PRESS TO PLAY
If you've never witnessed a 50-year-old Vandercook No. 232 Proof Press working at full-on, finger-crushing capacity, then you've never heard a noise like this: SKREE CHUNK KA-CHANK SKREE CHUNK KA-CHANK SKREE CHUNK KA-CHANK. And you've never seen the primitive, industrial sensuality of rollers, bearings, plates, wheels and belts moving in greased tandem to produce a single sheet of letterpressed paper. In today's cold world of computers, watching an anachronistic contraption like the Vandercook is damned near erotic.
Still, it's hard to imagine that a machine so--well, so mechanical--could act as an artist's palette; for Bruce Licher--graphic designer, printer, musician, record-label entrepreneur--that is exactly the case.
Licher is in his Sedona shop (the decor is just a bit too steel-wood-and-ink to be explained by the word "studio"), a facility he describes as "state-of-the-art circa Thirties and Forties," surrounded by the tools of the designer/printer half of his work. There's the gray, hulking Chandler & Price Power 232 press; the Rosback Perforator (patented on August 7, 1888) made in Benton Harbor, Michigan; the Ohio Knife Company Jet-Cut; the leather-belted Redington Counting Machine; stacks of slim, wooden typeface drawers labeled with names from another time: Glamour, Parisian, Shadow, Hellenic, Venus Bold, Unknown No. 2.
What Licher creates here at Independent Project Press rides the line between "art" and "product." The relatively small batches (never more than a few thousand) of album sleeves, postcards, stamps and other memorabilia that he produces are meticulously crafted, and are fed into the presses by hand, piece by piece. His combinations--austere photographic images, disparate mixes of Dada-esque typeface, postage-stamp visions swathed in gold, silver and blood-red--are instantly distinctive. Created inside Licher's design ethos, something as potentially mundane as a business card emerges as a haunting work that seems antiquated yet vibrant and contemporary.
"Over the years, I've gotten more into the ornamental aspects of type," he says. "Lately, I've been getting into minimal design. A lot of things, when they get to the point where I'd like them to be, they look like they're from the Forties, but at the same time, they have a modern quality."
If you're thinking the man has a background in art, you're right. Licher, 36, studied fine arts at UCLA in the late Seventies, and has maintained his work-from-the-heart mentality. "I've come at this from being an artist, in a sense. I didn't study graphic design in school. That's why it's kind of ironic that here I am making my living as a graphic designer," explains Licher with the soft-spoken, absolute sincerity of Mr. Rogers. "Kind of the approach that I have is I want to make a beautiful object, and I mostly want to make it for things that I love, whether it's music or photographs or writing or whatever.
"At the same time, I don't want to make things that look slick; I like the hand-done nature of things."
Doing things the old-fashioned way has not made Licher a rich man, but his work has developed international respect. R.E.M. is among his clients--Licher has designed the band's fan-club packages and Christmas cards for the last four years--as was Camper Van Beethoven. And for good reason. He discovered Camper and released its first album on his Independent Project Records label. Licher has been nominated for two Grammy Awards for album design: the first for For Against's 1987 release Echelons; the second a year later for Camper's Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.
His album sleeves may encase pop music, but you'd be more inclined to frame the covers than to set a beer on them. Incident at Cima is IPR's latest release (in stores by mid-April), and one Licher is particularly involved in--the CD is by Scenic, the band he leads. The ambient/experimental music and striking packaging are a perfect introduction to the deliciously offbeat world of Licher.
"Most people's motivation for getting involved in music is to be a star in some way. [But] Bruce just likes what he does; he believes in the aesthetic of it," says Licher fan Jack Rabid, editor/publisher of the 15-year-old publication The Big Takeover, a highly respected underground 'zine.
"There are people who are just as much in love with the process of working as they are with the results. It's more important that they create the work than to have people applaud them; Bruce's degree of care is absolutely phenomenal."
