The 27s was created by Josh Hunter and Eric Segalstad; two artists, music fans, and friends who spent more than three years researching, writing, and creating illustrations that make up the fantastic universe of The 27s. Fun fact: the first conversation we had was about The 27s, but the idea for the book didn’t come up until two years later.
Walking around an artists’ market in Missoula, Montana, Eric saw Josh’s hand-drawn concert posters and artwork and knew he had to meet him. “I listen to all sorts of music, but I’ve been into classic rock the longest,” Eric says. “And along with that comes an appreciation for that poster style pioneered at the Fillmore in San Francisco in the late 1960s. Josh’s style at the time reminded me of that. Trippy, pencil drawings”
“I waited around for a few minutes,” Eric continues, “waiting for Josh to finish a conversation with another customer. When he was free, I introduced myself and told him how much I dug his artwork. I pointed at a few of his illustrations of Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison and observed how they all belonged to the 27 Club along with Kurt Cobain and a few others.”
“We actually talked about how much of coincidence it is that all these great musicians died at age 27,” Josh says, “and that it would be cool to explore and honor that somehow in a creative project.”
We formed a friendship in Missoula, going to concerts, talking art and music and kept up the friendship after Josh moved away to the Art Institute of Chicago in 2005. Eric boarded a train from Montana and arrived downtown Chicago for a visit. That same evening we were sitting at a bar down the street from the fabled Chess recording studios. “The idea came to us to write a book about The 27s,” Eric says. “We started scribbling down ideas on cocktail napkins and kept ordering drinks to keep going as they filled.” In the first incarnation, The 27s was supposed to be a short and simple book. A couple of pages for each bio and a full-page portrait.
Eric left Chicago and we dove head first into the research phase. The work carried on, the stories expanded, ran parallel across time and space, and weaved together. We felt like we were touching up against a greater story and it took us the better part of a year to see it: collectively, The 27s make up the history of modern music.
Delta blues forms the backbone of rock & roll and 27 Robert Johnson’s influence on Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and the rest the British Invasion bands is monumental. Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones—another 27—played Robert Johnson’s music for Keith Richards who swore he heard not one, but two guitar players.
The 27s pushed on classic rock, psychedelic rock, doo-wop, power pop, proto-punk, new wave, progressive rock, grunge, pop, and more—sometimes famous, always influential. From Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain, to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Pete Ham, Chris Bell, and Mia Zapata, nearly three dozen in all. Re-telling the history of rock & roll seen through the lives and legacies of all the musicians who died at age 27 was the story that needed to be told.
Over the course of three years, we read biographies and back issues of New Musical Express, Creem, and Rolling Stone magazines; we interviewed people who knew and played with the artists; we dove into astrology and numerology. Our draft took shape—three hundred pages, each spread illustrated, sometime backing up the storyline and at other times expanding and diverting from it.
The work took place in Chicago, Montana, Norway, Colorado, Washington D.C. and Atlanta, Georgia, where we spent three weeks finishing up the layout and getting it ready for the printer. We hired a photographer to shoot our bio photo at this old lakehouse that Josh was renting at the time. It was September 18, 2008 and one of the last things we had to do before sending it off to be printed. The photographer called back later that evening with a question about the check we’d cut him. It was properly signed, but dated September 18, 1970 — the date of Jimi Hendrix death. We had a pretty good laugh about that. We were full-on living and breathing the project and ready to send it out into and world.
To avoid creative constraints we were self-publishing the book, which meant that we had to not only front the printing costs for thousands of perfect bound books, each with 312 full color pages and a cover, but also promote and sell it.
We had built an audience on MySpace (yes, that was the way to go in 2007), built a mailing list of people who signed up to stay in the know, and shared the definite list of the 27s on Wikipedia. The original list of musicians that died at age 27 had less than ten people on it and included two who didn’t belong—we dug up death certificates to prove it.
As the date of our independent publication neared, we released one of the early book trailers on YouTube (and quite possibly the first animated trailer) complete with an original soundtrack that Eric scored. The trailer featured Josh’s portraits and illustrations from the book and helped stoke a little buzz.
A while after our launch we were able to secure a distribution deal with Random House and worked towards a mainstream publication date that would help us get the book in traditional bookstores. The new date was set for the 15th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death in April 2009. We hustled hard and it paid off with an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, that turned into the station’s Story of the Day and a media blitz that crossed channels and borders across the world. Later that year we gave away signed copies at the largest book expo in the U.S. and won an Independent Publishers Award. It felt like such an honor to apply that silver sticker to the book covers.
Amy Winehouse was very much alive when we mentioned her in The 27s and drew subtle comparisons to Janis Joplin’s talent, persona, and path of self-destruction. The day after she died, our world turned upside down with renewed interest in our book. TV stations such as CNN, Al Jazeera, and Vice picked us up for on-camera interviews. Radio stations called at all hours from across the world. The 27s was mentioned in hundreds of news articles. We were heartbroken that Amy died and joined The 27s. She was such a raw and incredible talent. A real and vulnerable human being who dealt with fame and fortune with dangerous excess that eventually killed her.
The 27s is now out of print and interested readers occasionally find used copies on Amazon and eBay. We’ve updated the manuscript and made it almost ready for a digital release although we have yet to set the publishing date. The story of The 27s continues!