The Sound of Freedom to Come

Refused by Dustin Rabinphoto by Dustin Rabin

“In the 14 years we weren’t a band, we grew up a lot. When we got back together, we sat down and talked about the 1990s, and we were able to admit to each other the times we were wrong and acted like idiots and hurt each other. It’s not sexy or very rock-n-roll, but it was important to talk about this stuff, understand people’s feelings, and listen to one another.”

In 1998, the intrepid Swedish hardcore band, Refused, released the seminal The Shape of Punk to Come (Burning Heart/Epitaph). It was an audacious and prescient gesture. For the ensuing years, the album’s wiry, abrasive, politically defiant, and genre-defying tracks became a beacon of inspiration, leading a charge of musicians deeper into the post-hardcore landscape.

Refused by Ulf Nyberg
photo by Ulf Nyberg

While the album provided many listeners with a fresh sense of artistic purpose, it sent the band members into a creative and personal chasm that ultimately ended the band. Seventeen years later, and after a series of volatile and emotionally charged breakups and reunions, the band has regrouped and followed up their high-water mark album with Freedom (Epitaph). Like its predecessor, it’s a challenging album; it’s both unclassifiable and unmistakably the work of Refused.

“Our legacy haunted me when Refused wasn’t around because people kept comparing everything I did to Refused,” says vocalist Dennis Lyxzén who, after the band dissolved, fronted The (International) Noise Conspiracy and most recently, INVSN. “I was out of Refused for so long, it felt like I was never a part of it. It was like this weird entity that drifted off into the sunset. When we got back together, it was liberating.”

Between 1991 and 1998, Refused released five EPs and three full-length albums. After the band’s bitter breakup in 1998, witnessed by 50 kids at a basement show in Virginia, the band issued a formal declaration—“Refused Are Fucking Dead”—promising never to reunite. In 2012, the band regrouped to play festival dates, only to go back on hiatus again until 2014, when the band returned to its artistic continuum through gigging and writing new music. Currently, Refused is vocalist Dennis Lyxzén, guitarist Kristofer Steen, bassist Magnus Flagge, and drummer David Sandström.

“I love that emotions run high in this band,” Lyxzén confides. “In the 14 years we weren’t a band, we grew up a lot. When we got back together, we sat down and talked about the 1990s, and we were able to admit to each other the times we were wrong and acted like idiots and hurt each other. It’s not sexy or very rock-n-roll, but it was important to talk about this stuff, understand people’s feelings, and listen to one another.”

Refused

Around 2012, guitarist Kristofer Steen and drummer David Sandström revealed to Lyxzén that they had been writing new material and asked if he would be interested in making a new Refused record. “I asked Kris if his riffs were as good as the last record and he said yes,” Lyxzén recalls. The first song Steen and Sandström showed Lyxzén was the white-knuckle ride “Elektra,” Freedom’s first single, and literally the first song Steen had written in 14 years. “When I heard that, I wasn’t nervous. I knew this new album was going to work,”  Lyxzén says. “Once we started writing, it was like being in a vacuum. It was actually liberating.”

Freedom is a compelling title for the band’s fourth album and first official reunion album. Conceptually, it’s in line with the band’s fierce politicizing, but it also slyly touches upon the band members’ refusal to be shackled to their own past. “It’s our freedom to explore new music and mess with our legacy,” Lyxzén affirms.

The album was produced by Nick Launay, known for his work with Public Image Limited, Gang of Four, The Birthday Party, and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. Launay’s post-punk pedigree appealed to Refused because they felt he would be able to organically capture the nuances and textures of the angular groove and rock-n-roll terrain they were exploring. During recording, the mood in the studio was sedate and focused. “The only time Shape came up was three weeks into the session when Nick came into the studio saying, ‘I listened to The Shape of Punk to Come last night, holy shit!’” Lyxzén laughs.

Freedom is vertigo-inducing. It assaults your equilibrium in just 10 songs with post-hardcore, dreamy, ambient rock; twitchy funk; and futuristic, good old-fashioned rock-n-roll.

