With the 2020 Grammy ceremony on the horizon, Discogs spoke with each of the nominees for Best Album Package about the importance of design and the physical record experience.
How did your studio, Onion Design Associates, come together?
I started the studio with Janett Wang about 20 years ago. And then Ming joined almost ten years ago. We’ve been doing all kinds of stuff, not specifically just music-related design: packaging, advertising, branding. But, I play a little music myself too.
Oh nice! What do you play?
A little guitar, the blues. David Chen [of The Muddy Basin Ramblers] is a blues guy. He’s Taiwanese, but from Colorado. He has stayed in Taipei now and formed this band. The music is 19th century/early 20th century jug band music, and he knew I loved the vintage style.
What’s the term ‘jug band’ mean?
It’s a genre using DIY instruments from the 1930s. Before I met The Muddy Basin Ramblers, I didn’t know this genre existed. It’s a little jazz, blues, bluegrass, swing…
You’ve worked with The Muddy Basin Ramblers multiple times now. How has your collaboration evolved leading into Hold That Tiger?
The first time we worked together, on Formosa Medicine Show, it was a surprise success. Not only in the music scene in Taipei, but in the design community. So after the first collaboration, we knew the chemistry was working well. So on the second and third albums we got total freedom. We could do whatever we want.
Formosa Medicine Show and Hold That Tiger are in a similar vintage style. Was your other collaboration?
Yeah. It was an EP in the same kind of vintage style. But it’s imitating a 78 RPM vinyl on the cover.
That’s funny because when I first saw Hold That Tiger, I thought it was a 7”, but inside it was a CD.
That’s good! With Formosa Medicine Show, we decided to go with the 7” packaging because it feels retro. You feel something physical, something tangible. All the music is vintage music, so the medium reflects that. So we kept that format throughout all their releases. That’s the power of the format. It has emotion, it has memory.
I definitely feel that. It feels very lived-in and lived-through.
There are a lot of different styles at play though. There is mid-century science fiction imagery, with vintage woodblock typography and so on. Where did the idea to blend these together?
We found that the music is really a mixture of everything. Chinese temple parade music, swing jazz, even Irish drinking songs and eastern European polka music. Some Taiwanese rap music too. So we thought we could do a mixture of everything with the design.
The main theme of the music is that Taiwanese temple parade music, so we used a lot of religious temple elements. And we mixed with all these UFOs. We call it retro futurism.
Did you guys design most of the typography on the record?
All of the type — the Chinese and English — is in wood type style. Ming created all these extended Chinese woodblock Hanzi characters. They are handmade. All 120 of them. Ming used a combination of Illustrator and handwriting manipulation because this kind of writing style only exists in the temple. But the printing is all digital.
Another interesting thing about the lyrics insert is the scripts. They’re actually from ancient techniques of Chinese mysticism and Daoist practice. They’re a spell. This particular spell (below) is a talisman or amulet to ward off tigers. You know, Hold That Tiger. So, if you have a tiger running around the house, write that down on the wall.
So it’s just you two illustrating and designing all of these?
We have nine people at the studio, but it’s just us on this project, since album design is so time consuming. We do a lot of research though because there are so many historical elements and finding the right story to put it all together.
Fongming Yang & Andrew Wong of Onion Design Associates
Are there any secret symbols or easter eggs you’ve hidden in there?
Ah, yes a huge egg. The shape of the paper CD sleeve is a traditional Taiwanese amulet. The real version is very tiny. Ming’s mother got this small one at a Daoist temple for him to keep in his wallet for safety and protection. Cast away bad luck and spirits.
The structure is a bit different though, as we had to fit a CD inside. So we used a Japanese origami to make a hexagon.
This almost feels like the centerpiece of the package. The showstopper.
Yeah! But, there’s still an Easter egg… the script on it is all in English. It’s “Hold That Tiger” and then “The Muddy Basin Ramblers”. It’s actually an homage to an artist, Xu Bing.
When you look at all these albums, you can see similarities as they are all based on design history. Peggy Tsu’s was art deco. Wong Fu’s was 50s retro. Hold The Tiger is early century vintage. I love design history and art history, so I try with every single project to put a little bit of history in it. I think of it as almost a genre. With every package we’ve done, I want to do a different era.
It’s interesting you say that because your work on Hold That Tiger is an homage to vintage, but it is still unmistakably contemporary.
Are you record collectors yourself?
Are there any designers you look up to for inspiration?
Hipgnosis is the man with the Pink Floyd records. But recently, I bought a record from a vintage shop. It’s Johnny Winter and Edgar Winter‘s Together. It’s designed by Paula Scher. It’s just a photo of Johnny Winter and his brother, side by side, white hair, white face. And the back cover is the close-up of these brother heads with a strand of white hair down the middle. The best back cover I’ve seen in my life.
What do you think the power of album art and packaging is today?
It’s obvious that streaming music has taken over, so today, music packaging is more important than the old days. It’s ironic because people don’t buy as much physical music, but we spend more energy on the printed packages.
The CD or vinyl has become a souvenir or collectable item. You want to have a certain relationship with the artist — own something tangible, and hold it in my hand, even though some people don’t even open it!
Also, some design is almost getting over-designed. More expensive paper, more expensive technique. And it’s getting the cost even higher. Then the final product is even more expensive. The design should stay representative of the music and theme. That’s what is most important. We have to stay true to the music, as we’ve become a visual representation of the music.