“Visually, VHS looks better to me than HD or digital,” says Perry Shall, Philadelphia-based artist and musician. “I tried rewatching E.T. recently on an HD super fancy TV, and you can tell it’s a movie set. Not that I didn’t know that before, but it took away the illusion.” Shall is explaining the aesthetic root of his attraction to analog culture, which he’s so embedded in that its techniques have become part of his creative toolbox. Make no mistake, though: Shall’s love for the things we made before personal computers (and digital connectivity) became such an integral part of our lives is no retrogressive kitsch, no attempt to ride novelty or trend into some sort of viral fame. He truly loves the actual look and feel of pre-digital ephemera.
Through the music of his band Hound, the visuals he’s created for Waxahatchee, Jeff the Brotherhood, Obits, Kurt Vile, Diarrhea Planet, and his new clothing line, Cherry Cola, Shall has crafted his own aesthetic language that pops, cracks, and often requires tracking adjustment. There’s just enough fuzz, hiss, and distortion in his work—both aural and visual—to be charming and familiar without being nakedly nostalgic. Shall goes big in everything he does, whether it’s collecting vintage toys, t-shirts and other ephemera in bulk, or the 5’ 7”, 30-pound foam ice cream cone named Terry that he built, “just because.” Even when he’s assuming the role of frontman for Hound—backbeat booming, down-stroked riffs that channel the big rock of Danzig, Thin Lizzy, ZZ Top, Motörhead, and early Rush—there’s an innocence and humor to the work that gives the glow of authenticity, rather than retro irony.
That genuine affection for the past extends far beyond music. “The 80s and 90s were full of some of the craziest cartoons—a comeback of the weirdo art in a way,” he says. “I remember having a Rat Fink toy as a kid, Toxic Crusaders, Ninja Turtles and what not. I was always interested in the gross or super weird looking stuff. It made me wanna copy it. I was also struck by both the sound and look of Highway to Hell, Destroyer by KISS, Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, and the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light.”
In a landscape where the minutiae of pop culture passes through digital channels at light speed, often without context, anything can become a meme, subverting homage into some pixelated pastiche in-joke. But Shall’s work exists in a sincere sweet spot, evoking the saccharine rush of Airheads, Lemonheads, and Cherry Clan. Shall appreciates the everyday items that provide a creative spark for something greater.
“When I was 12 or so, I snuck into the attic and found a trash bag that was filled with my dad’s old shirts,” he says. “I pulled out an ‘85 Springsteen tour shirt, Billy Joel, Harry Chapin, and a bunch of old Philly t-shirts and I was just blown away. I thought they were the coolest things ever. All my friends wanted the newest clothes with the cool current bands or brands. My parents weren’t going to pay $20 or more for a T-shirt at the mall so I started wearing them, even if the band wasn’t ‘cool’ for my age group. My dad started taking me to thrift stores to find more. I have close to 900 or more [now].”
Geography also plays a major role in Shall’s process. He’s a lifelong Philadelphian, a resident of a major Northeast city that’s still able to foster creatives, by being relatively affordable (and, for Shall, offering housing that’s spacious enough to fit all the things he’s accumulated). Philadelphia is a unique city, offering the energy of a metropolis like New York, but with an earnest, unassuming character.
“I’ve been here my whole life,” he says. and it is probably the most real place I’ve ever visited in my years of touring. The food, the museums, the architecture, the art, the accent… And the music that has come from here—fucking Sun Ra lived in Philly!”
And, while the storied Philly-NYC rivalry might divide New Jersey, Shall feels a sense of brotherly love with even the northern end of the Garden State, via Tom Scharpling’s Best Show (formerly broadcasting from WFMU in Jersey City, and just as locality-referential as Shall is). Hound’s music has become a fixture on Scharpling’s show, which itself is beholden to the analog tradition of live radio, allowing the audience to drive the content as much as the creators. The show is difficult to explain to the uninitiated: part real-world call-in show, part absurdist comedic sketch show set in the fictional town of Newbridge, NJ (nearly all of Newbridge’s characters are played by Superchunk/Mountain Goats/Bob Mould drummer Jon Wurster, who rebounds off of Scharpling’s straight man in rubbery and dizzying ways). The line between Jersey City and Newbridge is often blurry, positing Newbridge a bit like a bizarre comedic version of the Upside Down in Stranger Things. It’s a show not only for crate-diggers, but those—like Shall—who mine every pocket of subculture for the interesting, obscure, and surreal.
The Best Show has a passionate organic fan community (interlocking in many ways with garage and indie rock, through Scharpling’s personal tastes, Wurster’s bands and beyond); Shall’s introduction was, like most Best Show fans, through word of mouth. “I had a roommate who was into it,” he says. “We were home alone and listened to an entire episode. I was immediately hooked and quickly obsessed. It has become a sort of meditation to me—I get my best artwork done on Tuesday nights [when the show is on]. It’s helped me get through the deaths of loved ones, heartbreak, depression, anxiety and of course boosted the happy times.”
The emotional sincerity that the Best Show opens up for Shall carries through into his design ethos, too. “I believe t-shirts can be a form of communication,” he says. “You could be the shyest person in the world, see someone who has a shirt on of a band you like and you might turn into the most outgoing person ever. It’s a reason to strike up conversation. Everybody has that one t-shirt they can never get rid of. I live for that.”