of objet d’art from the care, patience and attention that went into their making.

With so much to write about and celebrate, we thought it best to hunt down Soundscreen Design Founder and Creative Director Mike Treff to answer and elaborate in his own words.

Read the interview after the jump.

TSR: Tell us more about the beginnings of the studio…

Mike Treff: Soundscreen began in late 2008, with the idea of creating a company to make music “stuff” for people who are having a hard time living with their music in the age of digital downloads. We saw a gap in the market for well-designed, meticulous, quality non-audio products… like better band apparel, better frames for your poster collection, and more artful and archival books on music topics. We hope to advance the concept of what music “merch” can be… and where it can be sold.

TSR: Where does the focus on music come from… Are you all musicians?

MF: I believe music is a fundamental part of so many people’s lives, myself included, but one that is fragmented and hard to compartmentalize. My connection to music is sort of like my connection to air, or food… Something I need to survive. I would not consider myself a musician, that lowers the bar for too many talented people who actually earned that title.

TSR: Regarding Rock Paper Show … How did the book develop?

MF: I have always been fascinated with Flatstock, since my first encounter with it at SXSW in 2003. The experience of walking through literally thousands of incredibly colorful, exceptionally printed show posters while having the ability to meet their makers is incredibly powerful. It’s a physical, visceral thing that can leave you speechless. While there are many books about “rock posters”, there was never a definitive, archival treatment of the Flatstock shows. Had the exhibitions not been organized over the past 9 years, the modern rock poster scene would be nothing like it is in terms of attention and talent.

I immediately called Geoff Peveto, the president of the American Poster Institute (the body that governs and runs all the Flatstocks), and asked him what he thought about doing a book telling the history of the people, events, and shows themselves. Thankfully, he was into it. We immediately dug into the archives and started on the content. A year and half later and many, many, many late nights… Rock Paper Show was released.

TSR: How do you see the Rock Poster as an art form?

MF: I’m certainly not an art historian, but I see rock posters as just as vital an artform as any other mode of expression. Be it a punk flyer, a show poster, an abstract painting, or a piece of architecture… The creators vision is played out using the tools available to him/her. However, the rock poster serves as a unique example of collaboration as the designers must serve many masters: themselves and their vision, the bands on the bill, the venue who is most likely paying for it, and the fans of the bands. Even further, the designer has to decide how much of a bands aesthetic to carry through into their design, which can vary greatly depending on whose involved. Truth be told, some of the most innovative typography, illustration and composition can be found on the walls of dingy rock clubs years before you’ll find water down versions in the creations of Madison Avenue an on the walls of your local modern art museum.

TSR: And how about Touchable Sound
… What was the inspiration for the book?

MF: I have always been fascinated with the 7-inch as a format, and further by the amount of labor that went into so many of the records I bought growing up at hardcore shows. Often a record clearly took months to make, with the band or label screen printing, embossing, die-cutting, and using just about every other mode of production known to hand make a record, that they ended up selling for $3. While that effort alone is enough to fill the 412 pages of Touchable Sound, we also wanted to highlight the exceptional design and packaging that was resulting from this approach. It’s a vital part of the story of underground music that is rarely told. Just like poster books, there are many books on record design that focus singularly on the cover image, which in the case of Touchable Sound is only a fraction of the story. It’s that story we wanted to capture.

TSR: How were others like collectors and labels involved?

MF: I would never be so arrogant as to think that I, or my fellow editors, had an all-encompassing knowledge of the subject. We reached out to literally thousands of labels, bands, collectors, friends, and record store owners. We posted calls for submission across many blogs and record collecting communities, as well as engaged experts in various areas of the country, and world. At one point, I had over 25 people from all over the globe sending me records to consider for the book. At the end of the day, we probably considered over 15,000 records first hand, and researched at least double that. Without the help of our collaborators, we could have never pulled this book off. For that, we’re very grateful.

TSR: Why did you choose to categorize by region as opposed to say alphabetically

MF: Great question! The timeframe the book covers if almost 25 years, basically from 1985 through 2008. For most of that time, there was no Internet. While this is a crazy thought today, it was standard to not ever know what a record looked like until it arrived in your mailbox via mailorder, or when the band sold it at a show when they were on tour. Since the editions were so small, and the ability for labels and bands to let others know about their records so limited, bands, designers, and labels were disproportionately influenced by the records they had access to. Therefore, we decided early on that geography mattered, and saw distinct aesthetic trends start to emerge in the work once grouped that way. Further, by grouping records geographically by where the label was based, you start to see how one label was able to influence the labels it was surrounded by, and vice versa.

TSR: And lastly, in today’s world of iTunes, iPhones, faceless internet radio and more, I find it interesting that these titles celebrate the passion, craft, artistry and emotional physical connection to music – through the poster and the packaging – do you see others returning to these aesthetics on a larger scale? Are these books catalogues of what was or a showcasing and inspiration of what can and will be?

MF: You nailed it, summed it up perfectly. My hope is that the things SSD is making, be them books or apparel or anything else, can be a nod to the tradition of making well designed, useful, thoughtful objects, while at the same time demonstrating that people will find value in physical objects to live with. I hope that an emerging generation of makers can look to our books and use them as inspiration as well as a way to connect to the rich history in both of those fields, record design and poster art. Hopefully, the makers of tomorrow will find value in that.

Rock Paper Show: Flatstock Volume One
Touchable Sound: A Collection of 7-inch Records from the USA

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