“Harder than the rest” MVH’s Clutter interview
Im happy to finally share my full interview that’s in the current issue of Clutter magazine, issue 19.
The cover story is about Japanese megastar toy designer NAGNAGNAG and is full of other amazing content. The magazine is now being offered free, so please pick up a hard copy. Clutters crew work very hard on these and like always this is a fantastic issue which Im proud to be part of. So please support them by heading on over to the Cluttermagazine.com site, order a copy or find a local shop thats carrying it.
In addition, I would also like to give a huge thanks to Andy B of KaijuKorner for interviewing me in this article. Andy lead me into a great conversation and being an old friend was a blast to talk shop with. Please take a moment to bookmark his site if you haven’t already. Andy’s coverage on toy culture is amongst the best you will find on the internet.
The below is the original uncut interview. In addition to this, I’m also going to post all images that were cut due to size issues. In any magazine there are space issues and in order for Clutter to keep the majority of the content many of these images had to be cut sadly.
With all that said, here you go, hope you enjoy the read !
“HARDER THAN THE REST” an interview with Mutant Vinyl Hardcore
” Andy b talks to one of the most successful USA based Kaiju masters in this in-depth interview. “
Rich Montanari, aka LASH, is the one-man crew behind the fast-growing indie outfit Mutant Vinyl Hardcore. I caught up with him to talk about his toy making, which has evolved over the years from a hobby to a budding career.
Hey Rich. Thanks for taking the time. It’s amazing that after all these years, this is our first print interview!
Tell me about it. I’ve only known you for seven years now. I’m stoked and honored to have you interview me, my friend.
Thanks, man. The honor is mine. Let’s start by talking about toy making. You’ve made a number of figures over the years. What’s your process for making a new toy? Do you start with concept sketches and then move on to sculpting? Or do you just start sculpting until a character reveals itself?
Well it’s both, actually. My favorite way to create a character is to loosely come up with an idea, and then grab clay and start playing around with it until the figure fully reveals itself. It’s the most organic way I’ve found to create a character.
With conceptualizing it first, you kind of dedicate yourself to a design, and then you’re stuck within those limits. Just grabbing clay and going for it allows for some really amazing stuff. The only downside is it usually takes longer. I’ve played with clay for days, working for hours before something works. When I actually do start with a concept sketch, it’s usually for a collaboration where all the details have to be worked out so everyone is happy and there are no questions.
Some of your toys are huge. When you work on a new sculpt, do you ever start with a smaller, “proof of concept” figure and then move on to a larger sculpt later, or do you usually go straight to working in the scale that the figure is ultimately going to be in?
Nope, I just go for it. So sometimes I’ll start in a size I think I want to go with and then depending on whether I’m liking the design, I’ll either add or remove clay. I know many artists sculpt the way you mentioned, but personally I’m just a one and done sculptor.
I’ve yet to do any minis of existing characters, but it is something I’ve been planning on at some point. I really want to do a mini “Attack pose” Ollie. I think that would be pretty cool.
That does sound cool! So in terms of size, how much thought do you give to scaling new characters so that they’ll fit in with other MVH toys?
I don’t. I just make what I feel is right for the character and hope that down the line all my figures will fit in together. My first figure – the Sludge Demon – is about 3 inches tall. My second figure – Ollie – is 13.5 inches tall. It was one extreme to the other. But that’s how the figures were meant to be, and if I had forced them to be a specific size, I don’t think it would have been true to the character. I try not to worry about the details – just go with the flow.
I like that – the figures form a flow instead of the other way around. Speaking of the MVH family, do you see all of your figures as forming a cohesive group, or do you see them each as separate characters with independent identities? (Or is it a bit of both?)
Originally I started out wanting that kind of single world and feel. As I grow as a toy designer, it’s turning into more than just a single world – my ideas just won’t work that way anymore. If I contain my toys to only one world and vibe, it would quickly get boring for collectors and for me. Also, I don’t want to pigeon hole myself to one look.
I think as long as figures are created with the same spirit in mind, they will create both a cohesive group on a shelf while working as standalone figures with their own unique identities. For instance, right now all my characters have that creepy monster Japanese yokai or American Ray Harryhausen vibe. There’s no doubt that was what I was going for.
