In a moment when the word “indie” is little more than a glorified marketing term, a conversation with M’Lady’s Records founder Brett Lyman returns to the phrase a welcome subversive spirit. Inspired equally by the ’80s underground, the riot grrrl movement and anarchic post-punk impresario Tony Wilson (“We basically function like an impoverished version of Factory Records,” he laughs), Lyman founded M’Lady’s back in 2007 in his then-home of Ann Arbor, Michigan, with the modest goal of putting out 45s from a few of his friends’ bands. In just a few years, M’Lady’s has grown into a well-respected and tightly-run imprint with close to 40 releases and reissues from artists like Julianna Barwick, Grass Widow, Explode Into Colors, Coasting and Talk Normal. But Lyman hasn’t lost sight of the DIY ethos on which the project was founded. “I still I don’t foresee us getting to the point where we’re spending $10,000 to promote a record,” he says. “I would rather just go out in the woods and set off $10,000 worth of fireworks.”
But Lyman’s no slacker — just the opposite, in fact. By his estimate, he spends up to 16 hours a day on the label, even when he’s on tour. (He’s currently a member of the Ian Svenonius-helmed blues-punk outfit Chain & The Gang.) Even among indies, the M’Lady’s business model is unique: It doesn’t “sign” bands in the traditional sense, and the label doesn’t own the rights to any of the material they put out. Lyman realizes that as long as he keeps doing business this way, M’Lady’s is never going to make him a fortune (he and his partner, Coasting drummer and M’Lady’s co-owner/mail order guru Fiona Campbell recently relocated from New York to Portland to cut operating costs), but raking in the big bucks was never the goal. “The label is really just an extension of how I live,” he says. “And I’m really into reviving the idea of the connected underground.”
M’Lady’s is also one of very few indies to explicitly brand itself a feminist record label (a banner on the site reads, “for discerning harlequins the world over”), and Lyman says this, too, is just an extension of his lifestyle. “It’s not a marketing term, it’s not something used to sell records. It’s something to just put out there because I really do feel like there’s very little in the way of real public discussion about where people come from and what they believe in these days.”
From the spaceage shoegaze of The Golden Awesome to the surf-inspired post-punk of Grass Widow, a unified M’Lady’s sound is hard to pin down. But according to Lyman, its ethos could be pretty succinctly summed up as “anti-mediocrity.” “When you see somebody who actually makes you have an opinion and forces you to reconsider something, that’s so notable,” Lyman says. “I’d like to engage people and excite them. That would be a job well done on our end.”
eMusic’s Lindsay Zoladz called Lyman to talk about feminism, the current state of the underground and why it would suck to live in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
On the early days of M’Lady’s:
I started M’Lady’s on my 30th birthday, June 2007. I was living in Ann Arbor at the time, and initially it was just to document some groups from the neighborhood. It had always intrigued me, the idea of putting out a record.
About a year into putting out 45s, my friend Veronica and I decided to join forces creatively. She was in Portland, and she played drums in the band Finally Punk. She was in five or six other bands at the timeâ€¦she’s a really industrious musician. I asked her to be the art director of the label, but what ended up happening was that she became responsible for guiding good groups that she knew toward me, that I may not have known about. That really helped things coalesce. I noticed that there were lots and lots of groups out there who were really amazing. And no one was interested in putting out their records, because they weren’t perhaps necessarily going to be big or whatever. I don’t know, I guess we just got really lucky and people kept saying yes. That was 2008, right around the time that I realized that this was actually fun. There wasn’t any money in it, but it certainly was fun.
On the label’s unique business practices:
We don’t sign bands. And we take it one step further: We don’t own the rights to anything we put out. Having recently spent a good amount of time trying to reissue a few things, from an English band from the ’90s who signed a piece of paper 20 years ago and signed away the rights to all this stuff, I’m really glad we decided to carry on with that. Because taking the ambiguity out of arrangements with people just makes everything so much easier. The way we work is that a group gives us a recording, and we’ll issue it. When those are all gone, if they want us to make more, we’ll make more, if we think that’s a good idea. But if they want to part ways with us, that’s fine as well. I’d just rather not be hovering over a contract with a friend of mine, or with someone who I really respect. It’s pretty straightforward: As long as we continue to be scrupulous and fair-minded, then everything will continue as it has.
On the long-lost mysteries of the pre-digital world:
I can recall, when I was younger, everything being a mystery, just because information about music was much more difficult to disseminate. You couldn’t understand everything right away. I really miss those times. It’s my opinion that one of the reasons why music has become so worthless to so many people is because they think they understand it. When you’re presented with a group’s entire history and all of their recorded work at the touch of a button, it makes it really easy to dismiss them. There’s something to having to be patient and having to actually put the work in as a listener and as an enthusiast.
On why the music industry sometimes feels like Reservoir Dogs:
For me, the gender breakdown of the artists we work with is pretty split. I reckon it’s almost 50/50. And as my friend Elizabeth pointed out, the gender breakdown on most labels is more like 99/1. That’s the music world. And to me, a world where there’s only men is like Reservoir Dogs. And we all know how that movie ends. I just don’t really ever give it a second thought. To me it’s not that interesting how you were born. What do you do now that you’re here?
On whether or he consciously decided to make M’Lady’s “a feminist label”:
Especially in music, I think everyone’s so nice now and everyone’s so good at being a politicianâ€¦I didn’t really want to be Mitt Romney. When I was a teenager, I was living by Revolution Girl Style Now, all of the stuff coming out of the Northwest and Washington D.C., you know, that was my entry into the underground. I saw all of it go so haywire so quickly because of the way that other people perceived it. People take this really beautiful thing and sort of manipulate it into chaos. And I learned a lot from that. I think if you’re going to present yourself to somebody, it’s better to just be explicit. You don’t have to be antagonistic or off-putting or whatever, but I do think it’s important to assert yourself as more than just a businessperson. To me, music and business are fine, but they’re really just instruments to get a way of living across.
