SOUND COLLECTOR MAGAZINE -
It's Not the Money,
It's The Stuff
by Clem Coleman
Freelancer Susan Archie tells us what it's like to build the portable Charley Patton Museum, and to collaborate with Captain Beefheart's Magic Band on a sprawling memoir and anthology. Also, we hear of impending projects, like a six-disc collection of 78 rpm's from Dust-to-Digital, and Revenant's John Fahey Fonotone Years and Crime compilations.
Susan Archie is a designer and art director who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She works for a number of independent labels and, at this moment, in addition to impending releases by Table of the Elements, Dust-to-Digital and Lazy Eight, Archie's graphics work is primary in all but one of Revenant Records' fifteen or so releases. This includes roots and rockabilly essentials like Dock Boggs and Charlie Feathers, as well as contemporary artists such as Richard Bishop of the Sun City Girls and Jim O'Rourke. Recently, Revenant has become more ambitious with its projects, and Susan Archie has become the artistic engine behind several herculean efforts. "Catching many sunrises" in the words of Dean Blackwood, who co-founded the label with John Fahey in 1996. Mr. Blackwood indicated to me that Susan's workload on recent projects would have pushed any average person to break down, but that Susan can work under tremendous strain, continuing to meet the perfectionist standards at his label.
I highly recommend any of the dozen or so Revenant releases that are in circulation. From a design perspective, each of these CD's seem of a series, but what is being serialized is anyone's guess. All are encased in handsome packaging, and the historical artists are treated with fond and scholarly essays. This label, with Susan Archie's creative muscle, imbues each project with equal parts Ken Burns popular historicism and DIY punk non-conformity.
The breakthrough for Archie and Revenant Records was its 5-disc Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band rarities collection, entitled Grow Fins. Released in 1999, this was the label's most ambitious project to date. It's a big and beautiful box, loaded with rare and abandoned music, and video footage from French beaches and Detroit undergrounds. There's an oral history of the band directed by John "Drumbo" French, a Magic Band member, which includes the contributions of many crucial Magic Band collaborators.
Revenant is clearly a label run by fetishists and vinyl-philes, so it is both ironic and appropriate that their anthologies and boxed sets are the most creative and well-crafted CD's out there. It takes such a bunch to deliver on the promise of the digital medium.
More recently, the Charley Patton anthology sets high-water-marks even by Revenant standards. As arcana, archeology, history and musicology, the Patton box is without peer. With Revenant's Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton, the consumer gets something akin to a mass-produced, limited edition, portable museum, replete with the curators' own individual idiosyncrasies and touches. Detail is king: this package presents not a whole world, but rather "worlds." The packaging and the physical contents, the text and assorted visual accouterments rival the 7 discs of music (and interviews) that pack in the Patton catalog. Because we will never know Charley Patton's world, we are instead given a composite of his cosmos as pieced together by the thoughts, reflections and recollections of others—admirers, peers and musicologists, as well as every recording that Patton participated in or arguably contributed to. The Worlds of Charley Patton was the swan song of John Fahey, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Patton, and who seemed to launch an entire genre of post-Smithsonian folk music on the bedrock of Charley Patton's fleeting ghost. Fahey envisioned this boxed set with Mr. Blackwood years ago, but he died before the set was completed. I spoke to Dean Blackwood and he indicated that the Patton set was almost certain to remain a once-only affair, never again to be matched by Revenant.
I interviewed Susan over the course of several weeks last spring. Investigating the tertiary elements and engines of the music world is on the Sound Collector agenda, but when you speak with her, and you begin to see the magnitude of her achievements, it is difficult to remember that she's just a hired gun, a small part of the hard working "support team" Revenant has put together. The design and material that delivers this music is fundamental. But like I said, and actually like Susan pointed out to me on the phone, Revenant is run by fetishists. There is nothing secondary about the packaging of a Revenant release. "We do the work, so you don't have to," is one of Revenant's several unofficial mottos. In other words, we collect the 66 extant Charley Patton 78s, and we collect the ephemera of the man as well, and we gather the history, and we package it as you would want it—with thorough and even garish detail, complete with inside jokes and self-mocking geekiness. Replications of the original 78 records and "priceless" stickers – one for each 78 we've got. You enjoy the proceeds of our labor."
Between a weekend trip to the annual hillbilly "Merlefest," and having car troubles (a thunderstorm threw a tree onto her parked car), Susan was generous with her own story, her opinions on popular culture and her take on the state of creativity in the world of music anthologies and boxed sets. Sue lists some of her current and upcoming projects at the end of the article.
