Bill Barbot on Being Punk
Bill Barbot is one of the founders of the creative agency Threespot, a firm that says on their website that their mission is to “use our time and talents to make a difference. All day, every day.” Before Threespot, Barbot played guitar and sang in bands in the DC punk scene.
On September 14, he’ll be joining Roman Mars, host of 99% Invisible, in an event called The Punk Rock Type. He took the time to sit down and answer questions about punk, aspects of the lifestyle, and the creative forces that should drive our own lives.
AIGA: So, let’s start at the beginning — what is punk?
Barbot: That’s a hard question.
I would describe punk as a lifestyle and an attitude towards life that eschews the norm. It sets itself apart from and outside of the mainstream in the interest of pursuing a cultural phenomenon that thrives on authenticity and impact.
AIGA: So where does the music fit in with all that?
Barbot: Well I think that the music was one of the earliest expressions of the lifestyle — the music became like the seed from which the tree grew.
It was something that just came from pure emotive expression, a disassociation from the mainstream and the norm. Making music that sets itself apart from what’s getting played on the radio, and what our culture is telling us “good music” sounds like.
AIGA: So what does that music sound like? How would you describe it?
Barbot: That’s a complicated question too … very early on the aesthetic of punk was fairly narrow. Loud abrasive guitars, generally uptempo drums and an approach towards singing that wasn’t what our parents’ generation would have considered singing. A lot of shouted vocals, and a lot of attitude. It was pretty much about the Ramones.
But I think that when we when we talk about punk we have to talk about multiple eras of punk in multiple subgenres of punk. Because that Ramones sound in the mid 70s expanded quickly to what became known as new wave, and on to post punk or post hardcore in the 80s and 90s. And the sound changed — you wouldn’t find a synthesizer or a keyboard in most punk bands in the 70s, or samplers, or vocal overdubs or lots of real intricate complicated time signatures or melodic structures or harmony in traditional punk music. But very quickly punk grew to encompass those kinds of things. It wasn’t just loud, fast, and snotty.
AIGA: And what about a visual aesthetic? Punk gets labeled as DIY, but what does that really mean? What does it look like?
Barbot: DC wasn’t a music industry town. It still isn’t, but in the 80s it really wasn’t. So in order to produce music — to make a record, to manufacture it, to do art to get people to come to your shows — you had to figure out how to do these things on our own. That’s the utilitarian world where I came from.
That utilitarianism drove a lot of the aesthetic, which in many respects was a very untutored aesthetic. A lot of people just bootstraped their design careers by becoming punk rock artists. It led to a real revolution, a democratization of design.
And it was really liberating, because I think that as much as much as we were skeptical and cynical about the music industry I think that there is an equal degree of skepticism and cynicism about the design industry. You had to go to school to become a visual fine artist or to become a graphic artist with a degree.
And on the one hand, I found it really refreshing. But on the other hand, it leads to a whole lot of visual noise. That’s just a byproduct of the punk rock “anyone can do this” mentality.
We created freedom for people to express themselves where we don’t pass judgment on their qualifications to do what it is they are doing. In exchange for that yeah, we’re gonna have a whole bunch of bad bands around. But that’s cool, because we’re all just trying to do our best.
AIGA: Is it a requirement to have a formal design education to be a designer today? Have we lost the ability to bootstrap this?
Barbot: I’ve gotten around to a place where I don’t think that it’s a liability to have a formal design education. I even think that there are huge advantages. But I don’t think that it’s the “you must be this tall to ride this ride” that design programs and art schools would like you to believe.
You don’t have to go to Juilliard or Berklee School of Music to be a good enough guitar player to be in a band. There are brilliant musicians who have never studied music a day in their lives. But what they’re presenting, what they are manifesting through their experience, through the music that they’re making … it’s a really visceral and very authentic and very homegrown kind of thing. And that’s what makes it good.
I’ve gotten around to a place where I don’t think that is a liability to have a formal design education. I even think that there are huge advantages. But I don’t think that it’s the “you must be taught this tall to ride this ride” that design programs and art schools would like you to believe.
I know plenty of designers, like many who work in my own company who have design degrees and they are brilliant and they use their design degree to enhance their brilliance … but good design is where you find it. And there are a lot of places where you can look for good design that doesn’t have anything to do with an academic credential.
AIGA: A lot of descriptions of punk are about what it’s not — it’s not establishment, it’s not mainstream, it’s not corporate. What would you say punk is for, rather than against? What’s the central value?
Barbot: Well I’m at risk of liberally stealing from Joe Strummer …
AIGA: Please feel free.
I would I would say it’s about people. About people recognizing their inherent power. It’s about freedom, self-determination, and self-expression.
And not only the good parts.
