Inside D.C. entertainment


Anthony Dihle lives in Cathedral Heights, not Cathedral Hills, which, as far as we know, does not exist in the D.C. area.

The art of the concert poster

January 5, 2011 - 08:40 AM
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Anthony Dihle
A poster by local artist Anthony Dihle.

Concert posters might seem, in this Internet age, to be relics of an earlier time — and in a way, they are, having risen out of the San Francisco scene of the 1960s. How else could the Grateful Dead get the word out about an upcoming Fillmore show? Sure, it could buy spots on local TV and notices in newspapers, but posters were a much cheaper, cooler, and more precisely targeted form of advertising. The same went for punk bands in the '80s. Now, though, there's no cheaper, easier, or effective way of announcing a show than by email newsletters and Facebook. With such resources at its disposal, why would a band bother with the cost and hassle of printing posters for a single gig?

Therein lies the beauty of concert posters in the 21st century: They're now, like poetry and other arts, utterly devoid of utilitarian purpose, thereby freeing them to become exactly that — art. One could argue for the psychedelic swirls of the '60s, or for the raw scribbles of the '80s, but today's posters — usually, though not exclusively, for rock shows — are unmatched in their variety and precision. Here in the D.C. area, several artists are designing silkscreen posters for some of today's most respected local and national bands, and recently I spoke with four of them.

Chocolate strawberries

Five years ago Jeffrey Everett, a 34-year-old Derwood resident who runs El Jefe Design, began approaching bands he liked and offering a deal: He would design a gig poster for an upcoming show and, in exchange for the right to use its name, the band would get a certain number of free prints to sell at the merch table; Everett would keep the remainder, to sell for himself. When he emailed the tour manager of New Jersey's The Gaslight Anthem, he was asked to create a tour poster rather than a gig poster, and a relationship developed. Now Everett has designed more than 10 posters for the band, plus a T-shirt and the artwork for its album American Slang.

"That's how it originally started, and that still goes on today," he says. "There are bands I really like. Sometimes they don't have budgets, sometimes they don't have the means of paying me. So I'll work out a deal with them."

Some bands are hands-off with Everett, like The Bouncing Souls — "They're so flattered people will do posters for them," he says — but others "are very, very protective of their name and image." Asked about his work for Wilco, he says, "Everything has to be run by Jeff Tweedy," and says Blonde Redhead "are very specific about what they want. I'm working with them now, and I'm like, 'This is going to be a very tough project. It's going to be an exciting project, but a very tough project.'"

In this "nighttime job," Everett has now made made more than 100 posters for bands such as The Decemberists, Band of Horses, Phish, and Foo Fighters, but looking through his poster gallery, no singular style emerges. The lines are usually clean, but not always, and his figures range from rotund cartoons to stylized humans. Perhaps this is because Everett doesn't make the posters entirely himself: He sends his "doodles" to a printer, who then makes "a little work of art."

"I know how to screenprint," he says, "but I really like working with a printer who's an expert at it, who's a real craftsman. It's really fun to me to have this art that I've done and hand it over to this printer." Of course, his disparity of style could also be due to his artistic approach: "Doing something for Henry Rollins is going to be really different than The Magnetic Fields," he says. "I'm really trying to articulate what the band is. I'm trying to be what the band is, not trying to make the band what I am."

Favorite show of 2010: The Gaslight Anthem at NYC's Irving Plaza.

Favorite show of all time: A tie between two Black Cat shows: Rocket From The Crypt/International Noise Conspiracy/ The Explosion and Girls Against Boys/Skeleton Key/ Firewater.

Anthony Dihle, who owns Fire Studio in Pleasant Plains, also doesn't strive for consistency. "I don't attempt to keep a similar aesthetic for each piece," he says. But the 28-year-old Cathedral Heights resident does do his own printing, saying, "Part of the payoff for me is getting to print it myself." Designing concert posters for the likes of The Who, Van Morrison, The Shins, and Jay-Z — plus a number of local bands — is a fun outlet for Dihle, who works at an architectural firm in Bethesda.

"This is me getting to do my thing, creatively," he says. His day job requires the "sane use of color, text, and copy," but "that's not what this is about. These pieces don't fall into a set of RAND guidelines. This is not quote-unquote good design. There's a standard [at work] where you keep things buttoned down and controlled. I kind of approach this stuff in the way a chef or a cook would with food. You don't serve the plate so that nothing is touching each other. It's okay if the pastrami is coming out of the bun a little. It tastes fine to me."

