Extra Life

Discover: Northern Spy

Dave Sumner

By Dave Sumner

on 08.16.13 in Collections

[Get a taste of Northern Spy's catalog with this free 16-track sampler — Ed.]

Northern Spy Records is the baby of co-owners Tom Abbs and Adam Downey, birthed after both left their jobs at the legendary ESP-Disk, a label with a similarly solid reputation for releasing music on the fringes. At ESP, free jazz legends like Albert Ayler, Guiseppe Logan and Frank Wright shared space with noise and psych-rock bands like The Godz and Fugs. For Northern Spy, the diversity of these idioms was merely a launching pad.

Jazz is still represented at Northern Spy by free jazz giant Charles Gayle and modern experimentalists Chad Taylor and Rob Mazurek (aka Chicago Underground Duo). But the label has an impressively broad definition of “Something Different.” Guitar minimalist Rhys Chatham offers up seaside tranquility. Old Time Relijun barks out punk-rock rattle and twang. Charlie Looker’s outfits Extra Life and Seaven Teares spotlight his “Morrisey’s-Dangerous-Twin” persona — a chanteur whose dark side has a dark side. There’s room for the hypnotic rhythmic intensity of the tribal Foot Village to sit side-by-side with the cheerful-drunk back-porch pop of the Colin L. Orchestra and the embraceable shape-shifting of noise savants Zs. Relative unknowns like Home of Easy Credit, the duo of Louise Dam Eckardt Jensen and Tom Blancart, get just as much juice from the label as guitar legends Thurston Moore and Marc Ribot.

Their bands tour religiously — they’re expected to. But the label puts in work, too. With two annual Spy Music Festival events under their belt, they’re already preparing for the 2013 edition, establishing relationships with NYC venues that serve disparate segments of music fans.

Which doesn’t mean the label doesn’t have its share of difficulties — even with something as seemingly banal as band names. “They’re all great names, artistically, but marketing wise, man, they are just god awful,” Downey laughs. “It’s kind of a joke. How in god’s name can people Google that? I mean, ‘Home of Easy Credit’ is just screaming to enter your spam folder. And Neptune — first off, there are probably five or more bands with that name that are bigger than our band. And it’s completely un-Googleable.”

This good-natured sense of humor is a job requirement when you’re releasing weird, difficult-to-market music for a living. Downey has it in spades, and the music on Spy reflects this temperament: It’s a costume ball of extravagant outsider music, where everything is a little bit scary and a whole lot of fun. Here, in his own words, are some of Northern Spy’s most memorable releases.

While at ESP-Disk', we put out a new Talibam! recording. They were one of the first new artists signed to ESP-Disk' since the post-2000 reboot. We developed a friendship working with [Talibam's] Matt Mottel, and since Colin [from The USA is a Monster] and he are good friends, there was this sort of natural suggestion that brought us to USA is a Monster. We loved the band already, and when we put on the master [recording] for R.I.P., we knew instantly that this should be our first record. It was subversive. It's rife with the Native American mythos the band is known for, including songs about Ranald MacDonald, the first Native American English-speaker to teach in Japan, and about Grey Owl and his wife Anahareo, who were known for their nature writing and animal rights activism. It also fit in [the same] weird trajectory [as] Fugs and Godz, who released records with ESP. So it seemed like a natural fit.

At the time, we didn't know this was USA's last record, but we thought we could sell records based on the band's reputation — essentially that the incredible, intense music would speak for itself. They had done awesome records with Load and toured their asses off, playing in every basement in every town in America. So, yeah, our first record was all about being fans of the band, ignoring the business aspects. Essentially, we wanted to make an awesome statement. Our first releases were really our calling card, our intro to the world.

A favorite Northern Spy release. We were very enthusiastic about Charlie Looker's songwriting. Dream Seeds is a real concept album, one that rewards multiple listens. The album seems to have secrets in it. As a fan, I want to keep listening, entering into the world the band created. As a label owner, I really wanted to share this music. One thing Charlie always said was that, as he toured, there would quite often be light attendance at shows, but there would always be three or four people that drove far to see the band — the ones that would sorta creep up on Charlie, fascinated by his persona. That really struck me as interesting, that Charlie was connecting with fans intensely, even if it was just a small number.

Seeing that band live at [Brooklyn's] St. Vitus was a game changer for us. We listen to Dream Seeds all the time — that final chorus in "First Song" still sounds totally fresh. Their first record on NSPY for them ended up being their last. The band broke up six months after the release. I think the darkness from touring got to them.

An oft-forgotten album in our catalog. And it's a shame, because there are some incredibly wild things going on here. At points, you feel like you're floating endlessly in the sounds and at others you feel you're being thrown around the room. The whole team came to love the record. Tom Blancarte and his wife Louise D.E. Jensen brought us this record. They planned to tour heavily, playing to adventurous audiences throughout the US and Europe.

After almost 40 records, we've had it all…bands made up of divorced couples, bands breaking up during the tour, bands with members that used to date. We'd already released two albums from bands that had broken up. So around the time we were considering signing The Home of Easy Credit, we brought up the fact that this was a husband and wife duo. We discussed this internally, partially kidding around, but we didn't want to be responsible for breaking up a marriage. We knew they were going to be heading out on the road really hard. They did a couple tours I think of 40 or so shows each, all across the US. That's a lot of time together driving in a car. And they toured just as much in Europe. Their tour plan was laid out before we signed them, so we knew they'd be spending all this time together. And yeah, we got nervous. It's always a little scary.

