Mike Hill is likely best known as the singer and guitarist of the band Tombs. However, Hill will also be contributing to Metal Insider, starting with this interview with Ryan Begley, co-founder of art and music collective Shirts and Destroy:
There has always been a strong connection between art and music. I think back to bands like Yes and the amazing Roger Dean album covers; they were portals into the promise of what the music had to offer. Later there was the stark, disturbing imagery of Raymond Pettibon that fit so perfectly with Black Flag’s hard and fast portrayals of the failing American dream. Today, with the current trend of downloading and “entitlement to free stuff”, imagery and artwork is playing an increasingly crucial role. With declining record sales, many bands rely on T-shirt, poster and Limited Edition merchandise to sustain themselves, especially when it comes to touring. Shirts and Destroy, a merchandise company founded in Massachusetts by Ryan Begley and Kevin Baker not only provide merchandise for bands as a means for their survival, but also embrace the visual component of music as a necessity. You won’t find any cheaply made, mass-produced stuff here, meant to be units moved onto a faceless crowd. Each release is executed with care and a love for quality. I had the opportunity to speak with Ryan Begley one afternoon, at the Shirts and Destroy store on Manhattan Avenue, in Brooklyn.
What is the Shirts and Destroy story?
It started out because me and a few friends saw a void for something; which is I guess why most things like this start. We were running a screen-printing shop in Massachusetts and were all playing in bands. It was me and Kevin Baker, who was in All Pigs Must Die and Hope Conspiracy. He and I and Kevin Leary, were all playing in bands and doing shirts for our bands as well as people. The three of us were also doing graphic design for a lot of bands, doing shirts for record labels and we never got any credit for anything we were doing. Record labels and bands never mentioned who designed their shirt, or if they did, it was really rare. We just thought since we had such a pool of friends, of really good bands and artists who were all doing stuff and working together anyway, there should be an outlet specifically for that and a place where everyone should be given credit for and paid for the work they did. Graphic design jobs pay shit, whether it’s for a band or record label there no money in it. Its not like everyone makes a ton of money doing what we do but its better than doing a one-off design and getting paid like a hundred bucks.
What was the time frame, like how long ago was this?
2007 was when we launched the site, like Halloween 2007. The first thing we sold were some Doomriders shirts that were left over from a tour they did with Danzig. And we had some shirts that Florian did just on his own. Just something he had done for a band and never got to use because they didn’t like it or whatever. So we did three Doomriders shirts and a couple of Florian (Bertmer) shirts and it started to sell so it went from there. We started with four T-shirts.
And this was initially in Massachusetts?
This was in Salem Massachusetts, yeah…North Shore of Massachusetts. And this was just run out of the corner of Liberated Screen Printing for the first couple years. We did stuff for Deathwish and Bridge Nine; we did all their stuff. We did merch for tons of touring bands, big and small. We would do entire Watain tours, we did a full range of stuff. Little 30 shirt jobs for small bands as well as larger tour support.
What is your background? Did you go to school, were you trained in graphic design?
I went to art school for 4 years and I have to say it was probably the biggest waste of money ever. You go to school and you draw fucking naked people with charcoal and shit for three years, at least at the school I went to. I went to Maine College of Art for a year in Portland Maine, and then I went to Art Institute of Boston. I was living in Boston and playing in bands there. I studied painting, illustration, photography, but I feel like everything I learned that I use in what I do now was self taught, that I learned after I got out of school. It doesn’t have anything to do with 99% of what I did in school. I mean my school didn’t have screen-printing and I really wanted to learn that. I started scrubbing screens at Liberated in 2004 and that’s when I started working for them and got into screen printing shirts. I went to school for illustration and painting, like oil painting, but I didn’t really do any graphic design on a computer. I never touched Photoshop until I was out of school, never really learned any of that shit. All that stuff and most of illustration techniques are self-taught afterwards; fake it till you make it kind of shit. Someone would ask “hey can you do this?” and I’d be like “yeah no problem!” and have no idea how to do it and just need to figure it out.
So for someone who might be interested in doing this kind of work, is it more of a self-starter situation?
Absolutely, it’s self-starter and its so fucking hard to make a living doing this. There is such a misconception, people see a website and they see a bunch of shirts or items or records or whatever it is and they think this is so successful, there is so much money going into this, look at all this stuff. Even running a website operation out of your bedroom or a warehouse costs so much money to get it started and keep it afloat. So it’s fucking hard. It’s been almost five years and we’re still really struggling to pay the bills and keep it alive and pay back loans. It’s still a huge commitment just to make it happen month to month.
