Interviews

Feel and Form: A New Font Inspired by Miles Davis' 'Masqualero'

Masqualero font photos from Monotype.com

Like Miles Davis, the Masqualero typeface has a strong duality; there are two ways of looking at it, outside and in.

...I don’t see much of a difference between drawing these letters and sculpting in marble or metal.
What do Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and Telly Savalas have in common? A font. Specifically, Baby Teeth, designed by Milton Glaser. Dylan used it for promotional posters released with his Greatest Hits album in 1967. Davis picked up on it immediately and used the font to title his Sorcerer album a few months later. When Davis opted to go electric shortly thereafter, he rose to greater prominence in the mid-'70s as an influence on psychedelic rock. Pink Floyd used the Baby Teeth font on the single for “Money” from Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, their first major stateside hit. Savalas got on the bandwagon in 1974.

Glaser’s poster design has won awards. As the music itself becomes iconic, so too can the graphics or typefaces associated with it. Consider how well you know the font associated with Woodstock. That one is Burko, by Monotype, which is often paired with very common fonts like Futura or Helvetica. Monotype has many fonts in circulation among music industry giants. Consider the proliferation of Franklin Gothic: the Ramones’ self-titled debut album, Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, Springsteen’s Nebraska.

Miles Davis would have turned 91 this month. The Sorcerer album is turning 50. Monotype has a new typeface, Masqualero, inspired by Sorcerer. PopMatters spoke to the designer, Jim Ford, about it.

Your new typeface was stirred by Miles Davis. What drew you to the song "Masqualero" on the Sorcerer album?

It’s the kind of song I’d want to play, on bass, piano or whatever. I love the dynamic twists and sharp turnarounds. It’s a very moody tune, but sophisticated.

Was it useful to deep dive into cover versions and variations of “Masqualero” when designing these letterforms, or did you focus on the original recording?

I’ve listened to most of them. But I mainly listen to two versions: the Sorcerer album version, and the live electric version, which is more intense (and is my personal favorite).

Is it common for designers to create fonts as homages or in response to other types of art objects? Have you personally found inspiration for your design work in this manner before?

I think it is common, though I haven’t looked into it heavily. I wonder about typefaces like Ellington, Strayhorn, Bowie and other designs named after musical influences.

My Posterama design was sort of a thesis on 20th century geometric sans serifs, spinning off art, design, pop culture, clichés and time periods. My Wolfsblood design recalls punk rock logos like the Misfits and Bad Brains. So, certainly a lot of designs are inspired by music and art -- these are universal pastimes that inspire everyone.

While creating a font based on another piece of visual art seems completely possible, it must be difficult to design a font based on less visual mediums such as a sound or a smell. With your font based on Davis, is it just a matter of figuring out how the musical structure of jazz runs parallel to the line structures of your lettering?

It’s about feel and form, designing in the moment. And like Miles, the Masqualero typeface has a strong duality. Two ways of looking at it, outside and in.

I emphasized a “Gemini spirit” in the Masqualero typeface because Miles talked about that a lot, and even made an album about it. My thought was one part classical, one part innovation. The simplest example of this duality can be seen in the O’s, which you’ll then notice in other letters. The outer shape of the O is classical, familiar and Roman -- balanced and easy on the eye, even. The inside, however, is the dynamic evil twin. It’s the hook, the cat’s eye, the almond, the cutting edge, or whatever you see in it. The interior corners represent the sharp ‘turnarounds’ in the music, and the bright slices and phrases from Miles’ horn in his solo. The inside of the letters touches on the more aggressive side of his personality, whereas the outside is more calm and stoic. After all, the Masqualero typeface is inspired by both the music, and the man.

In the case of Masqualero, the type, I don’t see much of a difference between drawing these letters and sculpting in marble or metal. Letters are familiar, symbolic and functional for us; but if we take them out of context, they can be quite abstract forms.

A lot of people hate jazz or reduce it as just being undifferentiated noise. Fonts, on the other hand, are very much expected to be legible. How did you balance the readability of the letterforms with the (sometimes) cacophony of the music?

A lot of people hate what they don’t understand. Jazz is an acquired taste for me. I didn’t grow up with it. It doesn’t reflect youth culture like rock 'n' roll, or street culture like hip-hop. I go all the way back with my jazz studies, though. It’s an American institution that led to all these other innovations in music.

The closest thing to jazz we had in our house growing up was Willie Nelson’s Stardust -- another treasure. A friend of mine gave me a CD of Kind of Blue and I felt something from listening to it. That’s when I began listening more, I was about 26, very active with bands and music at the time. I started reading Miles Davis’s autobiography when I was at TypeCon in Boston. I didn’t have a lot of money that weekend, so I read and walked a lot.

I don’t think it is necessary to expose yourself to all kinds of music, but it’s a compulsion of mine. I love studying to the root of things. I’ll discover a band or a genre, and if I really like it, I’ll listen to everything in it and behind it. Where this music came from, what inspired it, let’s hear all of it! Similarly with jazz, I traced my interest in hip-hop music back to soul, R&B, funk and disco. Then neo-soul and neo-disco… What a party!

Music was just a creative springboard for me, as it always is. You don’t have to be a jazz fan to use or like my typeface. I took the name Masqualero, and made a new use for it, in a different context. It’s not a jazz font, but those early inspirations are pretty intriguing yeah?