SC: The Charley Patton set, with its attention to the perverse - the stickers and the faux 78 rpm's - is one of the few examples of a box set that actually approaches the level of madness inside. I can't imagine how this was all drummed up. This was John Fahey's big baby, right?
Archie: Yes, this was Fahey's baby. Charley Patton was Fahey's thesis at UCLA back in the '60s. I believe John and Dean had been working for years to build Revenant's revenues so they would be able to do this release. They knew exactly what they wanted - the pullout poster ads, the stickers, the 78 reproductions, the paperback book within the album.... I thought they were nuts.
Then Fahey passed about three months into my working on the project and that just threw me into the another level of commitment. Dean was so ultra-obsessed with every detail - I made sure everything I did lived up to his expectations. I didn't want to ruin the dead man's dream.
SC: There are 66 stickers, each an exact reproduction of a 78 record label from Charley Patton's career. Who decided on this and why?
Archie: Dean and John thought of that. I asked Dean this question and he said "Because there were 66 Patton recordings. Why else?"
SC: Charley Patton is a figure buried almost beyond history. He was dead before Robert Johnson ever played a note. And his appeal for many is kind of built on this fact. This collection is a King Tut's tomb for music fans. A heap of recordings, mysterious and treacherous myths and stories; Patton's broad influence on many musicians, some very mainstream and some cult heroes. Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan and John Fahey come to mind immediately.
Archie: Yes, Patton is obscured in many ways... there is only one existing photograph of Charley.
SC: Similarly, Captain Beefheart is a figure whose music and style barks with obscurantism and mystery. He's the total freak of rock, in my opinion. When you design and build a box set for Beefheart or Patton, does this figure in your mind? Is the essential element of your work the fact that you are illuminating certain things, feelings or facts, by eliminating others? And is this made more exciting when the artist at hand comes either intentionally or not in a cloak of mystery?
Archie: Mystery has nothing to do with my job. Neither does eliminating - we try to cram as much stuff into these books as we can. Enlightenment more so than mystification.
But I do eagerly eliminate that which has already been widely seen. One of the usual selling points is "never-before-seen-photos," so with Beefheart there is so much that's been out there for so long on the bootleg/underground circuit it's silly to show again, but we did use what we needed to fill in gaps. With Patton there is only one photo of him and we had to fill a 112 page book, so we had to dig for things not directly his.
Beefheart is my favorite piece yet. I love the photos I had to work with from so many different sources. Everyone wanted to contribute so I had a wealth of artifacts. I eliminated bad photos or small photos. I had to eliminate photos that Warner Brothers owned the copyrights to, and there were some beauties.
The mystery in the Revenant package in my mind is in the writing - the texts create mystery more than the photos - the photos illuminate.
SC: Does the concern ever occur to you that you could accidentally do too good a job and kill the mystery that envelops the artist in question?
Archie: I do not believe I could ruin any artist's mystery.
SC: When I think about "album art" I think of Let it Bleed or Songs in the Key of Life. You design anthologies, box sets, etc., but do you do "album art" as I've defined it? What's the distinction?
Archie: Well, what I'm doing is reporting, I'm not creating. I can't work with artists on photo shoots because they're dead or else because we have no budget for creating. We have to use what's there already. I think it's definitely cooler to create, I just don't have that luxury. Everyone wants things done as cheaply and as quickly as possible.
SC: The Beefheart set is beautiful. The colors and the casing, even the texture, it's very exotic, very wild but also concise. The video footage is cool too. There are so many details.
Archie: On that project I worked with Jeff Hunt, who owns Table of the Elements, a minimalist music label. Jeff is the most gifted designer I know. He thought up the cover treatments. He thought up the Patton color scheme. He and I did the cd-rom direction together. Beefheart came with so much beautiful material, it made it easy and a lot of fun.
With the Beefheart collection, the videos were my favorite part - the Magic Band playing on the beach at Cannes is the best.
SC: I also like the fact that there's no text on the outer case. Do you have anything to say about that?
Archie: Dean Blackwood's call. The Revenant Aesthetic. There's your mystery - what's the title of this thing? What songs are on this cd? Which cd is this?
These boxes are supposed to be artifacts in and of themselves. It is Revenant's mission to "create unique multimedia packages with an unprecedented attention to craft and detail."
