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“We make up poems, sing raps, lift drums, and invent albums.”
Steadily amassing a fanbase of pilgrims from the realms of indie rock, shoegaze, battle rap and electronica as they go about this business, anticon’s mission statement seems grossly understated these days.
Music for the Advancement of Hip Hop, they said - seemed like a big and bold statement at the time, ruffled a few feathers too - and so far we’ve been treated to ten years of the stuff; producing beats you’d never dare try shake your rump to and accompanying lyrical poetry that tends to steer clear of the formulaic strictures of materialistic braggadocio. But for those traditionalists who took as much comfort in anticon's sloganeering as they would a toffee hammer to the knee, it’s still a bone of contention whether this was ever hip-hop to begin with, let alone the burgeoning of some new paradigm.
We’ll take ‘Music for the Advancement of Music’ then, and it’s an endeavour that has worked out quite nicely for the San Franciscan label, having enjoyed one of its most stylistically varied forays into genre exploration to date in 2007.
Whether they're musical anthropologists, high-minded futurists or just plain taking the piss, DiS sacks off the conjecture that's all been said already to sit in on a meeting with the chairmen of the board.
Apart from your respective recording careers, how does everybody’s role at the label manifest itself? Is there a hierarchy behind the scenes? Who makes the tea?
Yoni Wolf (AKA Why?): The label was run by Baillie Parker - now Shaun Koplow - on a day to day basis. The owners - seven of the original artists, plus Baillie - only step in to vote on new artists and a few other key decisions.
David Madson (AKA Odd Nosdam): I was art director for about five years so my role was very specific and hands on. I touched most everything with an ant on it. I stepped down from that position in January of 2006. Now I mostly focus on all things Nosdam. But I do still collaborate with Jel, DJ various anticon shows, A&R a bit, do the occasional album design and tinker on others tunes.
Adam Drucker (AKA Doseone): I listen to new music by artists we are looking to work with, as per the watchful ear and suggestion of Shaun. I also always know an anticon-er when I meet one... it’s a seldom thing but every once in a while I meet someone and they feel oddly familiar... an ant at heart.
Brendon Whitney (AKA Alias): I've been touring a lot lately, so I haven't been as involved as I was a few years ago. There was a time when I was just working on music non-stop, so I would go to the office to help out with whatever mail out needed to be done that week. I enjoyed doing that a lot, because this is a label that I am proud to be a part of, and I want to see it go as far as it possibly can. Sitting there and actually helping with the mail outs let me see what writers and publications were getting the records for review. But I also try to come to the table as often as possible with music of my own so the label has something to release. It's a fine line to walk, so as not to over-saturate, but I try to give the label at least one full-length album per year.
Jeff Logan (AKA Jel): My role at the label hasn't changed much, just the in-house beat maker. I think I’ve answered the phone at the office a few times in the past.
Tim Holland (AKA sole): If I have an idea I'll shoot it over to main office, but for the most part I stay out of the business end.
Video: Why?’s ‘Gemini (Birthday Song)’
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the label about to turn ten? That seems a significant benchmark for an independent to reach, especially these days. Looking back on your achievements – both personally and collectively – are you pleased with how far you've travelled as a creative force?
Baillie Parker: That's about right. We're excited to be coming up on our ten year anniversary. Looking back retrospectively makes you realise how much things have changed. The music industry has changed, our artists have changed and the label has really diversified its output. I think we're in a good position. People still don't know what to expect from us, which is a good thing.
TH: Yeah, I mean, we've had a good run, and I feel like we're just getting started. The music industry is hellish, so it’s good to still be fighting the good fight.
YW: I'm quite pleased with the progress of the label. We went from an artist-run mess of a posse / collective / label who released basically only our own music in the late ‘90s to a real-deal label capable of releasing albums by anybody we find fit and willing, with a dedicated label manager and a decent sized base of listeners.
