Along Guadalupe Street in Austin a line of people slowly forms. By the time the evening arrives, the line has grown to a few hundred strong. Most carry tubes, empty, to be filled with purchases from the night’s main event — the Mondo Gallery‘s poster exhibit. Marvel. Disney. Ken Taylor. Laurent Durieux. The show’s theme may change, but the line stays the same. A young man will be out there as well, assessing the line. He will spend time answering questions. Meeting fans, friendly and amiable. This is how I first met Mo Shafeek.
Later, I’d see Shafeek behind the Mondo booth at San Diego Comic Con and a slew of other events. Like all the members of Mondo’s staff, Shafeek is visible and makes himself available to the fans. On hand to enhance the experience of those visiting the world of Mondo.
Since starting as the gallery’s general manager, Shafeek has moved onto a new role as the record label production manager for Mondo’s ever growing catalog of vinyl releases of film soundtracks. Their line of releases is as well curated as their roster of film posters, mixing the obscure with the mainstream — the cult with the unknown and the ‘must-see.’
It was all this that brought me to sit down with Mo and talk records, film scores, and the craft of making it all happen.
ETDC: You’ve always made yourself available at Mondo events – you’re out on the street checking in on the fans in line during gallery openings and at conventions you’re front and center at the booths talking to whoever has questions. I know you’ve spent some time on the road with touring bands – is that what first brought you to working at Mondo?
MS: No, my journey to Mondo was a little less glamorous than that. I was tour managing musicians for a while, but the thing that brought me to Mondo was a spontaneous move to Austin, Texas from my city of birth, New York, and a few years of shipping experience for a webstore a few years before.
My position at Mondo started as General Manager, and has evolved over the last few years to what it is today – working in music. I suppose that is just where I belong!
One of my favorite Mondo vinyl releases is the ‘Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers’ record. At the time you guys put it out, I had no idea I would enjoy it. I hadn’t seen the film let alone heard of the composer or the music. The appeal to me was the artwork from We Buy Your Kids. It was actually a surprise I enjoyed the album as much as I did.
What leads you to releasing the soundtracks to films like ‘Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers’ or ‘Maniac Cop 2’? Do they share a quality with more mainstream scores like ‘Jurassic Park or Back to The Future? Is there a concern about audience appeal for the smaller more cult films?
I think it’s very important to balance our bigger titles with smaller, cult, or lesser-known scores. We are in a very enviable position where people trust our curation, and we don’t want to take that for granted. So on top of the classic titles, we want to release things that people may not have ever heard or seen before because its an opportunity to share some music that may have been very important to us growing up in the past, or that may have been overlooked recently.
Unique to the soundtrack space, sometimes disliking a film but loving the score is a common occurrence. You may not be into slashers, but you love synth, and that’s why some of these soundtracks are so beloved. The musicality involved in many low budget horror films is so downright impressive that they require a second glance even if you aren’t in scalping or beheading in your films.
In theory, every film should have an engaging score, yet not all of them are worthy of note or get a vinyl release. What makes a soundtrack a worthy of being released on vinyl?
This is something we think about all of the time. The occasional audiophile will scream at us (through social media) that digital music doesn’t need to be put on vinyl. Any score made, or released after a certain time (mainly the 80’s and on) or recorded digitally, in their opinion, is being forced onto a medium that exists only for analog music. This thinking is very limiting, but it does get to the core of what people assume this Vinyl movement is all about.
A good amount of people think that this is an affectation, or a gimmick. For some it may be, but I legitimately think vinyl sounds better. Naturally that is an opinion as if I were to say it was a fact I would be cornered no-doubt with documents that prove otherwise. And maybe they’re right, but those people are missing the bigger picture ultimately.
Listening to music has become a lost art. With the advent of portable music, people can multitask, and because of that music has become a background experience. One of the most important aspects of the vinyl resurgence to me is the fact that is has brought people back to the art of taking time to make sure their audio set-up is great, not just the source material. People can download every song imaginable on FLAC if they want, but if they are just listening to it on earbuds off of their iPhone while they are commuting to work, you aren’t really listening, in my opinion. It takes on a different life when you have to dedicate time to the experience. Not to mention the large format allows the artwork has more space to breath. The aspect of having a physical item on your shelf is so important too.
I don’t want to place a qualifier on any specific title deserving a vinyl release. I’m not the type to roll my eyes when an band I dislike, or a movie I find mediocre like gets a release on vinyl. Those musicians / composers worked hard on that score, and that album is a representation of those people’s work. To me that’s important. If they want that album on vinyl, why is that an issue?
Again, it goes back to the idea that people think this is an affectation. Its a format, and a preference when you get down to it. So I don’t like to think of it in those terms. But if you are asking what qualifies a title being on Mondo / Death Waltz? That really just comes down to curation and personal opinions / tastes.
Some of the soundtracks Mondo has released are quite old. Are you tracking down the original tapes and working from there? Are you listening to the progress of the score during the mastering process? How many times would you have heard the entire soundtrack by the time of a record’s release?
We track down original masters as often as we can, definitely. Every title is so different, and sourcing those original masters is easier said than done. But whenever we can, we go back to the rawest form of content.
I’m not actively involved in the mastering process. I leave that to the experts, but that doesn’t mean I don’t listen regularly. For any particular project, between the time we sign a deal to the time an album is for sale I’ve probably listened to an album over a dozen times. Test pressings account a lot of that, or whenever we assist in sequencing an album that has never been released before.
