Byron Kalet on Design, Music, and the Band He Calls ‘the Dick Avedon to my Alexey Brodovitch’

(Photos: Journal of Popular Noise)

Byron_K.jpgThe Journal of Popular Noise, the audio magazine founded and edited by graphic designer Byron Kalet, is a treat for the senses, from its expertly curated musical selections (distributed as a twice-yearly trio of seven-inch vinyl records) to its letterpress-printed, hand-folded packaging. Just in time to impress the design-savvy music fan on your holiday shopping list comes JPN‘s fall/winter edition (above), which will feature the music of Seattle band Foscil. We interviewed Brooklyn-based Kalet before he got too tired from hand-folding all of the new issues, which ship next month. Read on for the tale of JPN‘s origins, how frugality was the mother of great design, and why he thinks of Foscil as “the Dick Avedon to my Alexey Brodovitch.”

How did the Journal of Popular Noise come about?
There were a couple distinctly different signs that all pointed in the same direction for me. I had been doing some research and had long been interested in the intersection of music and design. As a musician and designer, I always felt very strongly that the same set of rules and functions were at work in the decision-making process when creating in either medium. Rhythm, contrast, tone, are among many of the words that are commonly used by both designers and musicians to describe what they’re up to. I wanted to try and very directly apply the basic compositional conventions of pop music to the composition of a magazine, as it seemed to me they were already almost one and the same. I was particularly attracted to magazines, as they seemed to have not only a close formal relationship to music composition but also an almost symbiotic relationship with pop music. Maybe blogs have that role now, but imagine what pop music would be like without Rolling Stone in the 70’s, Maximum RocknRoll in the 80’s, Riot Grrrl zines in the 90’s, and then, well…blogs.

How did you decide upon the three-records-tucked-in-a-lovely-package format?
Early in 2007, magazines were still flourishing—as the record industry was floundering trying to navigate the new business of ringtones and digital downloads. Magazines are great because they offer an experience that one could never get from the internets, which is why I chose the most tactile and physically impressive production techniques. So with all that on my mind, it seemed obvious that this was the way to do it. There’s a long tradition of record clubs, serial composition, and music magazines, from Aspen to Flexidiscs. I don’t think I’m really doing anything new, I’m just doing it my way for what’s happening right now.

How would you describe the design of the “finely crafted artifact” that is each edition of JPN? Do you hand fold each one?
I do hand fold each one, but that’s really just a cost-saving measure. I didn’t really intend for the packaging to be so eye-catching. I was actually just trying to do the most simple and austere design I could. I wanted the focus to really be on the content. I needed to figure out how to make the cheapest packaging for three 45s, so there had to be no gluing or cutting.

And your solution was a combination of letterpress and folding?
One folded piece of paper is a great design challenge and it was terribly satisfying to find a solution, but almost more so when I discovered that the conclusion I came to independently was already hundreds of years old. It’s like finding a clue that tells you you’re on the right track. But as far as “finely crafted,” I just try to use that phrase to try to evoke the romantic idea that there is a special physical connection you can have with your records and it’s just really more fun that way.

When did you first encounter Foscil?
As is the case for some of the best magazines and record labels, our roster is is largely based on community—both in New York and Seattle (where I grew up). Foscil also shares members with Truckasauras, Linda & Ron’s Dad, Flexions, and produces tracks for MC Specs one. They’re worked on almost every issue and release from the JPN in one way or another. When they finished this recording it only seemed natural that I would release it. I like to think of them as the Dick Avedon to my Alexey Brodovitch.

Adam Swan, Tyler Swan (brothers), and Ryan Trudell have been playing together since junior high (at least) and with the later addition of Anthony Moore, I’ve watched this group evolve over the last 20 years or so. When I came up with this harebrained scheme they were some of the first people I approached to contribute, as they were not only my friends but musicians I have long admired. They’ve consistently produced amazing stuff for me, and all their projects are some of the most interesting work coming out of the Seattle electronic music scene.

How would you describe the Foscil selections in this edition of JPN?
Describing music has never been one of my favorite things to do. I’d feel like a snake oil salesman if I tried to describe what it sounds like…but what I will tell you a little about was the process they went through in recording this record. In their own words:

We had a lot of songs and ideas brewing at the time of the projects conception, so after a lot of thought we decided on doing a residency spanning six months and consisting of six shows, each being on the third friday of every month. The existing material we had would then be performed differently at each installment to fully exercise and explore the songs before recording them at the end of the residency.

The idea was to change the instrumentation or style of performing them to lead to new ideas or confirm old ones. Basically try the different ideas out live in front of people by putting together a real set instead of exploring in the studio setting. This worked really well. Many things happened that would not have if we had just hit the studio. We started with what we had, then tried doing the material without any acoustic instruments, one with a horn section, one joined by Seattle artist eR DoN, one joined by mc/producer Specs One. All played a part going into the studio and fragments of every installment can be heard in the final product.

Previously on UnBeige:

  • Come On, Feel the Journal of Popular Noise