Since 2008, Bill Kouligas’ PAN label has been responsible for an exceptional catalog of material that spans a remarkable dimension of avant-garde and electro-acoustic music. His releases range from the unclassifiable compositions of Rashad Becker to the intricate modulations of Keith Fullerton Whitman, exposing artists old and new to a diverse audience.
I met Kouligas in London the day after he had organized a show for the legendary Japanese collective Marginal Consort, whose latest live recording, Instal. Glasgow 2008, had come steaming-hot off the PAN press. The Greece-born visual artist, designer, and musician had also just finished working on 12-inch releases from HELM, Concrete Fence, and Black Sites, as well as full-length albums by Rashad Becker and Rene Hell, not to mention his three-week NYC showcase in July — when we hooked up, he was preparing for a well-deserved break.
I was keen to find out how he had the energy to put this whole thing together, how he managed to dedicate himself to outsider art in an industry constantly on the move, and where all of these projects are going to take him next. We met somewhere in the city’s financial district, with Eli Keszler, who released Catching Net on PAN last year — it played perfectly into the context of our conversation, as Kouligas described how the people he works with are often his good friends, and even if they aren’t, they soon build a relationship that transcends the music at hand. Indeed, this came to the fore straight away when I hinted at admiration for Kouligas’ dedication to the label.
“Sure,” he said, in a relaxed tone, “The main thing is that there is a heavy focus on my interaction with the music. I want people to realize that I don’t just release records and put on shows. That is a lot of fun of course, but there is a lot of work behind it.”
That’s a fantastic place to start. What’s going on behind the scenes?
There isn’t anything specific about what I do that binds it all together. Basically, it’s about being there and creating a network and caring about what happens. Of course I am hugely interested in the albums I release, and that’s one of the main aims of PAN. However, a lot of these releases are conceptual works and so many of these artists are working in different fields, and they are putting different things together; it’s not just like any random audio that you put on your MP3 player.
But that’s the environment a lot of your releases are projected into — is that something you have to take into account while there are so many other labels right now?
You have to remember that it’s not a competition, it’s not a race. It’s a personal interest I’m working with here.
Sure, but that background context is unavoidable in some respects, especially when this music is being picked up and written about so frequently — people sometimes read a review, they check a score, they download the music, and they listen. This is how listeners are consuming music, right?
Of course. I mean, I do the same thing sometimes. I can’t process everything but there is so much information out there, which is a good thing and a bad thing at the same time, but that’s how it is. This is the contemporary state of music and that is why I think people need to put some extra effort into what they do — they need to present the full package — and think about what each release really means.
Who do you feel needs to put in the most effort in that situation?
It needs to come from both the audience and the artist. If they like something they need to devote more energy into understanding what it is. I think this effort is often missing and people just scan information quickly and just keep looking for the next thing, and I don’t really know what’s left after that. I’m curious to see how this is going to change things in the future.
Working with [Rashad Becker] on his own record is a very special thing. It’s like a sonic personification of the man.
So how do those consumption habits effect what you do with the label, when you are working on your next project or your next event?
Well, it doesn’t personally impact me, but it maybe alters my way of thinking: I want people get the full picture of each release. For example, this show last night, I released the record and I combined it with a live show so that people could experience what Marginal Consort is. It goes without saying that I’m so grateful for their release, but it doesn’t really translate the same way as the live performance, which is something very physical. A Marginal Consort show can last between three or four hours and when you are in the audience, you just lose any sense of time or space there, because you are in a trancelike state when experiencing this sound.
You have said that this is a very bold and personal release. How did you become aware of their work?
I was at the Glasgow Festival show in 2008, which is the show on the recording. I was just blown away. So slowly I got in touch with the festival and the people behind it and we communicated with the band and then we started working together. It took four years to do this — it’s one of the longest projects for PAN. The project went through many stages but I’m really happy that it’s finally out. It’s a very important release for me.
What does Marginal Consort think about the release? Are they pleased about specifically having a recorded show and making that available, particularly because the act is so performance-based?
Yeah, they were really happy about it. I think documentation is extremely important in these cases, always, because not everyone was in Glasgow for that show and not everyone was in London last night. For me, it’s essential to document these amazing events and get more people interested, to deliver more information about the concept and the thought behind it.
How do you think the release fits into the PAN catalog?
Well, as you know, there are so many things going on with PAN. There is always a starting point, but I like all of this music so much, and the reason it all fits in my head is because I can find a common ground with it. From a performance-art piece to free-jazz albums or whatever, I’m trying to create a platform that makes all of these things work, to present them well and to make them interact with each other. I’m also very interested to see how artists work within this platform, especially when I have somebody working in the dance or electronics scene with someone who works mostly in avant-garde, and vice versa.
When did the turning point occur? When did you decide that this is really something you want to do?
