Think back to a day that you found yourself with more to juggle than you thought you could handle; the busiest day you’ve ever lived. Now, think about your wildest childhood fantasy, living a lifestyle you now know was never practical. Most of us want more out of life than we think we can handle, and more often than not, end up settling for ‘good enough.’
I managed to convince designer/artist/musician/dream-pursuer, Justin Gilman, to let me ask him a few questions about what it’s like to shoot high and achieve your goals. Not only does he maintain two active bands from different time zones, but also juggles a wide variety of design projects between a full-time position with Leo Burnett, and a creative collective between two brothers, We Are JG. Justin’s story serves as an example that if you’re willing to push a little harder and take all the right risks, you truly can have whatever you want.
LW: Hi Justin!
JG: Hi Lucas.
LW: Talk to me a little bit about your background with graphic design.
JG: My background with design has a lot do with my background in music. My brother and I were given instruments at a very young age and started a punk band immediately. We created a visual aesthetic that we saw other punk bands using: black and white photos, hand drawn type, illustrated punk rock dudes, and tons of X’s.
As we got older our music evolved with our taste, and in high school we started a band called Emergency Exit. This was during the emo/screamo craze around 2000, when websites like Purevolume and Myspace were fresh. We were still only creating flyers and merch for our band, but needed a website. So we paid this studio $50 to make our first skulls-and-blood, grungy, iframe website. Immediately after this, we realized that we had the skills to do it ourselves. So we started our own freelance collective called, Part the Sea Designs. This led to many music related design projects, ultimately leading to my enrolling at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art), as a graphic design major. Since I had been in the design world since high school, I knew I wanted a job in design, and the summer after my freshman year I got an internship at an interactive firm called, Fastspot. During junior year, I took a job at Mission Media, which was like a dream come true. Mission had the kind of clients I wanted to work with and was a firm I had admired for years. After graduating, I worked for a year at Mission then took my current job at Leo Burnett in the Energy Pool.
LW: You began We Are JG with your brother Josh while you were still living and working in Baltimore. What were your initial intentions, starting out?
JG: Well, we started our design collective back in high school under the name Part the Sea Designs. A few years after getting a lot of music related freelance jobs we changed the name, to be more sophisticated, to JG which is both our initials. Over the years we went from making simple flyers and merch for bands, to hand screen printing posters for venues, tours, and events. In the past few years we have also obtained more business/design related clients due to the professional work in my portfolio from Mission and Leo Burnett. Although making websites for businesses is fun, drawing and printing posters and merch is still our true love.
LW: You helped organize a really great event in Baltimore, called Drawnk. How did that begin?
JG: A few coworkers and I at Mission came up with the idea over some beers. It was simple: Beers + Drawing = what we all do anyways. So lets get all the great Bmore artists together, network, drink, and draw!? My girlfriend, Tami Churns came up with the awesome name DRAWNK! and Rick Kercz and I created the poster. It was a fantastic collaboration. So we contacted the Windup Space who we have a great relationship with, and Russell, the owner loved the idea and offered us an evening each month. The other thing about DRAWNK is that we ask you to draw something within a theme, and every month is different. Some are challenging and some are just plain fun. We’ve had themes from “Mythical Creatures” to “Design Your Own Currency.”
LW: But I thought friends don’t let friends drink and draw. Or am I thinking of something else?
JG: You’re remembering it wrong – friends don’t let friends smoke weed and speed. We just figured beers would give all of us quiet, nervous art nerds some liquid confidence to make new friends and possible collaboration opportunities.
LW: What was the transition like, going from a relatively small design studio to an international advertising agency?
JG: I got to Leo Burnett and didnt know what to do for the first few days. It was entirely different. At mission we created websites in a day, had our own projects, and had one boss. At Leo, I am one of ten kids brainstorming all day, working on global campaigns, presented our ideas directly to clients like Nintendo and Coke, and never saw our boss because he was flying around the world overseeing all of Leo Burnett. Recently, we got two bosses from Crispin Porter + Bogusky, but at the beginning when we were all new to Leo, our direct boss was Mark Tutsell, the global CCO. I went from designing websites for local Baltimore venues and companies at Mission, living in a dirty artist warehouse (the copycat), dreaming of being able to see my work around the world – to living in gigantic Chicago, working with talented kids from around the world, using my brain instead of pushing pixels, and creating potentially global campaigns.
LW: Rank the following names from funny to handsome: Jim, Dwight, Andy, Michael, Jack Donaghy.
