Steak Mtn. is a New York–based artist, illustrator, graphic designer, set builder, and porno director. He's an artist who seems to take any paying job without becoming a whore to random masters. Instead, his willingness to do different things that come along seem to only show off the versatility of his aesthetic flavor. I learned a lot from his art at an age when I was looking to be informed. It was fun to get to ask him about his stuff.
VICE: When did you start making art? Did you start with drawing or something else?
Steak Mtn.: I grew up in Salem, Massachusetts. There used to be a drawing show for kids on TV that aired very early in the morning called The Nature World of Captain Bob (also titled Drawing from Nature). I think it was made in Boston, because no one in the rest of the country knows what the fuck I am talking about when I mention it.
But that's exactly where my interest in art started. The personality and details of that show are the absolute root of where some of my aesthetic touches and interests come from—the washed-out and fuzzy-video look of the program, the amazing fonts on the title card, and a creepy opening sequence that had this fantastically underlit pan of a miniature sea shanty in a murky puddle—I still use that as a mental example of the perfect atmosphere to try and attain in the Steak work.
You say "the Steak work" like it's by another person.
I always think of Steak that way. Always. From '96 to '01 I used the name the Amputees to imply that there was more than one artist involved. I made up two characters, Roland Scagnetti and Judy Riley, for if and when someone asked who the Amputees were.
The Scagnetti persona was a German exchange student I “met” in high school, and he did all the illustrations and liked skulls a lot. Judy did all the font work and was a nobody off the street. It was all a lie. Part of it was that I liked fucking with people, especially idiot punks, but another part was that I didn’t want the attention. That’s all different now—well, the attention part anyway; I don’t mind that. I still like fucking with idiot punk rockers.
What's with the name Steak Mtn.?
Around 2001 I changed it to Steak Mtn. I was vegetarian, and somehow the irony of calling this art a mound of meat seemed funny. (It’s not—it’s retarded.) I was still very interested in remaining anonymous but this time having a single character—I found it easier to hide behind a persona of some sort, stupid as that sounds.
At the time, it felt like a full-blast license to behave badly, be difficult with clients, and talk shit about bands. Realistically, that’s still the case—but most people that would sort of care know that Steak Mtn is Christopher Norris. Really, I wish I had a time machine and so I could name this stupid shit something else. Or just buck up and use my actual name.
What was your role in Combat Wounded Veteran? How'd that get started?
My parents moved us to Tampa, Florida, in the late 80s, around the time the death metal boom was happening there (and everywhere really). I got caught up in that world pretty heavily. In '93 I discovered a local band called Assück (Chris Barnes, then with Cannibal Corpse, who I loved, had done backups on an Assück track called “Infanticide”). I was hooked on the potential art and damage that grindcore/power violence/noise had to offer.
Combat started in ‘96, using bands like Crossed Out and No Comment (and in the unattainable extreme, John Zorn’s Naked City project) as a loose music model for what we wanted to do. I did all the art but I hated the black and white aesthetic of that music and made a very conscious decision to move as much humor and color into the monochromatic world of grindcore as I could. With that came fluorescent colors, Tom Tierney children as Frankenstein monsters, haphazardly placed press type lettering and (pretentious) eccentric song titles/lyrics.
I started as the “vocalist” and also structured and/or wrote most of the music until 2000, which is about the time we overhauled the whole lineup. We moved me to guitar, put Ponch (who originally played bass) on vocals, stole Jeff from Reversal of Man to play bass, got Jason Hamacher from Frodus on drums, and decided Radde—the other guitar player—should write most of the music. Not long after that, Radde and I decided we really hated the idea of being in a hardcore/grindcore band and shut down the project for good.
So was it you or the Locust who made metal heads into artsy wimps?
