SS19 Featured Artist Interview: Robbie Simon
Robbie Simon is an LA-based artist, designer and audiophile who is a core member of the Reverberation Radio crew. In light of his recent collaboration with Pilgrim Surf + Supply’s SS19 collection and a solo show of works on paper entitled “HOOPS” currently on view at Pilgrim Surf + Supply in Tokyo, Phil Ayers and Matt Borgia of PSS recently hopped on a call to catch up with the artist.
PSS: Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up, went to school, and how you first got into art and graphic design? Was there a particular moment or turning point when you realized you wanted to pursue a career in art?
RS: I’ll try and give a succinct version of it all: I grew up in Huntington Beach, CA and was always more drawn to creative and artistic things than I even really understood at the time, because it’s not really a part of my family necessarily. They’re more of a sports and work-oriented family. So I just thought of it as a hobby, like taking photos or putting collages together and stuff like that. So I never really grew up with any sort of intention or understanding that a creative profession was reasonable or even possible. It wasn’t until I went to college at San Francisco State University and had to pick a major that I realized, ‘wait, I should do something that I like.’ It was a real sort of epiphany to realize that it’s not a bad thing to do something that you want to do. So I entered the Design program - my major was called Visual Communications - and that got me a good start but I also didn’t really leave that program equipped with any real, tangible skills for the real world. So after college, I kind of had to figure it out over a long period of working pretty much every shitty design job imaginable and not necessarily excelling at any one of them. I actually had a pretty amazing run of working for super unsuccessful, flaming out businesses. I guess those were the people who saw me as an asset for a long time (laughs). I was just kind of aimlessly trying to figure out where I could land in the graphic design world while simultaneously trying to develop my own style. But the fact that I always worked with bands and musicians, since that was my crew and I was always in bands, I knew I could design posters, flyers and album art and be creative making stuff that I actually liked.
PSS: What instrument did you play?
RS: Well I think I’m comfortably retired now since I found something that I’m a lot better at, but I used to play drums and sing. But that was everything for me, doing artwork and zines for friends’ bands. I was living in San Francisco at that time around, 2008 after graduating, and it had a really good music scene. My band was sort of on the fringes of it but I toured with Ty Segall and did the artwork for The Fresh & Onlys first few singles and just helped make posters for everyone in that scene. It was an amazing time and luckily I was able to help people out by making artwork for their bands, it didn’t cost them anything and I got some great experience doing that type of work. It was very formative but not necessarily the most productive in terms of launching any sort of career.
PSS: While you were in college and in the early years of your career that followed, did you ever think that you’d be painting and having gallery shows in addition to your career as a graphic designer?
RS: No, never crossed my mind (laughs). In fact, I think I even had a bit of an adversarial viewpoint towards fine art, galleries, the art world etc. I felt like I had kind of missed out on the proper art school experience and the whole fine art scene just felt really self-indulgent to me. It all seemed a bit silly and I just had more of a blue-collar approach to the whole thing, considering these kids who were spending $50,000 a year on art school, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but just isn’t for me. The whole reason I got started with design is because it was pragmatic, I can be creative and also be guaranteed a paycheck, which, based on my upbringing, was really the only thing that made sense and allowed me to emotionally commit. I even got a minor in marketing just thinking that that was the practical thing to do.
PSS: I understand you worked for Geoff McFetridge early on in your career, how did working for and with him influence your practice?
RS: Working as a Studio Assistant for Geoff was a huge turning point for me. At that point, I had moved down to LA, had already worked all sorts of different jobs, was developing my own aesthetic and style and had all this experience, but I didn’t really know what to do with it or what direction to go in. And so luckily, I got into that job and it really got me out of the hole in so many ways. I mean, within the first month of working there, just seeing how Geoff works and knowing what is possible was such a game changer for me and so educational. The projects he got to do, the style he got to work in, the self-created language that he had developed, mastered and utilized in such incredible ways were all so eye-opening for me. And for the first time in my entire career, I saw someone with a career in design that I desired. I really was like, ‘I want that.’
Luckily I worked there for longer than a month and was able to learn a ton, get better at the work I was doing and envision a better, more viable career path doing this kind of work.
From there, I was just really motivated to keep working and hustling on the side, in the evenings and on the weekends to build up a portfolio and steady freelance work to eventually leave the job and go solo.