On being a white man running a feminist label:
I was in Chicago a few years ago with [defunct, all-female, polyrhythmic punk band] Explode Into Colors. There were all these dudes coming up to the merch stand to buy records and they just couldn’t believe that women could make music like that. That was just two years ago, you know? And that’s a major city. I’ll never experience that kind of insanity personally, as a musician. Nobody’s ever going to look at me and be surprised by what I do. I’m a Caucasian male, I play in punk bands, that’s not unusual to anyone. That’s not notable, no one will ever write about it. I would be very happy when we could finally get to a point in society when we could get to a much more interesting question, which is “Should any of this shit exist?” Anybody can do it, but what I want to see is anybody with flair doing it.
On the independent label as a conduit for personal discovery:
It’s important to [identify as feminist], for me it’s important to let people know where we stand, just in a very subtle way. We don’t have manifestoes on our website, I don’t think it’s interesting to beat people over the head with what we believe. I think the label really exists as a conduit. It’s not a platform for us to be shouting at people. It’s more like a celebratory thing. I want to show people some beautiful things going on that they may not know about.
A few words on some M’Lady’s bandsâ€¦
I met them through some friends in Portland. Sarah [Register, bassist/guitarist] is one of those really incredible, gregarious types who’s just really good at meeting people. I hadn’t seen them play, which is really common for us, actually. I wind up doing a lot of records with people I haven’t met or haven’t seen live. Then I moved to New York and saw them a bunch, and they were instantly my favorite band that I’d seen in years. They have something really special that’s in such scarce supply now. They make people really uncomfortable, but in a really liberating way. They’re not on some antagonistic trip where they’re trying to upset people, they’re just getting across really complicated emotions. Which is not very common these days, I don’t think. We did a 45 together, and I was psyched about everything to do with it. Especially the sleeve, because we got Kim Gordon to give us permission to use one of her paintings.
I feel like they’re a band kind of outside of time right now. To me, they’re so quintessentially a New York group, but there are no groups in New York that sound like them anymore. Which isn’t to say that they sound like a group from the past. They seem to have more scuzz than most bands, and they’re not preoccupied with going to the beach or being on the runway.
They were responsible for my first mind-blowing show of 2011. Fiona and I went to New Zealand for two and a half months to see where she grew up, and also Coasting was going on tour of New Zealand. One of the shows was at this really wild festival that happens every year called Camp Alowham. It’s held at a secret location every year — this past year it was at an abandoned agricultural school — and they sell out every year, like a year in advance. It’s three days long, it’s something like 60 bands, and all the bands are a secret until you get there. It was by far the best festival I’d ever attended. It was in keeping with a lot of the culture down there, which is really self-sufficient. It wasn’t about $5 bottles of water and $30 T-shirts or anything like that.
I saw Golden Awesome because of Fiona. She dragged me toward them on the first night of the festival. We were both really high, and she was like “This is the band that you need to hear!” We couldn’t move. It was all we could talk about for days. Even in New Zealand, they’re just such an unknown quantity. They’re another band that’s just really out of step with the current culture. They’re all a bit older, and Stef Animal, their singer is of mysterious gender — but I think Steph’s really just from the future is what it is. They took a really formal idea, which is to make a record that sounds like it could be from 1993 on Creation, and imbue it with their own heart. And on stage they have such a strange presence: It’s really forceful, but very humble. I was so moved by the way they worked, too, because they made this really epic record at home. Once upon a time it would have taken who knows how many hundreds of thousands of dollars and how many studiosâ€¦and now it’s like, you just need to be really good at engineering and have a couple of microphones. I’m crazy about them. I’m hoping they’ll catch on some more, but it’s hard because they’re still based out of Wellington and can’t tour the U.S. as much as they’d like.
I go way back with the singer, Kevin. We grew up in the same town, and when I moved back to Ann Arbor, word got around that he’d started this new band. I saw their second or third show, and they were already fully formed. It was kind of incredible. It was likeâ€¦they might like records and they may be good at assimilating other vocabularies into their band, but they weren’t just aping things. They figured out that if you could use your own energy, you’re going to wind up with a weird song no matter what. Because they don’t fit in with anybody, really. They’re too weird for the hardcore kids, but they’re way too aggressive to play with, like, twee-pop bands, and the people that are into, like, Swell Maps records aren’t as into new bands. And yet everybody would love Tyvek.
Tyvek and Golden Awesome are two of the only bands we’ve worked with that are predominantly boys. But even there, Stef Animal, the lead singer of the Golden Awesome, like I said, he’s more of a futuristic type that transcends all that.
I met Fiona, the drummer — who’s also now my partner and co-owns the label as well — in 2004. Her band from New Zealand was on tour in America, and we became friends very quickly, and now we’re together, we’ve been together for quite a while. Before that, when we were friends, she was the instigator. She’s really good at encouraging people. She’s primarily responsible for why the label is working as hard as we are. For quite some time, I was content to let it be more of a hobby, doing it when I could, but it was her instigation that set us off on this path that we’re on now.
Coasting was probably a week old when I first heard them. They had a practice tape, and she sent it to me because she was curious about what I thought. And it was another band that was just alreadyâ€¦they didn’t need to work very hard to be who they are. Their practice tape sounds very similar to their first album. It’s kind of crazy. They definitely expanded and fleshed things out, but it was nice to see a duo that wasn’t trying to sound like other duos. They seem to have their own thing, and the people that love them really love them. They’re near and dear to people. I’m thrilled to be able to put out a record from a band that’s like them.