Bruce Licher’s rise to the top of post-punk graphic design began in 1980 as a means to package the music for his own bands, Project 197 and Savage Republic. Gradually, his “handmade” style—out of the ordinary, eye-catching graphics created on letterpress, sans computer gimmickry—gained the attention of bigger clients, including Camper van Beethoven, Stereolab, and R.E.M., but his Independent Project Records & Press also influenced other independent graphic designers working in the music industry. Richie Unterberger spoke with Bruce Licher about Savage Impressions, a new book that showcases the IPR archives and his own career.
Back in the late twentieth century, when you bought a release from Independent Project Records, you weren’t just getting a “record.” You were acquiring—inasmuch as the format of vinyl and, to a more limited extent, CDs allowed—an artwork. Not one that you’d be likely to hang on your wall, but something you’d likely see and even use more often, especially if you were a music collector.
The label’s chief trademarks were its letterpressed chipboard covers, designed by the guitarist in Independent Project’s most celebrated act, Savage Republic’s Bruce Licher. Often set against gray or tan backgrounds that employed spooky, shadowy images from photos, these seemed to simultaneously draw from antiquated technologies and eerily futuristic landscapes.
Independent Project product could be multimedia as well, packaged with neat bonuses like specially crafted postcards, announcements, and even non-commercially usable stamps. Several different editions could be made for the same release, with substantial variations in color, inks, and positioning. Even as the advent of the CD drastically cut the available space for cover design, IPR often encased its compact discs in special fold-out Discfolios instead of the usual standard, bland jewel cases. Licher also designed records for illustrious clients like Camper van Beethoven, Stereolab, and R.E.M., as well as flyers, business cards, stationery, and even weddings and wine labels, for companies big (including A&M and Virgin) and small.
More than a thousand of these images are reproduced in P22’s new, lavish coffee table book Savage Impressions: An Aesthetic Expedition Through the Archives of Independent Project Records & Press. Plenty of volumes have been devoted to record sleeves over the last couple decades, but this is more than just a collection of album covers. Besides also featuring many of the non-record designs Licher has generated over the last forty years, essays and detailed captions reveal many of the behind-the-scenes stories and processes behind their creation. Sometimes strange and humorous accidents presented unexpected obstacles. Sometimes those led to even more inspired final designs; sometimes they hindered their completion. Sometimes they did both.
Licher also designed records for illustrious clients like Camper van Beethoven, Stereolab, and R.E.M., as well as flyers, business cards, stationery, and even weddings and wine labels, for companies big (including A&M and Virgin) and small.
Independent Project: The Early Years
From the first IPR release in 1980, Licher was determined to make a record, well, more than a record. For the Project 197 seven-inch of experimental music by Bruce and several of his friends, he pressed 300 copies without a center label. Silk-screening changed the sleeve image as the record was taken out of and inserted back into its cover. A second edition with a different design established IPR’s long-running practice of multiple pressings of the same release. Was Licher trying to subvert the norms of record packaging from the start, on a disc that was actually an “independent project” for a course at UCLA, giving birth to his label’s name?
“The whole concept and idea behind that was to create a record as a piece of fine art,” observes Licher from his workplace in Bishop, California, in the Eastern Sierra near the Nevada border. “I had been taking a silk-screen printing class in the art department at UCLA at the time, and didn’t just want to make a print that people would frame and put on their wall. There’s nothing wrong with that.But I liked the idea of having art be more functional, giving people the opportunity to find art where they least expect it. And making a record that gets sold in record stores that has more to it. So that when you open it up you’re suddenly surprised—‘oh wow, this is pretty cool.’
“I was absolutely thrilled that Project 197 single got reviewed in Slash magazine (by) Claude Bessy [aka Kickboy Face],” said Licher. “He loved opening it up and kind of seeing the art elements. He was impressed not only musically, but also just with the little artifact that it is.” Both editions of the single are reproduced in the book, though it’s not even the earliest cover in Savage Impressions. That honor goes to a J-card (aka insert) Licher created for a 25-copy run of a 1979 cassette by his early experimental group NEEF.
“So, for each of the two singles that followed Project 197, I wanted to do something unique,” Bruce continues. For the Bridge EP, recorded by Licher and Dan Voznick in underground utility tunnels on UCLA’s campus, “the insert was actually printed on a blueprint machine that Dan’s father had at his office. We got blueprints of the tunnels; I Xeroxed them down to a small size; added some text. Then we printed them off on a blueprint machine.
