Better Late Than Never

Stratford 4photo by Bart Nagel

“The album was a very obvious elephant in the room for the band and I think it’s only natural that we’d get together, have a drink and say ‘what if…?’ It would be harder to not talk about the album, really.”

For any resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, the idea of voluntarily going to the East Coast in winter is insane. You need a pretty good reason to ditch the sunshine for the arctic chill. The Stratford 4 found one: getting to record their major label debut. In January 2004, the four-piece headed to Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village to record what would become their third album, Keep Your Crazy Head on Straight, for Elektra Records. Hot on the heels of their feedback-drenched, gloriously messy Love and Distortion, the band had caught the ear of Cars’ frontman Ric Ocasek, who signed on to produce the album. Throughout its 11 tracks, their mix of frontman Chris Streng’s nonchalant singing and distorted guitars finally came into sharp focus. The melodies cut through the feedback and the guitars rang with fervent energy. “We really nailed it,” Streng said at the time. Nothing could derail their career, it seemed. And then their label fell apart.

Stratford 4 by Anthony Georgis
photo by Anthony Georgis

In the same breath that The Stratford 4 struck gold, Elektra went under. Ocasek was able to return the album to the band, but unsure of their next move and plagued by internal tensions, they split up. They got jobs, had kids, and settled down. As bassist Sheetal Singh points out with a laugh, their time as rock and rollers became “cocktail party fodder.” Like Tolkien’s One Ring, Keep Your Crazy Head on Straight disappeared from sight. But it wasn’t quite forgotten.

The Stratford 4 formed in San Francisco in 1999, solidifying their lineup in a rock club on Valentine’s Day. Streng says he wanted to make a record that “sounded like My Bloody Valentine produced by Wilco.” The band’s resulting debut LP, The Revolt Against Tired Noise, wasn’t too far off the mark. Surging layers of feedback and distortion were balanced by Streng’s nimble vocals. Over and under his Lou Reed-affected voice, songs sprawled and spiraled, walking a line between straight-ahead rock and roll and something more mysterious. It brought to mind the trap doors and sharp turns of Wilco’s experimental breakthrough album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Love and Distortion followed in 2002, picking up where their debut left off, and the group toured with Beulah and the Walkmen. Ocasek stumbled across the record and signed the band to Elektra, where he was then working to find new acts for the label. During the recording sessions for KYCHOS, Streng likened Ocasek to an airplane pilot; he took the controls, allowing the band to concentrate on the music, and navigated them to what became their strongest record to date. And yet, it was a record destined to be heard by no one.

Stratford 4
photo by Anthony Georgis

This January, on her way home from a family vacation, Singh met up with Streng. They hadn’t seen each other in years. “The album was a very obvious elephant in the room,” Streng explained. “It’s only natural that we’d get together, have a drink and say ‘what if…?’” That’s exactly what they did. After talking to drummer Andrea Caturegli and guitarist Jake Hosek, the band decided the time was ripe to give the album a proper release. When asked if the record had been on his mind in the 10 years since recording it, Streng deadpanned, “Not that often, only every day.”

On the tender opening track, “Purple and Gold,” Streng picks a spare acoustic guitar figure over a woozy synthesizer. “I’m going to see my babe, I swear to God I will,” he states elegantly before the song moves gently forward, floating weightless like a magic carpet. But in the blink of an eye, the churning guitars and the cracking snare on “Just Sad Really,” the album’s walloping second track, shatter that tranquility like a wrecking ball. Later, on “Cracking Up,” the influence of less-distorted contemporaries like Belle and Sebastian gives the song a levity that helps distinguish it from the unrelenting guitar attacks on tracks like “Blissend” and “Summer’s Over.”

The band always had a knack for balancing Streng’s nonchalance with the fury of pounded drums and overdriven guitars. Yet while their previous albums found Streng’s voice buried a little deeper in the mix, Ocasek’s magic touch throws it in sharp relief. Streng’s even vocal cuts through the fireworks of noise exploding around him. On closing track “Drive Asleep,” guitars rise and fall while he sings simply, “I was dreaming / I was driving you home.” After the dense instrumentation and fast pace of the album, it serves as a resolution, a return to the calm established in “Purple and Gold.”

The Stratford 4 talk about getting back together with the eagerness of teenagers ecstatic to play their first high school battle of the bands. “I missed playing music,” Singh says. “I had this change where I went from not thinking about it to thinking about it all the time.” Will there be shows, a tour, a chance to make even more music? Only time will tell, but Streng is undoubtedly positive about it. “The whole project ended so abruptly,” he says. “Even this long after the fact, I feel like we still have something to prove.”

