Ben Swank is a former Soledad Brothers drummer, cofounder — with Jack White and Ben Blackwell — of Third Man Records and sometimes Rolling Record Store truck driver and vinyl slinger. He was circling our block at Ace New York in the Third Man Rolling Record Store as our CMJ shindig Notes From the Underground got started — looking for a spot to land for the weekend and shill wax — and he kindly double parked for a moment to chat with us about the state of music and stuff. Catch him in the shop outside Ace New York today from 5pm til around midnight.
Do you have any insider info on the Blunder-Blue vinyl recipe?
It’s a mixture of polyvinyl chloride (CH2=CHCI), salt, oil and polymerized chlorine resin mixed with MK Ultra Blue Tab 25 disco dust.
You’ve been a pretty outspoken advocate for musicians placing their livelihoods over 90s style concerns about indie street cred. Is there anything you’d consider going too far? Would you advise an artist to license their song so that it’s activated by the opening of Big Mac boxes?
It’s all what the artist is comfortable with. It’s an individual choice in the same way a person may enjoy the disgusting endorphin rush of a Big Mac over the smug self-satisfaction of a nice kale salad. I think it’s pretty difficult to “sell out” these days. It’s tough for up-and-coming bands to get by. It’s probably weird for fans to hear The Strange Boys in a computer commercial or Eddy Current Suppression Ring hawking AT&T… but I just think, at least they are paying some bills. The corporate landscape is different now. There’s rock’n’roll kids working for advertising companies. Sounds silly, but seriously that’s ridiculous. You wouldn’t have heard Tad in a Pepsi commercial (despite having THE BEST song about Pepsi) because in the 90s slackers didn’t work at ad firms. Or work at all. Cause it was the 90s and everyone was depressed and serious.
Has somebody ever given you a demo when you totally thought the conversation was not leading to giving you a demo, but then it did, but it was cool ‘cause it was actually really good?
That hasn’t happened… but some kid posted on my Facebook page the other day with his band and at first I was pissed about it — the flagrant self-advertising. But I listened to it and it was really good and I kind of learned a lesson that day.
Not a flat, but it’s on the road a lot so it has had some issues pop up. Usually, it’s finding a cool mechanic that can sort it out right away that just wants to work on a cool truck. But usually they’re just like, “What the hell is this thing? You sell records?” And then they shake their heads in disapproval at us and shame us.
Tina Snow Le is a local genius of petite stature and outsized brain skills. She is also on the Action Team for the first ever Design Week Portland and the in-house graphics maestro at Solestruck (where we are about to buy an obscene amount of footwear in twenty minutes). Amidst the fantastic chaos of her life and in a cloud of gentle profanities, Tina answered some questions from comrade and Ace designer Martie Flores.
What connections do you find between your work, personal projects and everyday interactions?
They’re all mostly fueled by lack of sleep and a ton of yerba maté. My family has always instilled in me the value of hard work and I hold true to that. I absolutely enjoy what I do and feel fortunate to even have the opportunity to make something everyday. I don’t ever feel like I’m working; the line between work and play doesn’t exist. I think the biggest challenge of that is giving people and projects the attention they deserve. It’s important to me to be honest, be kind and to give my best at all times. My friend Ashley has always told me, “If it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing right,” and I foster that in everything that I do.
What would you like to see graphic design do for others?
You know that moment when you fall in love, and that thought beautifully haunts you to where you can’t think of anything else? This feeling of being in love is the reason why I am a designer; this is why I make. I get to fall in love again every single day. I hope that graphic design can help others feel the same way that I do about design, even if the subject is not anywhere near related.
How would you make someone fall in love with graphic design?
I don’t like making anyone do anything, or tell anyone what to do or how to do things. I get excited about things and like to share what I’m excited about with others. I probably use more exclamation marks than anyone will ever use in their lifetime, and my caps lock button is broken on my keyboard. Energy is contagious, and I can only hope that somebody out there will enjoy what I love as much as I do.
What are you doing now and what do you want to do to improve yourself as a designer?
I thrive when design is fused with community to create an experience that is exciting, engaging and, most of all, fun. It’s important for me to put myself in uncomfortable situations, because that’s when I feel like I learn the most. I want to use design to solve problems that don’t necessarily have anything have to do with design and have fun with it at the same time. If I can’t figure something out, I try to find a way or make one.
What’s one thing everyone, designer or not, should remember?
Lose your entitlement, not your integrity.
If you only made animated gifs for one person, who would it be and why?
