May 7, 2012

Substance Is Style: The Clicky Clicky Interview With Slumberland Records' Mike Schulman

A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness: The Clicky Clicky Interview With Slumberland Records' Mike Schulman

Many readers of Clicky Clicky's back pages require little introduction to the labors of love of Mike Schulman, owner and operator of venerated indie label Slumberland Records. Those same readers have likely been wearing out the grooves on releases Mr. Schulman has been associated with for more than two decades. The best part? Schulman and the label are going strong, and 2012 already appears as remarkable a year as any in the imprint's history. More on that later; first, let us absurdly condense more than two decades of history into three paragraphs.

In 1989, Schulman and friends commissioned Slumberland Records to release their own music, as few if any other independent labels at that time in the D.C.-area shared the friends' love of music from overseas operations such as Creation, Rough Trade, Flying Nun, and Sarah. Sure, the D.C. hardcore scene had its own flagship operation in the locally-focused Dischord Records, but Schulman and his cohort were more interested in the romantic and experimental takes on pop and punk that had crept across the ocean from England during the prior decade.

And so Slumberland began with the initial releases by the founders' own bands, Black Tambourine, Whorl and Velocity Girl, before moving on to issue music from like-minded artists including Stereolab, Lilys, Lorelei and Small Factory (many of these acts appeared on the bar-setting comp ...One Last Kiss, which spawned carbon copies from scene-centric indie startups far and wide). Eventually, control of Slumberland fell entirely into Schulman's hands, and, following a move to San Francisco, he continued to issue superlative releases from acts including Rocketship and The Aisler's Set. There was a brief hiatus at the turn of the century, but not long after Slumberland resumed operations. In the new millennium, Schulman turned his attention to issuing music from bands including The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Frankie Rose, Crystal Stilts and Big Troubles, earning accolades from underground/overground approval-embossers Pitchfork, Stereogum and Rolling Stone along the way.

Earlier this year, Schulman's legendary, C86-inspired indie pop combo Black Tambourine made headlines when it reformed to play a series of special reunion shows to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Chickfactor 'zine, a Slumberland ally. Clicky Clicky's Edward Charlton scored at a chance to chat with Mr. Schulman about all of the above last week, and, delightfully, the label head proved to be thoughtful, gracious and positive about his experiences and the label at large.

Clicky Clicky: You just played a series of Black Tambourine reunion dates. How was performing again with the band after 20 years away? What are your thoughts on experiencing a project of yours becoming part of a larger cultural history?

Mike Schulman: Well, it was weird. (Laughs) Really, the answer to both questions is "it's weird." Playing the shows was a lot of fun. The idea of doing some shows together came up when we put the compilation out in 2010. But, we just thought it was too complicated logistically with two of the guys on the East Coast, myself on the West Coast, and our singer Pam living in London. She's also extremely adverse to flying. So, it seemed difficult to make it work, and we kind of let the idea go. Yet, we were kind of two minds about it. I think one of the things that people like about Black Tambourine was the mystery of it. Like, nobody ever saw us play, except for a group of our friends, and certainly most of the people that went on to enjoy the music and be influenced by it, almost none of them could possibly have seen us play because they were probably like ten years old!

So you know, there was some hesitation to dispel the mystery about it, but I also found that kind of appealing, for people to see what we were like. Because the records are dreamy, and people know them as "shoegaze," though I don't. Live we were much more redolent of The Flatmates, The Rosehips, Shop Assistants; a Ramones-ish kind of punk band. So I thought it was kind of fun for people to see that side of it. Plus, I looked forward to playing with the guys and Pam again. Ultimately, I don't want to be too precious about it, because it makes it seem more important than it really was.

Chickfactor was really important to that scene in the '90s, Pam was obviously one of the founders, and a good friend of ours, so it seemed like the best of reasons to reunite.

