Author Archives: Philip Sherburne

Audio Diary of a Mad Scientist

Jefre Cantu Ledesma by Shawn Brakebill

“I didn’t even know what the fuck I was doing until maybe two weeks before the record was ready. I was like, OK, I’m done, that’s it, no more recording; I just gotta throw it together now. It’s in there somewhere.”

When it comes time to recap the year in breakup albums, Björk’s Vulnicura will almost certainly top the list. But save some room for Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s A Year With 13 Moons. While entirely instrumental, the New York musician’s album is also about picking through the rubble of a failed relationship—albeit in a more abstract way. Described by the artist as an attempt to engage with memory in an “unsentimental” way, 13 Moons is a kind of audio diary that is almost sculptural in its proportions.

A longtime resident of San Francisco, Cantu-Ledesma moved to Germany in 2011 with his wife, a German citizen who was having visa problems in the United States. By early 2013, he was back in the Bay Area, alone. “It was a really difficult time in my life,” he says. “When I moved to Germany I was married—I was ready to live there, you know, and stay there, and I definitely didn’t suspect that things would go the way they did.” As luck would have it, however, his return to the Bay Area coincided with the acceptance of his application, alongside the filmmaker Paul Clipson, for an artistic residency at Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County.

Jefre Cantu Ledesma by Shawn Brakebill

Tucked into the hills between Bonita Cove and Sausalito’s Rodeo Lagoon, Headlands is a former military base that was taken over by the National Park Service in 1972. Today, its bone-colored wooden structures house a rotating crew of artists of all stripes—writers, painters, filmmakers, musicians, architects—who live and work on the premises. Among the thousands of musicians that have held residencies at Headlands over the years are Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Marina Rosenfeld, Will Oldham, and Kaffe Matthews—a list as diverse as it is esteemed. “People come from all over the world,” explains Cantu-Ledesma. “You have a studio space and you live there, you eat there, you sleep there. Paul was making films and I was making music, so we had this big studio and that was about it. It’s right on the water, so I’d walk by the ocean all the time. The room we were in was surrounded by eucalyptus trees. There were wild turkeys and at night, you’d walk outside and hear owls hooting. It’s really pretty idyllic, really quiet—you just sit outside and watch birds and shit. ”

The resources, meanwhile, were minimal, but Cantu-Ledesma made the most of them. The most important feature of the studio was its size: some 2000 square feet, he estimates. “It was a barn,” he says, laughing. And, crucially, it was a space where he could be as loud as he wanted. “So I borrowed a PA from a friend and set those speakers 20 feet away from me on either end of my table, and I just fucking cranked it every day. I just wanted to be bathed in sound, you know?”

The process of recording was naturally colored by the emotional circumstances. “It felt wild and a lot more fucked up—just, like, cathartic—than ‘I’m sad and I want to play acoustic guitar and get a woman with a French accent to sing,’” he explains. “But I was definitely in a bad place emotionally at that time. There were days when I just wanted to play guitar and kind of be in another world, and I didn’t really care what things sounded like too much. Going into the studio became more of an escape, in a way.”

Jefre Cantu Ledesma by Shawn Brakebill

At the same time, that escape was a kind of research-and-development process—the opportunity for Cantu-Ledesma to completely reinvent his approach to making music. “There’s definitely some mad-scientist element to it,” he says. In Tarentel, his long-running post-rock band, “I was always the guy that had a reel-to-reel tape machine, and I was bringing in record players, just trying to create a new palette I could work with.” At Headlands, the intense focus of his three-month stay allowed him to delve deeply into a relatively stripped-down kit: laptop, modular synthesizer, guitar and an array of pedals, and three different tape machines. The work that resulted was less like songwriting than sculpture or painting.

“My process is unclear even to me a lot of the time, and it would change from day to day,” says Cantu-Ledesma. “Some days I would just record a bunch of stuff to tape and I would play it back at a different speed and record over that digitally—like I’d have the tape going through my modular and play guitar over that, and then record that onto an Edirol [portable digital recorder].” When the tape was full, he’d transfer it digitally to his laptop, and at night, he would listen back to the day’s work, deciding what to keep and what to scrap. Like an ambient rendition of Jamaican dub, the music bounced through a maze-like signal chain until its ideal form finally revealed itself. Cantu-Ledesma’s raw sketches from the period—his diaries, essentially—are anthologized in the seven-part Music from the Headlands Center for the Arts series of CDRs, totaling nearly five hours of experiments in drones and rumbling abstractions.