Refused by Dustin Rabinphoto by Dustin Rabin

Highlights include the agit-punk of “366,” a heartfelt and scathing song about a ship of refugees that sank, killing all 366 passengers aboard. “That epitomizes another of facet of naming the album ‘Freedom,’ because it shows the importance of the idea of freedom to people. To build a better life, and have better economic conditions, they will risk everything—even their lives,” Lyxzén offers. The ominously impassioned “Old Friends/New War” addresses the band’s vitality in its reunion. “When we first got back together, I would talk about why we reunited while onstage. I felt like I was trying to explain it to myself, but this track defines why we are back, hence the title,” Lyxzén says. One of the album’s biggest surprises is the roiling funk of “Servants Of Death.” “That’s Kris’ idea of what a Michael Jackson song circa Off the Wall would sound like if Refused wrote it,” Lyxzén says with a chuckle.

“I know how hard it is to do a comeback record,” Lyxzén says in closing. “I know no matter how successful the new record is, it may never share the impact of The Shape of Punk to Come. That was a certain time in culture and under special circumstances. But that’s in the past. The past can define you as a person, but it’s not as important as what you’re doing now.”

Raiders of the Lost Arks

“There has always been plenty of music history to rediscover, but there hasn’t always been this many people interested in rediscovering it in a way that marries art, craftsmanship, and history.”

The story of the music business is littered with artists who should have been more successful, great records that went unheard, and even cult labels that left a small but indelible mark on the lives of just a few uber fans. A new generation of reissue labels are helping to bring the lost and obscure sounds of the past into the present in myriad passionate ways. From local archivists unearthing the sounds of their cities, to DJs seeking to democratize rare records, or established research labels crafting intricate packages, there is a never-ending flow of music that is being rediscovered and repackaged. The concept of reissuing records is not new, but thanks to the internet, it’s become much easier to track people down and obtain information about music and rights holders. Laurent Fintoni takes a look at six reissue labels from around the world that are fairly new to Bandcamp and display a dedication to history and quality.

Secret Stash

For Minneapolis-based Eric Foss, the combination of an interest in music history and a drive to share music spurred the creation of his Secret Stash label. He focuses on music with a strong soul and funk influence from around the world, including Haiti, Iran, and Nigeria, as well as sounds from closer to home. “I think there is a large cultural movement toward quality in what we consume,” Foss explains. “That same force is what’s driving today’s reissue market. There has always been plenty of music history to rediscover but there hasn’t always been this many people interested in rediscovering it in a way that marries art, craftsmanship and history.”

The Valdons, photo courtesy of Ricky WashingtonThe Valdons, photo courtesy of Ricky Washington

Secret Stash has expanded to release new recordings from forgotten artists. In 2013, Foss brought Twin Cities’ soul singers The Valdons back in the studio for the first time in 40 years to record songs that were initially written and demoed back in the 1970s. The results, released on two 7″s this year, show that it’s not just the music that has stood the test of time, but also the artists.

The jewel in Secret Stash’s lineup is the One-Derful! Collection, a series of six compilations tracing the history of a defunct Chicago label run by an African-American family in the 1960s. With close to 150 tracks and 200 pages of liner notes, it’s a comprehensive retrospective and work of love that shows the team’s dedication to quality and history. Foss says, “I’m most proud that we helped preserve the history of such a large body of work and saved these artifacts from inevitably disappearing. By doing this we can ensure the legacy lives on.”

Anthology Recordings

Anthology Recordings was originally started in 2004 by Keith Abrahamsson, an A&R at Kemado Records with a mantra of “nothing too obscure.” For six years it issued hundreds of records before going on hiatus. It relaunched last year as an imprint of Mexican Summer, the label born from Kemado Records in 2008. “We do this because we love it and we want that reflected in the music we release,” Abrahamsson explains as he describes his passion. He says this love will translate via “the high-quality packaging and compelling design.”

Andrew KidmanAndrew Kidman

A recent Anthology release is the Litmus record, the soundtrack to the 1996 surf film by Andrew Kidman. The music for the film was recorded by Kidman’s band, The Val Dusty Experiment, and is supplemented by contributions from Galaxie 500 and Yothu Yindi. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the soundtrack, Anthology is issuing a box set containing the double LP and a 100-page booklet with photos and ephemera from the films.

