Alan Alvarez is a Madera, CA (by way of Fresno) artist whose presence in the Bay Area artist community hasn't gone unnoticed. After a Wine & Bowties FEELS (perhaps the 3rd one, can't recall which) event, the homies Amina & Veej mentioned a 'cigarette package with art' to me - not something you'd expect to be paired together often. This project was Softkill, one of Alan's many to date, where he combines his love for photography with touches of other mediums to create some ingenious products; when viewing his work you get the sense that he's as DIY as it gets. Most recently he put out Wilt, a fictional pharmaceutical company that features pills that encapsulate messages and art sent as submissions from his friends and fellow artists. From the packaging, a fictional commercial, to the pills themselves, Alan crafted a project that falls in line with his body of work, yet is like none other. Beyond creating his own projects, last year he and some friends curated a community space called 123 Studios in Fresno that served as a platform for artists of all races, ethnicities and gender identities.
I live in Madera, they call it the heart of California - it's right in the dead center of California but I don't know about that, you know geographically [laughs]. But I've lived here my whole life, I was born in Fresno but I guess a lot of people know where Fresno's at so I just say I'm from there.
That makes sense. I feel it. Cause I'm from Alameda, so when I go somewhere else I always tell people I live next to Oakland because they have no clue where the hell Alameda is.
Alameda, one time I drove by there it's pretty nice man. There's like a river or a lake right next to an airport..
Oh, it's the Bay basically. Alameda's an island so yeah, it's kinda weird. Yeah it's kinda weird - damn, I thought you were from Fresno the whole time [laughs].
Yeah, well I was born there, I lived there for a while. My dad - well he's between Fresno and Mexico now but basically I lived with him for a while and just moved back to Madera probably 7 years ago though. I'm literally there every single day so might as well you know.
Yeah, I feel it. I was gonna touch on that - I guess being from out there, how do you feel like that shaped your influences? For instance like I grew up between Mexico and Oakland when I was super young but then later when I got older and started going back to Mexico only in the summers I noticed that stuff took way longer to catch on over there. And I know Fresno isn't another country but it feels like the further out you get from big cities towards rural areas the sphere of influence slows a little bit you know?
Yeah, it's like a delayed effect of waves of whatever it might be, music, films or anything else it's like a little delayed I guess. I noticed that some time ago too.
Yeah, do you feel like people from where you're from kinda - almost like it's hard to relate to what they're doing or vice versa because of the path (art) that you chose?
Yeah man for the longest time, the reason why I started venturing out - and that's how I found you guys, I essentially uh... well it's weird how I met Veej. I never met my friend, his name's Alvin he's from Texas, he had a clothing brand called Visionary. So I found Visionary on Tumblr like 2010 or 11 I can't remember exactly, so i followed Alvin on Twitter and him and Veej were friends on there. I followed Veej just on a whim you know? And from there that's how I linked up with everybody you know?
Veej the plug. [laughs]
Bro yeah, touching back on what you were asking it's basically here, when I was seeing all these things happening through the internet you know people had their brands, had their music, they had their art. So it's something I really didn't see here - there's a Fresno art hop I guess is what they call it, like a First Friday for you guys but ours is on Thursday. It's literally like you would go to a gallery or a space and it would be drowned out by really loud music... It was more like a hangout/party type of feel you didn't really get one on one time with the artist, you don't really get to interact or act questions, or anything like that. I wouldn't get much out of it so I think it really pushed me to look elsewhere for connections and just people, to kinda make peers. It's always good to look up to people, but it's also like man, I do work, we can easily be peers or colleagues, whatever. So it all stemmed from that, just there's nothing really here and the things that I want to do no one was really - there's people that wanna make music and there's people that wanna make art but the most part it wasn't in the scene. The area or environment that I wanted to dive into so that's what fueled going up there (to the Bay) and making friends online. The events you guys started throwing, I had never seen that before so I was like 'that's so sick man'. So when I started going to you guys' events and meeting up with you that's where I got a lot of ideas like 'hey why can't I do something like that out here'? So I got together with all of my friends and that's when we opened up our own space for that whole year.
I was going to ask about the time you spent doing 123 Studios - for me, when I started YK it was kinda me just having a purely music site and putting my interests out there and then over the years it grew to the point where it'd be like 'well shit there's so much talent here, let's focus on the homegrown and let's big up the Bay and try to build it up'. So I feel like maybe that's a natural human instinct to want to bring it back home?
