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Room40: Label Profile

img  Tobias Fischer

After almost fifteen years in business, Room40 has become all but synonymous with the Australian sound art scene. This image is not entirely without its justification. After all, ever since being founded by Lawrence English around the turn of the Millennium – or to put it more precisely: after gradually hatching from a string of performance events organised by English in Brisbane – the imprint has featured many outstanding Antipodean artists, from The Necks' Chris Abrahams to Berlin-based Simon James Phillips and from the legendary Mike Cooper to cinematic guitarist Ben Frost. And yet, for English, the label has always foremost been a window to look out into the world. And so, each entry in the Room40 catalogue can be seen as a point on a musical map stretching from Asia to Europe and the USA, as a grid which has allowed the label to slowly but surely expand its reach across the entire globe on a fairly small but meaningful scale. In terms of the actual music, there have never been any border controls anyway, especially after the introduction of the Someone Good sub-imprint dedicated to sweetly humming pop and more song-oriented material. As he reveals in this interview, Lawrence English would love Room40 to eventually turn into an archive, a reference point for anyone interested in similar themes and ideas. After fifteen years in the business, many would agree it already has. 

The way I understood it, Room40 grew out of your personal interest in a variety of adjacent fields: the sounds of nature, sound art, promoting music you liked and discovering new music. What was the scene in Brisbane like at the time?
To be honest, when Room40 started, Brisbane was pretty spartan when it came to experimental and left leaning music. There was a nice underground scene here, but very small, it existed in the shadow of a huge alternative music scene that had spawned some of Australia's more successful bands of that time. During the 1990s, literally there was very little international visitation - people like boredoms and Francisco Lopez came to pay us a visit, but these events are sparse and felt isolated. I really wanted to link Brisbane into the wider world and Room40 was a way to make that happen. I never really thought of Room40 as a Brisbane or even Australian label - the focus was more about the quality of the work and the aesthetic interests of the artists.

In that regard, I really owe a great deal of gratitude to artists like David Toop, Scanner, DJ Olive, David Shea and others who I was in contact with during the very early days of Room40. These artists really offered me a hand of friendship and encouragement and moreover really gave me the faith Room40 was something I should give my all to in those early days. It's thanks to them the label was able to move the way it did in those first few years. I count myself as very fortunate to have met and since then to have become very close to those people.

You already mentioned that you published a fanzine before starting up your first own label and then, Room40. I would love to hear just a bit more about the kind of articles you'd publish and the way it was organised and printed at a time when the Internet was still fairly rudimentary.
Actually the fanzine was just that, a zine, on paper, the first few issues were photocopied and then we started printing them. The focus of the zine was completely all over the place and represented where my interests lay when I was 15 - we covered everything from the New York Dolls, through to Gothic black metal from Los Angeles, Transgender musicians from New York through to industrial music. It was pretty much and open ended affair and very much was shaped by the people contributing.

I was an avid tape trader during this time and many of the people I traded with shared this interest in different kinds of music. Being part of that fanzine world and trading really opened my ears up to a whole lot of music. It was an amazing time here, the hunt for music was sometimes more rewarding than hearing the music itself. You really felt like you were working for experience - I remember some bands took me years to track down their demos or particular live shows. I loved that aspect to it. From the fanzine, I went on to write for street press when I was 17... and after that into national and then international magazines. I wrote mostly around music, film and later on arts a little more broadly. It was a great time for me, I did it whilst studying at university and it gave me a good grounding in writing and also more specifically communication. I got the chance to interview a lot of interesting people, not all of whom I shared world views or interests with, but the conversations were generally quite interesting. I just found my Russ Meyer and Elliott Smith interview tapes the other day … they are a bit worn now, but was curious to listen to them. I sound so naive … it's sweet ...

How did Room40 get started?
The first inklings of Room40 were in the late nineties, but it wasn't until 2000 that it took shape properly. We made a few CDr releases, put on a few special concerts and started exploring what the label might be. It took a few years to get rolling, but that was a good thing. I'm a big believer in not rushing things as much as possible. Everything in it's right time and during that time this was very much the approach.

As for the name, actually it comes from the histories associated with code breaking at Bletchley Park. I was specifically drawn to the name, as Room40 was a place where people from very different background - such as scientists, chess players, bakers, dentists, soldiers and the like - came together with a common interest. I felt this was a good metaphor for my interest with the label - a place where people with a united interest in sound and music could come together, no matter how aesthetically removed they might be. What united them was the depth of their investigation.

Tell me about the very first releases on Room40, Powerhouse Sessions and A Picturesque View, Ignored, please.
Actually that was one of the most fun times for me, it was really so fresh and unknown. I was reaching out all over the place. At one stage we had 17 distributors across the world - that speaks as much to the nature of the industry as it does my pursuits. It was a completely different world then, music access wise I mean. During those early days we had some hilarious situations. I once had to fly to Japan to get money from our first distributor there. This distributor was sort of infamous, the Brisbane band Not From There wrote a song about him called "Sticky Wes". Anyway, it was like being in a film getting this money. I said I was coming to the office, they called back and said please go to this train station in suburban Tokyo and sit on a bench out the front of the station and wait for someone. So I was there, waiting and then out of the crowd came this women with a big envelope. She just walked up to me and said here's your money. And she told me to count it and then vanished. It was surreal, and totally nothing like what happens today. I think some of me misses the wild west days ...

What were the 00's like for you? In the absence of defining hypes, it seems to have been a good time for a label less focused on trends and more on quality  ...
Honestly a pleasure. I recall certain experiences like listening to Chris Abrahams' Thrown edition at his place late one night. I was just mystified how he had created all those amazing pieces. I just couldn't imagine it and that made me so utterly intrigued. That's just one example of many.

