John Dawson (Magnetic South): Interview
“Magnetic South has never been a commercial recording studio that is open to serve the needs of the general public.”
Designated as a fly-over state, Indiana has long toiled in the shadow of its geographical kin. But there is more than corn thanks to creative folk such as John Dawson. The man behind the board for feral garage children Apache Dropout and co-founder of Bloomington record label and studio Magnetic South, Dawson is one of the few keeping the spirit of 66 alive while majestically looking to a brighter future.
Tiny Mix Tapes caught up with Dawson to discuss the goings-on of Magnetic South and how the label is capturing the imagination of musicians and listeners everywhere.
When did you begin entertaining the idea of beginning a label?
The idea of the label and the studio came about practically simultaneously, but the initial inspiration was just to put together a studio. Aaron Deer (ex-member of presumably defunct Impossible Shapes, main man behind Horns Of Happiness who now lives in Oakland), Seth Mahern, and I started putting the studio together in 2008 or so. We had been working on various creative projects with each other for years, and we had already developed a collaborative relationship that helped lay the foundation for Magnetic South as it is today.
Was an aesthetic or ethos part of the process?
One of the more important concepts had to do with the value of creativity. We basically thought the creativity of artists was being devalued everywhere we looked. We saw all these things emerging after the shift towards digital recording that were resulting in music that wasn’t very good. As recording costs went down, we saw that a lot of smaller labels (especially punk and independent labels) were shifting to business models that usually placed a monetary value of $0 on the production of recordings. They wanted to do things more cheaply than the majors, so they shift[ed] the production cost to the artists. It turns out like some austerity measure for artists. It actually extracts resources from the producer of content.
It’s emblematic of a greater problem we have in America where the people who produce things of real worth are exploited by value systems based on illusory constructs. We thought there was an obvious correlation between this trend and what we saw as the massive proliferation of what we felt was low-quality musical content and audio-media bullshit. We wanted to focus our resources on producing music we liked, and giving people we thought were talented some help developing. Our biggest resource was, and is, our energy, and our approach to facilitating a creative environment where people can collaborate. After cobbling together the random blown-out junk we’d accumulated over the years and getting our friends into a room to make recordings, it was obvious we were right about where the real value is: in the processes and communication that evolve when people focus their collective energy on creativity.
We wanted to hear something that had its own sound, like our favorite labels. I think there is still a prevalent attitude among musicians that is really dated, from the late 1980s and early 90s, where people are so concerned with creative control to the point of eliminating collaborative possibilities. So many people act as if it is 1987 and they are R.E.M. or something, like they are very serious artists and there is a sea of fat-cat record company people out there dying to throw money at them to get them to compromise there musical ethics and make them pop stars. It’s a pretty narcissistic attitude, and irrelevant to the world most people that make music are living in.
Even now when indie labels engage in star-maker hype to try and manipulate the public, it seems like they stay pretty hands-off in the production process of the music. They have to! They don’t want to spend any money on recording! We thought it was possible to still have the collaborative spirit of studio recording developed by labels with big budgets without the bloated costs of the modern recording industry and without compromising any artistic vision. I guess it’s a similar concept to Third Man or Daptone, but I think we are by nature a little more esoteric in our tastes.
After cobbling together the random blown-out junk we’d accumulated over the years and getting our friends into a room to make recordings, it was obvious we were right about where the real value is: in the processes and communication that evolve when people focus their collective energy on creativity.
How much did Indiana’s local music scene influence starting Magnetic South? Was there enough of a local presence at the recording studio that led to forming a label?
At the time we started Magnetic South, we weren’t in step with any particular music scene, but we’d spent years hanging out with people from our favorite bands from Indiana. Our favorite records were made here. These are mostly records from the late 1970s and early ’80s, so most of the musicians aren’t really active, but we’ve found inspiration in just meeting a lot of them and working with some of them. Magnetic South has never been a commercial recording studio that is open to serve the needs of the general public. We don’t have a facility that is equipped to do that. We’re making the music we want to hear because no one else was doing it. The formation of the label came about because we all saw a physical object as the end format for the recordings we were making, not because the studio was a booming business and we wanted to expand.
How do you see Magnetic South as a curator for regional music?
We definitely take a curatorial approach to what we do and there is a strong focus on using our resources to help people who are interested in collaborating. Most of that happens to come out of the Midwestern U.S. There are so many people we’d like to work with, and even with people who are interested, it’s still tough to schedule. So one of the arbitrary factors in curating is timing, but we are also very intentional with our choices aesthetically.