SC: Your design work seems influenced by antique styles and turn-of-the-century catalogs and labels. Of course this is appropriate when doing the Anthology of Folk Music and Dock Boggs, etc. Is this merely a by-product of the music you've been assigned, or are these things you look at?
Archie: This is definitely a by-product of music I've been assigned. Math - it's all math to me. Managing tiny amounts of space effectively. The computer affects my work because it's my tool. We are always trying to make things look like they didn't come out of the computer.
SC: Could you tell me about what things in the world affect your work, what you like to look at in the world at large?
Archie: I have always been delighted by motion, which is tough given the static nature of print.
I also respect the work I am given - we all give it a certain reverence. I always thought Revenant should be Reverent. I pay incredible attention to detail. I get a lot of positive feedback for that.
I listen to all kinds of music all of the time and I am inspired by that. If I could do a box set of any artist, it would be Joni Mitchell or Sonic Youth. These are artists who heightened my perceptions through their art. I would love to be able to do something for them.
SC: Do you always listen to music while you work? Do you feel guilty for listening to Joni Mitchell or something you've heard countless times instead of burying yourself in the artist at hand?
Archie: Yes, I always listen to music or NPR or CNN or baseball. I cannot work in silence. But I do not ever feel guilty for listening to Joni Mitchell - she and other old favorites stimulate me - create an energy force, especially when I'm doing boring/repetitive tasks.
I do immerse myself in the music at hand as much as possible. I listen for clues. I listen for inspiration.
SC: Has your work in the music world and design world illuminated things about the greater world that you never would have known otherwise? About the way something looks or how one pattern reacts to another, or the nature of sound or story telling?
Archie: Mainly it's hearing through the music the same themes over and over again. We have done a lot of old time folk and gospel music so I hear strands weave from the '20s & '30s through the '50s and into Beefheart and the '70s. It's pretty much all the same story. "I caught my woman messing around with another man and now I have to kill her." That's the song for the ages. Or, "my mother's dead and I miss her." Or, "I want to stay with you tonight." All of the universal urges, or maybe they're just the ones I like.
Visually I've learned to recognize when something is right and when it's not. I think it's called "the golden mean?" I still sometimes can't make it right on my own. It happens a couple of times in Patton - the table of contents page was never right. I still hate it.
SC: Does "folk music" exist today? If it does, what form has it taken?
Archie: I think rap/ hip-hop is the folk music of today. It's just an exaggerated continuation of the folk tradition. Listen to Dock Boggs from 1928. He gets in a gun-fight and his brother Jim gets shot. He runs with moonshiners instead of drug dealers. His Pretty Polly is just a 'ho' so he has to kill her. He goes to jail.
I buy rap / hip hop "light" and I don't think I'll ever see a job designing in that genre, but I am looking. I love Outkast, and Missy Elliott. To me, they are the great folk / blues artists of today. They bring the funk and deliver intelligent commentary, a little music history and a mastery of their instruments.
I like a lot of contemporary white folk too. Singer/songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams are essential. Vic Chesnutt, Gillian Welch.... They just knock me out.
SC: Perhaps folk music is every music that exists beneath the greater radar, and doesn't aspire to enter that field except maybe by revolution or accident, like Captain Beefheart.
Archie: Me playing in a band is folk music. I know there is no way my band is going to get signed, but we go out and play and we fill the club with people who laugh and dance and sing and we fulfill a purpose. It's a release for all of us. That's folk music. Corporate America ruined it by making everyone think they could become superstars on MTV by buying in. That's become more important than the purity of expression. I would say the same was true in the visual art world. I can paint a picture that is pleasing to myself and my audience, but somehow it's not as valuable as Julian Schnabel's.
SC: Harry Smith said that he saw America changed by music. Obviously music has been changed by America in return, and not always in pretty ways. Who do you think will win in the end?
Archie: Well, I think it depends on what you mean by winning. If it's commerce/dollars, then corporate America wins. But the internet is helping a lot of people find an audience for their expression. You just have to figure out how to play the game, and do what you love, and to quote bruce springsteen, "mama, that's where the fun is." The rest is all relative.
SC: What are the essential elements of your work?
Archie: Simple elegance and clarity are the essential elements of my work. Chaos into order. Anarchy into reason. A pile of photos into a beautiful book. If I could design a Beatles box set it would not look like their Anthology Book. I think that thing is a mess. The whole Ray-Gun school of graphic design wears me out. I'm so old school. It would be great to do a Beatles thing because they have so much material.
