Austin, Texas' Mondo has come a long way since they started selling pop-culture inspired posters and t-shirts. In the last five years, the company has become a powerhouse, branching out into toys and VHS tapes as well as the gorgeous screen-printed posters upon Mondo built its reputation. However, if you're familiar with Mondo these days, it's likely due to their amazing series of vinyl records.
Be it a reissue of a classic genre score like The Omen or a white-hot new release a la Junkie XL's Mad Max: Fury Road, the label's known for taking things to the next level. A recent example of the Mondo creativity at work is the Bizarro variant of the theme to Superman: The Animated Series: it's a die-cut purple record in the shape of the iconic 'S' shield, with the logo silk-screened onto the B-side, which plays in a reverse groove from the inside out.
STARBURST: What was the path that led you to what you now do?
Mo Shafeek: I used to tour manage musicians back in the early 2000s, so I ‘worked in the music industry’ for a little while, but on the actual gig side of things. I've always had a huge love of music, and I also went to film school before that. After ending the tour managing, I found myself running the shipping/receiving department for an online web store.
So, when I moved to Austin, I found myself in this weird position where I didn't want to get stuck with a 9-to-5 job so, having shipping and receiving experience, I applied to Mondo, having only known them as this company that sold posters that I liked, but obviously needed shipping help. I applied for the gig and ended up applying at the right time, because they needed a general manager.
Mondo's website is called mondotees.com and it was once a T-shirt shop, but they were in the process of becoming this online presence that sold posters and needed help transitioning out of this past where it was primarily a retail space operating out of a movie theater lobby. So, I came in and helped them transition out of that, and after that – Mondo has always fostered this idea that everything is possible, and anything is possible – we produced our first vinyl LP, which was the soundtrack to the 1980 Maniac, by William Lustig.
One thing led to another, and The Beyond was a huge hit the following year, and we decided we were going to try to do one new soundtrack release a month for the whole year of 2013, and then it just became a full-time job. I couldn't do the poster stuff anymore, so I very quickly became the soundtrack guy, rather than the general manager who also produces soundtracks.
As a film major, and someone who was involved in film early on, were you a fan of scores and movie soundtracks before you started working for Mondo?
Oh, absolutely – to an embarrassing level. If you were to look at my CD collection from the mid-'90s, when I had a disposable income and could buy what I wanted, the soundtracks that I loved buying were all over the map. I had the soundtrack to Spirited Away next to the soundtrack to Con Air. That was the level I was working at. I just loved film music in all shapes and sizes.
But, you never have in the back of your mind that someday you'll work with this. It was just more, if I had money to spare, whatever movie I was obsessed with, I bought everything that I could from that movie. A lot of the time, the only thing that you could buy for a certain movie was the soundtrack. Now we live in that age where you search for your favorite movie and merchandise, and you can find pop-culture T-shirts and Rubik's Cubes and enamel pins and all this stuff out there in the world that someone's producing. But at that time, in the '90s, sometimes all you had was that soundtrack.
In the last year or so, Mondo has really undergone some transformations, especially in your department, to the point where I don't even know where to start. What was the impetus to move from so many reissues to more first-run releases?
While it appears that way more so now than then, we were trying to do new releases from the beginning. We just didn't realise how long it would take to make these things happen. Looper is a perfect example. We were on-track to have that soundtrack out within four to five months of when that movie was out, but that project took literally a year and a half to get off the ground.
Drive was a two-year project. We were trying to get into the groove or the pocket of releasing albums in their relevancy, while also still doing assorted past-release titles, and we were finding that sweet spot of releasing new releases was never in our favor. It's really hard to do. With indie titles, it's a little easier, because you can see a movie at a festival, and then when it gets acquired by a distributor, you can find out when it's getting released.
Spencer is really good at that. He's timing out Turbo Kid to come out when home video gets it, and Cooties, as well. He's been doing it for years, and he's great at it, and we've gotten better at it, for sure: like Mad Max and Jurassic World, but, as you'll notice, those are pre-orders because these scores aren't being finished until like four weeks before the movie comes out. Vinyl takes like four months to produce, so it's not until you get the track titles that you can actually start making this thing
If you're trying to say that we're doing bigger-budget, more mainstream titles than earlier indies like Looper, then I'd agree that yes, that is a new thing, but we've been trying to do a mix of the old and the new ever since the inception of the Mondo vinyl soundtrack label. I mean – none of us were familiar with this world from the start. Spencer's a veteran, but the rest of us just learned how to do this thing as we were doing it. We've gotten better at it, for sure, but it was a lot of trial and error.
It seems like what Spencer Hickman does with Death Waltz dovetails nicely with what Mondo's doing.
Oh, yes, absolutely. I think that earlier, we would've moved a few titles from Death Waltz to Mondo, because we were trying to clearly define a line in the sand as to what we're both trying to do. Now we're better at clearly defining what is a Mondo title and what is a Death Waltz title, but really, I think that we all just love all types of cinema, and I think that we like the idea of there being a record label and another sister label, so that if you don't like the mainstream stuff like Jurassic World, you're still going, ‘I trust Death Waltz, because I like the dude who has been curating this label for the last five years and trust his choice in movies. I might never have seen Cannibal Apocalypse or Zombie Holocaust, but he puts out good records and I trust him.’ As opposed to this ‘corporate Mondo’ that puts out all these mainstream titles.
Going back to production: everyone puts forth production delays as the toughest part of record releasing these days. How do you cope?
You never really cope. You take the punches and keep moving. At any given time, we have to have 15-20 given titles in the works, because your dream to release something on a certain day, to coincide with a certain anniversary, might get hit with a production hiccup that suddenly now makes that project three months later. So, what are you going to put in its place, because you need something to release in the month of October? What are you going to do? You're going to have to work something into the schedule somehow.
We've gotten pretty okay at it, I think, but it's never going to be normal because there's no coasting on this thing. But I don't want to ever coast, so that's okay. I want everything we do to have our full attention to detail and full sincerity. When you have this many releases in production, you have to remind yourself that is a constant process of paying attention to all the balls you have in the air, because one mistake, and it's over.
That sounds as if you're really paying close attention to consumer demand, and responding as necessary. I'm thinking specifically of the fact that there are now retail editions of many releases.
I remember back when I first met Spencer. It was a couple of years ago. We met with him at a restaurant in Los Angeles – sort of a meeting of the minds, long before we had any idea we'd be working with him. He very nicely told us what he thought we were doing right and what he thought we were doing wrong.
One of the things he thought we were doing wrong was not offering retail versions or being better with our retail, because he had found that a lot of his success had come from being available in record shops and being something people could pick up and buy. It wasn't only for those who were in the know. You want newcomers and people looking in from the outside to be like, ‘They're accessible, but they look like something I could subscribe to, because they're not in Spencer's Gifts or Best Buy.’ The retail version comes from that idea of maybe we were being a little too precious.
I like to think that there are people who just want the record. They buy from us, and they see a record, and they're like, ‘I love that soundtrack! I want to own it. Can I buy it?’ You don't want to be, ‘No, because you weren't one of the first 500 who wanted this colour.’ It's not like that.
We still have fun with people who like collectibles, but at the end of the day, we never want to be exclusionary. That's never been our business model. I mean, it's fun to be in the know, but it's also fun to welcome newcomers and have people actually get the things that you're trying to make, you know? I like to think of it this way: if I was a general, casual fan, would I be able to get Mondo stuff? I think I would, and I like that now, because that's not the way it was two years ago.You can find Mondo's latest news and releases at mondotees.com. They're also on Twitter @MondoNews, with Mo Shafeek @moshafeek.