But I liked the idea of having art be more functional, giving people the opportunity to find art where they least expect it. And making a record that gets sold in record stores that has more to it. So that when you open it up you’re suddenly surprised—‘oh wow, this is pretty cool.’
“Then the Them Rhythm Ants record, I tried to Xerox-print the labels on that one. But that didn’t really work very well.” Heat from the record presses caused the labels to tear, since they’d been printed with Xerox toner instead of ink—among the first of numerous trial-and-errors in Licher’s record designs. “Then letterpress came along, and that completely changed everything.”
The first record on which he used letterpress, Savage Republic’s 1982 debut album Tragic Figures, was perhaps the most important release in simultaneously establishing the Independent Project label, Licher’s work as a designer, and Savage Republic themselves. Inspired by a UPI photo of an execution of rebels in Kurdistan, the ghostly figures and scarred texture of the cover illustration matched the brutal fury of early Savage Republic’s post-punk. The music the sleeve enclosed combined tribal percussion and ominous chants with unusually tuned instruments (including Licher’s own guitar) subverted to craft disquieting soundscapes with hints of psychedelia and the Middle East.
Title track from the Savage Republic Tragic Figures album:
But the title was what really got your attention. Blood-red lettering spelled out the name of the LP not in English, or even the Roman alphabet, but in script that roughly translated the words Tragic Figures into Arabic. (As it turns out, the translation, supplied by a Lebanese coworker, was more akin to “persons unlucky” than “tragic figures.”) The net effect was to make Tragic Figures look unlike anything else in the record bins—back, of course, when vinyl was the primary format, and record bins were both fuller and more omnipresent than they’d be nearly forty years later.
“That’s exactly what I wanted that first album to be,” Licher emphasizes. “I wanted it to be this complete mysterious object that as you were flipping through the bins, you’d come across that and go, ‘What the heck is this and where did it come from?’”
That’s pretty much the reaction it got from Camper Van Beethoven bassist Victor Krummenacher, who “first stumbled on Tragic Figures at Aron’s in Hollywood. The graphics really grabbed my attention, and the album didn’t disappoint. The instrumental work was really like nothing I’d ever heard. Surf rock meets Glenn Branca with punk rock attitude and an oil drum. The album came with a Q&A mailer, I recall, and I mailed Bruce”—which eventually set off a chain of events that would a big impact on both Independent Project Records and Camper Van Beethoven.
Not many other labels have made record manufacturing into as much of a finely textured, multimedia affair as IPR subsequently did. Arguably none have taken it to the same extent, though Licher acknowledges, “before I even started putting records out, the early Factory Records stuff was very striking to me. By the early ‘80s, I was collecting the 4AD things. Even before [graphic designer] Vaughan Oliver was involved, there was still something kind of unique about the 4AD aesthetic that I found intriguing. I still appreciate really well done interesting packaging on a release.”
“I wanted it to be this complete mysterious object that as you were flipping through the bins, you’d come across that and go, ‘What the heck is this and where did it come from?’”
But most labels known for a design aesthetic—including, well before the ‘80s, companies like Elektra and Blue Note—seldom went beyond striking covers to visually distinguish their product. As an example of one that did, Licher cites an act who’d make the Factory and 4AD roster seem positively mainstream by comparison.
“The other releases I responded to in a way that I hoped people would respond to Tragic Figures was the first early Zoviet France albums,” he notes. “I remember finding that first Zoviet France 12-inch at Rhino [Records store in Los Angeles], the one in the burlap bag. I was just flipping through the bin. I pulled it out and I was like, ‘I have to have this. I have to buy this.’” The discs of this British experimental group were exotically adorned, to say the least, whether wrapped in aluminum foil or sandwiched in tar paper. When review copies arrived at a magazine where I worked in the ‘80s, we’d have to get ready to sweep the floor after opening the mailers, sometimes feeling as though the nominally protective covers were deliberately intended to crumble into a mess.
Although early IPR releases weren’t quite as odd as all that, the cover was enough to get some adventurous souls to buy Tragic Figures without hearing it or knowing anything about the band, much as Bruce had with Zoviet France. “One of the things I really liked doing was taking photos and then adapting them, putting them through different processes,” he elaborates. “I saw that photo being used on a flyer on the wall at UCLA, with all that red Arabic or Farsi script on it. I was just like, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty cool-looking thing.’” Which made for another cool-looking thing when it helped spark a record cover—or, actually, several record covers.
