Merch Madness: Inside the World of Mondo

A look into the minds behind the Austin company's vinyl empire


    Type the words “Mondo” and “poster” into eBay, and you’ll see some jaw-dropping results. A Kill Bill poster from regular Mondo contributor Tyler Stout will cost you $1,999.95. Laurent Durieux’s stunning take on Jaws goes for $2,500 flat. A trio of Star Wars posters, each one representing a film in the original trilogy, from artist Olly Moss is up for $15,000. While these prices may be extreme, they prove that Mondo doesn’t just make screen prints or vinyl records or toys. They make art.

    Founded by Tim League, the CEO and founder of the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, Mondo evolved into a standalone entity in the late 2000s. Several milestones helped evolve the brand from a T-shirt pressing shop in the original Alamo Drafthouse downtown location to a separate gallery and online store. Gig posters created to promote Drafthouse events in 2004 were the origin point, while acquiring major licenses that allowed Mondo to produce official merchandise for franchises like Star Wars in 2010 catapulted the company onto a national stage and allowed it to become the multi-faceted geek brand that it is today.

    Two of the men responsible for the vinyl component of Mondo’s pop culture empire are Spencer Hickman, the Record Label Manager, and Mo Shafeek, the Soundtrack Production Manager since its record label’s inception. Together they are responsible for the enviable task of choosing which film scores and other assorted music will be given the Mondo treatment. Their past work has included neon pink vinyl to go with art from Ken Taylor for the Drive OST and a mosquito encased in amber vinyl as part of their Jurassic Park score. Last month, they released Clint Mansell’s score for Black Swan on two clear 180-gram vinyls, one with a white swirl and the other a blue swirl.


    Mondo’s Jurassic Park “Translucent Amber” vinyl


    Black Swan is kind of a fascinating story,” Shafeek recalls. “It’s a good example of how we work. People ask us all the time about how we get our licenses and how we get our titles. It comes from developing new relationships. We started work on The Last of Us, the Sony Playstation game, and so the team at Playstation introduced us to a rep at Sony. We always have a running list of about a hundred titles that we’re like, ‘Hey, do you happen own the rights to any of these?’ Rights management on soundtracks — I could talk for hours about who owns what and why. Half my job is searching for these things. Anyway, Sony owned Black Swan, which was at the top of our must-find list, because we absolutely adore the film and soundtrack.”

    Shafeek confirms that much of his job involves tracking down who owns the various rights to different soundtracks. “The things you’d think would be the easiest are actually the hardest,” he says. “Usually how it works is I’ll surprise Rob Jones, our primary art director, on any given day and go, ‘Hey Rob, I got the rights to this album! Who do you think we should work with?’ Then he’ll meditate on it and say, ‘Actually, I think this guy would be perfect for it.’ We’ll all chat about it and see if everyone thinks it’s a great idea or if anyone disagrees, but typically people don’t — Rob is a mad scientist about that sort of thing. He has a really incredible task of applying artists you wouldn’t necessarily think would work on certain projects and giving them these tasks.”

    Rob Jones came to Mondo with quite the pedigree, having worked on “pretty much every release Jack White has put out since the tail end of The White Stripes,” according to Shafeek. Jones received a Grammy for his work on The White Stripes’ Under Great White Northern Lights boxset. Since then, Jones has worked on the vinyl releases for White side projects the Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, as well as his solo releases. Shafeek concedes that Third Man Records, quite possibly the best known home for unique vinyl releases, shares some things in common with Mondo’s own operations. “It’s not that great minds think alike, necessarily, but we both make these limited things and we both have a big Internet presence, while in real life we’re actually a very small operation. Those things I think apply to what we took from Third Man, that you can create a big impact with a small team.”


    Alamo Drafthouse screening Jaws on a lake


    That small team was even tinier at the onset. Mondo’s origins are tied to the rise of the Alamo Drafthouse, a highly innovative, film-obsessed chain of theaters based in Texas that do things like host screenings of Jaws on a lake where you float in an innertube and try not to lose your goddamn mind. Ain’t it Cool News founder Harry Knowles hosts his annual BNAT birthday film festival at a Drafthouse location. The backroom T-shirt pressing operation quickly turned to posters made to highlight upcoming Drafthouse events. These works were sold, in the words of Shafeek, “a little more on the bootleg side of things.” It wasn’t until then CEO Justin Ishmael decided to go legit by attempting to get official licenses that things really started to take off.