In explaining how the label decides what to work on and how it curates, Abrahamsson says, “we don’t ever want to add to the sheer volume of releases that are out there unless we really feel we’re bringing something positive to the conversation.” He adds that he is proud of all the records he’s worked on, because in the end “holding a finished record always brings the same level of joy.”

Habibi Funk

It was hip-hop that first brought Jannis Stuertz to North Africa. While running the Cologne-based Jakarta Records, Stuertz would accompany touring artists in the region and spent time in Tunisia with the American rapper and producer Oddisee to work on the Sawtuha compilation. On these trips, Stuertz would dig for vinyl and soon accumulated an impressive collection of funk-inflected music from the Arab world. From those discoveries the Habibi Funk label was born. “The label is dedicated to reissuing music from the Arab world that deserves more shine,” Stuertz explains.

DaltonDalton

Habibi Funk launched earlier this year with a 7″ from Dalton. They were a band from Tunis who flew to Rome in the early 1970s to record their one and only official release. After discovering the record through a French collector, Stuertz tracked down Faouzi Chekili, the band leader, via social media. The result is a combination of soul and heavy grooves reminiscent of Brazil. “I think North Africa has been quite overlooked in terms of reissues,” Stuart explains. “Finding a record from Algeria worth bringing to people’s attention is easier than one from Nigeria. Certain countries are already well documented.”

Stuertz is keen to make sure that the original artists, writers, and labels are paid for sales from his reissues, but that means he has to work harder and he admits, “sometimes finding the original artists can be tough if they’ve passed away.” He is excited about a forthcoming reissue of Fadaul, a Moroccan artist who passed away in 1992 leaving behind a body of psychedelic recordings. “It’s looking good,” he enthuses. “I spent two years gathering the information and finding his family.”

Athens Of The North

Sometimes all it takes to turn a passion into a career is a lucky break and some perseverance. That is how Euan Fryer found himself launching his own label, Athens Of The North, a couple of years ago. “I have collected rare and obscure records my whole life and always shared the music through DJing and mixtapes,” Fryer remembers. “When Gerald Short at Jazzman Records gave me the chance to drop my McJob and move into music 15 years ago, I jumped at the chance.”

Taking the nickname given to Fryer’s hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, AOTN is a label whose releases have one thing in common: they’re all records that Fryer has in his collection. “I want to democratize rare and expensive records,” he says. “And also turn people onto records they’d never get a chance to hear.” For example, AOTN’s recent “Gangster Boy” release, a beautiful 1977 disco song recorded in Pennsylvania by The Reality Band & Show, was pressed to just 300 copies and is a certified rarity. “It took me 10 years to release it, but I never gave up,” he explains. With help from Heliocentrics drummer Malcolm Catto he tracked down a copy after first hearing it at a soul weekender. However, he couldn’t find a clean original to get a master from until now. “You have to be in it for the long game,” adds Fryer. He compares the research work that it takes to reissue music to being “like a detective and a salesman; most artists feed off your enthusiasm and knowledge.”

Boots for DancingBoots for Dancing

Later this year AOTN will release an LP from a local post-punk band called Boots For Dancing, members of which went on to be part of the Human League. “It’s been a real trip doing research for it,” explains Fryer. “We dug up master tapes from old studio owners in Edinburgh and even some in a cupboard in Spain. And now we have a double album of unreleased tracks and Peel Sessions the BBC kindly licensed to us. It’s very special, they should have been stars.”

Fire Archive

Fire Archive is in the unique position of having access to the extensive catalogue of Fire Records, its parent label, which was founded in 1986 and released early records from Pulp and Teenage Fantasy.

Fire Archive

Fire Archive label’s primary focus is on indie rock and post-punk music, covering music from the late 1970s through the past decade. Label head John Foster views the reissue label as a way to build on Fire’s existing history, and a way to bring back records they feel are important. Foster says, “We have a passion and know how to give past releases proper justice. After six years, the box set that was the driving force in my wanting to reissue forgotten records is about to be released.” Foster is referring to I Like Rain: The Story of The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, a retrospective of the New Zealand band who put the local indie rock scene on the map. The box set will include all of their studio recordings, bonus tracks, and a comprehensive oral history of the group. He goes on to say, “Being able to shine a spotlight in that way on such a band, who never got the chance they deserved and left behind some of my very favorite music, is why we do this.”

