The Passenger
The Halo Industries
By Dorothy Kronick

“It’s kind of like a college place, except we’re not in college,” Andrew said, opening the door to his San Diego condo. As he led me through the living room and kitchen, things seemed collegiate enough: a dirty colander crouching in the sink, clothing stacked in the living room, a naked mannequin kneeling seductively behind the couch.

But then there were the clues to what Andrew Miller and his roommate Ryan Douglass are doing instead of school - a grandmother’s oil painting on the wall, collage-covered furniture, a prepared silk screen frame near the couch, and, most tellingly, their office: an extra bedroom equipped with two Apple G4s, two scanners and innumerable cans of Diet Coke.

This is the headquarters of Halo Industries, the design firm Andrew and Ryan started as high school students two years ago. From their balconied home office, they create art for eight ongoing clients - bands who come to them for album art and tour shirts - and an additional 20 or 30 one-time clients, most of whom are also in the music industry. Watermark charges between $500 and $1,000 for a CD layout. Before they can legally drink, Andrew, 19, and Ryan, 20, have built a business that pays their rent.

Most of Watermark’s clientele belongs to one of the subgenres of punk - hardcore, metalcore, post-punk, etc., and it shows in their design. Jagged fonts, scratches, rough edges on every layer of color, images doctored to look like they’re deteriorating, and other mainstays of the punk aesthetic crowd their portfolio. But for Andrew at least, continually using paradigmatic visuals actually betrays the punk spirit.

“The thing is,” Andrew said, sipping coffee and rice milk outside Miracles Cafe, “punk is not about the medium or the style, it’s about the punk ethic of doing something different. I think that your first impression of art or music is really secondary to its foundations.” Andrew said that Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a band that, despite their “climactic symphony music,” qualifies as punk. He gave more explanatory examples for my benefit; for himself, he probably wouldn’t have articulated it. I suppose it’s not very punk to explain everything. “I hate what I’m saying right now,” he concluded.

Ryan is less ready to define an artistic ideology, and he’s quieter in general - nervous about posing for a picture, relentlessly clutching one of his half-dozen daily Diet Cokes (“Get that product placement out of the photo!” joked Andrew). Artistically, he’s every bit as eloquent as his roommate. As a ninth grader, Ryan started a propaganda campaign (posters and stickers in public places) called “Breathe,” centered on an image of a face with the mouth sewn shut. The images became readily recognizable in their high school community and parts of downtown.

“It was just something to do for fun,” Ryan explained modestly, staring into his flat-screen display.

Andrew and Ryan also join forces in a post-punk band called Gasoline Please, which has quickly garnered a local following since its June debut. Before GP, they played together in American Tragedy, the hardcore band Andrew started with a friend in the seventh grade.

It’s not obvious from his tight corduroy blazer or longish hair, but the hardcore punk movement was an integral part of Andrew’s upbringing. By the end of junior high, Andrew was black-clad and covered in patches, frequenting and performing at San Diego’s most popular punk venues. American Tragedy, which he left just two years ago, released albums, toured the U.S., and was named a “rising star” in a review on allmusic.com.

“I got into doing artwork for music the same way I got into music,” Andrew said, referring to the designs he created for American Tragedy. “Punk influences will always have a huge part in anything I do creatively - it’s my background. What I’d like to do - to put this in the cheesiest way possible - is to express that punk ethic in different mediums and styles.”

One of Andrew’s recent cover-art creations is a clean, black-edged illustration of a man in suit jacket, striped tie, and matching briefs. The colors are solid, the type orderly. I see what he means - there’s none of the scratchy edginess of other hardcore artwork, but it’s still mocking and somehow insubordinate.

Just as Andrew is leaving the successful haven of hardcore design for new Photoshop frontiers, he is pushing his musical boundaries. Recently, Andrew began recording music at a friend’s home studio. He plays guitar, drums, bass and piano and then mixes them into melodic, rhythmic songs.

“The thing is, you can have music that’s abrasive, passive, soft, loud; designs that have splatters and crazy visuals or something super simple - it can all be punk,” he explained. “Like Dirty Three, even though at times they’re really mellow, the music is still thematically abrasive. Or Belle and Sebastian. Belle and Sebastian are a punk band, because they sound like music your parents would listen to, but there’s this really sarcastic, dark element too. It’s like being punk to the punk kids, because the ideas are there, but it sounds like music you might hear in a retirement home.”

Neither Andrew nor Ryan has been to art school, though on occasion they get résumés from employment-seeking art school graduates. Like Belle and Sebastian, then, they satisfy a common parental desire (making good money) while defying the parent-endorsed norm of college (though their own parents are supportive of their enterprise). Still, in running Watermark, they struggle with the quintessential dilemmas of professional artists: do we please our clients, or ourselves? Can we do both? How much should we work? How much should we charge? Most of all: is our work original?

Andrew asked these questions out loud at the café, leaning against the patio’s wooden railing. Back at their office, between a lampshade fringed with Scotch tape and a giant box of Prismacolor pencils, Ryan explained that his reluctance to theorize about his art is actually part of this same quest for originality.

“I just work on something and how it comes out is how it comes out,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I try not to think about where I want to go with something, cause for me it messes up the final product. I can’t have a style in mind, cause I’ll just end up ripping someone off.”