Paul Sahre: The Rise and Fall of the Paper Monster Hearse

Paul Sahre’s new book Two-Dimensional Man: A Graphic Memoir is published today. In this extract, Sahre takes us through the highs and lows of working with They Might Be Giants on the designs for the band’s 2011 album Join Us.

Paul Sahre They Might Be Giants
Cover for Join Us by They Might Be Giants, 2011; © Office of Paul Sahre

When I started designing for one of my all-time favourite bands in 2011, writes Paul Sahre, I approached it in a professional manner, yelling, “NO FUCKING WAY!!!” while reading the email. John Flansburgh, one of the two ‘Johns’ (the other, John Linnell) who founded They Might Be Giants back in the early ’80s, had emailed me after seeing my work for the New York Times.

What started as a job designing some digital art for their upcoming release Join Us turned into the design for all the band’s collateral, including the CD and LP design, digital art for iTunes, digital booklets, posters, T-shirts, ads, and over a dozen illustrations.

The album cover was a response to the album’s ‘death theme’ and featured a monster truck hearse crushing some tastefully aligned Helvetica. Flansburgh’s initial reaction was positive, “Let’s make it Day-Glo pink!” but he had an issue with the typeface, saying, “We aren’t a Helvetica band.” When I explained that a ridiculous pink monster hearse crushing Helvetica was the ultimate anti-modernist statement, he immediately came around.
At that point our work was done.

Except that I didn’t want it to end there. The iTunes digital booklet seemed like it might be an opportunity to do something interesting that we hadn’t considered. These things are basically just PDFs with liner notes, so we used the PDF format to create instructions for making a tabletop model of the monster hearse that fans could build with paper, scissors, and glue. The design of the tabletop model and the PDF instructions alone took forever. The bulk of those hours were logged by Santiago, my intern at the time. I’m sure he still has nightmares about it.

At the last minute I changed the title to ‘Now you can build your very own official They Might Be Giants Life-Size Paper Monster Hearse’. We had no illusions that anyone would actually attempt to build it life-size; it just seemed funnier that way, especially because the only change we made to the actual instructions was ‘STEP ONE: Print out this PDF at 3,400%.’

Now we were done.

But, of course, we weren’t, because the more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself to actually build it. I called A2A Solutions, the output place I usually work with, to get an idea if this was even possible. Far from telling me it was impossible and/or stupid, Adam said, “We can do it”, only it turned out that the large-scale printing alone would take 70 hours and cost at least $1,000 for paper and ink. I went back to the band and asked for the green light.

The green light was given.

I had the vague idea that we would film the construction and create some sort of video, but it really started as an open-ended challenge. I wanted to see if I could do it. After all, I am Two-Dimensional Man, everything I design is flat. I had no business building what amounted to a monumental three-dimensional sculpture.

Once we had the printing figured out, we needed a large space. My studio certainly wasn’t big enough, so Adam, the man crazy enough to print this thing at cost, went all in by offering A2A’s driveway for however long it would take to build it. My guess was two weeks.

It took six months.

The Paper Monster Hearse

A handful of interns, employees, and students constituted our assembly team. There was a lot of improvising. After we spent two solid days trying, unsuccessfully, to build a single tire, we realised that we had no internal structure figured out that would support the weight of the outer skin. Construction stopped for about a week while we devised a cardboard skeleton that could support the weight but also be held together with hot glue. The tabletop version didn’t need it; the life-size model did. An intern, a Belgian designer named Elias, was tasked with figuring this out. I’m not sure why I tapped him to do it. It may have been that he had operated a hot-glue gun before. A few days later he came back to me with a tiny mock-up of designs for the skeleton, the wheel, the undercarriage, and the hearse that he had based on the tabletop version. “Do you think it will work?” I asked him. He shrugged, “In theory we should be able to enlarge these at the same proportion. It should work.”

I started to think I might have gotten in over my head. This certainly was not going to take two weeks. Like most monumental human tragedies – from the Titanic to the Donner Party – if we knew what we were getting into, we probably wouldn’t have started out, but now there was no turning back.

Construction resumed and the hearse assembly fell into a predictable routine. First, I checked if the weather in Stamford (an hour train or car ride away) was good. We had to see if we could drop what we were doing at the studio for the day. If yes, then we all met at the Jay Street train stop in DUMBO, where I picked up whomever could go with me. We would work all day and sometimes into the night, then, exhausted, we would return to the city. Repeat. Former student Joe Hollier was filming everything and, by the end, had logged hundreds of hours of footage.

It wasn’t clear until we were at the very end what we would do with all of the footage we had or whether what we were building would actually hold together long enough to be documented. I added to the difficulty by insisting that the monster truck had to move, which meant that axles of some kind had to be devised. Nerves were fraying. There were numerous hot-glue burns, minor cuts, bruises, and periods we couldn’t work because of the weather or projects at the studio. Adam was getting antsy because pieces of the monster completely filled his garage and part of the first floor.

On a particularly tense day, with little time to spare, I had ventured out to McDonald’s to get Erik and Santiago a Big Mac and fries. Traffic was so bad that it took me two hours to go there and back, burning a large chunk of the day. When I delivered their lunch, we realised they had forgotten to put the Big Macs in the bag. So they drank their Cokes and ate their fries and got back to work. They were stranded on a desert island. They were looking at me all afternoon as if I were a Big Mac.

Eventually, inevitably, at 11:34 am on November 8, 2011, we pushed the monster out into the street for the first (and only) time. With Joe filming, we did a test take that became the only take because the tires started to give way under all of that weight. We made it exactly 120 feet, the same distance the Wright brothers traveled at Kitty Hawk.

We deconstructed the monster and took it by U-Haul (in three trips) to a storage place in Stamford. The manager told us that They Might Be Giants were now the second famous musical band storing stuff at that facility. The other was Average White Band.

While the monster sat in storage, Joe did a rough edit. I had been holding off sharing anything but a few still images and vague promises that “things were progressing” whenever Flans asked, so this was the first time he had seen anything move. After seeing what we had, he gave us the best song on the album — When Will You Die?, a song about wanting someone dead — and asked for a music video. The footage we had was amazing, only we didn’t have an ending.

As summer turned to fall and fall turned to winter, things got desperate. We were hemorrhaging money. I hadn’t totalled it up yet, but we were over $10,000 in expenses alone. The paper hearse had to die. The solution in the end came courtesy of my designer neighbors on Sixth Avenue, Hjalti Karlsson, downstairs at karlssonwilker, and Frank DeRose, upstairs at Zut Alors! (another design firm that now occupied the fourth floor). When I talked the situation through with Hjalti, he said, “Why don’t you destroy it? Frank knows a guy.” I walked up to the top floor and Frank hooked me up with a friend of his who operates a scrap yard. The ending would be the recycling. Next thing I know, we’re having a moment of silence for a pile of cardboard.
So much for the fallacy of the dream project.

After it was all over and my first music video had been released, my mom came down to the city for a visit. I sat her down at one point to show it to her, curious to see how she would react. If she didn’t get the other work I do, what would she make of this?

The video ended and there was another moment of silence.

“Well, dear, you always did love your trucks.”

Extracted from Two-Dimensional Man: A Graphic Memoir by Paul Sahre, published by Abrams Press, £26.99, abramsandchronicle.co.uk; Read our interview with Paul Sahre about the book here

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