PSS: Did working for Geoff also inspire you to start painting more while simultaneously continuing your commercial work?
RS: Oh absolutely, I mean, my model is kind of based on Geoff’s. We’re different people so we obviously approach and react to things differently, but I saw what he was doing and it hit me in just the right spot. The diversity of projects, the high-low approach to things and seeing how he applies this unmistakable visual language he’s created to so many different projects was just amazing to see. I was very conscious of trying to not step on his toes in any way aesthetically, but I also learned certain painting techniques from him that are definitely visible in my work. And yeah, he just helped me realize that you can have a career as a graphic designer doing commercial work and also make paintings.
PSS: Whether it’s a painting, an album cover or event branding, your aesthetic, linework and palette is super recognizable. How do you balance your commercial work with your studio practice? Do you find it refreshing to alternate between different mediums and having prompts for various projects? Do you prefer one over the other?
RS: It’s really opportunity-based. I’m pretty deep into this whole thing in terms of a career but it’s still just a constant grind and I feel very lucky that it’s been going well and the phone keeps ringing and I’m still chugging along. So much of it for me is the motivation that if something good comes up, you can’t say no and to just keep hammering away at it. So I definitely balance it based on what comes up, which is primarily commercial-based, and which is also a financial decision but I am very happy whenever a gallery or painting project comes my way.
I develop my work with both sides of the equation in mind, and I usually try to develop the artwork as a singular thing so that I can have a pool of ideas from which I can go to when I have a project come up. I don’t usually start a project with a blank page starting from scratch. I usually go straight to the reserves to see what’s in there and what I can apply to a particular project. So in that regard, when someone approaches me for a show, I’m like ‘absolutely, that’s fucking great’ and I start developing paintings for a show then. Or if a group show comes up and I ask how many paintings are needed, then I’ll pretty much just try to create that many works. So yeah, with painting, I’d say it’s kind of a la carte. But at the same time, I do wish it was a bit more and that I had more time for the painting in order to develop new techniques and explore the process a bit more. But that’s just such a huge endeavor on its own and it would unfortunately take away from the time I need to dedicate to other projects. So for now, in a way, I’m just trying to run this like a business as much as possible while trying to maintain the integrity of the art and keep it as sincere as possible.
PSS: Did you grow up skating and/or surfing and did the graphic elements of these subcultures play a role in your discovery of art and creativity?
RS: Yeah, absolutely, I mean down in Huntington Beach it’s such a funny, weird world because both skating and surfing are so deeply intertwined with everything. That whole culture is crazy - I’ll never forget - and it seems so funny looking back on it now - but there was a Pennywise billboard across the street from my high school (laughs). And also, how the guys on the varsity football team were also ripping surfers, there was just this crazy crossover of subcultures that you don’t find in too many other places, but down there, surfing and skateboarding are basically mainstream sports. So it’s funny because they aren’t necessarily counterculture, at least the activities in and of themselves aren’t, and so you have to go above and beyond to be some sort of counterculture person. But yeah, as a kid I grew up at the beach and did surf team in middle school. And then in high school, it felt almost conformist and non-rebellious to do those things...I mean, I was just trying to figure myself out in high school and get the fuck out of there.
But yeah aesthetically, absolutely. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about how I never really understood my gravitation towards graphics and art even though I was always deeply immersed in it, I just didn’t recognize it. I would always get all the magazines and cut stuff out and make collages to hang up on my walls. I remember one time, I figured out how to use Microsoft Word and I arranged all these surf logos in some sort of pattern. I was bored, just killing time as a kid, but doing stuff like that was my impulse. Collecting my favorite stickers and stuff. I don’t know how it all relates, I just know that I have a total affinity for it and it makes me feel really nostalgic.
PSS: Going back to Huntington Beach, I know you did the artwork for the Vans Surf US Open last summer, was that a surreal sort of homecoming for you to contribute artwork and branding to such a large, corporate event that you had in your backyard growing up?
RS: Yes, absolutely. Never in a million years would I have imagined doing that job back when I was growing up there. Actually, a funny backstory is that when I was working for Geoff earlier on, he got hit for the job and that seemed really crazy to me at the time, that I was working for someone who would be doing the artwork for this event. They eventually came to a creative deadend and ultimately split, but just that opportunity even entering my world, even if only indirectly, was a huge shock. So then when they hit me up for the job, that was a huge shock. Throughout my career, any time I get a job on Geoff’s level, I’ll always be stoked and feel like I’m making it or at least doing something right.
