PRINT MAGAZINE - October 2003
The music industry as we know it is spiraling into an uncertain future, caught between global corporate maneuvering and a rip-and-burn revolution it never saw coming. So it's reassuring to know that an old-fashioned approach can win over new audiences.
At the 45th Annual Grammy Awards this year, Revenant Records, a little known label from Austin, Texas, took home three golden gramophones for a boxed set of scratchy 1920s and '30s delta blues recordings. Charming arcana is one thing, but Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton was darn near the Holy Grail, rounding up every extant scrap of guitar and vocal testimony of a performer who's been dead since 1934. And the obsessively detailed package, tipping the scales at 6 1/2 pounds, was an outsized totem for rare music aficionados who thought they'd seen everything.
Screamin'... won in the Best Boxed Set, Best Album Notes, and Best Historical Album categories: a coup for Atlanta-based designer Susan Archie, who has worked on dozens of music projects for Revenant and other like-minded independent labels. Archie's clients offer richly varied creative challenges with a singular focus on bold design choices that define an aesthetic on equal terms with the music. And with the gorgeous, excessive Patton project, Archie had her hands full.
The package called for the fabrication of a 1930's style 78-rpm record album, not unlike a photo album, sheathed in 'imitation' leather and what Archie calls "a cloth-like substance." Its contents include 7 bound kraft sleeves which hold 10-inch cardboard facsimiles of vinyl records. Each "record" has a tiny rubber dot spindle upon which sits an actual CD. When you open the album, the effect is that of 78s sitting in their sleeves. The package also includes detailed reproductions of period cover art from such vintage labels as Vocalion and Paramount, as well as 6 pull-out perforated reproductions of full-page advertisements for the records from the Chicago Defender, the nation's top black-owned newspaper in the 1920s. The 128 pages of notes and lyrics are printed in custom metallic inks, and 68 reproductions of decals of the original record labels can be unpeeled.
The collection was a far cry from its Grammy-nominee rivals, such as Ultra-Lounge: Vegas Baby! And Like Omigod! The 80s Pop Culture Box (Totally).
Archie took a roundabout route to her moment in the spotlight. Though she graduated from Florida State University with a degree in photography, her subsequent pursuit of an art career in 1980s Manhattan was detoured. While friends plunged head-first into dance, performance art, and the buzzing East Village gallery scene, Archie found that she could make real money in the corporate realm. She eventually ended up developing then-emerging word processing and personal computing systems for a couple of Fortune 100 companies in Midtown, Grey Advertising and Citibank. "I wandered in from the tech side," she says, but happily became focused on formal design work after a stint in a New York firm using brand new programs Photoshop and Pagemaker. She left the design firm to go it alone and found work with IBM, converting their Personal Computer and Mid-Range Level Systems catalogs from traditional pasteboard publishing to the PC desktop. After traveling extensively in Southeast Asia and China for six months, she moved to Atlanta in 1989, taking freelance gigs with clients such as Coca-Cola and healthcare giant Kaiser-Permanente. "It was so boring but I made excellent money doing training materials and slide show kinds of stuff. Then I stumbled across Jeff."
Jeff Hunt runs Table of the Elements, a 10 year old avant-garde Atlanta-based label devoted to rowdy minimalists and post-punk guitar theorists. Hunt needed help with his elaborate design schemes, and Archie began picking up some of the workload. In 1995, Revenant, which revels in the recondite and the conspicuously off-kilter, sought Hunt and Archie's expertise in developing a unique style for its releases.
Revenant CDs are never packaged in plastic jewel boxes; many are in self-packagers known as 'digipaks' with bold color schemes that playfully make use of high contrast and negative space. The photos, typically weathered artifacts that seem pulled from someone's attic or bedroom closet, are reproduced in metallic inks (never mere black-and-white) and jump in vibrant relief. Though Revenant's mission overlaps with that of major labels like Sony Legacy and institutions like Smithsonian's Folkways Recordings, the label achieves what seems beyond the grasp (or imagination) of the big boys - and does it as cheaply as possible.
Revenant's co-founder and guiding spirit was the late guitarist John Fahey, a self-invented musical neo-primitive whose excursions into American blues, spirituals, and rags bridged the antique with the avant-garde. At his death at age 61 in 2001, Fahey had played a key role in the 1960's blues revival (he re-discovered blues greats Skip James and Bukka White), pioneered the artist-run independent company with his home-brewed Takoma label, and enjoyed a latter-day revival that found him onstage with members of Sonic Youth and Japanese noise-rock bands. Revenant, direct by Fahey's manager, Dean Blackwood, was part of that resurgence, an outgrowth of the pair's mutual interest in old 78 rpm recordings and a way to spend a small inheritance received by Fahey, who, seeing no reason to move to fancier digs, spent his last years in a men's hotel in Portland, Oregon. If Seymour, Steve Buscemi's blues-possessed record-hound in the 2000 movie Ghost World ran a label, it would probably be a lot like Revenant, whose 15 releases include single- and double-disc sets from banjo legend Dock Boggs, bluegrass trailblazers the Stanley Brothers, rockabilly phenom Charlie Feathers, and a rugged and ecstatic set devoted to Pre-War Gospel shouters. Contemporary jazz and improvisatory players, like pianist Cecil Taylor and guitarist Derek Bailey, have had rare works reissued on the label, as has Captain Beefheart, with a five-CD box set whose appropriately lysergic color scheme redefines the limits of magenta.
