Few enterprises make followers of electronic music turn as saucer-eyed and reverential as PAN. Since its humble beginnings in 2008, the label run by Bill Kouligas has amassed a formidable catalog with an idiosyncratic identity. A noise record might be followed by a techno one; a collection of sounds made with modular synthesizers can come just as well before or after a work of abstract sonic collage. Each comes packaged in eerie, mysterious cover art — designed by Kouligas himself — establishing an aesthetic that’s both distinguished and distinctive.
It wasn’t fated to mean much of anything at the start. “Sometimes you want to put out stuff by people you like, and you just go and do it,” Kouligas says. “I didn’t start with the idea to make a label. It was more of a DIY move.”
PAN started in London, where Kouligas moved to go to art school after growing up in Athens, Greece. He studied graphic design. “My main passion for years was typography — I was fascinated by the whole Fluxus history of design and concrete poetry books, very experimental things like that,” he says.
After school, and shortly after starting PAN, he moved to Berlin, where his interest in the textures of underground noise music communed with the energy of techno. “I started listening to more big bass music when I moved to Berlin, and it was interesting for me to see how the music of that city could filter through what I do,” Koulias says.
Dance records slowly started to find space in the PAN discography, but even the danciest among them sounded skewed and strange. (“The dance releases are still very experimental and freeform by dance-music standards,” Kouligas concedes.) Alongside records suited for the club (if only a very discerning, refined club) came music devoted to drones and bowed strings and peculiar aural phenomena of the inner-ear known as psychoacoustics.
It’s all amounted to serious business, sound-wise. “I don’t care necessarily about seriousness in the sound, but I do care about people being serious about what they do and what they represent,” Kouligas says. “Artists on the label pay a lot of attention to the creation of what they do and what it means, both conceptually and musically. That’s a crucial point for me. I’m not going to put a record that just sounds nice — I need to know more about the whole picture.”
Andy Battaglia asked Kouligas — during a brief stay in Athens, Greece, between stints living in Berlin and New York — to weigh in on some of the label’s key releases.
This is one of my personal favorites. It has a very special meaning for me because Joseph was the first artist that I hadn't met before [working with him]. I'd known his work from the scene around the Los Angeles Free Music Society [a storied avant-garde collective founded in the early 1970s]. I was interested because he was part of an experimental scene, but his approach was very different than noise or electroacoustic or other experimental artists. He uses a lot of popular music, sampling it through tape and creating a whole universe where everything goes out of phase and comes back again. I sent him an email out of the blue one day, not even sure if he would write back, and a half hour later I had a reply saying, "Thank you, I would love to do it!" A really nice relationship started. He's an incredible guy and a very interesting character. He repairs artwork — he has a big studio in Los Angeles where he does restoration of paintings.
I was in touch with Keith from the beginning because he runs Mimaroglu Music Sales [an impressive mailorder hub for experimental music]. He had finished a record after a very long time, and I was blown away by the material. It was the first release that took the label out of the box and got a lot of attention. He had a lot of concrete electronic elements on Side A, but Side B has this more rhythmic pattern. It's a modular synthesizer piece of the kind he's been working on for the past few years, and it was the perfect combination of what was happening in music at the time [in 2010], this post-synth-noise situation, but with a more academic background. It was very contemporary. People said it was the best example [of music] that could actually bridge all those different worlds. I had universities emailing about this record, 20-year-old kids buying this record, DJs playing this record, kids who were into Emeralds getting really obsessed. Completely different worlds liked it for completely different reasons. It opened doors to an audience that wasn't familiar with what I was doing at that point.
This record is history. It includes Tazartes's first recordings ever, original tapes from the early '70s that he used as backing tracks for performances. When he performs, it's just him and a microphone. The music is basically like a backing track. Now, he uses digital devices, but 40 years ago he was just laying down reel-to-reel tapes and singing on top. I wanted to work with him because I thought his work was really singular. What I like is that he comes from a very different background. Because of war, he was a nomad for many years, traveling from one place to another [he was born in France to Turkish parents], so his music has a lot of different influences. You can't say he sounds very Turkish or very French — he has this avant-garde attitude that gives his music a very different touch. The cover art is a postcard he sent me of the original flyer for his first live show ever. It's a photo from an ethnological museum of traditional dress, and the pattern on top is based on abstracted patterns from Moroccan marble.
This is a double album, and it includes his first record plus a second disc of new pieces. Eli is a workaholic. He has a lot of ideas and is really driven by what he does. He comes from a sound-art and installation background, but he's trying to push things forward, which is really important. I like it when people carry on a tradition, but also try to step out of it and not just recreate what has already been done. Eli is a good example of that in an art context. Some of these pieces are with a band, with him playing percussion. Some are from installation works, documentations of sounds based on these long-string installations he did. There's a sound-sculpture tradition with artists like Bill Fontana, Ellen Fullman, Harry Bertoia, people who worked with piano wires and strings and did almost architectural works and objects that would create sound. I think Eli is the only contemporary artist who carries the flag for that and evolves it into something else by combining it with his own drumming.
I wanted to include both Diversions and Dutch Tvashar Plumes, because they came out of at the same time. They're very different projects, but they interact. Diversions started when Resonance FM in London asked Lee to make a mix for broadcast, and he made a jungle mix because he grew up in the UK when it was happening. He didn't want to do a classic jungle mix because that had been done a million times, so he started collecting parts of tracks that were completely beatless and manipulated all the sounds into his own thing. It was mostly just a fun thing to do, but it was really excellent, too good to just play once on the radio. He put a lot of effort into the sound design, and the results are really great. It had a big impact because it was referring to rave culture, and people have said that rave culture was the last really original thing that happened in music. The other record was the one he has been working on for months. Some people say Diversions is the one, but I think Dutch Tvashar Plumes is a better record. It's all original material based on music he was influenced by. He is really into modern composition and advanced computer music and early electronic music. He was making harsh, complex computer music at the time, but he grew up with a dance music background.
