On the Artwork of William Schaff

April 14, 2014

thanks copy

William Schaff is the artist who has done the covers of all our major albums and he’s my good friend. Now that he’s in the last 10 hours of the indiegogo campaign to save his house and studio, I thought I’d post this introduction I wrote for a book about William that was published by Graveface some years back. The piece talks about my first experiences meeting and working with this fascinating artist and human.

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I had a band. So far we’d played about three shows. We’d done a show at a downtown Austin blues bar that on Monday nights would take pretty much any new band so long as they’d promise to pack the club with their friends who would buy drinks. We’d done a show at an “alternative bookstore” on the college drag that one month later had closed to make way for a chain store that sold fake-vintage pre-faded jeans. We’d done a show above the grease vents on the roof of a hamburger bar. One day, in the late summer of 1998, I got an e-mail from a band called The Eyesores. They were from Providence, Rhode Island and had heard about us through my posts on a mailing list for fans of the band Neutral Milk Hotel. The Eyesores described their style as “shantey-core;” they were an accordion-driven band with an upright bass, violin, mandolin, and an odds-and-ends drummer. They were trying to throw together a tour of the United States and were wondering if we could get them on a bill in Austin.

"May You Dine on Weeds Made Bitter by the Piss of Drunkards"
“May You Dine on Weeds Made Bitter by the Piss of Drunkards”

To that end, they sent me a copy of their newest record. Its cover depicted a bald and disheveled man seated in a room whose contents – a smashed violin and a miniature guitar, two adding machines, a calendar paged to the month of August, two books including what looked like the Torah, and a collection of bottles and syringes – were depicted in a distorted overhead perspective. The man sat in an agonized posture that slightly recalled Egon Schiele; the fingers of his hands were shattered, they dangled down uselessly with little white nubs of bone budding through the skin. His oversized head was emphasized, with a long crease running across it from right to left. I had the sudden fantasy of popping the top of his cranium open along that crease and peering in at the brain – like a tightly clenched fist – inside.

On the back cover of The Eyesores’ record was a photograph of a little statuette of a man drawing a gust of air into a concertina. A skull had been painted over the man’s face. The disc itself contained a similar image, that of a 1950’s-looking debutante in a low-cut dress. Her cheerful face had also been skulled over, her sleek décolletage accessorized with two narrow collarbones. Out of her mouth a long thin word bubble oozed out, like a distended tongue or a medieval banner; it read, “May you dine on weeds made bitter by the piss of drunkards,” which was the album’s title.

The cover artist’s name, William Schaff, stuck immediately in my mind because it was similar to my own. After The Eyesores drove down to Austin in a beat-up van to play the show we’d secured for them – a 3:00 AM slot, attended only by my friends, at a dingy “art gallery” – I asked their frontman Alec Redfearn about Schaff. Redfearn had met Schaff hanging around Providence’s artist collective AS220 and at another Providence art-space called Fort Thunder (the latter based out of a warehouse whose every available surface had been hot-glued with bright plastic toys and other pop-culture ephemera and which had played host to such events as amateur wrestling tournaments open to the local community, with a live soundtrack by lauded Fort Thunder alumni Lightning Bolt) but Schaff was a resident or member of neither. The elements I’d seen in Schaff’s Eyesores cover – skewed body language, stretched and distorted features, nakedly personal content, a preference for the uncomfortably morbid and brutal, and occasional, almost incongruously bright rays of whimsy – were hallmarks of his style. There was a kind of visual language common to all of his works – phantasmagorical creatures, crushed musical instruments, lips yanked back to reveal clenched teeth, animals charging in to save the day, gaily fluttering banners. He excelled at scratchboards and his skull-faced collages, and he’d been carrying on a long and impressive mail art project during which he’d exchanged works and letters with comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, cult legends Daniel Johnston and Jandek, the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, the Magnolia Electric Company’s Jason Molina, and several artists in prison, who would send Will their flash tattoo art for him to get etched into his body.

The Magnolia Electric Company album
The Magnolia Electric Company album

I stayed in touch with The Eyesores. When the wedding of their ex-drummer brought me to Providence for the first time, I decided to meet Will and ask him to create the artwork for the first national release by my band. He threw some sheets on the futon of a second-floor apartment and put me up on the night before the wedding. The walls of both the front and back rooms of the apartment were hung with Will’s scratchboards. He had a side studio off to the left of the room, cluttered with books, photographs, and the World War II memorabilia that his father had collected, alongside Will’s recent paintings, drawings, postcards, embroidered badges, metal armatures for animated films, and a snow globe containing a little painted clay replica of his German Shepherd cavorting in a winter scene. In the back of the apartment Will had a little kitchen containing a fridge packed with bottles of coca-cola – which is the only beverage, including water, that I’ve ever seen him drink. Every night he would stay up until dawn, emptying 2-liter bottles of coke, smoking down packs of extra-long Winstons, and working on his most recent project. In one corner of the front room, Will had set up a handsome wooden rack piled with hundreds of animal skulls and skeletons that he’d harvested from road kill. He described to me how, when he found a dead animal, he would bury it in his backyard to let its soft tissue liquefy and be eaten by insects. In a month or two, he would dig it up, carefully scrape it clean, and soak it in vinegar to whiten the bones. Some of his skeletons still had decaying flesh stretched paper-thin and brown across them; Will explained to me that he’d also more recently come to like that look. When I expressed appreciation for a delicately small crow skull, Will added it to the cover art for our album, setting it on the shoulders of an accordion player who had two gigantic wheel-like bass drums for legs.

"Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See"
“Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See”

The next morning I rode with Will to the wedding. He swung me by the parking garage where he worked all day as an attendant – finishing pieces in the long empty hours between collecting parking stubs – and we talked about what artists we enjoyed. I liked how Will loved the dark, grim work of the German expressionists Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, and of contemporary painters like Samuel Bak, but he also turned out to be a big fan of the Norman Rockwell’s sunny Americana and the peppy Vaudevillian ditties of Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards. We talked about our love of Hergé’s Tintin comics, about our friends and our families, about the places we had lived, and about what it feels like pursuing art late in your 20’s – when so many of your peers have settled into regular jobs, when you suddenly, terrifyingly accept that no one is currently willing to pay you for what you do, and yet it’s the only thing you want to do, so you stupidly and bravely bear on. We attended the wedding and the reception and the following party at AS220, where I played what I remember as my first-ever well-received musical performance. After I finished, The Eyesores played a set, followed by a band called Plymouth Rock, and another called the Iditarod; Will would later portray all three bands (along with Lightning Bolt and Margie Wienk, who also plays in the experimental folk ensemble Fern Knight) as part of his series of trading cards devoted to Providence musicians.

From very early on, Will’s work has been associated with music, even dating back to illustrated cassettes of his music that he self-released in the early 90’s. He himself has played in the Eyesores and the Iditarod, and currently plays the role of Chop Chop the drumming chimp in a Rhode Island marching band. Few residents of Providence in the early 90’s would have seen Will’s art in a gallery; instead, their eyes might have glanced at a rock poster he’d drawn for The Eyesores or for Kid Dakota, hung on a bar’s bathroom wall or from a telephone pole. Maybe they would have been one of the lucky, confused, unnerved few to have stumbled upon the emotionally fraught “little books” that Will would litter like Jack T. Chick pamphlets on city buses, in phone booths, and in libraries.

"Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven"
“Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven”

In 2000, Will’s music-related work received a huge boost in exposure when Godspeed You Black Emperor! used a design and two panels from one of Will’s little books for the artwork of their double-album Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. Will drew and photocopied the little book, called Notes to a Friend, Silently Listening, during his job at the night shift at a Kinko’s copy-center. It depicted Will, working the night shift at Kinko’s, trying to keep up his enthusiasm for his art in the face of poverty and menial busywork. Large-bodied men show up, their faces sliced out of dollar bills and skulled over, and they snip off Will’s hands with a pair of oversized scissors. He staggers, wounded, through the midnight Kinko’s. He starts losing his teeth. This latter event wasn’t metaphorical at all, as Will’s poor diet at the time had caused weakening of his teeth and gums. Another of Will’s little books appropriates panels from Jeff MacNelly’s widely known syndicated Sunday comic Shoe to tell – in painful detail and with grim humor – the true story of his father’s death from lung cancer.

Some of Will's mail art
Some of Will’s mail art

Will’s non-commissioned work is commonly characterized by a ruthless evocation of his pain and fears. Cruelty, sickness, death, and decay march through his works grinning a wide violent grin. People betray each other, people destroy each other, people sell each other out. We’re all sold out. A man in a stiff suit uncontrollably vomits a stream of emaciated corpses. Grown enormous, skulls set into his eye-sockets, Will wraps his arms around his abandoned house while his dog Corinna sniffs his face consolingly. A white panther, riddled with arrows, roars before collapsing. Something has gone wrong and it’s hard to imagine it being fixed. Will’s musical illustrations, though, often exhibit a subtly different tone. The mysticism of Will’s work is accentuated; as are the dramatic images of warmth and tenderness that have entered his art more recently. Ruthless darkness comes tempered by the same whimsy that colors Will’s wonderful mail art. The resulting tension sometimes makes the viewer of his album covers feel like they’ve been plopped down in the middle of an opaque religious allegory for disturbed children, or an enchanted world composed of swirling and blooming flowers, sudden flashes of lightning, tidily severed limbs.

The pieces that you see in this book, mostly, are illustrations-for-hire, made to be mass-produced and packaged with CDs, on posters and t-shirts, as comic books. They’re for bands of which Will is a fan and a friend. More often than not, they were whipped up while Will was listening to a rough mix of the record, one morning at 4:00 AM, maybe on his second 2-liter of Coke. They’re influenced by Will’s training in the fine arts, but they breathe in the air of the low and living arts. They’re linked to rock and roll, and they have as much in common with the world of contemporary poster-makers like Derek Hess and Frank Kozik as they do with the milieu of the institutionally-supported fine artist. People glimpse these images, printed up on the cheap, thumb-tacked to the grubby wall of a rock club. People stick them up on their bedroom walls. People live with them. People plop down on their beds and scan them, headphones on, fingering the liner notes of their favorite album. People get them tattooed on their skin. They came up through the culture, and someone lost teeth to make them. They’re filled with living blood.

01/12/2013

After Atom

12/03/2012

I Live My Broken Dreams