The Handshake Conversation with Steve Walters and Jason Frederick
Edited by Dan Duffy / Art by Steve Walters and Jason Frederick
Wilco at Otto’s (April 21, 2003) by Steve Walters
Around 2,000 years ago, some very forward-thinking artists in rural China attached stencils made from leaves to screens manufactured by stretching human hair across wooden frames. They then passed ink made from anything from natural plant dyes to soot to India ink—or masi—a substance made from burnt bones, tar, and pitch—through the stencils and the screen, and on to blank surfaces to create designs that could then be reproduced, over and over again, using the same stencils and screens. Subsequently, the Japanese adopted this printing process and used woven silk to make the mesh, and lacquers to make stencils.
The screen printing method evolved constantly over the course of the next couple of thousand years. The modern poster, as we know it, dates to 1870 when the printing industry perfected color lithography and made mass production possible. But even with the massive popularity of lithography at the turn of the century, screen printing never went away. In 1907, Samuel Simon patented the first ever industrial screen printing process. Close to a decade later, John Pilsworth of San Francisco developed the Selectasine method, in which different areas on the screen were blocked out for different color inks, thus resulting in a multi-colored image.
The Selectasine method became hugely popular for printing signs and posters in large quantities, and with the development of rock and roll in the 1940s and ‘50s—and its international explosion in the ‘60s—screen printing in the United States gained new footing. Beginning in the ‘60s with the birth of the “dance concert” in San Francisco, a rock poster accompanied almost every show. The new generation of young rock enthusiasts began pulling posters off of telephone poles almost as quickly as they were put up, and smart promoters such as the legendary Bill Graham started to hand them out as advertisements for the next week’s show. The art on the posters became more edgy and thoughtful over time, and it began to reflect the changes in American culture as the decades wore on.
In the ’80s, screen printed rock posters seemed to fade into the wood paneling and shag carpet of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The popularity and easy accessibility of Xerox machines at local libraries and Kinko’s appealed to the new generation, and most rock “posters” for punk shows were actually black-and-white flyers made with scissors, glue, and copy machines and stapled to telephone poles in the wee hours of the morning. Screen printing never went away, however. It just went more underground.
When Steve Walters came onto the scene in Chicago in the early ‘90s, there were only five people he knew of around the country that screen printed rock posters: Art Chantry, Frank Kozik, Derek Hess, Mark Arminski, and Lindsey Kuhn. Steve had a corner on the market, and he was extremely good at what he did. But then—in a move his fellow printer Jason Frederick calls “genius” and Steve himself calls “the opposite of genius,” Steve decided to use his corner on the market to teach a new generation of artists how to screen print. Screwball Press was born, and Steve was personally responsible for ushering a new generation of printers onto the rock scene, including a young Jay Ryan, and Jason Frederick himself. In this conversation, Steve and Jason sat together at Screwball Press, at Chicago’s own Crabbby Kim’s (sic), and in Jason’s car, and they chatted about first posters, favorite clients, Screwball Press, fatherhood and family, getting off the grid, and earned respect. –Dan Duffy
Jason Frederick: How was your morning this morning, Steve?
Steve Walters: Boring, I’ve been sitting around the shop waiting for you to get a memory card for your fuckin’ digital recorder.
JF: (laughs) Well, I got one. Now are you ready to talk about something pithy and meaningful for The Handshake?
SW: I’m not sure how pithy I can get today. My throat is a little sore.
JF: (laughs) You’ve been pithy all day.
SW: I have not been pithy. I’ve been whiny and complainy and old.
JF: Well, you are whiny and complainy and old.
SW: Yeah. I thought I was having a heart attack earlier. It’s much better now.
JF: Well, that’s good. (laughs) That’s good that the heart attack passed.
On First Posters:
JF: What are you working on?
SW: I’m downloading some files for some Promise Ring posters.
JF: The Promise Ring, eh? That’s a lot of green. Do you remember your first printing job?
SW: I had some friends from Iowa City that played in Thinking Fellers. They came to Chicago to play at Lounge Ax, and I made their gig posters for them.
JF: Thinking Fellers Union Local 282! (sings a guitar riff) Pretty weird music. Thinking Fellers and the Mommy Heads were two bands that people were talking about right around the same time back in the day.
SW: Oh yeah. Definitely.
JF: It must’ve been really cool hanging out at Lounge Ax back in the early ‘90s.
SW: It was a place to hang out. I wasn’t going there because it was “cool.” I went there because they were really nice people, and there were bands I wanted to see.
JF: Sure, sure. But by most popular definitions of the word “cool”—without the more modern sort of sarcastic negativity attached to it—every single person at Lounge Ax back in the day was pretty fucking cool.
SW: It did not suck there.
JF: I was actually drawn to Chicago by Lounge Ax. Just the idea of Lounge Ax, and the Lounge Ax Defense & Relocation CD, in ’97. That second track—“Killers,” the Shellac song. I remember thinking, “Wow. What is this place where this is happening?” So I came here, and I walked into Lounge Ax and met most of the people that I know now—most of the oldest friends that I have today. Nobody at Lounge Ax ever gave me attitude. There was no “I’m in, who the fuck are you?”
SW: They were very welcoming. Very inclusive.
JF: Inclusive! Exactly. “Come on in! What do you do?” I got a gig with the Spiveys at Lounge Ax by giving the guys at the bar a cassette tape. We weren’t even in Chicago for very long at that point. It was a Wednesday night show, but afterwards they were like, “Hey, everyone thought you were great! C’mon back!” It was just so…”inclusive” is a very good word. What brought you there originally?
SW: The bands.
JF: So just from hanging out at shows you got into making posters. You never went to art school. There, I got that sound bite out for you.
JF: Every interview I’ve read that you’ve ever done, the interviewer asks, “Where’d you go to art school?” and you say, “I didn’t go to art school.” And then they ask, “Do you know Jay Ryan?” and you say, “Yes.”
JF: Can we not talk about Jay Ryan for this entire conversation? That guy gets plenty of free press. Sweet guy. And by any definition of the word “cool,” he’s very cool. But he gets plenty of free press. So, anyway, we were talking about your first poster…
SW: If it weren’t for the encouragement of the people that worked at Lounge Ax, I never would’ve continued making posters. So some days I shake my fist at them, and some days I thank them. Quietly. In my head.
Jason Frederick and Steve Walters at Screwball Press