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Henry Owings On Unwound, Punk Reissues, And Box Set Design

Superfan of the '90s undergroud, zinester, and ace designer talks about his work on a new series for Numero Group.

Interview By John Dugan, May 29, 2013

Henry Owings seems to have his fingerprints on a lot of great box sets and reissues coming out these days—good news for those of us who like time-tested music and fine, no-nonsense design. A superfan of music—particularly '90s punk, as well as publisher of outspoken zine Chunklet, Owings is unusually well-acquainted with the material for which he is designing. With a new, four-part Unwound What Was Wound project coming out soon on Numero Group, we thought it appropriate to check in with Owings and find out more about the design for the series of expanded editions for the Northwest punkers and his design philosophy in general.

Unwound, Kid Gone for Numero Group

The What Was Wound project seems very deep and ambitious for a reissue project. How did you get involved?
Frankly, I think it's either because of Twitter or some sort of mutual appreciation society. Prior to working with them, I bought my fair share of NG releases directly from the label and was pretty smitten with the material they were unearthing, their writing and, obviously, the design. Ken and I became friendly along the way, but not before I kept blabbing on twitter (repeatedly) saying "When is somebody going to reissue Codeine?!" A little over a year ago Ken asked if I wanted to work alongside the label in either a writing or design capacity on the Codeine reissue and, of course, I said yes. I've found out that NG really doesn't hire much outside their tribe, so I think it was all on a probationary basis which I think I passed with flying colors. More than anything, I think we just clicked. My work flow style dovetailed quite pleasantly with theirs and a love affair was born.

Codeine, When I See the Sun box set cover for Numero Group

Regarding Unwound, funny enough, I art directed (or more like reverse engineered) the Live Leaves release for the band. Ken immediately started sniffing a reissue project and asked me for their information. Not soon thereafter, contracts were signed and the *COUGH* reissue behemoth commenced. Fortunately enough for me, Ken asked me to tag along for the ride. I'd be an idiot not to oblige.

Owings worked on the Patton box set

How is designing a punk reissue different from designing something new?
As somebody who buys a shitload of records, I cringe at the state of "reissue" design. The Smog Veil aesthetic alone makes me just want to.....I don't know. It's just bad. Punk (for the lack of a better word) reissues don't need to be given the "mac attack" with tons of tweaked-out Photoshop spreads to make it look old. That's a vibe I've just NEVER EVER understood or enjoyed. When I've worked on reissues, I just like to give the project tons of breathing room. Why redesign something? Just give it help and let the material do the rest. Jesus Christ, when I worked on the Charley Patton box for Revenant we had a grand total of ONE image of the artist and we were still able to milk out an entire box. I really think a bunch of the direction can be credited to the labels themselves. When I'm brought in, I prefer thinking of myself as a librarian than a true 'grafik designur' (sic) because if the material is there, it does all the work for me.

Does it help you to be a fan of the band when you're doing a project like this or do you only take on the ones you're into? 
I'm super lucky to be able to work on a lot of things I enjoy, but do I get jazzed about everything? No. But well, I'd say a good 75% of it I'm into. I think being able to work from the house with understanding clients who know that my biggest priority is my family helps, too. Squeezing out work between dropping my kid off at school and picking her up is the lion's share of when I get things done. I don't even try to work when she's here (unless she's asleep). Work can wait, but I'm not going to lie: being a consistent fixture at Numero Group is a pretty great honor.

Shoes Bazooka album sleeve for Numero Group

Unwound was a noisy, unruly post-punk band but also had kind of an arty sensitivity to them... How did you incorporate your own idea of what Unwound was in the design?
Plain and simple, by divesting myself from that. As somebody that comes from the same scene as Unwound, I don't see why thinking crude and sloppy is necessarily reflecting of Numero or a proper reissue. The writing, the photos, and the package do the work. Overthinking the design just comes across as, well, overwrought.

Owings contributed to Touchable Sound.

Are there any challenges particular to box sets? It would seem that you need more design raw material, archival images, etc. to make them rich.
This first Unwound box was a sticky wicket. Unlike the next three in the series (with a final one culminating all four), we didn't have the embarrassment of riches that you'd hope to have. Very few photos, but a ton of (really well done) writing. Ken was instrumental in getting various pieces to stretch it out like the D&D style map of Olympia ca '91 (done by Vern Rumsey) or the photo of Reko Muse (the ABC No Rio of Olympia, I guess?). They really helped. But when all else fails, just present the type nice and clean so people can read it, that's what I say. Ken and I batted a number of ideas back and forth regarding the preliminary package/design for the Unwound box and we just kept batting it until we got what we were happy with: kraft paper and black ink with four color interior jackets. It just seemed to scream the Unwound aesthetic to us. After writing and contributing to the Touchable Sound book, I found myself revisiting the creative tool box (if you will) of the early '90s punks of Ebullition, Kill Rock Stars, Simple Machines, etc. The simplicity (or DIY aspect thereof) was what Ken and I kept coming back to. Kraft paper just seemed to scream DIY. Same with just black ink. It's cheap, but not cheap looking. I was offered the luxury of printing with a spot color here and there, but I eventually gave up on it all in lieu of simple. I think it'll look pretty awesome when it's all done (and that's all you can ever hope for).

Numero has had a distinctive, highly formatted look for its soul reissues, but the post-punk stuff is going in a different direction. Why is that? 
Ken and I were joking about it last week when we were putting the first Unwound box to bed, actually. I would tell him "This seems to veer away from the NG look." He would respond (via IM, naturally) that we had "left the reservation long ago." As somebody that was immensely influenced by the minimal brilliance of Table of the Elements (and was fittingly schooled by its owner in design), I'm always keen to push back at the label—not in a disrespectful way at all (although it could come off that way.) But I think formulas are always in need of being messed around. Ken keeps me around and I keep smiling. Working with them is by and large a treat.

What's next for you?
More Unwound? More Numero stuff? They always seem to need something here or there. I also work quite a lot with another fantastic reissue label, Light in the Attic, who are equally fun to work with. For fear of letting out information that they should be in charge of announcing, I can say that I've just finished Public Image Limited, Roky Erickson, and an array of Lee Hazlewood reissues recently. Also, after two years, I just put The Jesus Lizard book (fittingly titled BOOK) to bed. That was the embodiment of glacial.

I should also add that I do quite a bit of identity/branding stuff for businesses here in Atlanta along with corporate stooge work for ad agencies and law firms. Again, the fact that I get to do all of this while blasting the new UV Race single, Endless Boogie album, or just Howard Stern makes me feel like I'm in a constant state of arrested development. And for that, I thank all my clients that allow me to make things look pretty for them.

For more on Henry Owings, graphic designer, hit ChunkletGraphicControl.com