But now I’m working on a mecha character – a troll and Rat Fink inspired figure of my dog. All are very different from what I started out with, which I think keeps things fresh for collectors. The same goes for the Feral Boy head I sculpted for the Evolved Diggler toy by Joe Merrill / Splurrt, the Krawluss collab with Skinner, and the Moon Goon with Paul Kaiju and Joe Merrill.
All this also helps tie other makers’ toys into my toy world, while leading to future collaborations. This also goes for toys I design but don’t sculpt, like the figures that I asked Monster5 and Shinbone Creative to sculpt for me. As long as I handle the art direction, I can make sure the figures will have that MVH feel.
I know this wasn’t part of the question, but I wanted to give my thoughts on hiring traditional and digital sculptors. I’ve worked with both and respect them equally, and I’m glad I choose them for the jobs they’re doing. I still prefer to sculpt as much as I can on my own – it’s my favorite thing to do – but there are times when you have an idea and they are just the right people for the job.
I came to this conclusion after seeing well-known artists going this route for installations and music writers doing it for songs. I think the artist first has to prove they can do what they are hiring people to do. They need to build and craft their identity long before they can farm out work. Once they get to that point, I think hiring others to accomplish their goals is like using them as you would any other tool.
Skinner once asked me if I were to lose the ability to use my hands, would I then no longer be able to be an artist? That really stuck with me and led me to think about this deeply. I think it’s something that people that have issues with hiring skilled sculptors need to ask themselves.
It’s definitely food for thought. OK, totally changing gears now. In some Japanese strands of thought, objects and statues have their own spirit – which may be one reason character culture is so strong in Japan. Do you see your characters as possessing a spirit or force that transcends the plastic and paint that make up their forms?
I think so…yeah, that’s actually a really good way to describe it. I’m heavily influenced by Japanese design, and I think this is why Japanese toys are so good and why every toy maker should pay attention to them. As the artist, it’s your design, but if you’re trying hard to force your concepts and feelings onto something, it may not always work out. Just come up with a design and let the toy come to life on its own. I think with that, the toy inherits its own spirit, voice, and feel. I’d say this is why my toys have their own expressions and feel…they do have their own spirits. It brings them to life beyond vinyl, and it’s why people can connect with them.
After you send a sculpt to Tokyo, there’s a lot of back and forth in the prototype development process before the molds and sofubi figures are made. How challenging is that, given the time difference and physical distances involved?
It’s not hard at all, to be honest, but that’s mostly due Ricky (Velocitron) – the person I’ve been working with a long time. I think I may be one of the first three people he worked with to make toys, actually. We’ve grown together over the years and share a mutual respect and understanding for each other.
Many people just want to get something made without forming relationships. I think it’s the reason they have issues. In order to get the best out of any project – especially a project with time zone and distance issues – you need to build solid trust and understanding with the person you’re working with. Remove this from the equation and the problems begin.
Ricky and I talked for a long time before we even started working together. He was the one who started the rough Ollie sculpt. If I could give anyone who wants to get into toys design advice, it would be to slow down and become friends with the people you’re working with. If all goes well, you’re going to deal with this person for the rest of your toy career – which hopefully will be many years or decades. Becoming best friends and sharing a bond will help in spades.
I’ve also learned patience, which is a major part of toy making. It can take up to two years to take a toy from sculpt to vinyl – especially with large toys.
Right on. I interviewed Ricky for an earlier article for Clutter. One area that seems really important to you (and some other makers) but which gets little attention is packaging – especially header and backing cards. I remember when you were bagging customs in toxic waste disposal bags. That was really cool. These days you go to town on the header art. Is that mostly for the initial presentation before the figures are opened? Or is it a nod to the collectors who keep their figures unopened?
Personally I look at the packaging as part of the toy. It’s very important and is something you can’t overlook even if it’s ripped open and thrown away. As I’m sculpting a toy, I’m thinking about everything down the road, from how I’m going to paint it to how I’m going to package it. I also think every person’s dollar is important, and they deserve my attention to every detail and to the total presentation.
