In college, Mike Schulman majored in English because he assumed the discipline’s light workload would allow him plenty of time to pursue real interests — specifically, the Jesus & Mary Chain. For the owner of Slumberland Records — the influential independent record label that’s celebrating its 25th birthday by reissuing the Aislers Set‘s first two albums this year — the Scottish group’s clamorous take on pop was revelatory. “The Mary Chain convinced us that we could play music,” he says. In addition to cofounding Slumberland with members of Velocity Girl while attending the University of Maryland, Schulman formed no less than three bands — Whorl, Powderburns and the legendary Black Tambourine — that drew from the JAMC blueprint. When the Scottish group dropped the noisy gauze on its polished sophomore album, Darklands, Schulman felt betrayed.
Schulman’s consummate fandom wasn’t a collegiate development; it began during childhood. “I had a record player when I was 4 or 5,” he remembers. “It had a 45 changer, so I could put a stack of records on and play with model airplanes, listening to doo-wop or whatever, for hours.” He also studied popular taste in a book of Billboard charts. “I could see ’96 Tears’ being No. 1 week after week, and I’d ask my parents what it sounded like.” One trend alarmed him: “I remember noticing that, in the mid ’60s, music was getting away from singles. I developed a dislike of commercial album rock pretty early on.”
Schulman’s love of singles proved an enduring one. When he and his aspirant-Anglophile friends worked record stores in college, they imported singles from English labels like Creation, Postcard, and Sarah. It was then that Schulman noticed the lack of a Stateside equivalent for these indie-pop and shoegaze-oriented labels, and Slumberland was born.
The label’s name was sourced from the early 20th-century comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” and released its inaugural title, the three-band 7-inch compilation What Kind of Heaven Do You Want, in 1989. The comp consisted of a song apiece from two of Schulman’s own bands, Powderburns and Black Tambourine, and one from his friends’ band Velocity Girl, with whom Black Tambourine shared members. The little 7-inch established Slumberland as a collectively run platform for the embryonic indie-pop scene, but founded in the regional shadow of Dischord, the new indie enterprise was either ignored or dismissed. In fact, What Kind of Heaven‘s mastering engineer was so dismayed by the compilation’s recording quality, he requested his name be omitted from the credits. Brandishing an original copy, Schulman says, “This was a return from K Records distribution.” For a record-label owner, vindication is when returned units become collectibles.
Velocity Girl released two Slumberland 7-inches during this initial period, before leaving the label for Sub Pop. In the wake of their departure, Slumberland’s day-to-day tasks fell to Schulman, who moved operations to the Bay Area in 1992. The next year, he released a split single by Henry’s Dress and Tiger Trap, two acts that promptly splintered into three of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic indie-pop groups: the Softies, Go Sailor and the Aislers Set. But after releasing three albums, the Aislers Set went on hiatus in 2003. Disheartened by the dissolution of his flagship band, Schulman allowed the Slumberland’s output to slow significantly. He revived it in 2006 to capitalize on San Francisco’s then-flourishing garage scene, but it was a New York band that completed the Slumberland resurrection: The phenomenally successful debut of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, released in 2009, pumped new lifeblood into the operation, and when European acts like Veronica Falls, Golden Grrrls or Joanna Gruesome sought American representation, a revitalized Slumberland stepped up. Since 2006, Slumberland has released almost twice as many titles as it did in the 17 years prior.
In the label’s Berkeley headquarters, Schulman, now 48 years old and married, speaks giddily of his son’s developing taste in music. Ever the collector, he assigned his newborn child the Slumberland catalog number 100 in 2008. “I am the only Slumberland completist,” he says, beaming. (Online, his handle is Papa Slumber.) Touring bands still crash on his couch, and Schulman even fronts a punchy Oi! group called Hard Left, with Boyracer’s Stewart Anderson on drums.
“Listeners were once readily identifiable as an indie-pop audience,” remembers Schulman. “There’s no such thing anymore.” He continues, “When I started doing the label…people were into the Chapel Hill sound, or the Lower East Side sound, but indie-pop was for indie-pop people. Now, it’s more common to listen across the spectrum.”
Twenty-five years on, Slumberland’s catalog has grown to include nearly 250 releases. Since Schulman has been the imprint’s sole curator, its output is more consistent than labels of a similar age. Listeners can happily traverse Slumberland’s discography in both directions: Weekend’s nebulous guitar saturation in 2013 evokes Lilys’ amorphous textures from 1992; Golden Grrrls are the ramshackle update of Go Sailor’s lofty minimalism.
“I can’t think of many labels that have been around as long as we have and not changed in some fundamental way,” Schulman says. Indeed, the company was never sold and reacquired. Former artists don’t sue to wrench their rights back. Schulman remains the sole employee, autonomous from major labels and exerting influence from outside the music industry’s typical seats of power. Slumberland attracts new bands that grew up in awe of the initial discography, and channels attention back to the old titles through an impeccable current roster. Schulman is still the avid fan boy combing through imports. Although, he’s come around on Darklands.
5 Slumberland Highlights
Lilys 1990 single "February Fourteenth" was the first Slumberland release from a band outside of Schulman's original peer group. He says it imbued the label with a feeling of legitimacy. Its debut album, In the Presence of Nothing, was the label's first full-length release. Its warbling drones and sudden plunges into effects-laden guitar opacity fuse with understated vocal leads to make one of the first and finest American responses to imported records by Ride and My Bloody Valentine.
Boyracer is the longtime vehicle for the prolific English bandleader Stewart Anderson. Already buzzing after a slew of early singles, Boyracer committed 24 tracks to its 1994 debut album. Anderson's deft rock 'n' roll sneer coats the album in churlish glee without impeding the sputtering riffs or the hooks, making More Songs About Frustration and Self Hate one of the most tuneful releases on Slumberland.
San Francisco act the Aislers Set sprung out of Amy Linton's previous Slumberland band, Henry's Dress. Over the course of three albums in five years, the Aislers Set reigned supreme in the eyes of critics and the cresting swell of indie-pop devotees, then promptly broke up. Their second album, The Last Match, is their finest work. Linton's breathy vocals sail atop sparse arrangements of organ and clean guitar, evoking psychedelic pop.
Cracking the Top 10 of Billboard's Heatseekers chart upon release in 2009, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's eponymous 2009 debut is Slumberland's best-selling title. Kip Berman's infectious vocals soar across a dense but amiable swathe of guitar and keyboard textures. Every chord progression resolves with bliss. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart refines most of the groundwork laid by Slumberland in the twenty years prior into an undeniably realized debut.
On Tony Molina's solo debut, the Ovens refugee and Bay Area native distills his reverence for Weezer, Guided by Voices, Thin Lizzy and the Fastbacks into miniaturized homages. The lengths are key: Dissed & Dismissed runs about 12 minutes long. Molina doesn't repeat parts. His takeaway from arranging hardcore music — get to the breakdown and get out—applied to self-deprecating pop songs creates a singular fusion from familiar parts. Slumberland reissued Dissed & Dismissed after its 2013 version sold out and he'll release Molina's follow-up album later this year.