“When we listen to a record, there’s a presumption that someone must have created something as a body of work from beginning to end, and that was so not my process,” he says of the shape that 13 Moons ultimately took. “I was creating tons and tons of music. I was at the Headlands for three months, so every day I was going to the studio for hours on end, which I had never really done before, in that amount of time. So when it got to the point to make the record, it was all just edited together, and then all of a sudden there was this record, rather than, like, ‘Oh, I need to make a record that has this kind of structure’—I didn’t even know what the fuck I was doing until maybe two weeks before the record was ready. I was like, OK, I’m done, that’s it, no more recording; I just gotta throw it together now. It’s in there somewhere.”

Perhaps ironically, given the creative maelstrom that characterized its creation, 13 Moons contains some of Cantu-Ledesma’s most song-oriented work. It’s instrumental and his melodies are corroded with distortion, but they’re still recognizable as melodies; there’s a clear kinship with the clean lines of Vini Reilly and Durutti Column. “When I was at Headlands, I was having a really hard time figuring out what I was doing,” Cantu-Ledesma admits. “I was talking to Pete Swanson one day and he said, ‘Dude, you’re just being a fucking idiot, you should just be writing pop songs!’ And I was like, maybe you’re right, I’ll try it. And then all this stuff, like most of what came out on the record, happened my last month at the Headlands. The first two months was just me getting stuff out, not even thinking about wanting to make something. And then towards the end, I was like, ‘Oh, I guess this pop thing, it feels good, you know?’ So I went with that and wrote a bunch of those songs.”

Jefre Cantu Ledesma by Shawn Brakebill

Perhaps the song most indicative of that approach is “At the End of Spring,” the album’s penultimate track—a gorgeous, ruminative song that could almost be an instrumental outtake from Cocteau Twins’ catalog. It’s immediately followed by “Remains,” a minute-long sketch for feedback, spring reverb, and the ache of electricity running to ground. Stylistically, the two songs are miles apart; the fact that they work together so effortlessly underscores what a remarkable album this turns out to be. Whatever he does next—among other things, he says, a new collaboration with Alexis Georgopoulos, his bandmate in the Alps, is on the horizon—13 Moons feels like a milestone in Cantu-Ledesma’s career.

Editors note: Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s 13 Moons is one of many albums now available via the awesome Mexican Summer label on their brand new Bandcamp site, featuring music from artists such as Connan Mockasin, Best Coast, and Kurt Vile.

Below, Cantu-Ledesma discusses several more recent recordings from his burgeoning archive, all of which can be found on his Shining Skull Bandcamp page.

“Faceless Kiss” / “Blut Mund”

“At the end of Tarentel, we got a different drummer. He was extremely dexterous and played really hard and was really into Faust, so it had that driving drum thing. I was making a lot of ambient music by myself, and at some point I was like, I gotta switch it up. I’m not a drummer, so a drum machine appealed to me because it has this straightforward quality. You just turn it on, make a pattern, and you’re ready to go. I’ve always been drawn toward repetition and things that are loopy, so a drum machine is just perfect for that. I love how dry and flat the LinnDrum sounds. The 808 has too much reference to it, in a way. Not that the LinnDrum doesn’t, but I guess I don’t mind what the LinnDrum brings out for me. It has this dryness that can really cut through everything.”

Songs of Remembrance

Songs of Forgiveness

“These are two tapes that came out last year. Remembrance came first and was compiled from recordings as far back as 2012 that I made in Germany, up to the making of the tape. It’s a lot of stuff that I liked but didn’t have a home for. I approached it a bit like a sketchbook or journal; it includes recordings that I made during my residency at the Headlands, as well. Songs of Forgiveness I made all at once last winter. I wanted to get deeper into pop-like sounds but throw out structure altogether. Each song is made of loops (guitar, drums, synth, etc.) that are not synced.”

Devotion

“This was completely recorded in Germany. I had planned for these songs to be my next record, but then felt like I was just sort of repeating myself and making Love is a Stream part II. I like this stuff and have gotten a lot of nice feedback, but I wanted to push somewhere else—I knew this wasn’t quite it yet. Released only on Bandcamp.”

Conversations with Myself

“This was the last recording I made in San Francisco before I moved. It was commissioned by SFMOMA for a one-day lecture/dialogue; they wanted music that could be in the background on loop for the whole day. So, again, it’s loops out of sync, but just guitars. Liz (Grouper) is releasing this as a double LP later this year or early next on her label.”

