Discover: Kranky Records

Andrew Parks

By Andrew Parks

on 01.08.14 in Collections

Kranky Records celebrated its 20th anniversary late last year with four hometown shows — including rare sets from Grouper and Stars of the Lid. Given the communal, all-join-hands spirit of that celebration, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to ask some of its signature artists to discuss their favorite records. While many were happy to cosign everything, from the sorely overlooked Labradford to the masterful ambient music of Tim Hecker, Windy & Carl bassist/singer Windy Weber captured the Chicago label’s appeal best by ignoring the question entirely.

“Do I have a favorite Kranky release?” Weber wrote rhetorically. “Which year would you like me to pick? Which phase of my life do you want one from, and what genre of the catalog?”

Leaving those questions hanging in the ether for emphasis, she then ticked off some standout moments from Kranky’s early years: the first time Weber heard the roundabout indie rock of Labradford, the night she drove to see Stars of the Lid play a Cleveland theatre, that day spent talking to cutting-edge Kiwi Roy Montgomery at Terrastock.

“How can you ask me to pick a single release when so much of the label’s output has been the soundtrack to my life,” she said, “and the people making it my extended family? I’d have to name almost all of the artists on the label to even feel I was doing justice to the question…So no, I cannot answer your question, except to say, ‘Just listen.’”

Label boss Joel Leoschke — Kranky co-founder Bruce Adams, Leoschke’s former partner-in-crime at Cargo Music Distribution, left in 2006 — had the same listen-and-learn response. It would seem like a copout if the label’s catalog didn’t support his argument. Close your eyes and select Kranky releases at random: You might find yourself surveying the dynamic garage days of Deerhunter or the Fripp & Eno foundation of Growing; the mad-for-it modular synthesis of Keith Fullerton Whitman or the morphine-drip melodies of Low. You might lose yourself in the violent peaks and valleys of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

In fact, maybe the best way to understand Kranky’s we-release-what-we-like ethos was to see Leoschke DJ in a local bar after Tim Hecker’s rain-slicked set at the Pitchfork Music Festival. “I like to spin a really diverse range of sounds,” he explained. “Doing a four-hour set means playing anywhere from 60 to 80 tracks — or even more, if you stick to 45s — and I try not to repeat a single artist. So to list even a small portion of things I might play seems ridiculous. I will say I am not genre specific at all; if something is good, I don’t care what the source is.”

Sounds like a mission statement, one that eMusic contributor Andrew Parks explored by interviewing Leoschke via email and asking a winding cross-section of artists to divulge their own personal favorites from the past 20 years.

On what really inspired Kranky’s learn-as-we-go launch:

I am a firm believer that people are influenced by everything they have experienced in their life, both positive and negative. I am sure Billy Joel and Barry Manilow influenced a lot of your favorite artists in that they consciously or subconsciously did not want to sound anything like those musical widget producers. So I would not point to any label specifically as being a major influence, but rather everything that was witnessed and observed before taking the plunge.

On that name:

It is what it is. I don’t spend any time regretting not choosing a different moniker. And once or twice a year, I get to say, “It’s not called Kranky for nothing!”

On whether demos have a place in today’s music industry:

Demos — sheesh. We listen to them, but it’s an almost completely pointless task at this point in time. I can certainly appreciate why some labels have a “no demo” policy. We get everything from metal bands to singer/songwriters of the worst kind. As for where Kranky fits into the underground landscape, that is for other people to decide; I don’t really contemplate the question.

On a couple records that caught him off guard:

Starting from the beginning, the first Labradford album would be one. I had no idea what to expect. It was the first album we were producing, and to say I was pleasantly surprised at the results would be a major understatement. The second Bowery Electric album should be noted; the progression between their first and Beat was huge. And the first Stars of the Lid album we released (The Ballasted Orchestra) would definitely be another. It sounded like the same group that had recorded previous albums, but it was a great leap forward in that it was their first true ‘album’ conceptually, as far as being a cohesive listen front to back.

On the unpredictable nature of being an underground label:

I am long over being shocked by either the success or failure of a particular release. You can get crushed if you get your hopes up, so it’s always best to keep them in check and be pleasantly surprised if something positive happens — like the recent ascent of Tim Hecker’s profile.

On what it means to make an “experimental record” in 2013:

I have never liked tags, and “experimental” has been rendered almost meaningless because of its overuse, much as “alternative” became meaningless at some point in the ’90s. I’m not sure who said it, but the idea that “experiment is what you do before you press record” sums up my argument.

It’s the music writer’s job to describe what they hear without resorting to hackneyed words and phrases. Is that an easy task? Not at all, but that’s the job description, or at least it should be. And I am not picking on music writers here; there is a dearth of quality writing on every subject, especially art and culture.

