Alex Cobb The Students of Decay proprietor talks new label Soda Gong and new solo project Etelin

Photo: Melissa Lieb

Since 2005, Alex Cobb has mined the depths of drone, noise, ambient, and modern composition on his venerable label Students of Decay. Originally begun as a means of releasing his own work (both under his name and as Taiga Remains), Cobb’s imprint has unleashed some of the best work from the likes of Natural Snow Buildings, Billy Gomberg, Anne Guthrie, En, Mark Banning, and Secret Pyramid, to name a few. Students of Decay has achieved a longevity based on following Cobb’s exceptional curatorial instinct rather than on trends.

Recently, Alex’s life changed dramatically, as he and his wife celebrated the birth of their son this past year. In addition to that massive life event, Alex has been working on a new imprint, Soda Gong, which incorporates “a sense of playfulness and a sort of willful naivety” not heard on Students of Decay (which will continue running). The first Soda Gong release is, appropriately, a new solo project, dubbed Etelin. The inaugural release, Hui Terra, is slated for release November 9. In the interview below, we’re excited to premiere the track “Water the Ferns,” which highlights the record’s musique concrète-inspired tone.

Over Skype and a few email follow-ups, Alex and I caught up on the origins of Soda Gong, his ethos on curating releases, and how he keeps himself motivated after nearly a decade and a half spent releasing records.

I just want to start off and say congrats on being a dad! Tell me about this new project. Did this experience influence your approach to the new album?

Thanks! Yeah, this record is certainly bound up in the experience of being a new parent. I was playing it for a friend somewhat recently, and I realized how certain pieces are almost conceptual to that end, though unintentionally and probably only discernibly so to me. One track in particular features processed samples of my son’s voice right after he was born, and as I’ve realized after sitting with it for almost a year now, it actually kind of obliquely articulates a specific nurturing experience that I remember from the first few weeks after the birth. There’s a part of me that very definitely does not want to explain the record in this way though, as a “new dad” record or whatever; I’m reticent to do that.

Overall, I’d say there’s a sense of playfulness and a sort of willful naivety going on that wasn’t present in my work as a musician or curator in the past, as well as a rejuvenated excitement for discovery and true experimentation. Anyone making work that falls under the rather unfortunate umbrella of “experimental music” will understand what I mean here, I think. Essentially, just like with any creative pursuit, sediment accumulates: go-to techniques and sounds (and album art and press release verbiage…) emerge, and, generally speaking, then comes stagnation or just a reiteration of the status quo. Recently, I’ve found myself just very fatigued with sort of po-faced quasi-academic drone music. It asks so much of the listener at the level of being taken seriously, even reverently, and very often doesn’t actually articulate much in the way of ideas, new or otherwise. I just want more spontaneity and dynamics in the music I’m making and curating at present, so I’ve been steering away from monochromatic ambient stuff and finding myself drawn more towards rhythmic or at least very dynamic music — so lots of dance music, ethnographic recordings, and musique concrète.

With this new imprint I just want to open things up a lot — produce a body of work culled from a wider range of genres, including a lot of work that I feel is sort of post-genre, or at the very least tough to pigeonhole. I’ve always contended that running a label is an art of putting together something cohesive first and foremost, something that has an articulate sensibility. To that end, it doesn’t make any sense to me to start putting out certain types of records on Students of Decay so many years into the label’s trajectory. So, I’m trying to afford myself the space to curate more freely, though still with an eye towards making something that has a defined identity. I want to have a catalog that’s very diverse, but comprised of releases that still feel of a piece with one another. That’s the goal for me.

At the risk of over explaining everything, how did you come up with Soda Gong as the name of your new label? And at what point did you decide that Hui Terra would be the starting point of a new imprint?

Soda Gong is the title of a poem by Clark Coolidge. I think it does a pretty good job of evoking the sensibilities I want to explore without being too literal or on the nose. Coolidge’s work definitely informs some of my own recent practice — his playfulness, his treatment of rhythm and repetition, his aggregation of detail and detritus into constructs that are somehow both wonky and balanced. The Etelin record makes sense to me as the first release because it also embodies a lot of these concerns: naivety, experimentation, spontaneity, etc. I guess it’s almost like a thesis statement.