For over the next few years, no less than five letterpressed editions of Tragic Figures were manufactured, each changing the colors, sometimes even within the same print run. The resulting variations both frustrated and elated serious collectors, as it’s doubtful even the most serious fanatic has all of them under one roof. Well, maybe one does.
“One collector in Florida was just completely obsessed with that album,” Bruce remembers. “This was all before the Internet. We were doing mail-order. He’d send me an envelope with like fifty dollars, and he was like, ‘Send me another five copies of Tragic Figures.’ At one point, he had like 25 or 30 different versions.” Even the cassette release had two different versions.
“To be honest, one of the main reasons I decided to start doing the new and different edition differently was when you’re standing there hand-feeding a thousand record jackets through the press, it takes several days to do that. It’s like, ‘Do I really want to do the exact same thing again?’ Being a creative person and an artist, I’m like, ‘Okay. That was a beautiful thing. What would happen if I changed the colors? It makes it more interesting. Or if I move these elements around,’ like on the Film Noir seven-inch of Savage Republic. There were all these little individual elements that were locked up into the press together to create that design. It wasn’t just one printing plate. It was like six printing plates and some handset type.”
The Republic of Savage Republic
It marked the start of a long and ongoing run of record designs that set IPR apart not just with its cover artwork, but also its unusual packaging and accessories. The inner label on Ten Foot Faces’ Don’t Want Love seven-inch actually played an animation as the disc spun. Mail-order catalogs were sent in specially designed envelopes. Special Savage Republic commemorative stamps were produced, almost as if Savage Republic were a real republic. Licher even managed to get permission from the post office to create his first Savage Republic “stamps” by overprinting coil rolls of United States bulk rate postage stamps, though he couldn’t get away with that forever.
“Basically, I went in to the local downtown L.A. post office, to open up a bulk mail account so that I could start saving postage on mailings of my newsletters,” he explains. “I just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to put Savage Republic stamps on there?’ So I asked them, ‘Would it be okay for me to like do a special stamping on envelopes?’ They said, ‘Well, show us an example of it.’
“To be honest, the very first time I gave them an example with the Savage Republic rubber stamp cancellation, but not the overprint. And they said ‘yeah, go ahead.’ It was only like 500 pieces. I did it two more times, and by the third time, they said, ‘Hey, you know, you’re not supposed to be doing that. And don’t do it again.’ But I got away with it for three mailings. Technically I probably was not supposed to do the overprinting. But it makes an interesting collectible.”
And even the source of a mild backlash when he sent out a postcard “announcing the first postal release, the first anniversary of the establishment of the Republic. I think I got two or three people complaining about that. That was all kind of tongue in cheek. But they took it really seriously, and thought we were getting too full of ourselves.”
Others thought the stamps were legitimate, and a few actually managed to get through the US postal system, as a letter to IPR with a canceled Savage Republic stamp (reproduced in the book) proves. Bruce subsequently designed stamps for other clients, not all of them musical—Brother Awest, a mock-revivalist preacher who “opened” for the Minutemen and Savage Republic, got his own booklets to sell on tour. And yes, those can be seen in Savage Impressions too.
Not all of the bonuses Licher devised for IPR releases worked out well, however. Or they at least had some side effects not everyone welcomed. When wheat was placed between the inner and outer protective bags of For Against’s Echelons (which used wheat imagery as part of the cover), moths were hatched inside the sleeve. He jokingly urged the distributor to charge extra for the bonus material, but they had to be removed, and even ate pieces out of the paper on some old copies of the LP. A few years later, you had to tear or cut carbon paper to get the record out of Deception Bay’s Fortune Days ten-inch.
Not every IPR release went to what some would consider these kind of extremes, but they illustrate how “I was trying to do things that weren’t normally supposed to be done,” as Bruce understates. Not every such deviation had to be as off-the-wall as putting wheat into records. Record collecting nerds know that on ‘60s LPs, the front cover paper often wrapped around the cardboard sleeve to the back side of the jacket. Occasionally this was done the other way around, leaving a white border on three sides of the front. Licher managed to use this arcane process on Savage Republic’s 1986 album Ceremonial. He thinks it’s probably one of the last covers ever done that way, which might put it on the want lists of vinyl collectors who’ve never even heard of Savage Republic.
