[27 February 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s reassuring to know that as iTunes and Spotify continue their dominance of the music world, their downloaded and streamed music becoming more and more popular with each passing year, there are still some young bands who take great pride in celebrating that old-fashioned idea that’s sadly going the way of the albatross: the album as a tactile, interactive, multimedia art piece, where visuals are just as important as the music inside. Sure, we still have mainstream bands that are doing their part in keeping the tradition alive, but these days it’s mostly those with few with great clout in the music business, the likes of Radiohead, Kanye West, and especially Tool. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, there’s a little movie-obsessed grindcore band called Graf Orlock who has taken the idea of creative album packaging to such an extreme that they’re close to revolutionizing the entire process.
Constructed around loads of ingeniously-timed movie samples, Graf Orlock’s music is some of the most fun grindcore you’ll ever hear, psychotic and chaotic yet insidiously catchy, but the first impression is always unforgettable, thanks to their artwork. The 2007 split with Greyskull was cleverly packaged in a backpack-shaped sleeve. The great Destination Time Tomorrow EP gleefully referenced the film Alien in two ways, first with a CD wrapped in an elaborately designed “facehugger”, and then with a 10” vinyl boasting a gory, pop-up “chestburster”. The ambitious Destination Time Today (2009) came with a die-cut crosshair in the sleeve and eleven posters of different famous assassination victims to serve as targets.
However, nothing the band has done in the past has ever compared to the astonishing new Doombox EP, which sees a ten-inch record housed in an elaborate sleeve that folds into a massive, 1:1 scale, 30” x 10” x 10” model of a circa-1990 boombox, complete with a CD tray on top that contains a disc of the EP as well as the entire Destination Time trilogy. To see it pictured online, your eyes pop, but once it’s assembled in front of you, you may find yourself picking your jaw up off the floor.
“All the other records leading up to [Doombox] are pretty ridiculous when it comes to artwork,” says guitarist Jason Schmidt, on the phone from Los Angeles. “We always try to push that angle, particularly when you’re talking about how CDs are worthless now. If you’re going to have something that someone’s going to spend money on, you might as well make it worth it. That was always our angle with vinyl, making something that’s worthwhile and will stand out. Not [something] where five years from now you’d forget it even exists.”
Typically, what started out as an innocuous idea turned into something far more extravagant than anyone had ever expected. The attention to detail on the assembled Doombox is remarkable, from the CD tray on the top, to the speaker wires on the back, to even a hilarious send-up of an owner’s manual. Not only that, but it’s actually a pretty sturdy model, as well. “It always starts with the drummer Alan and I, he does the artwork, he’s our graphic design person,” Schmidt says. “We come up with ridiculous ideas and then see if we can make them happen. And usually it takes a lot of snaggling [sic] with the plant, but we usually can come up with what we want to do…
“All the tabs and the thickness of the posterboard is such that it works pretty well, you can carry it around on your shoulder and stuff. The liner note part was a mock of a real insert that I’ve had for 15 years. It looks like every one that anyone’s ever had. The best part in there was where it even tells you how to handle the CDs without ruining the CDs because you’re stupid.”
For such a complicated-looking undertaking, the whole design and manufacturing process went surprisingly smoothly. “There were two different prototypes. It actually really easy this time because we worked with Pirates Press out of San Francisco, they have a plant in the Czech Republic that presses there vinyl actually, we made a die-cut mock up and they just made it and sent it to us. Then we had to figure out the logistics of how it would fold up and all that stuff. It took a couple months of going back and forth, but when I finally got all 1,500 of them, I couldn’t believe it. It’s ridiculous,” he laughs.
“We kind of had to mess around with the CD flap on top, because it’s actually an amalgamation of two different boomboxes that we had gotten from a thrift store and from eBay and took pictures of, because one of them didn’t have the CD top. We had to mess around with that a little bit. But we got to put everything into it that we wanted to. The CD face is a mock-up of an old Metallica CD face from the ‘90s. With the insert, we finally got a platform where we got to put everything we wanted to into it. No matter how over the top and degrading it was.”
The creativity of the Doombox‘s design hearkens back to the days when bands actually gave a damn about the product they sold to their fans. One is instantly reminded of such clever packages as Alice Cooper’s School’s Out sleeve that folded out into a school desk (complete with panties inside), as well as the band’s facetious follow-up Billion Dollar Babies, whose gatefold was made to look like a gigantic snakeskin wallet with a one billion dollar bill inside. A more recent example would be Spiritualized’s brilliant limited edition of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, which was designed to look like pharmaceuticals so accurately, you actually had to break each mini-CD out of a blister pack to listen. Then there’s Tool, who has incorporated everything from lenticular images to stereoscopes on their records.