JL: From working off of 4-track tape machines and recording on DAT and ADAT with minimal instrumentation in the music, to most of us forming live bands and focusing our careers on that aspect of music making. I think we all have really refined our skills as musicians and cracked the shell of ‘beat maker’, ‘rapper’ and 'DJ’.
AD: I think, creatively, I’ve stayed a rather heady, difficult and fruitful course. This is where anticon has been an utter success for me. Being surrounded by my peers has pushed me to push myself, kept our passions in shape, instead of mingling our passions with the waters of greed or complacency and outside the bubble of my one bedroom apartment and person.
BW: I'm more than pleased with where I have gone thus far and what anticon has grown into since 1997. The idea that my music has brought me to places like Japan, Russia, Croatia, Poland... places I never would have imagined going to, it's still mind-blowing to me. I could quit making music now, and feel like I accomplished more than I ever expected. I have no complaints.
On record and in previous interviews I’ve read, you seem like a fairly headstrong collective; to what extent do you feel as though the label has succeeded in the music industry on its own terms?
JL: Largely, and that reflects on the creative output very positively. But on the financial side it's not so positive... sustainable.
AD: Being DIY can become a bit of a barbed wire fence and being unique musically can be a bit of a glass ceiling. As a record label we want to not have any ‘keep out’ signs on our property or ‘stay put’ signs in our future. By and large, we have secured a way for our music to always see daylight and its way to headphones.
TH: The machine dictates how the business is run: we’re slaves to release dates and the need for forms of marketing; it’s a constant uphill battle against the constraints the music industry places on anyone who wishes to run that gauntlet.
BW: For the most part, anticon isn't a business that is set up to take care of the artists 100 per cent of the time. You have to do a bit of your own hustling as well, which is absolutely fine by me. It has taught me a lot about the business, and that you have to give to get. You can't just sit back and expect the label to handle everything for you. This has allowed me to have 100 per cent creative control with every aspect of my career. I don't have a manager taking a percentage of money when I would be telling them what I want to do in the first place. I like handling my own business.
Video: Telephone Jim Jesus’ ‘Birds In Chase’
A lot of bands and artists can often only aspire to living that ideal; would you recommend the setup of an entrepreneurial indie label as a path for any budding young collective to go down or do you believe it’s simply about time and place? Where did you start?
AD: Yes and no. I would not recommend being in a buzz band. But, conversely, starting a label, recording its content and flying its flag all at the same time is life consuming and it’s a dive or don't type situation. So in a sense this lifestyle picks you, and you pick it. The most difficult part of the truly independent-ness is that no one has your back and, in this, you are afforded less security in the working world, this does wear on the constitution in a certain way.
JL: I wouldn't recommend anyone to start an indie label, ha! Especially nowadays, unless, I guess, if you want a challenge in life?
BW: The indie labels are starting to feel the crunch of the changing times.
DM: If everyone's on the same page, at least for the most part, building together is not a bad idea. The danger, I think, of a collective unit is when any one individual becomes too attached or feels that their role is somehow more important than anyone else’s. Egos suck.
JL: I just think budding young musicians should be aware of their talent and that no one cares about their talents but their peers. You don't need to start an actual record company if you have a strong and positive collective of like minds. All in all, the best way to release music is on your own terms and you can do it easier on an independent level, but you’ve got to be smart about your business because no one is poking their hand through the clouds, handing you the rent money.
AD: The upside is, of course, that you are as close to being a self-employed conquistador as one can get in this day and age, and killing your own dinner is very good for the art and artist’s sense of centre.
TH: For us, we felt we had so much talent that everyone would pull their weight, but you don't want people who can’t pull their weight involved in something so important.
