MSU News – @Montana State: With Ames Bros

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@Montana State: With Ames Bros

More than 25 years ago, Coby Schultz and Barry Ament forged a friendship as Montana State University students working in the graphic design studio. Then, a couple of years later, the two Montana natives formed a business partnership in the design firm that would become known simply as Ames Bros.

Since then, the Seattle-based Ames Bros has become one of the most successful design firms in the Northwest, with Ament and Schultz working alongside some of the entertainment industry’s biggest stars, including MTV, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Blondie, Nirvana, Blink 182, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, Billboard Magazine and Virgin Records. In recent years they have added a successful e-commerce clothing apparel line to the Ames Bros business.

Their designs may now be iconic, but it wasn’t always easy. Schultz and Ament remember that while many of their classmates got high-paying jobs in corporate America right after graduation, they instead chose to design album covers for $100 and posters for $50.

“But that’s because we knew what we wanted, and it wasn’t to max out our wage potential,” Ament said. “This was the sort of work we wanted, so we made the sacrifice.”

Ament and Schultz will deliver a free public lecture at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12, in MSU’s Reynolds Recital Hall. Immediately following the lecture, an artist reception for the duo will be held in the College of Arts and Architecture Dean’s Gallery, located on the second floor of Cheever Hall. In honor of the lecture, the gallery features an exhibit of more than 20 Ames Bros posters that will be on display through Sept. 22. Gallery hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

A day before delivering the lecture, Ament and Schultz answered a few questions about their creative process, the use of humor in their work and some of the artists they most admire.

When was the last time you were here on the Montana State University campus? How has it changed since then?
Coby Schultz: I was here last year and I just walked through the campus with my kids. … It had obviously grown.

Barry Ament: The biggest thing, when we were here as students, the campus just kind of ended and there was nothing past it. It was just farmland as far as you can see. … So the development here is a change. … There are great restaurants around town. It’s pretty cool. When we were here it was the Pickle Barrel.

CS: Yeah, and the (John Bozeman’s) Bistro. We couldn’t afford to eat there. I ate there once.

BA: It was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll have a salad.’

CS: ‘And water.’ (Laughs)

What do you plan to talk about in your lecture?
BA: We’re not sure yet.

CS: Our work (laughs). Since the last time we’ve done a lecture, we’ve done tons and tons of work. So we’ll probably do a little bit of explaining our work and showing our work from a technical standpoint and a little bit about business and communication. Talk about our (typical) day.

What do you hope students will take away from your lecture?
BA: Remembering back to when we were in school here, any time a speaker came from the outside and came here, it was super impactful and memorable. The world’s changed a lot, but it can be kind of isolating to be here. I think it’s good to get a taste of what’s going on in the world and see how things work.

CS: A reminder that you’ve actually working toward something, if this is what you want to do. Graphic design is so broad. There are so many directions you can go. It’s always nice to know you’re working towards something. 

How would you describe your creative process?
CS: I’ve been thinking about that, strangely enough. I think 90 percent of it happens over time in your head as you put pieces together of the project you’re working on. Maybe you’re not even sitting working on it. For me, I’m walking around in this headspace, doing my daily things, but also trying to figure out how some things will go together and the concept.

BA: It’s kind of problem solving and I would say I work the same way. Sometimes it can drive you batty, and it’s hard to turn it off. But you have a design challenge and you’re trying to figure out the formula and how to solve it. It’s hard to stare at a computer screen and solve it. It happens when you’re cooking dinner or hiking around.

CS: I think my family thinks I’m off in space. It’s like, ‘Oh, dad’s thinking about something else again. Oh, dad’s writing an email.’ Even though I’m not. It kind of messes with you, but it’s part of the deal.

Can you turn that part off sometimes?
CS: If we’re doing a poster tour, or a campaign for a band? Nope. It’s just there until the tour’s over.

Do you ever find yourself getting in a creative rut? How do you get out of it?
CS: I think the only thing that ever puts you in a creative rut is not being very busy. I don’t think we’ve been allowed one for as long as I can remember.

BA: Deadlines get you out of ruts pretty quickly. It doesn’t happen often. Sometimes you might fall back on old tricks, go-tos, kind of the easy route. Usually we like to challenge ourselves to try something new and think of things differently. Like Coby said, with deadlines it’s not possible to get in a rut.

What motivates you to do your work?
BA: Well there’s a lot of different motivators. You have to keep the lights on, that’s always a big one. We still get motivated creatively, get excited about doing something new. I think the nice thing about what we do, you get this finished product, whether it’s a poster, a T-shirt, a snowboard. It’s a physical thing. It’s always exciting to take the wrapper off and see the physical thing you’ve made. So we’re motivated by the creative process, and we still have fun.

