PRINT September 1998


artist-owned labels

“WE HAD FIFTEEN RELEASES that were stylistically diverse: it wasn’t a doo-wop label or a label to reissue Boston hardcore, ” David Grubbs says. The Chicago musician is talking about Dexter’s Cigar, the record label he ran with former Gastr del Sol bandmate Jim O’Rourke from 1995 until April of this year. They’re just a couple of the handful of obsessive musicians who ’ve recently formed archive-&-reprint-based labels. In addition to Dexter’s Cigar, there’s O’Rourke’s brand new Moikai, Tony Conrad’s Audio ArtKive, John Fahey’s Revenant, and Thurston Moore’s K/EY, which launches next winter.

Granted, the phenomenon of musicians owning record companies or running small imprints is nothing new—check Herb Alpert, lan MacKaye, Tricky. And reissues have been a staple of the compact-disc phenomenon from the digitally remastered get-go. What’s unique about this recent manifestation is the overt concern for historical re-evaluation of arcane material (whether three or seventy-three years old) and an almost studied commitment to heterogeneous sounds.

The figurehead factor accounts for a lot of these labels’ appeal, especially with younger listeners. Anything that can be used to make them stand out from the herd, if only a little bit, seems like a good thing, “ music historian and writer Byron Coley says of K/EY, the half new-stuff, half old-stuff imprint he’s founding with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Coley characterizes K/EY’s archival recordings—likely unheard sounds from Sonny Sharrock and some rare Sun Ra—as ”small stinging lumps around the rim of subpopular consciousness.“ ”It’s a taste thing, “ musician and producer O’Rourke adds. ”If you dig Byron ’s or Thurston’s aesthetic, you may well dig their favorite records."

Grubbs connects these labels to a fundamental, DIY ethos: “A number of people behind artist-run labels have come full circle from having begun by releasing their own records. My first record was self-released; the same is true of John Fahey. ” Dexter’s catalogue ranges all over the avant-rock map: Merzbow’s power electronics; Henry Kaiser’s kamikaze guitar science; and Rafael Toral’s blissed-out drone rock. The very eclecticism excites composer Arnold Dreyblatt, whose just-intoned 1981 work Nodal Excitations was reissued by Dexter’s. “(In) this new generation, everything fits in, but with a respect for the individual genres, not the postmodern stance we were used to.”

O’Rourke’s new Moikai venture tends toward neglected electronic/minimalist music. As the label’s debut, Moikai rereleased Uni Umit, the meditative, playful solo effort by Jan St. Werner (of Microstoria/Mouse on Mars), and the flowing keyboards of Nuno Canavarro’s Plux Quba. “The reissues that are important were made by people way ahead of the curve, ” says O’Rourke. “They were giving us all big headlights with which to see the road.” So how will O’Rourke’s association affect listeners’ perceptions? “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s where he ripped it off from,’” he jokes.

Composer/violinist Tony Conrad’s archival recordings of Jack Smith were originally recorded in mono on a portable tape deck thirty-five years ago, in the apartment the two shared. Released on two separate discs subtitled “56 Ludlow Street,” they serve a definitive archival purpose: expanding our understanding of this still-misunderstood life-affirming freak. In the process, they shed light on Conrad’s stuff, and help document the beginnings of that art-rock institution known as The Velvet Underground—VU’ers Angus MacLise and John Cale appear in the background on the Smith discs.

The most genre-hopping, elegantly packaged reissue-based recordings are on John Fahey’s Revenant label. Fahey, who started the Takoma label in 1959, runs Revenant with manager Dean Blackwood. The two met when Blackwood approached the guitar innovator ; music historian several years ago to release new Fahey sounds for his 78-rpm Perfect label—a groovy contextual displacement if ever there was one. Through Fahey’s contacts, Revenant’s accessed a true mother lode, from the Stanley Brothers’ earliest raw, keening proto-bluegrass recordings to the most thorough selection ever of unreleased Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. Devoted to “raw music of all stripes,” their releases encompass free jazz, experimental, sanctified blues, drone, bluegrass, rockabilly, compositional, and traditional rural music. Blackwood says that “the raw music thing has more to do with the artist’s vision being preserved in its raw form. Most of the Revenant stuff has a primal quality to it; it ain’t too far from the root. ” Pioneering improv guitarist Derek Bailey, whose Music and Dance was released by Revenant, “ really is the ultimate roots artist, if you think about it. It just so happens he created his own root.” Coley adds, “It’s good that people with ears are getting a chance to refile the dustbins of history.”

Michael McGonigal writes frequently on music.