discussing memories, music and merch with america’s most dedicated smiths fan
In addition to owning one of the most impressive collections in the country, Sean Samuelson makes the Smiths t-shirts you'll never find and plans to reveal it all in his new book.
The Smiths are a rare band that hold a very special place in the hearts of many. Releasing music for six years, between 1982 and 1987, they were a group of talented, handsome, smart and opinionated young men who made poignantly witty pop songs which united listeners around the world. Morrissey's poetic lyrics spoke directly to a generation in need of a spiritual leader who could articulate their frustrations, fears, hopes and desires. From How Soon is Now, where Morrissey succinctly immortalised everyone's bedroom sentiments regarding finding love at the club to Meat is Murder, The Smiths prescribed an attitude and an approach to life that so many could relate to. An army of the most ardent and long-serving fans has been their reward.
Sean Samuelson grew up in California surrounded by people listening to rap music but was immediately drawn to the music of Morrissey when he heard it in the late 80s. With The Smiths not long split up, Morrissey was making incredible solo music and Sean was amongst the fans who would queue up at the local record store for the latest release or limited bootleg. He also followed Morrissey on his tour of the West Coast going to every show on his Kill Uncle and Your Arsenal tours in the early 90s. During this time, Sean started buying all the albums, t-shirts, posters and paraphernalia he could get his hands on, his obsession continues to this day. Beyond his incredible collection of t-shirts, Sean runs a web store called StrangewaysNYC where he lovingly makes tasteful The Smiths and Morrissey tees pieced together from existing artwork, lyrics and tour dates. He also has plans to release a book about his impressive collection and the stories behind the pieces.
We caught up with Sean to discuss the importance and history of Morrissey and The Smiths and the nuances of a life spent collecting.
What's your first memory of The Smiths and Morrissey?
There was a great radio station called KROQ where I grew up in Los Angeles who introduced us all to a lot of music from the UK — bands like Joy Division, New Order, The Cure and Depeche Mode. I discovered Morrissey before The Smiths, because they split up when I was quite young, but even though I didn't see them live, I bought everything.
Do you have a favourite song or lyric?
Morrissey's music really touched me and helped me through so many times in my life when I was young. I love the lyrics: Don't forget the songs that made you smile / And the songs that made you cry. That always really sums it up for me.
What's your motivation for collecting?
I think I collect because those were such great times. There's still not a day that goes by that I don't listen to the music. I guess it's a nostalgia thing; when I was young I'd keep all my t-shirts, flyers, posters, pins and ticket stubs — it's just something I've always done. I think it was a trait of my generation to collect things — we'd collect Star Wars merch, comic books and baseball cards too. It was something we could bond over. There's a compulsiveness to it. That said, it became so much easier when the internet and eBay came along.
The artwork of The Smiths and Morrissey was always so interesting, thought provoking and kind of sadly beautiful. It often featured Morrissey's heroes. Was Morrissey very involved in this side of it?
Yes, he was very involved, that's why I love it so much. Over the years I've collected not only the shirts but the information about where they've come from. The art on these t-shirts is just so amazing. No one does this stuff any more.
Were there regular photographers, artists or graphic designers they worked with?
There were. Morrissey was close to and worked with the incredible British artist Linder Sterling. Over the years he also worked with Juergen Teller, Kevin Cummings and Stephen Wright, who shot the famous shot of the band on the inside sleeve of The Queen is Dead. Morrissey was very particular and tended to take a couple of people on tour with him. I think he was as into this side of it as writing the lyrics at the time.
And where have you sourced your t-shirts from mainly?
I've always kept my eye out for them but I worked as the Director of Trim Sourcing at Ralph Lauren for a number of years, which meant I was looking around and researching garments all the time. During this period, the graphic teams would ask me about my shirts and I got back into buying more and more. I'd have to travel from Hong Kong to Japan for work a lot and I have a theory that when we all donated our clothes in the 80s and 90s, they all made their way to Asian countries — to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Japan — because there are a lot of vintage collectors there. A lot of my great pieces have come from my travels there. I've also found collectors, a few years older than myself, on eBay with wardrobes full of t-shirts. Interestingly, I believe that for something to be declared 'vintage' it needs to be at least 20 years old. So that means anything made in 1997 or earlier is vintage.
I imagine collecting is an expensive pass time.
It is. I mean I'm happy to pay a fair price for my t-shirts but there are things that can affect the market. For instance if someone like Justin Bieber wears a t-shirt it will suddenly increase in price. It's a strange world. I mean if Justin Bieber legitimately listens to Nirvana, then by all means wear the t-shirt, but be aware that the minute you do, those $40-50 t-shirts that people may well be counterfeiting are suddenly upwards of $500.
Can you easily tell an original or authentic t-shirt from a reproduction?
It's actually very difficult. It depends on the popularity of the particular t-shirt. There are some beautiful, hand screen printed t-shirts made that you can tell are original and the Mosquitohead shirts can't be reproduced. You can usually tell by the t-shirt quality, the stitching and the print quality. That said, because he toured all over the place, often the same graphics were legitimately printed on different blank t-shirts. They might also have used different colours and also obviously have different tour dates or flags, so that's the other cool thing with collecting, they're all different.
What's one of your favourites?
I've only come across one or two of the daffodil t-shirt's I found in Tokyo recently. They were made for a concert in 1983. It's really special.
In terms of your webshop Strangeways, you make and sell your own t-shirts?
Yes, it all began when I decided to make a shirt for my wife and myself to wear to a show because I didn't love what they were selling. I took inspiration from my collection and my memorabilia and posters and graphics and put together my own. A few friends then expressed interest so I made them some and then their friends and other fans began contacting me and that was how Strangeways began. It was really organic but there's such great demand. I do it with the utmost respect.
What's the legality of what you do?
It's a grey area I guess. I've discovered that there are copyright infringement issues in terms of the lyrics especially. I've written to the record company just explaining my case because I really want to be able to release my book about the collection.
A book will be so great. What do you think the likelihood of getting a quote or forward from Morrissey is?
Slim to none. There's always hope though. I think it's mainly due to the bitterness between him and his band mates. My nostalgic memories are his bitter memories potentially. Morrissey's a very particular guy. For example, Tom Hanks and Sylvester Stallone are fans but he won't speak to them for various reasons. That said, there was a guy in L.A. who did a book about people who have Morrissey and The Smiths tattoos and Morrissey wrote the forward. I'm just finalising the layout of my book and will take it to some publishers and hope to get his blessing.
In your ideal world, where would you like to take this?
I'd love to help Morrissey make some t-shirts for his tours. That would be a dream.
Text Briony Wright