You’ve mentioned that you’re still fleshing out the details of the new label, but when you talk about that, I’m reminded of the interview we did a few years ago. You talked about building up Students of Decay to where people can blindly buy whatever new release you have. Is that something you want to pursue with Soda Gong, or do you see it as something where more people may flock to a house record or instrumental hip-hop versus musique concrète?

I think, at their best, labels are clearing houses or organizers of music, and much like other cultural productions — textiles, books, films, coffee, tea, alcohol, etc. — if you find that your taste accords with the person who’s piloting the ship, you’ll likely feel as though you’re in good hands and want to follow along on the journey. I quit drinking alcohol, but I drink a lot of tea. In the puerh market, certain vendors cultivate a sort of house profile, much like a brewery might, so you can drink across their catalog — material from different regions, of different ages and processing techniques — and feel confident about following them out on a limb, stepping out of your comfort zone.

So maybe there’s someone who never listens to house music or techno or musique concrète, but they like what the label put out previously (or what SOD puts out or they have some faith in my curatorial tendencies), so they check out a record that they wouldn’t otherwise. Maybe that leads them to the realization that there are in fact a lot of similarities between dance music and drone music, in terms of detail accruing over time or how the art of it often lies in subtle or microtonal gestures. One of the main conceits that is driving this label is a desire to focus less on genre and more on feeling and sensibility. There are a couple dichotomies that I’ve been thinking about lately that also get at what I’m after: naivety vs. refinement, autodidacticism vs. formal training. I’m interested in music that, at first pass, might seem quite naive, but when you listen to it more you realize that the person or people who made it have really worked out a vernacular of their own and there is a strong degree of refinement to their ideas and techniques. I’m looking for music that is startling, that creates a mythology or world for itself.

So Students of Decay has been around for 13 years now, is that right?

Yeah, since 2005.

I know that you read about it in other places, about the pros and cons of running a record label right now. We’ve kind of touched on how it hasn’t necessarily gotten better, but there does seem to be a renewed interest in vinyl, so I don’t know if that’s making it better for smaller labels. I don’t mean to get too deep into the logistics of vinyl pressing, but do you plan to continue Students of Decay’s vinyl only format aesthetic with this new label?

Yeah, it’ll be digital and vinyl. It’s what makes the most sense right now. Regarding SOD, I think it’s because I got sort of buried in production difficulties and certain difficulties with artists, but things started really feeling like a chore to me this past year or so. Lots of frustration and tedium with little in the way of satisfaction. While that’s to be expected with your day job or whatever, it’s not what one looks for in a passion project or hobby. And while I’m happily keeping SOD going, and I have records coming out that I’m really quite excited about, I felt I needed something else — something new and in some ways less defined by time and expectation — to help me actually enjoy putting out music again. So this will be quite a bit different in how it’s executed at the levels of things like curation, design (this is the first time I’ve worked with an in-house designer, actually a pair — Alex McCullough and Niall Lewis — who have worked together to develop a really thoughtful visual language to articulate the label’s concerns across various platforms and in print), orienting/promotional language, release schedules, and notions of what constitutes a “proper release.” Running a label is often thankless work, so much so that for a little while I had lost sight of what makes me continue doing it. This feels like a way to maybe get back to where I want to be.

The label has been around for a long time. Do you ever come across any upstart labels, or does anyone hit you up for advice? Do people come to you about longevity in the music world?

Yeah, for sure. People who are thinking about starting a label will email me and ask anything from “should I do this?” to “what should I expect?” or “is this stupid, what am I doing?” My attitude with respect to running a label is pretty much the same as it has been since the beginning. First and foremost, I don’t think anyone should try to rely on it for income, because I don’t think it’s viable and it prioritizes the wrong things. I really believe that art should be separate from capitalistic concerns; the notion that anyone de facto deserves compensation for wanting to play a synth or write a song is wrongheaded. If you go about it from that angle, odds are you’re going to be frustrated and probably end up with a discordant mess of a label.