What Shirts and Destroy seems to do is almost like a band approach to the way you guys operate. People see a band performing live on a big tour, but what they don’t realize are the hours of time that gets put into it.
I think that’s because I got into this as a guy who played drums in hardcore bands and who also designed shirts for my friends’ bands. I know what its like to be on the other end of it. I don’t know shit about business. I didn’t want to be a guy running a business; that was never an ambition of mine at all. I thought: ‘god this would be fun to do, make some shirts for my friends,’ and then it’s turned into what it’s turned into. You just sort of create this monster. It slowly consumes more and more of your time because you’ve got to put more time into it to make it work, just like being in a band. Like you said, being in a band, people don’t understand how much time, energy and money is committed to just keeping a band alive, it’s fucking insane! Then you get kids complaining your shirts are too expensive and it’s like “you have no fucking clue! You have no idea what goes into this!” And I think the only people who know are the people who have done it. There’s no way you could get across to somebody what a commitment it is for your entire life just to keep something like that going, especially for years on end.
In age of downloading, people feel entitled when it comes to music, film and media in general. How do you think merchandise plays into the scheme of things? Clearly people aren’t purchasing hard copies of records like they used to. How do you think merchandise fits into the environment we have right now?
Not to sound like an old fuck, I’m only 32, but my generation, as opposed to the younger kids who are now getting into music, didn’t grow up in a scene where you felt entitled to free shit all the time. There is this huge sense of entitlement from a lot of people that music should be free; that a lot of things should be free or cheap. Like I said before, that doesn’t line up with how expensive it is to run something. And sure I’ve grabbed plenty of records from friend’s iTunes or whatever and not paid for them. But a way I have always been able to support bands if I’m not going to buy their CD, I buy vinyl or if a band comes to town I’ll go see them and buy a shirt or a poster or whatever. I think merchandise has become pretty much the only way a band or an artist can sustain what they do. You can’t download a shirt and you can’t download a well-made art print and there are people out there who do see value in that.
There is plenty of shitty merchandise out there and there are plenty of huge merchandise companies that are solely interested in the bottom line and have completely watered down the value of a well designed T-shirt or record cover or tour poster. Companies who will pay find some kid who’s got Photoshop or Illustrator who can throw together a Google skull with a fucking Google snake in twenty minutes and shit it out and there’s your T-shirt. And I know from my own personal experience that these larger companies will pay next to nothing or even nothing to some young up and coming kid who wants to be a graphic designer to design a bunch of shitty shirts just so he can have them in his portfolio. You know like “I did a shirt for Slayer; I did a shirt for Metallica!” Yeah, but you got paid fifty bucks to do that! It’s this ‘all stick and no carrot’ scenario where you think that you are going to get to a level where you’ll be doing stuff for big bands and actually going to make some money doing it someday; all of this time you put in for free is going to amount to an art career at some point. But I know from firsthand experience and from friends of mine, you get to a point where you are doing stuff for Slayer or Metallica or huge acts where you get paid shit, you get paid often less then you do when you do stuff for an independent band. Kerry King isn’t telling you “hey I like this shirt but maybe a different color.” It’s the band, as a business, dealing with their manager as a business, dealing with their merchandising company as a business. It gets so watered down and trickled through so many people you’ve lost what was cool about it in the beginning. When Pushead did shirts for Metallica they had a symbiotic relationship and you could see the careers of Metallica and Pushead both grow. As soon as you saw one of their shirts or a record covers, it was like “oh that’s Pushead and Metallica.” It was a recognizable aesthetic and it meant something to me. It got me into both Pushead and Metallica.
From both the artist standpoint and the band standpoint, merchandise is really the only way to sustain what they do. Merchandise has this kind of cheesy connotation of the word. You think of coffee cups and mouse pads; we like to stick to the more well made smaller edition stuff, like posters and well done shirts as oppose to the cheap crap that’s made in China. I have no interest in that; I have no interest in buying something for four dollars from China and selling it for fifty dollars over here to make more money. I would rather support someone who I know personally is doing the work.
There has always been a strong relationship between music and art, even going back to Raymond Pettibon and Black Flag and Minutemen, Mike Williams and the Eyehategod artwork, Pushead and Metallica…That whole concept is nothing new and I feel what Shirts and Destroy is doing is sort of expanding upon that idea and working with bands that have a strong visual component to their music. Who are some of the artists that you are working with?