CS: It’s exciting when something clicks; it feels like you’ve come up with a great idea. And you actually have something to hold onto, a product.

I’ve noticed you laugh a lot.
CS: We do. Humor is probably the biggest part of what we have going on. Once in a while, we might be serious about some stuff, but there’s mostly some humor, some irony coming out of our work. Barry and I have known each other longer than we haven’t. We went to school together and we’ve worked together for 20-some years. We tell the same jokes over and over. It’s pretty fun. We have a good time.

BA: What we do, and the pace we do it, you’re kind of in the pressure cooker. There is stress. There are deadlines; no one is going to move a concert date for you. You have to hit deadlines.  Humor helps get through that.

CS: It’s a release. But you’re still working while you’re laughing.

What is some of your favorite recent work?
CS: Everything we’ve done over the last few years is pretty cool. … We’ve been lucky to work on some really cool stuff. We apply the same attitude and principles to pretty much every job we take on. The quality is always up there as you compare a pizza box to a Metallica poster or a deck of cards or a T-shirt. …We just did about 15 Metallica posters. Intense, nice body of work. Skype murals in their offices. That’s different than what we normally do. The (Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle … We completely redesigned their museum store.

BA: We’re working on something for MoPOP’s upcoming horror exhibit.

CS: It’s so cool. It’s just the coolest thing.

Who are some artists that you admire?
CS: We both admire Pearl Jam just for the fact they’re still doing it, and they’re healthy, and they’re into it. They’ve been at it longer than we have. That’s easy to admire about them. We also know they’re passionate about it. Everybody has their reason for doing something. I’m personally impressed with Metallica, too. … We went to a show recently; coming out and performing like that and being as passionate as they are about music is impressive to me.

BA: As far as designers, there’s some people that probably influenced us quite a bit. Art Chantry has been doing it forever; he revived the silkscreen poster, made it something different. Jeff Kleinsmith, the creative director at Sub Pop (Records), started out around the same time, working at a high level for a long time. Shawn Wolfe … another Seattle guy. These guys all drew us out there, we felt a similarity. What they were doing was what we wanted to do. Jim Phillips – all the skateboard art he did. Stylistically, that’s probably more the guys we tip the hat to more often than not.

CS: Then there’s cartoons. Awesome cartoons. Ren and Stimpy, Spongebob. Jack Kirby. There are some people with just so much talent it’s unbelievable. I can’t fathom how they can do what they do. It’s not easy. Drawing is hard and slow (laugh). I can’t say it ever comes easy for me. Ever.

What’s next for you, career-wise?
CS: It’s a good question. We have amassed a huge body of work, especially within the music and entertainment genre. I think finding a way to put that in different products and find ways to be creative with that work. …  Recreating it in some form – even though that form has nothing to do with music – to reach the same audience. And then continue to do the same kind of work, too.

BA: From a business structure standpoint, Coby and I are the two guys who do all of the creative work. We want to get to a stage someday – we’re 23 years in – to have some designers on staff. Maybe where we can spread out the stress and anxiety a little bit. Maybe so we focus a little bit more on the marketing and business part of it. Right now we work for people who call us. We don’t go out knocking on doors, trying to find work. To me, there’s excitement in the potential of doing that – of going out and trying to target people we’d be excited to work for.

What are you most proud of regarding your work?
BA: That we’re still here is the thing I’m most proud of. That wasn’t an easy path. There were times we had to look each other in eye and say, ‘Are we going to tough it out here?’

CS: We’ve seen huge swings in the economy in the time we’ve been in business. We’ve dealt with inner turmoil.

BA: We don’t know much else besides having this company and running it. It’s precious to us.

CS: Any time it would have been in jeopardy, we united and dug in. We protected it. That’s common between Barry and I. We are pretty solid as far as being business partners and friends. That makes the company stronger.

What piece of advice would you give a young college student just starting out here at MSU?
CS: I only know how it went for me. I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I came in with one thing in mind and left 180 degrees in the other direction. Find what it is you like because that’s gonna make all of it a lot easier. Getting through college, getting good grades, succeeding in school, succeeding in your profession. Take advantage of what’s here. … Really try to pay attention so you can find things you like.

BA: My daughter just started college about two weeks ago. I drove her down to San Diego to go to school, and we talked quite a bit about different things. One thing I kept trying to say is try to put as much of yourself out there and try as many things, knowing you’re going to fail. It’s like lottery tickets – you can’t win if you don’t play. I think that was my advice, even if you’re scared of something, even if you don’t think you’re qualified, to give it a shot.

Jeffrey Conger,

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