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Mute magazine (UK)

Interview by Dave Mandl. Published in 2002.

Dave Mandl: Emigre was at the forefront of the digital-design boom of the ‘90s. And much (most?) of the ‘90s art/design culture seemed to want to get as far away as possible from the physical body and the organic world. But your recent work in the California trilogy couldn’t be more different from that aesthetic, with very literal analog photographs of the natural landscape, and simple, understated production. Is this a new direction or change of heart for you, a reaction to an overdose of digitality and technology, perhaps?

Rudy VanderLans: Yes, to an extend it is a reaction to an overdose of technology, although make no mistake about this, these books are designed on a computer, the photographs were scanned by computers, and printed by presses that are fully computerized. But I’m trying hard to make them look otherwise. So these books are also mired in the traditions of typographic convention and bookmaking, with much attention paid to the physical qualities of the book, which are still largely assembled by hand, such as the endsheets, head and tail bands, case binding, embossing, etc. Plus the CD and small wrappers are added by hand. I’m not interested any more in letting the technology dictate what to do, because when you do this you run the risk that everything starts looking the same.

Furthermore, these books deal with a desire I have to connect with what is indigenous to California. I want these books to look like they were made in California. Lately, within my own profession of graphic design, I have sensed a serious decrease of work that feels indigenous. Work that holds qualities that are particular to a certain region or country where the work is made. I see work from New York, Tokyo, Alabama or Singapore and it has become impossible to detect where it comes from.

A good example of an artist who wears his immediate environment on his sleeve is Ed Ruscha. You look at much of his work and it just exudes Los Angeles. When you own one of his pieces, it’s like owning a piece of Los Angeles. That’s what I really like about Ed Ruscha, and it’s what I like to bring into my own work. So I started touring around California with my camera and see what is still unique about this place, and how I can incorporate bits and pieces of that into my work.

DM: After more than a century of industrialization, the desert is still a constant presence in California; even in the densest urban landscape, it seems you can’t drive a mile without seeing it poking through somewhere. In most other American urban centers, however (New York, say), the natural landscape has been long buried. Do you think the omnipresence of the desert in California allows people to retain some psychic connection to the “real” California, or to the natural world, even in a megalopolis like L.A.?

RvdL: That’s a beautiful thought, and if you’re open to that idea, there’s much to enjoy in that regard. You can walk into the Santa Monica Mountains, in Will Rogers Park let’s say, and if it’s hazy day and you squint your eyes, and you look towards downtown, you may get a sense of what L.A. used to look like around the turn of the century. But for the most part people like to pave things over. Most vegetation you see in Los Angeles is not indigenous. For many people in L.A. the desert is this stretch of no mans land you drive through real fast on your way to Las Vegas. And developers seem to consider the desert, just like they did the valleys before, as the last cheap frontier to expand the outer reaches of L.A. into. I can’t imagine they have any interest in the natural world that surrounds them. I’m sure they’re very aware of it, but only in terms of its tremendous and often devastating powers. It doesn’t always easily comply with man’s need to pave it over. Floods, earthquakes, mudslides, ferocious heat and cold, and desert storms, can make living in, or close to, a desert environment a very unpleasant experience. Rattlesnakes and coyotes still find their way down the canyons into people’s backyards. To many, that’s simply a nuisance, not anything to be in awe of or to connect to. It’s something to conquer, like cementing the banks of the Los Angeles river from its source in The San Fernando Valley, all the way to where it spills out into the Pacific ocean.

DM: You talk about being drawn to sites with historical or “mystical” (my word) significance for you - like the former sites of Zappa’s studio and Beefheart’s workspace - even though they’re now populated by nondescript suburban buildings. Are there some kinds of “traces” (“ghosts”?) remaining in these places? Can they be detected? Can photos capture them?

RvdL: This, to me, is the most exciting part of these photo trips. To see if anything is left behind that may hint at the greatness that these spots were witness to. Or perhaps to see what it is that attracted these artists to be in these particular places. That’s exactly the reason I go to these places in the first place. The expectations are huge, always. These trips are like little pilgrimages. Of course, it’s usually a disappointment. Most of the time there’s nothing there of any significance. On the contrary. But what’s always there are the stories, the histories that surround them that make these places interesting. And that is what these books are about. They’re trying to extend the stories, or to keep the stories alive. Or, at the very least, to provide the stories with a visual backdrop.

DM: Similarly, do you think there are traces of the old SoCal landscape (which, as you say, is being slowly replaced by faceless suburban homes) that are somehow preserved in Song Cycle, or the music of Gram Parsons, etc.? Do you see this music as a kind of time capsule, so that combining a listen to Sweetheart of the Rodeo with a road trip through the present-day SoCal landscape helps bring the SoCal of thirty years ago back to life?

RvdL: Not really. I have little interest in bringing back to life these times. That would be impossible anyway. But I am interested in showing what was really good about them. And show how things have changed.

But I do think that, like all great art, an album like Song Cycle represents and preserves a particular time and place. Particularly the original vinyl version. It does this by the way it sounds technically, by the way it was recorded, by its physical qualities as a piece of vinyl, by its subject matter, by the artists and engineers who produced the album, by the cover design and the designer and photographer who produced it. All this ties the album to a particular time and place. All these qualities are preserved in Song Cycle. It’s an artifact. And as such it has come to represent the California of 1968. But what makes an album like Song Cycle truly great is that the music transcends all this. Song Cycle is timeless. This sounds like a paradox, but it isn’t. The music itself, I feel, is timeless, because it was never tied to any particular trend.

