Photo by Andrew Bowman

Label Profile: Spectrum Spools

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 03.01.12 in Spotlights

File under: Pulsating synthesizer fugues; rumbling electro-acoustic abstractions; raw, primitivist techno
Flagship acts: No UFO’s, Hive Mind, Bee Mask, Container, Driphouse, Temporal Marauder
Based in: Cleveland,Ohio

If you ever feel the need for a cure to the music-fan blues – you know, the pervasive grumbling that everything sucks, we’re just going in circles, kids these days, etc. – just seek out the company of Cleveland’s John Elliott. If there were a prize for the most enthusiastic, upbeat and undaunted member of the music industry, he’d win, hands down. Every other word out of his mouth seems to be either “killer” or “mindblowing.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a cassette of primal synth throb released by a reclusive noise musician, the latest techno 12-inch from the Swedish duo Skudge, or a decades-old power-violence 7-inch. If there’s a spark in the music, Elliott is going to be stoked. And it’s that desire to stoke and be stoked – backed up, it must be said, with a superbly discerning ear – that shapes his label Spectrum Spools, a weirdo/outer-limits label that he runs whose general aesthetic parameters run from pulsating synthesizer fugues to rumbling electro-acoustic abstractions to raw, primitivist techno.

Elliott is better known as a member of the psychedelic synth trio Emeralds – if you’ve ever seen them live, he’s the one fist-pumping to inaudible rhythms in their hyper-arpeggiated cosmic churn – and he has a slew of solo side projects and collaborations, like Outer Space, Colored Mushroom and the Medicine Rocks, Imaginary Softwoods, Mist, Inner Spaced…the list goes on and on. While Emeralds have recently become one of the most visible bands on the synth underground, thanks in part to their new home on Editions Mego, a relatively iconic experimental-music label, their roots are in the DIY cassette scene, and that’s where you’ll find most of Elliott’s output. It can be a bewildering scene to the outsider, a maze of monikers where every stepping-stone is another hand-numbered, limited-edition cassette or CD-R. It’s a scene defined, in part, by its prodigiousness – Emeralds alone have released upwards of 45 cassettes, CD-Rs, records and split releases in the past six years, and Elliott has played in at least 15 different projects during the same period.

Spectrum Spools certainly follows suit: Elliott released 10 records in 2011, his very first year of operation, and “this year’s gonna be even more insane,” he says. “I have a feeling I might drop upwards of 18 12-inches this year. Which is nuts! I’m really happy about it, because I feel like everything I’m gonna drop is worth everyone’s time. And a lot of the stuff has been in the works for two or three years, so it’s boiling over now; now’s the time to do it. I have a feeling that next year won’t be this crazy, and I’m going to make a conscious decision to make 2013 a lot more slimmed-down. But there’s a whole bunch of killer shit going on in the United States right now, and a lot of this stuff needs to get on vinyl quick, because it rules.”

eMusic’s Philip Sherburne spoke with Elliott about punk rock, cassette culture and the surprising charm ofCleveland.

On how he discovered the tape scene:

It started out because there was this Kevin Drumm record called Land of Lurches, which was released on Hanson. My friend actually bought it by accident, and we were all sitting around this house totally loaded on mushrooms. Nobody had ever really heard this kind of music before. We put it on just because it was a record that was around, and it just kinda blew everybody’s head off. From that moment on, I went to the Hanson website and started realizing that there was an insane volume of cassette releases – it was almost endless. And they were cheap, so they were really accessible! So I started picking up tapes from them, and then I started seeing that they distributed other labels, and from there I went crazy on it. That’s how Emeralds got a foot in that community: buying these tapes, going out and meeting these people, playing with them, and all of a sudden we’re releasing tapes with them.

On the importance of trading tapes within the cassette underground and the noise scene:

In the past few years it’s dwindled down a bit, in the volume of tapes, but I have more than 1000 tapes in this house. It’s totally nuts. It’s just a really cool way of networking. It’s a cool way of getting something that’s physical and personal and also legitimate into the hands of people who can maybe get it distributed better.

On growing up on hardcore punk and mail order:

Power violence is my shit, man! I still have all those records. I have my Charles Bronson records and Reversal of Man and all that shit. What came out of that scene that’s really important is the obsession with the physical object. The excitement of mail order – mail order was huge for me growing up! Like sending a money order to Ebullition or whoever, and just waiting for a big package to arrive, and then weeding through it and finding out what really stoked you up. I remember when the second Orchid 10″ came out, I waited for that and I was so stoked when it came out – it was so huge for me. I still have all those records. Those records are real important to my sound now, even. A lot of that music is really chaotic. It’s actually very abstract.

The way I got into synthesizers in the first place was by listening to the Locust. I placed a really big order with GSL when I was a kid, and it was the first music that pissed my parents off, that they couldn’t understand, so I knew I was on the right path. Just hearing the sounds that were so mental, hearing this music that’s completely abrasive and really over the top, it was super inspiring, because it’s not something that everybody can access. But if you can get it, and other people can get it, you kind of feel this connection with them.