The Zs came to with the most expansive [ideas], sculpting this two-year plan to create an arc. It was exciting. We released Zs solo projects, then we collected the band's sextet records that were all out of print and housed them in a box set. It pulls together an immense amount of music, the entire output of the band during their sextet period along with an entire disc of unreleased material. One of the discs features a live show [where] an audience member yells out "Slayer!" and "Sheet music rules!" It highlights the kind of punk venues Zs were playing in — setting up in dingy punk clubs with sheet music.

In order to highlight this release as something new and vital, the band came up with a remix idea to breathe new life into the work and avoid canonizing the early work. The former resulted in an installation in an art gallery setting. People could come in, download tracks from [the box set] and remix them right there in the gallery.
The box set was mastered by Ben Greenberg, who was in Zs for the post-sextet period. We released Ben's solo Terry Riley-like guitar project called Hubble. Ben is now a primary member of The Men. Tracks from Arms were played on Howard Stern's radio program. Howard did a couple segments on Zs, which included the entire Howard Stern family creating their own "avant-garde" jam. So, in a way, Zs are central to Northern Spy because we've done the most work with them, which has all been amazing and very rewarding.

Charles called [Northern Spy co-owner] Tom up out of the blue. He just called and said, "I want to do a record with you guys." Right away, we knew we had to get him playing tenor. Just being around him, for me, was humbling. He's a very special guy, very smart, just a real jazz musician. This was the first recording of Charles playing tenor in probably a decade or more.

Charles talked a lot about Streets [a clown character he first developed 20 years ago — Ed.]. He told me about being influenced heavily by Emmett Kelly, a famous pantomime clown. He loved the idea of a clown being a tragic figure, a performer that could make a crowd laugh, but also garner sympathy. While performing live as Streets, Gayle has been known to pantomime the catching of a fly only to accidentally kill it, which would lead to him playing sad notes on a piano.

Wire magazine sent a photographer named Chris Verene to shoot Charles for a spread in the magazine that was published around the release of Streets. I attended the photo session, and we ended up walking around the East Village in Manhattan shooting Charles playing in the streets and subway stations. Charles used to busk in the subways and such, but he didn't talk too much about that. He doesn't do that anymore, though he did it for the photo shoot. He had a lot of fun, too. I remember watching him and realizing how much the city's sounds correlated to the free style of jazz. Charles even did a call-and-response with the horn and a passing bus and police siren.

Most people know Rhys's minimalist guitar pieces, but when he came to us with this layered trumpet concept, we saw it as an opportunity to try to market him a in a different way. The record is really mesmerizing, and I encourage everyone to smoke a joint and let the layer of sound wash over you.

We had Rhys and [his manager] Regina over for dinner. We made a home-cooked meal and opened wine. We got along really well. During an early meeting, Rhys gave the Northern Spy family lessons on trumpet over a couple bottles of wine.

You feel kinda lucky just to be in the same room with Rhys. He's got a big personality, very funny and sharp. Rhys wrote us complaining that someone had plagiarized his music, and sent us a link to the would-be-thief's video. Tom immediately wrote back that we would do whatever it took to remedy the situation. Then we watched the video and saw that it was just a homeless man doing armpit farts for his friends. Rhys was just joking around after reading a reviewer's comment that Rhys' trumpet sounded like flatulence.

Foot Village's new record was super exciting for us. We fell in love with it right when we heard it, and that love has only grown. Last summer, Adam played this record in the office, without any introduction. About five or six minutes into the first track, I go, "Wow, this sounds like Foot Village if they became the best band ever." And Adam, in a very Adam way, responded, "This is Foot Village. They want us to put out their new record." Needless to say, this sent me in a frenzy. I saw the band at ATP in 2011, and their live show was electric. I just felt like they were missing a certain element — maybe it's the darkness, which I feel they tapped into on this record, particularly on "1600 Dolla Bill" and "The End of the World."

It was also tied into the whole "end of the world" Mayan calendar thing that made the social media buzz cycle last year. Just in case the world really did end, we announced the phone number so people could hear the record before imploding. By calling their Emergency Hotline (951-262-2552), you could hear over the phone playbacks of the record. An automated voice would allow you to hear each track by pressing a number. You could also leave the band a message.

It was a big step for the band, and they worked super hard, promoting themselves and coming up with ways to engage the audience and build fans. Their live show is incredible and fun, people circle around them, much like a Lightning Bolt live set. The band's friend served as the model for the photos on the packaging. They covered her in day-glo paint and took photos of her jumping on a trampoline with a huge, rainbow backdrop.

As opposed to some of our other band names, I like the name Foot Village. We made a joke about Googling the band name and getting some spurious, sexual results, but all of the disturbing things that come up when you Google "foot village" are actually due to the band.

When Colin ended The USA Is A Monster, I think people were excited to see what he did next. Turns out, he started a country-fried acid-y jam band to play super-long, Rhys Chatham-inspired minimalism. There was a month-long residency at Zebulon, and then Northern Spy put out the record. Since then, the Orchestra (which is two to three keyboardists, two percussionists, a bass player and usually five guitar players) has been playing tons of shows in Brooklyn and beyond. They toured both coasts too. A song from the album actually got used for a climactic montage scene in the film I Do and I Don't, which starred Jane Lynch.

Marc Ribot is a guitar god. In New York City, Ribot is a legend. And when we heard he was working on a new Ceramic Dog record, five years since his last, we got in contact and really fought for this record. The trio includes Shahzad Ismaily and Ches Smith, who both contribute a tune and rock out. Before going to the album release show at [Manhattan's] (Le) Poisson Rouge, a track from [Tom Waits's] Rain Dogs came on my shuffle while I was driving, and I thought, "Holy hell, we're putting out an album by Marc Ribot. That's him on this record, this legendary record."