Designer/photographer/writer John Sellards grew up surrounded by records. He has done design work and written for Sundazed for years and recently was inspired to launch his own imprint, Archives of America, which will be distributed by Sundazed Music. We sat down with John to talk about his background, his love of vinyl and the stories behind his initial slate of releases.
TH: Did you grow up as a “record kid”?
JS: Oh yes, absolutely. I have pictures of myself at four or five years old, sitting on the floor in the middle of 45s by Starday and Liberty. I grew up in a musical household. My father was really into country and bluegrass while my mother listened to The Platters, Joni James and artists like that.
TH: Where did you grow up?
JS: Beckley, West Virginia. I still live here.
TH: Besides your parents, where were you getting your music influences?
JS: I remember hearing Steely Dan, the Bee Gees and disco artists on the radio when I first started listening. Being in Appalachia, I also heard a great deal of country. The first song that really made an impact on me was “Night Time Magic” by Larry Gatlin. I still love that song. It’s a country record but, really, it’s pop through and through. It has a brilliantly intricate arrangement and I remember being six years old, hearing it on the radio, and it amazes me to know that I had such a connection with it then and still enjoy it now.
TH: How did you start collecting records?
JS: It’s always been a part of my life, as long as I can remember. My father was into records and my mother had some, too. Dad will still call me from a flea market and say, “Guess what I just bought!” (laughter) Obviously, it runs in the family.
TH: Was there a local record store that you frequented?
JS: We had one called National Record Mart, which was part of a regional chain. They had some interesting stuff. I remember looking through their 45s when Atlantic was reissuing their “yellow label” early r&b singles. I bought many of those and I began to know the labels. From their, I just followed my instincts based on what I saw and I discovered many great things that way.
TH: Did label art catch your eye early on?
JS: It’s funny, now that I’m a designer, I’m not sure I had the proper respect for label art as a kid. I would write on the labels or sometimes erase them and draw my own, which is kind of fascinating to me considering where I wound up.
I do remember the ABC Records label design and others of that era. I became aware of the jackets and labels as part of the whole thing.
TH: Is that what led you to pursue graphic design?
JS: My background is more in communications than art and, looking at vintage record label and jacket design, I believe some of the designers had a similar path. They may not have come up through the ranks of the art world but they had communicative backgrounds and I think that’s very important. There’s a real distinction in my mind between getting the feel, the mood and the tone of the release across, first and foremost, as opposed to taking some other route.
Take an artist like The Ventures. When you look at their album covers, with the bold type and distinctive design, you know exactly what it’s going to sound like. It’s more a process of communication than art to me. I think that’s a fundamental piece of what we need to do.
TH: What is your educational background?
JS: I went to Radford University, studying Journalism and Communications. Most of my initial design work came out of the need to create a framework for the writing I was doing. I’ve done some writing for Sundazed, which is great because it gives me the opportunity to do more than just design the cover. I really like the resonance of what Sundazed does as a label.
TH: What inspired you to start your own label?
JS: I think most of us in this field like to work on things that especially interest us. A couple of years ago, I began thinking of starting a label as a creative outlet so I started looking at catalogs I could possibly license. It took me a while to get going because I just couldn’t wrap my head around what I wanted to do. There’s already a Sundazed, so I didn’t need to replicate what they were doing. I was thinking I would create “best of” collections of specific artists and, for whatever reason, everything I tried to license didn’t come through.
I think it worked out the way it was supposed to, though. I used the same model, Kate Patton, on the cover of all three of my initial releases. When I saw her, I knew she had the classic, unadorned ‘60s “look” and I realized, “There’s my answer.” She made me think of all the classic compilation albums I’ve seen and enjoyed. If I could put someone on the cover of my releases that was good at communicating the tone of the album with just a look, then that solved my problem.
TH: It’s interesting that you used the same model for all three album covers because I instantly thought of Sandra Warner, who was the cover model on the initial series of Martin Denny’s album covers.
