Image by Stephen Zeigler for Alternative Apparel
Isac Walter is the patron saint of band shirts, a merch evangelist, a cotton crusader. It all began back in July of 2011, when the LA-based music lover started a Tumblr to document his attempt at wearing a different band shirt every day for 1,000 days. He thought maybe he’d make it to day 500, but today marks his 1171st post. Three years and counting. More than just a hobby, Isac’s collection is the fruit of an evangelical attitude toward music–an attitude that is helping to keep music alive and well.
LITA enlisted Isac’s help in remaking some Big Boys tees to go along with the reissues of Lullabies Help the Brain Grow and No Matter How Long The Line At The Cafeteria, There’s Always A Seat. We had the opportunity to talk to Isac… you know, just shootin’ the shirt. (Don’t miss the moment where the man of a thousand and one shirts says he hates clutter…)
By the way, the shirts, vinyl and other Big Boys stuff are available on our site.
What shirt best describes your adolescence? What’s the oldest shirt you have?
I’m not entirely sure. It’s really hard to say, cause I have so many. Some shirts I have replaced that were lost so technically I haven’t had them that long. But if you put a gun to my head I might think it was a Big Drill Car shirt.
As someone who recently lost her favorite shirt of all time (a custom black Os Mutantes shirt given to me by my boyfriend), what is the most significant shirt that you have lost and why? Any tips for those of us suffering a loss?
I used to have this Fifteen / Green Day shirt that I bought on Valentine’s Day once. It was a show at Gilman St. in Berkeley. I remember really having a great time at that show. The girl I went with took the shirt and 20 years later she facebooked me to say Hi and one of my first questions was, ‘Do you still have that shirt????’ Many years later I recovered it on ebay from a seller who was also at that show. I emailed her and let her know I was at that show too and she felt my pain and sold it to me cheap.
What shirt (real or not) do you most want to add to your collection?
I don’t know. I mean, I love shirts, but I would think it’s probably a shirt that I don’t even know exists, you know? Like some one-off shirt the Smiths made for a Meat Is Murder one-off show, you know?
What is the most embarrassing shirt you own? Do you get rid of or trade shirts for bands you don’t like any more, or do you keep them as reminders of that confused time in your life, like regrettable tattoos?
Hands down it is a Lily Allen shirt. But in my defense, it was for a show that I put on while working at Myspace. And I only made like 20. So maybe somewhere out there, there is a Lily Allen fan who is jealous of that one. Doubtful, though.
Not only are you a wealth of knowledge regarding vintage band shirts, but you have the artistic ability to recreate such designs for shirt reissues. What’s you favorite shirt that you yourself made? How did you make it? And generally, how do you make custom shirts? You mentioned in a previous interview that redrawing original artwork can take as many as 20-30 hours– what are you doing during that time?
I don’t have a lot of favorites, I mean I do but I’ve only kept like my 500 favorite shirts out of the 3K+ I have made, ya know? I think the ones that are my favorites are the ones I make that friends and people get super excited about, that they always think should have been made but never were. Or the re-makes of shirts that are super rare and cost $500 on ebay and there is no way anyone would ever be able to afford them unless they owned a time machine. Ironically, sometimes I will make a shirt and it will cost me more to make the shirt than it would to buy the original, but at least I can wear it guilt-free and spill pasta sauce on it and not wanna kill myself.
For the most part I will find an original of a shirt, take a picture of it on a copy stand (a camera mounted on a post with lights), then literally blow the image up in PS and redraw the entire image from scratch using a Wacom tablet (here is where I get real nerdy). You can open a picture or a drawing in PS and zoom in to about 700% right before you start to see actual pixels that are square shaped. Then you re-draw that. That is the time consuming part, but it is as accurate as you can possibly be, I think, without having the original artwork file.