Stratford 4photo by Bart Nagel

If You Can’t Join ’Em…

MusicNOW by Keith Klenowski

“What I like to focus on is the idea of creative and detailed music that’s coming from different places.”

There aren’t too many places where one can see Arcade Fire’s Will Butler play his new solo project, hear the Cincinnati Symphony accompany Pulitzer-winning composer Caroline Shaw in the premiere of her violin concerto, and catch a concert from Perfume Genius—all in under a week. If that combination intrigues you, then it’s not too late to trek to Cincinnati for the MusicNOW Festival, which begins its tenth season this week. Under the supervision of guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner—best known for his work in The National, but also a formidable voice in his own right—MusicNOW has provided a haven for artists to explore unconventional projects and compelling collaborations.

Bryce Dessner by Keith KlenowskiBryce Dessner

Fortunately for those who can’t make it to Cincinnati, a MusicNOW commemorative compilation out today on Brassland provides a fascinating glimpse into the festival’s artistic bubble. “I wanted it to be a snapshot of contemporary music culture,” Dessner explained in a phone interview about MusicNOW. “It’s not in any way definitive—not some sort of doctrinaire look at what I think is valid in music, or whatever. It’s really just a statement about all of this music being important.” The compilation reflects this broad but personal vision, with 17 tracks of live recordings that represent each year of the festival’s history. The Books play tightly woven, postminimalist grooves with Dessner’s instrumental band Clogs; cellist Erik Friedlander unravels an intense, airily Appalachian solo performance; the Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold croons a gorgeous, old folk ballad.

“What I like to focus on is the idea of creative and detailed music that’s coming from different places,” Dessner said. On the compilation, that might be exemplified in “Nobu Take,” a blistering and flickering solo from Colin Stetson, typically found playing massive saxophones but here on lithe clarinet. There’s also Sufjan Stevens’ track, “The Owl and the Tanager,” an intimate tour-de-force in which Stevens vacillates from hush to keen atop a rich, repeating progression.

Colin Stetson by Keith Klenowski

Dessner grew up in Cincinnati, and the off-the-beaten-path character of the midwestern city appealed to MusicNOW’s artists, who could explore projects distinct from their typical, relentless touring. “We don’t have a lot of money to compete with the big venues or festivals, so it’s usually something that’s being done off cycle,” Dessner said. “We try to take risks with that, in a way that would be difficult to do in New York or London or Los Angeles, where the media attention is so much bigger. I think certain artists feel comfortable coming to Cincinnati, because the vibe of the festival is very low-key, and it feels like there’s a place you can really, actually workshop things.” The festival’s relationship with arts presenter Chamber Music Cincinnati encourages a strong focus on contemporary classical music. This year marks MusicNOW’s second collaboration with the Cincinnati Symphony, a rare example of a world-class orchestra lending its talents to a non-classical festival. Performances take place in cozier spaces like the historic Memorial Hall, a very different atmosphere from the sprawl of a Coachella or Lollapalooza.

St. Vincent by Keith KlenowskiSt. Vincent

Commissioning new music—whether from classical composers or indie songwriters—is a crucial aspect of MusicNOW. “The festival really extended its hand to me early on, asking me to write music for other people to play that I might not have done otherwise,” wrote Richard Reed Parry in a recent email. Parry—a member of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, as well as a soloist artist—pretty much became an instrumental composer due to his involvement in the festival, and he has attended every iteration. MusicNOW commissioned a series of chamber works from Parry, released recently on the Deutsche Grammophon album Music for Heart and Breath and represented on the compilation in an affecting performance by Parry and violist Nadia Sirota.

Richard Parry by Keith Klenowski

Projects conceived at MusicNOW frequently spill out into tours or albums. Dessner asked several composers to write string arrangements of Sufjan’s electronic album Enjoy Your Rabbit to premiere at the festival—“Not entirely with his approval, actually,” Dessner noted. Sufjan liked what he heard: the arrangements became an album on Asthmatic Kitty, and then even a score for a New York City Ballet production.

The live recordings here beautifully exhibit vocal feats, whether Owen Pallett’s angelic coo, Shara Worden/My Brightest Diamond’s glowing mezzo, or Justin Vernon’s falsetto pyrotechnics in a cover of Sharon van Etten’s “Love More.”

Justin Vernon by Keith Klenowski

Some tracks, like Andrew Bird’s “Section 8 City,” represent stunning, entirely self-contained musical moments. Others, like the contributions from Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors, are hazier allusions to performances that you wish you had caught live.

