Rock Star of Illustration: Matt Busch!

Matt Busch is cool.  Yeah, lots of people are cool, what makes Matt so special?  I believe that Matt, along with comedians like Patton Oswalt and filmmakers like Kevin Smith brought a certain amount of awesomeness to nerd culture.  They brought nerdiness out of the basement and into the sunlight.

If you’ve been to any comic book convention, you’ve probably seen Matt Busch.  There’s usually a horde of fans around him because he’s personable, charismatic and has time for everyone.

At his heart, this is the coolest thing about Matt Busch, he owns his inner nerd.  On the outside, he’s a cowboy hat wearing tattooed rock star, but on the inside, he’s still that five year old kid seeing Star Wars for the first time in 1977 anxiously waiting for the action figures to come out.

This is why I like Matt so much.  I sometimes feel like we’re alternate universe versions of each other.  We were both born in 1972 and grew up a stone’s throw away from each other in the northern suburbs of Detroit.  In fact, sometimes our high schools would rumble at the Burger King that bordered our two cities.  Matt and I didn’t rumble because we both discovered Star Wars at five years old and it change our lives.  We both sat around school drawing constantly inspired by George Lucas’ work.  In high school, we both discovered heavy metal, but our inner children never grew up and rock out.  I originally went to college to become an art teacher, but dropped out to pursue broadcasting.  Matt went to college and got a degree in graphic and commercial art, later moved to the west coast to go to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles and became one of the most sought after artists working today.  While that was happening, I was making jokes about Matthew Sweet while on the air in New Orleans!

I met Matt a few years ago and we became quick friends.  In spite of all of his success, Matt is a genuinely good and humble guy, who at the end of the day just wants to hang out with his buddies at home.  Granted, his home may be the nicest home I’ve ever stepped foot in!  He’s a Detroit guy at his roots and still lives here while commuting across the world to be at every fan event imaginable.  While home, Matt teaches art at the college where he started his career.  It’s a pretty incredible journey! 

I’m not sure how he found the time to answer a few questions for me, but Matt was very gracious with his time.  The only thing I can figure is he had a few minutes while his latest masterpiece was drying!

You were on the forefront of people discovering the nerd culture was actually kind of cool. What came first, Matt Busch the artist or Matt Busch the rocker?

Definitely the artist.  I was the kid at recess who skipped dodgeball with all the cool kids so I could play in the trees with action figures.  I was so introverted.  My head was always in the clouds.  Creativity, whether it was drawing, writing stories, playing music and even making home video movies was always at the core.
It wasn’t until high school and college where I joined a band and came out of my shell in a more social way.  For a while I really wanted to be a rock star, but that was always limited by a group effort, which I could never control.  I always had this vision to be an “Art Star”, as opposed to a rock star, movie star, porn star, all-star, etc.
The art star thing hasn’t really caught on yet, but somewhere along the way I was given a headline of “Rock Star of Illustration.”  It’s not exactly what I had in mind, but hey, it sounds good.  I’ll take it!
Through your art you’ve not only gotten inside the Lucasfilm empire, but you’ve also gotten to do work for some of your favorite musicians. Is one of those things more exciting than the other?
Moderation is key.  For example, Star Wars is great, and I’ve been so lucky to have been involved with so many projects from a galaxy far, far away…  But Holy Mon Mothma, there are times where I feel like I would rather draw anything than C-3PO again!  I can’t complain though.
I’ll tell you what I do like better, in terms of one world versus another.  I love working on endeavors that are 100% my own.  While getting a paycheck to create something for Indiana Jones or Foo Fighters is something I continually have to pinch myself for, creating my own art, storylines, movies is even more rewarding.
A lot of aspiring artists think I’m crazy to say that, because anyone can brand their own ideas, but not everyone can draw for Lucasfilm.  This is true, but if I draw a picture of Boba Fett, and a thousand kids pass by and tell me how awesome it is, I have to assume they are worshiping the almighty Boba, something I didn’t create or own.  But if I draw my own robot, and I even get one kid to tell me how cool it is, I’m on cloud 9.
Keeping with the rock star persona, in the documentary about you, you snort Vodka, I think. I’d never heard of that being a thing until seeing that. How or why did that come about?
That’s in fact a very real thing. It’s somewhat obscure, but I remember reading in People Magazine a couple years ago that Prince Henry was having issues with it. The street name for snorting vodka is called Thunderdome, or “Taking it to the Dome”.
It’s something I’m embarrassed and ashamed of in retrospect. I’ve never been addicted to any drugs or even alcohol. It was really tough period of my life that I was going through. I hit an all-time low in terms of what I was feeling as a person. I watch that now and just can’t believe that was me.
But, that awful snag has a happy ending. What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. In order to take 2 steps forwars, you sometimes need to take 1 step back. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and life is just amazing. I’ve met the most amazing woman who is my absolute equal and I’m getting married in September! I feel like to get where I am now, I needed to go through some rough patches to appreciate it.
Congratulations!  You’ve been teaching the past couple of years now. I recently tried teaching comedy classes and found trying to instruct people how to do something that I feel you have to be born with a natural talent for really difficult. How do you go about encouraging people who might not share your natural affinity towards art?