On five records that capture the range of Kranky’s ‘sound’:

That’s easy; we can just name the last five releases on the label, skipping Tim Hecker’s Mirages vinyl reissue…

Tim Hecker, Virgins: Already appearing on best of 2013 lists, the latest from this singular sound organizer. Describe? It’s always hard to use words to describe sound; with Tim, it is almost impossible to do well. Dense and intense soundscapes? A few descriptors can hardly do justice to his compositions.

Disappears, Era: One of the few “rock” bands we have worked with over the years, a classic guitar, bass and drums quartet. They have a minimal palette of sounds, but manage to continually find new ways to mold and shape them, and they always deliver when playing live, which I truly appreciate.

Ken Camden, Space Mirror: Ken plays guitar, but that doesn’t begin to describe what he does. Ken has extensive knowledge of electronic music and modern composition history and produces his own take on that, with a fascination with space exploration thrown in. Put on the headphones and take a journey.

Justin Walter, Lullabies & Nightmares: Justin is a member of NOMO, but his solo work is a different thing altogether. He is currently focused on using the EVI — or electronic valve instrument, a strange relic of the analog instrument building boom — along with live and programmed percussion.

Pan•American, Cloud Room, Glass Room: We started working with Mark Nelson as part of Labradford, and continued with his solo works under the Pan•American moniker. It’s elegant, skeletal music that shows rare patience in unfolding, and Mark is an extraordinary producer as far as knowing what to leave in and what to discard.

On whether anyone should start a label in today’s tumultuous music industry:

I have long had a simple answer to the question of “what advice would you give to someone thinking of starting a label?” “Don’t.” That said, I would tell this enterprising young person that you better have a decent day job, and expect to work long hours with little or no financial reward for years, if ever. It’s a tough world out there; brace yourself.

Kranky picks by Kranky artists

I saw Magnog and Jessamine play a show together at the Velvet Elvis in Seattle around 1996. I think it was the record release party for Magnog's self-titled Kranky debut. Jessamine played an incredible, jazzy, funk-infused set with thick bass slabs and tight post-Can drumming, pushing the keyboard and guitar filigree to an apex my young mind had never experienced. I was enthralled. Then something magical happened wherein the three mysterious young dudes (they looked my age) from Magnog sneaked on stage and the two groups melded sounds in a way I had never seen or heard anyone do before. I was enthralled and enraptured by the heavy plumes of dark energy produced. It went on for a long while, with the members of Jessamine slipping out gradually and Magnog going for one looong hour-plus exploration. I bought the double LP on the spot. Magnog seemed like one of those groups that somehow naturally — and out of nowhere — came upon this long, spaced-out sound. It wasn't contrived or conceived of by some know-it-all record dudes trying to recapture something they had heard on their favorite obscurities. Magnog were the real deal — three kids in a basement somewhere outside of Seattle creating for their own pleasure, discovering and recording soundtracks to their own mental journeys that somehow leaked out and made it on to an album for the rest of us to enjoy. To me, they were the best space music of their time, and one of the best that ever did it. — Adam Forkner, White Rainbow

My memories fade from time to time, but this [Kranky record] — more than any other — is the one I go back to, either when I find that random person that has never heard them before, or if I am looking for that last song to round out a good mixtape to fall asleep to. I suppose it is also because it was released the same year as Stars of the Lid's Ballasted Orchestra. We were the new kids on the Kranky block, and we played a couple of shows with them in Texas, 'round the fall of '96. I reckon we became accomplices on that short weekend.

I remember falling in love with these songs. Three gentleman creating such a vast template of sound, unusually muted, minor chord superstars, always overlooked in that salad of mid '90s indie rock. Bobby Donne's sequencing magic, and tremolo bass sub; Carter Brown's Blade Runner Leslie organ black arts; and Mark Nelson's western guitar, and micro-vocal harmonies.

It's just perfect. Despite the fact that drenching reverb on new music of late has become a bit ubiquitous, the sound on that record is still quite unique, and ultimately, timeless. — Adam Wiltzie, Stars of the Lid/The Dead Texan/A Winged Victory For the Sullen

I guess it was the summer of 1997. I was working in Evanston for the summer, living in a sublet not far from the Northwestern campus. Joel had given me a tape with only two words written on the side: "Weak Moments." Luckily the apartment I was staying in had a tape player in the living room. Whenever I'd sneak away from my debate duties, I'd put the tape on hoping that neither of my two roommates would walk in and interrupt my attempts to immerse myself in an album I had been diligently waiting for, an album I needed to be good. (I thought about having to explain my musical tastes to two people who'd rather hole up in their rooms coked up, listening to the Grateful Dead.)

