Since then Matt and I have spoken often of the polarizing issue of aesthetics in beer. After brewery safety, the quality of what is actually in the glass will always be what’s most important, but not far behind is the environment that beer is in. Illustration and design have been and will always be a massive part of our culture here at SOB. From the simplicity of our taproom to the passion through creativity you see in our bottle labels and murals, art is how we tell our story.
Like many of the people that have worked with SOB, Matt comes from somewhere different. With a past forged in the music world, Matt brings a unique and refreshing perspective to beer. From his work on Lost Abbey’s unbelievable Ultimate Box Set to The Bruery’s Terreux branding to his work with Coda Brewing, Matt is a guy who has been slowly and steadily making a name for himself in beer.
Earlier this year I began working with Matt on the packaging for our collaboration with The Bruery, Seven Seals: Conquest. We began the project with a blank sheet of paper, different design approaches, and a mutual drive to build something awesome. What we came up with will be available to you when we release it on August 22nd; what you get now are Matt’s thoughts on a career working with artists in music and beer.
There have always been creative sparks popping off inside of me. I drew quite a bit as a kid, enjoyed sculpting clay monsters, wore capes, painted my face like Ace Frehley and put tin foil on my hands, all sorts of arty weird kid stuff. When I was around eight, I had a line of characters I drew called “Ovalies” and I would always put a ™ symbol at the end of the word “Ovalies,” which was early indication of my interest in letters, branding and graphic design although I did not know it at the time. From a young age, I have strong memories of thinking “I want to make some thing”–it would actually frustrate me sometimes, because I would not know how to execute it, what that thing exactly was, or how to verbalize that sensation. When I got my first camera at age 10 or 12 I remember dreaming, “I am going to be a well known photographer.” Later, I took AP art and photography classes in high school. I loved being in the darkroom. It was not until I took that first graphic design class in college, though, that it really all came together. It all clicked. As corny as it may sound, it was then when I learned what I was made to do.
Specific to beer design, I admire Josh Emrich of Emrich Co. Josh really kills it. He’s an illustrator and a designer, and vice versa. That’s opposed to a designer who also dabbles in illustration (where I fall). There is a big difference. His game on both sides of that equation are tight.
I also greatly admire Dylan Jones; he did the Ballast Point re-brand and does overall great work. He is now in-house for Ballast Point. I admire Jeremy Pruitt at Cultivator Ads, he is the dude behind all of Great Divide’s looks–and if you ever want mad inspiration, go look at his Pinterest boards. Wow.
I have been huge fans of Ryan and Don Clark, aka Invisible Creature, for years and years. It’s been a real treat to watch those guys’ careers just blow up.
I also admire my wife because she can put up with me and all my weird idiosyncrasies, odd creative self-doubt and questioning and wacky working habits. Iit is super important to have someone that gets you. She gets me unlike anyone else…
Success, for me, is creating things I am extremely proud of, for people or companies I really like. Making art or products or things that bring some sort of memorable experience or enjoyment to people. It is striving to be a good dad and husband. I also define it as doing something you are passionate about very well and regularly with a healthy dose of hard work. In my profession, my equation is simple, Passion + Vision + Hard Work = Success.
I think the general population’s sense of “success” is always tied to making bundles of money or having material things. That crap will fade, be spent, or you’ll be dead and leave it all behind. It’s like that quip about Rockefeller: when John Rockefeller died, someone asked his accountant, “How much did Mr. Rockefeller leave?” The accountant replied, “He left all of it.”
When I first married the lovely Mrs. Varnish, I thought I was ready to do freelance and work for myself. That didn’t pan out right away. I had to hustle a good bit and wound up having to sit in-house at various shops around LA working small contracted gigs. Or even sometimes sit at home with nothing to do. Mrs. V had to carry us financially for a good while until I finally landed a gig at movie poster shop, Art Machine (now Trailer Park.) Looking back, I can’t say that attempting freelance was the biggest risk in the world. While I was in it, however, the self doubt and questioning and worry was hard to keep at bay. I remember once making shelf talkers for Circuit City – the pay was a joke. They were advertising graphics cards or something and I would have the most mind-numbing revisions like making the burst bigger. I thought, ”What the hell am I doing right now? This shit sucks. This is not what I am supposed to be doing.” So after going back to working for others for a several more years, I tried again embarking on my own again, and it all seems to be going well. No shelf talkers so far.
