Label Profile: Sacred Bones Records

David Raposa

By David Raposa

on 08.15.11 in Spotlights

File Under: Dark pop, mysterious noise, industrial punk, and everything in between

Flagship Acts: Zola Jesus, Moon Duo, Gary War, the Men

Based In: Brooklyn, New York

It only took two releases for the then-fledgling Sacred Bones Records to find their identity. The label’s first record, a 7-inch from Denver-area band the Hunt (friends of Sacred Bones founder Caleb Braaten), looks like a run-of-the-mill single. When the label put out Blank DogsDiana (The Herald) EP, however, the look and feel of a Sacred Bones release was cast in stone. Their mysterious logo depicted a black triangle encircled by a snake eating its own tail, with the label’s name printed below in a decaying typeset font. Beneath it, a tasteful, right-justified, serif-styled text detailed the basics about the album in question. And the album art that took up the bottom two-thirds of the cover space was a fantastical, etching-style illustration that offered as many questions as answers. Not since Vaughan Oliver and v23′s work with 4AD has a label boasted a visual aesthetic so complementary to the music it accompanied.

Of course, when one thinks of Sacred Bones, one thinks of Zola Jesus, the haunting chanteuse that’s called the label her home since the release of her Soeur Sewer single. “I first heard her on MySpace, sometime [in] early 2008,” Braaten admitted. “I believe it was because she was in [Sacred Bones artist] Dead Luke’s top friends, so I checked her out.”

Sacred Bones’ musical identity was well established before Zola Jesus came on board: In addition to being home to early Blank Dogs releases (including the CD version of On Two Sides), there was an LP by scattershot punk weirdos Factums, and the debut full-length from lo-fi “pop” duo the Pink Noise. And just as Zola Jesus’s music has matured beyond the hiss and static that typified her earlier work, Sacred Bones has grown as well. Taylor Brode, a former Touch & Go employee, came on board in 2009, and now runs day-to-day affairs at the label with Braaten and other staffers, including graphic designer David Correll and print maker/Crystal Stilts drummer Keegan Cooke.

Musically, the label’s home to out-there garage rock outfits (Human Eye), expansive psychedelic combos (Moon Duo) and good-old-fashioned kick-your-teeth-in punk rock (the Men). There’s also the occasional one-off appearance from groups like Woods and the Fresh & Onlys. And music’s not Sacred Bones’ only interest: The label’s in-house director, Jacqueline Castel (the woman behind all the videos made by Sacred Bones acts), recently completed work on a Kickstarter-funded full-length film collaboration with sepulchral synth enthusiasts Naked on the Vague, and there are plans for a compendium of Castel’s work for the label to be released on DVD. There’s also a collaboration in the works with Freedom School Records to release a book of illustrations by pulp artist Lee Brown Coye.

eMusic’s David Raposa spoke with Caleb Braaten and Taylor Brode via e-mail about the label, their current roster and what they have planned for the future.

On whether the label has a particular “sound:”
Taylor Brode: Not really. I think the era of music that both of us find most appealing was the late ’70s and early-mid ’80s, so a lot of our bands draw on influences from that period of early punk and post-punk. We work with all different types of artists and bands, though, ranging from punk, electronic, psych, garage and folk. The unifying thing is we both have to hear something unique and unparalleled. We are both pretty turned off from things that sound average, trendy or easily marketable.
Caleb Braaten: I don’t think there is necessarily a “sound,” but I do think that all the artists fit well together regardless of genre. I’ve always viewed the label as a giant mixtape, one song flowing seamlessly into the other.

On the label’s design aesthetic:
Braaten: David Correll (head of Sacred Bones Design) and I had discussed the importance of a strong label aesthetic long before the label even existed. We looked to our favorite labels that did a similar thing, like Crass, Factory, 4AD, Blue Note, etc. The Blank Dogs’ Diana (the Herald) 12-inch EP cover was inspired by an old classical record. David and I discussed it and decided that this would be a good template to use for the LP covers. We are very particular about cover art. We try not to be too restrictive to the artists, but feel that it’s important to have a strict quality control.

On the future of Sacred Bones archival section (which so far has included LPs and compilations by 13th Chime & the Cultural Decay):
Brode: We are releasing some records from the U.K. post punk band UV PØP and next year plan to do some albums by the French coldwave band Trop Tard. There are several death-rock compilations in the works as well.

Brode and Braaten share a few words on some Sacred Bones bands…

Zola Jesus
Nika has been on the label since she was a teenager. She is our daughter, our sister and our best friend. Watching her raw talent grow over the last four years into an unstoppable global takeover is awe-inspiring. Every time she hands in an album she outdoes herself, refusing to stay stagnant or create the same work and over again. Conatus is no exception; it is the sound of her crystallizing her ideas into a totally uncharted sonic landscape. We could not be more proud of her and are delighted that the rest of the world is finally catching on.

Moon Duo
We were both huge Wooden Shjips fans from the start, and wanted to work with them very badly. So when Ripley Johnson asked us if we were interested in releasing an EP for his new project with Sanae Yamada, we jumped at the chance. The project has really grown into a fulltime thing and Mazes, which we released in March, has been one of our biggest crossover releases. Beyond being incredibly talented musicians, they are two of the nicest people on the planet.

The Men
The Men are a true punk band in the classic D.I.Y. sense of the word. These are the dudes we call when we need to borrow a drum kit at 2 a.m., or when we need 300 LPs screened in 24 hours. There is no “wave” that can contain them, and they intend to keep it that way. Leave Home was one of the most gripping releases we’ve ever listened to, and their new album slated for next year is equally unreal. They are about to embark on a U.S. tour (self-booked) in which they will play 47 shows in 39 days.

Gary War
New Raytheonport absolutely blew our minds the first time we heard it. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him on his follow-up LP, Horribles Parade, which exponentially exceeded our expectations. Gary War’s singular vision is absolutely inspiring; he is one of the most forward-thinking, psychedelic minds out there. Genius is an understatement. He is working on his third and most realized full-length as we speak, so look out for that in early 2012.

Cult of Youth
Sean Ragon has been a friend for some time, and in the early days, Cult of Youth was his solo project. Rooted largely in neo-folk tradition, Sean made some amazing records on his own and worked with some labels we really respect. It wasn’t really until the first time we saw them as a full band that we realized what their potential could be. They delivered one of the finest records we have ever heard, and they have absolutely no counterpart in the current “indie” climate.

Timmy’s Organism / Human Eye
Timmy Vulgar and Human Eye are the last bastion of authentic, weird punk. Timmy is a true artist; he makes his own videos, designs his own albums and posters, and creates perfect other worlds where aliens and humans co-exist in a psychedelic punk utopia. He is a kind and wonderful asset to our family, and truly supports his local Detroit scene and the punk scene at large. The world would be a terribly boring place without him.