Working at debate camp was always hard — 12-hour days seven days a week, and the unending challenge to break some of the stares that the job required. Every summer I repeated the same ritual. I was in search of anything that could release me from being mired in having to explain the details of, say, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban treaty in a responsible and palatable form to eager high school students who wanted to win as much as their attention spans and hormones would let them.

What I found broke that stare. With its Spaghetti Western guitar nods and its Badalamenti organs, I was released. I would study the way Mark [Nelson] and Bobby [Donne] turned the right hand of their samplers into some pitched-up chorus of angelic crickets; I would think about Bill Evans's "Peace Piece"; I would get lost in broken ideas of ghost towns; and I'd wonder if my own music even deserved to keep the same company.

Even luckier for me, I never had to explain. Despite the fact that I rarely moved from that couch next to the tape player, somehow even the roommates seemed to acknowledge that there was something important in that tape. Weak moments for me, yes, but not one I could find on Labradford's Mi Media Naranja. — Brian McBride, Stars of the Lid

I was in an old, beat-up piece-of-shit car in winter Winnipeg — which means minus-25 degrees Fahrenheit — when I first heard this album. The sound system was poor, which, due to the owner being a "sound artist," was kind of understandable. The music moved slower than the slow night drifts of snow that were passing in front of us. The updrafts of glacial tonal clusters were both medicated and totally beyond temperature. — Tim Hecker

For a while in the late '90s, Charalambides sought escape from our musical influences. We dumped LPs and shunned gigs, attending instead to the faint voices whispering up from the well. But in 1991, we reveled in a deluge of records that kicked holes in walls we never knew existed. Dadamah's This Is Not a Dream was such an album; with only two chords, the swaying intro to "Limbo Swing" mapped every musical space worth exploring. Using familiar instruments, Dadamah exposed the Cambrian roots of rock-as-ritual, piling up an achingly primal edifice of effortless songs that remains uncracked. — Tom Carter, Charalambides

Beyond a doubt, the Kranky release I listen to with the most fondness is The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid. In my fledgling days as Loscil — early in my relationship with Kranky — I toured Europe with the Lid. It was probably one of the most memorable periods of my younger adult years; listening to those guys every night and watching Luke [Savisky]'s mesmerizing film loops fill the stage. The opening of "Piano Aquieu" is forever burned in my head, and I'm convinced it's one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. That album epitomizes everything that is Kranky to me — unabashedly minimal and moody, subtly intense, composed with intelligence and sensitivity with just a touch of humor. It's a beautiful thing. — Scott Morgan, Loscil

Sometimes being on a label like Kranky — which I've adored and respected since the age of 13 or 14 — makes me feel like Peter Sellers in The Party: totally out of place, trying not to look like it, and fumbling about like a total idiot. This sensation occurred in me quite acutely when I found out that my first record for the label would be released at the same time as Harmony in Ultraviolet by Tim Hecker, who had recently hopped onto Kranky's roster after making two or three of my favorite albums of all time. You can only say that it's one of his masterpieces, because he has many, but as soon as I heard Harmony for the first time, I wanted to delete my hard drive, shred my contract and reserve my musical yens for sitting in a shame corner with a guitar, singing at a sotto voce level that no one else would ever hear.

Tim, you are a master, and you make me — and, I assume, many others — feel like a fool for even hazarding a try at this game of harmonic prettiness. — Tom Meluch, Benoit Pioulard

It is impossible for me to say which Kranky release is my "favorite" one. However, the most important to me was the first album — also the first one for the label — by Labradford. My friends and I used to frequent a couple of record stores every weekend and we were always chasing down the same records, which made fierce competition to be the first person in the door. A friend of ours had a weekly college radio program and he always turned us onto new underground music. On one of our weekend excursions he pointed out Prazision and told me I absolutely needed to buy that record. He also specifically told us he thought that the label it was on was going to be great, even though this was the only record they had released so far. I bought it and I fell in love with it. Instantly, I thought that this is the label I want to be a part of. — Carl Hultgren, Windy & Carl

While the mid '90s offered lots of amazing bands specializing in the "wall of delayed guitar" sound of the day, Jessamine were humbly moving towards a separate plane of ideas that necessitated completely different, and more nimble, moves. The Long Arm of Coincidence is a timeless moment for me where a group coalesced together, and their process was opened up like a book for everyone to examine across two slabs of vinyl. Wiry, arcing riffs that seem to hover and extend, non-sequitur/puzzling compositional moves derived from improv sessions, and austere lyricism meet up, making this a totally transporting experience for me every time I listen to it! — Paul Dickow, Strategy