Mark Fischer interviewSKiN GRAFT records has released stunning and innovative music by groups such as Cheer-Accident, Melt-Banana, U.S. Maple, Ruins, Arab On Radar, The Flying Luttenbachers, and many more. Mark Fischer co-founded SKiN GRAFT with Rob Syers in 1986, starting by publishing comic books inspired by punk rock. In 1991, they began to release records by artists with styles often categorized as 'noise rock' or 'No Wave.' Their roots in the comic book business have led to SKiN GRAFT's exceptionally artistic approach to its packaging of albums. For example, the label has released records that include mini comic books such as its AC/DC Tribute 7" series. Other albums are packaged with non-traditional materials, such as U.S. Maple's Long Hair in Three Stages LP, which was packaged in metal sheets. I spoke with Mark Fischer in the summer of 2009 in an interview that looks into the history of SKiN GRAFT comic books and records. I would like to thank Mark for being so genuinely nice and continuing to release music through the label.
by Greg Dixon
PSF: I wanted to start out by talking about when you first started the label. Doing comic books was the beginning from what I've heard and you branched out from there and started to do records, right?
MF: Well, back when I was in high school, I was in an independent study art class, which was this ridiculous way to get credit at the high school. Rather than taking a "real class," you could take this independent study art class and you would tell the high school art teacher what you wanted to do for the semester and my friend and I had this scheme that we should take this independent study art class and say that we were going to make a comic book [laughter].
And we got approved so we spent a couple of months planning this comic book that we were going to do and we were both at the time really into punk rock and hardcore and stuff like that. So, we made this comic zine with each of us doing our own characters and then all of the characters came together at the end with this big finale. We did it and wound up calling it "Skin Graft Comics" and we wound up having my grandfather print it [laughter].
He had some friend who owed him a favor so he said, "Oh, I can get these printed for you" so we printed like 500 copies of them and sold them during the lunch hour at our school for a buck and a half or something. We took the rest to shows. We'd go to punk shows and sell them as aspiring young zinesters and we sold them at local comic shops and record stores.
We actually enjoyed doing it- we started getting letters from people and so we kept doing it- my friend Rob Syers and I. We did it for quite a few years. Always focused on comics, but it was always really inspired by punk rock. I think occasionally we did some record reviews. We did an interview with The Accused, the metalcore band from Seattle, just like this, where we called up the singer and recorded it and asked him a bunch of questions. We did a great interview with Fugazi that I cannot find. I taped it and Ian and Guy sat down with me on different occasions and we talked for hours and we never published it. I've been trying to find the tape for years. I guess it's lost. I don't know what happened to it, but I'd love to publish that interview, because it was great. It really was a wonderful interview.
So anyway, that's kind of how that all started. Then after years and years of doing this as kids, I moved to Chicago. I was living in St. Louis, in St. Charles actually, and I moved to Chicago to go to art school. In much the same way that the comic zine started, I was in a printmaking class and to get credit for that, we had to come up with a project, so I thought 'let's do a comic book that would go with a 7".' At the time, I was a big fan of a band called Dazzling Killmen in St. Louis. They had actually approached me that summer about maybe doing a comic book for a 7" that they were going to release and they thought that would be cool. One thing led to another and I wound up getting involved in the production of it. This guy in St. Louis was going to start a label called Sluggo Records and I ended up sort of weaseling my ways into it and making it a Sluggo/Skin Graft Records co-release. So I printed all the comic books at my school on their offset press. I made 500 of those and wound up selling them I think only to one distributor- to Cargo Records in Chicago and they all sold out. And then one thing led to another, it was like, "OK that was fun. Let's do it again!" So we did another one with another St. Louis band called Strangulated Beatoffs.
So, that was really how that started and (in) then my last year at the art school, I interned at Touch and Go Records and started out helping out there with whatever they needed done, which- to me, being this guy from St. Louis- was really wild, because I was a big fan of The Jesus Lizard, Steve Albini and The Digits. I started working there and I'd see Rick Sims of The Digits and David Yow of The Jesus Lizard, you know, complaining about having to do grunt work at Touch and Go, so for me that was a really wild experience . And I came to get to know and meet a lot of people there. So, when I got out of school they offered me a job there to run the shipping department, which I did for a short time. And that kind of put me in touch with a lot of people in the Chicago music world. Through Touch and Go I would come to get to know a lot of the people I would work with during that time. I came to know Al and Mark of the band Shorty, that later turned into U.S. Maple, while I was working there. John Forbes from Mount Shasta wound up working there, so we became friends.