Music is just as large a part of Licher's creative drive as are design and printing. As is usually the case, though, the music doesn't pay the bills. Enrolled in a photography class at UCLA in 1979, Licher began snapping away at punk bands in the burgeoning L.A. music scene. Photos begat rock.
"I really started getting into music and realizing that I could do it myself," he says. "It looked pretty simple to get up there and do that, so I went and bought a cheap guitar and took some lessons. But after about six weeks, I got tired of learning Chuck Berry licks, 'cause I was having more fun just making weird noises on it."
Licher signed up for an "Independent Project" course under the tutelage of Chris Burden (a notorious artist in his own right who once had himself shot through the arm as part of an art performance) and recorded an experimental-sound single as his project.
"I had to create a name for my record label, but everything I came up with just sounded really pretentious," Licher explains. "Then I thought, 'What is this?' It's an independent project record, so that's what I'll call it. By the time I got finished, it was like, 'Hey, that was fun. I'm going to do another one.'"
Bands with actual names followed--Tunneltones, Them Rhythm Ants, and Africa Corps--until Licher formed Savage Republic in 1981. An experimental/industrial group that didn't stop with mere guitars and drums, SR utilized 55-gallon oil barrels, pipes and railroad ties to accompany lyrics that were offered in screams rather than singing. And Licher is quick to point out that, yes, you could still dance to it.
The band, which lasted for the next eight years, created a cult following worldwide, drawing the attention of no less a music authority than Jimmy Swaggart, who wrote that the group's name had a "demonic orientation." In 1982, another significant event occurred--Boy Met Letterpress. Licher enrolled in a class at the Women's Graphics Center in Los Angeles and started printing material for Savage Republic. "I did the first album cover, single covers; I started printing postcards for our gigs instead of Xeroxing fliers."
The letterpress--a prelithography system of printing that uses raised letters, which are locked into a printing plate, then inked and pressed against paper--had instant appeal for Licher. "For a lot of years, it seemed like most people that were doing letterpress were really into fine books, using it for making limited editions of some famous writing, which was all pretty dry for me," he says. "But when I saw the capability that I could start making record packaging, I thought, 'Wow, this is really great.'"
One thing that isn't really great is trying to land a job with a fine arts degree for credentials. Licher, two years out of school and working as a campus courier at UCLA, began melding music and printing, making the independent projects dependent on each other.
"I started approaching other bands about putting out their releases, and as I did that, the word got out there. After a year of working at the Women's Graphics Center, it became obvious to me that I needed my own press. I was in there all the time, and I started getting jobs where I was getting paid, and that was not what the center was set up for.
"A friend of mine from UCLA--who, earlier that year, had been involved in a car accident and was paralyzed from the waist down--he got a big settlement and was basically looking for investments. He ended up investing in Independent Projects. He loaned me $5,000, and I was able to buy equipment, rent a space downtown, move in and start trying to make a living."
The downtown space was a turn-of-the-century brick building in a deserted industrial section of L.A.; above the main entrance was a painted sign--"Nate Starkman and Sons." The space became home and workplace to Bruce and his wife, artist and co-IPR boss Karen Nielsen Licher. Eventually, it also created something Mr. Starkman probably never envisioned: the name of a record label. "In 1987, a guy had licensed Savage Republic releases in Europe, and he told me he'd be happy to release other IPR recordings," explains Licher. "I already had a deal for IPR, but I thought there were some other releases we could put through this guy and create another label. We named it after this building we were in, 'Nate Starkman and Sons,' thinking people would love to buy records from Nate."
They did, especially in England, where the Starkman family's success began to rub Licher the wrong way.
"I'd spent years doing IPR, but people still didn't know about it [over there]. Eventually, my partner and I had differences, so we split. I focused on IPR; he took the label [Starkman and Sons] and ran it right into the ground."
Which is not an atypical story in the music business, a realm in which incompetent or unscrupulous conduct is often just a contract away. Not so under the roof of Independent Project, where the artist comes first.
