Chances are good that you've seen the graphic design work coming out of Baltimore firm Post Typography. Founded in 2007 by Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen, the design studio has produced everything from illustrations for major publications like the New York Times to band posters for the White Stripes and The Buzzcocks.
It was against the odds that in the early 2000s, this design duo also spawned a genre of music dubbed “graphicdesigncore.” Their band, Double Dagger, developed a cult following with songs about fonts and ink colors. Now, If We Shout Loud Enough, a documentary by Gabe DeLoach and Zach Keifer, chronicles the epic last tour of a punk band that cared as much about ligatures and Pantone colors as it did about riffs. The film has just been released for purchase on DVD from Folk Hero Films, and here you can preview four clips exclusive to Co.Design:
Before breaking up in 2011, Double Dagger was composed of Strals, a designer/singer with a chronic stutter that disappeared whenever he picked up a microphone; Willen, a designer/bassist so powerful the band didn’t need a guitar; and Denny Bowen, a ferocious, clock-like drummer. The band's near 10-year career began when Strals and Willen met as design students at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where they now teach. The idea of a punk band that sang songs about graphic design started as a bit of a joke, but soon it took on a life of its own.
On Double Dagger's self-titled 2003 debut is an ode to "CMYK:" Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black, the four colors of ink used in printing. "I bleed Pantone solid blood," go the lyrics. They even wrote a song inspired by a font, called “Clare (Undone).”
The music was, in many ways, an outlet to let off steam in the post-collegiate days before they launched their own studio. “Double Dagger made music about being graphic designers, much of it inspired by their having to manage insufferable clients and bosses. It was a cathartic outlet for them,” DeLoach tells Co.Design.
It was more than just the catchy lyrics, though, that hinted at their day jobs as graphic designers. “Minimalism is key,” DeLoach says. "The music that they developed mirrors a lot of the work that they do as designers, stripping out nonsense and getting down to the nitty-gritty."
This spilled over into the band's show posters and album art, which they designed by hand. Double Dagger's obsessively thought-out visual aesthetic set them apart from the gnarly punk norm. "They're not art school music, but they're not just hardcore," Baltimore musician Dan Deacon says in the film.
Beat the Meatles
It was music that led to the launch of Post Typography. The design studio was born in 2007 when Strals and Willen created a poster for a show by Providence-based noise rockers Arab on Radar. They doctored a classic image of the Beatles, replacing the foursome’s heads with photos of penises carefully selected from gay porn sites. Hand-drawn ejaculate spelled out band names on the silkscreened show poster. “Beat the Meatles,” they called it.
Despite this Beavis and Butthead-esque first collaboration, numerous classy design awards would come to spangle Post Typography's resume, applauding their innovation. But they don't forget their roots: “This almost avant-garde design movement was inspired by semen lettering,” Willen jokes in the film.
Post Typography's work is characterized by hand-lettering, collage, and absurdist humor--it never looks too slick or clean. “The human touch, a rougher kind of touch, is really important to them--conveying a feeling that the work was made by human beings and not by machines,” DeLoach says. “This comes across in their shows, too."
While making the film in 2011, DeLoach amassed over 100 hours of footage and, miraculously, only lost one camera lens to the mosh-pit. Filming the band in action proved a challenge at times. DeLoach says the fun part came in their decision to pastiche together one song from snippets of different shows. "What was interesting to us as film editors was combining multiple performances of the same songs, since every version was really different.”
“We originally wanted to open the film showing beautiful, detailed shots of band members making show fliers, and then reveal that they’re titles for the film, but then we decided to go the stop-motion animation route,” DeLoach says.
The idea for the opening credits derived from Strals's process of making show fliers: he would cut out photos, glue them to a sheet of paper, then scrawl something with a marker. “It was a really low-styling DIY way of making fliers. He didn’t need any fancy software. It was in line with punk philosophy--that you don’t need to have anything special to create art,” Keifer says. “We thought this was a good concept to start the film with.”
During shows, Strals would take off his glasses and plunge into a blurry crowd, spitting words in faces, rolling around on the floor, and corralling herds of people with his mic cable. During their last tour, he feared rabid teenage boys would rip him limb from limb, knowing it was probably their last chance to touch him.
“Why don’t I stutter when we perform?” Strals asks in the film. “I stutter all the time. When I’m on the stage, I don’t know that everybody there wants to hear what I have to say--so you’d think that would be the context where I would stutter, but for some reason, when I have the microphone, it just stops.”
Getting the band members to talk freely on camera was one of the biggest challenges of making the film. “They don’t like talking about themselves,” DeLoach says. “They’re really humble.”
But in the film, and in the recording of "The Mirror,” a song about stuttering, Strals makes himself disarmingly vulnerable in a way that reveals why he does what he does. “It’s not some fake energy he puts on--he’s writing from the heart,” DeLoach says.
That the singer inexplicably stops stuttering while playing music makes a poignant statement about the liberation that comes with artistic expression. “Double Dagger made an impact on Baltimore, on a place, on youth," DeLoach says. "The film isn’t just about the band and singing their praises. It’s a celebration of expressing yourself in art--not settling for being average or mediocre, but expressing yourself thoughtfully.”
If We Shout Loud Enough is available for $15 on DVD here. It will also be screened at the Fargo Film Festival in March. You can also follow doubledaggerisdead.facebook.com for festival screening updates, clips that didn't make the cut, and news.