X is for Xerox, Gen, and the kind films Steak Mtn. designs sets for. Peter Moysaenko lunches with him and discusses the process and degradation behind SM’s transgressive visions. His recent work for bands such as Against Me! and The Weight raises the bar for new-classic rock imagery, and his upcoming exhibitions in Los Angeles and Minneapolis promise to titillate. Considering himself one of the “Xerox kids,” Steak Mtn. is a veritable punk auteur, contradictory as that may sound.
Where to start? Probably not at the beginning, whenever that was. I, for one, have had enough of beginnings. Let’s talk destinations. Perhaps you haven’t heard of Steak Mtn. Perhaps you have. Either way, Steak Mtn. probably hates you. Or at least that’s what he wants you to think. Steak Mtn. is a creative force (not some geographic anomaly or truckstop restaurant), and though his art seems designed to unnerve, disturb, or otherwise provoke the audience, he’s actually a really nice guy. His work is, in its own way, fervently funny and egalitarian. He designs album covers, posters, t-shirts, tote bags, even snowboards. His recent work for bands such as Against Me! and The Weight raises the bar for new-classic rock imagery, and his upcoming exhibitions in Los Angeles and Minneapolis promise to titillate. Not too long ago we met up at a Mexican joint in Brooklyn, where, over burritos and sodas, we chatted about music, movies, means of production. (And wouldn’t you know it, he offered to foot the bill.) Steak Mtn. is busting down doors of art world sacristies. So are you coming yet?
Peter Moysaenko Can we start by talking about your day job? What’s the daily grind look like?
Steak Mtn Well, I work in pornography, or rather, adult film, if I can be allowed to pretentiously chart the party line. I do set dressing for a company called Kink.com, which is a studio that specializes in BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, and Sadomasochism). That’s what I do during the day! It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years upon years upon years—work in “transgressive” cinema, but on the side that does not see itself that way, the side where the entertainment comes first and the art is an afterthought. There seems to be more room to breathe creatively then. A lot of my favorite directors got ushered into pornography and did really interesting things in the ’70s, especially in Europe. I wasn’t really paying attention in the ’90s, when Jenna Jameson and all those people were doing stuff, so I always had a pretty idealistic view. When it really comes down to it, it’s about studying how things are shot, rather than the content. You set up shoots differently and you set up scenarios differently so that you’re taking classic pornographic tropes and turning them upside-down, making it a level playing field rather than a male-dominated scene. You can get away with some really subversive visual stuff. And the company’s amazing—it’s all housed in the Armory in San Fransisco. So it’s a giant movie studio. We have five floors of sets, full editing suites, a recording studio. The upper floor is being transformed into a Victorian mansion, with a lounge and a sanctum and slave quarters and a master bedroom. It’s crazy. It’s the ideal company for me because, you know, if pornography was high school, BDSM would be the goth table, the interesting crowd.
PM You never went to college for art, and you got into graphic design and illustration through your involvement in bands like Combatwoundedveteran and Reversal of Man. Do you think that going to art school at the university level would have enhanced or skewed your perspective on what kind of arena your art should function?
SM To me, college is about getting to the tools you need in a quick and orderly fashion. And I think college would have brought me to artists or creative processes a little faster than by the road I have taken. That probably would not have made me better or worse than I am now, but it could be possible that I would have a better sense of art history. Maybe I wouldn’t be looking at Cézanne at 33, thinking, Wow. I would have been looking at it at 20 and thinking, Wow. I am positive I would still be drawing pictures of nude dudes vomiting guts. I would still be looking at old Jess Franco films and seeing what I could steal from them. I would still be doing that because I was doing that when I was a kid. I was growing up as the last of the Xerox kids, and I still bring that to the table when I am working because that is where I was seated during the bumps of getting to where I am now. I treat Photoshop, my scanner, the computer like it’s a Xerox machine, like a futuristic Xerox machine. I figured out how to make things look, for lack of a better term, organic, or at least touched in a way that breaks the direct sense that it was made with a computer. Or at least I try. Who knows if I’m really pulling it off. I have millions of pieces of newsprint, thousands of crappy book covers scanned in, and sometimes I’ll open the scanner and scan the air and take that and use it as a template and break things apart. When I started doing work originally, when I really wanted to start doing work for bands, I was looking at Pushead and Gary Panter. Panter worked on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, but he was a huge punk cartoonist in the ’80s, and he’s a big influence on me. Rob Zombie, too. Combatwoundedveteran records wouldn’t exist without Rob Zombie. I grew up when neon was everybody’s backdrop, but that stuff was a huge influence—Panter and Zombie and Pushead.
PM A lot of the art you do ends up being mass produced. Do you see a difference between what goes on the wall at an art show, what will get printed on a shirt, what accompanies music?
SM Do I think about it? Yes. Do I think the difference influences the outcome of a piece? No. But then that brings up the idea of the author, the voice, personal style, or if you want to go full knuckle pretentious, the auteur. I just make work, and I have been lucky enough to work not as a graphic designer but as a graphic artist. People come to me because of the personality of my work. They may not get exactly what they originally thought they were coming to me for, but they never get something that doesn’t have that “thing” I do. Overall, I don’t make work that can’t be mass produced. I’ll talk all day long about being difficult and taking the gaze for a ride, but clearly I make clear work that does communicate something. My style is dealing in the projection of some sort of idea. All art, bad or good or mainstream or dangerous, is almost always based on the form of some recognizable thing. Like the new Against Me! record. Clearly that’s a buxom lady that I’ve made phantasmagorical.
