The Daily Heller: They Might Be Giants + Brian Karlsson + Paul Sahre = “BOOK,” the Book

Posted inThe Daily Heller

What can be more exciting, satisfying and comforting than designing a book just the way you want it to be done? Beats me!

BOOK is the latest album of music by duo They Might Be Giants. It “is billed as a beacon of light amid a pretty unanimously rough period of time.” The band’s John Linnell says that the songs are “humorously germane to the catastrophe going on around us.”

The song “I Can’t Remember the Dream” is written for these times and this insomniac:

I can’t remember the dream that I had last night/ But I woke with delight and excitement/ And then when I tried to remember the dream that I had last night/ It was gone, but the feeling I had in the dream stayed on.”

As part of the experience, BOOK, the album, is being released with BOOK, an art book of photographs by Brian Karlsson, and typewriter-typo-graphic art by Paul Sahre. It is published by Idlewild Records. Sahre, who is responsible for much of TMBG’s graphic design, meticulously set all the type (along with Shiqing Chen and Woojoo Lim) using a refurbished IBM Selectric typewriter with vintage typeballs, including Courier, Old English, Letter Gothic, Script, ORC-A, Manifold, Orator and Dual Gothic (blasts from my past). BOOK, the book, is LP-sized (12×12 inches), with provocative images, and includes a CD “neatly tucked inside the cloth-bound cover,” and with a website url provided in the book readers can get a free download of the album.

Here, Sahre talks about the making of BOOK, the book. (Click on images to get a closer view.)

Tell me about TMBG’s music. It seems to me in a category all its own?
They emerged out of the Brooklyn DIY music scene in the mid ’80s. I suppose they are considered “alternative” but I’ve also heard them described (early on) as “new wave,” then “art rock” and “geek rock.” They started as a duo (accordion, guitar and drum machine). I would describe their music as humorous, intelligent, self-referential, absurdist and impossibly catchy. They tend to avoid songs about love unless someone’s head is on fire. 

How did this project land on your desk? Or did you make it appear?
This one landed on my desk. I’ve been working with the band as a designer-at-large since 2012, and there have been times that I initiate a project, but most often a project starts out with an email from John Flansburgh. We had been discussing a book project for some time, but could never settle on a single direction. The idea of an album titled BOOK that is also a book, digital download, vinyl LP, CD, cassette and 8-track is all the band’s idea. 

Did you decide that the lyrics should be turned into concrete poetry?
As all of the projects I do with the band, this was collaborative. Flans usually has specific ideas he shares with me at the outset, then he typically leaves me alone. He envisioned a lyric book with photography or art similar to the Beatles’ illustrated lyric book from the ’60s. I don’t remember where or at what point the typewriter entered the discussion. We found photographer Brian Karlsson through my friend Gus Powell. John and I were immediately hooked by Brian’s street sensibility and that there were so many shared themes between TMBG’s music and his images. The type-play either takes its cue from a song, or from one of Brian’s images, or both, and a few of the lyrics do their own thing.

I love your credit: “Typing by Paul Sahre.” Tell me how the exterior and interior format derived?
Once the decision to do it analog was made, I bought an IBM Selectric III on eBay ($300). It’s a tan model sadly, as I really wanted a red one. I bought 10 or so typeballs, as the Selectric allows you to switch typefaces. I worked with two former students from School of Visual Arts creating the type. Since it was during COVID, Shiqing Chen was working from South Korea and Woojoo Lim from Brooklyn, all through the pandemic. They did literally hundreds of type studies on the computer using Courier, and then I cherry-picked the best ones, edited, added, subtracted and typed everything on templated sheets of 12″ x 12″ paper. So yes, I “typed” the whole book, which in this case seemed way more impressive than “designing” the whole book.

You doubtless know the familiar relationship with the typewriter art/books of many Avant Gardists in the Sackner Collection. Was this influential in your approach? 
Yes and no. The biggest influence on the type was a doomed program design I did in the ’90s for Soho Repertory Theatre. I had created a logo and simple identity for them and included a template so they could lay out the programs for each performance themselves. Since Soho Reps programs were really just black-and-white Xeroxes folded in half, they always looked kind of terrible, template or no. Since there was no money to pay me to do them every month, I motivated myself by making a game out of it. I rescued a typewriter from an NYC corner and started typing the programs myself. I’d set a timer and whatever came out of my typewriter in the allotted time became the program. I did this happily for a few months until the director asked me to stop due to complaints from attendees, directors and actors. Let’s just say that “typewriter performance art” ends up being pretty illegible. 

Anyway, the BOOK project was a continuation of this, 20-plus years later. In both cases the typewriter was a way to make the typesetting a performance. 

What was the most satisfying part of the project and process?
The typing … designing in such an inefficient, time-consuming way. Less time spent with Adobe and Apple is always a good thing. 

I always resent a trip to the “Genius Bar.” Hate the name, hate the people, hate the fact that the computer I bring in is ALWAYS too old to fix. I however did not resent my two trips to REPTRONICS, who serviced my typewriter and sold me replacement cartridge ribbons. It’s basically a guy working out of his garage.

Would I be correct in assuming that creating an alternative means of presenting music (e.g., in book form) has become both an artistic and economic necessity in this digital, streaming, stealing era?
They Might Be Giants have a long history of innovating, although I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t refer to it that way. Maybe it’s the opposite of innovating? They started in the early ’80s by taking out want ads in The Village Voice that read: “THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (718) 387-6962.” They would record a different song on their answering machine every day. This was my introduction to them. It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.

Posted inThe Daily Heller Typography