Asked about his most memorable MusicNOW experience as an audience member, Parry described “Tinariwen blowing a packed midwestern audience’s collective mind.” Tinariwen, the legendary desert-blues Tuareg band, have one of the best tracks on the album. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so inebriated by pure, deep musicality as I did that night,” Parry added.

Tinariwen by Keith Klenowski

Most enthralling, though, is the album’s opening track, “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations.” Part of the Sounds of the South project originally commissioned by Duke Performances in North Carolina, it is the precisely correct combination of the precisely correct musicians for the precisely correct project. Inspired by John and Alan Lomax’s 1959 ethnographic collection of Southern folk tunes, psych-folk band Megafaun, Vernon, van Etten, and jazz ensemble Fight the Big Bull reimagine old hymns with rustic splendor. On “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations,” the band transforms an old gospel song into a laid-back roar. “That concert in and of itself was probably one of the best live concert performances I’ve ever seen, and I’m not just tooting my own horn,” Dessner said. “We were sitting there, like, ‘I cannot believe this is happening.’”

Sounds of the South by Keith Klenowski

Photography by Keith Klenowski

Dolla Dolla Bill, Y’All

bandcamp-fans-given-artists-100-million

Fans have now given artists $100 million USD through Bandcamp.

Fans give artists $3.5 million every month on the site, and buy more than 16,000 records a day, which works out to about one every five seconds, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (there goes one now). In terms of units sold, Bandcamp’s share of the record industry is roughly the same as BMW’s share of the auto market back when Steve Jobs said this. Furthermore, sales on Bandcamp are up 30% in the last 12 months, at a time when the rest of the industry is down 11%. We see this growth as proof that if you give fans easy ways to directly support the artists they love, they’ll take you up on it every time. So a big, big thanks to everyone supporting artists on Bandcamp, and to all the artists and labels posting great music too. We wouldn’t be here without you.

P.S. We worked out of the public library for the first four years of Bandcamp’s existence. In May 2009, fans gave artists $12,823.12. It was the first time we’d crossed the $10K-in-a-month mark. I vividly recall sitting across from Kevin and Shawn,* being quietly stoked.

lib

*Not pictured: me behind camera, Joe and Neal on irc.

Mello Mello Right On

Mello Music Group

“I like history, I like liner notes. Musically I don’t want to just hear a hot record. I wanna see the progression of artists. Old records were made that way. What if I could help these seeds grow because I think they have potential?”

The old proverb goes, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Michael Tolle didn’t know how to make lemonade, but that didn’t stop him. The economy crashed in late 2006 just as he was about to graduate. With an English degree in hand, he set up a teaching company. He explains, “I didn’t know what to do with the money I was making, and stocks and real estate weren’t an option.” Tolle concluded that he should put his money into music, which is where his heart really was. For a few years he’d been making mixes of some of his favorite hip-hop tunes to play late at night. He says, “I wanted to highlight stuff I listened to — local artists. I imagined I was a DJ.” He called the compilations Mello Mixes. One night he sat in the car with the woman who would become his wife, debating ways to get deeper into the music business, even though he didn’t know much about it. He thought that maybe he could buy some beats, make some music, and support artists he felt deserved more. “It all started with buying one Kev Brown beat,” he recalls. He also remembers thinking, “are we really going to spend a thousand dollars on a beat?!”

Oddisee

Founded in 2007, the Mello Music Group is now one of the healthiest independent hip-hop labels around. It’s a diverse musical family that includes producers, MCs, and musicians such as: Washington, D.C.-based Oddisee, Los Angeleno Open Mike Eagle, Detroit’s Apollo Brown, plus West Coast freethinkers Dudley Perkins and Georgia Anne Muldrow, and East Coast classicist Rapper Big Pooh. Not a bad roster for someone who, by his own admission, didn’t know what he was doing. Perhaps his naiveté during a period of change made building a new kind of label possible. I got the scoop from Tolle this past month, as he readied some heavyweight releases from the likes of Red Pill (of Ugly Heroes), L’Orange & Jeremiah Jae, Oddisee, Quelle Chris and many more.

Rapper Big Pooh
Rapper Big Pooh

Bandcamp: You started the label at a time when the music world was in flux. MySpace was winding down and new platforms were emerging. Did you see this as opportunity?

Michael Tolle: Mello Music Group exists because the economy crashed and the industry moved to digital. I jumped in when artists had no money, labels weren’t giving it to them, and new methodologies were available to try. I could operate at almost no cost from Arizona and reach out to amazing artists with no backing. I got a foothold while everything else was falling apart. Our first release, Oddisee 101, came out in December 2008. A year later, the Diamond District album was the release that made us into a business. Bill Sharp, who worked at Fat Beats at the time, told me we needed a publicist for it. He said, “this record will open it for you.” So we did, and it worked.

