Friday, April 16, 2010

Na Hoku Nominations & A Conversation With the Creative Team

First things first...

I'm not digging the new Google Blogger interface for text. It won't allow me to use my favorite font, Courier, in the size that I would like... it publishes the text written in that font in sizes either too small or too large for my liking... so, it's back to Hevetica, at least for now...

Now that we've dispensed with the unpleasantries immediately at hand, it's on the the meat of the matter...

Word spread like a wildfire in an oil refinery yesterday about this year's nominations for the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts Na Hoku Hano Hano award nominations for 2010. The Hoku's, the Hawaii equivalent of the Grammy Awards, are a much anticipated event amongst Hawaii's music glitterati and this year, Maui stands proud with several island artists receiving nominations for this year's awards.

This year I, too, have reason to celebrate the nomination announcement. Maui's own The Throwdowns album, Don't Slow Down has received a nomination for Best Rock Album of the Year. Great news and congratulations to Erin, Kimo, Ian & Ola! I would be hard pressed to name another group of artists in any category or genre that have worked as hard as these guys have and have captured the ears of so many in so little time. The Throwdowns have turned the local music scene on it's ears and seem poised to launch their act into the stratosphere of the remaining parts of North America. No shoe-staring, guitar-solo-noodling band are they. Combining radio-friendly, hook-laden, 3 minute original power-pop tunes with a visual and energized stage show, these guys have wowed audiences across the state, toured eastern Canada, appeared live on Canadian Television, opened for just abour every major mainland rock act touring the islands in the last six months and won the praises of artists like Metallica's James Hetfield who told the band after watching them at sound check & their opening slot at last week's Sammy Hagar show that they "have a BIG sound". 

Now The Throwdowns are about to receive the statewide recognition they so richly deserve, a Na Hoku nomination and a very real chance to pick up the award at the gala ceremony in late May.

In addition to the The Throwdowns nomination for Best Rock Album for their september released debut album Don't Slow Down, the packaging has also been nominated as a Technical finalist at the awards for Best Designed & Created Album Package. Designer Scott Johnson of the irrepressible Dogtowne Design gets the credit for creating a great  package. Yours truly had a hand in producing all the photography.

In today's blog entry, I sit down with designer Scott and have a conversation about the creative process that went into producing not only the T-Down's album packaging, but virtually all of the marketing materials used to promote the band since they hit the scene. 

CTL: I first became aware of these guys thanks to you, Scott. You kept bugging me that I needed to get out and see them perform, that they were another animal entirely from the rest of the Maui music scene. I finally took your advice and caught a rough performance during one of the early Wailuku First Friday events. They were still a trio at the time, just Erin, Ian & Kimo. Their "stage" was a rough concrete slab, and a  shitty PA system.They were down at the park on the corner of Vineyard St., a bit far from the main street action and there were only a handful of people there. My first impression was a skinny kid on bass who couldn't sit still, a drummer that beat the skins like he really meant it and this chick, Erin, in a big, almost glamorous, poofy dress with an electric guitar. I watched them unpack their gear, plug in... Erin stepped up to the mic with a cute, almost girlish voice and thanked the half-dozen or so spectators milling around the area. Erin stepped back from the mic stand. launched into a big power-chord and immediately, Kimo was nearly airborne, jumping and dancing around the makeshift stage as Erin began snarling thru a fast-paced, part punk, part pop original tune. Wow! What was this, I asked myself! This band, even in those early days, sounded far more polished than many of the other local acts that have been trodding the bars & "boards" for many years. I was impressed from the beginning. Thanks for insisting that I check them out! It wasn't too long after that that you invited me to meet the band to discuss photography for the promotional materials.

SJ:  Yeah, I first met Erin at a beach party for a mutual friend of ours, Meli. I had caught her music at a few clubs before this meeting and really wanted to work on some sort of project with her. Fortunately, around this same time, the Throwdowns were beginning to take form and I was able to work on a small promotional piece and logo. Our creative relationship began. I was totally impressed by their energy and cohesiveness and the ability to follow their own lead! You could tell they believed in themselves and their music. I became an instant fan and friend.

CTL: Now... you and I knew each other... had worked indirectly together on several projects where I had done the photography and you ended up handling the design duties. You and I had been dreaming of a project we could work together on from start to finish... you apparently thought this was a good one to try out... thanks for bringing me in.

SJ: As a graphic designer good photography is golden, and most CD projects that I have worked on, I am handed photography and not brought into the initial process. This was a refreshing change, especially with your caliber of work, Tony. This was truly team-think with all parties involved. I believe the original idea was flying daggers, but done with the camera not with photoshop. But after clashing visuals of the Beastie Boys, the Stranglers and The Cure, and bouncing ideas off of Erin, this concept emerged.