"I can't think of anybody else I'd rather work with," admits Brandon Capps, singer/guitarist/songwriter for Valley band Half String; his group has had three releases on IPR. "I was pretty turned off at the music industry in general . . . I'd met so many schmucks and been kind of disappointed with seeing how dirty things were. My initial impression when I first met Bruce was that he was probably one of the nicest guys I'll ever meet in this business. He invests so much of himself in [the label] that he can't help treat it personally."
It was the high level of TLC that resulted in IPR discovering the now-legendary alternative group Camper Van Beethoven. Before Camper was even named Camper, bass player Victor Krummenacher boarded a bus in 1984, along with about 400 other Savage Republic fans, and rode to a remote dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert to see SR perform. (It was a typically bizarre Savage gig; the band--which was more anarchistic than artsy--prided itself on infrequent but singular performances.)
"Victor had been writing to me, telling me he was playing music with some guys, and he came out to the Mojave shows, and I met him for the first time," Licher says. "Later, he sent me a tape. It was fun stuff, but my first reaction was, 'This is kind of weird, but it doesn't seem like anything I would work with.'"
Camper regrouped, recorded another tape and addressed it to IPR. "It was very much improved. I said I'd be glad to get it out, so we printed up 1,200 copies of Telephone Free Landslide Victory in '85, and it just took off. I did a second edition with a hand-printed cover, and it got to the point where I couldn't keep up with it, so we licensed it to Rough Trade [Records]."
In addition to the knowledge that he acted as midwife to Camper's success, Licher still gets "a royalty check for a couple hundred bucks a few times a year. It's not much, but it helps." Three years after Savage Republic called it a day, Licher formed Scenic, a band cut from the same experimental cloth as SR. But where his previous group could go shopping for instruments at a junkyard, Scenic sticks to more traditional apparatus: guitars, mandolins, bass, drums, even a harmonica. The music on the band's debut CD, Incident at Cima, was conceived as a soundtrack for the eastern Mojave Desert (think Ennio Morricone meets Brian Eno), and is as evocative of that barren, direct landscape as is Licher's accompanying cover art.
"I don't think they're in any way unconnected," says Jack Rabid of Licher's music/art addiction. "I think that he approaches all of his projects with both in mind. I think it's so important that the two be commensurate that it's part and parcel of him, period."
Hank Williams Jr. is responsible for Bruce and Karen Licher moving to Arizona. At least the boxed set of Hank's music that IPR did the art for provided the money that got the couple out of wicked, ugly L.A. "It's true," says Bruce, shrugging. "That was the job. When they were preparing to do this box for Bocephus, they wanted a Forties look, so they called me up. Though I haven't listened to it yet."
Certainly a drastic move--from a downtown neighborhood where people snort crystal to a pine-scented land where people worship crystals--but Licher was fed up with the earthquakes and crime in the City of Angels, and Sedona presented a bucolic option. "For years, when we would go on vacations, we'd visit small towns and say, 'Could we live here?' But I had family living in Sedona, and another advantage is that a lot of our friends want to come visit; it's a place people want to come to. I think it's also good for business. It's got a name."
Licher's work is developing a name, as well, to the point of the supreme compliment: People are stealing his look. "Just in the past few years, there have been several new studios set up where it has been fairly obvious that they've been influenced or inspired by what I've been doing," says Licher, who is humble but no fool. "I have mixed feelings about it at times, but it also pushes me to try new things and not to get stuck in one style."
Yet Licher's style, in a broad sense, has not changed. What sets it so distinctively apart--both in music and in design--is the interweaving of old and new, baroque and fundamental, loud and soft. It doesn't parade as "art" with a capital A, but it is not meant for mass consumption, either. Licher's work is personal; his business isn't named Independent Project for nothing. "I'm just trying to create something interesting that isn't already out there," he says. "If it's already been done, I don't see any reason to do it.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.