It’s like going to a restaurant. When you find a special place, everything is great, the location is beautiful, and the presentation is beautiful – and all this adds to how you feel about the food. Anyone can buy something from a food cart, but when you want an experience, you have your favorite restaurant. I want my collectors to have that same feeling when they buy my toys. They will know that I made sure to think about everything they are paying for and that their money is respected and appreciated.
To answer the rest of your question, I look at my packaging both for the collectors who open and for those who stash. I do both myself, so I’m aiming to make sure that I think about both types of collectors.
And I still have some bio-hazard bags. You will see those again very soon!
Nice – retro MVH style! Shifting back to your characters, there are recurring horror and pop culture themes that appear in your work. Can you talk about some of those?
Sure, as a kid I grew up on horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and barbarian movies, and it just stuck. At seven, I named my first pet (a fully black cat) Freddy after A Nightmare on Elm Street. I loved anything that was scary or odd and was basically drawn to anything vivid.
I’m an only child, and I had a hard time connecting with other kids. I just sort of created my own little world with everything I loved and was pretty happy there. As an adult, when I decided to make toys, it was an easy choice of what to go with. Now that I’m growing as a toy designer with the chance to expand, I’m going deep into everything that inspired me and what I loved as a kid.
I’m now able to clearly filter all my memories as a kid though the vinyl toy medium, with an insight into exactly why I liked something to begin with. Many people in the toy community grew up similarly on pop culture, and I think this is why many collectors connect with my stuff. We were all raised on the same culture, so it’s our connection even if we’ve never met or spoken.
Besides those influences, what else impacts your work – in terms of current (or earlier) indie makers, big box toy companies, childhood inspirations, Elvis impersonator sightings…?
Imagine going back to your earliest memories of toys and kooky stuff as a kid, and then filling in all the years from that time to your adult present. This is what influences me and my choices. It’s such a heavy question that I could go on for days. Books, movies, blah, blah, blah – it’s all in there. If I were to sum it up, it would go like this: Child World, Toys R Us, comic shops, local artists, New York, Kid Robot, Toy Tokyo, Super7. You can fill in the rest with movies, books, alcohol, raves, music, and other first-hand life experiences before the Internet age. All of this impacts how I look at what I do. Maybe I should write a book…yeah, maybe that’s what I will do after my toy days.
You like to make homage pieces, like Frankenruge Ollie and Darth Vader Berserker Ollie, both of which are awesome IMHO. Roughly speaking, how many of your toy colorways would you say are inspired by “classic” palettes, and how many are “Rich originals”?
It’s a good mix – maybe 1/3 are homages and the rest originals. It just seems that people really remember the homages. And why not – it’s something they recognize for the same reasons I do. It’s familiar and comforting and easy to connect with. It’s a great way to connect Kenner, Mattel, or Hasbro with sofubi or designer vinyl or whatever else you collect. I have homages from other toy makers that I collect, and it helps my stuff fit in with theirs. At the same time, I have my own voice and really enjoy just letting go and coming up with original colorways. It’s a fine balance that I enjoy playing with.
Playing devil’s advocate, some people say certain color schemes (like Frankenruge, Hawaii, Tokyo, etc.) are overdone and played out. What’s your response to voices like that?
It’s in the eye of the beholder, but personally I never get tired of it. I think I could have a collection of just Frankenruge colorway toys from different makers and still be pretty stoked. The same goes for Hawaii, Tokyo, etc. Honestly, though, I do seek these out, and as you have seen my collection, you can vouch for this.
I’m a creature of habit with a little touch of OCD, and I’m comfortable with collecting things some people think are played out or repetitive. I’m not worried about what’s hot or in style.
But like you said, playing devil’s advocate, I can respect people thinking they are played out. And that’s totally cool. To each one’s own. At the end of the day, every collector just needs to dig down and collect what makes them happy. Worrying about anything else will only make you waste time and money.
Let’s stay on that track. How well do you respond to criticism (constructive or otherwise) of your work?