CTL: Yeah, I remember that first preproduction meeting where we actually sat  with Erin, Ian, Kimo and yourself to start talking about image ideas. Erin's big, girly dress thing immediately told me that these guys had already begun to develop a sense of image for themselves. (Her sister, Darcy, designs most of those dresses). As we began brainstorming... I seized on visual ideas like the forced perspective thing used in the Cure's Never Enough video. With the dress thing and after watching Erin sort of snarl her way thru a high-powered set, I knew immediately that the usual Hawaii band photos with a palm tree & sunset was not gonna work and I had no interest in doing that either. I was seeing something of a fusion of "Natural Born Killers" meets "Alice In Wonderland". I then showed the band a stark, B&W album cover from The Strangler's Black & White release... a very cool photograph taken by Alan Parker, the director of the film Midnight Express. From there, we started talking about a black & white, or more of a monochrome type photograph to really stand out in the CD bins at the music stores...

SJ: This would not have been as effective in color. The black and white feel gave it a timeless DIY feel with a bit of punk edge. Also the minimalism of the shoot with the white background helps the viewer focus more on the energy of the shoot. The big trick was capturing the live feel of this band in pictures, which I think you did nicely. What happened at that photo shoot was the same thing that happens on stage, the Throwdowns giving 300%. The band members were shot as individuals doing what they do best (Rocking out) and when I received the images, it was great. I could manipulate the layout and layer together one single image of the band. The Throwdowns actually started as a three piece so it worked in our favor when Ola joined the band, all you had to was reshoot Ola for the cover. 

CTL:  To back up just a bit... yes, the band was a trio at the time. For me, I think it worked more easily, compositionally speaking, with just the three members. And, given the limited space of my studio and a 9 foot wide set-paper sweep and the fact that I was attempting to distort or force perspective by using super-wide, almost fish-eye lenses... having only three band members made things easier. Some of those first group configuration photos are still my favorites from the shoots we did with them. At this time, none of us knew just how big this band might get, but we knew they were going places. You could sense their commitment & drive. So... we needed to get as much stuff as possible to use for gig posters, media coverage & other promotional materials... even, a CD cover,  if the time came.

We ended up shooting the three  in both group formations and individually for later composing in photoshop. The pure white set made that goal much easier. For the individual shots, we just handed each member their instrument and let them go at it. Since bassist Kimo is always in perpetual motion onstage, I really wanted to get him airborne. For that we used a small exercise trampoline. At one point, Kimo was getting so much air on that thing, that I feared he might break an ankle. There was one launch where he brought the entire roll of set paper down with him when he re-entered earth's atmosphere. Erin even put a stilleto-clad foot thru the set at one stage. By the way... the shot of Erin tossing the mic at the camera was done live... no photoshop. 

SJ: Just how I like it, live no photoshop!! The photos are incredible and really make this visually what it is. I actually had Kimo bleeding off the package design at one point. Also, when Ola joined the band the red lines on the packaging emerged, as well as the extra sound that completed this band. I really like this detail (red lines, also Ola's guitar) added to the black and white feel of this album. It gave the images a bit more motion and also brought a bit of an 80's feel to this that I really think it needed. And, I think red and black are two very strong colors together that add to the impact of this package.

CTL: Right... Ola was Kimo's cousin and the band's recording engineer. He did some guitar parts on the recordings and the other band mates were suitably impressed enough to co-opt him into the band. Photo session redux. This time, because we had already captured each band member individually, it was easy enough to do the same with Ola... and he fell right into form with the others giving me some great stuff. He had rock-star moves. I felt we needed to try and get some more group configuration shots too, and I'll admit, I found it a bit of a struggle to come up with compositions of the four members that were equally as dynamic as the trio shots. Luckly, good fortune and the band's talent prevailed and there were a few group keepers from that second session.

SJ: The group shots were awesome and it was great seeing some of the local magazines pick up on them and use them for covers, one in particular being On Maui Magazine.   I am extremely pleased with the way this whole piece came out and how all the secondary photography really anchored the whole look of the Throwdowns with the look of the CD. I really think Erin and the boys were forward thinking going into this photoshoot. Having a concept and a plan before starting a CD project not only will create a better design but it will really make the whole project more fluid and polished. I am completely stoked to have been part of this process with all this creative energy. It's an honor to have received a Hoku Hanohano nomination for this especially with you, Tony and with the Throwdowns. This is probably the most fun I've had working on a CD packaging project and I am excited to see where these guys end up next. 

CTL: Right... I love it when I'm brought into the creative process right from the beginning. So many times I am simply handed a shot list to execute. This one came up smelling like roses! Thanks again for bringing me in on the project. Thanks to the Throwdowns for trusting the both of us to help in formulating their visual image for print and congrats to all of you for the honor of being nominated.

SJ: Yes, Thank you, here's to many more fun creative projects! And Erin, Ian, Ola & Kimo, congratulations, because the music is great!

So, there you have it... a peek into the creative process in creating a CD package, branding of a band, etc. Big mahalos to Scott for taking the time to share his talent & thoughts with the readers of this blog. And... best of luck to all Hoku nominees. 

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