Shorty, oddly enough, I wanted to be on the very first Skin Graft 7" with Dazzling Killmen- it was a split. Both Dazzling Killmen and I wanted to make it a Dazzling Killmen/Shorty split single, but the guy who ran Sluggo records- the other label- he had this other band, Mother's Day, that he wanted to work with. It would have been nice if it would have been a Dazzling Killmen/Shorty split, but I guess it wasn't in the cards at that time. And then it just continued going from there.
So, over time I kept coming into contact with people and meeting other bands and one thing led to another and it was time to start doing full lengths and I went in that direction.
PSF: Were you disappointed when Touch and Go had to call it quits?
MF: Yeah, just recently, I think it's terrible news. I think it's a really bad sign of where the business is headed. I have worked with Touch and Go directly for years and years, but they were a real organized place and I don't have any kind of inside scoop as to what happened there. It's bad for music in general and I know a lot of people were really shocked by it.
PSF: With Skin Graft being a label where, I feel, art and music are on equal levels- with regard to the growing use of mp3s Does Skin Graft release mp3's, like via iTunes, or is the art strictly packaged with the music still?
MF: No, we have a digital distribution partner so the stuff goes out to iTunes and it's all available that way. I think so many people want music that way that if we didn't make it available then I wouldn't feel justified in complaining if people are pirating the music or stealing it from some torrent site, so I think that you definitely have to make it available in that way. Me being an old guy, I still like the physical object and I really miss the art, but I realize that this is the way people are getting music, especially the young kids these days. I think we have to make it available to them. We'll see what happens as time goes on. For years, I've thought about different ways of packaging music digitally and making packages that exist entirely in the digital realm, but I haven't really made any move in that direction yet. Maybe as time goes we're going to have to do that and make something really special, but at this point I'm still hoping people put the money on the table and buy the CD or the LP, so I'm putting most of the effort into the physical objects.
PSF: Is Skin Graft perceived as a Chicago independent label anymore or is the scope of the label something that is much more globally oriented?
MF: A lot of people think I still live in Chicago and the Chicago P.O. Box is still printed on a lot of the old records, so I think it's still perceived as a Chicago label to a certain extent. Not many people know that I actually live in Europe and I don't really advertise the fact that I don't live in the States, just because I prefer the privacy I suppose. I think the label is still associated with Chicago to a certain degree, maybe not so much by the younger kids who may be just learning about the label now. I still have a lot of people who, for whatever reason, e-mail me and say "Hey, I'm gonna be in Chicago- come see my band" that I have to tell "Well, y'know I'm not there anymore."
PSF: Since you've moved to Austria, has that given you the opportunity to hear bands from Europe and has that influenced the direction of the label as well?
MF: Not really a whole lot. It hasn't had that much of an impact really. Even when I lived in Chicago, I had pretty close ties to Europe through Southern Studios in London and I worked pretty closely with a guy in Hamburg, Germany and I came over to Europe and toured with U.S. Maple and Melt Banana. In some ways, Europe was keener on Skin Graft early on than the States was, so Europe has always been kind of a big part of the Skin Graft pie, or at least where we would see our sales. As far as effecting the label, not really. I don't have the kind of scene support that I had in Chicago, for example, but I think a lot of that isn't a reflection on Vienna, it's more a reflection on getting to be an older guy and I'm not hanging out with a bunch of kids at rock shows anymore, like I used to when I was in Chicago. That's true, I think, of most labels. As time goes on, everyone gets a little bit older and you have to think about "real life" a bit, so I'm not a guy who goes to rock n' roll shows every weekend anymore. In that sense, it's different, but I think that would be the case even if I was in Chicago still. And it was, to a certain extent, near the end of my living in Chicago. Everybody was getting older, moving away… that's just sorta what happens.
PSF: Going back to the comics, when you and Rob first had the high school art project, had you established all of the iconography of all of your characters, or are the characters constantly expanding in terms of the comic books?