It could have looked even more archaic. “The other thing I really wanted for that, which I wasn’t able to really do, was…cutouts [from that time]—or something, I don’t know exactly what—had like a little tiny grommet [ring] in the upper left corner that they would punch through the covers. I wanted that little grommet on there too. I couldn’t get anybody to do that.”
Camper Van Beethoven
IPR put out discs by fellow arty post-punk groups besides Savage Republic in the early-to-mid-1980s, including Human Hands, Kommunity FK, and Party Boys. Yet its roster was still tiny when it issued the debut LP by an act who’d have a considerable impact on the future of both the label and Licher’s own career as a designer.
Victor Krummenacher, the bass player in Camper Van Beethoven, “had been writing to me since six months after Tragic Figures got released. I think he bought the first edition of that, and he sent in the reply card. ‘Cause I had reply cards in all those early releases; that was how I built my mailing list. We started corresponding back and forth.
“In early 1983, he said ‘I’m in this band, and I’d like to send you a demo tape.’ Actually it was at Mojave Exodus, the first of the Desolation Center performances [small underground desert rock festivals in which Savage Republic took part]. That was where he introduced himself to me in person.
“I started listening to it and I was really taken [by] the instrumentals. I thought, ‘This is cool stuff. I’ve never heard anything like this.’ I enjoyed the other music too, but it was the instrumentals that really did it for me. I started playing it for everybody that would come through. I wasn’t really thinking of it as being an IPR release, ‘cause I was really kind of into the whole post-punk sound. I thought, ‘This doesn’t really fit with the aesthetic I’ve been working on with IPR.’
“But we just kept in touch. Then they all moved up to Santa Cruz, went into a studio, and recorded their album. By that time, early 1985, I just thought, ‘This would make a really cool release. We should do this.’ So I did.
“It’s so funny – I had no idea that ‘Take the Skinheads Bowling’ would take off the way it did. I thought, ‘Okay, there’s a couple of cool pop songs on here.’ There’s a song called ‘Oh No.’ I thought, ‘That’s the one that’s gonna be the hit.’ And of course, nobody cares about ‘Oh No.’ But it just took off.”
“Take the Skinheads Bowling”-Camper Van Beethoven:
Verifies Krummenacher, “When Camper Van Beethoven first played in 1983, I sent Bruce a copy of the demo we recorded in [fellow Camper’s] David Lowery’s mom’s kitchen, and Bruce loved it. That relationship was how we wound up putting out Telephone Free Landslide Victory on Independent Project, and why Bruce was chosen to work on a few subsequent Camper Van Beethoven covers. Bruce’s work was my first real contact with modern art. Although Bruce’s style seems defined, he has challenged me more than once as an artist, which is the point.”
Muses Bruce, “I should have at that time figured out a way to keep more involved with the record, and use that to help build the label. But I think I had three other projects that I was working on at the time, and I just made the choice. It’s like ‘hey, the band wants to work with Rough Trade, Rough Trade’s gonna help them put a label together, go for it. This is what the band wants to do.’ So I basically gave it up.”
But as he’d also designed the cover for that IPR debut, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, it helped bring his artwork to wider attention within the music industry as Camper became one of the more successful alternative rock bands of the era. So did an unexpected Grammy nomination for his cover for the 1987 Echelons album by For Against, followed by another for Camper’s 1988 release Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.
I had no idea that ‘Take the Skinheads Bowling’ would take off the way it did.
Licher had always done plenty of design for projects not associated with record releases, from gig flyers to posters for gallery exhibits, though these had usually been for clients also associated with the underground arts scene. By the second half of the 1980s, however, he also had commissions that were pretty above-ground, including a Scritti Politti twelve-inch and promotional material for A&M Records. Did he see designing stamps for, say, Sting and Amy Grant as a way to subvert the industry from within?
“To be honest, I was just thrilled to get the work,” he responds. “And the fact that these big companies were willing to pay me well to create this stuff for them. I did feel a little conflicted doing Scritti Politti, because I really don’t enjoy that style of music. I didn’t hear the music until after I’d completed that project, and it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t,” he laughs. Quite a few years later, as a yet less likely assignment, he was hired to create concepts for a possible Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young cover; these weren’t used, although the 1999 designs are in Savage Impressions, and he was able to put some of the elements into other projects.