When you are redrawing someone’s art, you can start to recreate brush strokes and see how it is that they painted or drew the originals. You figure out if it was pencil, brush, or marker, and try to mimic that look. Then you have to compensate for printing, because when the shirt is printed the lines bleed. You have bad print jobs, offset printing fuck-ups. You also have to make adjustments for the yahoo who printed a shirt in 1980 in their garage and didn’t know what mesh to use. So you have to have some printing knowledge to adjust all this. THEN there are the font issues. In 1985 there was no computer or PS to type out fonts. So you have to try to match fonts that don’t really exist. Back in that era they used a lot of hand drawn fonts or rub-on lettering. I would say the font is by far the most challenging aspect to get accurate. Most people probably don’t even notice it, but it stares back into my face every time I see it. The files are the easy part.
Then I make films and burn screens and try to match inks. I want every shirt to be printed like it might have been in that era–same inks, same thickness. And I will purposefully print on shirts that have the look and feel of an older shirt so they wash and wear out the same way. I like to match the original era as much as possible.
How did you come to be involved in the Big Boys project and what was your process for making the shirts?
Well Pat at LITA asked me, I think he’d read my blog and thought that I would be into the idea. I am a fan of the band and I really love the idea of re-issuing a record with a piece of merch that might have been out at that time. I tried to make something that I thought the band would have made themselves, given the opportunity, to accompany that piece of music.
Looking through your archives, one of the shirts I was most jealous of was your Magnolia Electric Co. shirt. And I loved the entry you wrote to accompany it. I have been a Songs: Ohia/Jason Molina fan for years. I also love that you were not just a fan and a listener, but that you tried to make sure that others knew Songs: Ohia and Molina as well. It seems like you stand up for what you believe to be right within music, fighting for the music you love to get recognition. Did you consciously take on this mission with your Tumblr or did it just happen as your interests deepened?
No, I don’t think I took it on consciously, but I do feel like if you love something, you should tell people about it. They will want to know. That’s how great bands get passed around. If you can tell someone is passionate about something, you will listen. I have discovered many great bands myself that way. Sometimes when I am writing posts I think, why do I do this? No one gives a shit or reads this?!?! But then I think, who cares, and if only one person discovers one great record or band from me doing this then I have done my small part in helping the music that I love. That person will tell people and those people will tell people. I guess it’s the exact definition of organic discovery.
Since the decline of record sales in recent years, bands are relying more and more on the sale of tickets and merch as a source of income. Do you think the current state of the music industry has affected ancillary markets such as merch? Do you see things changing any time soon? Would you want them to?
I used to love buying albums and CDs. I love packaging. But more and more I find myself asking, why did I buy a physical version? I love artwork and packaging, but I hate clutter. I find that if a band puts up a digital version with a shirt I will always buy that. Kill two birds with one stone. Support the band, get a shirt. And then I can go around advertising that band on my body– a win for us all. Sadly no, I don’t think it will change, but who knows… Twenty years ago if you told me I wouldn’t buy CD’s anymore I would have laughed in your face.
What shirt are you wearing at this very moment? What projects are you currently working on that you wouldn’t mind letting us in on?
Today’s shirt is a King Tuff shirt ironically from the Sub Pop pre-order for Black Moon Spell. It’s an album that I have been listening to a lot and I really love this band. The nerd in me hopes they get giant and make tons more albums with many guitar jams on them… As for other projects, you’d be surprised that I plan about 1 day in advance. Most of the time I am listening to a band and I just start to goof off on the computer and next thing you know I have 5 shirt designs. It sounds cheesy but the music dictates what I’m going to do next.
What shirt design would you most like to reissue and why? What other album/shirt reissues would you love to see happen? What does the future of Minor Thread look like? When’s the coffee table book coming out and will it have ‘sleeves’? (Get it?)
I want every New Order shirt remade. That band now has the worst merch and it makes me sad. Back in the day it used to be so good. Now you see it and it’s just boring. So yeah, the first four New Order albums and shirts would be great.
As for a book, I have no idea. It would have to be so giant and so elaborate… I’d just be happy to see a book of merch that isn’t full of obvious stuff like the Rolling Stones and the Clash and what not. I enjoy the more obscure niche stuff.