Interview with John Warner of John Warner Studios

Interview by Elise Olmstead


At Peach Music Festival 2012 I gave another try at making my own renegade festival poster.  Having only been my fourth attempt, I was lucky to sell a whopping two of them, but I showed them off quite a bit to see if people liked what they saw.  While relaxing on Sunday at the stage by all of the water rides, we watched a couple of people hike precariously up the steep hill to some unknown destination at the top.  Montage Mountain is a combination waterpark/ski slope, so their hillsides were serious about their climbs.  We followed out of curiosity and found a whole new section of vending booths to explore.  After buying a couple of shirts and souvenirs to help these poor vendors in the nosebleed section, I showed my poster to a woman working one of the booths.  She said it was nice, but then pointed to a man loading the back of a trailer with art and prints.  “He does all of the official merch, let me introduce you.”  I was introduced to John Warner and was excited to learn that not only does he do merchandise for Peach Fest, but also The Allman Brothers, Furthur, and more huge names in the industry.  Reeling in excitement, I knew I had to hear his story of how he came to be in the merch world.


I want to start at the very beginning.  When did you start getting into art, and is being an artist something that you always wanted to do?
Well, it’s kind of interesting, because it’s not something that I just kind of decided to do one day.  I started drawing when I was a kid and pretty much never stopped.  I actually started recreating old Kiss album covers when I was seven years old.  I used to re-draw them.  Gene Simmons, Peter Kris, I would just spend endless amounts of time on the kitchen floor as a kid just re-drawing Kiss stuff.  So it’s pretty much what I’ve been doing ever since growing up.  Then I started making merchandise.


How did you come into making merchandise and making art for musicians and events?

When I was a teenager I started doing t-shirt designs for kids in school.  If someone wanted a t-shirt design of say, an album cover or something like that, I would make it. One in particular I remember was a screen printed Sex Pistols jacket for a friend of mine; he wanted “Never mind the bollocks here’s the Sex Pistols” so I cut it out and put it on his jean jacket for him.  That’s where it started and then when I was sixteen, I saw the Grateful Dead at Madison Square Garden in New York City and I saw these people selling stuff, and was like “Holy crap, I can make some money here.” I saw the Dead again later that year, designed some original artwork, printed shirts and tried selling them with some success.  Later on, I just figured out that you can go to shows and ask bands if they need help with merchandise.


Did you go to college at all for art?

No, I’m actually a high school dropout.

Wow!  You are extremely successful and that’s very inspiring to an aspiring artist like myself.
Yep, I pretty much was done with high school when I was sixteen.  I decided I wasn’t learning anything there.  I got a job and worked at the screenprinting shop.  I ended up joining the Navy for a few years out in California.  I’ve worn a lot of hats!


Who has inspired you over the years as an artist?

As far as intellect is concerned, the sixties reigned.  (Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Rick Griffin,) those four I’ve always been a fan of their work. I liked a lot of the punk rock stuff, the hand drawn stuff that was done in the late seventies and early eighties.  I can’t think of his name now, the guy that did all of the Black Flag covers.  Growing up in the seventies, I was a fan of album covers, comic books and pinball machine backboard art.


Tell me a little about your design process, do you draw more by hand or work digitally?

I’ve been doing this for a long time…when I started doing t-shirts you still had to cut rubylith.  Any kind of screen printing you had to develop by hand, it wasn’t something you could do easily like you can on the computer now.  So I started out by hand drawing, hand screen printing, cutting rubyliths and really understanding the whole process of printing and what goes into it. When computers came along, making the process a lot easier, it was a lot less time consuming.  The computer is just one of those natural things that came to me, when it came to graphics programs, because I’ve always been working with that.  When I was a kid I had a TSR-80.  I think the first computer graphic I did was a circle with an algorithm in it that I did on the TSR-80, in 1983.  I’ve always kind of been around the computer scene, and when digital art became a part of the scene in the early nineties, I really jumped on board with it.  Today, I hand draw stuff sometimes, but usually I use my tablet and draw it directly on my computer.  A lot of my concepts start with sketches. I’ll do a lot of quick sketches to basically get the general composition of the poster down.  Then I usually just draw on the Wacom.  It’s interesting because a lot of the old ways of doing things, I still employ with my digital artwork. It’s kind of like…it’s hard to explain.  Like when I do the color separation of a photograph, for example, I’ll use all the color thresholds.  Back in the early nineties when we were still doing stuff with rubylith and we would have to separate the colors through overexposures, to pull out the thresholds of the photo.  I do that in Photoshop now, pretty much the same way, but digitally.


That’s cool, I’m sure a lot of those initial techniques are pretty ingrained in you
It was a working process to figure out how to get a piece to that point where it has that old look to it, like the vintage feel, would be the way to properly say it.  It’s taken years of development to get there, because there’s a fine line between making stuff, when you’re working on the computer, that looks like, the word I like to use is “computer-y.”  You know, it doesn’t look organic.

Do you make art that has nothing to with musicians or events, that’s something that you do just for the sake of art?