“But realistically, I was just happy that there were people working for these companies back when they had big budgets to throw around on fun stuff, that were happy to hire me to do things for them. I definitely got in with the people at A&M, Warner Brothers, and Virgin, and one thing leads to another. That’s how Camper got signed to Virgin. [Executive Jeff Ayeroff] knew that I had worked with Camper, and he had been starting to hear things about them.”
Another one-thing-leads-to-another scenario brought work with his most illustrious clients, at least in terms of their record sales. It’s another illustration of how the trail from the indie world can wind all the way to chart-topping acts that don’t have a particularly underground reputation. It started at the small Santa Monica indie record store Texas Hotel, co-run by Michael Meister. “I learned about My Bloody Valentine through them,” says Licher, “and remember seeing the ‘Strawberry Wine’12-inch single on the wall there. I thought, ‘Well, this looks kind of cool. What’s this?’ Michael put it on and played it for me, and I was like, ‘I’m taking this home.’
“Michael said, ‘We’d love to have you do a business card for us, and we’ve got a friend who’s gonna do an illustration for us.’ So they gave me the info and the illustration. I printed the cards [also reproduced in Savage Impression], and then he told me it was Michael Stipe that had done the illustration.” By the early ‘90s, Bruce was designing R.E.M.’s fan club holiday packages, highlighted by limited-edition seven-inches featuring songs unavailable elsewhere. He did enough such packages, in fact, that Savage Impressions devotes an entire fourteen-page chapter to them.
“I learned about My Bloody Valentine through them,” says Licher, “and remember seeing the ‘Strawberry Wine’12-inch single on the wall there. I thought, ‘Well, this looks kind of cool. What’s this?’ Michael put it on and played it for me, and I was like, ‘I’m taking this home.’
Licher agrees it was a way for R.E.M. to retain links to the grass-roots independent scene that had launched them in the first place, though they’d quickly graduated from indiedom to major label stardom.
“Peter Buck told me he was really happy that they were working with me,” said Licher. “He liked the idea that they were giving a lot of value for the money to their fans. People would pay, I think it was like ten dollars a year. They got a quarterly newsletter, and then this beautiful package at the end of the year. He said, ‘We’re giving them more than they’re paying us.’ He felt like they were doing well for their fans by doing that.” And, perhaps, giving them something that looked more adventurous than some of their major label product.
The freedom afforded by such limited editions gave rise to one of Licher’s most widely known designs. When Stereolab signed with a major label, “they still wanted to be able to give indie labels singles to put out. They got that in the contract. But the one stipulation was, it could only be 2,500 copies, and there were no re-pressings.”
Released on IPR in 1999, Stereolab’s seven-inch The In Sound EP “was a complete homage to a 1965 jazz album by Gary McFarland called The In Sound. That was something I found when I was in college. I remember finding it in a 99-cent bin. Again, it was one of those…from the artwork, I picked it up. It was like, ‘Oh, this has gotta be cool. Oh hey, there’s a version of “Satisfaction” on it. And there’s a song called “Bloop Bleep.” Okay, I’m taking this home.’ I love it. It’s kind of a desert island disc for me.
“It was a really cool album design. I thought, well, let me do a version for Stereolab and we’ll call it The In Sound. I knew somebody at Universal, [which had] the Verve [Records] catalog, somebody in the art department. They’re kind of like, ‘Well, as long as you’re not like exactly reproducing what it is, don’t worry about it.’ So I figured, I’m doing my own thing, a reinterpretation of the artwork. It’s not an exact reproduction. It’s an inspiration. It was fun.”
It was also another instance where he turned an unexpected obstacle into an opportunity. “It was all gonna be yellow with purple type, because that’s how the Gary McFarland album was. I was gonna do all 2,500 that way. When it came time to actually put it on the press, I realized I only had enough of that paper stock for like 1,300. That stock’s not too easy to get.
Stereolab’s seven-inch The In Sound EP “was a complete homage to a 1965 jazz album by Gary McFarland called The In Sound. That was something I found when I was in college. I remember finding it in a 99-cent bin.
