William Schaff – Lift Yr Skinny Fists

By Taylor Burgess

As Stylus found out in this interview, William Schaff is a musician too, but he’s most well-known for his album art. He has done the entire discography for Okkervil River, but most of us Brave New Waves-listening –and The Wedge-watching– punks were first thrown into his world after cracking open Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven! and witnessing the disturbing drawing of skull-masked presidents wagging their fingers and chopping off hands. Freud’s Bathhouse and Diner is getting more than 100 original zines of Schaff’s as the key attraction of their zine art exhibit and expo, I Know What My Weaknesses Are, Probably Better than You Do. Schaff took enough time to talk to Stylus over the phone from his Rhode Island studio where he works and sleeps.

Stylus: I read all about how you met up with Okkervil River, how you and William Sheff met because you almost have the same name, but how did you meet up with other bands, like Godspeed You! Black Emperor or the What Cheer? Brigade?
WS: Meeting with Godspeed was coincidental. I was in a band ages ago and we toured through Montreal, and we played at Hotel2Tango. We slept there, and in the morning this guy [Godspeed’s Efrim Menuck] popped out, we started talking. And I gave him one of those little books [that’ll be in the exhibition] because back then I always carried them around with me. Time passed on, and he asked me in an email if it was alright that used images from that book for his band’s album cover. I said yeah, go ahead, that means I don’t have to draw anything new for it, you’ve already got the images. Then I was sitting in New York, reading my Rolling Stone and I realized, “Wow these guys are huge.” I just finished another job for them this week. They’re curating a show for All Tomorrow’s Parties. I did the poster for them. It’s nice that they’re keeping in contact about stuff like that.
As for the What Cheer? Brigade: I’m a member of that band. There are so many people in that band and there’s no band leader, so everyone brings something different to the table. I hate booking shows, but I am able to create images for the band.
Stylus: What do you play?
I’m one of the six drummers, I play the quad drums. It’s a standard marching band instrument.
Stylus: On your Flickr page, you post playlists that you had listened to when you were making a piece. Do you feel it’s necessary to do that?
I have to listen to music when I’m working, it’s seldom there isn’t some sort of sound going on in the background. Like right now—well, I paused the DVD when you called—but I’m watching this documentary that I can’t figure out whether it is fake or not. It’s called Brothers of the Head; have you heard of this?
Stylus: No, not at all.
It’s about two conjoined twins, about their life, and they start a rock band together. It’s really something. Anyways, getting back to the question, I’m always listening to music when I’m working because it has the biggest influence on me. And as for posting my playlists, I do that because someone who likes a piece of mine might be interested in the music that I’m listening to and then maybe they could see how that music goes with the piece.
Stylus: What’s your opinion on street art?
I love good street art. I have absolutely no problem with graffiti, but I just hate bombing crews who are just putting their name everywhere. When I was in Berlin not too long ago, there was beautiful street art everywhere—but here in the U.S., it’s illegal, so nicer street art is harder to find. I do make some stencils once in a while, but by no means do I consider myself a street artist.
Stylus: I also noticed that you do a lot of mail art. Why did that interest you?
I originally started doing that because I got the internet way back when the internet wasn’t like it is now. I started drawing on envelopes because it took a good chunk of time while a page was loading up. Over time, I’ve gotten a lot of beautiful mail. I get a lot of bills, most of which I never open. But to see a wonderful package, amidst all those things that bring you down, it really brightens your day.
Stylus: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
[After a bit of small talk]
WS: Yeah, actually I’d like to talk about the gallery [Freud’s Bathhouse and Diner]. They’re reaching out to artists, and they’re taking all the steps to make it happen. They’re saying, “Yes we’ll ship it here, yes we’ll ship it back, yes we’ll insure it.” It’s really admirable because not many people would do that, and it’s amazing that they have the wherewithal to carry through with it all. So if I had something to add, it’s how thankful I am for people like Kristel and Mark, because I couldn’t do it without them.

You can see I Know What My Weaknesses Are, Probably Better than You Do opening tonight and showing until August 29 at Freud’s Bathhouse and Diner at 42 Albert Street.