In regards to the second part of the question, you know, it's always surprising that those recordings have had the legacy that they have. Black Tambourine was a side-project for all of us really, except for Pam who wasn't in any other band. Brian Nelson and I were in Whorl, and we were very active, playing several shows a month in the area, and Archie was in Velocity Girl who were getting going as well. Black Tambourine was very much a side-project. Still, I think we're all very happy with how those recordings came out, and I really value that experience. Those are still my favorite records that I played on, and came the closest to how the music sounded in my head.

So when it turned out that 10 or (laughs) 15 years later that people were taking influence from us or finding it in the same set of things that inspired Black Tambourine -- Phil Spector, girl groups, The Ramones, The Jesus and Mary Chain -- that stuff was pretty evergreen, it's not like we invented it or anything. Still, learning that the way we put it all together struck a chord in people is very gratifying. I'll never say no to people telling us that they like our music! I'm all for it.

CC: I'm sure it's funny at this point, that you're probably seeing cycles of influence and style...

MS: Yeah, what's interesting and what's easy to forget is that most of our influences were pretty current for us. When we started doing our thing, Psychocandy was only a few years old, the Shop Assistants record had just come out. It was very current for us, it was on our turntables, just what we listened to. It's like today if a band set out to sound like, I don't know, a Captured Tracks band. I just read an interview with Blouse, where they basically said that they formed to sound like a band on Captured Tracks. That's basically what we were doing, not to emulate the sounds of the bands we liked, but to be down with it all.

CC: It's a love letter as much as an original project?

MS: Yes, exactly. I mean, maybe we were lucky that we were such primitive players, because we were incapable of closely emulating the things we like, we were all still learning how to play our instruments. I think that's part of the magic of Black Tambourine.

CC: Are there any more plans for Black Tambourine following the release of the Ramones covers EP?

MS: You know, I don't think so really. We've kind of talked about it. When we did the Ramones thing, we were planning on doing 5 or 6 songs, and we started working on one that we didn't finish. There was some talk of maybe finishing that off, but I don't know if there will be the motivation since the record is going to be out in a couple weeks. There's some bits and pieces floating around, we have some people working on remixes for us, and those will be out eventually. But, you know, I think we all satisfied our curiosity about playing live and what it would be like. It's a little difficult for me to imagine doing it again.

CC: I think most fans were happy just to have the reunion and anything new after such a hiatus was icing on the cake.

MS: I hope people were pleased. I haven't heard a lot of negative stuff. I hope people were entertained by it, it wasn't just an experience of "oh my god, I'm seeing Black Tambourine," but they could just enjoy the live music for what it was. What was really exciting about those shows (Chickfactor) was seeing Small Factory again. The music still sounded incredible, and to see The Aisler's Set again was a great reminder of just what great bands those were. How exciting. My enjoyment of that stuff is invariably going to be with a bit of nostalgia, but it's just good music, and it speaks for itself.

CC: We've been super thrilled with the latest batch of releases on Slumberland this year (Frankie Rose, the Veronica Falls 7", upcoming Violens full-length, True), what's the rest of 2012 looking like for the label, to the extent that you want or can talk about it?

MS: I can't talk about it. (laughs)

CC: Top Secret?

MS: (Laughs) Yeah, but the Allo Darlin' and Evans The Death records are both out today (May 1st). They are great, and I'm proud of them. Very exciting. It's also great because Allo Darlin' are out on tour and I get to see them in a couple of weeks. Also, the Violens album is out May 15, which I can't wait for, it's an amazing record.

CC: We're really excited about the Violens too, as we've been listening to the pre-released tracks a lot. Bit of a change from their previous record. What led to you becoming involved with them?

MS: Yeah, this new record is just, like, a quantum leap. It's really just so solid, consistent and thought through. Sonically, there's so much going on, and the vocal harmonies are incredible. Those '60s Curt Boettcher-influenced vocals just blow me away. It kind of ties it in with Veronica Falls for me, whose harmonies remind me of The Mamas and Papas.

CC: I always wonder why more indie rock bands don't try to cultivate that harmony-heavy aesthetic.

