Mon, Feb 02, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Muddy Basin Ramblers Grammy bound

The jug band, nominated for Best Recording Package for ‘Formosa Medicine Show,’ will compete against albums designed for Pearl Jam, the Pixies and FKA Twigs

By David Frazier  /  Contributing reporter

Illustrations that accompany one of the CD’s inserts.

Photo courtesy of the band

When the Grammy Awards ceremony takes place on Sunday in Los Angeles, Taiwan will have two hopefuls in the audience. Along with Taylor Swift, Pharrell Williams and Iggy Azalea, Ohio-born blues guitarist and former Taipei Times features writer David Chen and Hong Kongese graphic designer Andrew Wong (黃家賢) — both longtime Taiwan residents — will sit in the Los Angeles Convention Center and wait anxiously for the opening of the envelopes. Chen and Wong are nominated for Best Recording Package Design for the album design of The Formosa Medicine Show, a 2014 recording by the swing blues band the Muddy Basin Ramblers.

This is Taiwan’s sixth Grammy nomination, and all have been for music packaging. Designer Xiao Qing-yang (蕭青陽) was Taiwan’s first Grammy nominee in 2005, and has been nominated a total of four times. Then Cheng Szu-wei (鄭司維), another graphic designer, was nominated in 2009. But no Taiwanese nominee has ever taken home the trophy.

“It seems almost impossible. The other nominees are all really famous, and it’s hard to compete with that,” says Wang.

This year’s other nominees for packaging include designers of albums for the Pixies, Pearl Jam, FKA Twigs and a British singer-songwriter who goes by the name of Passenger.

Recent packaging awards have mostly gone to albums by big name artists, including Metallica, Bjork, Arcade Fire and The Black Keys. Last year’s award, however, went to a dark horse, an indie alt-country band called Reckless Kelly.

The Formosa Medicine Show is a 23-song CD that is packaged to look like a vintage medicine container from the 1920s. The fold-open cardstock package is the size of an old 45 rpm record sleeve, and includes fold-out liner notes modeled on early 20th century medicine boxes. Most remarkably, the design elements manage to fuse styles from the US, Taiwan and Taiwan’s colonial master of the early 20th century, Japan.

The album is a visual distillation of the Muddy Basin Ramblers trans-cultural project. Formed in 2002, the six-piece band is composed of expats who’ve made Taiwan their home, and have devoted themselves to recreating authentic American music of the 1920s, including blues minstrels, swing jazz and jug band folk.

Players include Chen on guitar and vocals, Sandy Murray on saxophone and ukelele, Tim Hogan on washboard and percussion, Will “Slim” Thelin on vocals, trombone and tap shoes, TC Lin on washtub bass and harmonica and Conor Prunty on harmonica.

The Muddy Basin Ramblers, named for the rainy Taipei basin, have also created swing arrangements for Taiwanese classics, including the song Wang Chun Feng (望春風), which in 1933 became one of the earliest albums pressed in Taiwan.


“The design concept simply came from the album,” says Chen. “The stories of the songs imagined early 20th century American medicine show performers on ‘Formosa,’ and so I wanted the album cover to reflect this.”

“We had already finished the recording, and gave Andrew and Yang Fong-ming (楊豐銘) — the other principal designer — the tracks from the album to listen to. In the meantime we had already spent a couple of months scouring the Web and advertising/design books covering the 18th century to the early 20th century to get inspiration for a visual look. We gorged ourselves on a lot of medicine ads from the US, old cigarette and tea posters from China and Japanese matchbox ads from the 20s and 30s, and then distilled that aesthetic into something that fit the album concept and the band. We spent a lot of time showing each other images we liked, and Andrew, amazingly, digested it all, and came up with the look of the CD.”

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