The Locust, which is due to Justin’s impeccable marketing of his bands to youth culture. They had real reach at that moment, him and Gabe and all those dudes knew how to spin something strange and new out of the meathead template of fast music. They were a truly great band. Combat, on the other hand, had no charisma, no live gimmick—we were just lazy, slapdash noise held together by sloppy art that a few goofy kids thought was cool. Pretty forgettable after the dust settled on all that power violence stuff.
You also did art for Orchid.
Only the split six-inch with Combat Wounded Veteran. They took care of their own stuff, but I think the two bands shared influences and visual enthusiasms—you see presstype, hand text, and film references in their records as well.
The first stuff I saw of yours was your cover for the Atom & His Package CDs. Do you remember which ones you did the art for? How'd you get involved with Adam "Atom" Goren?
I started with Redefining Music in 2001 and went on to do Attention! Blah Blah Blah, Hamburgers, and Hair: Debatable. Atom’s odd humor and appropriation of electronic music to make “punk” music really excited me. I especially loved his genius track “Me and My Black Metal Friends.”
At the time (and probably still) his music was perceived as this silly, thing for dorky hardcore kids to laugh at and maybe actually like. And sure, it is fun music—but the thing that drew me in most was the feeling that his art was a giant Dean Martin roast of punk. It was this kid fucking with everyone’s perception of who and what had and could be played at a “punk” show. It was rad. When he finally played Tampa at this record store/venue that I worked at called 403 Chaos, I asked him if I could do his art and he said yes.
The cover to Attention Blah Blah Blah informed me a lot in college. The way you did the blocky lettering made a lot of sense to me and was the beginning of me understanding how to do handt text. The realistically rendered hand leading into the loose, boneless looking flesh also did a lot for me.
That’s a rad and weird thing to hear. Most feedback I get is steeped in sweaty kid lingo like “your work is so sick,” which, as you know, is the most boring thing to hear—despite it being a very nice thing because at least someone is excited. But it’s great when it comes around on you and an artist you love says what you are saying. It’s cool.
That block lettering and general messiness of the inside hand text was influenced by the cover for Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted. I wasn’t a fan of the actual music, but there was something about that cover that stayed with me, maybe it was the audacity of it’s low-rent appearance. I used it as a key reference when putting the record together.
You just asked him and he said yes? Did he know your art already or your band/?
I am also sure I pitched him some ridiculousness about how his odd music needed a certain kind of art and that I could provide it. I am not a bad Steak salesman when I need to be and, yeah, he was vaguely familiar with Combat because of the I Know a Girl Who Develops Crime Scene Photos LP on No Idea. So he had a good gauge of what he could expect.
Did you do the art for free?
Nope. Hopeless Records paid me $1,000 for that record. Punk labels are notoriously cheap when art is concerned (actually all labels are, these days) as that is what I still get paid when working with “major” “punk” labels. Which is why I don’t take a lot of that work, unless it’s a favor for a friend or by the some strange act of God I like the band—that never happens, because we all know that there is no god, and even more realistically, all punk bands make terrible music for boring teens.
The first time I asked you what your main job was, you told me that you built sets for fetish movies. I don't know if I believed you at the time.
But it was totally true. In the summer of 2009, I left Brooklyn to take a job in San Francisco at Kink.com, which, to paraphrase Wikipedia a bit, is an adult entertainment company “that runs a group of websites devoted to BDSM and related fetishes”—or, as they like to say, “We demystify and celebrate alternative sexuality by providing the most authentic kinky experiences.” I was their set decorator for three years before moving back to Brooklyn in 2012.
Tell me about working with porn.
It was the only job I have ever I truly loved, including all of this Steak work. The company was a perfect fit for me at the time—not in the meathead “I like seeing naked people banging so I should get into porn” sense, because that’s boring. I am not a fan of adult material because I think it’s a turn-on or hot or whatever base way people view pornography. I am a fan because I see adult movies as one of the greatest subversive and experimental film genres of all time. It allows the potential artist/filmmaker to create anything (imagination, skill, and budget willing, of course).
