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Alan Schmidt interview 2013 Print

Alan Schmidt was an art director at Phonogram Records during the Boomtown Rats’ commercial peak, and as such had a hand in the packaging of the brilliant Fine Art of Surfacing and Mondo Bongo albums.  Writer James Stafford sat down with Schmidt for an exclusive conversation for the website.

James Stafford: Had you worked with the Rats prior to The Fine Art of Surfacing?

Alan Schmidt: The Rats were signed to Ensign, a small independent run by Nigel Grainge, and marketed/released through some sort of licensing deal with Phonogram.  The hit single “She's so Modern” from A Tonic for the Troops was my first contact with the band - excellent design/typography from Hothouse (a freelance design firm with whom Schmidt often worked – ed.).  “Surfacing” was my first major involvement with the band.

JS: That’s quite an assignment to come into cold; I mean, no disrespect to the Phonogram roster of the era, but at least for me as a listener the Boomtown Rats seemed to have a little more going on intellectually than your average band.

AS: Bob had the album’s title when we first met, though knowing he was in aquatic mode (and not yet knowing the strength with which Bob invariably stuck to his guns) I had the temerity to suggest that a literary pun could be a really cool and knowing alternative. My suggestion, At Swim Six Rats, after O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, was met with a brief grin of recognition from the always literate Bob, followed by a characteristically laconic response: “Too fuckin' clever by half.”

JS: That’s great.  I can hear him saying it.  I doubt many people even realize that an art director would have a go at something like a title, but it makes sense given your responsibility for the final packaging.  Did your past as an artist influence how you approached your role as an art director?

AS: I made a point of always trying to make time to see the portfolios of the innumerable hopefuls who were looking for album cover work, having not so long ago myself been on that thankless round of banging on generally closed doors and involved in the soul-destroying grind of attempting to contact The Man who was invariably “in a meeting”- and never called back.

So, as a result, an enormous pin-board in my office was covered layers-deep with sample pics of every description left by painters, illustrators and photographers - interspersed with scores of visiting cards,  a lot of favourite cartoons and various improving homilies.

JS: No pin-board is complete without the motivational sayings.

AS: Scanning the jumble of images and scraps of ephemera on my pin-board, Bob spotted a sample recently left by a young painter. He jumped up and pulled it down, saying, “Fuckin' great! That's it -- there's the cover.”  And so it came to pass.

JS: You’re kidding! Some young hopeful simply lucked into winning the cover of one of the great albums in rock history.

AS: The Fine Art of Surfacing was, quite literally, an off-the-wall choice on Bob Geldof's part.  Comparing that blissful simplicity to the process involved in arriving at the finished package for Mondo Bongo is a bit like comparing the recipe for bread and butter with the invention of quantum mechanics.

JS: Couldn’t sell the band on a self-improvement homily off the same pin-board, eh?  Remind me to ask you some other time if you’re to blame for that whole “Choose Life!” Wham campaign, by the way.

AS: Right from the kickoff my brief was to establish a singular visual style to match a really terrific title. I’ve always assumed Bob's choice of Mondo Bongo harked back to the schlock-shock movie series of the early 60's - Mondo Cane, “Mondo This-And-That.”  So, for starters, we needed a photo shoot of the band which would  deliver the kind of instantly recognisable image that had recently been so brilliantly created for the London band Madness -  those black and white  Crumb-like leaning' Trucking' poses.

JS: Oh yes, those are classics.

AS: We hired a very expensive car studio for the shoot. Its scaffold rostrum for overhead shots enabled the band to take up innumerable contorted and highly contrived poses while lying on a huge stretched white background. For all the lads' usual willingness and, dare I say it, an all-too-rare professionalism when it came to all this creative malarkey, the shoot produced images that looked predictably contorted and highly contrived.

JS: Back to the drawing board?

AS: Or rather the pin-board, once more.  I'd been really impressed by the college portfolio of Mike Owen, a young graduate photographer specialising in very chic and atmospheric portrait and style images.  I retrieved a sample shot from somewhere deep on the board to show Mr. Geldof.  We'd found our man.

Incidentally, Mike went on to become a big star fashion photographer (http://www.mikeowenphotography.com).

JS: That’s quite a score.  What do you recall about the Mondo Bongo shoot?

Mondo Bongo Album CoverAS: On the day of the shoot at a small, unprepossessing terrace house, I met the stylist nominated by Mike. Whilst lighting and stuff was being set up, I volunteered to take her to find a pharmacy where a number of very particular last-minute requisites might be found. She had been unable to purchase a sufficient quantity earlier, she explained, as we approached the counter.

''A dozen tubes of KY Gel, please, “she said brightly to the young assistant.

Desperately trying to keep a straight face, the girl returned with the 12 tubes of intimate lubricant, but then just couldn't help herself:  "Is this going to be a private party or can just anyone come?' she asked coyly.

JS: Can’t say as I blame her, though I would’ve been tempted to growl, “We’re making art, you barbarian!” and storm out.  Either that or ask if they sold swim fins or some such nonsense…

AS: Following the costly non-event of the previous shoot I'd decided that for the main group image all the design work would be based on montaging individual shots into one very singular, and I hoped memorable, shape.  A set of separate portrait shots would seek to replicate the superbly lit, artfully made-up and highly airbrushed 'glamour' shots from the golden age of Hollywood Studio Bling. Hence the heavy application of KY Gel (to hair, dammit!) and the hours of make-up required to turn a very accommodating Bunch of Boyos into God-like Beings.

Though we failed to get our money back on the unused Gel, everyone was delighted with the eventual end result - and one of those oh-so-rare packages of completely uncompromised creative work launched an album I'm still more than happy to admit to.

Banana Republic CoverJS: Brilliant.  The singles sleeves from that album carried on the same design themes.  Any nuggets to share on those?

AS:
A subsequent shoot with Mike for the single sleeve featured an image of the bongo playing and hairy knees of my assistant Pat Carroll, who later became one of the starry duo responsible for founding Manchester's legendary Central Station Design.  You'd never have guessed he had it in him, hearing his bongo playing.

You can visit Alan Schmidt and purchase prints and originals of his current work here: http://www.pilgrimprints.co.uk/splash

 
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