Foster points out that the label is very careful about what it reissues, boiling down their approach to this: “We stick our necks out on a lot of records, so we have to think, undeniably, that something is incredible, as we are about to put a ton of effort into it with little idea as to what the return might be.”

Aloha Got Soul

Aloha Got Soul began as a blog in 2010 after its author, Roger Bong, returned to the Hawaiian islands following a stint on the mainland. The idea was to preserve and document Hawaii’s little-known funk, soul, and disco sounds that were created in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I want to keep the music alive and help give it a second chance at reaching music lovers around the globe,” Bong tells me before pointing out that this is now easier to do thanks to the internet. “The mission is to release music from Hawaii that has soul, which is such a powerful word, but also difficult to define. It is music that moves you, that can be felt within, just like the word aloha. It means so much more than hello or goodbye; it is a shared respect for everyone and everything around us.”

Mike LundyMike Lundy

The label was launched in January this year with two tracks from Mike Lundy originally recorded at Honolulu’s Sounds Of Hawaii studio. Another 7″ of Lundy’s raw grooves is being released in June, including “Nothing Like Dat Funky Funky Music,” a track popularized by Japan’s DJ Muro via his 2009 Hawaiian Breaks mixtape.

Bong plans to also release music from Aura, a slept-on outfit from the 1970s that he describes as an “outstanding example of Hawaiian funk.” In 2016 he plans to expand the label’s reach with a double LP that features 13 tracks from Aeolus, an ambient artist who recorded a handful of albums in Honolulu during the mid–1980s.

“There is so much to discover in this tiny slice of contemporary Hawaiian music from 30–40 years ago, but so little documentation,” Bong explains. “I feel it has become part of my duty to help document and perpetuate such music for today’s generation, both locally and internationally.”

Where New Music Grows

Audiotree

“We stuck to our guns. We’re here for the long run, and now we have bands as family around the country.”

In just five years, the Chicago-based boutique music company Audiotree has emerged as a galvanizing force in the indie rock world with its unique, in-studio concert series, Audiotree Live. Currently, subscribers to the session total over 2 million, and recordings from this series have garnered prime TV and film placements. Audiotree Live recently debuted on Bandcamp with an upload of brand new sessions. Going forward, 10–15 freshly recorded Audiotree Live sessions will be available on Bandcamp each month, and back catalog will be added, too.

Audiotree sessions capture the feel of an intimate rehearsal, replete with pristine audio and crisp video. While recording budgets might be shrinking, Audiotree Live offers both emerging and established indie bands powerful assets to build their fan base and monetize their creativity.

“Our tagline is ‘We Grow Music,’” says Audiotree President and Cofounder Michael Johnston. “What that means to us is that we help bands grow by giving them resources, like videos and pro recordings, at no cost to them. Frequently, bands use their videos to get on bigger tours, play bigger venues, and attract more fans. Also, through revenue generated by these recordings, we help put money in musicians’ pockets.”

Recently, music from Audiotree Live sessions appeared on HBO’s hit series GIRLS. Last year, Bandcamp favorite Shakey Graves saw his Audiotree Live version of “Roll the Bones” appear on the soundtrack to The Inbetweeners 2.

The company was founded in 2010 by Adam Thurston, Director of Operations, and Michael Johnston, President. They currently have 12 employees. To date, Audiotree has produced 550 live sessions from bands across genres. Bands are handpicked and eligible for a live session if they tour consistently, officially release records, and have either management or booking representation. Audiotree Live sessions take place in Chicago at the company’s in-house studio.

Adam Thurston and Michael JohnstonAdam Thurston and Michael Johnston

With Audiotree Live, there are no touch-ups, overdubs, or even post-tracking mixing sessions. Bands come to the studio, set up, get their tones, and go. “Some bands do get nervous,” Thurston reveals. “So when they get here, we immediately make them feel comfortable by helping them load in equipment, feeding them lunch, and just hanging out with them.” Johnston adds, “We also have a super pro audio engineer who has been working in the audio-engineering world well before Pro Tools. He’s very laid-back and gets great sounds. A lot of bands tell us they were happy with the sessions because they could hear all the instruments. Bands always play better when they can hear themselves.”

