[3:36 PM, 8/1/2020]
Ben — Why sound? Why speakers?
In one word, passion. I know that sounds corny, but I’ve been making this stuff and will be making it regardless of whether or not anyone else is interested in what I’m doing. Here’s the long story:
Music and design have always been a central part of my life. When I was young I wasn’t really encouraged to pursue design as a carrier. In college I majored in audio engineering, hoping to get into the studio with some of my musical heroes. At the time I was DJing a lot, but also doing graffiti and experimenting with making clothing for myself just for fun.
In the late 90’s I was really into a cross section of avant-garde music and hip hop. Around 1999 there was a group called Anitpop Consortium that I felt really captured my vibe. My #1 goal was to find some way to get into the studio with them.
I met some friends that invited me to DJ at a weekly party on Orchard Street at a bar called Good World. This party happened to be a hang out for people associated with Alife, in the very early days, and that was how I ended up meeting that whole crew. I would wear these hand embroidered tees and hats that I made for myself and one day the Alife guys were like, why don’t you bring some of those in and we’ll sell them on consignment. I brought in 4-5 of these hand embroidered pieces and a couple days later, Uptown Tammy, called me up saying that this guy Beans from Anitpop Consortium was just in and he wanted me to call him to see about borrowing some clothes for a show. A few hours later I was at Beans’ apartment hanging out and it was just a major lightbulb moment for me that I could do more with the visual arts. I’m still friends with the Antipop guys to this day and they continue to inspire me.
But at the time I felt like a person could only to one thing, so I quit DJing and sound to focus on designing graphics and clothing. DJing records turned into listening to records at home and my foundational education in audio engineering helped me get serious about HiFi as a hobby.
Over time, traveling to Japan often to work on Nom de Guerre, I got exposed to the Japanese perspective on HiFi, which is low power tube amps and high efficiency speakers. I dove super deep into a life long pursuit of devouring relevant books on audio engineering and traveling to meet engineers and collectors to learn as much as possible. My goal at first was just system building for myself. I wanted to build a full system from phono pickup to speaker where I had my hand in building every component just the way I wanted it.
Eventually friends started asking if they could commission similar pieces of gear and that lead to where I am now.
Ben — What’s the energy of the music you first listen to in the morning?
I’m a very slow morning person. I need two cups of coffee over the course of about an hour with only ambient music. I have a playlist that’s pretty diverse, but all ambient. It has a lot of Eno and EC related stuff (which I generally listen to a lot of), Jazz, avant garde instrumental stuff like Erik Satie, Philip Glass and Arvo Part, Daniel Lanois, some electronic ambient crossover, soundtrack compositions, etc. But it’s all super slowed down stuff to help me transition into an alert state.
Ben — You mention your aim is to bring “realistic and natural sound to the listener” - what defines realistic and natural in 2020 and better?
A lot of contemporary audio equipment is designed for the frequency extremes; bass and treble. I design gear for realistic midrange where the most natural musical sound is. For a long time I chased this relentlessly, sometimes to a fault even. Like I wasn’t willing to listen to music with a lot of essential sub bass material because it didn’t sound good on my system. What was more important to me was the plucked bass string and the kick drum was super fast and realistic, and the vocal could sound like it’s in the room. Most speakers that are designed to be small and have a lot of bass sound very flat by comparison. But it forced me to kind of live in the past musically.
So bringing it back to 2020, this kind of approach is not practical for a lot of today’s music. Luckily when I started working on systems for nightclubs and listening bars it forced me to adapt and now I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to integrate subwoofers in ways that don’t conflict with natural sound. Now when I design a speaker system I’m going for the best of both worlds, but I think the time spent obsessing over midrange was essential, and not compromising that is important to me.
Ben — Can you listen to music with lyrics and work at the same time?
Not really. I sometimes will, but it can definitely send me off on a tangent.
Ben — What’s the most important t-shirt graphic you can think of?
The t-shirt graphic that communicates something on the outside, that reflects how you feel on the inside.
Ben — What’s the biggest difference in “streetwear” from when you opened Nom De Guerre and this moment in time?
The obvious one is social media and the internet. We were from the pre-web age and never really learned to adapt.
The second one is that the streetwear customer has gotten way more sophisticated, and the streetwear market has fully merged with the high fashion and luxury markets. Nom de Guerre is often credited as being on the forefront of this movement, but to be honest we were too far ahead of it. We were totally out of phase. There was a small group of people who were already into this hybrid, but for the most part the Margiela and Raf customer and the sneaker heads made each other really uncomfortable. It wasn’t until RIGHT after the NdG store closed that I felt like the two really started to merge to a large audience.