Music from the Headlands Center for the Arts

“I started recording so much music while at the Headlands that I thought I should do a series of tapes to help document it and to help me get my head back into editing and creating. I wanted to make choices very quickly—not stress over small details, but let the music make itself, in a way. I made all of these at night after spending the day in the studio. I would just go over the day’s recordings and start to put together things that made sense. This would take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of evenings. I didn’t do any overdubs or additions to the music, just edited. This is the approach I used on 13 Moons—culling from three months of recordings to find what made sense together—and it was so helpful to get out of a really big artistic funk I was in. It was really hard at the time, though! These recordings are all over the place—from deep drones to drum-machine pop.”

Photos by Shawn Brackbill

25 years of Atom™

Atom™

As we move into 2015, Uwe Schmidt celebrates his 25th anniversary of putting out records. In that time, the German electronic musician has released music under a staggering number of aliases and in a jaw-dropping array of styles. He’s best known for the arch electronica of his Atom™ and Atom Heart projects, and even non-electronic listeners may well be acquainted with his Señor Coconut project, which reimagined Kraftwerk’s catalog as electrified salsa and cha-cha standards. (Schmidt, 46, was born in Frankfurt, but has lived in Santiago, Chile since 1997.) Those names barely scratch the surface; consider also Brown, Superficial Depth, 21 Brothers, i, Erik Satin, Replicant Rumba Rockers, and Weird Shit—in all, more than 60 aliases span everything from neck-snapping EBM (Lassigue Bendthaus’ Matter) to starry-eyed ambient and ambient trance (Atom Heart’s Orange [Monochrome Stills] and B2/Atom Heart Live) to bit-crushed Latin experiments (Los Sampler’s Descargas) to the mind-bending rhythmic and timbral fluctuations of Atom™’s 2009 album Muster.

Given that expanse, his Atom™ Audio Archive project might look like something of a fool’s errand. Without ceasing work on new recordings, Schmidt is methodically remastering and reissuing every recording in his catalog. That’s some 1600 tracks, or roughly 150 full-length albums’ worth of material. (Check out the growing collection on his Bandcamp page.)

Atom™

“Everything started as a process of organizing things,” says Schmidt, who conceived of the project eight or nine years ago. “As one thing led to another, I realized how little idea I actually had about the timeline of my releases.” In the effort to keep track of it all, he began logging his discography into an Excel spreadsheet and converting the master recordings to digital files. It was while converting DATs to AIFF that he realized, he says, “how different—and often ‘bad’—some of the masters sounded.” So he decided to remaster all of it to “homogenize” it—to correct for differentials in volume when playing tracks at random. In what he calls a “symbolic act,” he began the remastering process with his very first release, Lassigue Bendthaus’ Automotif EP and the subsequent LP Matter.

Early on, Schmidt had considered compiling the entire archive as a physical release—stored on a hard drive and, perhaps, encased in a brick-like object to give it extra heft—but he eventually settled on making the archive available digitally online. So far, he has remastered 16 albums, or roughly 10% of the catalog. “I’m very aware of the fact that this project may easily take me years,” says Schmidt, “simply because, in between all the remastering, new productions are coming along as well!”

Bandcamp editorial contributor, Philip Sherburne, spoke to Schmidt about his Herculean (or perhaps Sisyphean) task.

Bandcamp: The Atom™ Audio Archive sounds like a massive undertaking. What have been some of the biggest challenges?

Uwe Schmidt: I would say that the biggest challenge is time! I have always been pretty organized, technically and practically, so finding and organizing the master tapes was not such a big deal. Neither was the process of digitization a challenge in any way. The real “problem” is that remastering is a real-time process, which means that, working fast, it takes me a day or two per album. You can do the math.

Atom™

BC: What have you been working from mostly—DATs or computer files?

US: Both, actually. From 1990–1999, more or less, everything was recorded on DAT. After that, masters ended up as digital files. To my surprise, I had really little lost or damaged data and was able to find or restore almost anything. There were only two tracks (out of roughly 1600) that either I could not track down or had corrupted.

BC: Did you keep fairly neat archives of your work, or has this entailed a lot of digging through dusty cardboard boxes to find the originals?

US: Fortunately, making order is probably my second favorite way to spend my time. My entire archive, the DAT recordings as well as the digital files, has always been very, very organized, hence finding the originals was not difficult at all. I spend a lot of time archiving everything I do and over the years have developed quite a good system, which takes little time and effort. I can basically find any track I did in a couple of seconds, even without physically being in my studio.

BC: Why have you chosen the albums that you’ve done so far, and why have you chosen to skip the ones you’ve skipped?

