Interview: Mo Shafeek — Artistic Director, Mondo

Interview: Mo Shafeek — Artistic Director, Mondo

Monday, 01 March 2021

Mo Shafeek
Artistic Director

As far as vinyl soundtracks are concerned, Mondo has quickly become the gold standard over the years. From their roots as a shirt company in Austin TX, Mondo’s soundtracks are probably the most in-demand records for collectors. Their wild curating (they’ve released Raw and Josie and the Pussycats and Avengers Endgame) and meticulously detailed packaging and artwork, have garnered a devoted fanbase.

We decided to talk to artistic director Mo Shafeek to gain a little knowledge of the inner workings of Mondo, their philosophy behind putting out soundtracks, their hurdles, and history. Mo’s answers were in-depth, eloquent, and shed some light into a side of Mondo most of us don’t get to see.

I’ve always known Mondo as “Mondo Tees.” Now it seems like Mondo is synonymous with vinyl soundtracks. How exactly did Mondo get into the vinyl business from its humble beginnings?

I’ve been with the company for about a decade, and certainly in that time the philosophy has always been to avoid painting ourselves into a corner. Like you’ve stated, Mondo’s legal business name is Mondo Tees, but that small T-Shirt ship became a successful poster company, then a record label, then a small VHS / DVD label, then we started making collectables, then tiki mugs, then enamel pins… now board games! It’s surreal to think that in 10 years we could’ve touched so many facets of pop-culture collectables. But the record label started like so many of our current endeavors: lets see if we can do it, and if people care. Thankfully they did!

I’m always curious about the role and day-to-day activities of directors. What does an average day look like for you, responsibility-wise?

For as successful as we’ve been we are still pretty scrappy. The soundtrack department is just myself, Spencer Hickman (Death Waltz), and Shannon Smith who handles our production. We all pretty much do equal amounts of everything around buying for and merchandising and maintaining the webstore. I’d say that’s about 25% of my day. I also art direct our projects (about 50-60 a year) and scout artistic talent. Then there’s research and development – at any time there’s about 100+ active project in various stages of development that are running at different speeds, shifting gears almost daily. I also do artwork and packaging for some projects as well, handling graphic design, layout, and routing for approvals. It’s a lot. But it’s super fun, and every day is a new challenge and its always exciting.

I can never predict what kind of release you guys are going to do next. How does the curating process work exactly? Are you guys random, like “we haven’t done a horror soundtrack in a while, let’s do that!” or is it more focused like “this is a movie we all love and the soundtrack has never been out on vinyl, we should go for it!” Is it a team effort or are you the main driving force behind these releases?

From licensing to release it can take years so it’s always hard to say when we haven’t done something in a while, since we’re working on so many titles actively at any given time. But as far as the actual license curation, that is Spencer and I’s radically different tastes colliding into a best of both worlds type of scenario. He’s a little bit Suspiria, and I’m a little bit Josie and the Pussycats. We both just follow our bliss and seek out titles that excite us, we’re always watching new and old films for inspiration, and always hunting down elusive holy-grail titles that we’ve always wanted to do a physical release for (even if it’s already been released, how would Mondo / Death Waltz do it differently?) – but we are fortunate, going back to the idea of not painting ourselves into a corner, that we allowed ourselves early on to be the label that would release The Beyond, and a Studio Ghibli record, then Drive, then Jurassic Park, then Katamari Damacy, you know? So now there’s nothing we could release that anyone would find too “off brand”, which is truly liberating. We can just be inspired by anything, and try to share that love with every type of fan base that is out there, which I’m so grateful for.

Do you and Spencer ever spar over these choices or have to convince each other you’re onto something? There must be a limit to how much vinyl Mondo can put out and too many choices.

Not even once, actually. There might be some eye-rolling or concessions like “I guess that’s just not for me” but, all-in-all we are both incredibly accepting of each other’s tastes and curatorial choices. Regarding the amount of room on any calendar, that’s absolutely a problem year after year, but one that we solve by prioritizing, and reading the pulse of the community.

The Mondo store is a collection of different publishers and labels like Death Waltz and Data Discs. Are these partnerships or do the labels in the shop all operate under the Mondo umbrella somehow?

When Mondo and Death Waltz merged in 2014, one of the major ethos we adopted was that we would use our platform to highlight the works of our label friends from around the world. That was when we became more than a label, and also became a record shop. We can’t do every title out there, and there are so many amazing labels doing incredible work and producing product that is world class. We try to amplify that as much as possible. Data Discs came to us asking if we would carry titles in our shop, and we were honored. Same with Ship to Shore, Enjoy The Ride, TerrorVision, Milan, Lakeshore, BraveWave… so many that we are honored to have such a great working relationship with.

Talk about how exactly Mondo goes about acquiring the license for a soundtrack, especially for ones that have been already released in the past, like 2001 A Space Odyssey. Is it a complicated ordeal?