LW: Tell me about We Read Minds.
JG: My brother, our friend Josh Beazell and I have been in bands together for years. We Read Minds (WRM) is our latest project. We also play with Angi Gulino (cello) and Greg Fraser (bass). I do play in other bands, but WRM will always be my ‘baby.’ I tend to write more mellow and orchestral sort of music that is less trendy and radio friendly, but I am a firm believer that we will slowly be noticed over time if we keep doing what we’re doing. Bands and businesses that are passionate about what they do and arent necessarily following the trends, are eventually recognized. And we have no problem working at it for years to come. We’ve only been a band for four years and have built a very solid fan base in Baltimore, have played with huge bands, and recently got signed by a great Baltimore label, The Beechfield Record Label. Now we’re re-releasing the album we self-released last year, when we hand screen printed albums for every show, and plan to record our new album in the next few months.
LW: Congratulations are in order for We Read Minds; signing to The Beechfields Record Label is huge! What does this mean for the future of the band?
JG: Beechfields came at the PERFECT time. We were failing to get press without a professional representative. While we love to screen print and promote the heck out of the band, when it comes to getting a solid review from respected music blogs, websites, or magazines, having a label represent you automatically puts you at the top of their list. When you are representing your own band you become classified amongst millions of other bands that don’t have professionals backing them up. So they are most definitely taking WRM to the next level – we are very excited! Our debut record was just released a few days ago and you can buy it on thebeechfields.com.
Background pattern featured on album cover, created by Adam Okrasinski.
LW: Were you anxious about the future of the band when you made the move from Baltimore to Chicago?
JG: Very. It’s interesting because when I arrived in Chicago, I had the plan to start a WRM Chicago lineup. This way we could play the same set that WRM plays in Baltimore and tackle two cities at the same time. However, once I jammed with a few musicians I found on craigslist, I realized this was not for me. I hated being the guy saying “Here’s the song, this is what you play.” It felt unnatural and too formal for me. I enjoy playing with musicians, but mostly jamming on ideas, or writing together as opposed to directing. And there is enough going on with WRM now—with the new label and the press we’re getting because of it—I’m okay with not playing as many shows. This also makes the shows we do play more precious and exciting for our fans.
LW: You’re certainly no stranger to writing music, in fact you’ve performed in a number of bands over the years. Did you have any formal training growing up? A family of musicians, perhaps?
JG: Ok – I think this is as bad ass as stories get. My father is a drummer, and in the 80′s was in a hair metal sort of band, called Metallix. They were located in California at the time and played a lot of great shows. One of the shows was with a little band called Metallica, when they were starting out. So after the show, Metallica approached Metallix and claimed they came up with the name first, they would get famous first, and told them to change their name. Of course Metallix argued the same, which I would have done as well. After the arguing, nothing was resolved and Metallica went on their way to become one of the most influential metal bands EVER. Lesson learned, dad.
Other than that, I’ve just played in as many bands as I possibly could. Everything from punk, emo, experimental, reggae, country to touring the nation with a rockabilly band on upright bass. I absolutely love all music and would have a recording studio if i didnt go to MICA for design.
LW: Are there any new musical endeavors on the horizon?
JG: Oh yessss. It’s called, Diamond. With Sam and Brendan from Trapped Under Ice, and David from Terror. Basically we are creating a pop/alternative/rock band that is catchy and energetic, but with a dark edge. Sam and Brendan are influenced by hardcore and pop punk, while I tend to write and listen to darker more orchestral stuff. So when our powers combine… we’ll see what happens! We are writing our record now, and plan on recording an EP next month.
LW: Do you ever struggle to balance your design work with writing music?
JG: Constantly. My problem is that I want to accomplish so many damn things, my “to do” list is endless. So every night (that I don’t get off work at midnight), I finish as much freelance work as possible first. Then I tackle the fun music stuff. Right now I am in We Read Minds, as well as the new band, Diamond, and we’re both writing. So every free minute I can get, I am either sketching songs in Garage Band, or writing riffs. When I fly back to Baltimore for various reasons, I try to balance time with friends, family, We Read Minds, and Diamond. It gets very stressful, but I love it. Especially playing in two completely different genres of music. It’s refreshing.
LW: If I asked you to compose a 30-second track right here on the spot, and gave you 30 minutes to work on it… what would that sound like? [Play the video below!]
Make sure to follow Justin on Twitter, @wearejg!
Also make sure to follow We Read Minds, @wrmband!