A card carrying member of the National Collage Society, Joe Castro gets around like a rumor. He’s been published by GQ style, Glamour, and The Age of Collage and has designed Vans sneakers, Hidden River Brewery beer can labels, and posters for legends like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Pavement, and Echo and the Bunnymen.
Joe doesn’t only love listening to music. He makes it. After holding down lead guitar duties in The Situation, the darlings of Pitchfork Magazine, Joe now fronts Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen featuring HOOV3R and Dallas, the air-tight rhythm section poached from the ashes of venerable Philly punk band Thorazine.
What advice do you have for people starting out in collage art? What are the tools of the trade? Are you sponsored by X-acto?
You know – anything that cuts: X-acto, scissors, switchblade. Personally, I like to pretend I’m Danny Trejo and use a machete. Makes me feel tough. Or maybe wear a hockey mask and get into that Jason Voorhees mindset.
But in all seriousness, it’s super easy to get started. That’s what I love about collage as an art form. It’s accessible to everyone and anyone can do it, just like punk rock. All you need is some source material–a couple of old magazines or whatever–a blade, and some glue. Personally, I use a gel medium. Some people prefer glue sticks. I even know an artist who uses tape, which is crazy. There are no rules. Just stay away from rubber cement.
I did think about approaching X-acto for a sponsorship but quickly realized I didn’t wanna spend my time creating social media commercials for a handful of free blades. Nothing comes for free.
Can you tell me where you get your source material, or would you have to kill me?
I like to lurk around flea markets and dusty old bookstores, especially ones where the shelves are crammed so much to capacity that the ends of the aisles have books stacked on top of each other so high that they block out the ceiling lights so the whole place is just dark and mysterious. Anytime I’m traveling, I always look for those types of shops. I can spend hours in spots like that. I enjoy the hunt of it.
In the morning, how do you decide whether to pick up the six string or the razor and glue? Do you follow a routine or just the muse?
It all depends. These days, it’s less about the muse and more about the deadline. Like last summer, I knew the plan was for The Gravamen to put out a record in 2020, so I focused all my energies on writing songs. On the flip side, if I have an art show coming up, then I’m going all in on that. If there’s nothing on the horizon, then it’s dealer’s choice. As long as I’m switching back and forth between visual art and music, then I’m good. The balance between the two is key. It helps to prevent me from getting burned out. It keeps things fresh.
Have any of your songs ever inspired a collage or vice versa?
Not directly, but I have borrowed titles for collages from song lyrics I’ve written and vice-versa. It’s been in the back of my mind to write a song about a collage at some point though.
Some compare collage art to sampling music, which ground to a halt in the 90’s after copyright laws choked out the medium. Are lawsuits a concern in the collage world?
Not really – not yet, at least. I’m sure that once a collage artist starts making a lot of money, that’ll change. I mean – sampling wasn’t an issue until artists started selling tons of records, then everyone starts asking “wait, that uses my song. Where’s my piece of that?” But with collage art, I think the key is to not use a whole image, just a small enough part of it. And in the end, the whole has to be greater than the individual pieces. Now, I’ve seen some collage artists just take a photo and add one tiny element to it, like a skyscraper in the middle of a field or something and call it a day. I think that might be an issue for some people down the road. Also, I try not to use really famous photos or celebrities in my artwork – that’s just asking for trouble.
But look, if someone sells a photo of a building, can the architect of the building sue the photographer? If you take a photo of someone and they’re standing in front of a movie poster, does the person who designed the poster get some cut of the sale of the photo? Or the person who designed the clothes the person is wearing? I don’t know. It’s a gray area for sure.
Back in the early 2000’s, punks nicknamed the Philadelphia Rockabilly scene ”The Skinhead Retirement Community.” Do you think racism in the scene has gotten better, worse, or no different?
Yeah, I heard that back in the day as well. Thankfully, that element of the Rockabilly scene seems to have died down in Philly. I’m sure it’s lurking in the shadows though. But as a band, we haven’t run into any major issues, at least not yet.
Down South and in Europe, it’s a different story. But we’ve been pushing the “Rockabilly Against Racism” thing for a while now, so we’re not going to attract that element as much. They sort of know off the bat where we stand and where our audience stands. Plus, we don’t play a lot of traditional “rockabilly” shows anyway, mainly because we write our own songs. We’re not doing the whole throwback thing – covering tunes from the 50s and dressing up in bowling shirts and poodle skirts. There’s nothing wrong with that – I dig a lot of that stuff. We’re just trying to put our own stamp on this. Vintage sounds, not vintage values.
Why do you have Joe Castro printed on your guitar’s pickguard? Does your guitar player, Michael Stingle, sometimes grab the wrong one?
Ha – no, I did that a long time ago, when I was in The Situation. At the time, being the lead guitar player, I was just trying to shine. Like a name on the back of a baseball players jersey – it just lets people know who you are. It says, “look – I’m varsity, bro. practically all-state at this point!”
Has living in quarantine generated more or less output from you?
I’ve definitely been more productive. With less errands to run and no place else to be, I’ve had more time to experiment. And the timing of everything somehow lined up perfectly – we strolled out of Miner St. with the final mixes of our album and then bam – two days later, the quarantine hit. So the next few months were already laid out for me.
I designed the album cover and got everything out to the manufacturer. I shot and directed 3 music videos for the band, which was a challenge since I couldn’t film the rest of the group. I even taught myself After Effects, so I could create an animated lyric video for one of the songs. I’ve learned a lot during the quarantine. At this stage of the game, I just try to focus on what I can do, rather than what I can’t do. And the best thing you can do, if you want to be creative, is to limit your distractions. I’m a big supporter of boredom as a form of creative motivation.
Is your moniker a tribute to Mighty Joe Young?
Definitely! Funny enough, you’re the first person ever to ask me about that. Sometime in 2002, I was looking to create a website to promote my art and music, but joecastro.com was already taken, so I had to come up with an alternative. As a kid in the 70s, living on Long Island, NY, around the holidays, they would show these vintage Monster movie marathons on TV – we’d watch King Kong, Planet of the Apes, and Mighty Joe Young. I love that stuff so I adapted it to my name and it immediately just stuck. That’s the reason why there’s an ape on the stickers I made. I love monkeys.
Backstage at Dawson’s Pub, I saw a maraca rolling around in the back of your amp. What gives?
All praises due to Bo Diddley for that one. Bring it on home. Bring it to Jerome.
Your decennial art compilation has a catchy title. How did Everything We Love is Slowly Becoming Fiction get its name?
I originally came up with that title in 2013 for a collage I made. I thought it was a fitting phrase for a retrospective. As you get older, and times change, and society changes, and people you love pass away,etc. – people and places you love are no longer there. What you believed was true, no longer applies. What was once cool, is no longer happening. We’re all going to be just a story someday. We’ll all be some form of fiction
What current merchandise are you peddling to the people?
My band, Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen, are releasing our debut full length album on Friday July 31. It’s titled “Come On Angels!” and was recorded it at Miner St with Brian McTear and Matt Poirier. I’m super proud of this record and can honestly say that, as a whole, it’s the best musical release I’ve ever been involved in. It’s available on vinyl, CD and all streaming platforms.
I still have a few more copies of my retrospective collage book, Everything We Love Is Slowly Becoming Fiction, for sale on my website. It’s a limited edition run of 150, signed and numbered so once they’re gone, they’re gone. Grab one here:
I also recently designed this limited edition skateboard for Artists for Puerto Rico. All proceeds from the sale of the deck will go toward art and education in PR. You can get that here.