Short answer: no way. Certainly not my own work. It is quite easy to find something after the fact that could have been tweaked or noodled or made better. Salvador Dali said, “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” I fully agree. It is something for which to strive and push, but I think any honest designer worth their salt is able to critically analyze their own work and find room for improvement each and every time. I certainly can.
This is something to which I am getting better. In the early days of Varnish, I didn’t know when to put on the brakes and I think that came from not only being busy, but the fear that if I slowed down, I might miss out on projects, making money, and all that type of thing. My boys are seven and eight now, and as crazy as it gets with work, they are only going to be this age once. I try to end work early during school days, so we can all have dinner and some time together. If it is busy, I will pick the work back up after they are in bed. The flexibility of my crazy hours and being my own boss allows me to keep things going somewhat smoothly at the homestead. Having a studio set up in the house really helps, too. I pretty much have the rest of the family trained to understand that I never know when things are going to hit and it usually is all at once. We, as a family, tend to do last minute trips and plans, because I just won’t know what is happening in six months. But, if I have to crank out silly long hours for projects, nine times out of ten, as soon as there is some “daylight” in my schedule, I’ll stop and do some family action thing.
It’s a lot of fun to say to people when they ask what I do that I design for rock ’n’ roll and beer. They just go together, don’t they? The biggest difference is music overall is in the crapper and beer is certainly not. Let’s just get that out of the way. In terms of products, beer has it really good baby. You can’t download an IPA! The product has to be fresh, and continually made with the highest quality ingredients. And although big record labels want to think they have a few recipes for success, the best recipes are for tasty Belgians, not boy bands. I bet the growth of beer is probably the same percentage of decline for music industry. I should look that up.
In terms of the role I play, there are a ton of parallels. Everything is needing to be relevant, cool, and desirable. There are a lot of opportunities for specialty packaging (like the SOB/Bruery project The Seven Seals: Conquest) and I just love specialty packaging–both music and beer. The demographics are very similar, I would say you’re drawing on similar types of appeal. The best bands and breweries are giving you a story, a feeling, or something that you can identify with. One that you love and want to support.
Most definitely. My first job out of college was an entry level designer position at the now (sadly) defunct MCA Records. There, I worked under a group of massively talented art directors. There was Todd Gallopo who now runs a very cool studio called Meat and Potatoes; Tim Stedman (who got me hired), long time art director for Lyle Lovett and many others, he now teaches design; David Irvin, who has gone on to design some of the coolest restaurants in LA like Gjelina, The Tasting Kitchen and Spinkles Cupcakes. David now runs the uber cool folklor.co. Side note: I would get so annoyed with David sometimes for how he would make me tweak and tweak and tweak type. He would have me kern words over and over and over. He taught me to look at the words upside down so your eye would not as easily recognize it as a word, but as its shapes. He taught me the basics of Wabi-Sabi. The stuff he put me through, I mean, taught me, is so deeply ingrained now, it’s like second nature. I’m quite thankful for it all now.
But hands down, my main guy, the one-of-a-kind creative human that took me under his wing is Kenny Gravillis. Kenny, before MCA, worked at the Drawing Board which was Def Jam’s in-house creative team in the days of Public Enemy, Redman, LL Cool J, etc. He’s got stories. He has been responsible for every Roots album since the groundbreaking Things Fall Apart. He and I did The Roots Phrenology together, one of my most proud album artworks. Aaaaah. I miss those times. He is absolutely crushing it now in the entertainment/TV/film advertising and design business. He left MCA to start Gravillis Inc., and soon after asked me to come be his first employee. That was late 2000 or 2001. I learned so much from working with that guy. It was absolutely priceless. Those years we spent together, in the very humble beginnings of a bedroom in a duplex were my most awesome, challenging, fun, and skill-enhancing times. He and his wife, DeAnna, are some of the greatest people I have ever worked with and known. They did a lot for me both professionally and personally. I think that is what makes a truly good, legit mentor–what you learn from them spills over from your profession into all facets of life. That is what they did. Good peeps.
