Amoeba's Zak Wilson On New "Art Gods" Documentary And Tower Records' 1980's Art Displays, Part II

Posted by Billyjam, December 12, 2013 09:09am | Post a Comment

Last week here on the Amoeblog was the first half of an interview piece with Amoebite Zak Wilson on the subject of the wonderful new documentary that he is featured in: Art Gods (An Oral History of the Tower Records Art Department). Over the weekend the film premiered at San Francisco's Balboa Theatre and this week Art Gods has been released on DVD and is available in each of the three Amoeba Music stores: Berkeley, San Francisco, and Hollywood.

As its full title implies Art Gods is a documentary about the art department at the now defunct Tower Records chain that began in Sacramento in the early sixties when Russ Solomon opened the first Tower Records store. Zak Wilson (that's him above back in the day at Tower), who is among those featured in the engaging doc, worked at Tower in Berkeley during its 80's heyday and has many stories to share from those times - as you will see in the Q+A below that is accompanied by numerous photos of Tower in the 80's and some of their legendary displays - all courtesy of Zak Wilson's photo collection that is featured in Art Gods.

Amoeblog: Many people thought of Tower Records as a big chain run like any other large music chain. But was that really an accurate view of Tower? And was owner Russ Solomon a hands on boss or someone you never saw?

Zak Wilson: No offense to anyone but Tower has to be the most iconic record chain ever. At one time it was also the largest. I always thought it was a chain with an Indie vibe. Of course it had its corporate bullshit and shitty pay but each store had its own identity by design. Russ let each store and the staff develop their own vibe. Tower also had a deep catalog and knowledge staff. Plus they had the power to work with the labels for specials and sales. For a music lover, they covered a lot of ground for a big chain. In-stores, special events, and last but not least...I don't think any other chain put such resources into the art /promotion side. Their setup for art departments and such was totally unique. They had a lot going on. I never worked there but I think of Record Factory, Sam Goody, etc. as a corporate type record store. To be honest I've seen both sides (Indie and Corporate) and there doesn't seem to be much difference how they were run behind the scenes.

Yes, Russ would pop in on occasion. I met him from time to time along with other corporate big wigs. Future VP Stan Goman was a huge early supporter of the art departments when he managed the San Francisco store and beyond.  He played a big role in its growth. Have a look around Trader Joe's sometime. They use all foam core signage and from what I hear they have an artist at each store. The old Tower model lives!

Amoeblog:  How much freedom did you have as an artist working for Tower?

Zak Wilson:  Lots of freedom. We had specific things we needed to do per store management (signage, pet projects, etc.) or corporate (nationwide sales) but we could apply our own creative ideas to any given project. We often got to pick what displays we did. One was always pretty fired up to do a killer display for one of our favorite bands. I did a ton of displays for hard rock / heavy metal bands. It was the early / mid 80's and hair metal was king! We also had chain-wide display contests. Stores were grouped by size (smaller stores had smaller budgets). Corporate would have, say WEA month. It was the artists’ job to play with the theme or create one and merchandise all the endcaps, corporate provided POP signage, and floor display. Since you were competing with other stores for cash or other prizes you tried to come up with some over-the-top cool stuff. Of course there were issues with an artist working his ass off on something and the manager taking the prize or having a killer display but you lost because someone didn't order enough product. I had great managers so I had less of those issues.

Amoeblog:  Did each Tower (eg Berkeley or San Francisco) have their own individual art departments or did you guys do it all out of the one location and send out to others?

Zak Wilson:  All the Towers ended up having their own art departments and artists. In the beginning of the sign shop we made signage for some existing stores and new stores that were opening. My boss Steve Pollutro was sent around the country to open stores, do art seminars, and set up art departments. He taught everything from display techniques to ordering supplies. Due to the size of our space the San Francisco artists and on occasion, other artists, would work out of Berkeley.

How was your relationship with the record labels - IE how did you both work together on projects or did that type of collaboration occur at all?

Zak Wilson: : Our relationship was great. We dealt directly with the reps. They wanted promotional displays and we made them so there was constant interaction. They had a need and we filled it. The record reps car trunk was the place to be and we spent a lot of time digging through them for promos and swag. I went to shows with reps, checked out the label offices after hours, freelanced for name it.