In a lot of ways, I feel like we’re in a very strange climate for releasing music at present. I confess I find it a bit tough to navigate sometimes. What made sense in 2005, 2010, and 2015 doesn’t make sense now. I think a lot about what the truly imperative things for a label owner to do are and lately I come up with a lot of blanks. For example, the landscape of editorial coverage has changed so much. There used to be so many great sites that people authored just because of their interest in music… you know, the “blogging era,” but that’s not really the case anymore. I actually think it’s pretty weird that with the proliferation of technology, with how welded to our phones we are and how unthinkable it is to ever be without the internet, music blogging has basically died. It probably says something about our collective priorities and diminishing interest in sustained cultural criticism… So anyway, the question of how to get yourself/your musicians heard or considered — and what that even looks like and what effect it will have if any — is kind of in flux.

Put simply, my advice to people considering doing this is to try to make something that is authentic, that is distinctive, that is not derivative, that you can stand behind. Do that and have faith that people will get interested if you are persistent and committed to making beautiful/engaging/exciting things. If you’re chasing a trend, that trend will end and you’ll have to find another one to chase and your label will seem perpetually outmoded and disjointed. So don’t do that.

Cover art for Etelin’s Hui Terra

Do you still make any of the music in the style of Taiga Remains or under your name? Or are you taking a break from that kind of music?

I would say taking a break, though I don’t know if I’ll return to it. Making those three records under my own name, which kind of feel like a loose, heavy-hearted trilogy, strikes me as a nice way to move on from that type of very minimal, very sad ambient music. I actually sold my guitars, and in truth I’m pretty tired of guitar-based music. I bought a sampler and a digital synthesizer, basically equipment that I felt would give me a lot of versatility and force me to reevaluate my process from the bottom-up.

Having run a label for so long, what continues to drive you, and to be rewarding, in running a label? Do you still see frustrations or drawbacks? I’m mostly interested in what continues to drive you in a time when it seems harder to get people to pay attention to an album.

The impetus behind doing it is that I don’t know how not to do it. It would be really strange for me to not have a record in production, to not be talking to someone about working on a new project, listening to demos, etc. I’ve done it since I’ve been an adult, and I’ve done it through some crazy and destabilizing shit in my own life where it really functioned as a sort of ballast. I’ll always value it for that if nothing else.

Going off of that, I wanted to bring up the Anne Guthrie record that you just put out [Brass Orchids]. I don’t want to lump her and Billy Gomberg together just because they’re married, but it’s interesting to listen to his last record [Slight at the Contact], and then her last record that you put out, and to hear this new one. They all move in this direction that, as a music journalist, is supposed to be my job to describe, and I can’t do that, but it’s a compelling sound.

Anne was pregnant during the making of that record, and I think it bears marks of that major life change. It maps a sort of volatile emotional topography and mines familial history in interesting ways. There’s an argument to be made, of course, that every record has its roots in the biography of the person making it, which gets at something that I am interested in: the question of artistic honesty and the problem of how to be earnest in one’s creative work. There’s a David Foster Wallace quote in which (I’ve been reading a fair amount of alcoholism recovery literature recently) in reference to writing during his own recovery, he talks about how he’s trying to write “single entendre” sentences. I think this gets referenced a lot when people talk about the New Sincerity movement. I really like this phrasing and am attracted to the impulse to attempt to consciously reject guile and artificiality in one’s practice. This is Wallace decidedly not trying to be the smartest person in the room or to do the most interesting subversion of x, y, and z — it’s him saying “this expresses a feeling or an experience, warts and all.” So much capital L literature, arthouse film, institutionalized art, and, indeed, experimental music is so self-aware that it’s actually deeply frightened of honest, emotion-on-the-sleeve expression. This is, of course, because the work might come off as saccharine or cliche-ridden. Those are the stakes. So, anyway this all to say I guess that right now I find myself drawn to things that endeavor to strip away artifice.

Yeah, I like that idea of the single entendre sentences, and not only thinking of your music, but as we’re talking I’m looking at my record shelf, and thinking about how there doesn’t need to be a meaning behind the sound you hear. You don’t necessarily have to know, and that’s interesting. In my line of work, you get lots of press sheets that try to over-explain a record, or go overboard on the narrative, like you said earlier, or trying to hold your hand while you’re listening.