I haven’t properly conveyed this yet, but the Masqualero fonts have little to do with jazz music, in their final state as a typeface. Sure, we can talk about the story, but I don’t think anyone would notice that it was inspired by jazz if we hadn’t communicated that. The inspiration is irrelevant to how people will use it, to tell their own stories.

The typeface Masqualero has a distinct tone and finish, but individually, letters are abstract shapes, symbols. If you take away the title, the song, the intentions and inspiration, what do you see in the typeface? It depends what it says, right? My point is that a pedestrian would see the typeface in no context of jazz. No one would look at it and say “Hey, that type looks just like Miles Davis! In that one song, you know?”

Can we talk about fonts with the same types of adjectives we use for other visual arts, like sculpture or painting, or is there a more specialized vocabulary for evaluating the quality of lettering?

There are the textbook type terms, many which are named after parts of the human body (leg, ear, eye, etc). I think letters are very relatable to people or sculptures. The capital G in Masqualero has a very distinct jaw, which I like. The S has a strong spine, it balances and whips like a scorpion. The legs of letters such as R, K and k are graceful and smooth, with a pointed toe like a stiletto shoe.

Monotype has many fonts that have proliferated through their usage in popular culture, on album covers and such. Of course, the company wants their fonts to be widely used, but is this an explicit orientation of Monotype’s goals? Do you seek out design projects that are likely to generate maximum exposure through their usage in the arts?

Monotype does a lot of customer-driven work, for everyone from creative professionals to brands. The studio has a very diverse group of type designers, as well as a Type Board that guides typeface designs and development, so we cover a large variety of styles, trends and innovations. We always seek to meet our customers’ needs and exceed their expectations with new and refreshing creative ideas.

An early version of Masqualero was first used for a fashion magazine, and I had to turnaround a working font on short notice. So, sometimes a perfect project or opportunity comes along, and that motivates you to draw the typeface. Make it work, designer.

Can you recognize your own font designs when you see them out in the world, or is it difficult to spot creations once they’re attached to other products?

I’m always looking for them, but rarely see them in the wild. And all the doppelgangers… I used to tell my wife, “Wait, rewind that, I gotta ID that typeface!” Now I don’t pay much attention, but I think someone else would recognize them first.

I don’t get out that much, and I rarely watch TV. Type is something that I make professionally, full time. So when I’m not working, I stop and look to other things. I’m always working and thinking of art or adventures anyway. When I’m out on the street, I’m usually drawn to the stains, the marks of time and weather. I’ve seen most of the common letters before, so I don’t gawk over them. Many of my friends here at Monotype are tuned into type all the time, so that’s why I think they’ll spot my typefaces before I would. My friend Terrance Weinzierl, also a type designer for Monotype, found my handwriting font on salad dressing bottles. I would’ve never seen it.

Also, when typography is working really well, the type can be somewhat invisible. Ambiguous. I tune in for type in movies, in the title sequences. I hope to see my own designs in that context someday. I also have an eye for packaging, from kid’s stuff to wine or whiskey labels.

Do you have a favorite iconic Monotype font? One you came to love because of how it ended up being used in the arts?

I don’t have a favorite, but I do like Futura typeface on things. I especially like finding relics from its hay days, when Futura was fresh and new -- from metal type to photo type. The ITC collection also has a lot of iconic gems that are fun to see and use.

Let’s take ITC Benguiat, for example. Super cool points; anything you set in this typeface is going to look badass. Popularized by Quentin Tarantino in his films, and Netflix’s recent hit, Stranger Things. The Stranger Things titles are an entrancing typographic sequence combined with a classic ominous sci-fi score, that seduces you into binge-watching the show. Placed three- to five-minutes into the show, the type creates yet another cliffhanger.

Most third graders would like to be a doctor or an astronaut or something. How does one get into designing fonts, and then furthermore make a career out of it?

I got into type design through my interest in commercial art and graphic design. I drew a lot growing up and got into more technical illustration as I got older. I wasn’t aware of typography until college. Nowadays, I regard type design as something of a scientific art. It’s more technical than I want it to be, but at least all the drawing paid off.

I went to school for Graphic Design at Columbia College Chicago, where I was introduced and heavily exposed to typography. I liked the idea of drawing and mastering black and white form. Fonts are a very specialized field within graphic design. At the time, typography wasn’t so popular and educational opportunities were limited. I had to self-teach a lot, but I was very passionate about learning and drawing letters. I found a job with a Chicago type foundry right out of school and began my training then with type director Steve Matteson, Tom Rickner and “the good guys” at Ascender Corporation.

After five years at Ascender, I started a freelance business making custom lettering, posters, album covers and eventually fine art. I have a background in music and art, that runs parallel with my career as a type designer. Those few years as an independent designer made me a better artist. It also informed my type design, because I was approaching type more from a user’s perspective. As hard as it was, operating from a rural area, during a recession, I’m really proud of what I made during that time.

Since 2013, I’ve been rockin’ with Monotype and loving every minute of it. I’m fortunate to work with a great and talented team of people, who foster and encourage each other’s creative ideas. Everyone rolls up their sleeves and gets things done, too. It’s a wonderful place to work. So I’m very happy when I can contribute something vital and fresh to the Monotype library.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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