Album artwork is interesting in that it can be seen as similar to a poster, but it also needs to speak for the music contained on the record. The artwork for ‘The Cat in The Brain’ and ‘Cooties’ were available as poster, but artwork like Rich Kelly’s ‘Boxtrolls’ or the recent ‘Wrath of Khan’ release with Matt Taylor’s stellar art didn’t get poster treatment. What determines the direction to take with album art, in terms of print versus vinyl only?
That’s a really simple answer, and honestly it has to do with each individual project. Each title is different. In a perfect world we would have the rights to do a poster for every title we had the soundtrack rights to and vice versa — but we don’t have the rights every time.
Also, some images honestly lend themselves better to album art. ‘Boxtrolls’ was rendered in such a way that it didn’t make sense to go back and figure out if we could screen-print it, or find a way to frame it into a landscape poster image. ‘Cooties’ in particular started as a poster, so that was the opposite situation.
I’m at a point in my life where I have two little kids running around the house, so if a record is playing I can count on it being bumped or pulled off the player – basically the only time I listen to records is at night when everyone is asleep, which means the music has more of my attention. It’s becomes an experience. As a fan, what draws you to vinyl? Are you mostly listening to records these days?
Absolutely. I love the experience of putting a record on. It is essential now. I’ll download records for portable travel, and if an album doesn’t come with a DL Code, I’ll double-dip and buy it again digitally so I can have it in my car because I also love listening to music on the road (different but equally important way to experience an album) but when I’m home, I don’t ever put on a record that I don’t have on vinyl.
I also love the division of sides. Sometimes I only feel like listening to Side C only of ‘Sign O’ The Times’ — sometimes I’ll get across all sides, sometimes I won’t. But the act of putting on a record has become a ritual I don’t know how I lived without. I do worry about the days when I a have to be careful around my own children, but I also can’t wait to raise my own kids to have an appreciation for the art of listening to music.
Mondo Music Weekly is one of the few newsletters I always open and read if for nothing more than the recommendations you and Spencer provide at the end. One thing about the recommendations that I appreciate is how you pick music outside of the Mondo / Death Waltz catalog. Rather than treating outside companies as competitors, you treat them like peers. As a fan it’s exciting to see you discuss the work of others. Was that a conscious decision on your part, or just natural instinct?
I can only speak for myself, (Spencer Hickman was already doing it before Mondo and Death Waltz merged) but I’d have to say that it was an organic evolution for us at Mondo.
The truth is, we are peers with everyone out there right now. There is still a healthy competition about it, don’t get me wrong, but at the end of the day we love what most labels are doing right now! And, again speaking for myself, I’d rather be able to have a beer with every label-head that we share this space with, than awkwardly dodge anyone at an event. I say, ‘Support your scene.’ We’re all in this together as fans at the end of the day.
The Mondo and Death Waltz releases don’t come with digital download codes – I’d like to think it was a decision based on a desire to offer the music only in its purest form, but I kind of assume it’s a legal issue?
Truthfully, it’s more of a rights issue. I totally get the need for DL codes. We’re not ignorant of that, but every license is so different.
Oddly enough, its easier to ask for the rights to do a ton of work that someone would never do themselves (‘Hey, we want to create original artwork for your title, and press this on a format that is one of the most costly and labor intensive ways to manufacture music in 2016!’) vs. something that effects their revenue stream, i.e. offer free downloads.
I don’t think we’d ever have it for every title, but in a perfect world it would be an option for some releases.
Talking with Rob Jones and Jay Shaw they’ve mentioned that some projects can get guided through completion by the enthusiasm of one person. Have there been any records you’ve had to convince the group to take on? Any ‘Mo Shafeek Passion Projects’?
Always! The first project I ever had to convince my team to do was a small 7-inch release called La Cinquette for the film Grand Piano. Right now I’m working on something equally as niche but a little on the lighter side. I can’t share the title(s) but you’ll probably be able to tell when they come out haha.
With Mondo being a part of the Drafthouse family are there any plans to release the soundtracks of past Drafthouse Films releases, like say, a personal favorite, Raf Keunen’s score for ‘Bullhead?’
None discussed at the moment. That’s also a question of individual title to title – not every film acquired by DHF is up for grabs. But that would be awesome!
The ‘For Sara’ cassette from ‘Over The Garden Wall’ is such a wonderful release — those 1,000 copies went fast! How did that project come about? Any more cassette editions in Mondo’s future?
‘For Sara’ was one of those said passion projects too, now that you mention it. It was something we pitched to Cartoon Network right after we saw the mini-series back in 2014, and they were generous enough to let us play in that sandbox, which for them must’ve sounded like the craziest idea of all time. ‘We want to make a cassette for a mini-series featuring content that doesn’t exist!’, and even still, it was wonderful, and a dream come true that came together better than I ever imagined.
Though for as hard as we worked to make that project come to life, I have to say most of the heavy lifting on the cassette was done by the wonderful composers The Blasting Company who created original content just for that release. We were also very lucky to have the favor of Elijah Wood, who donated his time to the project as well, and Patrick McHale who trusted us to continue his vision to such a high-concept end. It is actually a sign of what can happen when everyone involved is proud of their work. It didn’t take much to ‘get the gang back together’ so to speak, on a project that has been wrapped for almost a year by the time we got around to tracking. And it kept the relationships open for something else that we are working on currently for sale later this year.
Cassettes are fun, and i’m glad they are seeing a resurgence, but Mondo doesn’t have plans to shift in that direction unless the title dictates it.