JS: Absolutely! As Kate will tell you, we talked about Sandy Warner multiple times. I knew I wanted to go that route, inspired by Martin Denny’s albums, and once I met Kate, I thought, “There she is.” Kate has an astonishing versatility. I can just explain to her what the mood is and what the songs are about and I come away with the perfect shot.
Using the same person on all the covers pushes me as a designer and A&R guy harder, because I have to keep it varied and interesting. I don’t want it to be obvious at first glance that it’s the same model from cover to cover.
TH: Your label is named Archives of America. How did you arrive at that?
JS: I just pulled it out of thin air. The implication is that is just one big stew of different styles and performances. The look and the feel of the artwork plus the music adds up to the whole experience.
TH: How did you decide on Sundazed as your distributor?
JS: Well, I had designed the cover for Blue World and Bob Irwin said, “That’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen!” When you have Bob encouraging you like that, you don’t walk away from it. With Sundazed’s history and Bob’s vision, it’s a really good match.
TH: You’ve selected two venerable labels, Bethlehem and Challenge, as the sources for your inaugural releases. Let’s start with Bethlehem: what made you choose it?
JS: Bethlehem has always interested me because they have such a rich catalog. With the Blue World album, I chose the title based on the photograph of Kate because that’s what it looked like to me. As it turned out, I was able to license Mel Torme’s master of “It’s a Blue World” and that got me started on a theme for songs with “blue” in the title. It evokes an earlier era and there is a depth in the Bethlehem catalog to be able to do that.
TH: I was intrigued to see that these Bethlehem compilations will be on 10” vinyl which, again, recalls an earlier era.
JS: The albums I go back to are the ones that flow from track to track and have resonance. Ultimately, I am trying to make albums that I would want to put on the turntable at midnight.
TH: I imagine the sequencing of the tracks was very important to you.
JS: Yes, especially with Serenade, I sat there for six or eight months rethinking the selections and the running order. I almost lost one of the tracks due to issues that were later resolved but I was on the verge of canceling the project if I couldn’t get that song. The tracks all spoke to one another in such a way that I felt all eight tracks were essential and, luckily enough, I got them.
TH: On to Challenge, a very different label than Bethlehem. What made you set your sights on this catalog?
JS: Challenge has some of my favorite performances, especially the Jerry Fuller records. Frankly, what made me choose Challenge was Yvonne Carroll’s “Laugh or Cry.” It’s one of my favorite records and at some point, I realized, “I’ve got to build an album around this song.” I felt like it deserved better than being an obscure Challenge 45. My love for “Laugh or Cry” is what drove me to create this album.
TH: Challenge was a very eclectic label: surf instrumentals, country, soul...
JS: I think much of that comes down to Jerry Fuller. He was so talented and well-versed in different styles music. He let his own instincts lead the way. Especially after he came along, you see a cohesiveness to their releases. It’s a real statement to the greatness of the label and what they could’ve done had they been able to last longer.
TH: The album is a 12” LP on clear vinyl. Why did you choose clear vinyl?
JS: Honestly, my buddy Donald Cleveland pushed me to do that. When I put Blue World together, he said “That should be on blue vinyl!” I said, “No, it’s a 10” album from the ‘50s.” Unless it’s on Fantasy, I felt it had to be on black vinyl. When it came time to do Yesterday of Our Love, I let him choose. I like clear vinyl but I know it will be tough for a DJ trying to cue up a certain track. (laughter)
TH: I wasn’t going to say that, but as someone who spins records in dark clubs, I can testify. It is definitely a “Challenge”! (more laughter) But if I can do it, I think anyone can.
JS: Who knows, if we do another run maybe we’ll press it on black vinyl.
TH: Speaking of future pressings, after these releases what’s next for Archives of America?
JS: I’m working on a couple of things right now, but I haven’t signed any contracts so I can’t reveal them just yet. I intend to stay focused on mood pieces and concept albums because that’s where my tastes run. You have to stay true to yourself because people respond when they feel that it’s real. I hope to be able to shed some light on catalogs that, for whatever reason, have been pigeonholed or unfairly overlooked. I hope to keep listeners engaged emotionally and intellectually and give them something they will treasure for years to come.