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Interview…Mo Shafeek on Mondo’s Marvelous Vinyl Releases

At Mondo (the Austin-based boutique poster and music label), Record Label Production Manager, Mo Shafeek, is responsible for plenty of vinyl soundtracks and film scores you probably spin regularly. Shafeek is a veteran of company, a die-hard film fan and can wax poetic about anything horror, indie, or pop-culture related in the same breath. He’s also just one of two (two!) people producing and releasing a staggering amount of albums in any given calendar year.

While 2019 celebrates the end of Marvel Studios’ eleven-year cinematic journey with Avengers: Endgame, Walt Disney Records and Mondo are starting something new. Both companies are working together to release a select number of exclusive vinyl editions of select film scores from the MCU. A recent press release listed the first three titles in this curated series. As expected, fans went wild.

Shafeek is one half of Mondo’s vinyl production team who turns dreams into 12” plastic discs. His job covers everything from layout, to rights acquisition, to pressings, and that’s just the short list. The company’s goal is simple – release the most comprehensive album they can – but the road to get there isn’t always that easy.

Enjoy our time with Mo as we get some info on the first batch of film score releases in the MCU, and a couple surprises coming down the pike.

GoSeeTalk: News broke last month about your team releasing scores from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s awesome, but to be clear, you’re not releasing everything from the MCU, so how did you land the ones you wanted, and how did this begin for Mondo?

Mo Shafeek: We’ve been working with Walt Disney Records for a couple of years, and that started, strangely enough, with Guardians of the Galaxy. We knew somebody, who knew somebody, who was willing to listen to our pitch. Our idea was to do a cassette of the soundtrack. We’d only seen a trailer of the film at that point. We really thought it would be something really cool, and the rep thought it was fun, so he pitched our idea to his higher ups. It ultimately didn’t happen because they were thinking of doing the same thing.

Disney thankfully still wanted to work with us, but because they couldn’t give us the cassette rights, they asked if we wanted to do a vinyl version. They also planned to put out the score/soundtrack as a double LP, but they were willing to let us do our own version with just the songs. So, we did a “Deluxe” limited edition, screen-printed version, with Tyler Stout artwork, and it was a hit.

Since then, we’ve continued to work with Walt Disney Records. Last year, they asked if we had interest in doing the records in the MCU – the initial conversation started around some of the titles they’d never done physical versions of themselves. There are a number of MCU scores that don’t have physical representation and are only available on Spotify and Apple Music.

Our first pitch to them was Doctor Strange. I love Michael Giacchino, and we’d done some artwork for a poster that never got used. So we thought we could use that as the cover art for this hypothetical release and we could get it out quickly. We ultimately decided to start with Ant-Man and the Wasp. At the time, Captain Marvel hadn’t come out yet so it was still their most recent release, and we planned to work backwards from there. We’re hard at work on Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It was a long gap from the first Guardians record, but now things are moving fast.

Speaking to Black Panther, there was already a vinyl edition of that score. Same for Captain America: The First Avenger and Avengers: Infinity War picture discs. How will yours be different?

Black Panther is a good example of the approach to what we’re trying to do with this series. The Black Panther single LP that’s out there has curated selections from the score. Disney wanted to get Ludwig’s music out there but they were hesitant to release what amounts to 3X LPs of material. For us, we don’t mind. We told them we’d love to do Black Panther, but do the full thing. So ours will be 3X LP. Same for Infinity War, should we ever get to do that, I think that would be 3X LP as well. Ant-Man and the Wasp includes 14 bonus tracks that were not available for digital streaming.

Vinyl production takes longer than it used to because of the influx of titles hitting pressing plants. One release each quarter sounds like we won’t be waiting eleven years to see the end of the Marvel scores you’re releasing. 

[Laughs] Well, again, one thing that needs to be clarified, is that we’re not releasing every title in the MCU. It’s a curation of select titles, with the option to do more as time goes by. Black Panther is set for Summer, Thor: Ragnarok will be a Fall release, and an undetermined title will be set for Winter.

