Spotlight on Already Dead Tapes & Records

Welcome to Suburban Diaspora’s blog. Every Monday we’ll be shedding a spotlight on independent fiction, poetry, music, and video games. The selections may be new or old, but all selections will be available for purchase with links at the end end of the review. This week we look at the independent record label/music collective Already Dead Tapes & Records.

To me, there aren’t many things in the world better than a group of talented, passionate people getting together to make things. Any kind of things. And although many people think of the Midwest as a place without much culture to it, it is among the best areas of the country to find art and music collectives – DIT-minded people who are making unique and beautiful things, who are creating their own cultural experience in a way that’s far more inclusive and far more personal than the more consumer-based, commercialized approach to culture.

One such group is Already Dead Tapes & Records, an independent, grassroots record label that releases cassette tapes and vinyl (along with some pretty badass artwork) in small runs. Founded in 2009 by Sean Hartman and Joshua Tabbia, this is one of the many music collectives to return to the idea of album-as-art-object. In the world of mp3s and iPods, people immersed in music subcultures longed for (or never departed from!) the idea that engaging with music should be more of an experience, that it is not something to be passively consumed. Lucky for us, a lot of those music lovers took matters into their own hands and kept the art objects of the music world alive by starting small labels and collectives with their friends, and offering up awesome recordings with phenomenal artwork for fankids to collect and go back to again and again.

I was lucky enough to correspond with Wesley Nowlin, an Already Dead staffer, who gave me a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be a part of a DIT record label.

Already Dead Tapes & Records Interview with Wesley Nowlin

STEPH: First off, introduce us to Already Dead Tapes & Records. How was it founded, and how did it grow to become what it is today? Give the reader an idea, too, of the aesthetic of the label in your own words – what are you guys most hoping to do with your label?

WESLEY: We’re a record label releasing cassettes, vinyl, and fine art in small editions. In the last five years, we’ve put out nearly 200 releases from over 120 artists from all over the world. We’re passionate about many genres of music and art, and love working with and fostering artists we believe in. Joshua Tabbia and Sean Hartman established the label in late 2009, initially as a means to release their own music and potentially their friends’ music. The label quickly started receiving submissions and growing pretty organically. Our aesthetic has developed naturally, through the artists we’ve worked and the diversity of material we’ve released. Whether intentional or not, the label reflects who we are as music listeners, interested in practically every genre under the sun and always eager to discover new artists.

Red light in a live basement show

STEPH: Talk a little about the label’s philosophy. You guys have chosen to keep things relatively small – lesser-known artists, smaller releases – and you work more with experimental artists. The whole operation has a very intimate, DIY (or DIT) feel to it. What was the drive behind those choices? How does that shape your label; how does that containment help (or hinder) your creative vision?

WESLEY: We’ve always been very open-minded with our philosophy. We’re passionate about DIY culture, analog formats, and lesser known artists, but we’ve had a chance to work with some bigger names, such as David Shrigley and Chris Brokaw (Codeine), and that’s been great as well. Having that kind of openness allows the label to grow in ways we would have never thought of at the onset.

STEPH: The return to cassette culture isn’t limited to Already Dead Tapes, but it isn’t exactly a mainstream decision either. This musical medium is endlessly fascinating to me, and the culture that surrounds it even more so. Why cassettes? How does this change the recording process, and what aesthetic value do you guys hope to offer your listeners?

Growfangs live. Photo by Kasey Chaos

WESLEY: We started releasing cassettes to bring a focus back to the physical object and the importance of buying and owning an album you love. We also just love the way the format sounds. In 2009 cassettes were starting to see a revival, but they were also still a heavily disregarded and antiquated format, and we found that appealing. There isn’t a huge impact on the recording process, but the format does add something to every genre and this offers our listeners something off the beaten path.

STEPH: The Already Dead family seems pretty tight-knit. All artists and musicians involved seem to be endlessly eager to put out new stuff, to make things, and to perform together. That kind of bond within a label or collective is somewhat rare even among the smaller, independent label set. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of being involved in a group like that? Give the readers an idea of how that might differ from a more traditional approach to putting out music or running a label – does the collaborative atmosphere draw new artists in? Does it help generate more music, better performance experiences?