Rashad was the first person I called when I wanted to start a record label, but had no idea what to do. He has mastered every [PAN] release so far, and is a big part of the PAN sound. What I find special about Rashad is that he's self-taught, and he's a big music fan. So he's using his own techniques, and really paying attention to the actual content of the music. For his record, I didn't have any input — I never really direct people what to do — but I watched it progress from a very primitive state, and I'm really happy that it happened. He's mastered something like 3,000 or 4,000 records [from his storied post as engineer at Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin], but he'd never released his own material before. I pushed him, because I thought his music had a lot of potential and that he had a really unique thing going on. He's fascinated with more abstract electronic music. This whole genre has been done upside down, and you've heard it all a million times, but he managed to create something that sounds completely like him. He's also very influenced by traditional styles — he's obsessed with Korean music, and he himself comes from Syria. He's traveled a lot and lived in many different places, so all these things have been in his skin all these years.
I met Luke [Younger, aka Helm] when I first moved to London. He was in a band called Birds of Delay, with Steven Warwick of Heatsick. They were part of the noise scene in London. I think he takes the influence of the whole urban cityscape of London and that creates what Helm is. But I don't think he's following a certain direction, he's just going to create: I know this might sound bad, but it's more like music for the sake of music. That's what he feels like doing and that's how he expresses himself. Helm is one of the few projects [on PAN] that have crossed over into different worlds, maybe Lee Gamble too. Helm is one of the acts that a wide range of people seem to like. Maybe one of the reasons is that his music has a very certain mood — it's very moody and has a peculiar vibe, so I think a lot of people get stuck to it. Silencer happened after Luke spent some time experimenting and recording in his friend's studio just after his Impossible Symmetry LP had been released. The main focus was on the percussive tracks, and then the rest wrapped up organically. Most of the source recordings were made on a cassette Dictaphone: It's mostly field-recordings from various places, and then [Younger would] play it back, speeding it up, slowing it down, and so on. All four tracks have a slightly different approach; some are heavily percussive and some are completely beatless and in a more acousmatic [sound summoned from an unseen or unknown source] vein. It's not particularly subtle, and it makes sense as a progression from his previous album. Despite the use of rhythm, there is no association at all to a general dance-music aesthetic. The photo we used on the cover was a found image. It was picked up by Luke and he sent it to me, and I liked it so we used it. Both he and I like collecting old photos. The graphic is basically a design I did based on the word "Helm." If you turn it on its side, you can read "H…E…L…M."
I think this record is very strong and relevant conceptually. Heatsick uses music as his art practice — [Stephen Warwick, the man behind Heatsick] is more an artist than a musician, if you ask me. He comes from a music background, but he's using music to express his ideas as part of a more general art project. This record is really strong for that reason. A lot of people I work with on the label are artists. I think it's interesting how art has influenced music in general. I think this is his first [record where] everything falls into place. It collects all his ideas. It's a record talking about technology, a whole project based on the theory of that. He's mainly been using a Casio [a rudimentary keyboard] for a long time, but on this record he used a lot of other stuff. There are some drum machines and vocals, some other synths. He plays bass on a few tracks. He even used some acoustic percussion, like a live snare drum and bass drum. Andre Vida, another musician I release music by, plays saxophone on a few tracks. But I would say 80 percent is on a Casio — that's still his main instrument.
James is [also] an artist more than a musician. This record is basically a documentation of a sound installation he did in New York at Artists Space. It was a release that had a lot of meaning for me, because it's an audio collage of various field recordings he did from riots around the world, some in Athens, where I come from. When we made the release was right when the whole crisis and chaos was happening in Athens, and it was a good representation — from my side — of what was happening in my hometown, and how I was reacting to it. I thought it could be a crucial release. There was a common link in what we were both doing. James had started Primary Information [a publishing house for books by artists] as a platform for his personal interests. It's all about the curatorial aspect, how you gather and put all these things together, and how you present them to the world. It's just like putting out records — you don't put out books just because you can. What pushes things forward is when someone like James, who is fairly young, releases a book from a time before he was born: the way he does it and the way he presents it to his audience is very different from a person who did it in the '60s or the '70s. This is something I like about doing PAN: I can introduce Ghedalia Tazartes, for instance, with a record made in the '70s to an audience that listens to techno or kids who listen to SoundCloud links and don't even know what a reel-to-reel tape is.
Jar Moff is based in Athens, Greece, a collage-based sample artist who makes collages of found recordings. He basically uses classic hip-hop techniques of cutting a few seconds from this and that track and then putting it all together. When he started his Jar Moff project he got in touch with me, and I was really excited. His music fully represents the chaos of what's been happening in Greece. It's very political and it's heavily influenced by everyday life here. For me, listening to the recordings for the first time, I was like, "Oh my God, it's like actually being there right now!" I could understand every second of what this record was. It's a picture of a very live situation in Greece at the moment. What's really good about it is that, despite the conditions — the quality of life in Greece right now is very low because of all the problems with our politics and the economy — people are still pushing themselves to react to the specific situation and produce music or writing or art. Being creative is the only way to scale the problems. In a way, it's similar to what happened in New York in the '70s, when all of these great scenes came about. It's very dynamic here at the moment, with young kids doing great work. I'm looking forward to seeing how it's going to continue.