Each release has a specific appearance grounded in the concept of corporeality. As the Apple iPod and other MP3 players render music an ever-more ephemeral bit stream, Revenant maximizes the CD as an object of visual pleasure and physical weight. "Part of the impetus behind it is not a nostalgia trip, but an attempt to recapture a lot more of the real tactile aspect of engagement with music - what it might feel like sitting down with a 78 record," says Dean Blackwood. "When we started the label, we envisioned all the CDs lined up, looking like books on the shelf from the same publisher. CD jewel boxes seem like such a throw-away item. Packaging should in some sense stand up and shout from the rooftops that this is great music. So why not treat it that way - and swaddle it in beautiful cloth?" That sensibility has won Revenant enough fans to sell out 5,000-run pressings of some titles, and not just to obsessive collectors. (The Patton box, which retails for about $160, cost roughly $35 to fabricate - and that's not counting CDs themselves or the year of Archie's and other contributors' labor). Daniel Clowes, creator of the Ghost World comic, upon which the movie was based, counts the label as a favorite. "They have such a cohesive design sensibility. There's a certain unity to all of the CDs, like using metallic inks on the old photos, that makes it somehow unique. There are a million CDs of old music with the same photos - it's like they just reuse the same five photos that look flat and black on the CD booklet. But somehow, Revenant manages to charge the information with something modern and vital and timeless. I always think: How much could this have cost, and how few people are going to buy it? There's a load of pain already built in."
Archie, who runs World of anArchie, her one-woman design outfit, feels that pain. "I deserved that crazy Grammy," she says with a laugh, reflecting on the difficulty of executing the many complicated ideas for the Patton project. "Dean likes to push those limits, but with the least expensive job he can get. I did a lot of pleading and a lot of crying, but in the end we got everything we wanted."
Revenant's raison d'etre is attempting schemes no one has tried, but that comes with its own issues. "There was no real model for what we were doing with the Patton box," Archie says. She and Jeff Hunt trekked to vinyl bins at Wuxtry Records in Decatur, Georgia, and dug up a half dozen old 78s to begin thinking up the package scheme. She created templates for facsimile 78 labels from photocopies of well-worn labels lent by collectors. Fine-tuning the details became difficult once the project went to press. For one thing, the printers, accustomed to no-fuss jobs, thought she was insane. "It would have been a much easier job for me if we had just used black ink, but there's no black in the 128 pages of essays, liner notes and track info," Archie says. "We used green, red, brown, and gold metallics to reproduce black-and-white. The printers saw this and said it would never work, but when it was finally on the printed page, they were amazed at how beautiful it was.
Beauty seems to justify any extreme in Archie's design philosophy. It helps when the boss believes that going too far is never far enough. Take Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band's 1998 five-disc Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-1982), Archie's first full-scale box set for Revenant. The package's trippy tone was inspired by photographer Ed Caraeff's images from the sessions for 1969's freak-for-all epic Trout Mask Replica. "It's not pink - it's infrared," Archie exclaims. "He shot those photos with an infrared camera. So we just went with it." The box set's cover images float in a sea of psychedelic flora, a small detail from an image that Archie expanded with Photoshop's rubber stamp tool: "There wasn't really a lot of shrub going on in the source materials." She's especially proud of the Day-Glo inks used. "If you look at this stuff under a blacklight, it's a trip...."
Given that she runs a fairly low-key business working for record labels that fly under the pop-culture radar, Archie has accumulated a stack of projects laden with hipster cachet. She's done a series of CDs, LPs and 7" EPs for the 'edition...' label, whose "theoretical blip" recordings are tracked by techno-frontier magazines like The Wire. She's also just finished a project produced by Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo for another indie label, The Social Registry. Archie continues to work with Hunt's label Table of the Elements, whose releases can flaunt a stark simplicity, as on 2003's 30th-anniversary reissue of Tony Conrad and Faust's 1973 Outside the Dream Syndicate, or appear rather impish, as with a scratched-up old 45 as a motif for Thuunderboy!, a Dada disc that features a two-year-old DJ.
Archie adheres to a style she calls "old school." There's usually nothing hyperactive about her packaging, which generally requires inventing a new graphic context for pieces of old, archival materials. A recent project for Table of the Elements, rock minimalist Rhys Chatham's three-disc An Angel Moves Too Fast to See: Selected Works 1971-1989, makes extensive use of Robert Longo photographs and gets a distinctive glimmer from the silver foil underneath a flood of white ink. Another project, by fledgling Atlanta label Dust-To-Digital is Goodbye, Babylon, a six-disc box of American roots gospel due in October. "It's going to come out in a wooden box stuffed with raw cotton," Archie says.
If there's any complaint, it's that many such endeavors are labors of love, not commerce. Art comes first, and the payoff (and three Grammys) come later. But Archie is pleased that she's never bored anymore. "I'm just so lucky to have gotten involved with these guys, rather than working for some corporation doing slide shows or a label where they don't care what things look like," Archie says. "These guys are obsessed - obsessive, really - and it's not about money for them. It's about music and art and the good work we can do presenting the stuff of legend."
"Most days, I feel like a museum curator."