I don’t think my greatest artistic achievement has yet happened. There is something that’s going to happen that I have no idea about. My whole career has been made up of those unexpected instances and opportunities. I can’t wait to find out what it is.
Of course I say all that, but can’t help but think about receiving four Grammy Nominations, one of which was a win. That was pretty huge. I still can’t believe I got to collaborate with Anthony Kiedis and the Chili Peppers and go on to win a Grammy for it. I remember poring over the CD booklet for Blood Sugar Sex Magik and thinking how cool that was when I was in high school. To then be the one creating that art for that band and all the amazing experiences that went with it, that is a great achievement. And I have to mention everything I did alongside Gerard Way–also extremely rewarding. He is so creative, I am very proud of all the work we produced together over Black Parade, Danger Days, and Conventional Weapons. Gerard and I also got a special packaging Grammy nomination for Black Parade.
But, if I consider achievement as more of a perspective-type of thinking my greatest accomplishment is everything I get to do with Varnish Studio. Day in and day out as an art director/designer/studio owner. The fact that I can support my family, be as creative as I want to be (mostly), and share my vision with clients feels like I have achieved and continue to achieve a great deal of success. So I answered that three ways. Make what you will with it.
Hope it doesn’t sound contrived, but I find inspiration all the time and everywhere. I feel like my brain can process visuals really fast, so input is happening all the time. I enjoy looking over design books, blogs, and Pinterest. But, much of the time, I think inspiration comes to me passively just by what I am taking in through my peepers as I live this life. For example, the other day, I was walking my dog, and the quality of light as the sun was getting low behind the Rockies was just insanely gorgeous. The thistles were dry and floating on the wind, creating an ethereal atmosphere. I can still see it all in my mind right now. That is inspiring to me and I may use that as reference to some project sometime. It’s filed away. Having lived fourteen years in LA before these past two in Colorado, this increased appreciation of nature is all new for me. I love it. I do still get the itch to be around crusty concrete and see some graffiti though. Old signage and buildings or some urban funkiness–I really need that as well. Being in and around Denver allows for both things to happen easily. I feel more balanced now on my inspiration intake. Before, it was difficult to get anything but urban influence, I now can successfully take that in as well as the more natural inspiration.
With my many years of music and entertainment industry work, I encountered nothing but “cool” culture. So I never considered this before, really. Everybody around me was hip (enough) and into something interesting. Most of my bosses didn’t care what you did if you were handling your business. Even some of the cheesy-slick music marketing guys had redeeming qualities. Everyone went to shows and was up on some sort of music genre. People had bands they were passionate about. Everyone, for the most part, was super into a music scene and the workplaces were very laid back.
Now that Varnish has transitioned to the beer world, I see a similar thing, but times ten. I find most folks I have worked with are real people. Everyone I deal with seems to be in it for the right reasons. This is a passion industry and it is easy to sniff out the disingenuous stuff. Seems like that spirit of a “rising tide” is more the norm in this industry and I just love that approach. I often say to my wife I would have just died designing for other professions like a bank or some big corporate gig. Any place that is cut throat, or shifty, or what’s-in-it-for-me, or just plain boring, I don’t think I would make it. I enjoy being the real unfiltered me, I think most of my clients seem to like that. I like being real, keeping things upfront and transparent. Making cool art and design for cool people, it’s what I am about. So, culture is important, and I say the beer industry has some of the best, most unique, passionate, and thriving culture going. I just love it.