Oh boy, that’s a good one. At first I didn’t respond so well, and I felt I had to stand up for myself in the face of every negative comment. Then I went to art school and learned how to let go a bit and understand criticism. Nowadays I’m nowhere near as bothered or likely to dwell on the negative stuff. I think I have had just about every bad thing said to me about my art and toys – the same goes for the positive.
I think this comes with time and experience, though. Art, and especially the toy world, are very harsh. You need a thick skin in order to stay the course. If you never let go, you’re never gonna make it and will always be miserable. There will always be someone disliking what you do. In the same way, there will always be someone loving what you do. Just focus on the good and grow off that. It’s easier said than done, but in the long run you’ll be much happier even if it takes longer than you expected.
But yeah, I think I’m always growing and learning how to respond to it all. It’s a never-ending growth process.
Indie toy collecting is driven by a small number of extremely passionate fans. Before you started making toys, you were a collector (and still are – I’ve seen your killer Detolf!) In your view, does the small collector base make it more difficult to keep going as an indie toy maker, especially as trends and collectors’ interests can be fickle? Or does the small base make it more rewarding on a personal level since you get to know lots of the people buying your toys?
It’s a small world, but not that small. The more years I’m in this, the more people I come across. It’s constantly growing. More and more people are discovering this niche of toy collecting and are amazed to find out how long this has existed and how many people are like them and into the same things.
So I don’t think it makes it more difficult. It actually works in the favor of the indie maker. Even on a good day you can only make so many toys, and having a smaller collector base means more people are happy. Imagine only being able to make a run of 30 toys for 30,000 collectors. That would never work out. Also, being smaller means I’m able to personally talk with my collectors and make sure they are as happy as I can make them.
It’s fantastic to create a relationship with a fan of your work. In my years of doing this, I have made some of my best friends who started out as my collectors. I don’t think many other professions can claim this. When it’s all said and done, I can honestly say I know I made some people happy with what came out of my brain. I don’t think I can ask for anything more rewarding.
What about the state of sofubi making in the USA? How do you feel about the direction things are heading?
I think things are getting better by the day. More and more American makers are connecting and making some of the best toys today. I only see this getting better as things grow. More and more people are collecting, and now that we have finally broken down all the barricades to Japan and beyond, it’s all smooth sailing from here. There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not blown away by what I see, and this gives me hope for what’s to come.
Everything has to have a beginning. I see this scene 10-20 years from now being huge. Just think 20 years ago – no one would have thought Marvel comics would be dominating the box office and ruling culture. Who’s to say all the indie makers won’t be next in line.
Let’s go back in time for a minute. I remember when you were doing a lot of customs in 2006-2007. It wasn’t at all easy to break in and win acceptance. What would you say your biggest challenges were during your customizing period?
My biggest challenge was winning the acceptance of collectors who already had a level of quality and trust for the toys they collected. They didn’t want some guy to ruin what they respected just so he could paint a toy. I tried my best not to step on any toes and to only take commission work – so I wasn’t just painting to paint. I still stripped a lot of toys to paint them, but most were commissions. It was a totally different time, which I don’t think anyone can understand unless they were there.
I had a lot to learn but no one to teach me, so I had to learn everything through trial and error. The upside was that there were just as many collectors who were new and open to buying customs from guys like me. I think all of us were growing at the same time and trying to figure it all out. It was a very exciting time to be honest – like the wild west of the toy world.
How about in terms of becoming a toy maker? Five to six years ago, there were very few routes for a Western artist to get a toy made, and you went through years of frustration trying to get into that exclusive club. How did you break on through?
I custom painted toys for years, to the point where it was getting back to Japan and pissing off the Japanese toy makers I loved so much. That was the last thing I wanted. I knew if I wanted to continue, I had to figure out how to make my own toys. I asked around, and after a few disappointing dead ends I came across Ricky.
He was living in Japan and was in the same boat as me. He had already put in the time to figure out the process and luckily for me was willing to help me out. Thankfully by that point I had earned trust with a handful of collectors with my paint jobs to the point that they were willing to give me a shot with my own toys.
