LABEL PROFILE: COMMUNITY LIBRARY
Located in Portland, Oregon, Cascadia, Community Library was established in Spring 2005 by co-managers Paul Dickow (aka Strategy) and David Chandler (aka Solenoid and DJ Brokenwindow). The label name originated from a monthly club night the two hosted as resident DJs starting in January, 2003; the club nights featured ‘themed' DJ-sets in which music of varying styles and eras were showcased. The club night in turn prompted the idea of a label that would be similarly eclectic and wide-ranging. Despite their individual differences, the label's artists are committed to boldly putting their unique stamps on established genres—abstract electronic music, jazz, free improvisation, et al.—without being sidelined by an over-consuming regard for their musics' commercial potential.
The label's co-managers generously freed up time to answer questions about the label's philosophy, current material, and future plans.
Portland seems to be such a key reference point, not only for being the label's operating center, but for the bands on the label, most if not all of whom have a key connection to the locale. Despite the artists' disparate styles, in what way does Portland figure into the label's overall musical sensibility?
DC (David Chandler): Outside of the indie rock scene of the '90s, which could afford to be very exclusive due to the hype of grunge and NW indie rock, all the other voices of music (weird jazz, electronic noise, odd techno, synthesizer musics, performance art, free-improv) had to band together to find performance space and acceptance in the margins. The crossover of a lot of the shows I performed at or organized was extreme: one night's event could have someone playing electric piano pieces, followed by improvising techno on drum machines, and closing with a spoken-word reading over mixer-feedback noise. Of course, you get a mixed bag of quality, but you also get collaboration and a higher standard of performance because you have to reach out to this diverse audience. Also, there was a difference between trying something new and it not necessarily succeeding and simply being ridiculed for trying something new, which seemed to be the attitude in the rock clubs.
Portland now has a musical reputation built on this legacy of avant garde fearlessness. However, all of the original venues have been torn down (both physically and socially) and replaced by a new generation that isn't quite making music under the same conditions of isolation and naiveté. Instead, Portland has become something of a stepping-stone for more career-oriented musicians, for whom it seems taking chances is less a focus. There is a long list of musicians who've moved to Portland on their way to getting a foot in the music in New York . This is because it's cheap to live here and a largely permissive, liberal city. The Portland artists the label has connected with seem to have roots in the weird experimentation and fun music of the past era of Portland . The difference seems to be a rigorous devotion to one's own idea of how to make music regardless of what is popular or in fashion. There is a lot of media attention on the 'creative population' in Portland that, under the surface, is more linked to commercial circles like designers and PR people who do stylized art projects on the side. This is not where the more interesting (and struggling) artists have come from in the past; however, it has contributed to a sudden acceptance of strange experimental music in the local clubs. Yes, there is some stubbornness in our regional nostalgia as things have changed (especially when history gets revisionist write-ups), but the city has grown in ways that are much better, and there are much nicer and more inviting venues for the more marginalized artists to play in now than there was a decade ago. I think that one of the best new things about Portland is that, unlike when my parents were growing up here, there is an embracing of a regional NW identity that is letting go of being a reference to other big cities. Portland has become a focus of experimental civil engineering and public works, as well as a leader in environmental policies. It is the zeitgeist of the Ecotopia/green-utopia attitude of the '60s and '70s coming into positions of public office. This is a pretty exciting reason to stay in Portland!
PD (Paul Dickow): I think we had our musical 'coming of age' during a time period in Portland characterized by this struggle and permissiveness and inclusiveness that David describes, and it directly inspired the label idea. 'Portland,' for the label as an entity, signifies a set of promising social/cultural circumstances that continues to inform our musical moral compass, a sense of inclusiveness and uncompromising envelope-pushing and unpredictable FUN. Those ideals are associated with place insofar as being here allowed us to experience that and know it could happen again, here or elsewhere, with the right ambitions and ideals in place.
But that is something that informs the origins of the label; as far as doing what we do here, we're increasingly non-acknowledged for it locally; it's coincidental to a certain degree that this is our geography.
At the same time, while there may be a unifying Portland connection, the label's material is definitely all over the map, from avant-jazz to krautrock and everything in between. Are listeners now becoming progressively more acclimatized to the label's stylistically panoramic sensibility?