The same reason why a book covers matter. And movie posters and album packages. I think sometimes–not always–there’s a craft brewer mentality that good beer will stand on its own merits. Sure, but take a look around. Your beer is anything but “alone” on that marketplace shelf anymore. A bottle or can of beer is a little experience that you as a brewery are asking the customer to embark on. Going in, either the customer knows about your beer or not. For those who do not know, they need to believe in a story, or be intrigued by your label, or get a kick out of your name, or whatever it is you are pitching on your package. It is that first sensory experience—the visual—that happens before the tasting making it, at that moment, almost more important than the liquid itself. The craft beer industry is growing by leaps and bounds. A great brewer does not want to compromise on their hop bill or any aspect of the brewing process. The same should be true with the branding and packaging of a beer. Don’t skimp–especially on the thought behind what it is you are doing to package it. There is so much amazing creativity in what brewers are brewing these days and it should not stop there. Let it go all the way to every little visual and experiential element that accompanies that beer.
I am under the influence from much of the beer industry. Ha! John Schulz is my dude in the biz. He is a sickly talented product photographer and is responsible for getting me in the craft beer club. Odds are you have seen his sexy pictures of beer pints, bottles, and cans more than once on trucks, coasters or ads. He introduced me to Tomme Arthur, which led to t-shirt designs, which led to the box set and their website. John is a trusted compadre. I seek his advice and feedback on both my design and other beer-business-related pursuits. He also ignited my love for craft beer. On my first photo shoot with him (where we were styling Bento Box sushi for a SUM 41 cover), he sent me home with a growler of Stone Russian Imperial Stout from one of the drafts in his studio. It changed me overnight.
I think every young designer needs to get in the trenches and work for someone else. Two years minimum. The experience of what goes on at an agency or design firm is invaluable. It will check you and keep it real on you. While this business takes a certain amount of confidence to convince others of your vision, you first need to humble yourself, learn, and serve under the leadership of other creatives. It is very challenging and not possible to truly know all of what you are doing right out of the gate. You run the risk of doing a disservice to the profession and yourself without proper experience. Far too many people have Photoshop and tell others they are a designer. I have a hammer, but I am not a carpenter.
Always, but mostly never.
It is pretty special to be creative all day long. To draw and sketch and design for a living day in and out. My job is cool and unique. I am blessed. That is quite satisfying, but…
My creative drive keeps pushing me. It does not stop, which means I am not ever fully ok with whatever it is I am doing. It goes under the microscope, is critically analyzed, reevaluated, and reworked, noodled, and tweaked over and over again. That’s the internal push I have that comes from not being fully satisfied with what I am seeing before me. I essentially continue to ask myself, “Is this at its best? Am I not seeing something that would work better? What other solutions exist and are they worth pursing? Why or why not?” It’s a creative psychosis. It makes me better and can also drive me a bit bonkers.
The music business for guys like me is not great. We all know about digital music’s impact on record sales and the hit the record companies took. On the art side, just in the nine years of Varnish Studio, I have gone from designing ten to twenty albums in a year to just one or two. Budgets are down across the board but the expectation levels have not changed. It makes it challenging to accomplish much and occasionally I must turn things down. There are still those big name artists that have good budgets for creative but those are few and far between.
Nothing, I don’t think… I am not sure, because I don’t have it. Know what I mean? I guess I haven’t had paid vacation days in well over a decade. But, so what? I can take off on a Friday and go brewery hopping with Mrs. V whenever it’s mellow at work and not worry about a two hour client lunch. Or I can grab my boys from school at three. I don’t look at sacrifice as a negative anyway. It just means you are giving up something and stand to gain something else through that act of denial. Everything I do is to improve my ability and creatively stretch myself further. I might get short on sleep in the process or have to work a long day, but what I am doing and pursuing is worth it all.
Founders & Radicals is a collection of ideas from some of the driving forces in commerce, art, and entrepreneurship. These people do rad shit and we hope you draw inspiration from them. We certainly do.