The only thing was I had to sculpt my toy, and at that point I had never sculpted anything. I thought I could never pull it off against pro Japanese sculptors. But I just went for it and somehow discovered I could sculpt. It was like you could realize you could fly only if you had jumped off a building. I was amazed that I had this in me, and I sculpted the Sludge Demon after just one other sculpting experience. It got produced, and the rest is history.
Having gone from customizer to resin maker to sofubi toy maker, you have a unique and important perspective. What advice would you give to others who want to get their own toy made?
Start out small, and only ask from others what you’re willing to put in yourself (money and time wise). Listen to the critiques of those better than you and ALWAYS show respect to your community. It’s really as simple as that. Creative people have a hard time letting go and listening to others, and they usually have little patience. I know since I’ve been there. Over time if you persevere, it will work out. You just have to pay your dues and earn your place. It won’t come overnight, and sometimes you have to start over from scratch.
If you can do this, you may have a shot. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s been proven that people who are persistent meet their goals. All the artists you respect and admire have gone though this and earned their place. If you want to get there, so do you. If it were easy, you wouldn’t appreciate it once you had it and would lose it.
I think that’s advice we could all take to heart. One way you’re able to maintain contact with collectors is by going to events. What are your favorite toy shows and galleries?
Events and galleries owned or run by other artists. They are always the best, since an artist knows your feelings exactly and looks out for you. Businessmen are businessmen and are just looking to make money off you. In the end, either way is fine, and as long as I can nerd out at a show, I’ll be happy. I’m a collector at heart first and getting to talk shop brings me great joy. I’ve met many collectors at shows, and if it’s a group show, I’m usually looking at other artists’ stuff and just geeking out about how cool it all is. There is nothing worse than some hard ass at a show acting like a tool. This is the toy community. Just have fun and let go.
And when are you going to make it to a show in Japan?
Soon bud, hopefully very soon. You have no clue how bad I want to make it there. When I do, I can tell you I will make sure to do my best to make it worth everyone’s while.
Besides toy shows, indie makers have to do a lot to cover the bases – lottery releases, online spot sales, made-to-order figures, etc. How difficult is it to maintain the balancing act? And how careful are you to limit production runs to avoid over-saturating the market?
This is a challenge, and every maker has their own way they are happy with. For me, it’s all of the above. I know how it feels to be in a collector’s shoes and how much it sucks to miss out over and over. I try to offer every avenue for a collector to buy one of my toys. I mean, you can’t get what you want every time, but if you did, what fun would that be?
The hunt is such a great aspect of collecting – it’s what creates a toy grail. As a maker you’ll know when it’s time and how to handle all of the above. You’ll know your fan base, when to up or lower run numbers, and when and where to release them. It’s one of the things that comes with time, like I mentioned before. All the steps to get there will teach you all you’ll need to know. And if not, you’ll make friends who will help you out.
You’ve got your hands full making toys for fans in the USA and other countries. And let’s face it – it can be tough for indie toy makers to grow their fan bases outside their home markets. What are your feelings on that? Are you ambitious when it comes to expanding your international fan base?
In all honesty, with all the social media outlets, it’s not as bad as it used to be. If you’re ambitious, you can really reach out to the world. There are so many collectors out there that don’t post on message boards or come to shows for multiple reasons, but they still want your or others’ toys. It’s up to you to find them and cater to them.
Nowadays my favorite social media outlet is Instagram. I go as Mutantvinylhardcore. It’s a great way to connect, and it cuts out all the BS that happens on message boards and shows. It’s all positive and so much fun. You have to create your own community and stay part of others’ as a maker. These days, I have collectors all over the globe. It’s amazing – definitely nothing I could have ever dreamed of. Yeah, if you’re willing, you will find a way to communicate, and you can definitely make it happen.
I’ll get onto Instagram one of these days, but I still prefer posting info and reports on Kaiju Korner. Anyway, there’s a flip side to expanding – there are only so many hours in a day to paint, sell, pack, and ship. In Japan, it’s common for indie makers to have other people paint their toys. Have you ever thought of bringing other people on board?
Yeah, I have thought about getting help, especially when it comes to packing and shipping. Paint wise, not so much, unless it’s done by a skilled factory painter. Shirahama or Goto-san would be a dream to have paint my toys, since both are technically factory painters but are also masters.