Seems like a no-brainer that Captain America: Winter Soldier would be prefect for Winter.

Winter Soldier is at the tippy-top of the list. I love that movie, but have been listening to the score over the last couple of months and I really love Henry Jackman’s music.

I’ve been a huge fan of Iron Man 3 and Brian Tyler’s score since it was released (click here to read our archival interview). Here’s hoping we get the Mondo treatment.

Iron Man 3 is amazing. The movie rules. Everyone loves the first Iron Man, and Iron Man 2 is fairly lower on the spectrum of releases, but Iron Man 3 is a standout film. This might be my Shane Black love taking over, but after revisiting it, the score is so good!

With Disney and Marvel’s backing, are there still hurdles to making the release everything you want it to be?

The reissue world is pretty singular in that it follows a set of rules are pretty easy to abide by. But complications that follow outside that circle are multitudinous. The simple rule is that if something has ever been released in any official capacity, reissuing is not really a problem because the road to get there is much less complicated.

Now when you want to start adding anything to the previous release, especially in the last decade or so, it is still somewhat achievable because the rights holders for individual films and studios are responsible for releasing the records. If you go earlier than 2000, it’s a much longer road because the music industry, the soundtrack industry and specifically movie studios owning their own master rights for soundtrack releases get very tricky. Any re-issue label will tell you that sorting that stuff out is half the fun of doing this sort of thing for a living.

How do you set out to do so many releases that have unique artwork, bespoke packaging, and specific track lists like you mentioned? Why do other labels stick to official artwork and the like?

We’re known for our artwork – most people hear the name Mondo and they think of the posters – so what makes our soundtrack version any different than the pressing from 20-30 years ago? Sometimes it’s a mix of new artwork and additional audio content. Surprisingly the artwork changes can be easier. When you start messing with audio, every change adds to the steepness of the uphill battle. The more changes, the more you have to go back to the original filmmakers and deal with everyone involved.

Sometimes that’s the make or break moment as to whether or not we pursue bonus audio content or not. We never want to step on anyone’s toes. We never want to just barge in like, “hey, we’re Mondo from Austin, TX and some people think we’re cool and we’d like to do new art work and make changes to your soundtrack, what do you think??” [Laughs]

Companies we love like La-La Land Records and Intrada have developed good relationships with archivists at the studios and will work to make that stuff happen. They take their time, and they work with X number of projects and make it work. And so do we, but coupled with the original artwork aspect, it sort of puts us on the opposite side of the same coin of some of the other labels.

Some projects have let us do both like Batman ’89. We got to offer up an expanded 2X LP and a single LP version that was a straight reissue of the original pressing which is cool, but rare for us. We’re also doing The Silence of the Lambs this year, which is expanded with bonus content but with that one, go figure, artwork was a bit of a hurdle. So you can’t win them all unfortunately.

We’ve talked before about the how long things take to produce, and how some title were non-starters. Have things gotten easier?

It all depends on the title. You’ve got to chose what’s worth going after. Either have the passion to push though, or just give up because the path to get there is literally impossible. Now that’s not to say that we take the path of least resistance or anything…but, a lot of times, projects become so complicated you don’t want just hate a movie or a record by the time you’re done with it. [Laughs]

It that why some soundtracks have never been made available?

You would be shocked to know what famous titles have never had their soundtrack re-issued. You could name a dozen scores and you can have a dozen unique reasons why they have not been re-released. Maybe the composer and studio don’t talk to each other anymore, or there’s one random page missing in a contract, or a key player who doesn’t use email and it’s impossible to get a hold of him or her. It’s fascinating why some things stall.

How does that not get you down?