Of course the great risk in doing these three books was to have them all be dismissed as a sad, sappy, nostalgic road trip by some midlifer. And I can’t deny I don’t derive some sentimental pleasures from doing this. But I also wanted to bring attention to these musicians and in particular these three albums. And to pay homage to them. To me, the three albums that inspired these books, Song Cycle, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and Trout Mask Replica, are the three most important pop music albums ever made. And they have quite a bit in common. They were all released around 1968, and all three stand in stark contrast to the bulk of pop albums put out at the time. And not only are they artistically unique, they were obviously great risks for both the artists and record companies to release at that time. And what I admire most about these three albums is that they offered something original while remaining firmly grounded in the traditions of indigenous American music. Song Cycle, you could argue, was inspired by the music of American composers like Coupland and Ives. Trout Mask Replica is mired in the blues and improvisational jazz, and Parson’s music was obviously inspired by country.

While designing my books, I tried to echo that, best I could, by looking back into my own profession. By looking at who came before, such as book designers like Jan Tschichold, type designers like Baskerville and Bodoni, photographers like Ed Ruscha and Walker Evans. Whether people notice it or not, these books, in a graphic design sense, all pay homage to who came before. Not so much to bring back these times but to say, hey look, there was some really good stuff done then, let’s build on it.

DM: To throw your own question (in Cucamonga) back at you, what is it about the SoCal landscape that has spawned such eccentrics as Zappa, Beefheart, and Van Dyke Parks? Do you think there’s some kind of unconventional thinking that proximity to the desert breeds? Or is it just random chance? Is there something special or different about these particular geniuses/eccentrics?

RvdL: Well, they’re geniuses, which is what makes them special. They’re able to express certain human qualities and observe and draw inspiration from their surroundings better than most of us. It’s interesting to note, also, that Parks and Parsons are not from California. Van Vliet was. But I’m sure that ultimately they all came here, or stayed here, because it’s where most major record companies were situated in the 60s. So they did all live in and around Los Angeles, which must be one of the most unique (sub)urban areas in the world. It’s where the ocean, mountains and desert meet. Geographically it’s an awesome place. One thing is for sure. Whether you are the developer who spends thousands of dollars pulling Joshua Trees out of the ground to make way for subdivisons, or the artist who draws inspiration from it, nobody can ignore these surroundings.

DM: How did you do your photographic expeditions? Did you do scouting or research of sites first (I’m not including the Beefheart/Zappa research for Cucamonga), or were these random drives? If the latter, how did you determine what routes you would take?

RvdL: Since Song Cycle is one of my most favorite albums ever, I have always paid much attention to Van Dyke Parks. He is such an interesting character. Not just a great musician, but a great phylosopher of sorts, with a serious interest in California culture and history. Plus he’s a living part of California culture and quite ubiquitous. He’s a very prolific musician.

Even though little has been written about him he shows up in the biographies of many other artists, and I have always kept track of what was said about him, and what he himself has said in the numerous interviews with him that I’ve read. And over the years, in my head, I sort of built my own piecemeal biography of him.

Then upon my first visit to the Mojave desert and in particular the fringe communities around the edges of the desert, I was just so taken by the environment I knew I would be back with a big bag of film. My only problem was, I didn’t know where to start photographing. There was just too much to photograph. I had to narrow things down. So one day when I was listening to Parks’s song “Palm Desert,” I realized he was singing about an actual town called Palm Desert which is right there on the edge of the Mojave just south of Palm Springs. And when I tried to figure out his rather cryptic lyrics, I realized he was singing about real estate development issues, mixed with his own experiences of living in L.A. I then found out, I think from reading Brian Wilson’s bio, that he had actually written Song Cycle while living in Palm Desert for a few months. This is when my idea for this book started. I decided to go out and photograph Palm Desert. See what this place was all about. This allowed me to focus on a very specific subject, which was situated in an area I loved, while paying homage to one of my heroes. The route I took was roughly determined by the places Parks mentions in his lyrics. But I also photographed spots in L.A., like Brian Wilson’s house in Laurel Canyon where Parks often hung out when he was collaborating with Wilson on Smile, which was done just before Song Cycle was made. With Cucamonga and Joshua Tree I roughly followed the same pattern.

Recently Van Dyke Parks took me on a tour of the locations and former locations of the major recording studios in L.A. like Gold Star, Sunset Sound, Western. They are all housed in rather generic looking stucco boxes without windows. But when I think what was created inside these boxes, it instils awe in me. Parks took me inside Sunset Sound and to me that felt akin to walking into The Louvre for the first time. The walls of Sunset Sound are covered with gold and platinum records by bands I’ve listened to all my life. This whole West Coast/L.A. music scene in the late 60 and early 70s was a very special place and time, and in particular the role that Warner Bros. played in all this. A lot of faith and money was put in supporting rather unusual and non commercial music. I’m really surprised there hasn’t been a book published on the history of Warner Bros. Again, this is not just for nostalgic reasons. I think we could all learn something from it. Anyway, during my short studio tour with Parks a little seed planted itself in my head. Gold Star, Phil Spector’s favorite studio, for instance, is no longer there. A mini mall has taken it’s place. No big surprise. I made some photographs. I’m sure they’ll eventually find their way into some kind of book project.