Ben — Is it important that the buyer of your speakers has build them as well?
If possible yeah. Not everyone has the time or desire or the time to do this, but in order to get the most out of your sound system it’s important to understand how it works. Your HiFi should be like a personal shrine to music. The more your hand has shaped the equipment the more personal the sound will be. I think of HiFi as more of a hobby than a product category.
Ben — Can you explain a bit the back graphic on the Erik Satie shirt?
This tee started as a throwback to my personal favorite Nom de Guerre tee. The front is exactly the same. Erik Satie is the godfather of ambient and minimalist music. Furniture music, or musique d’ameublement in French, is a term he coined to reference music that could become part of an environment… it was meant to set a vibe instead of being a spectacle in a rigid formal performance hall.
Satie was way ahead of his time and it wasn’t until several decades later that artists like John Cage, Steve Reich and Brian Eno revived the term and started making music that paved the way for electronic music and loop based music. Satie has a global cult following but it’s not exactly something you expect to see on a tee shirt.
The term Furniture Music is especially inspiring to me because my work deals with the physical components of music reproduction. It’s both sonic and aesthetic. To me the term calls out the relationship between environmental design and sound.
A lot of your work also explicitly deals with the visualization of a musicians character. So I think that using your chair is the perfect way of calling out the relationship between industrial design and musical composition.
Ben — How soon do you think it will be before we’re listening to music via neural implant?
I think soon, but probably kind of like I thought we’d have driving cars by now when I was a kid. Hahaha
I actually think about this a lot. People probably assume that I’m more into looking backward that forward because I use so many vintage components in my work, but to me that technology is still cutting edge. Sometimes I find new tech progressive, sometimes not so much. I am not a vintage fetishist; I’m all for whatever works best. I’m not as excited about the experience of hearing without feeling as I am what that will enable us to do with VR.
Ben — What’s next?
I never ever know. I am super excited about making t-shirts again and I think that’s here for the foreseeable future. Of course, I do also have the frequent urge to disappear into the wild.
Chuck — What did you have for breakfast? (Think we almost always started with this!)
I jumped on the sourdough trend when we all started quarantining. I have a friend who’s an incredible baker and she gave me my starter and coached me. So breakfasts have been very bread heavy for the last few months. Also always a lot of coffee.
Chuck — Has quarantine changed your relationship to music? Altered musical preferences or tastes?
I’m really just so grateful that connecting with music is my passion. The term Natural Sound could just as easily be Emotional Sound. The goal of what I do is to strengthen the emotional connection to the artists playing the music. I think that in quarantine a lot of people have been spending more time intentionally listening to music, and I think that’s why there has been such a strong interest in my work and HiFi in general.
Chuck — Do you get hung up on flaws in audio the way graphic designers have a tendency to point out font quirks/bad kerning etc?
Yeah, this is definitely a thing. It can be a huge let down when you put a song you’ve always loved on a great system for the first time and you realize it was recorded really poorly. This is much more of a thing on the “high end” systems you find on the market these days. They can be too clinical and revealing. I don’t design systems to sound analytical; I want them to sound fun and enjoyable.
Virgil — When testing new speakers what’s the first song you usually play to test the sound quality?
I have a short list for tuning, and it’s not the same short list that most audio showrooms use (there are standards). You need to hear a plucked upright bass and an electric bass—I’m often using Grant Green, Idle Moments for Bob Crenshaw on the double bass, and a track from the Hot Spot soundtrack Miles Davis oversaw in 1990 (thanks Merwin). You need to hear a female vocal—I love Nina Simone, Cat Power and several others, and a male vocal—I always come back to late Bob Dylan, Modern Times for tuning. Then absolutely you NEED a drum solo—Dave Brubeck, Take Five, has one of my all time favorite drum solos by Joe Morello. Finally, for the deep bass test I use some James Blake tracks off of Overgrown, as well as Innerzone Orchestra, Programmed.
Chuck — What are your favorite album covers of the last 10 years? Do you feel a records artwork impacts how you hear the record?
One album cover I really love is the Dedekind Cut $uccessor record from 2016. Coincidentally I was listening to this a lot while designing the graphics for your first women’s collection. The cover is a photo by Deana Lawson. I love her work and this one in particular. Dedekind Cut does vibe better than almost anyone right now to me. This album cover sets it.
