Culture Interviews Music POP-IN@Nordstrom

Ames Bros x Pearl Jam for Pop-In@Nordstrom x Hanes: A Q&A on Designing Hundreds of Concert Posters and T-Shirts for Seattle’s Longest-Lasting Grunge Band

When it comes to a design aesthetic, it’s hard to imagine what Pearl Jam, Skype and a Seattle-based pizza chain might have in common. But these seemingly disparate entities all share the same potent, just-under-the-radar resource: Ames Bros, a small graphic design firm manned by two pretty unpretentious guys—Coby Schultz and Barry Ament.

The artistic duo has accomplished something a lot of design houses struggle with—a seamless, cohesive style that melds two brains into one. Or at least makes it look that way. Coby and Barry met back in art school at Montana State in the early ’90s, and both moved to Seattle after graduation for career opportunities in illustration. But Ames Bros as it’s known now might never have existed had it not been for Pearl Jam wanting a series of cool screen-printed show posters. Barry’s brother, Jeff Ament (yes, the same one who plays bass in Pearl Jam), hatched the poster project in 1995 and soon Coby joined Barry to kick out a constant stream of one-of-a-kind designs. And voilà, Ames Bros was born.

Nowadays, Coby and Barry cater to a wide range of clientele—from Skype and Pagliacci Pizza to Metallica and the NFL. They even do pro bono work for Food Lifeline and SMooCH (Seattle Musicians for Children’s Hospital). But their 22-year-long relationship with Pearl Jam is still going strong—as an extensive, ever-growing archive of posters and T-shirts can attest. (For a limited time, you can get your hands on four previously out-of-print designs at our Pop-In@Nordstrom x Hanes T-shirt shop.)

We recently caught up with Coby in his Seattle studio to find out more about Ames Bros and their long-haul collaboration with Pearl Jam.

Nordstrom: Can you speak to the creative process between you and Barry? The overall aesthetic appears pretty seamless, and it doesn’t necessarily feel like there are two separate brains at work.

Coby Schultz: Yeah, I think we’re really similar, especially in our senses of humor, and maybe even our idea banks. You know, it’s probably got to do with the way we grew up, where we grew up, what affected us. I’m sure we’ve got it written down somewhere, just every little thing coming from outside of Montana on a farm or living in the country. There are no billboards, there’s no advertising, really, other than what is brought in from the outside—so magazines, cereal, candy, anything you’d see on TV, all had a pretty big impact. And, it all kind of stuck. I think, today, kids can watch the same movie five times a day, every day if they want, whereas we got to see Star Wars once. In the ’70s, when we were kids, it was just a lot different, so maybe you just really soaked it in more. I don’t know, but those things stuck for us. And we incorporate humor into a lot of what we do. Even though there’s so much seriousness out there, we kind of find a combination of both, and then sometimes there’s no humor at all. It just really depends on what we’re trying to do and who it’s for.

Do you feel like sometimes you know Pearl Jam better than they know themselves in terms of how to represent their brand? After working with them for this long?

Yeah, probably not. I would say no; that’s just impossible. I think, at times, we’ve had to make do—you know, just because everybody was so busy, we had to invent, come up with things. And how do we do that without talking to somebody directly? So, we do just try to channel what they would like and their personalities, and maybe there’s some things that we know too much about, but I think that it always was translated properly. It’s never anything inappropriate (that I know of).

And we’re very similar. Barry’s brother [Jeff] grew up in Montana too. We all have a real common sensibility. They’re all sensible guys, and human, and we understand them. Like, we’re not gonna put naked ladies on a poster, you know, not because they don’t want us to, but, also, we wouldn’t want ourselves to. There’s just these common sensibilities that we have.

Is that a rule across the board for you guys? No naked ladies?

No, I just think it’s unnecessary. I think we like to be as creative as we can be and as random as we can possibly be, which I think you sometimes look at the stuff and go, “What the hell is that?” But there’s always an explanation. At the time, there’s a good one, even if it might escape us now.

So how many posters/collateral do you think you’ve created for Pearl Jam over the years?

We need to make an accurate count, but it’s in the mid-hundreds. There’s a lot. I mean, as far as how many posters we do annually, just in general, we do a lot of posters. We get hired to do posters all the time, which is great but it’s a ton of work. But posters are just part of what we do. We do a ton of other stuff too. We have T-shirts, which we’ve been doing probably 15 years now….

And pizza boxes.

Pizza boxes. Yeah, Pagliacci! It’s been fun working with those guys. The cool part about what we do is the ability to be creative on anything and turn that into something fun. Pagliacci’s a good example of that. Right now we’re working with the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which is [the organization that oversees] the individual ability for everybody to get insurance.

Do you guys choose some of these projects because they’re close to your heart then?

Yeah, some of the things for sure. The Washington Health Benefit Exchange is one where they came to us and said, “Hey, here, we want you guys to work with us. We need to reach these people.” And after they talked to us for a while, it totally made sense. The audience is the same people we do a lot of work for, and it’s people that think they’re all good, don’t need insurance until something bad happens.

And then we also raise money for Food Lifeline. We created a program where we make a new T-shirt every season, and then every time somebody buys a shirt, profits go to Food Lifeline. So, it’s kind of a sustainable mini store. We’re about to go into season five on that this year. And we’ve got Pearl Jam involved, so we’ll do a version that’s got Pearl Jam on it, and everybody’s super happy, and that’s been a really cool thing locally.

Let’s delve a little bit more into the designs you chose for the Ames Bros x Pearl Jam shirts for Pop-In.

Well, how do you take an entire history of stuff and then boil it down to what we felt was the most iconic, for whatever reason? And there are so many things that come into play, like they played an extra hour that night. Somebody else joined them. It’s just so random that you never know until after the show, or you did something that really struck the hearts of somebody and becomes a lot more interesting and collectible than the other stuff. But, with hindsight, we’re able to go back and choose which ones. These are some of the things that we were most proud of and felt like they could translate to a T-shirt without being just a big square or rectangle slapped on a shirt.

We said to Pearl Jam, “Hey, here’s what we think [for Pop-In@Nordstrom]. What do you guys think?” And we let them in 100% on everything that was going on. We were able to agree on the different shirts and designs. You know, it’s fun to see them because most of these are gone, long gone. If you see one on eBay, that’s where you can get it yourself. The designs that we showed are an opportunity for somebody to get something in a different form.

Shop: Pop-In@Nordstrom x Hanes