PD: I think listeners are becoming a lot more comfortable with the diversity agenda. Certainly doing a label in which different musical genres are presented under one brand/umbrella is not original, but it's been uncommon for some time, for a variety of reasons. It's hard work asking consumers to 'enjoy' surprises. I don't blame anyone for needing time to let us prove our style will be nice; it's a request for people to remain committed to us long enough to see the whole thing unfold. It's a lot to ask, BUT I know we haven't let people down. Every release is consistent from start to finish, and relates to other releases in non-obvious, rewarding ways. If anything, I think this is our breakthrough season (Winter/Spring 2007) and we're having a lot of new fans and starting to get more feedback from ones who have been lurking for a while maybe without letting on who they are. People have been approaching us with some sense of skepticism and caution, which means we've grown at an almost frighteningly slow rate, but the flip side of that coin is that people who do stick it out with us tend to be really involved and dedicated, collecting a lot if not most of the titles, and tuning in to us on a regular basis. It's an old-fashioned business model: better to have a small number of customers who will buy your product for life, than to have tons of fly-by-night shoppers who will be with you for a second and then bail. I think it works, but it takes ages for the answers or outcomes to play out, which can lead to a lot of nail-biting, ups and downs, etc.
DC: I think that we are putting out an obvious catalog of our diverse tastes and very much wearing that fact on our sleeves. The funny thing about doing art (including curating) is that if you do something seriously enough and with enough effort and honesty, people will eventually either come around to your vision, or at least think that you must know what you are doing and consider it a viable approach. I don't yet know too many listeners who've embraced everything on the catalog, but I think that they surmise that we seriously enjoy the range of music the label catalog covers.
Given that your solo Solenoid and Strategy careers are both fully active, indeed flourishing, what made you decide to take on the added challenges and pressures that go along with label operations?
PD: I am deeply connected to so many different artists, and I go in and out of actively producing my own work. During the pauses in songwriting and production, it started to become, at a point, more satisfying to facilitate for other people than write my own tracks. It's cyclical, but I think guidance, facilitation, communication, and promotion are strong suits of mine and it's really satisfying to see people bloom, so I just keep doing it and the balancing act works out fine. We're both insatiable record collectors and frequent DJs, and contributing to the vast amount of great, timeless music adds a sort of satisfaction to that compulsion. I suppose, in a way, I'm driven to release music that I'd want to put on a mixtape or DJ or play on the radio; if it isn't out anywhere else, I become driven with the urge to fill the gap and publish the music. Similarly, my drive to create music becomes most strong when I have an idea and can't already buy a record that satisfies the need to hear it expressed. If I can already obtain something out there in the world that matches up with something in my imagination, that's really cool that someone else thought of it. If I can't get ahold of that 'hypothetical' record anywhere, well, I guess it's time to either make that music and release it, or track down the artists making that music and release that for them.
DC: I'm not as active with the label as Paul is; I'm the 'vice-prez.' This is part of how we planned it because I know how much dedication the communication and coordination of the artists/music/artwork/distributor takes. The label needs to have a desk belonging to one person if decisions are going to be made efficiently. Nevertheless, I do a lot of background stuff that is hands-on, especially concerning editing, masters, being that second voice that keeps the curating from being entirely in Paul's hands. Also, I'm like a quality-control inspector on the art and music product. I think I'm here to bounce projects/ideas off and balance things. I have an interest in some areas of music that Paul doesn't necessarily, but respects my opinion on, so that has kept the catalog from being a single-handed selection process, which is good. Mostly, I handle a lot of tech and audio stuff that is so detail-oriented, double-checking, etc., I think it would just drive Paul mad. Paul takes the responsibility on his shoulders concerning money and artist relationships, whereas I'm pretty hermetic and technical in my roles, which honestly suits me perfectly. I can stay up all night scrutinizing audio masters on my headphones, while Paul passes out on the couch from exhaustion. We know our strengths and limitations, and how much time we need to preserve for our own solo music projects.
Some of your releases, like the Project Perfect and Reanimator outings, are 'lost' recordings that you rescued from potential obscurity. Why the interest in resurrecting material of this type rather than focusing exclusively on newly produced material?
DC: I think that we are flexible and when we see an opportunity to release music that we think is 'timeless' or perhaps hasn't had its time yet, we are open to responding with a rerelease. We listen to music across decades and DJ across history because we are just focused on good music. Also, we've both released our own music in such a way that it was several years old when it came out, and no one can tell. Also, we DJ music that younger listeners might think is a new sound, but is really just what we see as an influence on the new bands. In dance music, people's memories are really short—you can play more cutting-edge records from four to five years ago and anyone who wasn't a DJ back then might just think that the music is new.