US: My modus operandi is very much “lust” based. [Editor’s note: In German, to have lust for something means to feel like doing something.] Whenever I feel like remastering an album, I pick one that feels or sounds like it could be fun. I am not concerned with linearity or maintaining the original release sequence. Needless to say, almost every production bears a certain difficulty, and remastering can turn into quite a challenging task itself. Sometimes I leave the “difficult” tasks for another moment, when I feel like I can handle them, and instead opt for an “easier” production.

BC: I’m assuming that some of these recordings you probably don’t even remember making; perhaps some sound better than you remembered, and others worse. What has the emotional experience of doing this project been like? 

US: When going through the archive for the very first time, that is, when searching through DAT tapes and CD-Rs, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten about a really large portion of my work. In some cases I had totally forgotten that they existed—the titles/names themselves—while others I could remember, yet had no idea how the music itself sounded. Of course, there were plenty of moments when a very good memory of a production was shattered, but the opposite happened as well, when productions I remembered poorly suddenly managed to surprise me. I have to say that my feelings toward certain productions went through the entire array of possible reactions, positive and negative. To make it even worse, within the very same process of remastering a piece, my opinion would flip 180 degrees, which then led me to the conclusion that I simply could not have an objective point of view on my own work. Since that conclusion, I just try to look at it in the most detached manner, simply trying to remaster it, technically speaking, as well as possible and then just let it go.

Atom™

BC: Was there anything you decided not to re-release?

US: There are a couple of co-written tracks I hold copyright for, yet decided not to include in the archive simply because they felt more like my co-writer’s work. But that’s the only exception. All the other pros and cons in the end seem more mood-related than objective, so I decided not to take them into account.

BC: Has it been odd, revisiting particular moments in your life?

US: Oh, yes, certainly! Listening to some works felt like opening a diary and made me vividly remember certain moments, places or people. In general, going through an archive like that, which spans roughly 20 years of creating music, has been a strong emotional journey.

BC: Have you gained any insights into your own artistic process or the shape of your career?

US: Probably the most impressive insight I gained was that, as a whole, my catalog appears to be very homogenous. This was a surprise, since throughout all the years I had always been strongly convinced that I was constantly taking very extreme directions within my choices. Now, looking back at it, everything seems logical—that is, every step leads to the next, and I can see small and big arcs that connect certain portions of my work through time. This has been very eye-opening and, as a consequence, has enabled me to work with my archive in a more natural manner—for example, re-sampling/quoting myself to create even more reference points within the catalog. I now think that the archive itself is the composition, not the tracks that make it.

 

Going Underground

The Bunker New York

Most paeans to New York club culture focus on bygone nightspots like the Paradise Garage, David Mancuso’s Loft, and the Mudd Club. But would-be archaeologists hardly need to dig so deep into the city’s asphalt to be reminded of what the city has lost as it has gentrified. Manhattan has become a playground for the superrich, Williamsburg has become Condoburg, and in Brooklyn alone, hallowed venues like Glasslands, 285 Kent, and Death By Audio have all recently been ousted.

Just a decade ago, it was still possible to dance to experimental techno in a basement bar on the Lower East Side, where the invitingly seedy feel of the place was accentuated by booths tucked inside repurposed wine casks—an extra layer of privacy inviting patrons to get up to who knows what kind of mischief. The room in question was subTonic, the basement extension of Tonic, a storied venue for improv and experimental music. While Tonic was the stomping ground for musicians like John Zorn, Marc Ribot, and Christian McBride, subTonic was home to The Bunker, a weekly party that hosted a wide array of underground electronic music—from Akufen to DJ /rupture. (A full list of artists who have played the party can be found on The Bunker’s website, and it’s really kind of a sight to behold. Full disclosure: I even played records there on occasion.)

Bunker by Seze Devres
Photo by Seze Devres

Tonic and subTonic closed in 2007, but The Bunker is still going; the party moved first to Galapagos (renamed Public Assembly when the space was sold) and now at a variety of venues, depending upon the bill, from the comparatively large-scale Output to upstart spaces like Bossa Nova Civic Club and Todd P’s Trans Pecos. And despite the conventional wisdom that this is a terrible time to be getting into the record business, they’ve even extended their operations to include a record label, sensibly named The Bunker New York. “Launching a label is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” says Bryan Kasenic, head of the label and a co-founder of the parties, “but 2014 was the year I finally had enough time and extra cash to do it properly. After many years of being surrounded by incredibly talented artists whose music wasn’t being released, it was time to start putting it out there.”

