An island of blue in a swallowing sea of red, Monroe County is one of Indiana’s few liberal outposts, thanks particularly to the control of Bloomington, a laid-back college town of a little more than 80,000. There are essentially two brick-and-mortar record stores: one is a mainstay that caters to collectors and novices alike and has a good working relationship with Secretly Canadian, Bloomington’s indie-music administrator. The other is a basement-dwelling offshoot with a curated inventory that leans toward avant-garde, metal, and hardcore punk. There’s an art-house movie theater on campus, and a repurposed silent-movie house augmented by an ancient marquee. And on the outer fringes of the cultural scene is Auris Apothecary, an obscure micro-label operated by one guy acting as three who has become more fascinated with the destruction of music than its production.
Dante Augustus Scarlatti would seem a pretty ostentatious moniker if it weren’t for the ornate and cryptic label to which it’s inextricably tied. (That Auris Apothecary’s owner/operator requested to only be identified by said alias helps add to the label’s mystique.) To date, Scarlatti has overseen the production of nearly 150 releases, many of them experimental and naturalistic in sound—and all of them painstakingly designed and packaged. However, it’s been the label’s “anti-releases,” the records that require actual physical toil to unearth the damaged music contained within, that have confused, confounded, and delighted listeners the most. Scarlatti has become so enamored with his “very real desire to destroy everything” that he’s gone as far as to regard 2017 as “the year of the anti-release.”
Auris Apothecary’s path to the anti-release began modestly enough. Along with his brother Ancient Pine and their longtime friend/artist Pendra Gon—also aliases—Scarlatti founded the label in 2008 as a kind of esoteric spoof. “The dadaist, absurdist notion was to publicize and release albums you couldn’t hear,” he says. “The copies were sold out before you could buy them.” Not too surprisingly, that bizarro idea morphed into an outlet for the threesome’s own projects, which comprised much of the label’s early chapter and was found spread out over Bloomington.
The first Auris Apothecary release, The Ghost House EP, arrived on March 3, 2009 via the founding trio’s Unholy Triforce, which doubles as the “in-house band to manifest fucked-up ideas,” according to Scarlatti. Out on quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape, one of many tedious formats the label employs, the EP was followed by a pair of Scarlatti solo records. The latter, Nature in a Jar #1, presents gusts of white noise recorded on quarter-inch tape and placed in a recycled spice jar alongside “specimens” from the recording location. The label’s 12th release, Preservation: Consistent Melodic Passages Enhanced With Clouds of Aural Opiates by the Gentleman’s Butcher, is a “black opium-scented cassette.” Each record is assigned an “accessibility level”—zero being the least accessible, 10 being the most (of which there are none)—and defined in language as florid as the handcrafted layout itself.
“We wanted to make everything a limited edition—and the only edition,” Scarlatti asserts. “There is no special, because they’re all special.”
Working out the ambition of those early records was crucial in order for the label to arrive at its first anti-cassette, Unholy Triforce’s Sandin’ Yr Vagina, which feels practically primitive in its mode of destruction. Released in an edition of 99, the cassettes were each filled with a different shade of sand. That’s it—music subsumed in sand. Scarlatti contends that the simple external humor is scorched by both the outfit’s abrasive power electronics and the probability that the cassette will bust whichever device you use to play it. As the stereo gets closer and closer to ruin, you’re immersed in the harsh sound of its demise.
“Even if you clean the cassette out, there will always be these minute grains scratching across the tape head,” he explains. “The anti-releases are generative in a Frippertronics sort of way. Everybody’s experience is different, everybody’s machine is affected differently.”