Amoeblog:  How does Amoeba now compare to Tower of then?

Zak Wilson: Can't really compare; two completely different animals. The early Tower experience for me can't even compare to the later years working at Tower.  Working in the art department from 1982-1990 was a very unique experience. The industry and technological landscape is totally different now as well. The industry was strong and I was hooked up back then. You can't really recapture that "first time" again so to speak.

Amoeblog:  What was it like working in the Tower Records Berkeley art department?

Zak Wilson: Tower artist Eric Wong summed it up beautifully in the documentary: "Sometimes it was like the artistic version of Lord of The Flies light and other times it was like Animal House". Lots of differently personalities in a creative environment makes for fun, We were youth with attitudes. Camaraderie, collaboration, laughter, harassment... the art department was thick with it.  Things could also turn volatile from time to time. There were a few near fights and one guy had to stop a strangulation in process. Mostly though, a ton of fun and creativity going down. The neighborhood bar Blake's was our version of Cheers. Hell, one year my workmates even got me a stripper for my birthday..... at my desk, while I was on the clock getting paid! It was the 80's!

Lot's  of practical jokes and hi-jinks as well. Once we replaced all the sugar cubes with hand cut foam cubes at the coffee machine. Couldn't tell them apart from the real thing until they started floating in your coffee. We created our own game from a promotional WASP (saw blade logo shaped) foam frisbee called "Saw". Complete with hand made "Saw Champion" crown for the days winner. I won't get into the rules of "Saw" as not to offend but suffice it to say we did a ton of stupid shit that just amused us. The stories are endless and some - are even funny to a stranger.  To this day, I still count most of those fellow Tower Artists as friends. It was a once in a lifetime gig. There may/will be better gigs but never one like that.

Amoeblog:  How long would a typical display take to do and what kind of obstacles - especially considering that it was all without computers - might you face when doing these displays. -

Zak Wilson:  We created a lot of different display work and there were many variables on how long it could take. For example, am I just mounting and hanging a poster, making an endcap sign, a 4'x4' or 4'x8' display.?  Am I having a design block, am I a fast or slow cutter, is the blow up room with the overhead project for tracing free?  Am I waiting for someones work to dry in the spray booth?  Some work was simple, some very involved. Could take anywhere from 4-10 hours or 2 days to a week. Often you had a few projects going because of design or necessity. Sometimes it was crazy busy and you just had to get the display up. Other times you could really give it the time. Honing the skill to think and create quality on the fly was a must.

There were basic steps one would go through to create something such as a wall display. First was the idea and the layout. Sometimes the album art or promotional materials made that a slam dunk. Other times you really had to use your design layout skills to pull everything together to create impact. We got pretty creative exhausting all possible design elements that were outside the norm. There was so much print merchandising, across many platforms for an album release.  You might find a graphic asset from the Billboard ad that worked better than the actual promotional poster. After you had the basic layout you would make a mental check list of what pieces you needed to create and how you might want to render them. Mount the promo poster, cut the logo out, paint the background.... Do I want some dimension or should I bring in some outside materials to give this thing some extra bling? You would incorporate or MacGyver in all kinds of stuff to make the displays more interesting. Wrapping paper for Christmas sign backgrounds, mylar, rubber balls, lights, fog machines, anything that worked. You could go wherever your creative mind would take you.

Of course they are just disposable displays so there were some budget and time parameters one had to work with. I liken it (on a much smaller, dumbed down scale) to all the stories I've read about TV and movie production designers and prop guys waxing poetic about the low budget classics they worked on where they got more out of less. There's a real sense of pride and accomplishment one gets out of making something cool out of spare parts. Next step was the production of the elements for the display. The images on paper needed to turn into foamcore pieces so they were taken into the blow up room, slid into the projector, and projected onto the wall. You would trace your image on a piece of white foamcore you had tacked to the wall (later they started make colored foamcore). Those images would range from small to very large. The room was long and narrow and the projector could be moved back and forth to size an image to need. After tracing out your images with a pencil you went back to your desk that had a large green cutting mat. There you would get down to the business of cutting out your images by hand with just an X-acto knife with a #11 blade and a ruler. 

