I’ll be up front: This is piece is long and totally worth it. If you are a nerd and like soundtracks on vinyl, this will be some interesting stuff.
When I came up with the concept of doing an on-going feature on movie and game soundtracks on vinyl, I knew I wanted to do something with Mondo as one of the first pieces for the series.
I got back into buying vinyl around the Christmas of 2012 when I bought a record player and some records for my wife. From there it became something fun for both of us (let’s be honest, mostly me) and I started taking notice of some of the niche soundtrack releases that were beginning to happen. I loved the movie Drive and I just happened to see a company named Mondo doing an incredible release of the soundtrack in March of 2013. It wasn’t only the amazing music, but it was the packaging. The artwork from Tyler Stout absolutely blew my mind. The release (and demand) of the Drive soundtrack has become cliché in some circles, but it just awoke so many different parts of my brain. The urge to collect. The appreciation of great artwork. The fine execution of a well done score.
From there I always have had my eye on Mondo. I don’t buy every release they put out, but when there’s something I care about I make it a point to buy it when it drops. You have to because of the risk of it selling out. You can always count on them for executing to the finest degree. While it’s annoying when things sell out, holy god it’s awesome when you get something you want.
I was lucky to chat with Mo Shafeek, Soundtracks Production Manager for Mondo on the phone to ask him about all kinds of stuff. Normally I would turn this into a feature with some quotes, but it was too good. So because it’s so good, I’m running it as a full Q&A. There’s some light editing for clarity and length, but this is pretty much our whole 30 minute conversation. Enjoy!
Mo Shafeek: It’s a mix of stuff. You know, while I am the production manager, I also work on licenses. A lot of my time is spent hunting down who has the rights to what soundtracks and figuring that out because a lot of times that’s an incredibly tricky maze to navigate. A lot of times you think ‘Oh the studio that put out a soundtrack, that should be the one that has it’ but depends on when that movie was released, what type of soundtrack it was, if there was ever a version of that soundtrack that got released, you’d be surprised because there’s so many random people that own everything all over the place. Whether it’s the original composer, the director themselves, the studio or some other random third party studio that made a purchase when they were like ‘Oh soundtracks are worthless, let’s sell them to this one company out there in the middle of LA thatt owns nothing but soundtracks and that will never come back to haunt us ever again’.
So that’s a good part of my day, but the other half of my job is overseeing the production of anywhere between 10-20 albums that are in production at any point in time. Because the actual production process of making vinyl, from assigning artwork to looking at test pressings to navigating tricky murky waters of getting approvals from all the parties involved in it, a record can take anywhere from six weeks to three months to get everything together. Then you have to get together all the workable elements, meaning what the plant needs to proceed with the actual production of a record, because you can’t just go to a plant and be like ‘Here’s the audio! Make this’. They need everything. If you’re like ‘we’ll have sticker coming to you soon’, they won’t start production on it until you have a sticker. Then once you have all the workable elements, domestically it’s about three to four months to manufacture a record. It could be anywhere between three and six months to make something happen so in order to deal with all these variances, I have like 10 to 20 records in production at any time and I’m navigating those at all times.
I wanted to talk about the company’s perspective on selecting titles. How do you choose what you license and take out to market?
A lot of it is gut. We’re clearly all fans of movies and between the 10-15 people who work at Mondo actively and we all have our favorite things. A lot of times as long as there’s not a strong veto we’ll make it. Vetos happen though where someone says ‘we are absolutely not making something like that’, which is why my dream of releasing the soundtrack to Josie and the Pussycats will never happen.
Which one, the movie or the TV show?
The 2001 movie, it’s so good. It’s really, really good and nobody will ever believe me. The soundtrack is even better. But because I’m the only person in the world who cares about that movie, that’s why Mondo won’t be releasing the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack.
However, something like Over the Garden Wall, we just released the cassette and that was a thing that a bunch of us saw and all liked it. We had this idea, went through with it and hunted down the rights to do it. It took months and months and months and when we finally got it we finally put it into production and released it.
