People Who Work Here is super proud to work with (al)most everyone on the Sub Pop staff, but Jeff Kleinsmith holds a special place in my heart, and not just because I can get him to do free design work for me from time to time. Jeff is the art director here at HQ, and he, along with partner in crime Dusty Summers, is responsible for all of the visual hoo-ha associated with everything we do here from album covers to advertisements. (I tried to think of a ‘z’ thing that they do to have that whole ‘a to z’ thing happening but I couldn’t think of one. Instead you get ‘a to a’ which makes them seem lazy somehow but I can assure you that’s not the case.) Jeff is married with two lovely daughters and he’s also a lover of animals, but not in the same way he loves his wife. He is a vegetarian that hates cooked vegetables, and the other day I caught him microwaving a bowl of, get this, canned kidney beans and chopped up raw tofu for lunch. Jeff collects shoes like a woman and he is very sensitive and also very funny. He’s also good for an old fashioned debate, so if you happen to end up at one of his many public speaking events please be sure to engage him in a lengthy conversation about art or why cats are better than dogs. Also, this mofo is right in the middle of having a book written about him! Let’s meet Jeff!
L: How did you get into graphic design? What is your main piece of advice for aspiring graphic designer?
J: It really started in about 1980 when my friend’s older brother, Dan, tried to scare us with Black Sabbath. He wore rock shirts, had long hair, and hung out with the stoners (and had a 4.0). I totally looked up to him. His bedroom was plastered with awesome rock posters (Iron Maiden, Pick Floyd, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, etc.) and he had a wall full of LPs – alphabetized and neatly stored in plastic sleeves. My friend and I were big AM radio fans and I think Dan just simply couldn’t take any more Hall and Oates mucking up his Thin Lizzy so he brought us into his room one day and cranked some metal at us. Though I was supposed to be frightened and repulsed, I was mesmerized and enchanted. We were hooked. After that he sorta took us under his wing, or more accurately, we put ourselves under his wing. He taught us the difference between Zeppelin and Deep Purple (I know!), told us what to buy, and made fun of us for listening to girl metal (Journey). I still have every LP I have ever bought. Oh right, sorry, graphic design: I found myself grounded a lot around this time and to pass the time I would become heavily involved with these LPs. I’d listen carefully, rock out, air jam, whatever, and after the visceral experience subsided I started noticing the art up close. I played with the packaging, redrew the logos, and tacked the inserts on my wall. Eventually this led to making my own posters, shirts, locker door art, tape cases, etc. Fast forward to college… I was flailing about with no real direction and just taking whatever classes sounded cool at the time until it became jarringly apparent that I had to focus on some particular area of study. My mom encouraged me to take some drawing classes, which I did, and additionally, took a beginning design class. [Your mom’s a fool—the money’s in computers. –ed.] I was blown away. I had never felt more comfortable, focused, and confident as I did in those classes. It became a passion. My advice to youngsters is to spend twice the time on typography as on the image.
L: You are in the middle of having a book written about you. How weird is that?
L: What is the best album cover of all time? What is the worst? Why?
J: First Black Sabbath album. Hands down. It creates a mood that is undeniable and uncontrived. It’s what I think of when I read Turn Of The Screw by Henry James (I know!). Still so scary. There are so many websites dedicated to obviously bad album covers so I can’t really think of one in particular. The one that I think I recognized as ‘bad’ early on was Cosmo’s Factory by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I actually think it’s awesome now but as a kid looking through my mom’s albums I always stopped to look at the weird dudes in the basement. “Where is that guy going on that bike?” [Stuart Fletcher has a shirt with that dude on it and he wore it this week. Coincidence? –ed.]
L: What new designers do you like and why?
J: The new designers usually aren’t very good. And even if they were I wouldn’t acknowledge it. [This is a lot of the reason why we get along so well. –ed.]
L: Tell me about Jeff’s ultimate best day ever. What would you do if you could do anything?
J: I’d have to do it as two days. One of those days would be spent with my awesome family. Katie, Juniper, and Frances and my two hound dogs. It wouldn’t really matter what we did. Coffee and scones. Trip somewhere. Camping. Whatever. I love more than anything to just hang out with them. The other day would be by myself. I love my alone time. I would go to a coffee shop and read a book until the first movie of the day started. That would be followed by a lunch date with myself and off to movie number two. Dinner break with me and then movie number three. [Jeff’s butt is made of the same material that astronaut’s use for their space waffles. –ed.] I only do this when the ladies go visit relatives in Portland.
L: Tell me why you no longer smoke weed or drink.