YW: I think we did what we felt we had to at the time. It was mostly sole in the beginning, along with Dose and others, who took it upon himself to see to it that our brand of indie lo-fi hip-hop, whatever, got out there. They did a lot of the early grunt work when it came to dealing with getting shit manufactured and distributed. There wasn't a label at the time that was going to take all of us on their roster, nor did we want that really, and so we made one ourselves. We had a real sort of collective, communal spirit back then. We were all in it together. It has been a long hard road and I wouldn't suggest it to someone - one band or artist - who just wants to get their shit out there. There are easier ways, I'm sure. I'm proud of us though, that we just bull-dogged through it and eventually became a real legitimate thing.
What would your number one piece of advice be for anybody who wants to carry on regardless?
TH: Make sure your music is original and that you have a steady source of money that doesn't involve music. Ask a lot of questions, constantly re-evaluate your strategies…
AD: “Have you fully explored your options in the military?” Actually, it would be even more cliché, like something one ninja would say to another: “never say die”. Really, there is no perfect advice like: “Never play against a man in poker who has the same name as the city you’re in”. I would recommend, in music or business, that you surround yourself with those you trust implicitly... the rest will be a function of clockwork and sweat spent.
YW: I think, nowadays, it doesn't make too much sense starting the kind of label that manufactures CDs and records. Downloads and shit... that’s probably where it’s about to be at... I imagine so, anyway.
Video: Alias’ ‘Sixes Last’
After a decade of activity and all the records you’ve released both individually and collectively - be it Deep Puddle Dynamics, 13&God or Themselves - after all the business is said and done, does there still exist a healthy sense of competition amongst the stable?
AD: Howdy doody, yes. We still measure our heights in the door way at the office. Alias always wins, which sucks.
D Kesler (of Thee More Shallows): The competition and collaboration at anticon is one of the main reasons we were so excited to work with the label. It's still there, and it still pushes people to make their absolute best work.
JL: Yeah, I believe the healthy competition is one thing that has kept strong... we are all supportive of each others’ projects, but we also get the itch to one up each other after hearing something new. And of course it’s not a sales competition; it's kind of “who can give each other more goose bumps at first listen”.
BW: I still get very inspired by these guys. For me, Jel especially – I don't think he's ever made something that didn't grab my attention immediately. And I got to see him play live for the first time in a while the other night, and was completely blown away; his hands were moving so fast, they were a blur over his MPC. But all of these guys give me chills on the regular, which makes me want to try and keep up.
DM: Post-cLOUDDEAD, me and Why? have an interesting cycle going where every couple of years we each release a solo record within a few months of each other, at least with our last three full lengths. His conscious decision to go more towards shorter albums with fully fleshed-out, poppy tunes has been a big inspiration for me, a kick in me pants. When it comes to beats, Jel is my hero. He's always in the back of my mind when I’m working on drum stuff. I think we all - Dosh, Bracken, Thee More Shallows, etc included - on a more subconscious level, feed off the fact that we're each trying to make great records.
TH: I think what everyone does now is so drastically different it doesn’t much matter. I did, however, want to kill myself when I heard [last Why? LP] Elephant Eyelash though, that's a good record.
YW: I think we are all just eager to make the best record we can make and deliver the clearest version of each of our individual visions. Since it seems like you never can quite communicate as clearly as you would like on how it feels to be alive for you, you have to make another record. Even a so-called finished album for me isn't half the story as things become clearer and clearer over time.
On an individual basis, it seems a common thing for you all to wear a few different hats when it comes to making records. Alias, you used to rap alongside your labelmates, but now you’re more renowned for your production work. Any reason you gave up the emceeing?
BW: No reason in particular. Production and recording is something that just comes a bit more naturally to me than sitting down with a pad and pen. It takes more focus for me to work on words that I feel are up to par with someone like Dose, Why? or Pedestrian. We'll see though. After doing this tour with Buck 65 and Sage Francis, it inspired the hell out of me. I'll most likely try to focus on a new rap record in the next year or so. I have a few songs that I've been working on at my leisure, so it's a matter of buckling down and putting all my attention into it.
As one of the label's chief remix extraordinares, you’ve previously reworked songs for a broad range of characters, like Arab Strap’s Aiden Moffat and Christ. (formerly of Boards of Canada) for example. Who has really taken you out of your comfort zone and presented you with a challenging track to reinterpret?