I would agree with you on needing a natural knack for comedy, but not for art.  With comedy, or even acting, some people just have that gift.  They can turn it on when the cameras roll or on stage.  Some people, no matter how much training or schooling they have, will never be able to act.  They just can’t turn it on.  With art, it’s a little different.  The art is the final product, and not necessarily the performance it took to make it.  I think anyone can learn how to draw and paint if they are passionate about it and they put forth the effort.

I’d imagine that teaching comedy would be really hard.  Sure, you could give some really good insight on basic storytelling and delivery, but like you said, if they don’t have that natural affinity, what can you do?

Take their money and feel guilty!  Hope they don’t embarrass themselves on stage!  What are the most rewarding aspects of teaching?

Well, there’s the basic reward, where a student’s success fill the teacher with unspeakable joy.  You feel like you’ve made a difference in someone’s life when they go after their dreams.

But there’s another selfish reason that I don’t talk about much, and that is- teaching art makes me a much better artist.  I have to work with every student problem solve their design challenges.  They also give me no-holds-barred criticism of my professional work that I bring in.  Sometimes I feel like I learn more from them than they learn from me!

What’s been the most challenging?

The economy has been falling further and further in the toilet, so as I see graduating students not finding their dream jobs as quickly, their discouragement weighs heavy on me, too.

Thankfully, my own career hasn’t taken a hit- the market has just shifted, and I’ve adapted to the changes.  I try to teach my students to see the big picture, but it’s difficult to grasp when you aren’t even in the game yet.

Okay, you and I are both honorary members of the 501st Stormtrooper Legion. Am I right in feeling that being an honorary member in a way is kind of cooler than being an actual member? It’s pretty bad ass, isn’t it?

Well, yeah, we join the ranks of other honorary members like George Lucas, Seth Green, Kristen Bell, No Doubt, Kevin Smith and Weird Al Yakovic!  So we must be pretty bad ass!

Actually, I have the double honor of being the world first honorary member to acquire their armor!  So when no one is looking, I don the TK stormtrooper armor and run around the house, taking aim behind the couch and all that.

In all seriousness, the actual members are pretty bad ass, considering that they do an ass-load of charities and do really cool stuff like visit children’s hospitals.  It’s a really great organization where everyone has fun and everyone benefits.

You have a series of how to draw Star Wars videos online, which are hilarious. How did those come about?

Those came about from working on the You Can Draw Star Wars book with Bonnie Burton and Tom Hodges.  Lucasfilm and DK Publishing wanted me to do some really quick tutorial videos to help promote the book and get kids of all ages excited about drawing.  Well, when I had an opportunity to create videos where I can use all the Star Wars music and sound effects, there’s no way I was going to do anything short of small and quick.

This all began 5 years ago.  I made a master plan to have 3 seasons of 21 episodes.  They haven’t come out as quick as I had hoped, but exactly as planned, they will all see the light of production.

I’m actually working on the final 2 episodes now, both of which are double-sized 2 part episodes.  The grand finale is actually a huge all-puppet episode.  The sets are incredible!  And my gal Lin Zy is creating all of the puppets.  It’s unreal.  I can’t wait for people to see it!

I’m guessing by your Facebook picture that you’ll be taking puppet form too!  You have a dream home. It has a private theater, arcade machines, a sound proof jam room with state of the art musical instruments and a shower large enough to fit an entire cheerleading squad. What’s your favorite part of your house?

The cheerleading squad!  Oh- wait- I don’t have that.  Man, that’s a tough call.  I usually say the mini-movie theater, but truth be told, every room or studio is one aspect of my creative playground that I enjoy.

I do have a favorite part in the summer time, and it happens to be summer right now!  As cool as all the toys and studios are inside, my favorite part of the house is actually outside!

Over the last 5 years, I’ve been reconstructing my back yard into a private zen garden.  I’ve planted over 100 trees.  I have 3 koi ponds, 4 waterfalls, a fountain, statues, paved patios and a custom designed pergola.  And more is in the works over the next few years!

I just love being outside and working with nature.  I find a lot of inspiration and the troubles of the world disappear.  I often take breaks and go chill with the fishies.  It rejuvenates the soul.

The "make out" swing in Matt's garden...because even Buddhas need love!

You and I are the same age and went to rival high schools. Now that we’re 22 years out, Athens was better, right?

Ha!  I would have told you then that Athens was better!  My high school had a graduating class of 600, so we didn’t have much of a sense of family.  I certainly didn’t have a lot of school spirit!

I’ve wondered at times if I ever have kids- what will their high school experiences be like?  And then I realize that the way things are going, their won’t be high schools in the future.  The states won’t be able to pay teachers, and what for?  Kids will learn faster on their iPads at home.  Sad.  But.  True.

