As a companion piece to today's Cellars by Starlight spotlight on Boston's indie record label resurgance, here is a closer look at five labels around town making more than just noise...
::: KASSETTE KLUB
Bands of note: Mutual Benefit, Magical Mistakes, Lady Lazarus, Share-a-tories, Hear Hums
Similar local labels: Spookytown, Night People, Breakfast of Champs
Jordan Lee became interested in tapes because he liked the way they sounded, and continued using them for practical and somewhat serendipitous reasons. “Tapes are hip of late, but I feel like tapes are hip the way PBR became hip, where at first it was just the cheapest beer on draft so all the people who didn't have any money drank PBR, and then it became cool," says Lee. "All I could afford to put out were tapes -- I wasn't making a statement." Lee bought a duplicator, bought 100 tapes off eBay for $15, and rescued 400 tapes for free when a conservative radio station in Austin, where he was living at the time, was about to throw them out. Kassette Klub, much like the FMLY collective it's affiliated with, stays loyal to its community and its aesthetic. Nearly all of Kassette Klub's releases, such as the gorgeous recent split between Lee's Mutual Benefit and Noah Klein's, combine electronic and organic music to create dreamy looping complex pop. More often than not, it sounds like magic.
::: POLK RECORDS
Bands of note: Streight Angular, Radio Control, A Bit Much, Mudflap Junior Jones, The Last Star Pilot
Medium: Cassettes, CDs
Similar local indies: Whitehaus Family Record, GHouse, Base Trip
If you've kept an eye out, you've probably seen the circular black-and-white Polk Records sticker plastered all around town. Albert Polk, of Streight Angular, began Polk three years ago as a way to promote his band and help his musician friends out. He's still working to grow the Polk community, whether by cross-releasing his band's Everything is Syncopated EP on the Whitehaus Family Record, or by hosting semi-annual Polkfests. Last year's took over All Asia Cafe in Cambridge for a weekend and featured nearly 40 bands -- from the label's own to up-and-coming bands such as Night Fruit and the New Highway Hymnal -- for just $5. Unlike a lot of other small-scale labels, Polk isn't interested in sticking to one sound or genre. "Polk goes all the way from folk music to hardcore to art rock to noise bands -- if you're saying something meaningful and putting something valid out, that's basically the criteria," says Polk. "We're not saying 'we're just hardcore, we're just pop' -- I've never been one to limit myself because I listen to all sorts of music. if it's good, I'll support it."
::: TEENAGE DISCO BLOODBATH
Bands of note: Proselyte, Tides, Litany for the Whale, Choke Up, Phantom Glue
Medium: CDs, vinyl
Similar local indies: Patac Records, Black Market Activities, Deathwish
Jonah Livingston started Teenage Disco Bloodbath Records in 2003, and though he gravitates towards metal, hardcore, stoner rock, and postrock, a lot of his ethos comes from the ideals of 90's punk. "When I was in high school, I was a little kid who was into Pantera," says Livingston, "but once I was 15 and 16, and started hanging out with punk kids they brought me to basements and churches and exposed me to the fact that music doesn't have to be this thing controlled by corporations and big rock stars -- you can just pick up a guitar and rent out a hall and now you're the band that people might want to see." Livingston has a lot to be proud of -- not the least of which being that he's never booked a show that wasn't all ages. "I read Our Band Could Be Your Life and it blew my mind. I didn't know why I do what I do until I read that book. Minor Threat used to be on tour, would get to a venue, see it was ten dollars, get back in the van and drive away."
::: YDLMIER TAPES
Bands of note: Gruiformes, Vic Rawlings, Gay Shapes, Schurt Kwitters
Similar local indies: Intransitive, Type, Ride the Snake, Feeding Tube
Sam Laviazar was growing frustrated with how little tangible output was coming out of Boston's experimental music scene, which was quietly evolving in basements, galleries, and house shows throughout the city. He joined forces with Lee Tyndall to start YDLMIER Tapes last year to document the improv, noise, and drone music that was being made. "There was a lot going on around here but there was no cohesive label," says Laviazar. "Experimental musicians can be shy about what they're doing or worried that it's not going to be good enough - it was stopping people from doing a lot of things." By putting out music on cassettes and keeping distribution low (YDLMIER releases tapes by four artists at a time, in editions of 40), YDLMIER hopes to take the pressure off individual artists. The batches might seem small, but within the context of the niche noise and drone scene where information spreads through word of mouth and 20 people at a show can be a good turnout, it's a scale that makes sense. The goal here is to nurture a scene, not to end up on the Billboard Top 100. "No one's expecting that things are going to blow up and there's going to be a kind of downtown John Zorn scene in Boston, where everybody in the world knows about it. But to document and do stuff like this will at least make people aware of what's going on.”
::: TOPSHELF RECORDS
Bands of note: The Saddest Landscape, Pianos Become the Teeth, Slingshot Dakota, The Clippers, Into It. Over It., Suis La Lune
Similar local indies: Run for Cover, Get Young
Emo might have gone up in a blaze of eyeliner and swoopy bangs back in the early aughts, but the heart of what made the genre great is still beating fiercely, this time under the radar. Topshelf, founded six years ago by Kevin Duquette and Seth Decotau, is a good sign of its staying power -- they've accumulated a solid roster of indie, punk, screamo and hardcore artists, and developed a loyal following. "I remember, I'm six years old and Sub Pop is killing it,” says Duquette. “They built an identity and became tastemakers for an entire decade of music. It's our hope that that's what we're doing and that we're growing because there are people who trust us." At this point, Topshelf has grown enough to be able to work with more established bands, but they're maintaining the 50/50 homegrown/established ratio that Sniper emphasized in his rant. "When we started out, we were trying to go about things professionally, do things in a way we thought made sense, but at the end of the day we should have just trusted our judgement, which is more what we're doing now -- not doing what you think you're supposed to be doing and just kind of go with what feels right," says Duquette. It's an ethic that just might work -- Topshelf's anticipating it's busiest year to date... and Duquette just quit his day job.
Jonah Livingston, left, of TDB Records, with his band, Ramming Speed; photo by Angela Boatwright