PD: We are patrons of 'reissue culture,' always delving into stuff never exposed beyond a local area, for example, or getting interested in things that have been widely unavailable. As such, I don't think good music ever becomes obsolete; you can release it whenever. Perhaps it's even more relevant later. By all means with both Reanimator and Project Perfect, the initial introductions into the world were so localized that these might as well be first issues. We have some more reissue projects in the works making collectible recordings available in a more affordable, historical format.
I was additionally interested in older/lost artists because either they have become re-formed (like Reanimator who are now producing killer new recordings), or members are still active (such as Andy Brown from Project Perfect, who is now in the audio-visual trio Paint & Copter). It's certainly relevant to release some older music if the people in the bands are still out there in communities doing things.
Given that the material produced by Strategy and Solenoid includes a strong 'dance' dimension, it's arguably surprising that more of that style hasn't been featured in your catalogue to date. Are you downplaying that purposefully in order to fully establish abroad identity for the label?
PD: We are not downplaying the dance side, but frankly we haven't been releasing because there hasn't been satisfying dance music to release. There will be again soon by all means, but the demos have veered more in a head-music, headphone direction, good for CDs. This is not an indication of a permanent shift in emphasis, just a weather pattern if you will, that's likely to change again. David and I both DJ dance music, between the two of us, on a weekly basis.
I'll tell you what it is: the compelling demos are not there making us need to release them. I would describe the demos we DO get for dance or DJ music as being very cautious, minimal, atonal, technical, European-styled tech house, sometimes on the glitchy side but often fairly imitative. Here in America thirty years ago, we had bands doing 12-inches like Konk or Nona Hendryx, the beginnings of House and Detroit Techno, really bizarre stuff, etc., etc. Nowadays in the States I feel like dance producers are in a zone of trying to mimic a sound from abroad. That's not a dis; both David and I are longtime artists for ORAC who are in the Kompakt family of labels, for example, and I am a dedicated fan of mixable music from Boogizm, Adjunct, Mos Ferry, Trapez, Perlon, and loads of others who exemplify the best of the European, tech-house, abstracted sound. But the plain fact is, ComLib absolutely does not need to release this type of music because so many labels are already doing a fine job of it for us. Why publish that music if we can go buy it already? ComLib's dance and club music has involved left-field, afro-beat influenced house, throwback-futurism electro-techno, noise-dance crossovers, and other semi-categorizable areas that are more than amply club-functional, as well as tonally different than the euro-norm. As well, the sort of grime/rap/dancehall mash that comes in our 'riddim' series of 7-inch and 10-inch singles serves similarly as an answer to commonplace forms/trends. To be frank, we get very few dance demos that don't sound commonplace, and I expected a bit more oomph and strangeness from producers. Well, it happens that people in non-dance areas are innovating more, so we'll pause on the dance tracks for a bit. Everyone is trying to sound like Kompakt, really. It is a big disappointment that dance music is in such a uniform phase. So our releasing goes which ever way the submissions go (Hey, producers doing stuff that is UNLIKE the typical stuff, SEND US STUFF!). After Eats Tapes are done promoting their new CD on Tigerbeat6, we'll do a new EP with them, and there will be new 12-inches from Strategy and Solenoid, and 10-inch ragga singles from DJ C and Strategy featuring Zulu on vocals on those.
DC: Even though my personal interest in synthesizers and electronic timbres is a focus of my Solenoid music, I actually have a large record collection that is less than one third electronic. I've never wanted to run a mostly dance-oriented label. That ground is covered by a lot of labels already out there. I can't yet imagine staying exclusively focused on dance music the way that running a dance label requires. Yes, it is also the case that we simply don't get that much intrepid, idiosyncratic, or interesting dance-music-related demos. Making electronic-based music in the context of dance music has become somewhat codified since the early '90s. People focus on genres and stopped experimenting with fundamentals of composition (time signature, structure). I feel like I'm just waiting for a demo of dance-music that sounds like it is influenced by Capt Beefheart or Like A Tim or something off the beaten path.
Proudest accomplishment to date?
PD: HaHaha…The first thought that popped into my head was 'staying in business.' Really, though, just proving that our model can be interesting to people and sticking to our guns. Not giving in to conformity-minded market forces, but forming our own market that we can convince to love and embrace the variety, something we've accomplished based on persistence, inclusiveness, thoroughness, and above all, super-good sounding stuff and super-nice packaging.
DC: Yes, 'sticking to our guns' is the first thing that comes to mind. Paul and I have been extremely rigorous in asking what we find wrong with the various curatorial models that labels take, then really picked apart what the wide range of labels and artists that we consider 'timeless' in our record collections. From there we really have been headstrong about following these concepts. We both agreed that if we had to make certain compromises, we'd let the label die a dignified death rather than shift the basis of our curating toward all the directional changes that we were critical of in labels. Most of the labels that inspired us have died those dignified deaths rather than compromise, and we want Com Lib to join that long-term legacy.
