Rock n Roll Nostalgia Trip: Teen Photographer Al Smith of Melted Magazine
Discussing The Orwells & Twin Peaks, film photography, the disconnect of the digital age and more
by Katie Ingegneri
Note from the Editor: Al Smith is a teenage photographer from the Washington DC area who I first came across on Instagram when I saw some of her pictures of Twin Peaks. After I followed her she messaged me about how she had loved my Orwells articles, and as it turned out she has her own online magazine called Melted that features lots of DIY band interviews and great vintage-inspired film photography. We discuss coming into the current rock scene via The Orwells (a common thread for many of us associated with Houseshow!), the social disconnect of the digital age, embracing a return to authenticity and more.
As someone in her late 20s, it’s really cool for me to see what kids these days are doing with technology I didn’t have at their age (like smartphones and social media) that enables access to artists and people all over the world with similar interests — while at the same time embracing nostalgia and a return to a more analog time. Nostalgia in particular is a feeling I remember powerfully from my own teen girl years, and Al articulates these feelings and associations with music in a way that I still very much relate to.
— Katie Ingegneri
Katie Ingegneri: How old are you?
Al Smith: 17! Wishin I was born a few years earlier though!
How did you become a music fan?
I only really started to get into music my sophomore year of high school. “Remember When” by The Orwells has definitively changed my life, as cheesy as that is. It saved me from the depths of alternative wannabe music, and turned me onto a much greater scene, ‘indie’ some might call it… ‘indie rock’ haha. This scrappy, made-in-your-parents’-basement kinda sound was just what I needed to comfort me throughout my days in a private Catholic high school aka hell! These songs were consoling but at the same time heightened my longing for this kind of high school experience, a group of neighborhood kids hanging out in someone’s basement, getting into trouble, making music, but all in all just some good people having a good time (to visualize this, watch The Orwells’ music video for “North Ave.”)!
I didn’t think that this kind of teenage experience was achievable while I was stuck in a preppy uniform sitting through religion classes in a school where people rarely socialize, due to the fact that everyone is given an iPad. This contrast of feelings that The Orwells’ songs gave me led me to question my surroundings and acknowledge my feelings of solitude, which allowed me to produce some decent art. It wasn’t the Orwells entirely, but my sophomore self owes em a great deal.
I realized that music could change my perception of everything, thus unlocking its inspirational powers! That album, along with a collection of other songs I discovered around the same time, gives me such strong feelings of nostalgia, but not necessarily for a time or place I have been alive in. They’re the kinds of songs that make you perceive the world differently when you listen to them, and because of that they should be listened to in the correct setting, which for me is often at dusk. I feel like it’s easier to transcend the realm of physical reality to the realm of my creative subconscious that music often brings me to, when it’s getting dark out. It’s also easier to theoretically go back in time when it’s dark out, because if you cannot see all hints of modernity around you, then it’s as if time is completely irrelevant. This is important to me because most of my inspiration comes from these feelings of loneliness and longing for the past.
Music in general can make me feel any and every emotion, which is why it’s such a good source of inspiration.
Because of discovering this music and the entire scene that is linked with it, I’ve had so many amazing opportunities and have met many incredible musicians and friends with similar music tastes. I’ve gotten into music photography (it all started at a Growlers show!) and now have a precious collection of photographic memories of late nights filled with great music! Music makes me so happy! I love music! And the way music makes me feel! And people who make music!
How did you get involved in the DIY scene in Washington? Are there many DIY venues that you’ve been to? If not DIY venues, where do you go to shows and take most of your pictures?
I’m not as involved in the DIY scene as I would like to be, most of the shows I go to are of touring bands at larger venues. This is mainly due to the lack of creative DIY spaces in the area. I’ve only been to a couple house shows and I don’t know too many local bands, but I want this to change! I feel like DC had a big punk scene back when Fugazi and Bad Brains were a thing, and it seems like it should have such a diverse scene being the nation’s capital, but I don’t really know. I feel like I’m not too entitled to say but I know multiple people who say it isn’t the greatest! There are about 5 main venues in DC where I go to take photos of larger touring bands and musicians. I just hang around before and after the show to try to meet and photograph the musicians. It’s always a good time!
How long have you been a photographer?
A couple years! Exclusively film, almost one year. It’s one of the few things that I haven’t totally sucked at :-)
Are you the founder of Melted? How did you decide to start an online magazine and who your partners would be running it?
Indeed I am! This is a terribly boring answer, but I can’t fully remember. I think I was just bored one day and wanted something creative to have under my authority. There was a reasonably large ‘staff’ at first but that kind of died down and so I took charge and changed our message and aesthetic. Now the staff is just a few friends of mine, plus a couple others across the country that are involved with their local music scene.
I actually don’t look at many magazines or media, I try to spend as little time on the Internet as possible.
I recently started Go Green Zine (gogreenzine.tumblr.com) which is an online zine that tries to raise environmental awareness through earth related art! Also, the first print edition of Melted is coming soon!
How do you decide who you want to photograph and interview? And how would you describe the aesthetic/approach of Melted?