Well, I want to emphasize and double underline that this is the greatest job I’ve ever had. [Laughs] I spend my days navigating those mine fields. I feel like an adventurer, and it’s so rewarding when you find the right path. It’s like the old Minesweeper PC game and it’s so exciting when you clear the way because you thought it was never going to happen. Sometimes your chance to do something evaporates right in front of you, and you think, “I’ll check back on it months or a year later.” And you have to because rights changes hands all the time.

There were things deemed impossible at one point, and now they’re completely available to us. Some titles we’ve tried for years to get. We’ve literally asked once a year for five years and got shot down. Then, one time, they came to us and asked if we’d be interested…like they didn’t know the answer. [Laughs]

When it comes to your roles and responsibilities, what’s the split between creative and clerical?

I’d say it’s 50/50. I’m at my desk all day long, but my desk is also a design station and I have a laptop to answer emails. I work most days and nights keeping tabs with people on both coasts as well as the UK because that’s where my co-worker (Spencer Hickman who heads up Death Waltz Records) lives. I do layout, design and art direction for most, if not all of the Mondo releases. And a lot of my work is following up with clients and labels, checking in on masters, and reviewing options with the artist contracted for a specific title.

At any point in time, both Mondo and Death Waltz have between 50 and 70 titles in various stages of production. Then there are so many micro things we are in charge of: from working with distributors to make sure sales notes for the stores are up to date, and then set up the product pages and make sure the product photography, and producing product mock ups, etc.

I’m a completest, and I love what you did with the Back to the Future box set. What kind of commonality will the Marvel lineup have? Will there be some sort of box set?

Talking about the MCU and having that conversation, it only underlines how brilliant the long game was to set up what Marvel Studios was planning all this time. It’s amazing that they had the nerve to justify any scene in a particular movie ten years later. To have something pay off that effectively takes a village. The music department at Mondo is hardly a village. It is Spencer and I – two fellas who fell into a dream career and have had success. I would be lying to everyone if I didn’t say that we were making it up as we go. [Laughs]

After years of pursuit we finally got the rights to do Danny Elfman’s Mission: Impossible score, and that was a bit of a holy grail for me. Then, about a year later, by complete luck, we were offered Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Luckily that timed out in such a way that the artwork is certainly aligned. But beyond that, we’re just lucky to be able to do two key titles in a wonderful series. I hope we get to do more, but in the event we don’t, we aren’t calling our shot and missing.

We’re just trying to make sure we’re doing the coolest possible version of anything we’ve ever done. I’m a completest as well, but to do something definitive like a box set is a little more complicated. Some titles with the extra things require so much work that when it comes down to doing the special edition, you either do it really well – as it is – or not at all.

You recently had two very kinds of boxes: A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. They offered different product pathways but with the same end goal.

Good example, but doing that up front is a gamble, as was the case with our A Nightmare on Elm Street release. We learned a lot, mainly that people – even die-hard – fans weren’t wild about every single film. If we had sold them all individually and put a box around it later, it would have made more sense. That’s ultimately what we ended up doing with the Halloween series. We knew that some titles are valued indifferently in fans’ eyes, but with the slip-case option, people responded well to it because they could opt-in to it.

But then with the Batman: The Animated Series box set, we had 16 episodes, and that was the only edition we were releasing. And it sold out really fast. So, it’s hard to predict. You cross your fingers and hope people want it the way you’re giving it to them. It’s hard to crowd-source that without giving away the farm or creating disappointment down the line. At the very least, you have to have confidence in your idea and hope they are happy with it, but they won’t know what it could have been.

Thanks very much to Mo for his time. Keep an eye on Mondo’s official website (Mondotees.com) for simply extraordinary releases – LPs, posters, toys, etc – of films/TV properties you love, but plenty you’ve likely never heard of. While foreign, you can bet that if Mondo is pushing it, it’s probably pretty awesome!

For more up-to-the-minute news on product drops, follow Mo and Mondo on Twitter. And you can get the first album in the Mondo/Marvel line up here.