Exactly man yeah! I guess you can build a platform yourself and help other people that are in arm's reach as opposed to - I mean, I see a lot of people and take what they can and build elsewhere as opposed to bringing it back home. And that's one of the things that my friend - he lived in SF, San Jose and all over the Bay for like 5 years, we went to school together from the 7th grade so I've always known him but I guess for a while he was kinda lost on what he wanted to do. He was lost in the sense of like 'the city's so big' and he wanted to give back to the community, so he was forced to move out of the Bay due to money issues and stuff like that so he came back home and landed a job here so now he helps out the community. That's when he realized 'I should take what I learned out there on a bigger scale and do it on a smaller scale here' which is a lot easier too because there's a lot more to develop as opposed to build on top of whatever's developed out there you know?
Yeah, for sure and is that the homie that you started the space with?
Yeah, one. There was four people so Vicente but he goes by Mono - he's initially the one who was like I'm gonna rent a space out and I was like 'are you serious?' [laughs] because we had mentioned having a spot just for us to do work at. I think he just took it to heart so he's initially the one to sign the lease and all those things before we all got involved because the 6 month lease we all jumped aboard - he just made it happen essentially. Him and I shaped it, Juan was the homie that was in the Bay and he's the one who brought the more structure of it in the sense of getting a license, working towards grants and things of the sort. He was like 'you know we should document this, we should do this and that' but we were all still learning in the beginning of the experience... I'm thinking back and I'm like damn I can't believe we actually did that shit. But for the most part he's the one that was the most structured in the sense of organization and if we're gonna be non-profit or the way to go about it, so that's how it evolved into actually having a space for people that was completely free, donation based. We tried to be all inclusive, a safe space for a lot of people - minorities, people in the LGBT community, women, people of color and touching on all those basis too. We wanted to make sure those people would be represented the best.
Word! Do you feel like out there - I don't know, the further you go towards the valley it's either Latinos or white folks pretty much..
Yeah there's Latinos, there's Salvadoreños, people from Honduras, Mexicanos, de todo. And hella white people too.
Yeah, I guess what I was gonna say is having that message out there is harder to do than out here [the Bay] people are more accepting out here. You know what I mean?
Yeah when we go there's a different feel. Out here it's very conservative still - I guess in the inner city of Madera and Fresno I feel like racist and hateful people they watch their mouths and they watch their behavior. Because I feel like they're like 'fuck, I'm in here with a lot of people that are..' I guess I'd say we're almost the majority now, I would say, here or close to. So they watch themselves but in the outer cities, like in the county where it's just fields and grapevines, a bunch of countryside, once you drive out there towards casinos and stuff like that you'll sometimes see a noose out there on a front yard with the Confederate flag. And then you're just like 'fuck alright, we're somewhere else right now'.
So yeah you'll see shit like that. And there's just people that keep on their little area I guess you would say, they have little shops out there and they don't really come into the city unless they have to. It feels like I just got transported to Kentucky for a 5 mile stretch.
And that's the thing about California is that everyone thinks it's super liberal and you just go an hour outside the Bay and you're like really now?
Hell yeah. There's people out there that've got a shitload of hate.
When I saw you last, you were showing me the video for your project Wilt and I didn't process the full extent of the project. When I seen the packaging and everything I went off!
I guess you can't really ever explain it you know? I think I put so much into it, like 18 months worth of stuff to where you can show people and you can talk about it and things like that but once you have the actual piece in front of you, you'll get the best feel of it. But it's hard to explain - or I don't have enough time to explain I guess because then I go around in circles. I've tried before and I go 'it's about this, it's about that, and why I chose this and why I chose that' I don't know, I caught myself thinking 'why did I do that?' A year ago I started a certain part of it and I think back like 'why did I do that?' because even with myself it's hard to remember everything. I take notes and things like that but it's almost like reintroducing myself to each concept every time.
Link in bio for more information on Wilt XZ (Xenobenzyteomega®️ 500mg) pic.twitter.com/RFbp6xOamF
— UniversalSubstance (@alanxalvarez) December 29, 2017
I was going to ask about the process of Wilt. Because when we talked you were trying to figure out video for that aspect of the project but yeah, it came out super dope dude. The video was another element that fully brought it home, in my opinion.
