And Now, An Interview With Mondo Record Label Manager Mo Shafeek

Let's take a peek behind the curtain of an ever-expanding vinyl empire.

Disclosure: Mondo and BMD are both owned by the Alamo Drafthouse.

Last week, just after MondoCon 4 wrapped, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Mondo Record Label Manager Mo Shafeek (that's him on the left in the photo up top), one half of the brilliant team behind Mondo's endless parade of excellent vinyl releases (Death Waltz Records' Spencer Hickman, the other half of that team, is on the right). I was curious to know what Mo's day-to-day job looks like in practice, how vinyl releases differ from poster drops, and what kind of highlights Mo's experienced in his years for with Mondo. 

Here's what he told me.

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BMD: So, how did MondoCon go for you this year?

Mo Shafeek: It was great! This is now year four, so the big question marks - in this case, a new venue - were different. When Mondo Records sets up, I tend to feel more like a vendor than someone who's putting on a show. But this time, when we were setting up, we realized, "Wow, this is really gonna look amazing." Everyone else felt the same way before we opened the doors. And then, sure enough, everything turned out great! Other than getting used to the new space, everything was pretty par for the course. MondoCon's my favorite time of the year, because you're seeing all your favorite faces - not just fans, but also artists - who come in from all over the world. There's one fan who comes all the way over from Japan every year, and every time I see him I'm so happy to know that someone would travel that far for...well, anything, really.

That is a hike.

MS: It's definitely a hike. But it's this guy's third year coming, and it's so powerful every time I see him.

That's really cool. I thought the new venue made MondoCon feel more like a giant convention than it has in years past. The wide aisles, all that space...I thought it looked really cool in there.

MS: Yeah, me too! We're always thinking about what we can do with the space we've found to do this thing, but like you said, this was maybe the first year where it felt like a fully realized Con. Here's a version of this that we'd actually be proud to show our moms! I mean, not that it ever looked ugly in the past, but there was definitely a DIY element (that went away this year). 

Well, an operation of this size, you're gonna need a few at-bats to perfect the game. But it really does get sharper and sharper every year.

MS: Thanks! We were really happy with it.

Changing gears for a minute, I'm curious if you can walk us through what your average day's like, on the job.

MS: I mean, it's probably less glamorous than you think. There's no real common thread in my day-to-day. Being a Mondo person for as long as I have, I still feel that my job, first and foremost, involves me being on my laptop juggling about 25 projects at any given time. As far as the licensing goes, all that kinda stuff just happens when it happens.

Spencer (Hickman, of Death Waltz Records), who's my boss, my partner and my best friend, he and I spend a lot of time talking about, "Should we do this project? Should we try and get that license?" Checks and balances-wise, I think we both trust each other not to go after something that's not relevant to the brand. Luckily, though, our brand has been so all-over-the-place that it's really not a matter of staying true to anything other than sincerity.

Have you ever had a situation where one of you wants to take on a specific title and the other person's just like, "Absolutely not"?

MS: Nope. No, not at all. Not even a little bit! I remember, early on, maybe in my first year or two of running the record label, we had done all this horror stuff. Started off with Maniac, and then The Beyond, and then Poltergeist. Then we went to Drive and Jurassic Park, but those were still genre things. Then we started getting into the Studio Ghibli stuff, the Laika stuff - we were doing animated, kids stuff in the middle of slasher films. All of a sudden, we're selling a soundtrack featuring an image of Elijah Wood scalping a woman, but we're also selling the soundtrack to Paranorman. In doing so, we planted a flag early on that we were gonna be a record label that simply followed its bliss and put out things we like. As a result, no one seems to be like, "Guys, what are you doing?" when we announce new titles. People get it.

So, sometimes we'll reach out to (a company) and say, "Can we do this?" and they'll say no. You come back in six months and ask again, and maybe it's still a no. Then you might follow up a third time and they say, "Y'know what? Yeah!" That's a lot of my job, dividing my attention 25 different ways and just trying to make these things happen.

In terms of a timeline on projects, you can have a finished record in-hand in about two months, but more realistically - based on the fact that we do original artwork for everything, and remaster everything, and generally just do everything very meticulously - I'd say it's actually closer to six or eight months. There's also a matter of scheduling to consider. Sometimes, just through happenstance, you might have everything finishing up around, say, November. Well, you can't just release 25 things in November, so you save some stuff for January or February. It's actually kind of crazy that it's just Spencer and I doing all this, because we're effectively releasing about 40 albums a year.

Is the process of clearing artwork for vinyl the same as clearing artwork for a poster release?

MS: It's different. Without getting too inside-baseball about it, there's a lot of different categories as to what a licensed product is. Records don't really fall into the category of licensed products at all.

Let's say you wanna make a Simpsons T-shirt. Well, then you gotta go to the Fox licensing department with the idea, and they've gotta run it up the flagpole. Chances are, it then becomes a thing where someone at Fox has to clear the idea through approved assets. Once you start creating your own artwork, though, that's when things get complicated, and that's when you've gotta get rights holders involved and all that...but not so much for soundtracks. They're a completely different entity. That world is controlled by individual composers, musicians' unions, the record labels that continue to hold the rights in perpetuity but will license the rights to us. Sometimes it's the filmmakers themselves. It's different every time. There is no "normal".

You mentioned earlier that sometimes you'll get a "No" upfront but that eventually that'll turn into a "Yes". Why would that change?

MS: Well, the soundtracks are generally owned by record labels. And sometimes the labels don't see the viability or necessity for it in that moment, or maybe they have plans to do it in-house. Y'know, "Well, someone in our office thinks we should just rerelease this one ourselves", stuff like that. You can't really argue that, y'know? But then, maybe a year later, they still haven't gotten around to it. Maybe they don't have the bandwidth to do it right then, or the person who wanted to do it in-house doesn't work for the company anymore, or maybe their priorities have shifted and they don't feel that soundtracks are a thing they want to bother with. There's all kinds of reasons that could change, but it's never for any negative reason.