Virgil — Where have you been all these years?
By 2010 all of us at Nom de Guerre were thoroughly burnt out. I think it’s safe to say that I was a bit traumatized by fashion and I was pretty much ready to do anything else. I took several gigs in branding, art direction and advertising, which I had been doing for years to supplement my income while doing NdG. I also built a series of 4x4 adventure campers and my wife and I have travelled North and Central America, Europe and North Africa for extended periods of time by land living full time in these little trucks (see @ontheroadhome). This is the component of my life that acts as a huge pressure release valve.
Of course, I was also down in the basement experimenting with audio devices.
It was my old way of thinking that mislead me to felt like in order to be taken seriously as an audio builder I had to kind of reinvent myself and keep my identity as a fashion designer a secret. It was 100% my friendship with you that helped me see that it’s actually just one thing and all of the components reinforce each other.
Virgil — Talk about your graffiti days?
I’m a really obsessive person by nature. I tend get sucked into one thing at a time and it really takes over my life. Graffiti was definitely that until I switched gears to focus on Nom de Guerre.
My first really close friend and a major source of inspiration was Carlucci, Elf MPC (Rest In Peace). When I first started hanging out on the LES he was one of my first really close friends. Our friendship even predated my selling clothes at Alife and his solo show there. Carlucci deserves WAY WAY more recognition than he gets. I can’t even go into how important he was to me and many others downtown. You could fill a book, but he was like CAP MPC, Basquiat, Rammellzee, rolled into a spliff with some Glen Danzig and Kool Keith sprinkled in. I really respected him and he taught me a lot—even helped me develop my original styles.
I think a consistent theme between all of my disciplines is originality. As a DJ in college I realized that I was not going to win a DMC Championship, or even the local chapter, so if I wanted to make a name for myself I had to do things in a unique way. I definitely brought this into graffiti by drawing heavily on my interest in calligraphy and gothic lettering.
But street bombing was really important to me and I was fortunate to be able to paint with some incredibly talented writers that would also become lifelong friends, like Earsnot Irak, Katsu BTM, Rate TV, and others.
But I can’t front, I was honestly not cut out to keep up with these guys. I really disliked getting arrested and I got arrested kind of a lot—like in every city and every country that I visited. I painted really passionately all over the world for a few years and them just kind of changed channels
Virgil — What is your approach to graphic design?
Although I eventually became a very technically proficient graphic designer, I have a really hard time designing on assignment. If I am not inspired it’s kid of like torture, so the most important thing for me is to catch that spark and have fun with it.
Virgil — What was the first t-shirt design.
My first T-Shirt design, the one that was on the rack at Alife, was a hand stitched felt machine gun across the back of a tee shirt, and there was a pick stitched strap that went around the front with some little bullets sewn on. It was kind of a hard/soft thing. I didn’t know how to screen print yet, but then some friends taught me to set up a small screen printing table can my first season had a couple styles of type that I still reference today, including the tree type, with messages printed on the inside that you could read on the outside. That a was kind of my theme on season one of wholesale.
Virgil — Before Nom De Guerre opened what was vibe in NYC? How did the shop come together.
In the early 2000s the vibe was really DIY, and there were all of these crews that were producing work and reacting to each other. There were no public metrics. I don’t think people were as driven by money. Granted, I was very young at the time, just 22-23 when we opened the store so maybe I was just a bit immature. My aspirations were very modest.
Of course, 9/11 was a big part of everyone’s experience in downtown NYC in the early 2000’s. I was living in South Williamsburg on 9/11 and I had been doing Ojas as a clothing brand for a year or two. I can’t even begin to explain how different Williamsburg was then. It was a very small community of creative people that were mostly living among industrial warehouse buildings. Back then everyone knew each other in Williamsburg.
Right before 9/11 these Isa posters started going up all over Williamsburg. Isa Saalabi had been at Marc Jacobs and decided to open the first real fashion boutique in Williamsburg. An Iranian American kid with a Muslim name opened a boutique in his name a few days before 9/11. Of course, he crushed it and we would later use this whole scenario as a major source of inspiration.
The Isa store was also waaaay ahead of its time. The brand mix was unique for the whole city and I think really set the tone for Nom de Guerre. Because he was in Brooklyn he kind of had his pick of high end and streetwear brands that had exclusive accounts in Manhattan. It was incredibly inspiring to me to see my clothes in that store. The price point was high for what people considered to be a community of mostly struggling artists, but a lot of the people working across the spectrum in Manhattan lived in Williamsburg and Isa became a special place where everyone could come together in the neighborhood. It was successful and Isa started considering what was next.