Dihle started making posters in his early 20s, having been inspired by the "offbeat" poster scene in Providence, where he attended the Rhode Island School of Design. "There was big noise rock art rock movement at the time," he says. "The posters you saw along with that stuff was not stuff I had seen before. It was out of this world."

These days, when he designs a poster for a band, Dihle likes "to see what their sensibilities are, to see how they behave — if they have a good sense of humor, if they're straightforward." All of this informs his design, which he hopes reflects "what they sound like."

"It's not so much an in-joke about their lyrics," he says. "Hopefully it's bigger than that."

Favorite show of 2010: Phosphorescent at Black Cat.

Favorite show of all time: Tom Waits at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.

Mike O'Brien is right where Dihle was at the beginning of his career. A 23-year-old from College Park, his works as a "creative dude" at Squiid, a website design firm he co-founded, and in his spare time designs posters. He learned screen-printing at the University of Maryland, but not until after he'd graduated with a dual degree in journalism and studio art — thanks to a friend with access to the screen-printing lab there.

"I hadn't been able to get into [a screen-printing class] as a student, but I was one year out and he was still a student, and he was a lab monitor," O'Brien explains. "So I started going in, basically learning how to screen-print from him, using the University of Maryland's equipment." And because they weren't supposed to be doing that, "we had to do it kind of on the fly, any time we did posters. We couldn't do a lot of concerts, so we only did the ones we really wanted to."

O'Brien, being new to the game, almost always approaches bands rather than the other way around. But unlike his more experienced peers, he isn't afraid to impose his creative voice on his posters. "I like the really highly stylized cartoons," he says, a fact that shows in his work. O'Briens says he admires artists with a distinct style — "the way you can recognize any Shepard Fairey thing, you know it's his."

Of all the bands in the world, O'Brien says he'd most like to design a poster for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. So why doesn't he give it a shot and contact the band's manager? "I'm making sure I have all of my ducks in a row," he says. "I have to make sure I have enough time."

Favorite show of 2010: Laura Stevenson and the Cans at Hole in the Sky.

Favorite show of all time: Bomb the Music Industry!/Good Luck/The Max Levine Ensemble at George Washington University.

And John Foster is where O'Brien hopes, perhaps, to be when he's pushing 40. Foster is a godfather of the concert poster scene, having designed them since the early '90s — that's a long time in this non-business — and written several books about posters in general, most notably 2005's New Masters of Poster Design: Poster Design for the Next Century. In other words, he's an expert on the subject, and smart enough to know that there's little money to be made in gig posters.

"Just talking about a poster is a losing proposition, let alone making one," says Foster, who lives in Derwood and runs his own design firm, Bad People Good Things. He explains: If an hour of his work, in billable terms, is worth around $85, then he'd have to sell 10 posters just to break even. And he could spend an entire hour just discussing designs with the band.

So why does he do it? "I'm intensely passionate about the poster as a medium," says Foster, who began making gig posters while studying design in West Virginia. "I was playing in a slew of crappy college bands and my friends were playing in better bands, and they eventually needed help on the design end."

Foster went on to work for several firms in the D.C. area, but never gave up the practice — not just because he wants to support certain bands, but because posters as a medium were being ignored in most design circles. When he was writing New Masters, "no one was doing poster work. From a mainstream design perspective, everyone was doing blast emails." That has since changed. "I think as gig posters have gotten more commonplace and popular amongst designers, you're seeing a lot more established design firms getting involved."

Of course, gig posters' rise in popularity — not just with designers, but music fans in need of wall art — inspires a heightened critical analysis. Not from me, mind you; I'm a novice collector. But to Foster, who's followed shifts in poster design for the past 20 years, it's clear which artists are for real and which are trying to make a quick buck. He applauds Jay Ryan, Methane Studios, and Seripop, but won't identify — on the record — examples of the latter. One can hardly blame him. For all their recent gains, this country's concert poster designers still comprise a small, if not necessarily tight, community.

Favorite show of 2010: Kings of Convenience at the 9:30 Club.

Favorite show of all time: The Lemonheads and Juliana Hatfield at the old 9:30 Club.