2013: Jacking All Trades True stories of multitasking musicians

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I’ve developed some bad habits over the calendar year 2013. I’m tuning in to easy-listening radio on the way to work, baking triple-berry muffins like crazy — which is HOT, I know — and I don’t even know what CDs look like any more, didn’t buy a single one all year. So yeah, things are looking… up?

If you take away the massive, unrelenting wave of quality music 2013 ushered in, I’d just be a guy in a house with a wife/kid, bored out of his fucking MIND. It was such an audio blizzard of a year it got me thinking about starting a label AGAIN, or re-starting my old label AGAIN, at which point, as usual, I remembered how sticky of a wicket running even a small imprint is. Printing, schlepping, planning, promoting, conversing, trolling, reimbursing, ordering, packaging, dubbing, hand-numbering/-painting/-drawing/-ironing, stain-glassing, crayon-melting, etc. (Perhaps I went a little wacko with my label?)

Then I started thinking about the fact that a lot of my favorite labels are run by people who also play in bands and a lot of times do even more (publicize, run brick-and-mortar shops, maintain day jobs, et al.). While slobbering to myself about how little I’ve done with my blessed life, I thought, “HEY, how do those nasty little critters do it? How do they wear so many hats? And once they’re done putting on all those hats, how do they run record labels and play in bands and produce and all that?” Do they even realize how magical they make our lives? I’m not even kidding here. The Cold of Ages special edition alone (Ash Borer) had my anticipation so cranked up I had to stop checking my mail because it was too heartbreaking to find promo CDs and greeting cards from my realtor instead.

With all this in mind, I tracked down a bunch of the best/boldest/brightest multitaskers around, in this case Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie, P.W. Elverum & Sun), Alex Cobb (Students of Decay, Taiga Remains), Adam Torruella (Pesanta Urfolk, Lux Interna, Stella Natura Festival), J-Cush (Lit City Trax, Future Brown), André Foisy (Locrian, Land of Decay, etc.), Mike Paradinas (Planet Mu, µ-Ziq), Nick Williams (One Kind Favor, Cave Bears, Deep Thoughts, etc.), and Weasel Walter (ugEXPLODE, Flying Luttenbachers, etc.), to find out what it’s like to be supremely talented and prone to workaholism.

Adam Torruella
(Pesanta Urfolk, Lux Interna, Stella Natura Festival)

What takes up more of your time: playing/writing music/etc. or running the label?

It really depends on what I’ve got coming on the bill. If Lux Interna will be playing shows, we rehearse almost constantly. If no shows are planned, then much of my time will be dedicated to the label. For better or worse, the label currently takes up 95% of my time.

Which is more personally important to you?

The near-self sufficiency and results from the hard work at Pesanta Urfolk are fulfilling without a doubt, but the demands surrounding the label impact me considerably deeper and take a greater toll on me emotionally, physically, and financially. My work with Lux Interna isn’t a means to a financial end, but rather to one of a deeper spiritual peace. It’s a difficult call. I enjoy them both in my life, and I would consider them them both to be equally important.

I remember a lot of my old-school rock heroes started labels, but almost none of them lasted. What’s the secret of excelling at running a label, especially considering how different it is from playing in a band?

I started the label before I played with any established band. I came to Pesanta Urfolk from a business point of view, and my business modus operandi isn’t really something I’d suggest for starting labels: Take huge risks, and wager everything you have on every single release.

I have many friends who are musicians, and in knowing the creative side, I can recognize that often they aren’t the best when it comes to business. I know people like to hate on labels, but for some, they are incredibly important, as they free up time for the creative people to actually create. My role in the groups I play in tend to be supportive; 18+ years of classical training with percussion allows me to easily join various players with ease.

Pesanta has ruined more relationships than I can count due to its simple burden of occupying a huge portion of my life, but thankfully has not harmed the interpersonal relationship between the band members.

What are your thoughts on selling limited-edition items, special “art”/”die-hard” versions of albums, and/or color-vinyl variants? Do you feel these elements add appeal to products or muddle people’s focus on the music?