I think the biggest misconception people have is that factory paint is a bad thing. This is true with massive factories in China, but not so much with Japanese factories, which are 2-3 man operations with highly skilled artists. If it was something done in-house, I would need to teach the person how to paint. It takes years to really understand how to use Japanese paint.
At the end of the day though, I love what I do and prefer to do as much as I can at every step. Something has to have had my say in it, or I can’t really say it’s mine. I think the fact that I sculpt, paint, and package my stuff is what makes it so appealing. I know this is why I fell in love with Japanese makers. It’s knowing that what you have in hand was all done by the person who imagined it in their head.
Collaborations are another part of the puzzle. You’ve done a lot of collabs over the years – with painting, mashups, and working with other artists on completely new toys. How much do you enjoy collabs vs. working on new releases on your own?
It’s equal to me. Both are just as rewarding, and each has its unique aspects. When I’m creating or painting a toy, that’s me alone. I’m putting into it what I like and what I want to see made. When working with others, I try to incorporate their history and what would make them happy.
When you’re working alone in your own little world, after a while it can get stagnant. But when you work with others, it brings out fresh new ideas that open your mind and which you can then bring back to your personal projects. Also, I think collaborations really help bridge the gap between our toy worlds. It helps make collections of different brands pull together and form a cohesive group.
2013 was an amazing year for MVH, with so many new figures, collaborations, and shows. What are your thoughts when you look back on the year?
I’m always amazed with what I somehow accomplished when I look back at a year. This year has been one of the best, I think. I’ve been in some great shows with great friends. Finding out late last year I was going to be a dad has really helped me move forward and step up sculpts this year. Although a few aren’t finished, I’ve started some new toy designs I’m in love with. Just the general state of collectors and the love they have shown has been a leap forward this year. It’s a great time to be both a collector and a toy maker.
And a big congratulations on becoming a dad! How about your plans going forward with MVH and your career plans as a toy maker?
I’m planning on going full-time toy as a maker in 2014. With things going the way they are and with all the artists I’m working with, it’s been a dream come true. When I finally decided to let go of worrying about the bullshit and started to focus on the work and hook up with other like-minded artists, it’s been a whole new world.
In 2014 you will see at least three new MVH toys. Along with collaborations with Paul Kaiju, Joe Merrill / Splurrt, Skinner, Brandt Peters, and Monster5, it’s going to be fantastic. I hope to get to the point where I can start producing other people’s toys and helping other artists get out there. That’s been a dream of mine from the start – to not only have my stuff, but to help foster the next wave of artists that will change the game. If I can be a part of all that, in the end I will be the happiest toy maker of all time. It just takes time to get there, which I think will happen soon.
Any other comments or shout-outs?
It goes without saying the fans who support my brand, and to the other artists who have helped get me here. But I need to give the biggest shout-out to my wife Jaclyn. If you have been to any of my events, she’s usually there with me. She has changed my life and has given me courage to face my fears, supporting me through thick and thin. She talked me off the ledge when I wanted to quit, when my depression was at its worst. If you’re a fan of my toys, thank her. She’s my final critic and the brains behind the operation. Sorry if this is corny to readers, but I never have a forum to give her her due. Thanks for letting me do this here.
No problem man, and thanks again Rich!
No, thank you Andy. Next time you’re in New Haven, I’ll make sure to get you nice and drunk again. I’m sure the readers would love to hear all about that, but we can cover that in the next article.
Interview by: andy b – kaijukorner.blogspot.com
Rich Montanari/MVH: mutantvinylhardcore.com
Photos by: Matt Branscombe of BSC Photography & Rich Montanari Jr.
Below are all images that are both in the issue and cut from the issue due to article size constrictions.
Click on any image to view full sized.
UPCOMING TOY SCULPTS
1.) MOON GOON – MVH “Dark Side of the moon” side. A three way toy colab between MVH, PK & SPLURRT
2.) FERAL BOY’S HEAD – Head sculpt that will fit the SPLURRT Evolved Diggler body.
3.) Toxigon a.k.a. Tsukiji Merman – New full sized MVH figure.