J: I had no issues with alcohol. I drank the normal amount (mornings, while driving, in class) until one night in 1988 when I went to see Scratch Acid with my friend Brian. There was a party already going on when we got home and I was totally sober. I took a couple of drinks of a beer and I couldn’t stop throwing up. That went on for eight hours until I had to go to the emergency room. I tried again a couple of weeks later (I know!) and I felt instantly horrible. My doctor said that while it was pretty rare, I was probably allergic to alcohol. [That guy is such a liar! When I lived in Mexico I told the people I was allergic to protein so I didn’t have to eat any more weird animals. –ed.] So, with that sound medical advice, I ramped up my pot smoking to epic proportions. I smoked a lot of pot for about 10 or 11 years until it started fighting against me. I would smoke it and instantly hate the fact that just smoked it. I felt abnormally paranoid and depressed so I quit. [But isn’t that what smoking pot is all about? –ed.] It’s coming up on 10 years since I’ve even SEEN any.
L: Tell me about your old bands. Do you miss playing music? Did you ever think you could be a full time musician?
J: You mean, tell you about The Funeral Party, Fireclown, and Stymie? Sure! As the name “The Funeral Party” suggests, we were into The Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Echo and The Bunnymen. I played guitar save for the show-closer when we plugged the Casio into the bass amp and I sang a poem I wrote called “As I Watch You Die” in my best Nick Cave voice. Fireclown was metal/“grunge”. I sang. The name is from a Tygers of Pan Tang song of the same name. We loved Skin Yard, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney but sounded nothing like any of them.
Stymie was our most ‘together’ band. Most of the time we were a six-piece. [Featuring Steve Manning as “dancing honkey” on tom, stick banging, and tambourine! –ed.] We were influenced by the aforementioned bands but add in Treepeople, and Sonic Youth. We wrote a lot of songs and spent a lot of time in the studio. I miss all of the bands for different reasons, but mostly because I enjoyed hanging out with my friends [and thinking of bad band names… -ed.] I love playing music and still play guitar at home but I don’t miss ‘being in a band’. Frankly, I would have much rather been a pro basketball player.
L: When did you lose your virginity? Was it weird? Did you feel like you had become a man or was there some guilt/shame afterwards?
J: I had just turned 18 and I was in love. No guilt. No shame. She was also a virgin and we spent months planning our first time. Laugh at me, but I wanted to be in love for my first time. [Ha ha! -ed.]
L: You are a fan of both metal and Kate Bush. Tell me why these two things are not mutually exclusive? Did your metal friends accept your love of the Bush?
J: Generally speaking my friends have very wide ranging musical interests so it never really comes up. It’s only at work that I get made fun of. [I highly doubt that. –ed.] I secretly listen to her AND metal when Dusty’s not here since he’s so closed-minded to legends like Rush, Kate Bush, and Corrosion of Conformity. I love Kate Bush SO much that I a.) I don’t give a fuck what anyone has to say about her/me and b.) if they are making fun of me I am too busy basking in her awesomeness to notice.
L: Please tell me the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you this year so far.
J: There is this messageboard that I frequent called gigposters.com. It’s where a lot of the poster makers from the past and present go to show work and just generally say dumb stuff. I’m not a “blogger” or a message board guy AT ALL but I got sucked in to this one years a go. I have made a number of actual real live friends there so I keep going back. About four years ago there was a discussion going on about drive-ins: “Aren’t they great.” “Boy, do I miss them.” “That’s where I saw Kentucky Fried Movie!” Stuff like that. As many around the office already know, my past is rich with drive-in stories so I chime in. Here’s an excerpt:
ME: “Oh, man, I loved drive-ins as a kid. My family used to go every summer weekend in the ‘70s/’80s. There were several in a 30 mile radius of my hometown in Oregon. I saw my first R rated movie when I was eight (One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest). I saw the only Star Wars movie I’ve ever seen (1976), and I felt my first real live boobie at a drive-in (Pxx Hxxxxx).”
Two weeks ago I get this:
So I google myself and guess what I find? something like this:
“Oh, man, I loved drive-ins as a kid. My family used to go every summer weekend in the ‘70s/’80s. There were several in a 30 mile radius of my hometown in Oregon. I saw my first R rated movie when I was eight (One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest). I saw the only Star Wars movie I’ve ever seen (1976), and I felt my first real live boobie at a drive-in (Pxx Hxxxxxx).”
I never knew I was your first real live boobie…
LOL!!! So yea I see your a rockstar designer, very cool.
So HELLO my old friend…. I hope all is well in your life.
Love to hear from ya sometime. I live in portland.
:) pxx "
Embarrassing? Yes. But the worst part is not the interaction between me and P** because, as you can see, it doesn’t seem to bother her all that much that I put her name out there like that. It’s when I tell others what I think is this “great story” as the now 40 year-old father of two that I am. I feel creepy and embarrassed for some reason. Like right now. [It’s okay. The more you say boobie the less creepy it gets, I swear. –ed.]
L: Would you prefer to drown or be burned alive?
J: Drowning, for sure.
L: Say you got gored by an elephant or something and you were about to die; what is the last piece of advice you’d give to your children?
J: Have fun. Do it because YOU want to do it not because you think it will make you cool. Trust your instincts. Go easy on your mom, she is about to lose an AWESOME guy to an elephant-goring!