It would be for my mentor and friend Kate Bingaman-Burt. Gosh I freaking love this woman and, honestly, who doesn’t? Kate and the Portland State Graphic Design program are to blame for all this trouble I’m causing with graphic design. If anyone loves a fat cat eating pizza while surrounded by hot dogs with lasers shooting around, it would be her.
My role is to coordinate the open house portion of Design Week where 60+ businesses, studios, firms, and shops all over Portland open their doors to the public. I’m overwhelmed by the generous hospitality of the design community here, and so proud of our city for getting together to make this week happen. I don’t think any of the organizers, including myself, had any idea how big Design Week was going to get, especially with it being the first year in Portland. It’s been rewarding to see all of the events unravel and to hear the discussions all around town between designers and non-designers. I feel so honored to be a part of it, and I hope to cause even more trouble with the supreme dream team next year.
Roscoe Orman has played the character of Gordon on Sesame Street since 1974. We caught up with him in advance of his appearance at this year’s New York Comic Con to talk about what it’s like to spend nearly four decades in a happy place surrounded by good people and mythical creatures (a lot like our jobs, in fact).
Gordon occupies this poignantly innocent place for at least a couple generations of grownups and a whole bunch of kids. How has a mere mortal lived up to being Gordon for all these years?
Well, for all of us who have done Sesame Street for so many years — we’re all a part of a team that’s committed to children and that is such a big part of who we all are as artists and workers. Sesame Street is us. What we’ve become is synonymous with what’s known as Sesame Street. And in fact it’s one of the easiest, most fun jobs that I’ve done. It comes quite easily because of that rapport that we have with each other and the common bond that we share.
It seems like that rapport extends to the viewing audience as well. It feels like we know these Sesame Street characters.
Yeah, I think so. I think there’s a strong identification with us, including us human cast members who have matured and aged over the years but are still recognizable, that those who grew up watching us feel like they know us. They know us intimately and when we’re doing any kind of an appearance together in public, it can become an emotional experience for people who have all those memories with us.
As for the non-human characters, Elmo, for example, was around for years before he broke out and became a star. Are there any muppets on the precipice of being a superstar? Is Hoots the Owl one performance away?
Funny you mention Hoots the Owl. I haven’t seen Hoots for a number of years, but he was performed by Kevin Clash who does Elmo as well. Kevin is a creative force. He grew up with this dream of working with Jim Henson and it’s a dream that came true. What emanates from all his performances is this incredible enthusiasm and love and spontaneity. He’s really in the moment and enjoying everything each time he puts on that little red monster. The entire group of puppeteers have a kind of synergy together that’s wonderful to watch. Of course, everyone has their favorites. In my case, it’s Grover.
It’s been nearly thirty years since Will Lee, who played the character of Mr. Hooper, passed away and the producers of Sesame Street decided to deal with that directly with the famous “Farewell Mr. Hooper” episode, in which Gordon consoles Big Bird. There have been references to Mr. Hooper throughout the years, including recently. Big Bird still keeps a drawing of him above his nest. Those kinds of things demonstrate this genuine commitment to the human ethos of the show. What’s it like to be part of something like that?
I remember when that decision was being made and the producers and writers really thought it was an opportunity for them to address a very difficult topic which most children at some point in their lives will experience. It was a brave move, but I thought it was handled really well. It aired on Thanksgiving, so families could be together when they watched it and it was an educational moment for all of us. Those of us who were in that episode were experiencing the grieving process in a genuine, real-time way. It wasn’t something that we had to try to create, and I think that came through. Those kinds of difficult issues are something that Sesame Street occasionally steps up and confronts and deals with in a way that reflects how we educate children about not only letters and numbers but feelings and community.
Reggie Watts performs tonight at Ace Hotel New York with The Dance Cartel at On the Floor in Liberty Hall. He woke up early to do his hair and found a few moments to talk to us about life, love, luxury problems and Comedy Bang Bang.
How is your morning, er afternoon, going?
Uh, it’s going good. Not out of bed yet, but I’m getting there.
You’ve just been taking interviews from bed? That sounds pretty good.
It’s not bad, it’s fun.
You’re a busy man. Last week when we were having technical problems you were like “Okay you have ten minutes. I have another one in ten minutes, then ten minutes before that.” That doesn’t sound like very much fun for you. Or maybe it is.
Well sometimes it can be. It’s just a matter of it lining up or not. Sometimes people will not call or they will forget. Something like that. Then sometimes they will call a little bit later and then the whole thing is derailed. “I’ll call you ten minutes later, then ten minutes later.” That can be weird, but it’s fine. Literally almost everything is worse than that.