Pesanta Urfolk was inspired directly by a combination of esoteric book publishing market and by Les Joyaux De La Princesse, specifically the three limited edition releases: Aux Petits Enfants De France, 1940-1944: Édition Posthume à la Mémoire De PH and Aux Volontaires Croix De Sang. With those works in mind, obviously, it’s important for me that the die-hard/art editions of the record fully complement or add to the music contained within the release. I do not add arbitrary items just to increase the value of the release.

With all the busywork a label requires, at times does the burden of running an imprint interfere with your audio projects?

Pesanta has ruined more relationships than I can count due to its simple burden of occupying a huge portion of my life, but thankfully has not harmed the interpersonal relationship between the band members.

Where the art direction of the label is concerned, do you leave it in the hands of the band(s) or does the label have a certain aesthetic?

Ultimately, I do my best to create a package that the artist is happy with, but I generally stay away from violent or postmodern idealizations because those are not notions that I’m interested in promoting with any of the labels.

When choosing bands to put on your label, do you try to reach as far out as possible, or do you prefer like-minded acts? Why or why not?

Pesanta Urfolk isn’t one of those genre labels, and that gives me a great amount of freedom when reaching out to Americana bands or ritual-ambient performers. With that said, generally I only work with artists who have a sense of reverence in their music, which is the main current behind most of the music I release. On the personal level, I do have artists who are all over the map politically. The important thing to note is that the artists I work with keep their politics limited to their personal lives. I know there are labels/bookers/promoters out there who won’t work with bands because they do not agree with their personally held opinions, but unless they’re specifically singing about politics, I don’t care either way. That’s their burden, not mine.

Did you learn anything about the music “biz” from running a label that you weren’t aware of when you were just playing in bands?

It’s one of those things that’s passed around, but I didn’t realize how true it was until getting into the business: Touring is essentially THE ONLY THING that sells records within our underground currents. Obviously with [sub-label] Et in Arcadia ego, that music sells itself based on the reputation of the composer or conductor, but classical music is far from the musical underground that the other labels work within.

The other thing I’ve learned from the unfortunate instance of having a single dead-beat band on the roster: Bands who are active (meaning not broken up and working on new material) need to put some effort in themselves. It doesn’t matter how fancy I make the record; it doesn’t matter who we commission for the art; it doesn’t matter who does the PR; it doesn’t matter how fantastical their limited live shows actually are — if bands are unwilling to put the time into booking shows, touring, getting their name out, but rather rely solely on the label/cover artist’s reputation, they will have only limited success. Making a music video, then sitting in a cave while recording new material to gift upon the world, all the while expecting tours to fall in your lap isn’t how the real world works. It most certainly does not sell records for either them or the label. It may sound harsh, but my one bad experience has led me to be very skeptical of artists who don’t find it important to do any legwork on their end.

Are you a one-man operation or have you found people you can delegate to?

I’m terrible with delegation due to my stubbornness over having a hand in everything I do. However, as a result of the label’s growth, Lux Interna, and Stella Natura [yearly festival put on by Torruella] I have had to reach out and have unfortunately been burned a number of times because of it. I’ve had people steal records and money; I’ve had people use me as a ladder for connections and discard our business and personal relationship as soon as they’ve connected with that poster artist they were wanting to hook up with — there are some terrible and morally unconscionable people out there, which has made me slow to trust new employees. After years of looking, I do have one single person whom I can trust completely to handle all label duties in times of need. If I ever embark on another Stella Natura, I also have a handful of trusted individuals who I can turn to for organizational assistance.

Do you think record labels as purveyors of physical products can last into infinity, or at some point do you envision CDs/tapes/LPs becoming obsolete?

I believe that this medium will last until my time on Earth ends at the very least. I don’t believe in the cult of digital — ebooks, MP3s, etc. are all fine and good for space considerations, but there will always be collectors and individuals who recognize the importance of tangible items. New technology will always come and slowly chip away at what we’re doing, but I can’t imagine a day where we are all so disconnected that we pay-per-view our favorite underground band’s live basement show and solely rely on donation-based downloads on Bandcamp. If that day comes, music will have died.

How do your goals differ regarding your different projects?

My goals with Lux Intera are much more self-serving. The longer I continue the more I realize that Pesanta Urfolk is essentially a trial in musical philanthropy as the label will doubtfully ever sustain an existence for both myself and the business identity at the same time.