MS: I think it's because it's really hard to do. You have to really be a good singer, and have an ear for vocal arrangements, and, simply, not everyone can do that. This conception of a sort of baroque soundscape. People who can hear music like that, I hate them (laughs), because all I can do is bang away in my band, but I'm so in awe. Devon Williams is a Slumberland artist who I think can do this so well, think of the larger picture.

It was him, in fact, who turned me on to the Violens. Devon kept saying, "you got to listen to Jorge's stuff." They had been friends for some time. Eventually, he sent me a bunch of their discography, things like the songs from their 2011 Internet singles run, and some of the demos for this new record. It killed me. I get a lot of demos, a lot of stuff that comes through, and I try to listen to all of it, but sometimes it's hard to go through 20 or 30 songs a day. For Violens, it just jumped out to me, and I thought "you gotta do this." I think people are really going to enjoy that record, we've leaked a fair amount of it out already, but when you hear it as a full piece, it's just really powerful.

CC: What, for you, comprises the "total package" that gets you excited about a group and want to work with them?

MS: I don't know what it is. I like a lot of stuff that I don't put out. It's not always necessarily an issue of "quality." I like good songwriting, good arranging, good sounds. There's just some stuff where I think, "yes!"

It doesn't have to be "hi-fi" or "lo-fi." If the songs are great, then that is what jumps out. I like to think that I value substance over the style of things. I don't necessarily keep up with the latest trends, it doesn't result in the records that I want to listen to five or ten years from now. That's what I aim to do, release records that I'll still want to listen to way down the line. Sometimes that intersects with what is hip and cool, sometimes it takes a decade for the taste-makers to warm up to something. I don't concern myself with it that much. What belongs on Slumberland? It's an X factor, really.

CC: We imagine you aim to do better than break even with every record. Have there been any releases that you loved so much that you just said "what the hell" and released them without any concern at all for covering costs?

MS: (Laughs) Most of them! You know, I have to think about it a little bit. I have a family, and it's not just a hobby. I prefer not to lose money on stuff, but it's not my primary consideration. I can't ever see myself putting out something because I think I can make money on it. Because, invariably, you'll be wrong if you chase that kind of idea. I go into it accepting that any release could get a few crappy reviews, and it might not recoup costs, but that's just the risk of doing what I do.

I think that anything we put out will undoubtedly eventually find an audience, and that's the value of operating the label for as long as we have. There's a certain kind of record and music fan that will pay attention to what we're doing, because of our track record. The main issue is getting the right record to the right person, and that's how you don't lose money.

CC: Are there any bands that "got away" that you wished you could have signed?

MS: Hmm...I got some demos from Moonshake at one point. It would have been between the Creation record and the Too Pure singles. We kind of arranged for it but it fell through. I had talked to McCarthy about doing stuff, but they broke up, and that's how we ended up putting out the Stereolab releases in the first place, through that connection. It would have been super cool to release a McCarthy record.

I also actually kind of met Stuart Murdoch before Belle and Sebastian. I had talked to him about music, and he came and played some songs on my then-girlfriend/now-wife's radio show. He sent me Tigermilk when it came out, and I didn't fully connect with it at the time. I was one of the first U.S. labels to hear that, and I guess the opportunity was there, I don't really know.

I don't trip out about that sort of thing too much. I'm always happy to go out an buy a record I really like. Sometimes I'll think "why didn't I put this out?" But fact of the matter is, I have to turn down putting out records I really like anyway, so I don't mind going out and buying someone's record. In today's day and age, that's the best show of support for an artist, is for anybody to go out and just buy a record.

CC: Any current labels out there that you really admire these days?

MS: That's a hard one. You know, I don't actually consume that much indie rock, I like a lot of other styles of music just as much. My favorite label is probably Honest Jon's, I like their old stuff and their new stuff. They've put out a really interesting angle on dub step. Their reissues are immaculate. I'd consider them a slightly less populist Soul Jazz, perhaps a little more tightly curated. Also, of course Soul Jazz.