During the entire first decade of Room40, you've been active both as a sound artist and a visual artist. You still have two separate biographies for both, although I wonder if you actually separate them quite as strictly yourself.
Call me old fashioned, but I still love the object. The object in the case of music for me involves three senses, sound, vision and touch, and it's these three that have dominated how I come to the Room40 editions. From the get go I was interested in a stripped back and focused approach. I was helped by Steve Alexander at rinzen greatly, who suggested a range of basic ideals that could govern the releases - such as font size, colour formatting etc. These were a huge help and I think actually contributed greatly to the way the label developed. The font still persists today, as does the monochromatic design and the matte celo glaze on the editions. What I want, at least in some sense, is to create a whole with the label. Editions that still function in and of themselves, but also when viewed together create a uniform sense.

The packaging has changed over the years, as has the diversity of the music and sound we release and I hope this continues into the future. But I like to think there's some basics the label has that unities the way it functions and can be experienced.
Tuchan-Chantal is a somewhat unique entry in the Room40 catalogue. Can you tell me a bit about how that happened and what it means to you personally to have a work by Luc Ferrari in your discography?
Well I'm very happy to go on record saying that, in my books at least, Luc Ferrari is one of the most important composers of the 20th century. "Presque Rien" really set the stage for much of the work associated with field recording since in my opinion. The piece largely came out of the works I had done with eRikM, he actually put me in touch with Brunhild and that work was not published at the time. It's quite an unusual piece and whilst my French is pretty poor, his approach to his subject is both tender and focused. I think that very much appealed to me. Also in some respects I like the fact that it's not in my native tongue, that I am one step removed for the language in it and listen as a remote listener, more than one entirely within the text of the piece. If that makes sense?

Someone Good was founded as a sister label to Room40 and some of the releases were wonderful stylistic additions. Unfortunately, there haven't been any new releases since 2012 – how come?
2013 we took the year largely off due to a bunch of rather boring practical matters like finding new distribution for the label and also sorting out new production processes. Our original manufacturer here in Australia went bankrupt, so we had to take some time to contact the overseas company and gain access to the glass masters etc. Thankfully they were very accommodating and help us out a lot.

How would you characterise the interaction with the artists – how deep are you involved in the musical process through deliberation and suggestions, in the artwork, mastering and other aspects of an album release?
This very much is a case by case basis. I'm horrendously full of opinions, but hopefully some of those are of use to the artists who I mouth off to. I guess the thing for me, more and more with Room40 is it's a friends and family label. I personally know almost all the artists on the label and enjoy working with them because we share the same passion for sound and music. It's a pleasure to work with them and I count myself as lucky, like I said before, to have the chance to engage with these fine artists. I'd like to think I am engaged without being overbearing or impinging on the work and ideals of the artists. A label is there to be a support and help, not a pain.

How, generally, do you see the role of a label today? What can a label add to the music scene that myriads of individual artists can't? Do you see the label-concept as tending towards a new form?
Actually this is I think one of the most important question any label, or artist can ask today. What a label used to represent - access to distributions networks, production assistance, promotion and the like is now something most artists can access themselves through a range of online and physical services. So with this shift I think the role of a label is unquestionably changed. To what, well that's a personal thought for the artist or label. But I feel it's something each of us needs to think about if we're going to make the best out of where things are headed. There's no moment like the present for contemplation and reassessment.

What do you love about the process of running a label?
I think Room40 is constantly teaching me new things. Honestly, we're living through a fascinating and profoundly unsettled time in music creation, distribution and most importantly what function music plays in the contemporary life. I think for the first time in music's history choice is so absolute it can be crippling. It's not just a matter of lots of new music, but a plethora of old music surfacing more widely and also music that traditionally was trapped within its country of origin. It's amazing and wonderful to have such choice, but it's also a real challenge for the casual listen and I think in some regards even with greater access listening habits haven't really grown as much as you might like to think. It's also a case that the role of music as an art form, for most people I'd imagine, sits more at the level of entertainment. I'm more a believer in the profundity of sound. I know it has changed my life and I think everyone is capable of having these revelations. It's merely a matter of opportunity to more fully 'de-filter' one's ears. In short, I guess partly what I love about the label is that people might have a chance to encounter these musics that excite me and hopefully might excite them.

Since you started out with Room40, the music industry has gone through a string of significant changes. Can you tell me a bit about the effects on your work, the economics of the business and your outlook for the future?
Economically I'd say the changes are still coming thick and fast. Obviously some physical is down, others up. The real killer think is postage and freight. I know labels are feeling this in USA as well, especially when shipping internationally. For me to ship a single LP to the EU costs more than the record itself. That's not right. Something has to give there. I think, working with the kinds of sound and music I am interested in, economics never played a huge part in my thinking, beyond keeping the whole enterprise moving forward. I've released a lot of music, some of it very difficult to sell, others readily saleable, but all of it I believe in I can say without a doubt.

How do you define success for the label?
A good question. I suppose a few things, happy artists, happy me and no bankruptcy. Hah! In all seriousness though, I like to think that in another 15 years time, the label will have something of an archival feel - a body of work that weaves in and around certain themes and creates a kind of complex living narrative when viewed in retrospect. Next year is 15 years for the label, so pretty pleased looking over the shoulder now I must confess …

Room40 Label Profile Interview by Tobias Fischer
Photos by Greg Neate (b/w), John Chantler (color).

Homepage: Room40