When Kasenic talks about doing it “properly,” he’s not kidding: The Bunker New York has put out an impressive 10 records in its first year of operation, some of them from incredibly storied musicians, like Uwe Schmidt (aka Atom™), and Jonah Sharp (Spacetime Continuum) and David Moufang (Move D), reuniting as Reagenz, their long-running collaborative project. A goodly number of the label’s releases come from within The Bunker’s own New York community, as one might expect. “It was very important to me from the start to include a lot of New Yorkers in the label, focusing on unknown and somewhat forgotten artists,” says Kasenic. “There is so much great music coming out of New York right now, the techno scene specifically.” Although, he admits, “I wouldn’t say there is necessarily a specific sound that people are going for. I think, in general, people are more open now—it’s not as common as it used to be to find people who are super deeply into just one sound or genre. People want to push boundaries and do their own thing, which is fantastic!”

BK-001 Leisure Muffin

Leisure Muffin by Seze DevresPhoto by Seze Devres

The very first release on the label is a great example of that sense of openness. While the B-side cuts hew to techno conventions—“Heldscalla” is a dubby bubbler in the Basic Channel tradition, and “Alys” is a modular-assisted foray into machine minimalism—the A-side’s nine-minute-long “In Wearable Hertz” eschews four-to-the-floor beats in favor of broken electro rhythms, billowing synthesizer leads, and a deeply expressive violin melody that scans as the antithesis of formulaic dance music.

BK-002 Clay Wilson

Clay Wilson by Seze DevresPhoto by Seze Devres

BK-005 Ulysses

Ulysses by Seze DevresPhoto by Seze Devres

Clay Wilson and Ulysses, meanwhile, are both examples of the way The Bunker is shining the spotlight on underappreciated New York talent. Wilson, a relative newcomer, only has one previous release to his name, for Styles Upon Styles; his first EP for The Bunker New York features three tracks of shadowy, seemingly hardware-centric techno. Ulysses (Elliot Taub), on the other hand, has been a fixture on the New York scene for well over a decade, both for his Scatalogics label and his records for Guidance, Bear Funk, and Internasjonal, among others. After a few quiet years, he turned up on The Bunker with three tracks showcasing his considerable range, from gloomy, almost coldwave-oriented techno (“The Casual Mystic”) to peak-time boilers (“Throne of Bubbles”) to winsome forays into Balearic dub (“Nanook”).

BK-004 Løt.te

Lot.te by Seze DevresPhoto by Seze Devres

Another of the label’s discoveries is Løt.te, a Turkish-born Brooklynite named Mehmet Irdel. His Bunker EP—the label’s fourth—remains his only release to date. “Pressure Chant” is a stunning example of hard techno with soft edges, as bursts of white noise sandblast a curtain of bells.

The main thread that connects all the label’s releases is some kind of involvement in The Bunker’s events. “The Bunker has always been a pretty diverse party,” Kasenic says, “more diverse than people who don’t attend could ever really imagine. So it makes perfect sense to me that the music is so different from artist to artist. I think there is a psychedelic thread that goes through everything we do. I also think all of the records so far definitely fall within the parameters of techno, but all are pushing at the borders of what techno can really be.”

BK-006 Marco Shuttle

Marco Shuttle by Seze DevresPhoto by Seze Devres

For the Italian-born, London-based producer Marco Shuttle, that means throbbing, machine-driven rhythms and layer upon layer of grayscale pattern, like sand paintings composed of ash.

BK-007 Zemi17

Zemi by Seze DevresPhoto by Seze Devres

Like Løt.te, Zemi17 (Aaron Taylor Kuffner) puts bell tones at the center of his work. The New York-based musician and sculptor previously created the Gamelatron Project, a robotic gong ensemble modeled after Indonesian gamelan orchestras; the taut rhythms and microtonal clang of that project are direct antecedents of the rich, resonant techno of Zemi17’s “Impressions” and “Rangda.”

BK-008 Atom™

Atom™ by Seze DevresPhoto by Seze Devres

Not long after Uwe Schmidt performed a live set at The Bunker, he graced the label with the two, long, corkscrewing tracks that constitute his Ground Loops EP: hypnotic, druggy, unabashedly trance-oriented jams that imbue early-’90s forms with a tingling jolt of the new.

BK-009 Forma

Forma by Seze DevresPhoto by Seze Devres

Forma’s Cool Haptics EP shows The Bunker’s talent for finding a techno undercurrent where you might not expect it. The group had previously released two kosmische-oriented albums for John Elliott’s Spectrum Spools label, but on “Cool Haptics,” the trio—currently George H. Bennett, M. Dwinell, and John Also Bennett (replacing original member Sophie Lam)—reworked the elements of their music into a sound modeled after classic Detroit techno. The burbling “Cloud Pillar,” meanwhile, verges on space disco.

