Inside the Orchid Tapes headquarters, Warren Hildebrand’s cat Baba sleeps atop a pile of cardboard record mailers. They’re stacked high, waiting to be packed with releases from Alex G and the Bilinda Butchers. Along with his boyfriend, Brian Vu, Hildebrand runs Orchid Tapes from the Bushwick apartment the couple shares, the same place where he recorded the majority of his new album, Ontario Gothic.
Hildebrand founded Orchid Tapes in 2010 as a vehicle for releasing the slow-burning dream pop he makes as Foxes in Fiction, but the label didn’t become an underground fixture until he moved to Brooklyn with Vu two years ago. In the past year, they’ve put out records from Coma Cinema, Ricky Eat Acid and, most recently, Alex G, who was the subject of a feature in Rolling Stone. The label has become known for including gift bags with each record purchase, shipping out guava candy and hand-stamped tea bags alongside the pastel-colored wax. Their newest compilation, Boring Ecstasy, earned attention for its unique scent — each copy was perfumed with a blend of essential oils that Orchid Tapes now sells on demand by the bottle.
Sift through Orchid Tapes’ Twitter presence and you’ll find dozens of retweets from fans who Instagram the goodies they get in the mail. Most of the images reproduce the aesthetic Hildebrand and Vu have crafted for themselves on their album covers, promotional posters, and one-off social media blips. Softly lit shrines pepper the #orchidtapes hashtag.
“Brian and I both have backgrounds in visual art,” Hildebrand explains as we speak on the roof of his apartment building on a sunny August afternoon. He’s the first person I’ve interviewed who speaks more softly than I do; I push my tape recorder a few inches across the picnic table where we’re sitting. “We throw ideas back and forth for different releases all the time and we figure out what we can tailor specifically for each release to make it unique and visually appealing, to have people be excited to own it. I feel like people buying physical merch is more and more of a rarity. If people are going to buy a record, we want to make it special.”
On September 23, Hildebrand released his first full-length since the very first tape under the Orchid Tapes emblem, 2010′s Swung From the Branches. The record marks a departure from the impressionistic ambience of Foxes in Fiction debut. Featuring string arrangements by Owen Pallett, Ontario Gothic crystallizes Hildebrand’s songwriting into grand, solid gestures. Its seven songs have a depth of scope that make it surprising to know that they were assembled in the same small studio where Hildebrand and Vu dub tapes, print posters and hand-write thank-you notes to each of their customers.
Though Orchid Tapes’ notoriety had grown throughout 2013, 2014 marked a turning point for the label. In January, they put out their first release on vinyl, Ricky Eat Acid’s Three Love Songs, and the blue-shaded records sold out within days. “Seeing how fast that sold was the most incredible shock of all time,” Hildebrand says. “That was the first indication that we were building something like a following.”
Two months later in March, Orchid Tapes released the now sold-out Boring Ecstasy, its first label-wide vinyl compilation. In May, the label’s new signing Alex G sold out the first pressing of his debut DSU almost immediately. The album went on to earn a glowing review in Rolling Stone upon its release in June; the magazine later profiled Alex G in addition to writing up Foxes in Fiction’s first single from Ontario Gothic, “Shadow’s Song”.
Paradoxically, Orchid Tapes seems to have bolstered their physical media sales by giving away mp3s of all their releases for free. “People see that we’re giving things away in a digital format, so they want to support us by buying physical merch,” Hildebrand tells me. “People are going to get the digital files for free one way or another if they really want to, so I would rather they have access to the albums and be able to save their money for merch instead of putting that money toward intangible, digital files.” It’s an ideological gesture that he and Vu plan on sticking to as the label grows. Most of their artists, like Ricky Eat Acid’s Sam Ray and Coma Cinema’s Mat Cothran, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Now, at the beginning of fall, Hildebrand’s staring down a final quarter that looks almost as packed as the year’s first three. After a tour opening for his idol-turned-friend Owen Pallett (“he’s been one of my favorites forever”), who played violin with him live, he’s got his own record to ship out on vinyl and cassette. Before the end of the year, Orchid Tapes will release new albums from Mister Lies and Emily Reo.
This isn’t a future Hildebrand saw for himself when he founded Orchid Tapes back in Toronto. “I was on the brink of shutting the label down because I wasn’t doing anything with it. It was reaching a really pathetic state,” he tells me. “I got to a point of stasis where it was easy for me to get really, really depressed. I wasn’t leaving my apartment for days on end, just lying in bed in fits of the truest form of depression.”
He doesn’t mention it during our conversation, but weeks later, I notice this quote from him in a press release for the new album: “The running theme throughout Ontario Gothic is how I picked up the pieces of my life after the death of my younger brother Drew in 2008.” Dreamy and sad, the record’s seven tracks fit the mold of grief, but they’re not explicitly epitaphs. Hildebrand’s androgynous vocals trace his lyrics gently enough to resist any singular narrative. What he does reveal during our roof talk is that he’s always used his songs to engage with the mechanism of healing: “I’ve been really interested in the idea of music as a device for helping people through hard times.”
The life he’s in now seems far away from the paralysis he describes from years ago, and it’s his music, in part, that got him here. Hildebrand met Vu while on tour in California; the two maintained a long-distance relationship for a year and a half before they moved to New York together. As they built friendships with artists they admired, they saw a community start to blossom around them. Hildebrand is ostensibly the leader of what looks from the outside like a traditional label, but he doesn’t describe his role that way. “I stand at the center and try to keep things together very loosely, and hope everything doesn’t collapse,” he says, emphasizing the communal effort of the other musicians on Orchid Tapes’ roster. “Everybody helps to promote different releases and chime in and vouch for everybody else. I wouldn’t be able to do this with any other group of people.”
He’s still coming to terms with where he is: here, in New York, working hard alongside people he cares for and respects. “I never really saw myself in this kind of position. I always knew that I wanted to be involved in music, but I never thought I would be running a label with my boyfriend,” he says. “I think what’s surprised me the most is how much better of a job I’ve done than I thought I would do. I’ve always been really overwhelmed by responsibility, but I’ve thrown myself headfirst into two different kinds of commitment. One is helping to run a fairly well known label, and the other is being in a long-term relationship. That’s been a big surprise for me. I thought I would do much more of a shit job at both. Both of those are the best things I have going for me in life right now, and it all happened super quickly out of nowhere.”