“I don’t feel like people push that stuff enough,” says Schmidt, who cites the band Hewhocorrupts and the labels Robotic Empire and Vendetta as examples of album artwork he admires. “Maybe people will have colored vinyl or a thicker jacket, 180 gram vinyl or something like that. But there’s so much possibility in a 12 x 12 format that doesn’t exist in a CD. If you look around and you know what you’re doing, it’s not very expensive. It’s probably the cost of a normal pressing, or a little bit more… Electric Wizard just put out a double LP, and no matter where you buy it, it’s 30 bucks. I hope that people at least appreciate that for the most part all the records that we’ve put out are all ten, eleven, 12 bucks. We’re trying to keep the price low and make it available in as high quality as we can.”
He adds, “All these [ideas] come out of conversations about what we want to do, and then we try to do them. Everything’s just developed out of that, so there’s no particular aesthetic aside from involving things that are real photographs. We’re very photo-heavy. With Destination Time Tomorrow, we ordered the chestburster and facehugger from Malaysia, made the models, and then put blood on them and took pictures of them.”
Once you’re through ooh-ing and aah-ing at the art design, the music on Doombox more than hold up its end of the bargain. Comprised of merely six songs and an overall running time of just less than 12-minutes, it goes by fast, but it’s instantly memorable thanks not only to Schmidt’s maniacal yet melodic riffs and new vocalist Karl Bournze’s twisted, oddly decipherable screams, but the band’s trademark movie samples as well, the two sides always balanced impeccably. Whereas the Destination Time trilogy focused primarily on action flicks, especially the Schwarzenegger oeuvre, we hear samples from more urban-oriented fare as Juice, Harsh Times, King of New York, Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society, and Belly.
“The idea came about because this record is more about the early-‘90s gangster films,” Schmidt explains. “Since the trilogy was over, that idea was finished aesthetically, we went in a different direction, and it kind of developed out of the whole NWA aesthetic….The other records were about ‘80s action movies and stuff, and there was always an ideological bent to it, whether people picked up on it or not. For instance, Red Dawn is a movie that is insanely Reagan-era, but if you take the dialog out of that and cut pieces out of it and make different dialog, it carries a different meaning to it. With this record, I’ve always been into LA history, we’re all from around LA, so we thought of pushing it in a weird undercurrent of urban theory, but using stereotypically ‘90s urban movie, so it kind of went in that direction.”
For all the gimmickry of the artwork, the fun of the music, and the sense of humor on display in the insert, there is in fact a serious side to Graf Orlock. Schmidt, who has attended film school, puts a lot of thought into not only the movie samples he incorporates into his music but the central theme of each record as well. In the aforementioned insert, after all the lampooning, there’s a fascinating little essay that muses on those ‘90s gangster movies and their portrayals of New York and Los Angeles to the point where you’re practically blindsided by its eloquence:
How does this not so distant past factor into the 2010s and beyond? How did these events translate into the currency of media and film?... Although certainly violent and fraught with a legitimate conflict for autonomy, we must look back through all superficial representation of these cities, particularly in mass depiction, and flesh out the real from the role.
Most kids know Graf Orlock as “that ‘cinemagrind’ band, but how many will actually care what Schmidt says in his liner notes? In a genre as physically and sonically punishing as grindcore, getting people to actually take a minute to pay attention to what you’re trying to say can sometimes be a tall order. “I obviously recognize that there’s an element of humor, because the whole thing exists to entertain us,” Schmidt admits. “I was laughing the entire time I was writing the insert.
“Also, there has always existed that idea of anti-copyrighting and appropriation, changing something into something else, and there’s always been a strong, DIY political bent to it because we are a punk band even if we are playing some form of grind. The liner notes in particular are about LA and New York, they’re totally serious. When I was writing them I was trying to inject more of the ideas that we didn’t fully develop before, and not just be a novelty type band. Have some type of substance. I don’t know how much people will pick up on it, but we’ll see.”
In the meantime, while we’re all gushing about Doombox, Schmidt will be managing his time between writing Graf Orlock’s next record, touring with that band, Ghostlimb, and Dangers, and running Vitriol Records, which has also put out the memorable debut by Tacoma thrashers Owen Hart and is about to release the excellent new record by his own Ghostlimb. As for where Graf Orlock could possibly be headed next, he says, “I’ve always wanted to address the urban issue, and now we’ve done that… The songs have started to write themselves, so we’ll see in time. They haven’t completely formulated yet. We can do anything we want right now. Sometimes I think that we’ve used every good movie we could use, but then other ones pop up and I remember other movies that are awesome.”
And of course, we can’t wait to see what the next record is going to look like, as well.