When it comes to A&R, The Bunker New York has one considerable advantage over other new imprints: its enormous network of musicians who have played the party. And in two notable cases so far, live sets from the parties have served as springboards for recordings on the label. That was the case with the label’s third release, a spellbinding live set from Voices from the Lake (aka Donato Dozzy and Neel).

BK-003 Voices from the Lake

Voices from the Lake by Seze DevresPhoto by Seze Devres

“It can be pretty difficult to get music out of those guys,” says Kasenic of the two Roman musicians who performed at The Bunker in July, 2012, playing two separate live sets and a back-to-back DJ set, totaling six hours of music. All of the material from their live sets was unreleased, so Kasenic approached them about reworking select passages in the studio. “When I focused on segments of the recording from their live set at The Bunker that I really loved, it was fairly easy for them to turn those segments into finished tracks to submit to the label,” he says. Those became “Velo di Maya”, “Sentiero,” and “Respiro Live Edit,” three mind-bending excursions into ambient, techno, and trance.

BK-010 Reagenz

Reagenz by Ron IsonPhoto by Ron Ison

“After Jonah Sharp and David Moufang’s Reagenz collaboration at The Bunker 10-Year Anniversary event,” recalls Kasenic, “they came back to my loft and wanted to listen to the recording immediately after the show. They explained to me that it was likely going to be the basis of a new album, so I asked them on the spot if we could release it. It just made sense to put it out on our label, since it was recorded at our party!” The result was The Periodic Table, a six-track, 76-minute extravaganza of live, improvisational house, bursting with color. “The first song gets dialed in at our extended soundcheck,” explains Sharp, “the rest is pure improvisation.” The Periodic Table is the third Reagenz album for the label. The first, a self-titled album, came out way back in 1994, and they followed that with 2009’s Playtime.

Brooklyn Electronic Foundation: Our Friends Electric

“What brings those three and my label—Styles Upon Styles—together, is our attention to people who may or may not be based in New York but are definitely inspired by New York, and the free-form nature of the music; tapping into any sort of style or genre in the city and building that into whatever’s honest to that producer or musician.”

Sculpture

An alliance is gathering strength in Brooklyn.

Don’t worry, we’re not talking about a secret consortium of realtors and restaurateurs and their trust-fund-rocker fifth columnists, all hell-bent on colonizing every last corner of the five boroughs to make way for new condos and $6 cups of coffee.

We’re talking about a new force within the city’s underground and experimental electronic music scenes, one determined to carve out new possibilities in club music, DIY party-making, and home listening that’s informed by both.

In some ways, it’s an accidental alliance, given that the diverse set of labels we’re talking about are linked by a couple of key players, namely Matt Werth, who runs RVNG Intl. and distributes Tim Sweeney’s Beats in Space, and Phil Tortoroli, a label manager, publicist, A&R, and jack-of-all-trades who has a hand in the day-to-day operations of RVNG, Beats in Space, Ron Morelli’s L.I.E.S., and Daniel Lopatin’s Software. With his friend Cam Curran, Tortoroli also helms Styles Upon Styles and its Bangers and Ash sub-label.

All of these outfits have their own vibes and aesthetics. Beyond geography and personnel, though, they’re linked in their shared aversion to being tied down to any one thing. L.I.E.S. is best known as a purveyor of crusty, rubbed-raw techno and house, but it extends into noise and ambient. RVNG runs the gamut from JD Twitch’s punked-up disco mixing to Julia Holter’s ecstatic choral music. Software takes Oneohtrix Point Never’s spectral drones as the starting point to imagine the kind of pop music we might have in a world where there’s a Fairlight in every home. Beats in Space approaches disco as a living tradition rather than a genre set in stone. And Styles Upon Styles, which shares a portion of its roster with Bryan Kasenic’s The Bunker, is as inspired by knocking down club-music shibboleths as it is picking up pieces of the rubble.