For titles that have been released before, convincing a label, studio, composer and director that you’d like to do your own spin on their album is about as complicated as it sounds, and then even more so for titles that have never been released. It’s a multi-stage process that is sometimes 2 steps forward, 2 steps back on a daily basis. But as the re-issue label concept has become more normalized, it is certainly less of an ordeal to pitch the idea in general. But that’s pretty America specific. Outside of the US, it’s still as difficult as it was 10 years ago. But either way, it’s still just a matter of hunting down the rights, asking politely, reading the room in an industry that loves to do fun creative things for old titles, but also, most times, has a full time job focusing on new releases. So, you have to be patient and be willing to go the distance with a title you truly believe in because it may take years to make something happen. But also, anniversary campaigns help. That 2001 release probably wouldn’t have happened if the studio hadn’t been focusing on the anniversary of the film.

Do you think labels and studios have finally gotten on the bandwagon and realizing that vinyl releases are worthwhile pursuing? Obviously the demand for vinyl now is much more obvious than it was 10 years ago.

As much as we were at the forefront of this modern soundtrack wave, we do not take any credit for the general rise in popularity of vinyl. That had been bubbling up for nearly a decade thanks to Record Store Day, and in retrospect, the response to music streaming and the organic, inevitable nostalgia of anything that goes away.

One of my favorite releases of yours is the Raw soundtrack which is maybe one people aren’t as familiar with. I definitely get the feeling that these soundtracks are a labor of love. Any other examples of soundtracks you did where you knew it wouldn’t be an immense hit, but you just had to do it anyway because it was a great opportunity?

Oh totally. I’d argue that 50% of our titles are what you’d qualify as labors of love. Even just this last year, Homecoming: Season Two, Tales from the Loop, Trover Saves The Universe, Bathtubs Over Broadway – and that was just in the last 6 months! But sometimes the labors of love are met by our fans with an equal amount of enthusiasm… like Over The Garden Wall, and Josie and the Pussycats. Both were titles that we worked for years to make happen, got canceled, or turned down for a number of times, pushed through and I was like “well at least 10 other people will be into this” and they are some of our most popular titles! Plus, time changes everything. That aforementioned Studio Ghibli record was a labor of love, and sort of a bomb when it came out. But now it’s one of our rarest and most requested re-issues, and now the studio itself is in active re-issue status for their soundtracks so sometimes timing is everything!

Don’t forget Looper!There are some great releases that I missed out on like the Adventure Time Box Set and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. What is the repressing policy at Mondo?

The current mindset is that we want people to get our records, but we can only keep so many titles in active press due to contractual limitations or just general bandwidth. There are times that we were a little too firm on the limited edition status of certain titles that I know many people would still be excited to have, but we have to live with that decision sadly to be fair to those who got them initially. But most times, I will say, when we don’t repress something in any form it’s not because we don’t want to, it’s because we are not allowed to.

Speaking of pressing records, what’s the process of pressing and actually generating the product for Mondo? These days there is a huge lead time to getting a record pressed. What’s the time frame between agreeing on a release and actually having the physical stuff in your hands?

It’s definitely a hurdle. Right now, lead times are nearly 6 months because of the spike in collecting during the pandemic. It’s a good problem to have, that there is such a demand, and it has sort of solidified our production process a bit – and its times like this where it’s good that we are working on a 100 titles at any given time… but its fluctuated like this in the past, and you just have to be able to adapt.

Let’s talk about the art. How do you go about commissioning an artist to do the artwork? Are these artist whose work you’ve seen previously? Do you direct the artwork as well or let the artist do whatever they want?

We have a stable of artists we work with regularly on all types of projects, and we are always looking for new artists. We’ve always seen an artists work if we are working with them – but we don’t accept unsolicited art if that’s what you are asking. All of our titles are born from an internal pitch to who we should commission, and then we work together with the artist to put together the best idea, getting the concept workable and approved by the studio / label / composer before bringing it to final. But my art direction style is to let an artist do their own thing in the idea stage so it’s as pure as possible and then refine it from there.

Being an Austin company, do you try and source local talent for that?

Of course we do, but more on the production partner side of things, we love to support local and Texan businesses. As far as artistic talent, we generally pull from the global pool. If you happen to be in Austin, great! Many of our artists have actually moved to Austin over time – not because of us, but because it’s a great community, but we definitely don’t really factor geographic location into our search for artistic talent.

Another of my favorite releases is the Star Trek II Wrath of Khan soundtrack. I was expecting more Star Trek stuff from you guys. Is there anything on the horizon? 

Sadly, not in the immediate future. La La Land did an amazing The Motion Picture reissue a few years ago, that’s my other favorite Star Trek OST. But never say never!

Are there any holy grails or white whales that you’ve been trying to procure for a Mondo release but haven’t been able to yet?

Oh, dozens! But I can’t really talk about those because I don’t want to jinx any of them.

I’ve been talking about my favorites ones this whole interview, but what about YOU, Mo? What are some of your favorite Mondo Soundtrack releases and why?

Oh, that’s tough. Some of my favorite things we’ve ever done (both musically, and packaging-wise) are Josie and the Pussycats, Over the Garden Wall, LOST, Fight Club, Back To The Future, Katamari Damacy… Each for a different reason, but most of that boils down to being able to pay tribute to some of my favorite art in some way that I hope we did justice!

Can you give us any hints on new stuff that’s on the horizon?

More video game OSTs, more Disney / Pixar, more Japanese titles, plus more fun left field surprises. 2021 is very exciting. I hope people dig our releases this year!

Many thanks to Mo, Ryan, and Brad at Fons PR for making this interview happen. As always you can get the latest news (and records) from Mondo right here.

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