Inner Islands “I just want to help folks realize their creative visions to the best of my ability and lend a hand however they want me involved.”

Sean Conrad

As the resurgence of new age has ushered in a golden era of quality new releases paired with a widespread appreciation of unearthed gems, Oakland, CA’s Inner Islands stand out as a bastion of the free-spirited experimentalism of the private press era.

Founded by Braden J. McKenna but now run solely by Sean Conrad, Inner Islands provides more than just chilled-out ambient albums, although there are plenty of those. For every album like the four-tape Tapestry from Stag Hare, which fills four hours with blissful tones, there’s the free-form sonic experiments of Hear Hums, the pulsing late night grooves of Ki Oni, and the spiritual excursion’s of Conrad’s Ashan project. I first heard about the label through the double-cassette Oceanic Triangulations project, and I have been hooked ever since.

Sean and I have been meaning to do an interview for quite some time, and what follows is the result of a few email exchanges from this year, as we discussed the origins of the label, collaborations, and keeping the positive vibes flowing.

According to the Inner Islands website, the label was founded by Braden J. McKenna but is now your project. When did you assume responsibility for I.I., and what was your goal with the label when you took over?

I slowly got more involved over 2012 and 2013 and took full responsibility at the end of 2013. Braden had set a pretty strong precedent for the label and my main goal has been to maintain that spirit and carry it through new stages of growth. Vaguely speaking, it’s about sincerity and positivity, projected through a certain aesthetic range.

When did you first start making music, and what inspired you to pursue being a musician and running a label?

I started making music while taking piano lessons at age 8. My Dad plays the piano and I was attracted to summoning forth worlds with an instrument and also the social cache that my Dad and older cousin had as piano players at family gatherings. I can’t say I ever wanted to run a label. Back in 2010 I also briefly ran a label that my friend couldn’t maintain because he was traveling. And I definitely didn’t set out to run Inner Islands, just lend a hand here and there. But when Braden didn’t want to do it anymore, I felt a strong need to keep the vibe alive that he had set such a strong precedent for with his curation. What inspires me to run the label now, though, is maintaining a space to share honest and heartfelt sounds that are often peaceful, positive, or strongly dialogue the non-human and supernatural.

You put out a lot of music, whether as a solo project or in a group. How does a new song idea end up with one project versus the others?

Yup, always making sounds. When I’m just working by myself and I end up with a group of recordings that I want to release I need to label it as this project or that for listener convenience and maintaining continuity. In general, Channelers has been more like a diary for me over the last year and a half. Ashan is a very particular energy and its sound can take many shapes. I wish I was better at talking about music. It’s really hard to describe. But I often think about my compositions on three levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual. Ashan music usually dialogues the physical and spiritual for me. Whatever work I make with Jenny (who also does Gossimer) becomes Orra and whatever work I make with Michael (who also does Selaroda) becomes Skyminds.

Nature plays an important role in a lot of your releases, whether as background sounds, the cover art, and releasing new tapes along with the changes in the seasons. In what way do you see the natural world as an influence on the Inner Islands aesthetic?

Outside of the label, I am drawn to the unbuilt and non-human world and constantly trying to get perspective on my role in this place as a human. I guess I feel like humans are the odd creatures out on this planet in a lot of ways because of how dysfunctional and unsustainable we have become. I also know that a lot of us are trying to reconcile with that. So I’m really drawn to those parts of this world that are able to live more harmoniously — and the shapes, patterns, and textures that are created without human intervention. I am totally aware of how cliché all this may sound haha. But I still feel compelled to shout out that part of our world and celebrate it in the art that I make and curate.

The music on the label has a very peaceful, positive vibe to it (and sounds like it could soundtrack a yoga session). What attracts you to these sounds, in both your own work and that which you put out through I.I.?

These kinds of sounds just inspire me to stay grounded and keep going. Being a human is pretty stressful a lot of the time. I need all the inspiration I can get to stay positive and treat people with as much love as I can muster in the moment.

You’re no stranger to ambitious releases, with the double cassette Oceanic Triangulation and last year’s quadruple tape Stag Hare release being prime examples. How do you approach releasing projects like these, given your limited resources as a one man operation?

They really just seem like special and fun projects to me. I guess Inner Islands does have a pretty small budget and these projects “risked” big chunks of it at the time, but it’s so worth it because I think they are great sounds that need to be shared. I’m just happy I was able to give them a home and that folks dug them enough to keep the label alive.

Collaboration is a recurring theme for a lot of the tapes you put out. If you’re not playing any of the music your name usually pops up for art layout or mastering. Also, on your recent tour with Stag Hare you blended your respective tracks into a joint live set. Do you always approach a new Inner Islands project with an eye for collaboration?

Yes, exactly, I mean releasing people’s music is always collaborative on some level. I just want to help folks realize their creative visions to the best of my ability and lend a hand however they want me involved. Sometimes the whole project is handed to me and sometimes folks want me to master their work and/or do the art or layout. Just gotta serve the artist/project’s needs to the best of my ability.

2016 began with the quiet but masterful Channelers and softest cassettes. What’s next for you and the label this year?

Wow, thanks! Glad you thought they were anywhere near approaching masterful haha. That’s rad. The next batch is going to be three cassettes from Inner Travels, Kyle Landstra, and Matthew Barlow. Mellow vibes impending. And a couple albums from Stag Hare later in the year. I personally have a new album with Orra as well as two new Ashan albums coming out on Heavy Mess — Braden’s new label! Possibly a couple albums with Skyminds. And possibly another Channelers album or two. Very excited to be sharing all these sounds!

Photos: Sean Conrad

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