That was really important to me, to be able to dig deeper and get into music that was a lot more abstract. Even the early Emeralds stuff is very, very abstract. We were listening to a lot of free jazz and jazz music, and that was a huge part of our early sound. I think if you listen to a lot of electronic music in the tape scene coming out today, or even on a grander scale with the records coming out, you don’t hear the jazz in that music any more, which I think is something that’s really lacking from the scene right now.

Why Cleveland felt like the center of the musical universe – or at least the center of the outer fringes:

I was lucky enough to grow up around a really cool underground scene that was very small but also involved and supportive. There’s not a lot going on – it’s a small city – but there were killer DIY venues. There’s a place called Speak In Tongues, that, if you know anything aboutCleveland, was one of the most important DIY spaces in town. They had everything from Zoviet France to Nine Shocks Terror and Etant Donnes – some of the most abstract, ’80s and ’90s underground stuff – to punk and hardcore. We still haven’t had a venue since then. I think it closed down in 2001. But I was lucky to grow up in that community where there was a very small amount of people that were all circulating music and all very interested in music. And interested in bringing out of town bands to town, even if it was for little pay, just to have a killer gig, where people were stoked to be there.

On the legacy of Cleveland post-punk icons Pere Ubu:

I don’t think I really listened to Pere Ubu until I was 21 or 22, because I really had to build up my musical intellect to be able to understand that band and access them. But when I did, it blew my mind. Just, like, hearing crazy stories about how the Talking Heads were thinking about moving to Cleveland after hearing Pere Ubu, and stuff like that, is really inspiring. People around here definitely hold them dear. They definitely have a Cleveland attitude, because everybody in Cleveland seems to have really bad luck, or they don’t get their due, and they’re one of those bands that could have been huge, because they were so talented and had such an original sound. Those first two records, Modern Dance and Dub Housing, are some of the best, most abstract rock albums ever. Some of the best synth playing on a rock record ever. It’s so damn weird.

On teaming up with Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego to launch his own label, Spectrum Spools:

It was actually an idea for a side-label of the Emeralds imprint that me and [guitarist] Mark [McGuire] run, called Wagon. I was gonna start doing a private-press cassette label, hence Spools, like on a tape player. I ended up talking to Peter; he was talking about getting some of his artists to start curating record labels for Mego, under that umbrella. I think Peter’s very influenced by Mute records [and their curated sub-labels, like Blast First]. So he asked me to do a couple releases, and naturally, when he asked me to do it, I just pulled out a pile of tapes, and I thought of doing a label where I was able to pull this music off what I thought was way, way above a standard cassette release, and get it out there. I’ve always had an interest in older, more obscure electronic and psyche records and synth records, so I felt like I had a chance to do this curation of lesser-known music to get out there and get people into. If you notice, I do a lot of debut albums by projects that are just kind of out of the blue. I also like to reissue abstract and obscure cassette releases and stuff like that from the ’80s.

On why you won’t find many John Elliott releases on Spectrum Spools:

I’m not sure it’s appropriate right now, because I have so many other people that I feel like they really need a chance to be heard, and they really deserve to have their music cut with a high-quality master and presented proper. I just feel like there’s some people here that have been working hard for years that are staying in this smaller tape scene. There’s a definite division between some of the West Coast stuff and the East Coast stuff going on, a lot of stuff on both sides that’s not getting out there hard enough. One of my cases in point, the next record coming out is by this guy Headboggle, Derek Gedalecia. This guy’s been releasing tapes on almost every killer tape label in the U.S. for four or five years. I swear, every tape is amazing. I asked him to do a record for Spools about a year ago, when I started the label, and he completed his record a couple months ago. It’s completely mind-blowing. It’s ridiculous. He plays like over 15 or 20 instruments on it. But the way he puts it all together is prodigious. Like, literally. He’s a kind of guy who’s not really known outside of the tape circle. So I’m really excited to put a record like that out there. If people go out there and pick it up, they’re going to be like, “What the hell? This is insane.” That’s something that really excites me about running a label, opening people’s minds to stuff they might not have heard anywhere else.

A few words on some Spectrum Spools bands…

No UFO’s
That dude’s phenomenal. He’s a total outsider. There’s a lot of really cool smaller distros in the U.S. – like Tomentosa’s a really good one, it’s based out of Ashville. A lot of those guys, I’ll trade ‘em some Spectrum Spools or some tapes or whatever, and sometimes I’m like, “What’s really good? Send me some tapes that are good.” I actually found out about No UFO’s from my friend Sam Goldberg, who was sent a tape, the Soft Coast tape, from Tomentosa. The dude who runs it, Josh, just sent it to Sam because he thought it was good. And then of course I ended up hearing it and I was like, “Damn, I gotta put this out.”

Hive Mind
He’s on a different channel, man. [Putting him out] was one of the biggest honors of running a record label. To go back to that tape scene I was talking about, back in 2005 or 2006, Hive Mind was one of the first things I heard. I heard this cassette called Tunnel Birth. At the time I was still a guitar player; I was pretty much into traditional instruments and stuff like that. But I heard this tape in the middle of the night, when I was totally stoned. And I was so blown away. I had never heard sounds like that before. He was playing an MS-20. It just sounds so creepy. It didn’t even sound like it was made in this galaxy. I was completely taken back by it. I sold all my guitar equipment, and I bought an MS-10 thinking it was an MS-20. And that was my first synth. That’s the synth I used on the first Emeralds stuff, all that. Because I was listening to Hive Mind.