In between those early ‘anti’s, Auris Apothecary kept innovating. It released an aromatic wax candle with a microcassette baked inside (Deep Magic’s Illuminated Offerings) and a cassette housed in a clear-topped tin box containing soil and animal-bone fragments (Pusdrainer’s Worms Beneath Thy Cold Flesh). In 2010 Black Goat of the Woods—a doleful, ambient record by Belfast’s Black Mountain Transmitter—became the 21st release and the one Scarlatti says made the label feel fully realized. “I reached out about [physically] reissuing the album [from Lysergic Earwax] because his music resonated with me personally. We sold it out in like two days. I remember going to the post office and getting a receipt that was ten-feet long.”
Another early boon for Auris Apothecary came just after the Unholy Triforce Crucifiction anti-cassette, which (surprise!) features a clear case pierced by four nails and branded with an upside-down cross. (If you haven’t caught on, Unholy Triforce acts more as the host of the abomination rather than anything substantive musically, though Scarlatti does defend the project as “abrasive musique concrete” and the “weirdest shit on the label.”) That cassette’s release prompted Mike IX Williams, front man for New Orleans filthy sludge-metal trailblazers Eyehategod, to reach out to the label via MySpace. “He saw the nail cassette and wanted to do ‘something dangerous.’ That’s how he worded it. Immediately I was like, ‘Fuck yeah.’ We’d been sitting on the idea for the broken-glass cassette for a little bit—and right away he loved it.”
Inserting a clear cassette coated in broken glass into a tape player is kind of like loading a battleaxe into a washing machine. No bones about it, the idea is for the listener to initiate the kill. At its most basic, Glass Torn and War Shortage: The Purposeful Poisoning of a Shardless Society is a solo record of blown-out harsh noise undergirded by Mike IX’s tortured, writhing vocals. But Scarlatti believes that actively engaging in the fucking-up of your stereo should be embraced because it’s part of the process. To ignore that aspect is to not fully immerse yourself in the capabilities of the release.
“I’m sure half the people think the ‘anti’s are pure masturbation—gimmicks. Those same people might look at an art installation and say, ‘That’s just a square on a wall,’” Scarlatti contends. “But it’s not purposeless destruction—painting a record and saying ‘Well, now you can’t hear it.’ We try to imbue a deeper meaning.”
“The Mike IX release will literally make you bleed to be able to hear it. To resign yourself to the fact an anti-release is just art means you’re stopping halfway. It is conscious music.”
Though grand in conception, Auris Apothecary is today a tiny, one-man operation stationed at the edge of, but not far from, Bloomington’s downtown hub. In 2012 Scarlatti became its sole proprietor, as the other two founders faded into the background and out of music (he still honors them as “spiritual advisors” and uses the royal “we” when talking the day-to-day). Like any good, highly-curated micro label peddling ambient doom and drone—and grindcore and spoken word and any number of marginalized sub-subgenres—Auris Apothecary is run mostly out of one room of a house. And depending on the release schedule, production is likely to spill out into the living room, the kitchen, et cetera.
A meticulous caretaker of his catalog, Scarlatti archives releases in Ikea Kallax shelving units (you know the ones) that line the walls of his office, while also maintaining an expansive idea board of Post-its with sketches of future and potential anti-releases. His computer workstation lords over the room. An unassuming bespectacled guy dressed in black—no doubt his preferred color of clothing—he talks fast and enthusiastically, and seems hyperfocused on the minutiae of the label, the eccentricities that are available to the public but only he knows how to locate. An example: the website HTML for the freaky Unholy Triforce site is on line 666 of its source code.
“We’re deadly serious about this shit, but I’m not at a loss for the way people view us,” Scarlatti says with a smirk of self-awareness. “‘Are they pretentious fine-art students? Are they a bunch of grungy black-metal kids?’ What can we do to still be considered ‘musicians’ and a ‘label,’ while simultaneously pushing the definitions of those words into total absurdity?”