They are first world problems, it’s true. Have things been kind of blowing up since Comedy Bang Bang premiered?
Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I think I definitely noticed people a little bit more. I mean people notice me more is what I meant to say. Ha.
You and Alex (Calderwood) are old friends from Seattle.
Yeah, I’ve known him probably since, I’m going to guess like 1996 or something like that maybe. He was throwing parties at — I can’t remember the name of the club, it was right under the monorail. It was the only thing in town that really had any elegance or sophistication to it when it comes to parties. They were killin’ it. But yeah they were cool guys, I’ve known them forever. I love the Ace.
I interviewed Vijay Iyer recently when he was coming to Portland for the Jazz Festival. We were talking about jazz being this democratic wildland where anything can happen. And I was watching some videos of your work on YouTube and various places over the last week, and thinking that jazz and comedy feel kind of related. Especially the sort of performance you do — it’s pretty singular — you have peers in the comedy world and peers in the music world, but what you do with them is sort of unprecedented. I was wondering if you feel like there is some feedback loop with how you approach comedy and how you think about improvisational music, and if they feel related to you in any way?
Yeah, they are definitely related. I mean, if you can improvise in music and if you have a love of music you can just transpose that to being more lyrical. It’s the same technique, it just depends on what you understand. Improvisation is inherent in any art form.
INTERVIEW : THANKS FOR THE VIEW, MR. MIES, EDITORS
Lafayette Park is the Cinderella of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s bold roster of work. In the heart of Downtown Detroit, it is one of the city’s most economically and racially diverse and stable communities, but has never received acclaim equal to that of Mies’ similar projects, due in part to its residence in a struggling, iconic American city some would like to turn away from.
We love Detroit, and we are equally in awe of Mies’ otherworldly alchemy of earthly grandiosity and ethereal refinement. After a recent book launch for Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies: Lafayette Park, Detroit — published by Metropolis Books — at Project No.8 off the Ace New York lobby, we interviewed editors Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar and Natasha Chandani of Placement about this communal glass house, its maker and what it all means.
In contrast to other planned Modernist communities being tested at the time, Lafayette Park seems successful on many levels such as sensitivity to scale and circulation by pedestrians and automobiles alike. But the beautiful integration of landscape design throughout the project is remarkable. How much is known of the collaboration between Mies and Alfred Caldwell, the landscape architect for the project? Did Mies envision the long term importance of the landscape design to Lafayette Park?
Yes! The landscape design is a huge reason that Lafayette Park is such a great place to live. There is a bit of research on the relationship between Mies and Caldwell, they collaborated on many projects and were both on the faculty at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. When Lafayette Park was first built in the late 1950s/early 1960s there was not enough of a budget to buy grown trees, so they planted saplings. The landscaping really became a lush, green environment in the late 1970s. Today the trees attract migrating birds and it’s become a kind of active habitat for wildlife.
When I first visited Lafayette park I was struck by how tidy all the window dressings and interior decor as seen through the expansive windows were. Le Corbusier had a famously adverse reaction when residents of his Pessac housing project decided to modify and decorate his rational modernist sculptures (and windows) to their personal tastes. In Lafayette Park does the architecture inspire the residents to neatness or do rules do this?
In the high-rises in Lafayette Park, residents have to use vertical blinds on their windows, but in the townhouses there are not actually any rules about what kinds of window treatments people can put up. That said, people are generally motivated not to obstruct the view. But, as with every neighborhood, some people are neat and some are messy.
In the end architecture is for the people who inhabit it and for the cities that they together create. The title of your book may imply more that just what you ‘view’ through the glass but thanking Mies for his view on how we should live. What are some of the key lessons architects could learn from this project through the point of view of the residents who have lived happily in Lafayette Park through the years?
The neighborhood’s designers –- Mies, Caldwell, Ludwig Hilberseimer, the urban planner, and Herbert Greenwald, the developer -– were clearly very aware of the importance of designing spaces that would encourage strong relationships between residents. But in the high-rises, which are rentals, it’s clear that the building’s management is of equal, or greater, importance to the health of the community in that building. In the townhouses, which are co-operatively owned, the neighbors’ reliance on one another is what creates strong bonds.
We’re not sure how Mies wanted people to live in his buildings, but there are many people who don’t share the minimal/spare side of his aesthetic who love living in the spaces he designed. The views through the windows contribute to the relationships people have with the city, the trees and each other. That said, as one resident who lives in the neighborhood put it to us, people “come for the architecture, but they stay for the neighbors.”