“I thought, ‘Well, actually, I’ve got a whole bunch of other card stock on my shelves that’s sitting there left over from other jobs. Why don’t I just pull some of that off?’ Then I thought, ‘Okay, we’ll switch the ink colors, ‘cause the other stock is different-colored stock.’ So I started doing that. Then it’s like, ‘Okay, then we’re gonna print the labels. I’m gonna print the stamps.’ So the label and the stamps got color-coordinated. Then it was like, ‘Oh, well, we should do different-colored vinyl.’
“So I didn’t think of it all ahead of time. It’s like getting into a project, bumping up against a problem, and finding a creative solution that made it more fun. That’s sort of how I’ve approached a lot of my work. Sometimes it works great, and other times I end up with something…I kind of go, ‘Oh shit. That didn’t work!’ Those type of things didn’t make it into the book,” he laughs.
Several variations of Stereolab’s The In Sound are in the book, of course, no doubt whetting the appetites of obsessive collectors determined to track all of them down. Good luck with that, since, as Licher reminds us, “The one stipulation was, it could only be 2,500 copies, and there were no repressings. I could have sold twice as many. That was basically sold out to the distributors before it even was released. I kept 100 or so back and sold them mail-order for a while.”
The CD Era
The 1990s brought changes both in Bruce’s musical and artistic careers. Savage Republic having wound down, he moved on to his next band, Scenic, which focused on more instrumental and somewhat less abrasive sounds over the course of several IPR albums. By now CDs had decisively overtaken vinyl as the primary commercial format for recorded music, and while IPR still put out some releases in both formats, CDs offered far less space for cover artwork.
“I thought that just reducing the artwork down to small size, it wasn’t very satisfying,” feels Licher. “I decided I needed to start coming up with my own designs for cardboard CD packaging that I could letterpress, print, and do something more special and unique with. If I had to start making CDs, I wanted them to be beautiful too, and I wanted them to be works of art. So for a number of years I was doing Discfolios that, when they’re folded up, they’re basically the size of a jewel case.”
Typically, he couldn’t keep boxing his designs into standard commercial formats. “I thought if I’m gonna make a special package and I want to mass-market it, it’s gotta fit into the racks. Then by the time that I got around to doing that Red Temple Spirits reissue, the fact that that was three CDs required a bigger package. I just thought, you know what? I just want more space to work with. I don’t care if it’s not gonna fit in anybody’s racks. It doesn’t matter that much anymore anyway. So that’s why I went for the larger size.”
This 2013 self-titled Red Temple Spirits reissue combines both of their out-of-print CDs with a third CD of their first demo tape, presented as an oversized art portfolio with letterpress-printed glassine inner sleeves, full-color folding inserts—“the works,” at least by CD standards. “I really like that package. That’s something I want to try to continue doing more of for CDs. Even if it’s only a single CD, you can put more cool stuff, inserts and things inside.” He also did something of the sort for a reissue that ‘60s collectors without a bent for post-punk might appreciate, putting a Rhino anthology of Canadian singer-songwriter Tom Northcott’s recordings into a ten-inch foldout jacket with a vintage promo photo, poster, and liner notes printed as a four-page newspaper.
“There’s definitely a lot of people out there that want something more special, and a lot of people who want to create something more special,” he adds. So why aren’t there more such packages, especially with a vinyl revival that gives designers more room, and consequently a growing audience for releases that offer something out of the ordinary? As with so many things musical or otherwise, it’s financial—“a lot of it comes down to, are you willing to spend the money to make it more special?”
Artists who were active post-2000, though, definitely appreciate the opportunity to have Licher-designed covers that both link to yet are distinct from the styles more prevalent in his early work. Longtime San Francisco indie rock icon Chuck Prophet’s 2007 album Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams—a “cover” of Waylon Jennings’ 1975 Dreaming My Dreams LP, recorded when he and his band were accidentally locked in the studio overnight—features a ghostly image of the country star. In a way, it’s in line with the ethereal figures seen on IPR releases going back to, well, Tragic Figures itself.
The packaging, enthuses Prophet, “was hand-printed by Bruce on a circa 1930s printing press, and it’s hands down my favorite record I’ve ever been a part of. Certainly in terms of the packaging. It makes me feel good. It’s a work of art.