In Manhattan, the biggest streetwear store was James Jebbia’s Stussy / Head Porter store on Wooster street. Wil Whitney was the manager and Angelo Baque worked there as well. The vibe in that store was incredibly impressive at the time. There was a kind of intimidating mix of a big, architectural space, the legacy of Stussy, the association with Supreme and this really sophisticated Japanese luggage brand that was a honestly over most peoples heads in NYC. Wil and Angelo knew how to perfectly balance that and make sure everyone felt welcome.
I still remember the very first time Isa, Holly, Wil and I all met on Bleecker Street to see the space and kick off the concept. Isa called the meeting having already found the space through another mutual friend. This obviously had the potential to be way bigger than anything anything we could do independently. Wil and Angelo left Stussy to open the store, bringing experience on the streetwear side. Isa brought the high end fashion experience and the Isa store soon became Nom de Guerre Brooklyn. Holly, who was Isa’s partner at the Isa store, was an artist. I came on as the designer.
We struggled for a while to come up with the identity. We tried lots of things and even worked with some outside designers but in the end we landed on a logo that I designed with an old-style serif book font using small caps and wide kearning, something that I had done a year or so earlier on the cover of an issue of Flaunt Magazine that I guest designed. We also started using the same tree letters that I had been using on Ojas tees for a while. Like I said before, I can really only design when I’m inspired, so it only made sense that the direction for Nom de Guerre was very linear with what I was doing for Ojas. Since the brands started looking so similar I kind of retired the Ojas name to focus entirely on NdG.
Virgil — Talk about overlanding?
Overlanding is by definition; traveling by land. To me, overlonding means self sufficient long distance travel by vehicle. Self sufficient, meaning you do not need any services to eat, sleep, bathe and enjoy yourself for extended periods of time, allowing you to access remote locations. I think the term often gets mixed up with off roading, but that’s a tricky one for me. Most of the time we’re on some kind of road, even if that road requires 4x4 and beefy tires to safely navigate.
Originally we got into this lifestyle because we wanted to access secret beach camping spots in the Hamptons. This is not really what I now consider overlonding. One of the best things about overloading is getting way outside your bubble and being forced to interact with people and places that you would never encounter if you just flew in. It’s the small towns and villages between the destinations where you have some of the most memorable experiences. It’s also that crazy beautiful campsite you could never access with 2wd though as well.
We (van lifers, overlanders, etc) all say that minimalism and carrying a lite load is a big part of the activity as well, but the flip side of that is that rig building is a HUGE part of it for all of us. Truly unique self built campers are very rare in the USA (there are more self built vans than “overland” rigs), but in Europe it’s almost like a rite of passage to build your own unique home in an old service vehicle. This design process is another obsession of mine. It’s an extreme combination of form and function. To me, it’s architecture, interior design, vehicle engineering all in one.
One of my absolute favorite personal creations is my 1993 Mercedes G class German Army ambulance that I spent four months living in Berlin working every day to convert it to a fully self sufficient camper. It has a solar powered electrical system, a diesel powered stove, hot and cold pressurized water system, DC powered refrigerator, chemical toilet and it drives and sleeps two. The Mercedes G is also one of the most capable Offroad vehicles ever made. Last year when I finished the truck, Kas and I drove it from Berlin, through Paris to the South of France where we surfed and hung out with friends, through Spain from the north to the south, took a ferry to Morocco where we spent about 6 weeks surfing and exploring the Sahara before we headed back to Europe. Our plan was to take another ferry in a few days from Denmark to Iceland where we would have spent a few weeks driving around the island but we had to cancel that due to Covid. Eventually we will do that trip, then ship to Halifax and drive the truck to home base in Brooklyn.
Virgil — What’s your favorite place to surf in the world.
Baja California, Mexico. Baja is the best reason for a surfer to build a 4x4 camper.
Virgil — What’s your favorite car brand?
Definitely Mercedes. Working on the G Wagen and living in Germany will make a diehard fan out of anyone.
Virgil — Apple or IBM?
Virgil — Avocados or Edamame?
Virgil — Nike or New Balance?
Virgil — Miles Davis or John Coltrane?
Virgil — Coke or Pepsi?
Virgil — What’s the rookie mistake most audiophiles makes?
Using price tags to qualify gear.