Growfangs live. Photo by Kasey Chaos

WESLEY: We like to have a very collaborative relationship with our artists, working together to make a release successful. This often leads to a close, family-like vibe. Many of the artists we work with end up becoming dear friends, and that’s extremely encouraging. We also have an annual music festival, the Already Dead Family Reunion, which is typically three days and over 30 artists and that helps foster that closeness and connect artists.

STEPH: The operation is moving to NYC soon, which is pretty exciting – that’s going to be a big change, it seems. What does this mean for the Chicago and Kalamazoo scene? How are things going to change for Already Dead Tapes and their family?

WESLEY: The label will continue to be based in Chicago and Kalamazoo, now with the addition of Brooklyn. Josh will run things from Brooklyn, Alex Borozan and myself will run things from Chicago, and Sean Hartman will still be based out of Kalamazoo. We see this expansion as an opportunity to grow and do even more. There are artists vital to the label in each of these cities, and we’re looking forward to having three places to call home.

STEPH: What goes into preparing to bring an operation like this to a festival or an event? Give the readers an idea of what you guys hope to present at these things, and how a festival presence might help your label to expand or evolve.

WESLEY: We’ve tabled at Pitchfork Music Festival the past two years (and will again this year), and we table at record fairs pretty often. It’s essentially packing up everything we’ve got and being prepared to engage with people who have never heard of us. We have description cards for all of our releases, which give a brief summary as well as a list of similar artists that newcomers may be familiar with. This is a great point of reference and usually gets the conversation going. We also have listening stations, which allows for people to interact with the tapes and listen to what interests them. Working festivals and record fairs is a dream job, we get to stand around all day, meet amazing people, and talk about music we love.

STEPH: What kinds of artists and musicians do you guys hope to work with? How do you decide who to invite into the family, and how do you typically come across new additions?

WESLEY: We’re open to anything that feels like a good fit. At this point we have a large roster of staple artists we are continuing to work with on a regular basis, so we aren’t taking on as many new projects as we used to. That said, if we get excited about something, it’s hard to say “no.” The majority of our artists have come from either demo submissions or connections made at shows.

STEPH: Every fall, you guys put on a family reunion mini festival in Kalamazoo. Talk a little bit about the family reunion shows – how did that come about? What’s it like to put on an annual showcase like that, and what importance does it have for your label?

Already Dead Family Reunion

WESLEY: The Family Reunion is an extension of the label, over 30 artists come from all over the country, (and sometimes from all over the world), for three days of performances, including after parties, pot lucks, and more. The day-to-day of running a label can be a lot of work, and the Family Reunion reminds us what it’s all about: the people and the music. It’s always a really magical week of reconnecting with old friends and meeting people we’ve only communicated with long distance. It’s hard to put into words, but it really brings everything together for a true sense of community.

STEPH: Talk a little bit about the artistic aspect of the label. Not all labels focus on cover art, or poster art, in quite the same way or on quite the same level that Already Dead Tapes focuses on it. The cover and poster art is beautiful – can you talk a little bit about why that’s important to you guys? What does it add to the collective to place that much emphasis on the presentation of the physicality of the product?

WESLEY: Why wouldn’t you put an amazing album in a beautiful package? In many ways, we believe the art that houses an album is just as important as the music. It’s all part of the experience of the physical object and wanting to actually own an album. We strive to give each release its own visual appeal, while maintaining a visual system, primary the spine of the cassette, which unites the collection.

STEPH: Finally, tell me about all the exciting things Already Dead Tapes has coming up – where can we expect to see you guys? What kinds of events do you have planned for the summer?

WESLEY: As always, we have a slew of exciting releases coming up this summer, including: Boring People, Panda Kid, Teen Cult, Longface (ex-New Diet), Mu Vonz, Darko the Super, A.M. Stations, and Two Hungry Bros., just to name a few. We also have several new Already Dead merch items in the works, which we’ll likely debut at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, at the CHIRP Record Fair.

You can find out more (and buy some stuff!!) on Already Dead Tapes & Records website

Post by Stephanie Marker


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