Amoebite Zak Wilson, who I last talked with here a few years back when he offered his invaluable insights on the world of guitar picks for the Amoeblog, is always busy working on some new project. His latest, of which he is one of several contributors, is the wonderful new documentary Art Gods (An Oral History of the Tower Records Art Department). As its title implies, Art Gods is about the art display department of the now defunct Sacramento-based record store chain during its 1980's heyday (when Wilson worked in their art department).
This documentary is an engaging time capsule of a bygone era in both the record business (when records were the primary format) and in the pre-computer/pre-digital age of art displays. The film premieres tonight and tomorrow (Dec 6th and 7th) at San Francisco's Balboa Theatre. Next week, Art Gods will arrive in Amoeba and other stores on DVD. This is part one of a two-part interview with Zak about the film, along with pictures of some of those great album art-based record store displays. Part two will run next week to coincide with the release of the documentary on DVD.
Amoeblog: What do you miss most about the record industry heyday of the 1980s?
Zak Wilson: I started at Tower in 1982. LP's were king and the CD had not yet come down the pike. For a music loving kid, working in a large record store when the industry was strong and fat was a dream job. Shitty pay but lots of perks. Tons of promo's, swag, and concert tickets. And the Bay Area had wealth of music venues, big and small, where you could see anything on a given night: from Van Halen at the Cow Palace to Albert Collins at the Berkeley Stone and everything in between. It was a good time to be hooked up.
Amoeblog: What is your personal history in art and in the record store business and how did the two fields merge for you?
Zak Wilson: Aside from high school art classes I'm pretty much self taught. I think I always had a desire to be creative though. The opportunity arose at Tower by happenstance and I took it. As a young music lover I would go into Tower asking for promo posters. Stuff like AC/DC, Rolling Stones, etc. After bugging those guys for a while I got know them. I became interested in what they were doing in the art department and I started taking foam core home to cut. I got better and better and when they needed to hire people to work in the start-up Tower sign shop (we made hand made section signs out of foam core and spray paint for the chain) I was hired. I was still in high school at the time. I actually received work credit which was the equivalent of one class. My Tower job helped me graduate high school oddly enough. And that was they start of my long journey (to long) with Tower Records Berkeley. At one time or another over the years was in the original sign shop (before it moved to corporate in Sacramento), Berkeley pop store artist, Berkeley Classical store artist, and Tower Video store artist. I worked at the store longer than anybody else in the film and really saw the Tower art department start out, hit it's zenith and then die out.
The Berkeley store very instrumental in creating the future look via signage, displays and art department structure for Tower and it's future stores. And they opened a lot of stores worldwide in the 80's.
Amoeblog: Can you give a little background on the making of this documentary and the impetus to make you guys have it happen?
Zak Wilson: I bought the domain TowerArtDepartment.com years ago with the intention of doing a site about my experience working in the Tower Records Berkeley art department. I hoped to post photos and word on what I thought was quite an interesting gig in the hope that other former Tower artists would find it and share their experiences and photos. Fast forward a few years and Mark DeVito (fellow Tower artist and Art Gods producer) and I on a drive back to Bay Area from LA hatched the notion of maybe taking the idea further into the form of a documentary. A mutual friend Strephon Taylor (novemberfire.com, Slob from Creepy Kofy Movie Time, Art Gods director, and another fellow Tower artist) had made a number of documentaries on local landmarks (Remembering Playland At The Beach, Sutro's The Place At Land's End, and The Cliff House and Sutro Heights). We broached the idea with him and two years after that (with some starts and stops due to busy schedules) we arrived at the finished Art Gods movie. I'm also a a big fan of documentaries (and off kilter subjects) and thought the subject of our Tower Records gig fit the bill on a number of levels. Being artists and designers we also wanted to explore other mediums of expression such as film, marketing, etc. Why not start the exploration with a subject you know and lived. It's been a great learning experience so far.
Amoeblog: What was the typical day at work at Tower for you and your associates in art dept like?
Zak Wilson: There was always work to do. From sales, displays, to unplanned requests. You always had something current and future going. Deadlines that needed to be met with sales and contests. You learned to plan out your time well or it could be a problem. There was also lots of project collaboration. Before I became the store artist for Berkeley I worked in the sign shop. We made section signage for other stores and new stores that were opening. You finish one store and then start another. Berkeley's art space was also very large compared to other stores. Not planned. Just was. This meant we had from five plus people in our space most of the time. Made for a frat like atmosphere. We had some women working there from time to time but mostly men. It was a bunch of crazy young kids managed by old gay guys. Made for interesting and different dynamic.
Amoeblog: What are some of your most memorable art projects at Tower?
Zak Wilson: I had a lot of projects that were memorable for me. Supporting and getting wall displays up for local artists before they were big, such as Joe Satriani, Metallica, Testament, and Exodus, was always a pleasure. And as many heavy metal displays as I made some of my best work was done for the classical store. That all being said my favorite project was for my all-time top band Van Halen. Fellow artist (and Art Gods subject) Craig Long and I started out to make the world's largest Van Halen display to promote the 1984 album. After we read an article with David Lee Roth claiming poor on the promo budgets for Van Halen albums and saying you'll never see my face on the wall at Tower Records...it was game on and we went from big to bigger. In the end we covered a quarter of the inside of the store wall space and the front of the building. It got a half page in Tower's Pulse magazine.
Then the label / Van Halen management swagged us out big time with tour jackets, tickets and such. Only bummer was we never got to meet the band. Had backstage passes but they let all the hot chicks back and sent everybody else home.
Amoeblog: What to you is the most distinctive difference between now in the Digital Age and back in healthy record industry era in terms of imaging in the marketing of music releases?
Zak Wilson: For us as artists the big difference was pretty simple: no computers! We did everything by hand. All hand cut with x-acto knives, painted with Krylon, etc. And the display work was big. Most displays were from 3'x4' to 4'x8'. Something to be said for getting in it and working with your hands.
LPs were still were still the dominant format as well. We couldn't wait to see what a band's new LP cover looked like and we were honored to be able to take that work, re-imagine it or take it to the next level and present to the public as the last step. You felt and we're part of the marketing process for new music releases. There was so much visual stimulation everywhere in a record store. Things were big and bold. Heck, I don't even think record labels even make album flats or large format promo posters any more. Everything is small and scaled back.
As a fan of music, in my opinion the music buying experience used to be much more grand (visually and emotionally). At least on the store level. To me, they used to promote music to get it to the masses. Now they degrade music to get it to the masses. Postage size covers on your Ipod to the things they have to do to the sonic quality of music to push it through ear buds and make downloads faster. No wonder the LP never died and seems to be getting stronger. It stayed true to the music. All the little things that added up to make the music buying experience an experience have slowly been killed off.
Art Gods: An Oral History of the Tower Records Art Department will premiere in two screenings at San Francisco's historic Balboa Theatre (3630 Balboa St, San Francisco, CA 94121) this weekend: tonight Dec. 6th at 10pm and tomorrow Saturday December 7th at 10pm. These screenings of the 72 minute film will be each followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers and their subjects. Next week, when the sequel of this two-part interview with Zak Wilson will continue, Art Gods will be released on DVD. And late next month, on January 26th 2014, the film will screen in Sacramento (home of the original Tower Records store 53 years ago) at the Crest Theatre.