Yeah, it’s like the culture of RIYL or “for fans of __________,’” you know? Of course, there is a lot of very good music that is heavily dressed up and marketed. I find myself in this conflicted space of being fatigued by being hard-sold on things, by having onesheet narratives pushed on me, but also recognizing the importance of cultivated mythology and narrative crafting as they apply to being a musician and running a label.

SOD just released its latest, Daughters of Time, from Blue Chemise. How did this project find its way to you and the label? Where did you first hear about Mark Gomes’ work?

I reached out to Mark after really enjoying his record Influence on Dusk and a subsequent 7-inch. His work sits quite well with the SOD catalog — it’s distant, elusive, and a bit mysterious while also sort of willfully against au courant compositional/production techniques and aesthetic touchstones. He’s got a great ear and editorial sensibility, and I’m always attracted to ambient music that prioritizes concision.

You mentioned that you got rid of older equipment from previous releases, and you’re working with a blank slate, so to speak. Can you tell me about how it came together and pared everything down to an album?

My wife Melissa and I had our son, Casper, in September of 2017. There’s this term called “newborn haze” that I learned the meaning of firsthand. Your sleep is completely derailed. You don’t leave home for like a week at a time. You’re totally in your own world, which is now a radically altered place. It’s kind of terrifying! The notion that the world is still going on per usual seems crazy, oddly unthinkable. I remember going out to pick up food at one point and seeing people doing their everyday routines and thinking how alien all of it seemed, this outside world. I didn’t think I’d be making music during this time. In fact, I wasn’t making music at all then, I hadn’t for some months. I had however made some recordings of things during Melissa’s third trimester, just as a way of marking time, things like thunderstorms at her parent’s country house, a conversation she was having with my mom right as she went into labor — both of those recordings actually show up on the last track of the record. And then, after the birth, spending time with Casper as he was becoming ever more aware of things, I would be listening to records, naturally, and with certain albums — I recall Nuno Canavarro, Bernard Parmegiani, and Luc Ferrari specifically — I noticed him very interested, like paying close attention in a way that was distinct from how he seemed to at other times. They say that babies’ sense of hearing is the most defined at birth, after touch. He would make sounds when signals panned across the speakers, or look surprised, or even scared, if the music went to a particularly intense place. So I found myself inspired to make some music that would give him those kinds of engaged experiences, but be just ours.

I started working with a Waldorf synth and some old granular computer patches and a sampler — really quite haphazardly and at all hours of the day. Pretty quickly, I’d amassed a bunch of recordings. I arranged them in ways that would result in interesting pieces for Casper to listen to with me, playing them back over studio monitors, through bluetooth speakers, in the car, etc. Pretty soon, I had an hour or so of music that I felt good about, so I started to fine tune things and make edits. I really limited myself in that regard, more than I ever have before. It’s ironic, because this album sounds more detailed and produced than my other work, but it’s actually much more spontaneous and has a lot more restraint at the level of editing than anything I’ve done before. I decided to leave things in that rubbed me the wrong way, “mistakes” as I might think of them normally. I chose to view them as giving character rather than detracting from something I’d idealized. I made a point of deleting the work sessions themselves, all the stems, as soon as I bounced the audio tracks, and I arranged big chunks of exported sound instead of having tons of tracks that I could modify, you know, tamper with or overcook.

I’d say this record is defined for me by a sense of personal renewal. Obviously becoming a father is a huge life change. I also quit drinking at the beginning of 2017. I feel great, very lucid. I started to recognize that alcohol had become a problem for me and that it had a negative effect on a lot of aspects of my life, effects that I’d been trying to ignore but which had become unavoidable. I knew I was blunting my nervous system, but I didn’t know I was blunting my creativity as well. I recently read this book The Recovering by Leslie Jamison, which I highly recommend; it’s a sort of hybrid memoir/critical work dealing with alcoholism, both personal and within creative writing communities. She addresses her concern that by quitting drinking, she would cease to have a creative identity or make compelling work. This was a very real fear for me. I thought that by getting sober, I wouldn’t have anything to say anymore. But really the exact opposite is true. I feel like I am more able to collect and articulate my thoughts now, and I’m more open to experience and discovery. For me, alcohol just dulls everything, and now I want the ragged raw stuff of life, the unfiltered light.

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