MF: Yeah, it changed over time. (In) the first issue of a comic book, we were using characters that we were doing at the time. I had an alien guy called "Commander Floyd" [laughter] and Rob had this group of outer space hippies called "The Zeppelin Patrol" that was really inspired by things like Gilbert Shelton. So, I don't think any of the characters from the first issue of Skin Graft really survived from that as we went on. The characters like "Little Hot Satan," the devil guy who's on our logo, and "Serious Brown," the big sort of Muppet P.I. guy, those all sort of evolved as we went along and we did more and more comics. Some of them came out of these "Comic Jams" we would do at comic book conventions in Chicago. While we were still living in St. Louis, we would go to the Chicago Comicon there and cause a lot of trouble and make comics with other people where everyone would just improvise one panel after another. And that's where Serious Brown came from and Hot Satan came from that also, these were all sort of improvised comic characters that sort of came to life in that setting.
PSF: Those characters later on, in terms of the musical artists on the label, was it expected that a lot of times, the album art would have those characters or was it that the musicians specifically came to you and were asking for cover art?
MF: Well, you know the Skin Graft characters don't really appear on that many of the records. They did on the early 7"s. Like Mount Shasta came to be associated with "Gumballhead the Cat," but that really just happened because Rob did the painting of Gumballhead and everybody looked at it and said "Wow, that's great!" and the band really liked that and he became their mascot to a certain extent. They wound up breaking away from it when it came time to do their last album (Watch Out), they didn't use Gumballhead, but that character became really identified with them. Outside of the 7"s, the only others that use the characters were Yona-Kit, they had a puppet of Serious Brown and Hodds.
PSF: ... and Chiller Whale.
MF: Yeah. They had these 3-D puppets that were made for a stop motion animation film that we worked on. We photographed them in front of Lake Michigan after it had snowed for the album cover of that. You Fanastic, for their first EP, I used some Serious Brown drawings for that and I think those are the only ones. Generally, I don't impose characters on bands and I'm not too keen on that unless it seems to make sense. Most of the stuff that I'll do, like the Gorge Trio album cover I did, there's no Skin Graft characters on it, I just drew it. Or the first Chinese Stars album, I didn't use any of the Skin Graft characters. So, it has to somehow feel appropriate or right.
PSF: Have certain records been conceived or dreamed up by you, or are the artist's already there working on something and you pick up on that?
MF: It really depends. The two I just mentioned- The Chinese Stars, when those guys got together after Arab on Radar broke up, they had no idea what to do for artwork. And so they came to me and said, "Well, let's do this EP" and said "Yeah, that sounds good," and so I just did up what I did. There was another version of it, but the idea of cutting the CD into the shape of a Chinese Throwing Star and all of the artwork on that came from me and I just showed it to the band and they said "Yeah, that's it." In the case of Gorge Trio, on their album, Open Mouth O Whisp, they had sent me a photo of this place called "Youth Island," which was just this little island with a tree growing on it and they said "Yeah, we really like this image" and they had sent me a picture of it. I think it was a pinhole outline of it where they took this tree and they just stuck a bunch of pins in a white piece paper to kind of outline the tree. And while it was kind of cool, I thought we could improve upon it. And so I started doing some drawings of the tree and then that led to the tree becoming this kind of octopus monster that it was on the back cover. So, that evolved by the band giving me some imagery and I developed it. In other cases, like a band like AIDS Wolf, they say "OK this is what we're going to do for the album" and it's like "OK great" so I'm not really involved in that at all other than saying, "Looks good." So it depends.
PSF: In terms of music, just to name an example that comes to mind, the Space Streakings Sighted Over Mount Shasta album, was that something where Space Streakings and Mount Shasta were already playing together at that time and you decided you wanted to make a record. Or was it something that you guys came up as an idea of putting two of your artists together?
MF: Yeah. I actually kind of foisted that on them. They really didn't do that independently, but I threw it out as an idea, because we had done this Yona-Kit album, which was the Brise-Glace guys and K.K. Null of Zeni Geva. And that was a lot of fun and at the time, I was really in to the idea of creating sort of a family. So all of these bands were friends and they'd come from Japan and tour together and guest on each others albums. Space Streakings and Mount Shasta toured together and played together and got to be really good pals. They kept doing these really funny drawings, they also were improvising different drawings. I think it was me who said, "What about doing an album together?" and they said "Yeah, let's do that, that would be cool" and then one thing led to another and then they did it. They wound up writing it through the mail, much like Yona-Kit did. With Yona-Kit, Null sent some cassette tapes with some riffs to the Brise-Glace guys and then they would listen to them and figure their parts out. And the same thing happened with the Shakuhachi Surprise stuff, where each band sort of wrote their own material, sent it over to the other guys, and then they listened to it and thought "Well, this is what we can do with it. " And then they all got together in the studio, practiced one day, and then recorded it.