We do a lot of stuff with Thomas Hooper. I can’t say enough good things about Thomas. He’s brought a lot of bands to us and he’s brought a lot of his ideas to the table as well. His stuff is really solid. So we work with Thomas Hooper, we do a lot of stuff with, Justin Bartlett who I’ve been a fan of for a long time; Floarian Bertmer who we started with in the beginning. He s doing a lot of movie posters right now, he just did this huge thing for Planet of the Apes; we still do shirts with him, we just did one a couple weeks ago. Seldon Hunt, who has been doing this for like twenty years, has done work for the Melvins and Neurosis, we’re always doing stuff with him. Tallboy, this guy Chris Coulon, his illustration name is Tallboy. He does like that Ed Roth funny goofy gory shit. Alexandra Snelgrove who is this amazing painter and hand poke tattoo artist from Canada. She does these crazy tattoos that look like they were done on a rotary machine; they are all hand poked, she does them with a fucking needle. We work with a lot of other tattoo artists: Freddie Corban, Chris Travinio, Chris O’Donnell and Chris Conn who we just started doing shirts for a about 8 months ago. I’ve been a huge fan of his for a long time so that was like a dream come true working with him. Bands: we’ve been working with Doomriders since the beginning, Tombs, The Secret, Trap Them, we got to do stuff with Watain which was awesome. Sunn and Boris: we got to do stuff with them that was really cool. We did stuff with La Dispute, which is cool. It’s cool to do things in a totally different end of the spectrum; working with a band like La Dispute and then working with a band like Watain. They’re completely different, couldn’t be farther away from each other but they still seem to sort of belong in the same curated space on our store. One of the coolest things is to curate this collective of artists and bands that wouldn’t necessarily belong together.
There’s definitely an intangible thread that connects even bands that are sonically different. Maybe it’s the way they approach the music.
I think the thread is that everyone we work with understands and appreciates the relationship between the band and the artist and how important that is to the way the band is visually represented. I think there is a certain type of person, a certain type of band that gets that and sees it as important and something they should pay attention to as oppose to a secondary element of having random people do work for them here and there. To me, the entry level to any of these bands is all visual. It has to make sense and represent what the band is doing sonically. Otherwise it’s all arbitrary.
What prompted the opening of the storefront here in Brooklyn? What’s the state of the business now that you have a physical store, especially since there has been this movement away from the traditional brick and mortar system?
A lot of that was just a personal thing. I had been in a warehouse for years far away from coffee shops, restaurants and other people; its super isolating and it can sort of stifle you creatively and socially when you’re totally locked away from people. So being in a location where people can stop by and come in off the street, talk to people and interact is a huge plus. I have friends in New York City and I’ve been coming here for years and years and there is something about the energy and the amount of people here that have things going on. I just sort of wanted to throw this into the hive and see what would happen, and so far it’s been great. I’ve met tons of different bands and tons of artists just by being here and by actually being able to go out and talk to someone face to face or meeting up with someone to go over ideas or have them come by here or whatever. And even for me personally to be able to walk a couple of blocks and get a sandwich as oppose to brown bagging it every day because I’m going to a shitty warehouse in the middle of nowhere. I just wanted to be where things were happening more, then anything.
What kind of projects do you have in the works now?
We brought everything back to where it started in 2007 when we first opened the store where everything was limited edition and we wouldn’t print things again. Over the years we reprinted things because they would sell but for space issues and to keep things exciting, I would rather do something, be done with it and move on to the next thing. Everything now is limited edition: it’ll get printed once and won’t get printed again If we do print it again we’ll change the color or change the shirt just so its noticeably different.
For bands or artists there is so much stuff that’s in the works because were dealing with so many peoples schedules. All the artsts that we work with have full time stuff going on so they can’t always hand stuff in when we need it .
Anything for the Behemoth/Watain tour coming up?
Not so far but things fall in our lap last minute all the time so there could be. We got more stuff with La Dispute coming up, more Doomriders stuff from Thomas Hooper; Seldon Hunt has new stuff coming out. We’re doing a bunch of Tallboy stuff its really good. All Pigs Must Die has new shirts coming out, they are constantly putting new stuff out; they have a new 7” coming out too. Oh…some new Cave In stuff, new Pelican shirts, they’re doing a tour. Hopefully some new Tombs stuff. Dennis McNet: we’re doing stuff with Dennis McNet. I’m super excited. I went with Thomas Hoper to his studio in Bushwick; he’s such a cool guy and I love his artwork I’ve been a fan of his art for a long time so that’s going to be cool.