Inspired by the lack of album art in the age of invisible music, Brooklyn-based record label Aqualamb publishes print books of artwork and writings as accompaniments to its releases. It is an ambitious project but a satisfying one for partners and creative directors Johnathan Swafford and Eric Palmerlee. I asked Swafford to tell us more about the evolution of this indie beast.
When did you start Aqualamb? And does the name have existential significance?
The idea of Aqualamb putting out books to complement the music initially started with myself and Eric Palmerlee sometime in 2012, after playing shows together in our bands Vagina Panther and Descender. Firstly as a way to put out the bands we were playing in, mainly around NYC at the time, and then support deserving bands we felt were below the radar. We realized that rather than try to get in on an existing scene or label, it would be best to create our own.
Eric and I are both graphic designers. We talked extensively about labels we admired and how one could function. Being designers, we were heavily influenced by visual design and books. I can trace my interest in art and design from staring at my dad’s vinyl record covers as a kid while listening to music.
At that point in time, music listening shifted from physical mediums to downloadable MP3s and streaming services. With a flat 800 x 800 square, music was becoming invisible. CDs were dead and although vinyl was becoming popular, we felt that creating cheap 100-page paperback books about the records could allow fans to interact with the music tangibly.
The name Aqualamb is an homage to a bit by the mysterious cult hero and underground absurdist crank caller Longmont Potion Castle. I had no idea who he was until Eric mentioned him to me. Once I listened to his releases, and Eric said he was thinking of that as a name for the label, it had to be named Aqualamb.
You publish books, records and do a podcast—all while you were going for a grad degree and working at The Wall Street Journal?
Grad school set the stage for this journey.
I had been in many bands growing up in Akron and Cleveland. When I went to grad school at SVA MFAD, I desperately wanted to play again with other weirdos.
I somehow convinced a few fellow ’05 SVAMFAD students to start something as a joke. We started with the idea that this project was a “brand” and not a band. One late evening while working in the studio, I discussed the idea with fellow students Kris Johns, Thomas Porostocky and Ed McKirdy. Everyone was spouting off names that somehow merged into the phrase “Vagina Panther.” Ed McKirdy and Thomas Porostocky deserve credit for the word mesh. We had a few jams with guitarist Todd Albrecht and drummer Trent Good, whom I worked for as an art director. Kris, Ed and Thomas went on to better things, but the band took on a life of its own with my now-wife, June Sung, and John Mcgill, Dave Singley and Christian Rutledge.
Trent was buds with the studio manager Christian Rutledge of Philip Glass’s recording studio, Looking Glass Studios. We became buds with him and other soon-to-be legendary engineers and producers. Our first two records were engineered and produced by Grammy Award–winning producers and engineers Mario Mcnulty (David Bowie) and James Brown (Foo Fighters).
Vagina Panther S/T cover design by Thomas Porostocky, based on a poster we designed referencing Herb Lubalin’s Avant Garde cover of the same theme
Aqualamb’s concept of books complementing is intriguing enough that people will take a chance and support what we are doing. I don’t think the level and quality of Aqualamb’s music output would exist without the studio help of Christian, Mario and James. Christian, especially, went on to play drums in so many Aqualamb bands (Vagina Panther, The Space Merchants, Zeb Gould).
Over the years I have had many creative jobs as an art director and creative director, even teaching somehow while doing Aqualamb. A partnership of WPP companies hired me to start an embedded agency of hybrid creatives at The Wall Street Journal. At that job, I hired many creative friends and people on the label, including many SVAMAD grads. Even Eric worked for a time there. I left WSJ before COVID to focus on Aqualamb full time. I was lucky at WSJ because the team’s talent level was so good. In a sense, while working for the “man” we were able to support Aqualamb.
Is Aqualamb self-sustaining? How do you support it?
It is a very long road to the middle. Running a record label and publishing books is also like owning a boat. You can always sink more money into it. Aqualamb is break-even. Honestly, it’s still a crapshoot whether something takes off, even with a lot of money behind it.
Aqualamb puts out a lot of esoteric bands, but these are acts we feel deserve bigger audiences. All our artists deserve to break it big, but whether it cuts through the noise to something bigger takes a combination of talent, touring, PR, marketing, branding, design and luck.
To my eye, the books have the quality of Quentin Fiore’s Medium is the Massage and other illustration/text hybrids. Am I right?
The Medium is the Massage in all of our output. It’s so interesting and scary how we now consume content and how it affects society. Aqualamb tries to play with all forms of content and manipulate them in various ways. I am also still searching record bins for the The Medium is the Massage vinyl record of the released book.
We were also heavily influenced by the last series of Emigre’s paperbacks. It is crucial to us that the artists’ fans can purchase something tangible without being too expensive.
How would you describe your book publishing goals and purposes?
The mission of Aqualamb is to create tangible creative works in the age of invisible music. We design each book to be a visual complement to the music. The book content can take many forms. We work closely with the artists on the structure and content of the books. Some, like the Space Merchant’s release, Kiss the Dirt, are graphic novels featuring the artwork of Joshua Ray Stephens and cover design by Braulio Amado.
We did a book based on the Museum of Witchcraft collection with the witchy doom band Frayle for their 1692 release.
Skryptor’s Luminous Volumes is a series of illustrations and short stories based on murder themes that were curated with the band’s bass player and writer David McClelland.
Cover art by David McClelland, book design by Aqualamb, “Dry Cleaning” written by David McClelland, illustration by Fritz Welch, “Brights” written by Chaucenton Bird, illustration by Rich Hall
For this rerelease of the legendary Noise Band Craw box set of vinyl and books we worked with Northern Spy records and Rolling Stone editor Hank Shteamer. For me personally it was particularly challenging because I admired the band so much and the original covers were like a holy grail. The band wanted to update the covers, so as a solution and homage to the original artists, we just blurred them. In the end it made sense and respected the original artwork.
Other books, like LaMacchia’s Thunderheads, are loose structures of drawings and lyrics with QR codes that lead to more content.
Type design and layout by Aqualamb, photos, words and drawings by John LaMacchia, additional photos by Candice Freshko. Album cover photo by Terrence Matlin, album cover photo manipulated by John LaMacchia
Cover design for Rebreather’s The Line, It’s Width, and The War Drone by Aqualamb’s Eric Palmerlee
Where do you sell them? Do you have a distribution network?
Our books and music are sold online via Aqualamb.org and distribution networks like Amazon. We also sell in small independent book and record shops. Before COVID we were doing a lot of art book fairs, like Zono Moco in Mexico City and the Printed Matter LA Art Book Fair.
How do you determine what books and music to invest in?
Firstly it is the music. Because Eric and I are also musicians involved in the NYC, Cleveland and Atlanta underground music scenes, there is a limitless supply of bands. Usually, another band on the label will introduce us.
The level of monetary investment by the label depends on whether the band wants to and can support the release by touring or fanbase.
Handcrafted hammers for Aqualamb’s COVID Cover Series of Godmaker’s rendition of Pink Floyd’s “In the Flesh,” produced, mixed and engineered by James Brown
Tell me what the future of Aqualamb has in store?
After putting out over 35 releases with paperback books, our next big project for 2023 will be putting out our first hardcover monograph art book by photographer Keith Marlowe, about his time capturing the garage rock music scene in Cleveland, OH, from 1998–2004.
We are also launching our first audiobook of Zeb Gould’s release, Destroyer Deliver, which he sound-designed to his stream-of-consciousness–like writings. We also have quite a few exciting guests lined up for our podcast.
Cover art: William Schaff. Photo illustrations and book design by Aida Aimer, Zeb Gould and Aqualamb