No matter the band or the artist or the music, every one of Bruce’s packages has something extra: a kind of personality. In fact, all of the LPs and CDs or whatever that Bruce had a hand in have their own stories that go beyond the music. And that’s attractive to me. Personality is what is missing from the plastic graveyards of CDs out there. As CDs become more and more disposable, and every day more and more are shoveled into landfills, it’s nice to know that there’s something out there totally unique for future generations to discover.”
Another challenge with twenty first-century design is the growing difficulty in using twentieth-century technology as the world gets more digital and computerized. “Like all the Xerox stuff that I was doing in the ‘90s on my Minolta 3400 two-color copier,” Licher remarks. “It was a brilliant piece of technology. But it finally got to the point where nobody could work on it anymore. You couldn’t get parts for it. It was the most expensive piece of equipment I had in my shop. I spent five times as much on that photocopier than on any one of my printing presses. By the time I left Sedona [Arizona, where he lived and worked for many years after leaving Los Angeles], I literally left it in the dump.”
Plus “there’s not as many people doing photoengraved printing plates. I’m fortunate that they’re still out there. But it’s gotten a lot more expensive to do that. So a lot of times when somebody approaches me about designing an album jacket, if it’s gonna be on vinyl, I let them know ahead of time, you might be looking at $500, $600 worth of printing plates. Unless we reduce the image size, and have a lot more open space, on the finished piece.”
No matter the band or the artist or the music, every one of Bruce’s packages has something extra: a kind of personality. In fact, all of the LPs and CDs or whatever that Bruce had a hand in have their own stories that go beyond the music. And that’s attractive to me. Personality is what is missing from the plastic graveyards of CDs out there.
Which hasn’t stopped him, naturally, from continuing his design (and musical) projects to the present. Savage Impressions—originally intended as a 150-page book but rapidly expanded into a 240-page volume—is one of the most recent of those, compiled by Bruce and his wife (and fellow artist/musician), Karen Nielsen Licher. “I figured the book was a really great opportunity to share a lot of that. There’s a lot of people who’ve been collecting what I do. I keep hearing from people saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got a whole drawer of your stuff. I’ve saved every envelope you’ve ever sent me, blah blah blah.’ There’s some serious collectors. But there’s also a lot of stuff in that book that most people have never seen before, because it was made specifically for a client or whatever.”
The Tape Excavation LP and Future Independent Projects
And, as is so often the case with his endeavors, there’s more. If you’re already pacing the floor wondering how you’re going to get some of those limited edition singles he’s designed, you’ll really hit the roof when you learn that all 350 copies of the deluxe limited edition of Savage Impressions—which includes an LP of previously unreleased material from various Licher musical projects—has already sold out. (The regular, LP-less edition of the book remains available.) Not all hope’s lost if you were late off the mark; he’s considering putting it out as a CD or via downloads/streaming.
Titled Tape Excavation, the LP compiles fourteen tracks spanning 1980 to 2019, including material from his most famous band (Savage Republic); pre-Savage Republic outfits Project 197, Bridge, and Final Republic; and post-Savage Republic projects Scenic, Lanterna, Lemon Wedges, Rank, and SR2, along with post-Savage Republic Licher solo recordings. Highly worthwhile on its own terms, Tape Excavation’s selections are actually of similar quality to Licher’s previous official releases, even if the fidelity and polish might not be as high on a few tracks (particularly the earlier ones). Although it covers four decades, there’s a continuity in the otherworldly instrumental textures, which both use conventional instruments (especially Licher’s unusually tuned guitar) and blend them in unconventional ways.
The earlier efforts on side A bear some traces of early-‘80s post-punk dissonance, though Licher focused more on sort of post-punk equivalents to surf music with elements of psychedelia and middle eastern melodies as time went on. His pair of 1997 solo demos are of special note; “Cedar” is worthy of exotically dreamy Ennio Morricone-like soundtracks, and “Tundra” can’t help but sound like an end-of-the-century takeoff on the Byrds’ “Why.” The later excursions on side B might be less edgy and frenetic than his ‘80s endeavors, but maintain his knack for atmospheric instrumentals that are more mature yet not at all wimpy.
“I felt like the record needed to be sort of an audio equivalent of the book,” he observes. “I wanted it to cover most of my recording career. So I just started pulling out boxes of old cassette tapes and going through them. I was amazed that I was discovering a few things that I had completely forgotten about. Like the first track, the Project 197 jam. Of course it fades out after two minutes because it goes off and gets really bad,” he laughs, “so I didn’t need to put the whole six-and-a-half minute thing on there.