I love the way the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series looks, and I admire the design of Wire magazine.
SC: It's a shame that the least inventive and most disposable boxed sets are put out by major labels to celebrate the most successful rock bands of all time. I'm thinking about the Byrds box set that I own, with photographs on each jewel box of a thundercloud or a cosmic vortex. Pathetic. I'm so bitter about my Byrds box set.
Archie: I really don't like a lot of the re-issues that I see, and the compilations where the art is just slapped together and album covers are scanned in and printed on the front. It's just so unimaginative.
I think that CD's are actually better equipped to display art than LP's, because you can make a box be any size you like. For my other clients, we have put some beautiful things into a simple clear jewel case.
SC: And what you get with a Revenant package is exactly what you want. There's no useless "box" that you aren't sure what it's good for but you don't want to throw it away.
Archie: All you throw out is the shrinkwrap.
SC: You've designed the most ambitious boxed sets yet produced, and I know that Revenant's catalog is slowly and steadily growing. Nevertheless, it must be frustrating at times to work freelance, and to work so hard without the security that others enjoy.
Archie: It is an artist's lot in life. It sucks. My girlfriend decided way back in New York that she didn't want to be poor - she didn't want to live the artist's life. She goes out and works real hard every day. She does have a good job, she lucked into finding something that makes a lot of money. The best thing is we get to sleep late. But I always thought I would be the one making bank. When I lived in New York I worked my ass off for the Man. I have paid my dues.
I think if I hadn't found a cultural cachet with important artist clients, getting press in the majors, etc., she wouldn't be as apt to bank me. But it gives her a rush of the cult of personality - whatever you call it. But it's a constant tightrope - keeping my girlfren happy by doing enough chores to be able to spend most of the day doing this.
Look at Karen Finley. She is a brilliant artist, one of the "NEA 4," and she was going to pose in Playboy to make bank. My friend Dona McAdams is a brilliant photographer but she has to teach. I could name so many friends. Any of the Beefheart players - they all have day jobs, except maybe Gary Lucas.
SC: If order is everything, and your girlfriend makes bank, does that mean you have to do the dishes? That doesn't seem right, you being a world-class artist.
Archie: My girlfren says "I DO DISHES!" But I do the dishes and the laundry and the shopping, the day to day stuff.
There are potential rewards, however. We could win a Grammy for the Patton box. Probably "Best Historical Album." I'm hoping for "Best Boxed Recording Package". Even a nomination would be excellent.
SC: I told Dean Blackwood that the set should win a lifetime achievement award. But any Grammy is appropriate. [Note: Susan and Revenant were nominated for and received three Grammys in 2003, for best box set design, best liner notes and best historical album.]
Archie: There are other rewards. I could get a dream gig, like a Joni Mitchell box, or a Lucinda Williams collection. I actually wrote to Lucinda a few months ago and asked her about that, but I never heard back. I did get to design a 3-song CD for Nick Tosches, whose writing moves me, so it was an honor to do that. Nick raps, it's pretty funny. "Sweet Thighs of Mother Mary" is one nasty song. Something about a dustbuster and his lover is another. And a pistol-toting pizza man. I love Nick, he's a very spiritual guy.
Another reward is seeing other labels do stuff like we do, copying our metallic ink treatments and visual styles, using old style type and framing devices, etc. That's a kick for me.
SC: What do you have coming up?
Archie: Several things. There's Rhys Chatham An Angel Moves Too Fast To See: Selected Works 1971-1989. A 3 disc box set, 140 page book with great photos including Robert Longo artwork. That's on Table Of The Elements, this May, 2003.
There's a newer band called Icewater Scandal, and their album, called No Handle, is coming out on Lee Ranaldo's Lazy Eight imprint, also this Summer.
A 6 disc anthology of pre-war black and white gospel, sermons and prayers is being released by Dust-to-Digital in the Fall. That's called Goodbye, Babylon.
SC: What about from Revenant. What's upcoming from them?
Archie: Two things that I know are in the works are a John Fahey Fonotone Years release. That's a mythical label he created between 1958 and '65. Blind Thomas and then Blind Joe Death, these Patton-inspired blues musicians that Fahey used as an alias to record.
And a Crime box set. Crime was a punk or anti-punk band from San Francisco, mid-70s. They wore cop uniforms.
SC: Dean told me about that. They wrote "Hot Wire My Heart," that Sonic Youth covered.
And with all this work before you, are you looking for other gigs?
Archie: I am always interested in new clients and more work.
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