BC: Were artists receptive to someone like you contacting them?

MT: They were. Something I learned very early on is that if you’re new, you’re like blood in the water. Back then, I was happy to be there and wanted to give my most to everybody even if I was being swarmed and picked at. You learn that it’s a hustle for a lot of these people, too, they’re just trying to clean your bones. But once I started putting together songs and building credibility, I think people realized it was more than money, that there were opportunities for development. Artist development was and still is gone in a lot of places. Once it got out that we still did artist development, the respect started coming in. I viewed it as paying dues. Like anything, you pay to play until you learn. So you better learn quick.

Open Mike Eagle
Open Mike Eagle

BC: How broad were you thinking when you started?

MT: I knew what I wanted and who. Detroit, D.C., and New Orleans were in my mind. These cities were musical hubs with fertile sands, yet they were impoverished areas. The talent pool was so rich and the sound wasn’t pretentious. We still don’t have artists from New Orleans, but we’ve branched out and signed people from L.A. and beyond.

When I began formulating in 2007, Oddisee, Kenn Starr and Black Milk were my targets, and Georgia. I wanted those people to be the foundation of the label. They were all young, so I saw amazing talent that could be built. In the long run, I worked with all of them. Black’s not on the label but we’ve bought production from him a lot. Oddisee was the one who was the most ready to run from the start. He was looking for someone willing to run with him and do all the things he wanted to do.

Kenn Starr

BC: How do you define the aesthetic of MMG?

MT: I’ve always defined it internally as music from the heart of American culture. We’ve never gravitated toward thugs or gangsters. Most of our producers and MCs are average people who are talented and a part of this culture. That was appealing to me. I don’t like the lottery of it, people going for broke. I always wanted musicians, people who made beats or started rapping but were trying to become something more — like Oddisee, who’s now a fully fledged musician. To me we are very middle-American. Red Pill, our new guy from Detroit, exemplifies that, and someone like Apollo Brown, who’s very blue-collar.

Diamond District

BC: Looking back, you’ve put out a lot of material and broadened the scope of the label since the Diamond District debut.

MT: The old model of hip-hop labels was like a gang — four or five guys who are the same. Soldiers, captains, all these metaphors for it. Like Rocafella. Make one a star and he would put on his friends. We view it more as being a bunch of musicians from different areas, influencing each other and growing together over time. As long as people bring me good records, I’ll find people who are talented and can work on them — and that creates graphic design, engineering, and promotion positions. They’re all jobs within an industry, and also a sort of personalized industry.

There’s a thing with musicians, and athletes too, whereby we accept that 99% will starve while 1% makes tens of millions of dollars. I’ve always wondered why the designers, marketing, and distribution people can make $30–100K a year, but musicians have to starve or be ultra-rich? Why can’t we have an industry of musicians building careers and making $60K a year? I was more naïve back then but I like the idea. I wanted to find a way to play it out. We didn’t always give advances to artists. We’d ask them the minimum they need for stability — things like rent, phone, etc., and we put that in the contract and pay it monthly. It’s still contracted labor, but a different way of paying. Our artists were already stable adults, but we wanted to provide security and allow them to settle down. And then there’s a fee for work, too. It’s all rolled up in the idea of an advance for each project. It also encourages the artists and myself to get to know each other with time. We talk to each other. We interact on a human level.

Red Pill
Red Pill

BC: I’ve never heard of arrangements like that.

MT: I don’t know if it was necessity or viewing the world differently. It just made sense to me. I don’t understand the model I stepped into because I wasn’t from the industry. I can’t imagine someone going for an interview for a bank and being told, “ok we’ll give you all the money for your salary for the year now,” and then expecting them to survive.

I like history, I like liner notes. Musically I don’t want to just hear a hot record. I wanna see the progression of artists. Old records were made that way. What if I could help these seeds grow because I think they have potential? So it also lends itself to signing people for multiple albums. It gives them more freedom to express different feelings at different times.

BC: What are some of your favorite memories or highlights from the past seven years?

MT: Dudley Perkins officiated at my wedding and Georgia was there to sing. It was a small affair with my relatives and those of my wife from South Korea. Dudley and I had talked every day on the phone for a year and a half, but never met in person. And we’d been doing a lot of work with the two of them. So he flew here and married us. He came in with alligator skin Nike dunks and a white, head-to-toe robe.

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