Sporadically but not too often anymore.  Occasionally I do some logo design or product packaging for businesses that aren’t music industry related.  These days I’m so busy working on band projects, I don’t have a lot of time for personal stuff besides what I do for the Uncle John’s Outfitters line that my wife and I run. Every now and then I’ll have new ideas for art prints for festival season but I’m hard pressed for time to do any personal stuff.  I’m working on Furthur, Yonder Mountain String Band just picked me up, I just did the Soulive poster for Snowlive in Las Vegas. I’m pretty much working with everybody, I’ve got Allman Brothers coming up, I’m doing the new Gov’t Mule album cover.  I’m busy.

Congratulations on just picking up Yonder!

Yeah they called me tonight about doing the Red Rocks poster that they’re going to announce tomorrow.  Railroad Earth is another great band I’ve started working with…everybody’s been coming to me lately, I guess it’s just been word of mouth and doing a good job for these customers.  Everybody’s been very happy with what I’ve been doing.

You’ve worked with so many jam band legends like The Allman Brothers and also emerging artists like Cabinet, but I want to ask you who your personal favorite jam band is to listen to?

Here’s the thing, although I was born and raised a Deadhead, professionally I didn’t always work with jam bands.  I started out doing the punk and metal thing.  In the nineties, I worked with a lot of punk bands, and when I moved to Texas in 2003 I worked with a punk metal bar.  Almost all the work I did from ’03 to ’07 was heavy metal bands and punk posters.  Doing this older work, I figured out this happy medium with the edginess of the punk look, but while adding that Fillmore classic rock look.  It caught on with these sort of bands and they kind of liked it.

So your personal listening taste is more punk rock or hard rock, you would say?

Yeah I listen to a lot of late seventies punk, first wave punk.  I don’t like any of the new stuff, punk pretty much died in 1983.  That scene is over, but I still listen to the older stuff.  I listen to a ton of The Ramones all the time. A lot of Epitaph Record Label’s stuff is really good, too.  If I had to pick a type of music that I most often listen to now, it’s country.  I listen to a lot of old honky-tonk.  I’m sitting here today working on stuff and I’m listening to Hank Williams.  What it comes down to it, I’m into a lot of different kinds of music.  If there’s one thing that I really don’t like, it’s probably overproduced corporate pop and that would be it.

Do you like bluegrass, too?

Oh yeah, I love bluegrass.  I’m a huge fan of bluegrass.  My favorite of that genre lately would be Old Crow Medicine Show.  I like bluegrass that’s played really fast.

Yeah we do, too.  Have you had a chance to go to Delfest?

Never had the opportunity to go to Delfest because it usually conflicts with all the other stuff I have going on.  A couple of weeks before Delfest this year, I’ll be at the Cabinet Old Farmers Ball festival in Scranton, a first time bluegrass festival in Northeast PA.  They’re having a poster show which I’ll be a part of, and we’ll also have our Uncle John’s Outfitters store set up.  It’s going to be a really unique and fun one day fest.  This summer, I’ll also be vending the Taste of Country Festival at Hunter Mountain NY, it’s literally the weekend after Mountain Jam, which I’m working at this year as a vending coordinator.

Are you designing merch for them, too?

Yep, I will be doing a poster and a couple of shirts for it this year.  I’ve got a lot of stuff I’m doing for festivals this year.  In addition to Old Farmer’s Ball, Taste of Country and Mountain Jam, I’m doing merch for Gathering of the Vibes, Catskill Chill, Bear’s Picnic, and Peach Fest.
That’s exciting, we’ll be seeing you at a lot of those.

I’ll be there with my store as a vendor in addition to designing official merch for these festivals, and working directly for a few of them as a vending coordinator.  I still like to wear a lot of different hats.  We’re going to Colorado in February for Furthur, I’m in the Mile High Poster show, we’ll have our store set up on lot, and plus I did half the official merch for the Furthur shows at the Denver shows.

Is there a favorite festival that you’ve attended?

Oh yeah, Vibes.  Vibes is a utopic festival experience, as far as I’m concerned.  It’s exactly how a festival should be.  The music never stops, the layout and grounds situation is perfect.  If you complain about Gathering of the Vibes you suck at life.

We had a fantastic time at Gathering of the Vibes.

It’s awesome, it’s the best festival in country I think.  And High Sierra, though I haven’t been there in a couple of years.  I used to go there every year but it’s a little inconvenient now.

How long have you lived here, you used to live in California?

I grew up in Binghamton, New York, and I lived in Sullivan County in the Catskills for a little while.  Then I joined the Navy and was stationed in San Diego for four years.  After I got out of the Navy, I stayed in San Diego until 2003.  Then I moved to Austin, Texas, opened a bar with my friend where I did booking,  promotion, security and bartended, while doing artwork in my time off.  That was a pretty crazy time.  I moved to Philly in 2007, then to the Lehigh Valley last year.  I like living in Eastern PA mainly because I’m doing a lot of business with places in New York, like the Capitol Theater. A lot of my customers are located in the Jersey/New York City area, so it’s just convenient where I’m located in between both cities.  I’m an hour and 20 minutes away from Philly or New York.  It’s actually a pretty damn well kept secret in the Northeast.  Everything is an easy drive away.  It’s a really good location.  It’s easy for touring too, we’re always criss-crossing through here.

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

The only advice I can give anybody is to always do what you say you’re going to do, do a good job and do it on time, and never stop.  If you quit doing your thing, someone else is going to come along and do it instead.  Being present and reliable are the two things that will make you successful with anything you do.  Always follow through on what you say you’re going to do.