    “From there, that’s when Star Wars happened; that’s when we got Gremlins and Batman and the actual Goonies license. All these things started coming in very slowly, and then it kind of snowballed from there.”

    It was 2011 when Mondo took the next step forward by attempting a vinyl release. The soundtrack in question was the score for the cult classic Maniac from Jay Chattaway (the 1980 version, not the 2013 remake with Elijah Wood, although Mondo did release that soundtrack later too). While perhaps not a conventional choice, Shafeek emphasizes that Maniac was a beloved film amongst Mondo’s staff:


    “When I started working for the company, we had this joke: What are the 10 essential movies you need to have seen if you want to work at Mondo? It seems like an odd choice, but William Lustig’s Maniac is one of those 10 movies,” he explains. “One of our artists, Ken Taylor, designed a poster in 2010 that was this beautiful, amazing illustration of Joe Spinell from Maniac, and it’s one of our all-time favorite releases we’ve ever done. I think everyone in the company is a fan; we love the movie and the soundtrack, and to the best of my knowledge, it was an incredibly rare and hard to find thing. We were in good standing with the company that owned the music rights, so we asked them about it, almost as an experiment, something we had on the side that we were never expecting to become a major thing.”


    Maniac, Mondo’s first vinyl release

    As with many things associated with the Mondo brand, it did become a big thing, selling out quickly and leaving Shafeek, Hickman, and the rest of their team to find another album to release. What they found was the soundtrack to The Beyond from composer Fabio Frizzi, another horror cult classic. It wasn’t until their fourth release in 2013, Jerry Goldsmith’s Poltergeist, that Mondo attempted to release a soundtrack that wasn’t rare or difficult to track down. “The worry was, well, you can go into a dollar bin somewhere and find the soundtrack to Poltergeist,” Shafeek recalls. “We wanted to do our own take on it, and we were like, ‘OK, let’s roll the dice and see if people care, even if we’re doing something that’s out there and accessible,’ which they did. That one was pretty inspiring for us, because then we were no longer limited to releasing things that were extremely difficult to find.”

    Since then, Mondo has released around 50 works on vinyl, each complete with original artwork on the front and back as well as the gatefold, in addition to liner notes and often cleverly colored and styled vinyl discs. How, say, a Shaun of the Dead album comes to be released on “Strawberry Swirl” vinyl, or how Guardians of the Galaxy’s “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” finds itself pressed in “Infinity Stone” purple is the responsibility of Spencer Hickman, who joined Mondo after the company purchased his Death Waltz label. When possible, they prefer to send their orders to GZ vinyl, a pressing plant that Shafeek feels has the most options in terms of splatters, swirls, tricolors, and so forth. But not every release comes with complete creative freedom. “Some records have to be pressed at certain plants due to certain licensing restrictions, so it’s not always like we have unlimited options.”


    “At GZ, we can do all this interesting stuff,” Hickman concurs, “and they let us experiment as well. For the last few releases, I’ve been playing with splits with both clear and solid splatters on them, because the solid splatter gets absorbed by the clear and gives it a really trippy effect. We’ve got a release going into production next week on Death Waltz, and I’m doing what’s called a psychedelic vinyl, and I just put all these colors and effects together and we’ll just see how they come out.”


    Mondo’s Shaun of the Dead “Strawberry Swirl” vinyl

    Hickman explains that precisely what Mondo chooses to do with the vinyl itself on a release can be informed by the film if it has an iconic image, while other times the cover art may determine the colors that get selected. “We’re releasing [the soundtrack to] Cooties, and the beginning of that movie is all about how you make chicken nuggets. So the obvious thing is chicken nugget and blood splatter vinyl.” Not every idea works out, though. Hickman says that the production people will come into play to tell him, for example, that something needs to be opaque versus clear because a certain effect or two specific colors might cancel each other out. “We probably spend more time on this then we should,” he confesses with a laugh.

    While Hickman was playing with splatters, Shafeek was giving word to Jones that the rights to Black Swan’s score had been secured. Jones had recently fallen in love with the artwork of Sam Wolfe Connelly and was in the middle of commissioning an original piece from him. “I remember that one of the pieces that Rob saw of Sam’s work was with the actual material, the tulle, that ballerinas wear on their tutus,” Shafeek explains. “Rob saw that piece and was like, that guy is going to do an incredible ballerina for us, and he did. It’s so good.”