We got really good at cutting foam core in all shapes and sizes. Heck guys were knocking out perfect 1" tall letters. Crazy stuff! Then it was on to the spray booth to paint your cut pieces with the lovely toxic (and probably lead filled), glossy Krylon spray paint. We wore respirators but I'm sure over time we all sucked down some of that nasty stuff. When your pieces were dry you went about taking all your elements and putting them together into a finished display ready to hang on the wall. It was quite satisfying to be involved in the evolution of the process used to create this work. Whether that be poking a pencil through the center of a small hand cut foam core circle and using that to trace a prefect border around a logo or creating the puzzle cut to bypass the limitations of painting on foam core, we used whatever we had to create our work. Water base paint would warp foam core and any adhesive used for masking would tear the paper top off of the material (foam core is foam in the middle with paper on the front and back). Tower artists Steve Pullutro and Craig Long  discovered that you could cut all the pieces of an image apart, paint them separately, then put them back together and tape them on the back They called it the "puzzle effect". It really opened up the possibilities to make crisp, colorful displays.  There were many of these little discoveries along the way. Being around people that were passionate about pushing the envelope in our little world was exciting.

Amoeblog:  How long would they typically stay up for instore and what happened to them afterwards?

Zak Wilson: There were a number of factors that went into how long a display would stay up. Like...was it part of a corporate sale, pet project, your favorite band, favor to a rep etc.? Could be a week, sometimes a month (if it was part of a label sale). When I first started working there was just a blank wall above the product racks. There were spots such as the neon bordered display board over the front counter or the 4'x6' spot between the speaker and the emergency door that housed the same size display every time. But the long stretches of open wall could be more of a logistical problem. A lot of stuff got crammed in there and you had to mix and match (or even move one) to fit new ones in. It was tricky, especially if you needed to replace two small ones with a bigger one. Later they put in actual plywood display boards (which the foam core display would be mounted to) with some spacing between them. There were still a lot of displays to rotate but it was much more manageable and structured.

What went where was much like supermarket product placement. Location and size of the display would be dictated by how high-profile the project, how big the sale or how involved the band. Of course when a label is paying Tower big money for a chain-wide sale they're getting the best spots.  Maybe a rep had a few really hot titles to push. EVERYBODY is going to be happy if you gave those good placement and effort.
When the displays were taken down they had many end destinations. We saved and stored a lot of stuff if it had a future use. Some was re-purposed for other displays. It was hung all over the art department. Your taste in music was pretty much emblazoned around your work/desk area in display art and promo materials. Of course friends and customers we're always asking for displays. We were often obliging. Bands would even come in and want their display. Even though it was against the rules sometimes displays were sold or from time to time used for barter. On occasion a customer would pay us to make something as well. Foam core was easily damaged but we gave enough of them away that there still must be some old beat-up looking Tower Berkeley display work kicking around on a wall or basement somewhere.

Amoeblog:  Anything to add?

Zak Wilson: It's often said that these once in a lifetime experiences create a bond that lasts and that is true here. Some I see more than others but everybody in the film is still a friend. Some are current collaborators and all are still doing something art or design related. Many of the life and art lessons learned on the floors of Tower Berkeley stick with us today in tangible ways. Mark DeVito and my concert poster design collaborations ( are a direct nod to the things we did at Tower. We call it "merch style". Taking the iconic design elements of a band and presenting our vision of what we think best presents the band's vibe. That was exactly what we were doing with the wall displays at Tower. Just now it's done on computers in Illustrator and Photoshop.

       This original Tower Records neon window sign is currently (Dec 2013) for sale
at Amoeba Hollywood

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Rolling Stones (33), Srv (1), Art Gods (2), Zak Wilson (5), Tower Records (4), 1980's (21), Van Halen (10), Record Stores 1980s (2), Survivor (6), David Lee Roth (2), Russ Solomon (1), Record Retail Business (2), Heavy Metal 1980's (1)