There are a lot of offshoots of punk rock that are decidedly negative. There’s a lot of sexism and racism in punk rock. The skinhead scene was an awful subculture within punk rock, and we had to get contend with that, having skinheads come to shows and try to beat up a person of color or non-gender typical person. There was some serious shit that went down under the banner of punk.
AIGA: Punk gets criticism for being pretty white, and not a welcoming space to some groups of people. Do you agree with that?
Barbot: I think that punk is a byproduct of the world in which it was spawned. Punk rock first appeared was the 70s, and at that time, despite the fact that we’ve gone through civil rights, and black power, and feminism, the people who literally had the gumption to start creating this music and more importantly to draw attention to themselves, were white guys. The Ramones, white guys, the Sex Pistols, white guys, the Clash, white guys.
I do think that the DC scene was somewhat different.
AIGA: How was DC different?
Barbot: We suffered greatly after the ’68 riots. The city exploded in many ways and the economy of the 70s really took a hit. There was a lot of fear on the part of white people, and they fled to the suburbs. And the city really grew as a black culture city — go-go came out of that, and a tremendous amount of R&B and phenomenal soul artists came out of that scene.
And the white kids were, I think, fascinated by it and at the same time a little bit scared of it. And I think that punk rock gave them something to latch onto, that gave them that outlet and a feeling of being a part of this.
And you get to a place where you realize there’s so much here, not fear and divisiveness but opportunity for collaboration and cross pollination.
Like even some of the earliest, most revolutionary shows were the punk funk spectaculars. Trouble Funk was at the time one of the premiere go-go bands in town, and Minor Threat obviously was one of the premiere hardcore bands, and they played together on the same stage. And there was a whole lot of head scratching from the fans.
But that kind of experimentation created the grounds for what now I consider to be a really positive, diverse social and socio-economic culture in DC that is very very different from what it was like 30 years ago.
AIGA: So if you had to rate it on a scale of one to ten, how punk rock is Threespot?
Barbot: **laugh** Well, if we’re comparing ourselves to other design agencies, we’re pretty punk rock. We’re very egalitarian. We’re very homespun. The kinds of clients that we work, the kind of work that we do, the attitude we have about ourselves, how we interact with one another is very punk rock. So we’re probably like a nine on the punk rock scale.
Compared to the way that I used to run my band, though, we’re like a two. We’re an LLC. We’re incorporated with the state of Maryland. We’ve got payroll. We’ve got all kinds of stuff that isn’t very punk because it’s the system. We have to play by quite a few rules in order to be the kind of business that we want to be.
AIGA: You still play music, and you run Threespot. Do you have other passion projects or is your whole life just one big passion project?
Barbot: If you asked my wife, she’d say that my whole life is one big passion project. I’m a busybody, and I have a hard time saying no to things that sound cool.
I’m also aware that the stuff that I do reflects on the company so I can’t really separate those aspects of my life. I want the whole thing to feel authentic. The whole package needs to make sense.
If you’re doing something that is compromising to your own integrity and then you try to buy your integrity back, well, you don’t end up with any integrity at the end of the day.
That’s part of how I think about Threespot. We grew up during an era when the way that agencies paid off their consciences was to do pro bono work — spend your days on cigarettes, and after hours do a passion project for the local food shelter or something. And that just seems like such a zero sum game. If you’re doing something that is compromising to your own integrity and then you try to buy your integrity back, well, you don’t end up with any integrity at the end of the day. You’re back at zero.
And I don’t want to be in that mode. I want to be in a mode where everything that we do, whether it’s hobbies or personal lives or professional lives, all adds into this momentum of “I’m doing my best to help roll my little piece of the boulder forward for humanity, for the culture for the universe, for my children and my grandchildren my kids grandchildren and all of my neighbors and all of their children and their grandchildren.”
AIGA: So for those lucky people who are coming to see you and Roman at The Punk Rock Type — do they need to know anything coming in? Do they need to know punk music?
Barbot: I don’t think that anybody needs to come knowing anything. I think that they need to come interested in learning something.
I want to talk about creativity. I don’t want to talk about the Buzzcocks. I mean, I love talking about the Buzzcocks, but 90% of the audience may have never heard the Buzzcocks’ music.
But they can come and they can hear me talk about creativity, and the creative drive, and where this particular moment in cultural history that I had a tiny tiny part of can have relevance to their approach towards their art and their lives.
I don’t want people to walk out of there thinking they’ve got a lesson in punk rock history. I want them to walk out feeling like they’ve gotten a shot of energy, and a sense of openness to where they could go, whatever it is they’re trying to do, music, or design, or being a banker. It doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re thinking: what am I doing with myself? How am I investing my time in ways that feel aligned with what I value?