PD: Er, the dignified part, I could hold off on joining the 'death' part of that legacy for a bit!
Was there a label that you used as a model of sorts in your own approach to Community Library and its development?
PD: I never quite thought about this until David said, “We really need to consider who our models are.” Certainly: kranky, Rough Trade, Cherry Red, Celluloid, Soul Jazz, Editions EG, Recommended Records, Sleeping Bag, Y Records…You know those labels mean quality, but it's anyone's guess what 'type' of music is contained within the package, and I love the surprise. Celluloid released Soft Cell, Fela, and old school rap all under one logo. Pretty awesome all around.
DC: All of those and more (Lovely, ECM, Factory, Les Disques Du Crepescule). Particularly those that didn't take one great breakthrough artist and let that define their catalog selection. Also, labels that encouraged strange or difficult collaborations for the sheer curiosity of the venture. Sometimes that involved a label of young artists stumbling on an older recording that was worth re-releasing, and being flexible enough to do so, or even seek out such recordings within their founders' own record collections. Some of these old labels were uncanny at saying “What about THIS idea of music” just ahead of the exploration exploding into a whole scene. I've been collecting records since 1981, so I've seen a lot of the life and death of labels and where they go. The curatorial voice of a label is sometimes more interesting than the artists as individuals, because the curator might be trying to present idealistic values that the artists don't entirely embrace, but the label tries to follow through anyway. That is the creative work of what a label curator does; try to spark a meta-discussion about music via the selected catalog.
I've had lots of opportunities to be involved in labels over the years. I was about to start a label to put my Solenoid music out in the mid-'90s, but then the Outward Music Company guys came along. I'd run a tape label to give my music to friends and send out demos, but running a label was just too much work and cut into my making music. I'd not met anyone willing to go out on a conceptual limb in terms of curating until I met Paul and we started the Community Library theme-based DJing night. At the time, Paul was learning to DJ and was unlike many musicians I knew who were skittish about the legacy of dance music (house, techno, raves). Few people I'd met would embrace diversity and explore musicology in new approaches, but still want to know all of the traditions of DJing and technique at the same time. Since Paul and I are musicians first, I think that neither of us has gotten hung up on traditional technique or proving DJing skills as the focus of DJing. I've learned a lot of that over time anyway, but it never seemed worth it for its own sake when I could spend that time composing. That focus on DJing has had a lot of codified limitations on what music you get to listen to, anyway, which I find ultimately boring. I'm glad, though, that people are trainwrecking and whatnot; many people are trying their hands at DJing anyway and not feeling intimidated.
Is there another label that you feel a particular affinity with or appreciation for?
PD: We connect with 'peer' labels quite a bit. Local and regional labels with the involvement of good friends and longtime working comrades, like audraglint, Audio Dregs, ORAC, Collective Jyrk, and others, are all critical sorts of partners in a really tangible way. Elsewhere, there's Anticipate/Microcosm, Mashit, Goosehound, Adjunct, Dreck, labels that we are in touch with on a semi-regular basis; the list is substantial.
DC: I think we are in a dialogue with these other small labels where we suggest another model of diversity that can work, but look to them to see where their artists go, sometimes passing demos back and forth.
What can we look forward to from Community Library in the months ahead?
CL14 Rolan Vega: Documentary CD: psychedelic vignettes composed for film and video media.
CL15 Strategy: Future Rock 12-inch single: bits and pieces from the kranky CD plus a Chris Herbert remix of FR!
CL16 Units: History of the Units CD: reissue of rare and out-of-print music by this amazing San Francisco 'synth-punk' band.
CL17 DJ C feat. Zulu: Body Work 10-inch: more totally infectious, uncategorizable rhythm music from this great team, now their third or fourth collaboration.
And then music from Locate, Blood Money, Solenoid, Eats Tapes, and others we can't yet announce!
DC: DIY 'Community Library' slipmats, t-shirts, stickers, etc., where I get to do some drawing, design, and screen-printing. Also, in true Portland-style crossover of the arts, I'm performing in a theatre group as the 'DJ' in a show called Repeat After Me. I am actually DJing, drumming, and MCing on stage as a character of sorts. The performance has climbed the ranks to some international festivals in the next year, and features a fearless exploration of the theme of patriotic identity through music. I'll get to travel outside of the normal touring-band circles throughout the year.