PM So what direction do you see yourself going with your work?
SM I’m a little tired of drawing right now, although I am going to be doing some drawings this year for Blessure Grave, a “goth” band from San Diego. But even that is really abstracted simple line work, stuff that I really haven’t done before. I want to move into photography, then video and film. I’m trying to push where I thought this would be taking me, because nothing really happens unless you push. If one of your intentions in being an artist is to get even the slightest bit of recognition, then you have to rely on the equation of who you know plus who you will meet equaling where that manipulation lands you and how personally lucky you are. But it should be noted that unless you put all 10 fingers out, nothing’s going to get cut off. If I’m laying out fucking fake Discharge band records when I’m 50 for no money because the record industry has collapsed and all they can pay me is a fucking burrito and a bullet belt, that’s cool. At least I’ll be keeping my powder dry. And that’s legit. But I’m ultimately interested in film. It’s what I’ve always really loved, and to me, making even the worst art film or the straightest romantic comedy or the slimiest slice of adult film is still better than making nothing and wishing you could have made anything at all. So, hopefully, my next push with Steak Mtn. will be moving me into a more cinematic realm.
PM What’s a movie people don’t know about but should?
SM For years upon years, since I was an 11-year-old kid reading about films, I’d heard about this movie about five girls that end up in a haunted house. It’s this Japanese movie called Hausu—or House. It’s an unhinged, mind-melting movie. I’d tracked down a bootleg of it in my teens, and have watched it millions of times over the years. If I could site a film that had a huge influence on all the early Steak Mtn. stuff, just as much as Barney Bubbles or Gary Panter, then it would have to be Hausu (and really anything by Nobuhiko Obayashi). People laugh at the bad special effects and the ferocious overacting, but it’s not a “so bad it’s good” type of film. That was just Obayashi’s style, his masterstroke. I think he is, like Bubbles or Panter, a real artist pushing what is acceptable inside of the mainstream. You should Youtube the Charles Bronson Mandom commercials he directed in the ‘70s. That’s completely strange and energetic and exciting commercial work. It’s nuts.
PM This degradation of media, of form, of communication, seems integral to much of your work. It might be hard to explain, but why does that appeal to you?
SM I have a beautiful Wacom tablet that cost me a lot of money and I use it, but I use it as a mouse mostly. I draw something on paper and scan it in and blow it out. So it’s about painting with the Photoshop. I’m interested in form, but abstracting the form. I like the element of something being just off enough. I’m interested in body horror. If you get down to it, that’s all horror or terror or whatever scares you is—putting someone or something in a place that is familiar, then fucking breaking it apart and sending it swirling into abject or dangerous or oppressive (or all three) areas. The distortion of comfort, that is a huge issue when I am making things. It comes naturally because apparently I am a sleazy creep, but it’s also what may make my work distinctive—the “voice” I was talking about earlier. Sometimes I’ll make a mistake when working on something and keep it—that’s standard artist law—and sometimes I’ll think of the mistake beforehand, because that sort of predestined approach is exciting to me. I like that. To me, it’s a human element that I want to hold onto.
PM Can you talk about the new Against Me! record? How did you arrive at the art?
SM Tom Gabel and I had extensive, extensive talks about classic record covers. I studied, I went back. Why is Born in the USA a good looking record? Why is The Queen Is Dead a good looking record? Tom and I did a lot of prep work on the record seven or eight months ago. We were getting a super head start on it because we wanted to be ahead of the machine, and it was very important to nail it and be comfortable with the atmosphere of the record. So I did a series of mock-ups, things that worked, things that didn’t, things that were too obvious, then things that walked the line of derailing the personality of the record. So after none of that worked, Tom asked if I was working on anything on the side, any personal work, and I showed him these transgressive melters. He liked them and we both felt that with all said and done, it was exactly what we had set out to do, the “classic” look we had been working and looking for. I’m stoked with the art for White Crosses, and I’m glad to be in a position to put something that looks like that on a mainstream, large label record. It’s funny to me, or at least to the dormant and arrogant teenager in me anyway.
PM What about claims of sexism?
SM Yeah, I am sure that will come up. It always does, and that’s something you can’t help. You can’t control audience opinion, as much as I would like to. So, whatever, I like creepy sleazer art. I like making it, and I am happy to see it attached to something that will have a lot of heavy traffic. And fuck, whether it be Scorpions’ Virgin Killer or the Blind Faith record, a naked woman is a classic rock and roll record image, and again, that is in line with what Tom and I wanted to do with the record. But more importantly, I am not going to just put a naked woman up there. I have to send it through the Steak Mtn. meat grinder and drift it into its right spot. There are other images on the record, and surrounding the peripherals of the record—naked men and women getting gross. The back cover is a dude melting, in the same sort of sexually inviting position. It might make it a tough sell for someone who doesn’t know Against Me! when the record’s fucking seven dollars on release day at Best Buy. But fuck it. We have the opportunity to make art in a pop culture bubble, and I am not going to let the sensitive art direct me.