I really miss having interviews on the site, so I’m going to focus on doing them more in the coming months. After meeting James Flames at Flatstock, I knew I had to interview him, he’s a genuinely great guy. Watch for more soon, hopefully they’ll be as good as this one!
Hey James, can you let everyone know where you’re from, how old you are, etc?
Sure. I was born in Brooklyn in 1978, lived there til about 4 years ago when I moved here to Asheville, NC. I’ve got a big Italian family – I’m the oldest of 5 children – and pretty much everyone is an artist in some shape or form. My father is a musician, my mother, grandfather and uncle are all painters, my brother Tom is a working illustrator, and everybody else has some pretty great drawing and musical skills. And that all started really early on – we didn’t watch much TV when I was younger, so we were always drawing or making something. My mom says I was drawing since I was 18 months old, so I guess all that practice does pay off.
What initially attracted you to doing concert posters? How’d you get into it?
Well, in grammar school and high school I was always making comic books. I’d have all these different series and put out a new one every few weeks or so – my uncle would photocopy them for me at his job and I’d hand them out to all the kids at school. Later on in high school I started playing in bands, and naturally I would make the flyers for the shows. I had no idea about the deep culture and history of posters – I just knew what I saw on the lampposts in the Village and figured I could at least do as good as those.
That went on for years and years, and I remember at some point I found Gigposters.com and that just put the whole thing in perspective – there were people like me doing the same shit, but then there were all these other folks making these amazingly elaborate posters and that lit the fuse.
When I stopped playing in bands, I had no excuse to make posters anymore. So that and the awareness of the Gigposters site made me start making stuff for all my friends’ bands. I remember at the time I was so into Jake Kelly’s posters that he made for shows in Cleveland – they were obviously very comic-book based, and that was my primary style at the time, so I just kinda tried to make stuff like Jake. Eventually it all turned into the stuff you see now, which is pretty different from those old ones.
I’ve been following your work for a couple of years now and it has really progressed, is trying out new styles something that is important to you?
Yeah definitely. But I like to think that it’s just a natural progression as I get better and more comfortable with new techniques and stuff. When I was younger, I wanted to grow up to be either one of two things: an artist at Marvel Comics, or an animator at Disney. I’m kinda glad neither of those came to fruition, because I now realize the idea of sitting and doing the same thing every day, in the same format, with the same characters, every-freaking-day, would have made me mental. It’s the same with posters – I get bored easily of doing the same thing over and over, so if I didn’t change it up every now and again, my stuff would suck and I’d probably get sick of it.
I keep a sketchbook where I make it a point not to draw anything that I would normally draw – forcing myself out of my comfort zones. The idea is that the more I do that, the best parts will slowly creep into my professional work – be it posters or illustration or anything else – but almost without me thinking about it. You know what I mean?
I’ve also noticed that every few months I wind up making a poster that’s just a complete left-turn from anything I’ve done before – usually if I feel like I’m in a funk, it’s a great way to get excited about something new. Then for the next few posters after that, there are little bits of that experimentation that find their way into my other stuff. Multiply that by a few years, and things start to look a lot differently.
Can you run everyone through your process a bit? I know you do some pretty killer pencil and ink drawings by hand before printing starts.
I guess every poster has a slightly different process – like I said, if I did it the same way every time, I’d go brain dead. But every poster starts out with some kind of sketch, usually little pencil thumbnails, like an inch or two tall, and I just scribble scribble scribble. I listen to tunes by the band, I read their lyrics, I watch some live videos on youtube, trying to catch a vibe. And I just go with it. Once I settle on a sketch and a concept, I blow it up to a size that more manageable to draw at , and print it out. Using a lightbox with a fresh sheet of paper, I begin my ‘real’ drawing, using the sketch underneath as reference.
When it comes to inking, once again it depends on the type of ‘style’ or detail that I want to show before I decide which instrument to use. For really slick and classic-looking stuff, I use my #2 Winsor & Newton brush and some india ink. For loose stuff I use this brush-pen I have that totally sucks – it can never hold ink well and the bristles are all over the place, but I love it because it keeps everything really loose and forces me to not be too precious about the particulars and just concentrate on the artwork as a whole. That’s how I did the Lucero ‘Boxer’ poster, with that stupid brush. Love it. Then I have lots of other markers and other brushes – sometimes I draw with an old chopstick I got from a takeout joint, I dip it in ink and just kinda see what happens.
Then sometimes there are other things I need to make – I use a lot of cut-outs in my posters, like my Tortoise poster and my No Age poster, for instance. So I make those and then photograph them to capture the shadows and the bend of it – all the imperfections. And all my lettering is always hand-drawn, so I usually do that separately as well.
I try to keep a pretty good log of my poster processes on my blog, too – those get into better detail of how these things come about. Sometimes I even forget how the hell I did something however many months ago, so it comes in handy for me too, haha.
Do you have to like a band to work for them? Any horror stories from dealing with bands or promoters?
I like to think that my posters and my artwork do a good job of representing the music that I really like, and they kind of attract those types of bands because of it, which works out really well. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of my very favorites, for sure. And while I can’t say I’m the BIGGEST fan of every band I ever did a poster for, I do like them all – and besides, work is work, and I’m glad to have it. I have pretty wide-ranging tastes in music anyway – I like a lot of different shit, so there’s always something to like about somebody – especially when I do all my research during sketches, I’m almost always blown away by something the band has done, and that’s pretty awesome.
Speaking of bands, what have you been listening to lately?