The accompanying Audiotree Live videos are shot from the center where the drummer sets up, providing the viewer with the perspective of standing in the middle of your favorite band’s rehearsal.

Outside of the company’s live music program, Audiotree has launched a management wing to work with some of the artists who have appeared on Audiotree Live. Audiotree is also an active supporter of Foundations of Music, an organization that partners with disadvantaged schools to establish music programs during school hours. “When we started Audiotree, we wanted to give back to the kids because music programs in school shaped what Adam and I do today,” Johnston reveals.

Thurston and Johnston have been friends since second grade, though they went their separate ways after high school. Thurston pursued business, while Johnston eventually pursued audio engineering. Audiotree was first conceived as a record label with the live, in-studio sessions functioning as something of a rigorous audition process. But recording and hanging out with bands quickly became Johnston and Thurston’s main passion. Once they started putting these audition sessions on both their website and YouTube, their inboxes were flooded with inquiries. In 2011, their premier year, they produced 150 sessions and the Audiotree Live series became the focus of their enterprising spirits.

“I think we created a model that didn’t exist,” Johnston says. “We’ve gotten to work with bands that inspired us to be in the music industry ten years ago. We often hear from bands that playing on Audiotree launched their career. That feels really good. We stuck to our guns. We’re here for the long run, and now we have bands as family around the country.”

Sound System Seekers

Jesse Munro Johnson, Gulls by T. Harrisonphoto by T. Harrison

“Music is an ancient act that will live longer than any of our collective or individual egos. Having faith and patience in the musical process is crucial. Things take time to develop, and it’s often worth the wait.”

The stereotype is that on a visit to Portland, Oregon, you can expect to drink robust coffee, experience drizzly weather, and see a city teaming with single-gear bikes. But you can add another, perhaps unexpected, distinction to the City of Roses: dub capital of the United States. That’s right, the sound of Portland ripples with echo, and hefty bass loops emanate from studios, music venues, and living rooms all over town.

How did a musical style that originated in Jamaica gain a zealous following in the Pacific Northwest? Like London, Paris, and a few other locales, Portland has gradually developed a tight-knit community of dub and sound system culture-influenced labels, producers, and club nights. Portland natives have also embraced Jamaica’s DIY approach to studios, distribution, and dubplates. Visit PDXInDub, curated by Portland DJ Craig “Monkeytek” Morton, to find a cadre of imprints, podcasters, graphic designers, mastering engineers, and craftspeople, all making the dub heartbeat pump.

It’s also fitting that the city, which has a thriving, grassroots, indie/punk scene (think house shows, alternative venues, collaborative artist projects), would adopt an avant-garde approach to the genre. Theirs is dub music on the razor’s edge: a confluence of styles affected as much by Adrian Sherwood’s post-punk-influenced On-U Sounds or London dubstep crew Digital Mystikz, as it is by African music and the legendary Jamaican producer King Tubby. These sounds, along with drum & bass, UK steppers dub, garage house and other hybrid bass-driven musics, are unified under the international umbrella of “sound system culture,” a movement that galvanizes Portland’s disparate dub practitioners. Along with eclectic global influences, PDX producers embrace old and new technology, and formats, too—releasing tracks digitally, as well as on 7″ vinyl and cassette.

This expansive environment proved the ideal space for multi-instrumentalist/producer and Portland native Jesse Munro Johnson (a.k.a. Gulls) to launch the Boomarm Nation label in 2010. Founded as a blog two years prior, Johnson drew inspiration from similar sites devoted to exotic, worldly sounds like Awesome Tapes From Africa and Glowing Raw, along with emerging labels trading in global dance beats, such as Bersa Discos, ZZK, and Dutty Artz. Johnson juggles running the label with raising two sons, working his day job as freelance mixing engineer, performing live, and working for a friend’s food truck.

GULLS RHYTHM FORCE by T. HarrisonGulls Rhythm Force by T. Harrison

“I started the label as a means to release some of my own music in a series of 12″ records,” says Johnson. “Our first official release in 2010 was Gulls’ Mean Sound 12″, and as a label we very quickly grew into a more collaborative international affair.” Back in 2011, Boomarm collaborated with Portland’s Sahel Sounds and brought together a crew of producers to remix the Music For Saharan Cellphones compilation. Some of those producers, like Turkey-based El Mahdy Jr. and iSKELETOR, would later release solo projects on the label.