BW: John Vanderslice. I'm a massive fan of his music, but also his recording and production. He has one of the last all-analogue studios in the US, Tiny Telephone. I've become kind of a gear nerd without the money to delve into the equipment he has at Tiny Telephone, so I was extremely nervous about messing up the overall sound of (John’s single) 'Exodus Damage', because I'm all digital in my studio. Here he is making this dope song with some of the best gear available, and I'm in my studio with Pro-tools and all my electronic gear. Overall, he said he really liked what I did, which was a huge weight off my shoulders.
I wanted to ask you about the track ‘Last Nail’ on last year's Alias and Tarsier debut (review), where you broke a silence of sorts and rapped on record for the first time in a while: "Used to think we'd change the world / Now I'm just happy to wake up and drink coffee in my apartment". Is this what hitting 30 can do to a musician? What's the mood like these days? Do you want to conquer or would you prefer a cappuccino?
BW: It’s a cappuccino, I guess. For me anyways. That's also touching on my own feelings on how far I want to continue to push myself. The only way to make a decent living as a musician or recording artist nowadays is to tour. I don't really like touring. I like being in my studio. I like being at home with my wife every night. I like cooking nice dinners for the two of us. At some point, I'd like to have children and the idea of leaving on tours with children at home would make it less and less appealing to me. I did think we would change the world when we first started. I was in my early twenties and as wide eyed as anyone that age would be. We would all tell each other that we'd be rich in six months and talk about the VH1 Behind the Music special they’d eventually make about us. At some point, I stopped believing in those things and just became used to the idea of where we were going with it. But I'm very, very proud of what I've done and where we've gone. I'm just not sure we'll be changing the world anytime soon.
Video: sole’s ‘Salt On Everything’
Speaking of a Behind the Music special, there have been rumblings of an anticon documentary being somewhere in the works. Can we expect any brawls? Any therapy sessions involving polo-neck clad relationship therapists with attachment issues?
BW: Ha! If you only knew. Without going into details, all I'll say is this: mixing business and friendship is an incredibly tough thing to do without having some kind of casualties. Are we all as chummy as we used to be? No, not at all. But that is to be expected when you group yourselves together so tightly, like we did in the beginning. We worked with each other non-stop. I didn't release my first solo record until four years after we did Deep Puddle, because I was working on collaborative efforts or producing for other artists. At one point, I just needed to step back and start working on things for myself. I'm still very close to most of these guys, but when you have so many artists who all have their own vision of what the label and their art should be, it's hard to keep everyone on the same page. I've talked about it in songs before, referring to us as all "hitting the prism headfirst". We all started out as one unified thing, and then we hit the prism, and all kind of bounced off into our own separate field. No therapy for me though. I'm okay with where everyone is at right now.
JL: People come and take footage with hopes of a documentary in mind and then go and put the footage in a vault somewhere. I'm sure there are countless hours of footage floating all over the world now.
DM: Among other reality based scenarios, we did act out a group therapy session once. Our man Ravi is compiling all his work with us over the last five years and I believe he will include some of these skits.
AD: Wow, have you seen the footage? There is blow throwing, a therapist and a group dance routine. Unfortunately, putting it all together is something none of us have taken the reins to do. It remains difficult for us to truly take a 200x zoom out and see ourselves from a birds eye view while still in the full swing of things.
Collected Remixes by Alias, We Know About the Need by Bracken, Still Alive by DJ Mayonnaise, Poly.Sci.187 by mansbestfriend, Level Live Wires by Odd Nosdam, Wrong Faced Cat Feed Collapse by SJ Esau, sole and the Skyrider Band’s self titled debut, Book of Bad Breaks by Thee More Shallows and Anywhere Out of the Everything by Telephone Jim Jesus are all out now via anticon.
For more information on the label click to their website, here.