Yeah man that was really important for me - my goal for 2017 was to make something in a film or video format to basically jump into a new medium. So I already had some of the skeleton of the project, at the beginning of 2017 but the goal is to get the software first of all, I already had the camera but learn how to work the camera, watch YouTube videos or whatever you need to do and then learn major points of filmmaking. Like anything that's new you underestimate it at first I would say, because when you see something that grabs you it's seems so effortless to a certain degree. You're like 'this person is amazing how the hell did they do that?' so it took me like - when I saw you was October... At that point I hadn't figured out how to.. I had gotten Adobe Premiere probably about a month before that. It was just overwhelming at first. It's kinda like one of the first times I tried to work on Illustrator, just knowing Photoshop - everyone's like 'it's the same tools' but it's completely different man. With Premiere I started watching videos and edited some random things and just learned the basics, I didn't wanna do too much. Just wanted to have slo-mo shots, maybe turn up the temperature on the footage itself, maybe the contrast to make the shadows stick out more so there's more depth to them. So that's the process of me learning that, and then the hardest part probably was directing and filming. That's my best friend Ricardo, the guy with the mask, and when you're working with friends you're having a good time, you're laughing... it's funny because we had to jump a barb wire fence to get to this area right? There's a bunch of cows, and there's cow shit everywhere [laughs]. At some point he must have crawled through crap and I was just like 'oh man' [laughs]. I also watched a few videos on storyboarding, mapping out scenes, positioning and things like that so I went to one location guided by this piece of paper that I roughly drew. Those shots didn't end up being in the actual finished ad, but we went to this other place where we jumped a barbed wire fence and that was the other half of the paper so I was like 'okay just act like you're disoriented, like you're out of breath and panting for air' but it was so unnatural because he's never done acting or anything like that so I did my best to kinda guide him through it. We met in the middle, you know he's someone who's not a professional but also trying to get the point across of what I had in my head. It actually worked out really well man. You know Andre right? Andre Elliott?
Oh yup, the gawd.
Well yeah, he's one of the people I go to when I ever doubt myself or need a really honest opinion because he's really truthful. He doesn't hold back if I want an honest opinion on a design or whatever, it's more constructive to talk to him. At least just to get a second opinion on it. But anyways it started coming together, and the second part was I have this app on my phone it's kinda like a Siri app and that's where we did the voice. The only hard part was to get it formatted to being on Premiere. Apple's weird as far as downloading goes, I spent a day doing that. From there it was the background music. I got my acoustic guitar and a little thing I guess you do is called harmonics, which is basically bright noise and so I recorded that and went into GarageBand and added reverb and echoes and that's what that music that carries the ad is.
Damn!! That's super tight, I never woulda known that if you didn’t just tell me that!
[laughs] Yeah dude it's a lot of work that's why when I talked to you I knew I wanted to release it by the end of the year which I ended up releasing it the 31st of December, I really worked up until my last day.
So was it a year ago when you asked for the submissions for the project?
It was probably in 2016. I had to re-ask the people if it was still okay to use their submissions [laughs]. Everybody was pretty cool about it so I just pulled forward. Chronologically when I released the first cigarette box - the Softkill box, probably two months later or three months later... I released that in March of 2016. By July, I don't know why I was thinking.. because I had a thread of projects in that same style and the very first was a matchbook. Then from there I don't even know how I came up with the cigarette box thing I forgot. I was like, 'the next thing would be drugs or medicine' and that's where it sparked, I just rolled words inside... Basically I think I come up with names first for a project or an idea of kinda what it's gonna be, and somehow I don't know how but I find meaning to it. I was like 'okay so I'm gonna have words inside of pills - but what can that mean? Side effects - like side effects of words, if someone's gonna tell you something really insulting you're gonna feel bad you know? Or if someone tells you something really encouraging you're gonna feel good.' So I was like, fuck, there it is. I had that idea and I asked for submissions because I wanted dialogue myself and I couldn't really think of what to say in each capsule so I was just like 'I'll just ask for submissions again, maybe people will vent and I'll just get context from each writing to put into the pills. Something harsh or really uplifting'. So then I asked for submissions and I was like what else can I put in the box? I put people's photography to tie into in the sense of those photographs were around the time they were going through a harsh relationship or stressful times or whatever, and I thought I could tie it into that. Then I went out and bought a box of... not Dayquil but - I'll show you some stuff. It's this stuff right here, Synex or whatever the hell it's called. So I bought a box like this and I took it apart, I normally take them apart carefully. Essentially you can split the whole package so you can see the inside, then you scan it and from there you outline it on Photoshop, make sure it's scaled out to the actual box, print it and cut it out put it back together. Then I go 'what elements do I wanna include in this and what do I wanna kinda... what if I just create the brand for this new drug?' So I came up with the branding for that, the colors, the palette, the packaging, and then my mind kept going and going so I made these two alternate boxes, the Hail Mary one and the orange one. I love packaging.
