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Erstwhile Records: Label Profile

img  Tobias

Ten years are a long time for any label. How do you look back on the past decade? 
That's a pretty huge question, not sure where to start. I'm happy that I've managed to keep it going for ten years, and that I think the last couple of years have been as strong creatively as any of the earlier ones, if not stronger, so I'm proud of what I've done so far.

How did things get started?

My background is that of a fan, I've never even dabbled with playing an instrument. My path to where I am now was pretty linearly outward, from stuff like the Ramones/Clash/Talking Heads in high school, to exploring rock music fairly thoroughly in college, then afterwards, jazz, free improv, electronic music, etc. Seeing Sun Ra in 1987 at a free show in Central Park was very exciting/illuminating, and seeing AMM and Gunter Muller/Christian Marclay at separate shows around ‘93 or ‘94 was the first time I saw any of the musicians I work with now in a live context.

I worked at Time Magazine for a long time after college, mostly clerical work, but a little reporting and writing. I was never that comfortable or happy there, but it was a way to pay the bills with a minimum of responsibility. I got a nice severance package from them, and made some money trading tech stocks, getting both in and out before the rush, and have been lucky enough to be able to focus my professional efforts exclusively on Erstwhile since I founded it in 1999. I started it because I wanted to give something back to the world of experimental music, which had meant so much to me on a personal level.

It has been said that the first Erstwhile-releases were still fairly varied in style. What was your plan in terms of musical aesthetics for the label when you began?
I did the first three releases simultaneously. I knew Denman Maroney's son, enjoyed Earl Howard's sole release as a leader (Pele's Tears on Random Acoustics), knew that they had worked together in the past, so I proposed that to them. I was a big fan of Loren Mazzacane's (now he goes by Loren Connors), and the Haunted House quartet was starting around then, I just went up to them after a show and introduced myself. Same thing for Simon Fell: I was in London for a week in late ‘98 (I’m still kicking myself for passing up the Tilbury performance of  For Philip Guston that week, I wasn't feeling very well, but it's still an opportunity I'll probably never get again) and I went with my friend to an IST performance in Cambridge. Afterwards, I introduced myself to Fell, told him I’d like to release something involving him, and it proceeded from there

Over the years, your work with Erstwhile has accompanied the development of EAI as a genre. When was the first time you noticed that something new, exciting and truly different was beginning to stir?
There were inklings with some releases here and there, For 4 Ears, Amoebic, a few of the Random Acoustics releases, a few concerts in NYC and at Victoriaville. but the Mottomo Otomo fest in Wels, Austria in 1999 was the crucial event in the formation of EAI as a community/genre/whatever,15 musicians played over the three nights who ended up on Erstwhile and it was my first live exposure to most of them. It was the first European festival I attended and also the first Yoshiyuki Suzuki of IMJ attended. It was the first time I met Keith Rowe, the first time I talked to Otomo, to Günter Müller, to Voice Crack. It was where I finally convinced Christof Kurzmann to take a shot at recording with Burkhard Stangl for the first time, where I got offered the recordings which would end up becoming The World Turned Upside Down, where I made sure that the Otomo/Voice Crack collab I'd been trying to set up via e-mail would actually move forward, etc, etc. It was such an inspiring weekend for me, to see how individual sets could be more than the sum of their parts, that when no other festival had taken up the gauntlet that Otomo had thrown down 18 months later, I held the first AMPLIFY in NYC at Tonic, a direct descendent of Mottomo Otomo.

You've mentioned in your newsletter that you „think it's the best year of releases for Erstwhile in quite some time“. Does that mean the label was marking time in a way for a bit from your point of view?
That's not the phrase I would use, but I would say that after the 36 set, 10 night AMPLIFY in Cologne/Berlin in May 2004 that it took a while to retrench. the funding for the Berlin half fell through at the last minute, the dollar depreciated something like 40 or 50 percent against the euro in the 18 months between the initial plan and the actual festival, and I ended up pretty close to bankrupt. 

So partly because of that, and partly because I think there was a lull in the overall music, a retrenching as I said, 2006 and 2007 had only 3 Erst releases per year. but starting with the R/S at the end of 2007, I did 12 releases in 24 months, and I think the variety and overall strength of every release make it probably the strongest and most consistent period Erstwhile has had yet. My wife Yuko Zama has also been increasingly involved with the design end of things (and sometimes as an overall producer), she's also helped quite a bit. I initially met her when she was assigned by IMJ magazine to interview me before the AMPLIFY in Tokyo in 2002, and having a second, informed opinion on everything regarding the label has been invaluable.

Do you, at least partially, choose your releases according to how important or representative they are within the context of a musical debate or purely on the grounds of quality?

How the different releases relate to each other is important to me, so there are unofficial, sometimes overlapping ongoing subseries. for instance:

Duos between Polwechsel members and someone else: 007, 008, 009
Ami Yoshida duos: 024, 047, 056
the multi-CD sets of Rowe/Nakamura/Sachiko that are the core of the label: 030, 042, EL005, 050, 054
Berlin/Vienna projects recorded at Amann Studios: 008, 023, 025, 031, EP001, EP002, 057
Kid Ailack Hall/Tokyo recordings in the last couple of years: 053, EL006, EL007, 054, EL008
Lescalleet duos: 019, 052, two more in the works

So with regards to these ongoing subseries, why did you decide to additionally found the various sublabels on Erstwhile?
ErstLive: Christoph Amann recorded all seven nights of shows of the Berlin part of the AMPLIFY 2004 festival, and WDR recorded the three nights in Cologne, so I had dozens of really well recorded shows, including some amazing performances. I'd just put out a box set the year before from the Tokyo AMPLIFY fest, and I didn't want to do that again, so I did five separate ErstLive releases from those ten nights of shows. the most recent three releases are from the AMPLIFY 2008 festival I did in Tokyo, all Keith Rowe sets (he's on six of the eight ErstLives so far).

ErstSolo: the collaborative element, mostly duos, was a crucial one from the start with Erstwhile, but after talking to Keith about The Room project and seeing how fundamental it was for him, I offered to start an ErstSolo imprint to put it out, once it existed.

ErstPop: I started this in order to release the amazing Magic I.D.-till my breath gives out record, after not being able to stop playing it for months, as well as to keep working with the Stangl/Kurzmann duo who are one of the cornerstones of Erstwhile. I hope to expand it past just Kurzmann-related projects at some point, but have yet to find anything else I like enough. :)

With several artists releasing with you regularly, it's easy to see Erstwhile as a creative family founded on personal relations ...

Sure, I think that's important, and comes in handy in times of stress. I think it's important to separate the professional from the personal, though, too many labels just release what their friends give them without enough of a critical look at the contents. it's important to try to give the musicians a different, informed perspective, not just be a yes man.

Serious discussion has all but vanished from Rock and even Electronica, but EAI still has its  profound and heated debates. What is it about this music that makes people want to talk, read, write and discuss about it so much? 

Well, one thing is that it's a global community, both musicians and listeners, with pockets of each in many countries around the world, so Internet forums allow some of those pockets to come together. 

Also, it's a quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) revolutionary music, constantly challenging any and all conventional wisdom, and that makes people think. Sometimes they get excited, sometimes pissed off, but it's a music still developing before our eyes and ears, and that always causes confusion and excitement and discussion.

On the suggestion of Jon Abbey, the questions about the early history of Erstwhile Records were taken from an earlier interview with Stylus Magazine. It is still available here.

Homepage: Erstwhile Records

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