I always try to photograph my favorite bands/musicians when they come to town. For interviews, just whoever answers my emails haha. I feel like many magazines and art platforms try so hard to be neat and professional, which I’m not, so I figured Melted doesn’t need to be any of that. There’s also a rise in teens making online zines, it’s like the hip new phase. Many of them are with the same set up that is similar to Rookie Mag, with monthly themes and a girly aesthetic. I wanted to step away from themes such as ‘new beginnings’ and ‘adventure’ and just show the content how it is, without molding it to pertain to a cheesy theme.
I would describe Melted as a creative platform that focuses on feelings of nostalgia, which always seem to occupy my mind, as well as the current underground scene. Our little slogan is ‘your 20th century magazine.’ When we interview musicians, we always ask “what’s it like being a musician/band in the 21st century?” It’s cool to see the variety of answers, both negative and positive. We have Melted themed questions at the end of each interview, such as “an artist, song, or album that makes you feel a heavy dose of nostalgia?” All of the photographs we post are shot on film, we don’t accept digital. Sloppy analog vibes!
Another important aspect of Melted is the underlying theme of stepping back from technology, sort of fighting digital with digital.
This mainly has to do with the fact that many people nowadays live and perceive reality through their phone screens, thus leading to a lack of fully living in the present. I’m all about living in the moment and appreciating the people that are right in front of me, which is somewhat lost in this age of digital distraction. It makes me sad when I hang out with friends and they’re just staring mindlessly into their phones the whole time, Snapchatting other people or posting trivial photos on their ‘finsta.’ This issue is commonly overlooked because technology is promoted in the media, being portrayed as trendy and innovative.
So to sum up Melted: DIY music scene, film photography, nostalgia, and promoting a lifestyle where one can live in the present without feeling the need to document it on social media, check their notifications, etc.
You prefer film over digital photography, but you’ve also come of age in a digital era. How did you realize you prefer film?
I started to become fascinated with 60s and 70s fashion and music so my photography started to reflect this. I was already shooting on digital, then realized that the only way to truly achieve this 70s aesthetic was to shoot on what people would have been shooting on at the time, film. I also noticed that the film photos I had taken of my friends and family vs. the digital shots I had taken of them held so much more sentimental value. Film has such a nostalgic feel that you can never ever achieve with digital, so this heavily impacted my switch to shooting exclusively film. Digital is too easy and the images are almost perfect, and if something is perfect, it lacks character. It’s too crisp and clear and artificial. Without flaws and imperfections, digital loses a lot of the values present in film. There’s a good kind of shittiness that comes with shooting film, sorta like the good kind of shittiness that comes with lo-fi recordings, like a reassuring authenticity.
You said you love Chicago’s own Twin Peaks. How did you hear about them and who else are your favorite bands today?
Do you know the feeling of falling in love with an old friend? They’ve been there the whole time, but all of a sudden you’re head over heels? This sorta explains how I started musically crushing on Twin Peaks. I can’t remember the first time I listened to them or how I discovered them, but it was probably from their correlation with The Orwells. I wasn’t crazy about them, I only really liked one song. A few months ago I found out they were stopping by DC to tour for their new album so I bought a ticket. I listened to the singles they released and watched the lyric video for “Butterfly” but nothing really stuck. It wasn’t until I watched the music video for “Butterfly” that I started to see everything in a new way (I found a new way!!!) It had the nostalgic aesthetic and feelings that The Orwells originally gave me, and I come across those feelings very rarely in music so I knew I had found something special! I listened to more of their music and realized that I had been missing out this whole time! I started to watch their interviews and realized that they’re such funny and genuine people, which is always appreciated. I started to fall really hard for them! The concert was also conveniently the next day haha. The concert itself was amaaaazing and I got some pretty decent photos…man, I’m livin lovin life! Clay Frankel also gives great hugs!!!
Other bands/musicians of today that I looooove are Ty Segall, The Mild High Club, The Babe Rainbow, Meatbodies, Melody’s Echo Chamber, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Smith Westerns, Foxygen, Fuzz, The Lemons, Tame Impala, and the list goes on and on and on!
How did you end up taking pictures of the likes of Mac DeMarco — do you do all your photos when bands are in DC or do you travel?
Oh man. I waited six hours before doors to meet and photograph Mac. I got there before he did! Meeting and photographing musicians takes dedication! People always ask me how I get to meet everyone that I see, like there’s some secret or something. I feel like it’s so obvious: the artists have to enter and exit at some point. Maybe no one is as motivated to stick around! I prefer photographing musicians either before or after the show, not on stage. I feel like the photos are more personal that way and it depicts them in a more humanized fashion. I’m biased, but I think that shooting musicians on film also adds to the unique and personal aspect of the photo. I’ve seen tons of digital shots of musicians on stage and nothing really differentiates them from one another. A film photo on the other hand, has a little more of that sentimental vibe to it, which I believe sets it apart. I wish I could travel, but I just photograph all of the bands I see when they stop by DC!
Do you plan to stay in Washington after high school? What are your post-graduation goals?
Nope, I gotta get outta here! I just wanna be surrounded by music and people who make and/or appreciate music! It would be the dream to be a tour photographer for a band. I’ve recently started to make films, on both super 8 and VHS. I might pursue that, it would be pretty sick to make music videos! So if any bands need a music video or tour photographer, I’m here and I’m cheap…. ;-)
Follow Al Smith on Instagram at @shittyfilm and @meltedmagazine. Check out Melted Magazine at http://meltedmagazine.com.
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