Well it started as a very small idea. I’m a musician myself and I was making experimental music for about 10 years: I play electronics, a bit of noise, and drums and electro-acoustic music. I’m originally a drummer and I used to play in bands for a long time. So basically I found there were things I wanted to release, and PAN just grew organically. It all flowed through my head, all these ideas.
Doesn’t that take a huge amount of effort on your part, to dedicate yourself fully as an independent label?
Sure. But that’s what I do. It is hard to explain in words sometimes. If you have a passion for something then this is what you put all of your effort into.
It’s interesting to see how that flows through your life and into the locations you have lived in, in terms of where the label has been based.
Sure, I was born and raised in Athens, and then I moved to London around 11 years ago to study graphics at UCA. I did my M.A. here. But while I was a student I was really active in the underground experimental scene.
How were you active?
I was putting on shows, organizing tours, playing a lot, collaborating with artists here. That’s how the label emerged. It started in 2008, exactly five years ago, and then I moved to Berlin in 2009 and continued in that city, and now I’m between New York and Berlin.
Is that because you saw something happening specifically in Berlin that wasn’t happening in London?
Well, I think it’s interesting to be influenced by the culture of a space because it’s important to understand how things work and what is happening around you. In Berlin that’s all about electronic dance music, which is really big there — London has its own scene, and New York has something else. I think it’s important to find the things you are fascinated with and meld them together.
How do the differences between those places play into the spectrum of artists you are working with?
It’s just about being from a different background; a different cultural view.
Did you find that you were therefore more productive in one place than you were in another?
Well, I have to say that London is my favorite city. But I moved to Berlin because it’s an easier city to exist in. It’s easier to focus on a creative project there, because Berlin is very cheap in terms of rent and living, it’s very affordable. So a lot of artists move there because they have the opportunity to rent a big space, like a studio, and have all of their hobbies going on around them — it’s just way easier. And, it helped me to find my own pace, to mature and find my own place to sit down and think, which helped me to work more carefully. But it was London that gave me the energy and the passion to go and do it.
What about Athens, then, the city where you were born? You released records from Jar Moff and Mohammad, which are probably two of my favorite albums that you’ve put out, and they are all based there at the moment.
Thanks, yeah, I have known all of those guys for a long time. Jar Moff is just a guy I have known through common friends. I have known him for almost 15 years now, since he was 13 or 14. We used to play concerts together — playing guitar in some bands, playing drums in others, and I just followed his creative practice throughout the years. He works a lot in the visual arts and in music of course, but he is renowned for his audio collages. We kept in touch after I left for London and he started working as Jar Moff at around that time. When he sent his material over, I was like, “Yeah, we have to release this.” It’s one of my favourite releases, Commercial Mouth.
How was that received, then? I mean, I’ve never been to Athens, but Berlin I know quite well, and I’ve worked in New York — but Athens, how is that sort of material received in the public domain?
Athens is a very interesting place in spite of the chaos and the crisis and all of the negative things that are happening there right now. These experimental projects bring another dimension to the actual city, and a lot of people are interested in what is happening with all these things, but I don’t think there is any ground to let them exist and develop…
You mean with funding?
Yeah, that. There aren’t too many shows going on either. But on the other hand there is a very dynamic scene and people are pushing it hard to get over the financial situation there.
What does the scene encompass? Are there any other artists from Athens you are working with?
Mohammad are a bit older and they have been around for a long time. They did two releases before Som Sakrifis, which came out on their own label. The band is a trio: One of them has a solo project called ILIOS, which I worked with in the very beginning, it was the fourth release on PAN — he is a sound artist and was very active in the late 1990s, playing with a lot of heavy sound art. There is Nikos Viliotis, who is a cello player, who plays a lot of improv music — he played in London a lot. And there is also Coti K, who is a producer and a sound engineer. He produced bands like Tuxedomoon, a lot of 1980s stuff — he has worked with a lot of people.
They are all in Athens right now. So I knew these people, I mean, I knew their work for a long time growing up. They have done some significant stuff for the Greek music scene, and then we became friends. I like Mohammad a lot so I asked them to work together.
Is there anyone else you are keeping an eye on in particular there?
I mean, there is an emerging beat-oriented scene. There is a label called Modal Analysis, which is a techno label, but they are doing some very interesting stuff and they are inviting all sorts of people over from abroad, which is really important. Athens is one of the biggest European cities, but if you look at it on the map, it’s like the last country towards the East. That makes it hard for touring bands and musicians to go and play there, so the young generation have fewer examples of contemporary music and less exposure to what’s happening. The situation there is the opposite of London, where you have all your heroes playing every day, and that creates a stronger scene. So let’s say everybody there is more of an outsider.
Of course you have the internet to inform people about what is going on, but it’s hard to understand the full effect of the culture. So anyway, Modal Analysis are doing a really big festival in February and they are bringing over 50 or 60 international artists to perform and I think that is really important; like there is more there to get excited about.