It's like there's a giant sandbox outside a recreation center, and we show up having not brought our own toys. The other kids all brought their toys, and some of them are really great toys! But they're just sitting there, waiting to be played with. So we're like, "Are you playing with that toy right now? Could we play with it for an hour or two?" And sometimes the kid just says, "Weeeell, we're not playing with these toys right now, but we had plans to." Thing is, none of it's ours, so we're always grateful whenever we get to play with the toys. 

What are you most proud of having worked on, during your time with the company? 

MS: It's weird, because it's all a bit of a blur now. I remember looking at some old photos recently and noticing certain fashion choices or hairstyles, and realizing that I've already been part of an era. There have definitely been milestones during that era, things I am sure are all-time highs, but it does all blur together.

Back To The Future, that's definitely one of them. That was a life-changing moment for me, and for the longest time I thought that was gonna be it for me. Like, it would never get better than that, my life is all downhill from here. You know what I'm talking about, though - you went and met Stephen King this year! I mean, come on. Back To The Future was probably at that level for me, where I was just like, "Never again will I feel this happy in my job." Or there was another moment a few years ago, at Fantastic Fest, where I found myself standing in a boxing ring next to Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, and I'm looking at both of them like, "This is so weird. Why am I here with Bill and Ted?!" It was crazy. 

To me, the coolest thing we've done as a company, on the record label side, is the release of Fight Club. If only every release could be so well recognized and well-excecuted, I would feel like we were hitting our mark every single time. That was a sold-out-show, standing ovation moment where it felt like everyone in the audience got it. It's weird, because that movie carries something of a stigma these days thanks to a certain chunk of the audience not getting the movie, and that's why we took the approach we did (on the packaging). Fight Club posters are hard to do, Fight Club merchandise is hard to do. It wasn't until Alan Hynes, the wizard of San Francisco, came up with this incredible packaging concept that we realized, "Oh, that's what we should be doing - getting even weirder with it. It's a blessing that we can't just draw Brad Pitt's face."

So once we had the idea and put it into motion, I immediately had this moment of, "Oh my god, no one's going to get this." Then we put it out, everyone got it, and I thought, "Oh, thank god." It wasn't that I thought people wouldn't get it because they're not smart or that (the packaging) was too high-concept; I just thought that people wouldn't think it was cool, or funny, or that they wouldn't care. That the response was so great really meant a lot to me. I was really happy about that.

So, Back To The FutureFight Club, and then there was Josie And The Pussycats. That was the other big one. 

You guys did a big record-release event for that one, yeah.

MS: The experience of putting that soundtrack out and interacting with a fandom of people who have been so underserved and looked down on for so long really reminded me that that's the kind of thing that Mondo should be doing. I learned really early on that, despite the word "cult" being used for a number of beloved films, those are not cult films. This is by no means an insult to anyone who loves these movies, but there is a tier thing happening here that needs to be considered. If you like Star Wars or Ghostbusters, that's great and those are great movies, but those are definitely not cult films. RoboCop is not a cult film anymore. Gremlins is not a cult film.

So, what are the cult films from the past 15 years? What's a movie that no one seemed to like when it came out, but there's a fanbase out there who not-so-secretly loves that movie? Josie And The Pussycats is one of those movies. I knew it and I probably waited too long to even acknowledge it myself, but when we went out and did that event in L.A., the filmmakers came out, Rachel and Tara and Rosario came out, Kay Hanley from Letters to Cleo (who sang as Josie in the film) came out, and lemme tell you: it was the most excited I have ever seen an audience react to anything in my entire life. That is not an exaggeration - it was like, the moment.

I'm sure they were thrilled.

MS: It was as though The Terminator had never been recognized as this amazing, classic film, and then one day Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared and hosted a screening of The Terminator. Everyone would freak the fuck out! And that's what it felt like, truly. They came out onstage to a standing ovation, people were singing along with every word of every song, and this was the first live performance of any of that music ever! It was surreal, and it recharged me.

It reminded me how there's these films we work on all the time that are generally accepted as masterpieces, and that's great - it's good to be covering films that everyone loves. But I really want Mondo to start paying more attention to the films that people have always loved that just don't get talked about enough. Let's serve these titles that have really positive, appreciative fandoms. It's refreshing to deal with those fandoms, because in some cases they're just excited to be able to say, "Yes! I love this thing, and someone else loves it enough to do something about it!"

That's really cool. Is there anything you'd like to tease for the year ahead? I'm not sure if you guys are as secretive about your vinyl goings-on as you are about the poster end of things.

MS: It's not so much secrecy and more of a scheduling thing, really. We still haven't locked in our 2018 schedule (of releases). That said, Alan Hynes - who did Fight Club and Anomalisa and Portal - is taking a swing at They Live, which is already something I'm very excited about. It's super-inventive, as expected from Alan, and that's gonna be bonkers. Next year's the 30th anniversary and we've got some fun stuff planned for that. 

We're also going to be releasing one of my favorite video game soundtracks, for a PS2 game called Katamari Damacy. That one's not just one of my favorite video game soundtracks, but one of my favorite soundtracks ever. That egg took a long time to crack, but now that we've got it going I'm very excited and think the release will be absolutely wonderful.

And that's really just the tip of the iceberg. There's a ton of things we're going to be putting out, but a lot of them aren't quite fully-baked yet, so I'll have to leave it at that. But I will say that an artist recently teased something on social media for a thing that's coming out next year, and it's based on a very famous musical episode of a TV show. We're doing the soundtrack to that episode, and I'm very excited about that one.

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