It’s funny how much your perspective of an event like that changes as you get older. As a kid, I absolutely loved going to it and having it so close to home, and then as a teenager was like ‘this is bullshit, this seems gross.’ And then it got really dark when there were those riots and you see photos of all these girls getting the Monster Energy Drink logo airbrushed on their asses. It just seemed hyper-tacky, worst-quality of southern California wrapped up in one event. But then, ya know, I got the job and I probably hadn’t been to the event in close to 20 years. I did the work, they picked my favorite design and, honestly, Vans was super easy to work with. I went to the event and have to say that Vans did an amazing job, they’ve cleaned up the event unbelievably, they’ve designed the whole space, it feels great, it looks great and they handled all the art beautifully. So I ended up being stoked on the whole thing and hats off to Vans for putting good taste and reasonability into that whole thing.
I actually went down there with my Mom and we went to the merch shop, where they’d put my art on thousands of shirts, flip flops, trucker hats and everything you can imagine, and my Mom saw it and actually started crying. That alone made it all worth it, you never think you’re gonna make your Mom cry with your work...at least not in a good way (laughs).
PSS: Your artwork feels a bit anachronistic, in that it feels like it would fit right in with the colors and feel of the more mid-century modern art of the 60s. And yet, there’s something about it that feels fresh and new while also inspiring a sense of nostalgia. Can you give the world a little insight into the artists who inspire you?
RS: I definitely gravitate towards the past, I can’t really get away from that. I guess I would trace it back to the music, like looking at old album artwork. I usually go backwards then forward. But I’m trying to get better with that, definitely with music, and open my eyes to newer more contemporary things. You sit in the past for so long and it feels silly, like a caricature or putting on a costume and playing something that’s already been done and it’s old. That just feels sad at this point.
I can’t deny that some of my influences are probably 80 years old at this point but I really don’t want to be focused on nostalgia or purity in the sense of a bygone era, that to me is just sad and trite. You know, the funny thing about creating in any capacity is that you’re really just trying to do your best and it’s hard enough to make anything good. So to try and make something and put it through a filter of what you want it to be, you’re really just kind of hitting your head against a wall. It’s better to just close your eyes and see what good comes out and focus on what you’re actually good at. That said, the best work that I know how to make is very reminiscent of the past and I guess I’m just trying to follow the road of whatever good work I can make.
I’m also aware that the type of work I’m making, these hyper flat, sort of soft abstracts, are definitely a bit omnipresent in current painting trends, but I’m usually just trying to keep my head down and my eyes away from it to a degree. So in terms of contemporary artists who inspire me, I think it’s so much easier for me to get behind people who are doing something different from me. For example, a friend of mine Danny Fox, he’s just incredible. I feel like a fraud when I go and talk to Danny and see what he’s working on. Our processes are just so different and he’s such a pure painter. And I am just such a non-pure painter, which doesn’t really matter, but it’s cool to see someone working in classic, romantic style of painting just banging out one amazing work after the next.
I’m also kind of a super fan of Tim Presley’s artwork. I put out a book of his drawings a few years ago when I was thinking of starting a small book press project, and he was the first person that came to mind. He also had his first gallery show not long ago in LA and he just put up like 60 drawings and it was unbelievable, the amount of work he just plastered to the wall like a sort of wallpaper. It was staggering. When someone has that naturally good style with their hand, I’m pretty much gonna like anything you do. It’s similar to Danny where the style isn’t necessarily a part of my vernacular so I can just fully appreciate it and love it.
I should also mention one other person, my friend Mattea Perrotta. She and I definitely make very similar work or have a similar process but our execution is wildly different. She’s been my best bud in the art world and the creative world. We just relate and get along really well. And because we make somewhat similar work with a differing execution, it’s really fun to just riff on stuff together and talk it over and strategize and commiserate. She’s definitely been a huge influence on me.
PSS: You’ve been doing artwork for the Allah-Las for a long time now, how did you initially get involved with them? Was that the first band you did album artwork for? Do you have a favorite album cover you’ve done in your career?