Like I said, I don’t play in bands anymore, but I do some audio engineering, which I was doing a lot more of during my time in NY – recording punk rock bands and stuff. I still do lots of audio work and mastering for some incredible punk-rock labels, totally gnarly sounding underground shit – and that’s probably the current stuff that I listen to the most. Daggerman Records in San Francisco puts out what I think is the best punk stuff right now – Ebonics, Wild Thing, Outdoorsmen, The Pizzas, Spider Bags. Super stuff. Psychic Handshake Records in Montreal also does a killer job of documenting the scene there – those dudes are wild up there. Sacred Bones Records in Brooklyn, too. And a bunch of other stuff – I’m psyched to get to work on such great tunes. Otherwise, I’m still a big Sonic Youth guy, and I still listen to the Hot Snakes an awful lot. Night Marchers, too – anything that John Reis does is always golden. I really dig the recent Walkmen album, I think they remind me of home when I listen to them out here in the mountains. Then Saturdays are usually reserved for classic soul and r&b, and Sunday is pretty much classic jazz day – that’s been instilled in me since I was a kid, thanks to the public radio stations in NY, so it’s kind of tradition at this point.
When you make a poster, you sometimes also release an art print version without the words. How do you choose which ones will work as standalone prints?
I think that’s pretty much dictated by the artwork itself. I like to really incorporate the lettering into the composition of my posters – I love doing that. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always make the lettering able to be neatly separated from the artwork without ruining the whole vibe of the thing. So, if the stars align and I can take the words out, and I’m particularly proud of the artwork, I’ll do a separate art print.
And a lot of times it just has to do with how much time I have to actually do it twice. I made this black & white poster for some local bands here in Asheville back in ’07, and I always loved that drawing – it’s this drummer playing in the rain, holding an umbrella while he plays. I’ve been wanting to do an art print of it for like forever, but the right time never came up. Then last year, the folks at Jealous Gallery in London, whom I’ve done prints with before, wanted to do a new print with me, and suggested that one. So finally I got to do an art print of that one, and I didn’t even have to print it myself – awesome! And they have these incredible master printers there anyway, so it’s better than I ever could have imagined.
What are some of your favorite posters you’ve done so far?
You know the cliché answer is that I’m always most proud of the most recent work I’ve done, and frankly, that’s totally true. I just finished printing this new art print for the next Gallery 1988 show, and I’m so freakin proud of it – can’t wait to show you.
But I do think I’m kind of a sentimental guy, and so there are certain posters that I have a certain attachment to for whatever reason. Like my Trail of Dead poster, that’s definitely one of my favorites – because it’s cool looking and because it kinda marked the point for me where everything changed artistically. I sort of see the progression of my posters as ‘before that one’, and ‘after that one’. So that has a special place in my heart – which is also why I made an art print of it. And more recently, I really like my Lucero, No Age and Dr. Dog posters – those three posed certain challenges to me, and I feel like I kinda nailed them, or at least accomplished what I set out to do with them. So I’m pretty proud of those too.
Do you keep an eye on the rest of the poster scene? Any particular artists you’re really liking right now?
Oh man, I’ve got posters all over my walls by all my favorite artists. I feel incredibly humbled by so many amazing poster artists out there. Like Ken Taylor – that dude has mad skills, blows me away. Then there are folks like Ron Liberti, and the Young Monster crew. The way they make posters, they’re just so fearless about how they do it, and it’s never anything less than amazing. I try to incorporate some of that fearlessness into my own work – not easy. And of course Todd Slater, Strawberryluna, and Dan Stiles – they all have incredible design skills, I’m in awe of everything they all do. I’m still a big fan of Jake Kelly, though I don’t know if he’s still making posters or what. And Tanxxx too, I love her stuff – wish she made more posters. I could go on and on – I lose my shit on a daily basis when I see something new on Gigposters and OMG that just blows my mind. Crosshair, Burlesque, Zeloot, DKNG, Delicious Design League, Aaron Horkey, Scrojo, Methane, Billy Perkins, and too many more. I could go on forever.
Any cool upcoming plans in the works that you can talk about?
Well yeah, there’s that upcoming Gallery 1988 piece I mentioned – the show is of prints inspired by classic books. Very proud with what I came up with. That’s in April. Then I just finished converting my Circa Survive “Skeleton Key” poster into a t-shirt with the band – they’re stoked on it and so am I. Otherwise, most of the exciting stuff I have to keep on the down-low – a couple of cool album covers, and this cool gaming project. And of course, some more posters. I’ll announce stuff as soon as I can.
Do you have any advice for artists that are just starting out with concert posters?
Well, I think the best thing I could say is to first do a gut-check – make sure you’re doing this for the right reasons. I can’t pretend to know everything about this business, but I do know you have to like music a whole hell of a lot – especially your local music. Become a part of your local music scene, because they’re basically in the same boat as you, you just use different instruments. I’m lucky to be a part of such a strong group of musicians here in Asheville, not to mention two of the best venues I’ve ever been to, and great record stores, too. It’s been very important to my development as a poster artist.
Otherwise, I’d probably also suggest that you don’t only do poster work as your artistic output. Spread out and do lots of things that have some sort of artistic merit. As mundane or left-field as they may seem, they will make you a better poster artist and help you communicate your ideas on paper. And don’t forget Gigposters.com and blogs like OMG, cuz you can’t learn by living in a bubble, and those sites have the best of the best.
Thank you so much for your time, it means alot.
It was great talking to you Mitch, I really appreciate all the support – it’s been tremendous.
See more of James’ work at JamesFlames.com.