Yeah, I like how you made the different packages for the product
Yeah dude, what's inside goes with it too. The pill colors and the actual blister packaging colors. Essentially I wanted to have the blister packaging to be transparent, just like a normal tray, you know how it comes? But I ran into issues because what I'd do.. it's kinda expensive to buy the trays themselves because I'd buy more than I use, which is $8 or $9 so I could only get 2 trays. I'd empty out the pills and then I wouldn't really use em so I'd peel out all the foil as much as I could but then you'd have residue on it, so I was like damn. I guess problem solving and kinda like failed attempts at stuff creates new things so I was like 'why don't I just spray paint the actual tray? why don't I just have the pill match the tray or the box?' I was looking online at empty pills, I found a site that had multiple colors and was like 'whoa, imagine having these colored pills inside' so it just kept going and going, basically through research. At that time that site was asking for a 10,000 pill limit - at least for it to ship and I was like 'I'm probably going to sell 5 boxes [laughs], I don't really need 10,000'. I put that on hold and kept going with other things so then... I don't know, there's a huge occurrence that happened. When I released the cigarette box in March of 2016... basically it was a breakup. So I was going through depressive episodes throughout this whole journey, so there's times where I would just shut down and wasn't able to complete work. I think that's why it took so long too. Then throughout all that, I think I was sick one day and I just wanted a little bottle - I went to Walmart and bought a little box of something for allergies or a cold, I was like 'damn imagine if I actually made this, if I made a pill bottle too'. I looked into a website that sells medical supplies and from there I was able to get my hands on these, I've had them for 8 or 9 months just sitting there you know? I started developing packaging for these too and I came up with two different concepts for those.
Oh - I'm gonna go way back now but I don't know, I think you answered me too.. because I tweeted about having this concept, I was like 'I have this concept should I hold it for another project or should I just go impulsively with what I'm working on right now?' and I think you said 'hold it off'. The other project would've been through my clothing company that I had for a while but it never went like I planned, so I discontinued it. So I was like I guess I'm left with whatever I'm working on so it happened to be the mirror mask. I've always had this thing about covering people's faces - I've had the mask for a while, I had short hair when I first made it. I didn't really show a lot of people but I started thinking of the meaning behind the mirror mask, things like how parents sometimes say whatever good or bad habits your friends have you have them regardless. Even the traits that your parents have instilled in you, your environment - you are a reflection of your environment. That's the concept behind that. Yeah man, it's been a long journey - a lot of research. There's been a lot of failure into it but finally I did it.
I kinda remember when you asked if you should sit on the idea - at that time I was working on this project that was something I had been sitting on for hella long, we finally started to do it. It was a year long process just like how your super long process was - it wasn't a success so I was like fuck it, you fail sometimes.
Yeah, I've been hearing a lot about failing but it's a good thing. It's really important, it sucks [laughs] but it's extremely important. Yeah man I think that part you were mentioning of putting 18 months into it and not being able to do it, it would've killed me. Maybe that failure isn't set in stone - just keep at it man that's the only thing. You gotta feel what you gotta feel and let that sink in and process, and give it another shot.
I agree. I've been rediscovering the reasons why... I guess why you do what you do.
It's important. You kinda hit a reset button and really go back to square one. You get so lost in the process which is I think the best part of anything, the process. I caught myself thinking 'why am I doing this' when you hit a speed bump but just rekindle with the meaning behind it - or the why.
What are your upcoming goals? Whether with the most recent project or in the future?
I want to revisit Wilt in the future with some more ads. Filmmaking is something that interests me, just to have the control of what is being told and how it's being told, that meshing of score or soundtrack to the visuals is one of the highest forms of art I think. I think it touches on all of the senses, it's more of a journey even if it's an hour and a half or two hours you know? That's why I was so stressed about even doing that minute and 20 second ad, to make people feel at least something - maybe I didn't do the very best I could have but at least you knew this person was disoriented in the middle of nowhere and that's what I wanted to represent with that.
Also I forgot to ask - why did you stop the clothing line you mentioned earlier?
Ultimately I didn't have enough time, when I first started I didn't have the right... I wasn't always into creating things. I was 23 when I first started anything, I'm 28 now. I used to write music a long time ago, but I never liked the shit I wrote [laughs]. I'm gonna release a music project in the future but it's gonna be very my style where it has different aspects of it. I'm probably gonna have visuals with it, I started thinking of developing ideas of if I perform live I want it to be an installation. You don't see a whole lot of things like that where you have bands play gigs but never in an environment musically, so I think it's one of those things I really want to do - set up a whole environment to not be the whole focal point but to be within it you know? One of the other projects I really wanted to release was a newspaper - hopefully within the next month or so, kinda like a zine. This would be in more of an autobiographic, expressing how I feel at times. The project is gonna be called King Breaker vs King Destroyer. That's the project that I'm introducing with the newspaper, leading up as time goes to the band. I want to compose all the music for it, but then I have to learn drums and that's another venture because I've been playing guitar for 10 years I've just never really played in front of people. The meaning behind King Breaker vs King Destroyer is basically... it's negative but also positive connotation behind it. I often describe myself as though those are two entities within me. One breaks and one destroys, but that's not really positive. The positive aspect is that destruction is a form of creation. You've gotta break some things to create new things, as soon as you destroy yourself you create new bodies of work. One breaks things and the other actually obliterates things, it's kinda an autobiography in the beginning but then it goes into the band.