RS: I had definitely done quite a bit before them, just back during that San Francisco era, I was doing artwork pretty much for every band that I was ever in as well as the first few Fresh & Onlys singles, a few of Ty Segall’s side projects, along with some other bands. It was just the type of thing where everything was getting pumped out and we’d all be like ‘does anyone know how to layout a record to print?’ And I was like ‘I do,’ so that just put me in a position to be the go-to-guy to do that sort of thing. So yeah, I’d done quite a bit before working with them. Then they started the band, and we were already friends, so once they started putting stuff out it all just fell into place. I was the guy who knew how to do the visual shit and I think we all knew that we’d get along just fine working together and that the aesthetics were aligned.
From the start, it’s always been a wonderfully symbiotic relationship because we had similar tastes and they gave me a platform and the creative liberty to do whatever I wanted. As they started to grow and succeed, that platform in turn grew for me. And I was able to make sure their stuff looked good and that they had interesting art for their albums and posters so that people would turn their heads and pay attention. So yeah, it’s just always been perfectly symbiotic, and it also all came about at a time when I was trying to figure out my career and my own style. I think you can pretty much see the evolution through all the work we’ve done together.
PSS: It’s cool how it’s come full circle and you’re all still working together in such a collaborative way - the fact that you’re all going to Bali together and then to Japan, where they’ll play a concert and you’ll have your art show - it’s crazy that the unit is still together and continuing to grow.
RS: Oh totally, it’s crazy! We’re extremely lucky and you can never purposefully concoct something like this. You just have to be appreciative that it’s worked out, that you didn’t blow any opportunities and have just kept working hard. It’s incredible what we’ve all been able to build and I guess it’s just a talent pool where we’ve got a crew of people who do good work together and it’s all kind of wrapped up in Reverberation Radio as a common bond. Also, the fact that we all still like each other is cool too (laughs).
PSS: Can you tell us a little more about Reverberation Radio and how it came to be?
RS: Reverb is the one thing that never really had big ambitions but has now coalesced into something that we can all rally around. There are 9 core members in Reverberation and we take guest mixes from friends for sure. It went from starting out as a college radio show to the podcast that it is now, and it’s just the product of a group of people how have always been record collectors and mix-makers. It’s always been a platform that we all just wanted to throw our hats into, and I think just trying to outdo each other and see who can make a better mix, honestly (laughs). But just the fact that we kept doing it and it’s been going on for so long, I think consistency is the rarest thing and so actually making it all these years and never missing a week has probably been the key to its success.
PSS: You guys do a lot of live DJ sets, how does the live aspect differ from making a playlist.
RS: Totally different, I guess it depends on the type of event but we definitely do a lot of opening parties or work with stores who want a DJ for an event, and for those sorts of things the vibe is very much mix-like. You’re just trying to play interesting music and throw some variety into it, and also working with the short attention spans of both yourself and others...Umm I don’t know what I’m talking about, I don’t like this party answer so far (laughs). The mixes are just what’s exciting to us, what feels fresh, and also just the precipice of whatever we’re discovering at any given time. I don’t think we really sit on stuff at this point, no more hanging onto favorite tracks, since we’ve been doing it for so long, we’ve depleted all the archives. Every mix is pretty much stuff that’s new to us too. It’s more fun like that, too, because it’s not shit we’re burnt out on.
And as for the parties, yeah we’ve recently gotten more into throwing actual parties, like dance parties, probably in the last year or two. I guess it’s just a progression of interest where you’re kind of opening your mind up to stuff that at least I know I used to turn my nose up at - like different forms of disco and dance music. So I guess I’d just say that I’m playing ‘fun music’ for the first time. Throwing a party is just such a different vibe but it’s a whole new adventure and challenge. It also feels pretty weird to be in my mid-30s trying to make people dance and I often think of how old of a DJ I’d like to be (laughs). I felt like I was probably gonna hang it up for a while because I DJed a ton when I was a kid in San Francisco. I started when I was 19 with a fake ID and that was a huge part of my life for a long time. And then I just wasn’t playing stuff that anyone really liked and you know that when you do that. So I felt pretty done with it, and then more recently started getting into these fun dance records from which the response is so different. You kind of forget how good of a feeling it is to throw down on a good party where people are really stoked and going crazy. That’s a pretty addictive feeling and so I’m getting back into that. It’s also helped rejuvenate my interest in record collecting.
PSS: Have you been to Japan before?