As long as you hang a few fucks on it, the art-hiding-in-a-commercial-product can be a success. A shadowy one for sure, and a self-satisfied one absolutely, but a success nonetheless. Now, I am not totally idealistic, pretentious, and blind to the material—I know what porn is and how it functions. No one pulling or playing with their privates gives a fuck if you re-imagined Brakhage’s Black Ice as a colorful kinetic fuck sculpture starring Jayden James and James Deen. I would be a full-blown idiot if I thought so. What I am saying is that I love you can do that and it still works as the erotic service tool it was 100 percent funded to be.
I brought that viewpoint with me to the set-decorator position and found a company of people who agreed, maybe not as extreme as I did, but enough so that I wasn’t laughed out of the building. It was amazing. I also loved that I had spent 25 years watching and being excited about movies, from the abject to the “classic,” and was able to utilize that enthusiasm and knowledge to create sets (sometimes dressing six different sets for six different sites—so six different styles—in four hours, daily) and help brainstorm ideas for shoots—or at least suggest a director watch something that I hoped would generate an idea for them.
And obviously, after all that big “art” talk, I naturally aspired to become a director at Kink. I got a chance to pitch two sites, both of which Peter Acworth (the owner of Kink) optioned, and I was able to do a test shoot for each. But ultimately bad timing, poor sales (possibly poor skill on my part), and the slightest bit of company bureaucracy hindered my chances to move forward.
But it was fun to be able to direct and make art in a way I had always wanted to. I cite those two shoots as the best time I have ever created anything, ever.
I really liked watching the movies you made, but they didn't make me want to jerk off. I like the scene in the Larkin movie where she drinks the milk and then knocks over the glass of milk, but the sound design was too weird and unsettling for me to ignore.
I can totally understand that. My hope was that Larkin Love and Derrick Pierce would be sexually ample and exciting enough to hold up the content while I tried to stuff every other-than-sex idea I could stuff in this one piece.
My goal was to disjoint the simple narrative/catalyst of Larkin getting in trouble for spilling the milk and being “punished” and hopefully push everything into a loose dreamscape. On top of the recurring but slightly different shots of her sitting at the table, the sound design was important in enhancing that atmosphere. That may have been a mistake on my part but also sounds like it worked in that capacity—at least sort of—but didn’t work where it really needed to—on the groin.
My equation is this: You have ten minutes or less to do what you want, and then you have to let the raincoat crowd have what they paid (or stole) for. I just got to get better at finding the balance if I take it up again.
So you've made art for heavy metal bands and porno movies. What are you working on lately? I saw you've been working with Against Me! a a lot.
There is not much personal work happening lately. Fucking around with design ideas and drawing styles, sure, but no finished pieces and with no art shows planned. That may change, who knows. I have just been focusing on the commercial work because that’s what is on, which yes, there is a lot of Against Me! material at this moment. I started working with the band in 2005 and have done a good chunk of their visual output since then, minus a record cover or a shirt here and there.
What's with these watches?
About six years ago, David Stowe—who owns and operates Vannen Watches—asked me to do a Steak Mtn. artist watch. He had done some for artists like Drew Millward and Alex Pardee. He was a fan of some of the records I had designed so he reached out. I liked the idea, but it took my six years to figure out what I wanted to do.
The spacial real estate of a watch was, for me, weird to work with—especially since I feel like I do not have a staple icon or friendly style that would translate to something as pop art-based as a simple timepiece. For my show at Beach London in 2012, the gallery made a run of I Probably Hate You scarfs I designed and not long after that I pitched the slogan to David for a watch and he thought it was a interesting way to go. It also cleared up my design dilemma because I sometimes forget that Steak work is usually more about theme and/or humor over the style I used to execute the piece.
It turned out exactly how I wanted it—tacky and noncommittal message presented with a total lack of watch protocol via minimal design, meaning: black arms on a black face and no numbers or time notches to help do what a watch is suppose to do.
What else should I be asking about that I don't know?
Check out more of Steak Mtn at his website.