“But I thought it was interesting to kind of say, okay, here’s where I started. I was a big fan of the No New York album that Brian Eno produced. That was the record that caused me to actually decide to go out and buy a guitar. ‘Cause I listened to DNA and Mars on there. I was like, ‘I can do this. This is really interesting. I don’t have to know chords and I don’t have to be a musical genius. I can make really interesting sounds on a guitar.’”
Licher went through dozens of boxes of recordings to cull these tracks, and if even a small percentage of these approach Tape Excavation’s standard, a series of archive releases would be welcome. He’s thinking of making the Independent Project label, which has only put out a handful of releases in the twenty-first century, more active again. A collection of Scenic singles, compilation tracks, and rarities is one possibility; so is back catalog IPR material. There’s also music from the “ton of demo tapes” he got in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Bruce feeling that demos are sometimes better than, or certainly distinct in interesting ways from, official releases.
The Independent Project Legacy
Whatever Licher does in the 2020s and beyond, the sort of letterpress design he’s done on chipboard for much of his career might be the most celebrated area of his legacy, though he’s worked in numerous other styles. “I’ve definitely gotten known to be Mr. Chipboard, or ‘do the letterpress on chipboard.’ In the early ‘90s I started seeing other people directly inspired by the work I was doing, and doing letterpress on chipboard packaging. The first time I saw the first Tortoise album [released in 1994] in the stores, I was like, ‘Oh. It’s not just me doing this anymore!’ ‘Cause I thought I had something special there. Then it suddenly occurred to me, well, anybody can do this, really. They did.
“It sort of pushed me to go in some different directions, and try to distinguish myself in other ways. That’s sort of the point where I started stepping away from chipboard a bit more. But then people would come to me because they wanted me to do a package for them, but they wanted the chipboard, because that was what they knew of me. So there was a period of time where I was like, ‘Oh, great, I’ve got to do another thing on chipboard.’
“But now it doesn’t matter. I’m happy that people are interested enough in my work that they want to give me money to create something. Like the Hunting Lodge [Shack] album jacket I did at the end of last year, they wanted sort of that classic late ‘80s Independent Project style, and I gave it to ‘em. And it turned out nice. I feel good about that package.
“But then there’s other things. Like the Silversun Pickups package [for a special tour edition of their Widow’s Weeds album] that I did at the end of the year as well, where it’s all done on a white clay-coated chipboard. It has a lot more depth and layering and color involved in it. That turned out beautifully too. So it’s nice to be able to do more than just one thing. I don’t really want to be repeating myself too much. A lot of times I’m happy to go in a different direction.”
In Victor Krummenacher’s view, Licher’s “never given up his spirit of adventure in his body of work, and he’s a really interesting, thoughtful musician too. Over the years my admiration for Bruce as both an artist and person has only increased. He’s lived an aesthetic life in America, which is a hard thing to do these days. I went to his book signing in L.A. right before the quarantine began, and saw [him] and Karen Licher play during the reception. The music was great, and it was great to see Bruce’s work over time laid out in book form. It looks like that may be the last live music I’ll see for a while, and that’s ironic in no small way. For me, as an influence, it was certainly full circle.”
A subtler dimension to the value of Licher’s work hasn’t escaped another artist with whom he worked. As the music industry enters the 2020s, there’s much uncertainty, and even some panic, over the ease with which recordings are copied and distributed. The formats in which they’re packaged have often become so divorced from their creators that some feel it’s threatening musical creativity itself. But as Chuck Prophet points out, doesn’t the kind of design in which Licher specializes ensure your product won’t become just another easily duplicated sound file?
Stick with Chuck as he finishes his point: “Some years ago, as music was being shared via MP3s, I remember Chris Isaak said, ‘If the music industry is so upset about people stealing music, why is Sony selling the very machines that makes it possible for people to steal?’ I guess he was talking about CD burners or whatever.
“Well, good luck copying Bruce Licher’s work. You’ll need more than a CD burner.” – Richie Unterberger
In addition to the 350 gold vinyl Tape Excavation LPs that came with the sold out deluxe edition of the book, 200 black vinyl standalone copies were also pressed, which are still available from both P22’s website and our Project Room gallery website (http://www.projectroom.net/musique-and-more.html).