Auris Apothecary maintains two additional arms, each less than a ten-minute walk from Scarlatti’s home. The Artifex Guild is a multi-purpose DIY space that acts as a kind of musicians’ compound where bands and artists practice and host shows. Drab and unadorned by decoration both inside and out, the cavernous house is a mess of instruments and noise-artist workstations—no doubt a place to lose time when stacking out-there universes of sound. Next door sits In Case of Emergency Press, the screen-print shop where Scarlatti works and is afforded both the time and equipment to experiment with and execute the releases’ outlandish packaging designs. Just down the way are the headquarters for Magnetic South, a buddy imprint that specializes in cassettes and has released records by Apache Dropout, Tyler Damon, Circuit Des Yeux, and Blank Realm. There’s a paradoxical beauty in how difficult and inaccessible the catalog of Auris Apothecary can be and how Scarlatti has whittled down the label’s map of operations to a convenient sliver of Bloomington.
At 18, Scarlatti moved from the tiny northeastern Indiana town of Warsaw. Growing up in a staunch Christian household, he was never allowed to listen to secular music. Even the radio was forbidden. So, naturally—because parents will just never get a clue—he gravitated towards the up-yours mentality of punk, which blossomed into a love for hardcore, metal, and grindcore.
“I discovered harsh noise and power electronics and was like, ‘This is it.’ Seeing the Haters or Eugenics Council, people who were literally creating dangerous environments at shows. I fed off that feeling of controversy.”
His adoration for extreme music combined with a readiness to push the boundaries of design and packaging that best represents it has Scarlatti fixating on anti-releases now more than ever. He believes that Auris Apothecary has almost had too much good music in its bank over the years—records that didn’t deserve to be destroyed. He often worked to manifest the aesthetic of a project, rather than debase it. For instance, last year’s Evergreen Refuge album Anima was packaged in a handmade green-stained wooden box to correlate with the artist’s folk-driven black metal and his commitment to the ambience of the forest.
“I’m not OK with just saying, ‘Give me this folk music and I’m going to light it on fire.’ Those two things don’t make sense together. That’s my struggle.”
Still, anyone patient enough to hand clean hundreds of Capri Sun pouches for four whimsical minutes of beach pop and shred bits of the label’s 99 previous releases to create its 100th deserves the liberty to cathartically smash some music too. Now eight years into what has mutated into an art project, Scarlatti is no longer turning the screws and worrying about the label’s success, or its greater place in the pantheon of revered, design-focused underground noise labels like RRRecords. Thanks to the free resources at the label’s disposal and the fact that Bloomington is relatively cheap to operate out of, Auris Apothecary reached a level of self-sustainability years ago.
“The question of success has caused many existential crises for me lying in bed at night. The discouraging side is that no matter how much success there is for the label, I’m adding shit to a landfill—and it makes me want to stop everyday. I acknowledge that none of this needs to exist.”
But Scarlatti’s continued challenge of the status quo is his success—and the extreme elements of the anti-releases best embody that challenge. In 2015, the label dropped perhaps its most inventive one yet: Unholy Triforce’s screen-printed lathe-cut anti-record, The Library of Babel. With each revolution of the album your turntable’s needle chips away a fleck of its print, revealing a new piece of sound underneath while damaging the stylus in the process. Scarlatti lights up when discussing the creative genesis of such degeneration, which means the current dumpster fire of 2017 has him especially stoked.
On deck is an album by Bloomington artist Lather called Shredding the Cone that’s loaded with the grating sounds of overloading speakers on a cassette with the teeth removed from its hubs. (The previous anti-cassette Some Assembly Required provides a diagram of how to disassemble and assemble seemingly unplayable releases so that you can access the music.) Then there’s Unholy Triforce’s imminent Hallelujah, an anti-cassette encased in a solid block of wax. While neither release meets the same level of functional destruction as The Library of Babel, they’re nonetheless inspired by Scarlatti’s twisted hope that having to really work to hear the music in the end makes it more satisfying to consume. But he’s not holding his breath that others will catch on.
“I don’t expect people to find an anti-cassette playful or care that it’s released in cool packaging,” Scarlatti clarifies. “Most people on earth listen to Spotify.”