    As opposed to a traditional poster design, artwork for a vinyl release requires pieces to cover the front, the gatefold, and the back, as well as the liner note insert. “What we do is give the artist all of the options: Do they want to do everything, every single facet? Or do they want to just work on the art, and we’ll have someone in house, another art designer of ours, do all the text and copy? Most people opt to do both, because they like to do title treatments. Oftentimes the artists have a good time doing stuff with that, but some artists don’t. Sam was one of those artists that never really dabbled in that, so Jay Shaw, one of our art directors at the time, took over all the text and copy and all the layouts.”


    Mondo’s Cooties “Chicken Nugget/Blood Splatter” vinyl

    The relationship between Mondo and its artists is incredibly important to Shafeek. “We try never to put artists in a position where they have to start from scratch,” he says. “A lot of times things have to go in for pre-approval with certain studios so that the art direction is kosher in the first place, because otherwise you get in a situation where the artist then becomes resentful of working with us because we’re like, ‘Here you go, draw something,’ and they come back and we’re like, ‘Actually, sorry.’ I can’t think of any projects that we’ve had to kill for any reason other than a complete plug being pulled on us without us being aware that it was going to happen.”

    Beyond the artist, Mondo has curated another type of relationship that set them apart: working with the composers themselves. How many composers has Mondo worked with? “Surprisingly, a lot!” says Hickman. “As much as possible. I think I speak for both of us: We want composers to be involved in the process. We don’t want it to be a separate thing. Even if it’s just getting their blessing, if they can’t supply sleeve notes or images, we want them involved. We want them to be excited. With Black Swan, I’ve known Clint for a number of years, and we sent him a test pressing, and he’s the guy who put it on Twitter and Instagram.”


    “It’s really kind of strange to me,” adds Shafeek, “when these composers hand off their material to bigger films, like Mad Max or Jurassic World, which are a few things we recently released, to some company to handle the CD and additional content. When they find out that some weird little company in Austin, Texas, and the UK is prepping a limited run of vinyl, they usually get pretty excited about it. Very recently there was a Cartoon Network show called Over the Garden Wall and the original composers are now working on a full-length album for the soundtrack to this program. It’s really cool to get them involved, and for them too, because a lot of times there’s something like that with no soundtrack existing, and when they create it from scratch, they get to basically put together their dream version of that soundtrack, and then we get to help them realize their vision.”


    Mondo’s Black Swan vinyl

    Finally finished and ready to be released as Sam Wolfe Connelly’s second collaboration with Mondo — his “first” artwork for vinyl, featuring the scores of David Cronenberg’s Scanners and Brood, was created subsequently but released first — the Black Swan score meets the public at the second annual MondoCon. The weekend celebration features posters, vinyl, film screenings, and in the words of Scott Wampler, a “murderer’s row of artists.” Shafeek and Hickman, speaking ahead of the celebration that took place last month, share their respective excitement for the occasion.

    “I’ll never own a record shop,” laments Shafeek. “Spencer is on track to actually owning a record shop in the UK, but I will never, in my opinion, ever own a record store. This is as close as I feel I ever will be. MondoCon is basically opening the doors to our own little pop-up record shop. It’s exciting, and we have a lot of people coming out basically just to browse our record racks and hang out and chat records with us.”


    “Also, we have all these other labels we’re featuring,” Hickman adds. “It’s sort of like throwing our arms wide open to the other guys as well and bringing them in and throwing the spotlight on them. That’s really sort of a sign of where we’re at, that we can essentially highlight smaller labels and records that maybe people wouldn’t know about or miss or not necessarily see in the States.”

    Mondo's forthcoming Back to the Future vinyl

    Mondo’s Back to the Future vinyl

    To no one’s surprise, the Black Swan vinyl does gangbusters at MondoCon. On Back to the Future Day (October 21st), Mondo announces they will release all three Back to the Future scores from Alan Silvestri early next year, a project both Shafeek and Hickman alluded to in our conversation but resisted the temptation to spoil. Each soundtrack will be pressed on colored vinyl, feature artwork from Matt Taylor, and, most impressively, the latter two installments will include 20 minutes of unreleased music cues apiece. The announcement reads like a love letter, and it calls to mind something Shafeek said in reference to his then-unannounced project.

    “[There’s] an upcoming release or set of releases that we’re doing — that to me is like a dream come true to be working on. If I had one thing I could work on in my entire life, that’s it, so now it’s just all icing. There’s nothing in the world that I feel like I have not accomplished because I’ve worked on this.”


    Start following Mondo on Twitter to hear about all the new releases.

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