Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Bill Thelen had the opportunity to interview Mark Robinson about his humble record label beginnings, early teenbeat designs, and Unrest!
Bill Thelen: I was talking with your mom at the opening and she was telling me about when you were nine. She said you asked her to take you to the library to get a book about the record industry. Do you remember what was going through your mind at the time?
Mark Robinson: I wanted to start my own record store, so we went to the Central library in Arlington, Virginia and asked for books on how to start your own business. I was just totally nuts for records and music at the time (and still am). I would save up every penny I could get and buy records, usually at Drug Fair or GC Murphy. Singles were 99¢ and LPs
were $5.19 at Best dept. store.
I still really want to open a retail store. Some day perhaps my nine-year-old dream will come true.
BT: I totally had retail fantasies as a child as well. I remember driving around with my folks and seeing empty buildings and then I would go home and make sketches of how I would do the interiors. Did you ever design or draw at an early age?
MR: I'm totally designing retail interiors, now! I designed all sorts of stuff when I was a kid. Architectural plans for schools and summer camps... I'd map out the camp and name all the cabins.
I always wanted to start clubs and sports leagues too. I was more interested in the uniforms and logos than what the clubs would actually do.
When I was ten I designed a new helmet for the New England Patriots. It was based on the (very fashionable at the time) American flag. A blue field with white stars in the front and the red and white stripes running down the back. I mailed it to them and was convinced that they'd use the design. They did finally change their helmet in the 1990's, but they didn't use my design. I guess my crayon work didn't do it justice.
BT: When did your designs switch over to cassettes? How did Teenbeat actually come about?
MR: I bought an electric guitar at Harmony Hut in the Springfield Mall when I was 14.
I had saved up money delivering the Washington Star newspaper. It was an Epiphone Genesis and it was $99. My mom generously pitched in $30 for the case.
I never had any lessons but started writing songs with my own tunings and fingerings. When I got to high school I had heard that a fellow in my English class played drums in the marching band. That was Phil Krauth and we started playing together with a couple of other guys. Those guys were into Rush and Van Halen, so that's what we played mostly. Phil was into Led Zeppelin and I was into Joy Division.
Eventually we started playing with a more like-minded musician, Tim Moran. We would record every practice onto a boom box. They weren't really practices though. It was all pretty much improv-ed. We rarely played the same song twice. After a year or two we had tons of these cassettes and thought we should release them somehow.
I'd design covers for the tapes and there would be only one copy of the tape. We'd pass it around to our friends. Kind of like a lending library. Eventually we found two tape decks so we could dub copies. This was before the age of double cassette decks. I would
design the cassette covers and my mom would xerox them at her office. I also did a lot of flyer design for our performances around that time.
BT: I've noticed that you started out with the analog method of designing (scissors and gluestick). Was the change to designing on the computer a difficult shift?
MR: There were no computers back when I started designing -- well, I guess the Mac was out there but I didn't have access to it or even knew it existed or even knew that you could design with a computer. I used glue stick and good old paper.
I was pretty anti-computer for a long time. I met the 4AD design team in 1992 and they were totally anti-computer too. By the mid-1990s bands were delivering their artwork to me on computer disk and to put my logo on there, etc, I'd have to hire a designer with a computer and that got kind of expensive. And more importantly, it was difficult sitting next to the designer telling them what I wanted instead of just doing it myself.
When Air Miami's 'Me Me Me' album was going to be released I purchased a computer and some design software (Quark XPress and Adobe Photoshop) and designed the cover in just a week or two. The transition to computer was actually super duper easy.
I think the Quark software is just really intuitive for a designer's mind.
I guess this discussion is getting a bit nerdy/techy.
BT: Not at all. One last question… So, what new projects do you have coming up in 2008?
MR: Design-wise I've done a new album by a new band called MAYBE IT'S RENO.
It's Bridget Cross from Unrest writing and singing the songs and Phil Krauth (also Unrest)
and myself playing drums and guitar, respectively.
Also working on a new music project called Cotton Candy which is named after the Ron Howard film of the same name. Remember that one? And digitizing lots and lots of old analog cassettes I've got.
Other than that, I just take it as it comes.