We have a wish list like a million movies long. When we meet a new person at a studio or a record label, we give them our dream list of things that we think might even be remotely be associated with them. Every now and then they are like ‘We actually have these three…’ and then we go ‘Cool, can we have them?’ That’s basically how it goes and it’s curated in the sense that it’s all the things that we love. The cool thing about our job is we don’t have to do anything we don’t want to and that’s a dream come true. I wish it was more complicated that just things we like, but it’s as simple as that.
Oh you have that release? That’s awesome. At the time, it seemed like a lot of copies and now I look back and am like ‘Oh my god that was like 500 copies and like 100 of them were colored’. So if you have a colored one, it’s a real gem. It was like 350 black and 150 red. (Writer’s note: Mo and I’s signals got crossed here. I have the 2013 remake OST, picture on the left, and he was referring 1981 original OST they ALSO put out. Confusing, but now clarified!)
You guys seem like you put a lot of effort into the mastering and making sure things sound right on vinyl. What goes into your process mastering your releases?
Some releases come from the studio and they handle the mastering themselves because some composers only work with a certain mastering engineer. For example Jurassic World came already mastered. But everything else goes through the hands of James Plotkin, our engineer, who does us such a huge favor because he’s so incredibly talented and works with us because he loves what we do. We’re very, very grateful for him.
But once we get test pressings, we are the most neurotic people in the world. So much of my job is listening to test pressings. Some days I just spend hours and hours listening. For an up-coming record we recently teased on our Instagram, we’ve gone through like three rounds of test pressings. I’m sitting there with my headphones, a microphone and a timer to make note of every time code where there’s something that shouldn’t be there. There was some overmodulation during one of the biggest crescendos of the entire score. I was sitting there with a guy who was an engineer on the original record and we agreed something wasn’t right. So we went back to the original lacquers and adjusted things with a fine tooth comb, for better or worse… because that will hold up a project. You’ll want to release something on a significant date or anniversary, but with test pressings you have to deal with pops and ticks that just take up time.
Our release of Gravity, I went through like five rounds of test pressings. I don’t know why but that soundtrack, no matter what we did, we couldn’t get it to not be crackly. It could have to do with the dynamic range, the mostly digital score or could be a lot of things, but you just have to work at it until you get it right.
We never put anything into production we are disappointed in. Looper took like a full year to cut the test pressing. We actually manufactured Looper, listened to the first copies and there was a weird thing in the first track that was a recurring pop. We listened to like five copies in a row and they all had it, so we went back and had them do the pressing all over again.
What have your favorite releases been that you have worked on?
There’s one that I’m crazy baffled that we ever got to do and it’s the Studio Ghibli record. That to me… I don’t get how we got that. The reason we haven’t done more is just because they’re so protective of their intellectual property. When we did that record, I knew how special it was. To this day I look through my records and see that one and I can’t believe we released that thing. I can check ‘working with Studio Ghibli’ off my list. I got to email with Studio Ghibli! I got to send test pressings to Studio Ghibli! I got to get artwork approval from Studio Ghibli! That was an honor.
We just announced a Batman: The Animated Series box set and the cool thing we didn’t brag about up front, but I get to humble brag about, is that all the artwork is completely signed off by Bruce Timm, the artist and developer of the show. We got to email Bruce whenever we would get new artwork from Justin Erickson from Phantom City Creative and I would get to be like ‘Hey Bruce! Here’s another piece of art, hope you like it’ and he loved it! We did the same thing with the Superman: The Animated Series, we had to pass all the things by his eyes.
And Shirley Walker was a genius and it’s amazing we got to do this box set. It’s a shame she’s not around any longer and I want to send one to her estate so they can put it in her archive with the rest of her work. I would love that to be in that canon of her work.
So you have Mondo Con coming up on October 3-4, can you tell us what the convention is all about?
Mondo Con came about when we were sitting around in an office and (artist) Mike Mitchell said we should do a Mondo Con, and we were all like ‘Hey, Mike Mitchell, you’re right. That’s a great idea and we should do that.’ It started out as a joke and then it became a real thing.