PSF: That's so cool. Some other disparate questions here: Has there been a best-selling record of Skin Graft?
MF: Yeah, yeah. Melt Banana Scratch or Stitch I think is the best-seller still to this day. I think that one has outdistanced everybody else over the years. But, it did quite well when it first came out also.
PSF: I remember playing it on vinyl. It had that beautiful vinyl green plastic cover. When I think of the label, I think of it as having a wide range of sound, but also a consistent sort of sound over time. Consistently it seem to my ears to be cutting-edge and a slightly bizarre kind of music. Has it been difficult for you to keep the artistic vision of the label consistent and not losing the edge its had all of these years?
MF: No, not really. There's always bands that are weird and I've been really fortunate in that respect. The bands, a lot of them seem to find me or are referred to me by others, I don't find them and somebody else does. I was really lucky I think in a lot of respects to be in Chicago when I was. It wound up being the center of the universe for a lot really talented people and by all of us getting together and working together, everyone influenced each other and we had a really great, cool, little scene of people that helped each other and inspired each other. And ever since then, I've been pretty lucky in that sense. So, it hasn't been that hard really. I've been really lucky.
PSF: Has business been slow? When I was in college from about 1998 to about 2005, I king of lost track of what Skin Graft was doing and I think the first thing that I purchased after that long hiatus was a record that I saw, Ruins Vrresto, and I was wondering if there was a point in time where things kind of slowed down?
MF: Yeah. There have been. It's watch and wait. Sales are never that great [laughter]. They're probably at their all-time slowest these days in many respects, but I think that's true of almost everybody. I think all labels are hurting, because there just aren't that many places to sell music at anymore. And so distribution has become very difficult and piracy and people just sharing music has absolutely had an effect also. But, yeah it was tough. Melt Banana left and started their own label, which was very difficult. After the Butthole Surfers lawsuit to Touch and Go, the label lost its distribution to Touch and Go, then they started consolidating and shrinking then, that was really difficult. And at that point, U.S. Maple moved to Drag City. And so at that time it was really, really hard. I had to figure out "What are we going to do?" We wound up moving to another distributor- they wound up going out of business, then we moved to another distributor, they went out of business. And finally to yet another primary distributor and they're still with is. It's almost been shear force of will to keep the label going at times, because it would be very difficult. But, if you're going to do a label that does weird shit like this, it's always going to be difficult- it just goes with the territory [laughter].
PSF: I'm not as familiar with the new artists on the label. Do they represent a new breed of Skin Graft musicians on the label or have many of them been a part of groups you have released in the past?
MF: No, they're for the most part a new breed, but there seems to be a thread that goes from each band to the other in one way or another. After U.S. Maple left and then broke up and Melt Banana left the next big band that wound up on the label that seemed to have quite a bit of success was Arab on Radar. Prior to my working with them, Weasel Walter of The Flying Luttenbachers had recorded them and so there was kind of a connection from Weasel to Arab on Radar and that's how I started to get in touch with them. Once Arab on Radar broke up, they split into three different bands and I've worked with all three so that has kind of carried on. They were pals with AIDS Wolf and AIDS Wolf then worked with Athletic Automaton, which is one of the Arab on Radar spinoff bands. AIDS Wolf played with Pre and was friends with Pre in London. So yeah, it all kind of connects in some bizarre way to this day and goes all the way back to the beginning.
PSF: I'm curious about the Skin Graft beer? The Gumballhead and Three Floyd's beer. Are you guys still doing that?
MF: Yeah, but I'm not really involved in it. The Gumballhead beer is still being made. All of the royalties for that go to Rob Syers, though. That's kind of his thing, but I was happy to help promote it. It had the Skin Graft address on it.
PSF: Are there chances of more Skin Graft characters getting made into beers in the future?
MF: Well I thought a Serious Brown real dark beer, like a Guiness, would be good, but I don't know- I'm not in the the beer business [laughter], so it's not really a big concern, but it's a cool thing to have for sure.
Also see the Skin Graft website.
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