RS: I went a long time ago now, when I was about 19 or 20. I had a cousin who was doing an English teaching program. So I was like, fuck, why not? It was so cool, but it was also just a family-oriented, good-natured trip. No drinking, did all the touristy things but still unbelievably fun. I bought a ton of records and had to throw clothes away to fit them in my suitcase and whatnot. So this time around, I’m expecting a similar but also very different trip. I am pumped.
PSS: Are you traveling anywhere else during this trip as an extension, either before or after?
RS: So we’re actually going to Bali before we go to Japan during this trip. Japan is obviously first in our hearts but second in terms of business and we’re doing this trip through Reverberation Radio. It’s our third year in a row going. We work with this hotel over there and we sort of developed a soundtrack so to speak for them, and the first year they had us over to DJ for them, which was wonderful and crazy. And then last year we kind of developed it into a kind of branded little festival, which we might’ve gotten a little bit ambitious with, and so this year we’re scaling it back a bit. But still, it’ll be 3 days, Matt Correia, the drummer from the Allah-Las, is going to do a photo show, we’ll have a few nights of DJing and then the Allah-Las will play a show and we’ll probably have a film night because they have this amazing roof where we can screen projections. It’s ridiculous, it’s a fucking dream world over there. So we’re stoked to do that and then we’ll hop over to Tokyo after that. The Allah-Las are are gonna play at the Green Room and I’ll have my show at Pilgrim, so we’ll have a nice little crew over there. Then I think my girlfriend and I are gonna take off for another week to travel in Japan. Life’s looking good and I’m super stoked!
PSS: Regardless of musical content, is there an album cover that has always stood out to you or do you have an all-time favorite?
RS: The one that always immediately comes to mind is the album ‘154’ by Wire, which is almost a dull answer because you take one look at that and you’re like, ‘duh, of course this fucking guy loves that’ (laughs). But yeah I think that cover is perfect and I love that record. The other one is probably ‘Another Green World’ by Brian Eno, which is a detail snippet of a larger work entitled “After Raphael” by the artist Tom Phillips. I think that cover is beautiful and the full piece that he pulled from is just unbelievable.
Oh and just to add, one of my favorite all time record designers is Barney Bubbles. He, in my opinion, is one of the most amazing, unsung designers of the 20th century. I don’t think he ever put his name on a single record. And the fact that he started out with a band like Hawkwind and then evolved all the way to pop records in the 80s, that sort of ability to maneuver through eras and keep his work fresh and contemporary is just astounding to me. Also, he was so good without having a definitive aesthetic, which is both amazing and incredibly difficult to do, to always nail something without some sort of signature trait or style. He was always reinventing his work and good taste, so yeah, that dude is fucking unbelievable. Old Barney Bubbles.
PSS: Bringing in back to Pilgrim and the fact you designed tee shirts and hats as our featured artist this season, for which the inspiration was spiritual jazz. Were there any albums or artists of that era that you were referencing or had in mind when you were working on these Pilgrim designs?
RS: Not necessarily anything specific, but I think just as a cultural touchstone and theme it was a fun one for me to work with because it just naturally gravitates towards abstract art. It’s a musical form that has this beauty and poetry to it without being conventional or even easily legible, so it gives the viewer a chance to interpret it. Even the musician isn’t necessarily trying to evoke any one specific thing but the listener gets a chance to put it into their own context and feel what they want to feel from it. And abstract art kind of fits that exactly. You’re really just trying to create a space for someone to engage with. And you hopefully inject enough interesting elements into it, whether it’s color, or motion, or shapes, so that people are compelled to engage with it. It’s vague and beautiful and meditative, so yeah this project was a nice fit and I tried to find work that had a bit of movement to it and wasn’t too structured.
PSS: What’s on the horizon for you in terms of upcoming projects and/or exhibitions?
RS: Of all things in this world, I just hand-painted four suits for Post Malone to perform in. I guess his stylist is a bit of a fan and she got him on this routine of wearing a custom-made, hand-painted, bespoke suit for every show. They came out cool, I mean it’s gonna be a funny one to see out in the world, at least for one single night. I also did some art for a new Warby Parker that’ll be opening up. And then this show and trip has been a big one on the horizon for a while now. This summer there’s a bunch of stuff that we’ll see if it comes to be, but hopefully I’ll be doing another full-scale painting show here in LA early next year. It’s already been a crazy year but hopefully it keeps going and I’m looking forward to the ride ahead.
Shop the full Robbie Simon for Pilgrim Surf + Supply collection here.