Holly Herndon

“These labels are all exploring different fringes of electronic music and experimental music in various shades and tones,” says Tortoroli. “L.I.E.S., ostensibly, is a dance label, but we put out an album by Lowjack, which is far more like a home-listening, headphone-type vibe. RVNG started out just being an experimental label, but has touched on as many different interpretations of experimental music as you can get, from The Body/Haxan Cloak collaboration, which is like super-dark heavy metal, to Holly Herndon’s vocal processing and academic work in the techno realm. And with Software, I mean, Dan [Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never] is a great purveyor of electronic music that’s pushed to the fringes and may recall some of the nostalgia of ’80s gloss and ’90s IDM, but it’s very much of the now. He works with producers, at least the current artist roster, who are all young and modern, inspired by past electronics and how to imbue that appreciation for the past into current reworking of the sounds. What brings those three and my label—Styles Upon Styles—together, is our attention to people who may or may not be based in New York but are definitely inspired by New York, and the free-form nature of the music; tapping into any sort of style or genre in the city and building that into whatever’s honest to that producer or musician.”

L.I.E.S.

As Tortoroli sees it, Ron Morelli’s L.I.E.S. label—crusty, barnacled, more than a little cantankerous—is a direct response to the way that gentrification has reshaped New York over the past decade.

“As Williamsburg got bigger and more crowded, and high-rises started going up, it was inevitable that the good clubs couldn’t afford rent any more, that drink prices were going to go up, that artists that were part of the underground couldn’t afford to live there, and playing shows there was going to be harder,” says Tortoroli. “I can’t speak for Ron and why he started the label, but the way I perceived it as a New Yorker just getting into local dance music, it seemed like L.I.E.S. was a total reaction to the high-gloss environment that Williamsburg was starting to become. The shit was lo-fi, it was underground, it was hard, and it was honest. It was hard to come by honest music in Brooklyn at the time.”

L.I.E.S. began as a vinyl-only proposition, but as the label’s reputation has rapidly spread far beyond its New York stomping grounds, it has altered its strategy, offering digital of select releases, but generally three months or more after the vinyl has come out. (For now, Bandcamp will be the exclusive digital outlet for the label’s limited, white-label series—the catalog numbers ending in “.5.”)

“Ron started out without doing any digital because he wanted to be a DJ label, he wanted the vinyl to sell, he wanted to maintain that ’90s aesthetic of what a dance label was,” says Tortoroli. “But you eventually come around. You’re like, shit, I can make money off digital, I can get more fans, and I can help put out more records in larger quantities by doing digital. So really I’m just hurting myself, limiting my label’s scope, by not embracing the digital world. Now with us joining Bandcamp, that’s purely just for the fans. You see Discogs sellers selling a record for 50 bucks and it’s like, dude, that sucks. It’s shitty for bands, it’s shitty for the label. So offering digital is a way to curb those kinds of sharks.”

RVNG

The Body

If any single label sums up the spirit of New York electronic music at its most open-minded right now, it’s Matt Werth’s RVNG. The label has gone through various phases over the past decade. Launched way back in 2003 as a CDR mixtape series featuring DJs like Tim Sweeney and Justine D, the label branched into disco edits with the RVNG of the Nerds 12-inch series (Jacques Renault, Greg Wilson, Betty Botox) and then in 2009, it started building a catalog of original music from a wide range of artists working in the margins between genres—Pink Skull, Allez-Allez, CFCF, Blondes, Julila Holter, Maxmillion Dunbar. But where RVNG has really found its niche, or perhaps its raison d’etre, is as a sort of mediator, a facilitator, a matchmaker. The FRKWYS series, whose title riffs on the Smithsonian Folkways label, was established as a way of bringing together artists from different scenes and, more importantly, different generations. Since 2009, it has resulted in collaborations between Excepter and Chris and Cosey; the contemporary ambient-pop musician Arp (Alexis Georgopoulos) with experimental composer Anthony Moore; and psychedelic journeymen Sun Araw with pioneering vocal reggae act the Congos.

The ReRVNG series, meanwhile, has shined a spotlight on a number of pioneering electronic and experimental musicians deserving of contemporary attention, including Krautrock veteran Harald Grosskopf, the Seattle ambient musician K. Leimer, Nommos composer (and Ramones producer) Craig Leon, et al.

According to Tortoroli, “There was an article recently about how older artists who are just being discovered now are getting more attention than newer artists who are putting out new music. Are people so tired of the constant barrage of modern music that we have to go back to what happened 20 or 30 years ago, which seemed like it was in a more intimate space than the internet-imbued world? I think that with FRKWYS there’s the best of both worlds: inter- and cross-general conversations between artists that may not have been discovered until recently, or might not have as much attention now as they did back then, working with new composers who have a lot of similarities to the old composers, whether they get a lot of attention or no attention or they’re just coming up. Together, there’s something timeless. It’s a perfect embodiment of the RVNG vibe to me. It’s free-spirited, it’s honest, it’s made for the love of music. I can’t think of a FRKWYS record that isn’t special, either in the process or the outcome or the players involved. As Matt grows the series, it’ll just become one of those series that will stand the test of time, and I fully believe will be a historical landmark. It’s not even that the records wouldn’t have existed without his effort, it’s like the meeting of the minds wouldn’t have existed.”