Weasel Walter
(ugEXPLODE, The Flying Luttenbachers/Cellular Chaos/solo, etc.)

What takes up more of your time: playing/writing music or running the label?

I am a workaholic, so if I ever have free time, I will find some way to fill it up. I come from a lower-middle class economic background, so I always felt like if I couldn’t make money, at least I could justify my existence with the volume and seriousness of my artistic output. At the moment, touring is my priority and the label, sadly, is not. I will keep it going, but as the market has gotten worse and worse, I’ve been forced to shift my priorities to survive.

Which is more important to you?

It’s important that I make work and self-document it as a protest toward the insipid conspiracy of modern white culture. There are important voices in art that are not underwritten by corporations. You don’t have to sell out to make great art. However, not having any support, resources, or money creates pretty considerable limitations to what can be accomplished. I believe the actual work must come first and then marketing and all that other bullshit, second.

It’s important that I make work and self-document it as a protest toward the insipid conspiracy of modern white culture.

What’s the secret of juggling so many projects and keeping the quality high?

The secret to keeping a label going on a small scale is a matter of being single-mindedly obsessed about doing it and making wise decisions about what is released, how many copies are made, and how the business is run. At this point, the market is so saturated that running a small label is primarily a matter of vanity. It’s a quixotic decision if financial resources are limited. Every release is a potential financial failure. It’s not terribly different than running a band.

What are your thoughts on selling limited-edition items, special “art”/”die-hard” versions of albums, and/or color-vinyl variants?

I don’t have a problem with the concept. People who pay for music are essentially fetishists at this point in history, so one might as well make the ultimate fetish item if there’s a demand.

Do you feel these elements add appeal to products or muddle people’s focus on the music?

I think most people are idiots.

Does the burden of running an imprint interfere with your audio projects?

Sure, that’s why I cannot really run the label anymore. I made the decision that running the label is ineffectual at this point in history and that playing live shows with a good band is a more effective way of disseminating the work.

Do you leave art direction in the hands of the band(s)?

I only work with bands that have a total aesthetic I can relate to. I’m not really interested in being a Svengali and trying to mold artists — I’m interested in documenting and helping out artists who are already totally effective in their approach.

Did you learn anything about the music “biz” from running a label that you weren’t aware of when you were just playing in bands?

Most bands sell a lot less units than you probably think they do.

Do you think record labels as purveyors of physical products can last into infinity?

I think that the concept of a record label as a filter of culture is dying rapidly. It doesn’t take any serious effort, resources, or skill to curate a “label” vis-à-vis digital media, so now everything is basically lost in the shuffle. It’s all vain and superfluous.

How do your goals differ regarding your different projects?

I’m old and I don’t have the free time I used to, so I try to pursue the avenues that lead to the least futility. I don’t make mainstream culture, and the bridge trolls that guard success don’t want to have anything to do with me, so I just try to be honest, hardworking, and make intelligent decisions about how I proceed.

Nick Williams
(One Kind Favor, Cave Bears/Flaming Dragons Of Middle Earth, Deep Thoughts Records, Cassette Gods)

What takes up more of your time: playing/writing music/etc., running the shop, maintaining the blog, or running the label?

In addition to the bands I play in (Cave Bears and Flaming Dragons Of Middle Earth) and the record label I run (One Kind Favor), I also edit the blog Cassette Gods and co-own and operate a record store in Boston called Deep Thoughts, which opened on April Fools day 2013. I’m also a relatively frequent booker of underground music all over New England. Nearly 100% of my day-to-day life is devoted to music. Honestly, my own personal creative endeavors occupy a very small amount of my time these days. Cave Bears never practices; we just get on stage and “do our thing.” Flaming Dragons has a weekly practice, which I make it to about every other week, but most of my time is spent pricing records, hanging in the store, shipping noise records to Belgium, and sneaking a tall boy behind the counter.

Which is more personally important to you?

Cave Bears without a doubt is the thing I’m most proud of. Which is funny because it’s so half-assed and on the surface totally awful. I love putting out records, and spreading the love around with the shop, but I think the band is something that’s really spoken to a small subset of deeply twisted people and I’ve got enough “life changing” positive feedback that it gives me inspiration to keep the music going.

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