He’s kind of the only guy who was in that noise/Michigan/American Tapes/Hanson scene that was playing synthesizer music. He came from a lot more of the industrial side of stuff; he was more into, like, Coil than Throbbing Gristle. So he had this different spin on everything. But he’s very private, and he doesn’t release much these days. He actually approached me with this master and dropped it on me, and obviously, it’s insane. That record’s crazy. Very cool stuff. But he’s had this big project going for the last five years; I’m really interested to hear it. He should be wrapping it up sometime this year. He told me it’s about drowning in the ocean, and he moved to L.A. to be near the ocean so he could finish recording it, so I thought that was pretty heavy.

Bee Mask
Bee Mask is a really special dude. He was actually a Clevelander, and there was a time when all of us were in Cleveland, doing the touring thing and getting out there and putting tapes and CD-Rs out; he was definitely a part of that when Emeralds were first getting started as well. Chris is a very intelligent composer. He has a very good grip on gear, he has a very good grip on composition; he’s just a very well rounded player. In the last couple years, he moved to Philly, and he’s been kind of holed up there, staying in and honing his chops, and the results are astonishing. He’s getting so advanced. He’s gone more towards sampling and MIDI and triggering, and a lot of the new stuff I’ve seen him do has been extremely tight, well composed, really thought through. He’s one of those guys that’s always stepping up his game, changing his sound and pushing forward, the kind of guy that keeps you on your toes. He went to college and studied experimental music at Hampshire, in Western Massachusetts. He’s the kind of guy who’s always been into David Berman and Alvin Lucier and Ricardo Villalobos at the same time. He’s always had this completely bent vision on what his music could be. He’s the real deal. I think the next release that he drops is gonna really blow minds.

I woke up on [my friend's] couch one morning after playing a gig in Philly, and there was this retarded minimal techno coming out of this boombox. I was like, what the hell is this? He’s like, “This is Ren [Schofield]‘s new project, man, it’s Container.” And I was like, “Whoa.”

The way I know Ren is from his God Willing project, which is a really killer but hard to access kind of noise project. Ren bought an MC-909, something like that, some weird drum machine. It’s some retarded Guitar Center shit. Ren doesn’t listen to techno, and he approaches that music from a completely naïve way. I think he’s heard it, and he’s like, “It’d be cool to do a project like that.” The way people in the tape scene operate is they have these different monikers, and they play these different styles and jump around from tape to tape, experimenting. It was really cool to hear somebody reach out on a limb and try something completely different. And the way it tore a hole in that whole community surprised me. At that point, I thought that would be the record that either folded the label, or did really well. And I was lucky enough that it did well, because that record’s wild. I’m pretty lucky that people actually were able to get into that record and understand where it came from.

Daren Ho is an ex member of the band Raccoon, who was an Iowa City psych-rock band. He moved to New York and he’s been there for a couple years now. He is another person who’s very investigative and experimental in his musical practice. He’s always working with gear and MIDI; he uses his computer as his workstation. I think he uses Ableton exclusively as well. He triggers a lot of modular filters and does a lot of shit with MIDI that’s really experimental. That record’s great. He definitely has a very modern sound. It’s very abstract. Pretty wild music. It’s funny, he’s always in a state of flux with his equipment and his ideas. He has a really cool house music project, but it doesn’t make any sense. It’s called Darius. I would like to get a 12-inch of that out eventually. I told him to start working on one. He doesn’t like to be pinned down to one sound. He’s another one of those guys. He’s one of the hardest working people in New York right now.

Temporal Marauder (whose music is allegedly sourced from DATs copied from reel-to-reel tapes recorded in the early ’70s by one Jean Logarin, an unknown musician with supposed ties to certain Krautrock figureheads)
My friend Joe Raglani from St. Louis has some stuff on Kranky. I don’t really know much about it, but Joe got a hold of these tapes [from his uncle, who allegedly knew Logarin], and they’re really crazy. A lot of the stuff that ended up being on that record is from these tapes, which I’ve seen in person. I don’t know if Joe, like, went to the trouble of rubbing some tapes in dirt and making them look 40 years old or whatever. But I saw ‘em and I heard ‘em, and it’s all these pieces and parts of weird electronic stuff. I can’t tell if it’s multi-tracked sessions or not, but I know Joe ripped these tapes and mixed them all together, and that’s what the record is. It’s totally bananas. Joe claims that he has another hour of material from the sessions. But it might not be from the same time? It’s all really unclear. Joe’s also another one of those reclusive people that kind of is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum.

I think it’s always fun to put a little ambiguity around stuff like that. It’s more fun to believe in something like that than to not believe in it. I always take my chances when I look through records and I see some kind of cool reissue I’ve never heard of, or something that’s really fishy like that. I always just go for it.