Bruce Licher

As the boss of Independent Project Records & Press, Bruce Licher has released some brilliant albums and designed the sleeves of every single one of them, as well as producing countless postage stamps and the occasional flag

“I was trying to think of an interesting way to package my band’s first album,” begins Bruce Licher. “So I enrolled in a class in letterpress printing at the Women’s Graphic Center in downtown LA, even though I had no idea what letterpress actually was.

“The first thing I had to print was a postcard, so I came up with something announcing the release of our record. They had this big flatbed press in the room, 18 by 24 inches, which I soon realised was the perfect size for an album cover, so I said to the teacher, ‘If I take this class again, would you teach me to use that?’. She said, ‘Yeah, sure’. I ended up printing 1,000 sleeves for my band on that press.”

More than 40 years on and Bruce Licher’s ongoing interest in letterpress printing, a form of relief printing which involves pressing paper or card onto inked raised blocks, has made him one of the most idiosyncratic designers in the music industry. He’s one of the most celebrated too, with two Grammy nominations to his name, despite having mainly worked with underground artists. Most of his sleeves have been for Independent Project Records, the Los Angeles label he set up in 1980, and the relationship between IPR and his design and print company, Independent Project Press, remains close to this day.

The cover Licher printed at the Women’s Graphic Center was for the first edition of ‘Tragic Figures’, Savage Republic’s 1982 debut album, a whorl of avant-garde post-punk, crackling with noise and propelled by tribal metal bashing. The fact that the inspiration for Licher initially picking up a musical instrument was ‘No New York’, Brian Eno’s pioneering no wave compilation, says much about where Savage Republic were coming from.

As did the dramatic cover of ‘Tragic Figures’, which featured the title in Arabic above a graphic reworking of a news photo showing the execution of Kurdish rebels during the Iranian Revolution. It was printed on brown chipboard rather than card, giving it an incredibly organic feel. The initial run of 1,000 copies of the record sold out in three weeks, with four further editions following, each sleeve a variation of the original and each pressing accompanied by a fascinating range of printed ephemera.

“We changed our name to Savage Republic just as ‘Tragic Figures’ came out,” says Licher. “And once we’d done that, I started thinking, ‘OK, if we’re supposed to be a republic, then we need a flag, we need postage stamps, we need all kinds of stuff…’”

Savage Republic’s sound morphed over the next few years, incorporating elements of Mediterranean, Arabic and African music and introducing more melody to the maelstrom, but the flag Licher created for the band – red and white stripes with a palm tree emblem – was a constant presence, adorning innumerable postcards, flyers and posters, as well as vinyl, cassette and CD sleeves. It also featured on many of the sheets of commemorative stamps Licher produced every time the band put out an album or went on tour. While the stamps weren’t valid for use, all the letters and packages sent from the Independent Project Records & Press offices were affixed with the correct Savage Republic postage alongside the correct US Mail postage.

“My mother got my brother and I started on collecting stamps when I was around eight years old,” remembers Licher. “There’s a lot of really beautiful artwork on stamps. I think growing up looking at all that imagery from around the world is why I’ve always been intrigued by faraway places.”

Beyond his work with Savage Republic, who disbanded at the end of the 1980s, Licher has designed and printed material for a huge range of artists, from REM and Camper Van Beethoven to Stereolab, Harold Budd, Scritti Politti and Woo. Camper Van Beethoven released their debut album on IPR in 1985, while Stereolab recorded a one-off seven-inch for the label in 1999. The latter, a three-track EP called ’The In Sound’, was available in five different letterpress-printed die-cut covers, including both brown and grey chipboard versions, plus a choice of black, clear, maroon, red and yellow vinyl. You can perhaps see why IPR are a highly collectable imprint.

“I’m a big fan of Stereolab,” notes Licher. “I went to see them when they played in Arizona, where I was living for a while. Tim Gane was hanging out at the end of the night, signing records for people, so I walked up and said hello. When I told him I was from IPR, he said he loved the label, and we connected from there. I said it would be great to release a Stereolab seven-inch and it was amazing when we finally managed to do that, even though it took about two years to get it together.

“With Harold Budd, I met him through my Savage Republic co-founder Phil Drucker, who brought him down to my print room in LA. Harold said he liked what I was doing and asked me to design a few things. I ended up printing an announcement for him when his son was born, which was nice. Later on, he collaborated with Scenic, the band I put together in the 90s. He played piano on a track on our third album, ‘The Acid Gospel Experience’, an ambient space rock record we released in 2002.”

Independent Project Records & Press continue to thrive, with Licher still at the heart of the intertwined operations. Three years ago, he assembled a selection of his finest design work for ‘Savage Impressions’, a hardback book published by P22, the renowned New York State type foundry, with a deluxe edition accompanied by a gold vinyl album called ‘Tape Excavation’. Licher played on all 14 of the tracks on the record and all 22 tracks on an expanded version of ‘Tape Excavation’, which has recently been released on IPR as a standalone CD.

Whether as a designer, a printer or a musician, Bruce Licher’s commitment to his various arts has never faltered and ‘Savage Impressions’ stands as a magnificent testimonial to the unique visual world he has created over the last four decades. It’s striking to see just how many of his pieces have been printed on the chipboard that he used on his very first letterpress project way back in 1982.

“I was never especially interested in making prints to be framed and put on a wall,” he says. “I wanted my art to be in people’s hands. I loved the thought of somebody being at their record store, flipping through the racks, pulling something out and going, ‘Wow, what is this? This is beautiful. I have to take this home with me’. So it was really the idea of people finding art where they didn’t expect it. That’s the reason I do what I do, even though it’s not super-profitable, you know? And if I’d gone down the art gallery route, well, I don’t know… I sometimes wonder if maybe this was a mistake, but there we are.”

If it was a mistake, then it’s one that record collectors across the globe will be delighted he made.

‘Savage Impressions’ is published by P22. The ‘Tape Excavation’ CD is out on Independent Project Records

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