It's weird, I feel a bit of a kinship with a lot of the U.K. reissue labels, for some reason. They plough their own furrows. They're not interested in capital "I" indie. Just doing their own thing regardless. That really inspires me.

I used to be a techno DJ, playing a lot of jungle. I had a record store that specialized in that stuff in the '90s. I loved the super independent nature of it. People had their own labels, and their own distributors, it was a totally stand-alone thing.

CC: For you, how much of your local scene do you attempt to document versus national and international releases?

MS: I have to admit, I don't give this aspect of the label much consideration at all. I just put out what I like and don't worry too much about where the bands are from.

CC: Right. Okay, time for me to expose my true fanboy intentions. We really enjoyed the 20th Anniversary disc that you put together of unreleased tracks by artists over the course of your history. Are there any more unheard documents? After the recent success of Black Tambourine, are there any moves to reissue more of the back catalog? I should mention, it's widely known that two of the biggest "spirit songs" of this blog are "Claire Hates Me" by Lilys, and "Maybe It's Better" by Whorl. Our editor Jay writes, "LILYS LILYS LILYS GIVE US LILYS!"

MS: HAHA, that's awesome. I would say "yes" and "yes" to both of those questions. We're definitely working on more reissue stuff. There's some really good things coming up. Some of them are just straight reissues of records on vinyl that have been out of print for a long time. And then, some of them are going to be multi-album omnibus compilations. Whether Lilys are involved, I can't say at this point.

We've always been talking a bit about doing a Whorl comp. There's tons and tons of stuff. There's studio sessions we did with Wharton Tiers in New York that have never been released. I think that a lot of that will eventually see the light of day. Matt from Lorelei has been saying for years "I will finance whatever you want to put out! Make it a multi-LP box set, with DVDs, blah blah blah..." I'm not sure if the Whorl legacy requires such an elaborate package.

But it would be fun, I was just sitting upstairs in my office looking at the old master tapes, I have them for all of that stuff, the actual recordings, not the mixes. I was thinking it might be cool to try to remix some of it. When we recorded with Wharton Tiers, we didn't know what we were doing, at all. We didn't even know about overdubs, we recorded it all live. He didn't get in our way, but he also didn't educate us. He just thought we were weird. We drove up from D.C. with our funny little practice amps, we didn't even have real amplifiers. I think he thought we were cute. We went to him because he had worked with Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, and Swans, all this stuff we were really into, and we wanted to sound like that. Needless to say, the source material wasn't there for him to do it. But I could see someone remixing it and kind of toughening it out, without losing too much from the original performances. So, we might do that at some point, for you and Jay, and the other five people who might be into it. It would be fun, I have no reticence about that stuff being heard again.

CC: I think it's pretty timeless.

MS: Well, gee, thanks. Like what we were saying about Black Tambourine, I think there's some value in not really knowing what you're doing. I wonder if we were more seasoned musicians, what would those records have sounded like? They might have sounded more of their time, and therefore maybe not be as interesting now.

CC: Naivety can be a real asset. I think that's why a lot of the '60s garage bands on the Nuggets box sets are so great. They all wanted to be the Rolling Stones, but it's the ways that they failed in that endeavor that make them stand out now.

MS: Totally. I think that's what makes a band like Beat Happening so electrifying. I never get tired of listening to their first records. It's unbelievable really, it could have been made in 1966, 1976, or 1986! You can't even tell. If you played that for somebody who hadn't listened to it before, I bet they wouldn't know. That is an incredible thing to achieve.

CC: Well on that note, thanks Mike for chatting with us.

MS: Nice talking to you, too. It's refreshing to speak with someone who is well aware of the history of the label, but not just assuming that it's all retreads of the past. I'm often shocked at how much press about the label comes from the insane, accepted notion that we're totally twee (ha ha!) and retro.

1 comment:

DanP said...

Wow, excellent piece!