Our original agenda was to do a convention that was comfortable for all the artists. Often artists feel overwhelmed at San Diego and conventions like that. Not that they don’t enjoy those conventions, we love doing San Diego, but it’s cool to have an intimate atmosphere for fans to meet those artists.
From the soundtrack perspective, it’s already significantly different from last year. Last year we had Shawn of the Dead, which was excellent, and we had Looper, and The Iron Giant at the same time.
This year we wanted to do this thing we did at SXSW where we represent all of the cool labels that are doing stuff right now. Everyone is on the same page. All the up-and-coming soundtrack labels and indie labels doing this, we love everyone who’s doing it. We basically want to all get together and do cool shit. Labels like Waxwork Records, Ship to Shore PhonoCo., and Data Discs. Even if someone can’t make it, we wanted them to ship some copies of stuff just to be represented. We can’t do it all, and neither can they, but we’re all on the same page and come from the same world to put out stuff we are proud of.
What releases are you doing special for Mondo Con this year?
We are doing Black Swan which we’ve been working on for a really long time. We’re premiering a release for Army of Darkness, which is really rad. And we’re going to do a small run of a different colorway of Mad Max: Fury Road which we haven’t really announced formally.
It’s smaller and not as expansive as last year, but it’s really cool because we’re having all the other labels coming out as well. It will be a bit more smartly curated.
Mondo has a reputation of doing great releases that people wanted but were really hard to obtain and got really expensive in the secondary market. How do you combat that reputation?
I wish there was one single answer, honestly. There’s no science to it. I’d love to appeal to the human element that Mondo is a small team of people who are fans. We come from a collectors’ mindset and we don’t want to mass produce things. We want to make it rare because it’s really cool when something sells out. It’s validating that we did the right thing. But you don’t want to bum anyone out. It’s a really tight line to walk.
We constantly get so much shit about it. It’s not that it’s unwarranted, but it makes us feel like we do it on purpose, or that we’re stingy, or we’re doing it on purpose. That is not the case. The truth of the matter is that our background is in the limited-edition collectible world, but we are trying to be responsible with our edition sizes so it doesn’t feel like two second sell outs, because that’s not fun. But we do want the person who got it to feel like they got it because they were paying attention. Or because they were hip to it and knew we were doing cool stuff.
We aren’t aiming for the crowd who is like ‘Shit, now I’ve got to go on ebay’, because we don’t benefit off that at all. Drive is a really great example because it was like our fourth or fifth release and it was by far the biggest one we’ve ever done. We pressed like 4,500, including the picture disc, which is a really big pressing. And there was a company who did a pressing in the UK, so ours was just another version. We were late to the game, we put it out and we still didn’t make enough.
That was flattering but that’s incredible because we could have made more, but the minute you say you are going to make more people freak out because you said the original was limited. You can’t win. So it’s tough, it really is. You have to say when you think it’s enough. Enough that people will get it and be excited, but when it’s gone it’s gone for good. Sometimes you make that and you still have a 1,000 sitting on the site. Nobody looks at that and talks about the ones we’ve made too many, it’s only the ones that sell out.
Vinyl is having its moment and, coinciding with that, original soundtracks are as popular as ever. Why do you think people all of a sudden care, especially for vinyl releases?
The other reason is nobody made merchandise for half of these movies. This is the first official merchandise for like fifty percent of the movies we’ve done soundtracks for. This is now an official thing you can own for that project. I think people listen and enjoy this amazing work, but think about Black Swan… if you are a fan of Black Swan, how do you represent that in any way? Aside from putting up a poster on your wall, this is a way to show your fandom for that film. This is how people show they are fans.
It’s a mix of that and that people still want to appreciate the music in a physical form. It’s as simple as that.
A writerly writer guy who writes about music, basketball and writing. He now writes here, but has written other places too. He also writes for a big fancy company as his 9-5. Writing, writing, writing. If you want to read his basketball writing (or listen to his podcasting, which isn’t writing but you know).