Continuing their international outlook, Boomarm Nation’s latest release, Her.Imperial.Majesty, is by mysterious Filipino collective Seekersinternational (SKRS), and exemplifies Johnson’s knack for finding subversive talent from anywhere in the world. Her.Imperial.Majesty is chock-full of arresting sound-clash samples, tape snippets, and skittering electronic beats—anchored by errant bass programming that somehow keeps the whole swerving concoction on the rails. Even the album’s title is subversive, taking a reverential reference to Ethiopian king and Rastafarian patriarch Haile Selassie and transforming it into what Johnson calls “a respectful nod to the power of the feminine energy and its root within us all.”

The 10 songs on Her.Imperial.Majesty mischievously blur lines between hazy minimal techno, future dub, and uninhibited sound art. Experimental electronic artists like Pole, Sandoz, and Kit Clayton may have laid the original groundwork for this approach in the ’00s, but SKRS appear to be working off of their own blueprint. “The SKRS production process is a total mystery to me,” says Johnson. “Often I can’t tell if what I’m hearing is a sample.” He notes that because SKRS music is so multilayered, it is revealed more thoroughly upon repeat plays. “Each time I listen, I hear new moments and gestures buried in the mix, and the samples start to feel like familiar ghosts. Their music has a deep mystic quality; it is loose, alive, and inspired. Those who feel it know it.”

The illusive crew’s kaleidoscopic dub fits easily into the Boomarm label aesthetic, which also boasts heady post-house and dub-disco material from Natural Magic, Elite Beat, and Gulls Rhythm Force, among many others. It’s a catalog of releases that has resonated with listeners from afar, as well as with Johnson’s Portland peers.

Boomarm was born just as the scene around them was flourishing with like-minded, sound system-influenced experimentalists; there were labels like Lo Dub, ZamZam, Heavy Pressure, and Community Library pumping out vinyl and cassettes, as well as club nights like Lowbrow Dub Sessions and Signal. “The dub and bass music scene in Portland is small, but very passionate and full of a diversity of folks from all manner of music backgrounds,” Johnson explains. He credits Ezra Ereckson (a member of pivotal PDX dub band Systemwide and BSI/ZamZam label co-owner), along with mastering engineer Alter Echo and PDXInDub’s Monkeytek, as key figures. Johnson goes on to say, “They have been flying the flag here for many years. And as world-class artists, DJ’s and producers, they set the standard for West Coast sound system music and culture.”

Jesse Munro Johnson by T. Harrison Jesse Munro Johnson by T. Harrison

Johnson believes a common thread between Boomarm Nation artists is a desire to make great music in service to sound system culture. “While we all swerve in and out of the territories and confines of genre, I feel strongly that each Boomarm artist is growing his or her own unique voice. We’re connected by the hypnotizing power of a sound system, and with Boomarm Nation I hope we can present some new musical ideas into the conversation.”

Ereckson adds, “There is a ‘Boomarm Sound,’ but it is difficult to define. It encompasses dub, experimental electronics, dancehall, techno, ambient and new age textures, and North African music, but it’s much greater than the sum of these parts. Boomarm is special, because they approach dub as a methodology—a world of approaches—as opposed to a genre. All of their artists and releases have assimilated dub techniques and aesthetics, but tend to deploy them in less obvious ways.”

That deployment, and the reach of the label, continues via forthcoming Boomarm releases by Hama, a Tuareg synthesizer player and beat maker based in Niger; an E3 and El Mahdy Jr. collaborative single; plus new works from Elite Beat and Johnson’s own live project, Gulls Rhythm Force. But even as his label gains international recognition, Johnson maintains a distinctly Portland point of view—one that sets art ahead of self-importance and should ensure that Portland’s dub heartbeat remains strong. “Music is an ancient act that will live longer than any of our collective or individual egos,” he says. “Having faith and patience in the musical process is crucial. Things take time to develop, and it’s often worth the wait.”

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