Software

While Dan Lopatin’s music as Oneohtrix Point Never has flit between outer-limits drone, VHS fantasias and digital abstraction, his Software label is even more slippery, stylistically speaking. Autre Ne Veut’s Anxiety puts a futurist spin on ’80s-inflected synth-pop and R&B. Lopatin and Joel Ford’s Channel Pressure takes a similarly disjointed path back to the time of arcade daydreams, hopscotching across glassy digital synths, slap-bass riffs, and breathless falsetto. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s Huerco S.’s scuffed techno, Thug Entrancer’s tangled electro and footwork, and Slava’s moody grime extensions. Co La’s MoodyCoup, meanwhile, runs ’60s vocal pop through a broken sieve of machine beats and dub delay.

“Sculpture’s Membrane Pop resonated for me very closely,” says Tortoroli, “because of the interpretation of pop music that Dan and Ruben had. They’ve made really left-field, out-there music, but to them it’s pop music, and that’s fucking cool. And you look at Autre Ne Veut’s record, which is this huge pop success, and ostensibly it’s not a pop record. It’s got a dude with amazing vocals and he’s writing great hooks, but it doesn’t sound like other pop records; it sounds like a Software pop record. And you have Sculpture doing another Software pop record. In some ways, the releases Dan is putting out are all pop records from musicians who aren’t pop musicians.”

Beats in Space

Jaakko Eino Kalevi

Tim Sweeney has been broadcasting his Beats in Space radio show on New York University’s WNYU every Tuesday night since 1999, and it’s no exaggeration to say that his archives make for a who’s who of contemporary left-of-center dance music. This year alone, he’s had Move D, Young Marco, Prins Thomas, Tom Trago, Daniel Avery, Prosumer, Kindness, Gui Boratto, Horse Meat Disco, Jamie xx, John Talabot, Ron Morelli, Anthony Parasole, Voices from the Lake, Chloé, Joakim, Galcher Lustwerk, Young Male, and Legowelt as guests on his show—among others. The roster of his Beats in Space label, launched in 2011, isn’t quite as exhaustive (at least not yet). But it seems intent upon casting a similarly wide net, with releases coming from Japan’s Gonno, Cologne’s Matt Karmil, the Australian producer Tornado Wallace, the DFA-affiliated duo Jee Day, Germany’s Phillip Lauer (a.k.a. Brontosaurus, of Arto Mwambe and Tuff City Kids), and the Los Angeles musician Secret Circuit (a.k.a. Eddie Ruscha, formerly of ’90s rockers Medicine).

The latest record, Jaako Eino Kalevi’s Yin Yang Theater, pretty well sums up Beats in Space’s style-that’s-not-a-style—slack disco drums, dubbed-out vocals, and bright synths that are low-tech but high-gloss. “It’s kind of indicative of what I take to be Tim’s vision for the label, which is just fun dance music with a human feel to it,” says Tortoroli. “It’s probably the most chill label that I’m affiliated with—it’s just a breeze to work with. Working with Tim is awesome because he’s so chill and really positive. The radio show has been going for so long and it’s got such a great fan base, it’s almost like the label is a treat for his radio listeners.”

Styles Upon Styles

Tortoroli says, “When my partner Cam Curran and I started Styles Upon Styles, we were getting demos from people that were local or people we met online who we thought, like, why aren’t you signed? Why aren’t you getting the support that you deserve? Because your music is so good! So we just took it upon ourselves to start putting out records and showcasing these artists via the Bangers and Ash series, as a way of kind of promoting them for larger labels. Like, this artist is talented and he’s young, and he can do both the experimental headspace stuff and the stuff for the dance floor. That was one of the reasons Clay [Wilson] got picked up by Bryan at the Bunker. Bryan saw that record, liked it, met Clay at a bunch of Bunker parties. With Certain Creatures, we put out that Bangers and Ash [“Sparkle”/”Bosch” (BASH005)] in October of last year and that led to him working with Stuart, of Ike Yard and Black Rain, in a larger capacity. He’s produced the Black Rain record and he’ll be mixing the new Ike Yard record. That’s just from us putting out this artist we believe in and inspiring these guys to go out and be a part of the New York scene more and more.”

Phil Tortoroli
Phil Tortoroli