Sunday, March 10, 2013

Slumberland Stories: More From Mike Schulman

A little while back, I made a radio piece about Slumberland Records, the legendary indie-pop label that’s located in Oakland, CA. Sort of located in Oakland, I should say—label honcho Mike Schulman currently operates out of a couple rooms in West Berkeley. He’s got an office set up in one, and a “warehousey space” in the other, where he keeps inventory and runs Slumberland’s mail order.

The original story was on Oakland North, may eventually appear elsewhere. Schulman was very generous with his time, and spoke about a lot of interesting things that didn’t find a place in the radio story. I wanted to share a few of those here.

On how his band, Black Tambourine, got its start
It’s kind of a non-history. When we started the label, it was originally 7 or 8 people. We all pitched in work-wise and a little bit money-wise to put out he first handful of records. A few of us had picked up instruments before, but for the most part we were really beginners. We were really into punk rock and we were really into Lower East Side noise stuff like the Unsane and Sonic Youth and the Swans. But we were into pop and we were into Dada and we were into John Cage.

We just thought, let’s try this, let’s start some bands. Most of the bands were noise bands or kind of improv, and some of us wanted to make pop music. So Black Tambourine was a side project of really of a couple of the bands, for the songs that didn’t really fit in with the other bands because they were just a little too melodic.

Our singer [Pam Berry] actually lived in England, and she was just somebody we knew. We didn’t know she could sing, but she liked the right records and she was a friend of ours. So we just thought “we’ll have her sing.” We sent her some demo tapes and she said, “OK, I’ll figure some songs out.”
We did a handful of shows, four or five shows, put out a couple of singles, and then it sort of… It didn’t really fizzle out, but two of the guys were in Velocity Girl and they had just signed to Sub Pop, and they were busy. Then I moved away. So it kind of ended in late 91, early 92.

The single we put out was reasonably successful, it’s not like nobody ever heard it. But there was just some weird afterlife with the band, people always seemed to respond to those recordings.

On big moments in Slumberland's history
We’ve had some really great milestones. We put out the first Stereolab album in the U.S. And, you know, they went on to some amount of fame and repute, that was pretty exciting to be able to help them with that in some small way.

A couple bands—Velocity Girl and the Lilys—who went on to be better known, started out with us. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, who are fairly well-known now, they’re still on Slumberland. That was a big milestone for us when we put that album out. To have a record that sold, to the point that people who don’t follow that kind of music will have heard it. That’s pretty exciting.

We had our 20th anniversary in 2009, and we did some shows on the East Coast and West Coast, and got some of the old bands to reform. It was just amazing to see some of that history laid out. And especially the San Francisco show, because I’ve been out here the most amount of time, people came out here who I haven’t seen at a show in ten years! It was really thrilling to have the old and the new bands together, they’re all fans of each other, and everyone was hi-fiving and hugging.

On what explains the label’s recent successes
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart! [Laughs] I mean, not totally, but there was kind of an interregnum between 2003 and 2006 where I didn’t really put out any new records. And I think there was something about going away and coming back, even though it was just for a few years. I was still filling mail orders, it’s not like we shut down, we just didn’t put out any new releases.

There were a lot of bands who were kind of bubbling under who were influenced by the stuff we did in the 90s, the bands that we had put out.  They were either bands who were directly inspired by them or at least conversant with it. When I started putting new stuff out again, I kind of found the Pains and Crystal Stilts and Cause Co-Motion! This group of Brooklyn bands—they didn’t sound like what we had done before, but they knew about it.

As it happened, the Brooklyn thing was kind of blowing up, and some of those bands got to be reasonably well-known. It was just good timing, I think.

I had a different outlook on promotion and radio and that kind of thing [before]. Back in the 90s when I would put a record out I would think “Fuck it. These are really good records and I shouldn’t need to pay some press guy a couple thousand dollars to go around and tell people how good they are. And I should have to mail out 800 free CDs, that most of them are just going to get sold used.” I was just very suspicious of the machinery of it.

When I started putting out new releases again, especially full-lengths, I felt it is a crowded market, maybe I should do the best I can to get people to hear the music. If that means spending out promos then I’ll send out promos.

On the economics of independent music
I hate to make it sound like it’s all about money, but at some point something has to earn back. You can’t lose money on every release and keep going. It’s hard now, it’s difficult.

The bottom line, I think, is that the finances of running a label are not going to get any easier. There’s going to be a day when you can go back to that physical artifact that you could make a 200% markup on. It’s just not there. There’s a lot of different pieces that you can put together, with sync licensing for TV or merch. But it’s hard for me to picture where it’s all heading.

On agression, masculinity and femininity in music
It seems like a lot of the indie labels that were around then [in the late 80's] were more aggressive, more male-dominated. It doesn’t seem like there were a lot of women managing the labels.
Not at that exact time, not a lot that I can think of. Over the next five years--with Bettina Gregory and Thrill Jockey and Mac and Laura doing Merge, Simple Machines started when we were starting, and that was obviously very female friendly, and K always had female involvement, for sure, and they were hugely inspirational to us.

Musically, our early records were pretty noisy and they were pretty agro, but we got poppy pretty quickly. The character of the releases changed. And most, a lot of the prevailing indie-rock of the 90’s was possibly more aggressive or noisier in a different way, like just less melodic. I don’t really know how to describe it.

I feel like our stuff is different, for sure. I don’t know if it’s like a masculine/feminine thing. If we were talking about indie-pop then there’s definitely an aspect of that. Indie-pop as a genre—which we’re associated with but I don’t think of us as an indie-pop label—that’s an aggressively anti-masculine or non-masculine or [laughs]. A not-afraid-to-be-feminine kind of genre.

On getting demos
It’s a source of great guilt for me. I’d like to say that I listen to every single one the minute I get it but it’s just not possible.

The success of the Pains kind of influenced some of the demos I get, I think. And it’s not so much bands that sound like them, but the idea that we have a fairly successful record beyond what we normally have, kind of attracted a certain class of band that wants to make music their career in a way that I find really distasteful. I don’t know how to describe it!

It’s kind of post-emo dudes, who kind of like making noisy pop. You see it and you know it, it’s like pornography or something. There’s something a little gross about it.

We get a lot of that stuff. Like, super aggressive managers that will somehow get my cell phone number and be like “Dude! You gotta listen to blah blah blahs demo and this is gonna blow your label up!” I just, I can’t deal with that kind of stuff. Usually if a band says they’re going to make your label famous, that's pretty much a red flag.

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