Let’s hit the nuts and bolts of being essentially an independent business owner where the project you sell is essentially yourself. You’re a staple of the convention circuit, do you feel that’s the way that you really boosted your career? I ask that because you seem to be the most hands on of the Star Wars artists, along with someone like Katie Cook.

Oh man, good question.  I’ve never really thought about that in retrospect of my career.  Part of selling myself as the artist (aside from the art itself) stems from my days as an aspiring rock star.  But there’s a deeper connection than that.

When I was first attending conventions as a fan, I was shocked at how lame and sometimes rude some of my favorite artists were.  To be such a fan of someone’s work and then meet them as a wet mop, it becomes quite the buzz kill.  And then you start to lose respect for their work.  You shouldn’t, but you do.

So I always made it a point to be a nice guy and, despite being called the Rock Star of Illustration, not actually act like I’m above anything or anyone.  And it’s paid off.  I notice online in message boards where someone will post art of mine that they like- then I’ll see a comment that someone else writes that says, “Killer art!  I got the chance to meet Matt and a show once and he was totally cool.”  That means just as much to me as someone praising the art.  You want the respect as a person.

In the short time that you and I have been friends, you’ve revamped your website. What tools do you use beside your site that helps you promote yourself?

Ha- well what I’ve really learned to do is delegate.  I figure, if someone else can create a website better than I can, then I should hire them to do it for me, rather than make a mess and stamp my name on it!

I’ve done a little of everything to promote.  TV, Radio, Newspapers, Magazines, Podcasts, Email Newsletters, Facebook pages, Twitter updates, Press Releases, Gallery showings, Convention appearances…  You name it, I’ve done it.  Bumper stickers.  I’ve even made flyers and dropped them off at comic book stores.

It all helps, and the market changes, so I try to stay on top of what is hot.  Some times I hit it, and sometimes I play catch up.  I’m still trying to figure out what an RSS feed is.  Do I have to sign up for that?

I’m not sure.  I have a web guy who knows way more than I will ever know!

An artist of any kind (musician, comedian, sculptor) needs to promote and do it all the time.  Find ways to do it in your sleep.  It’s kind of crappy having to sell yourself all the time.  But, the truth is, if you don’t believe in yourself, how will other people.

And I should point out, since we have been friends, you also have been quite the mad man at promoting, making waves, and living the dream.  Major props, man!

That comes a lot from being friends with people like you and seeing how our worlds overlap and figuring out what you’re doing that might work for me too.

I think the biggest key to being successful is being able to get in front of the right people at the right time and have a body of work that shows what you’re capable of. You certainly have an impressive body of work, but how did you first get your talents noticed by people who could really push your career?

Well, when I broke in, I was living in Hollywood, and that certainly helped.  But I don’t know that living there would help so much these days- not for a freelance artist who delivers files electronically, anyway.

There was also never a single point or single person who gave me the nod and then I was a pro.  You get little benchmarks along the way, and career highlights, but rarely are they overnight successes.

My trick back then was to make color copies of my work and stick them into little five-dollar portfolios with plastic page sleeves.  It was like a mini book that prospective clients could keep.  It was inexpensive, and my ratio of getting work to never hearing from them was pretty good.

Do you work with an agent or do you do all of the business side of things on your own?

I used to.  In fact, at one point, I had 3 agents- one for advertising, one for entertainment, and one for publishing.  I found that for me, as much as I hate the business side of it, I really need to be in control.  And I hate paying someone a big percentage when I’m doing the bulk of the work.

But, there are some huge benefits to having an agent, and I have some artist friends that do really well, get killer gigs, and swear by how fantastic their agent is.

You made a big move during your 20s to the west coast to pursue your dreams. Do you think that was necessary or is it possible to get discovered in Detroit?

In the 90’s, moving to L.A., definitely made things happen quicker.  I think eventually, things would have turned out similar.  I mean, these days, if I want to research a prospective client, I go Online.  No one in L.A. has an advantage over the info I can get.  Or anyone anywhere, for that matter.

Of course, that’s for me and the kind of art I produce.  That may not be the same for everyone, though I suspect technology has made it easier to make anyone’s craft more accessible to the world.

What advice do you have for young artists whether it be visual or performance who are following their dreams?

You only live once.  You can either set the goals, make it happen, and live the dream…  Or spend the rest of your life wondering what would have happened if you actually gave it your all.  The only thing stopping you from where you are now and where you want to be is… You!

Now get out there and make your dreams come true!

Well, Matt Busch is an inspiration to all artists, no matter the art.  I can only assume he meditates like crazy in his backyard.  I believe there’s a lot of truth in people manifesting their own destiny.  Matt is a guy who had a dream at five years old and over the last 33 years he’s made that dream come true through hard work and perseverance.    Check out more of his simply amazing work at his website.  We didn’t even cover the fact that while his art career was launching he was in a pretty notable Detroit hard rock band and most recently he’s turned film maker with his directorial debut Conjure available now!  Matt is a busy guy, but he’s busy doing things he loves!


About Mike Bobbitt

Sometimes professional storyteller.

Posted on June 16, 2011, in Interviews, Nerdery and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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