The biggest issues I’ve taken with people’s efforts to crystallize a scene, and what I think of as “shop-local movements” in general, is that they tend to be implemented through a top-down approach that imposes an indiscriminate booster mindset that devolves pretty quickly into a popularity contest with no aesthetic sensibility. It leads to bad ideas like the “Battle of the Bands” fad that people seemed to think was so great for musicians a few years ago in Indiana. Historically, if you look at all the exciting music “scenes” in America you see creative energy and aesthetic development as the driving force, not ambiguous media industry and hype. Alan Kaprow, John Cage and Fluxus, VU and The Factory, Ann Arbor in the late ’60s, psychedelic rock in L.A. and San Francisco, Cleveland Proto-Punk, NYC punk/new/no-wave, SST records, Hip-Hop, Olympia, Athens, DC, Chapel Hill, Seattle… If you look anywhere that local music has had any sort of impact on culture, there is usually a strong thread of collaborative aesthetic continuity. That doesn’t happen if people don’t have some sort of discrimination.
We wanted to do things that sounded fucked up, dirty, and out of this world.
Is there a band or genre that you can point to as Patient Zero in launching MS that has its influence in the bands MS has recorded and/or released?
Early on we kind of decided the Hardly Music label would be a good benchmark for what we wanted to do. Most of the artists associated with that era were starting points. Those are Indiana’s contributions to the legacy of recorded music that are most influential to me, and I think history continually shows that it is important. You know, MX-Sound is going to be revisited for generations. Henry Lee Summer is going to be reviled or forgotten for the crap it is. When I was a kid, he was considered an important musician, because he had a radio hit and a song on the Iron Eagle soundtrack. There was a big picture of him on the front of the record store in Broad Ripple.
We were influenced by Indiana punk, new wave, and hardcore, but we also were fascinated by people who used limited technology to create music of distinct character, like Lee Perry, Joe Meek, and Dead Moon. We have also taken a lot from things like Bubblegum records, exploitation records — Moog records, Exotica, old Soundtracks, Biker rock — any music that has no pretense about reality. One thing that has really bummed me out about recordings by rock bands for quite some time now is a puritan adherence to realism in recording. It’s really formulaic and boring. We wanted to do things that sounded fucked up, dirty and out of this world.
As for recording sessions early on, I think Sitar Outreach Ministry really helped develop a cut-up approach to recording and sequencing that has extended into most of what we do, even our cover art. Apache Dropout was the first thing where we realized that combining our weird recording style with strong songwriting was a good idea.
Do Apache Dropout, TOS, et al attract other local bands to Magnetic South?
The biggest issues I’ve taken with people’s efforts to crystallize a scene, and what I think of as “shop-local movements” in general, is that they tend to be implemented through a top-down approach that imposes an indiscriminate booster mindset that devolves pretty quickly into a popularity contest with no aesthetic sensibility.
When Apache Dropout was receiving some unexpected press for the first LP, I think we were getting some cold-calls by people that didn’t really have a clear perception of what we were up to that wanted us to help them out, but mostly we tend to connect with people who have similar aesthetic sensibilities to our own. That usually happens on a more personal level. It’s a pretty organic way of developing relationships.
We do actively try to connect with like-minded artists outside of Indiana, though. We don’t want to have an isolationist attitude. There are a lot of great things about new technology, and one of them is that increased ability to communicate makes it easier to dissolve the borders of time and space.
Are you finding bands that aspire to be on the label because they love Apache Dropout or Thee Open Sex?
At this point I think the coolest thing that has happened with Magnetic South has been that we’ve had some really cool moments that bring all these different people together in the studio. When we did CRYS we had so many people working on that. Haley Fohr from Circuit Des Yeux, Nick McGill who does Sitar Outreach Ministry, Rachel from Open Sex, Clarke Joyner, who plays in Kam Kama and Dracula Pills. There are these high energy moments where all these great people around, and everyone is creating together and you get something that is so beyond the sum of its parts. There are people hanging out from Indy, Lafayette, Bloomington, Warsaw… That is the real value of creation. It’s like splitting an atom.
Do you think about how a band fits within the label’s catalog of releases and the community MS has developed before working with them?
Yes. A lot of times, we record with someone because we are interested in seeing where it goes in the studio. If it turns out well, we usually want to get involved with the release. We’ve done some things we haven’t recorded. Most recently we did a tape for Psychic Baos (Will Fist and Carey Balch of 3 Man Band) that they recorded in Knoxville. They are longtime friends who we’ve worked with in many formations. We’ve been influencing each other for years, so naturally it fit well, sonically.
How does the label partner with other labels?
We’ve been tight with Eric Weddle, who runs Family Vineyard, for a very long time now. He did the first Apache Dropout LP, and the Mad Monk 7” we recorded, and he helped us distribute Thee Open Sex and Circuit Des Yeux vinyl via SC Distribution.
We also like to work with other labels who put out things we record. Not Not Fun did the Dylan Ettinger LP we recorded here, and Trouble In Mind did the 2nd Apache Dropout LP, which was awesome. Bill Roe did the artwork and had input on sequencing. It was awesome to see a label really take an interest in a project to the point where one of the owners is drawing Zombie Jughead cartoons for you.