Recently a friend of mine said something that's been ringing around my head for the past few weeks. Discussing a number of shared concerns about contemporary art of all types and the limited criticism that around of it, he said the following: "I mean, at this point, it's practically revolutionary to focus on making good art." After all, being a music fan and hobbyist journalist for some time, I've not exactly been stoked watching any and all form of healthy musical debate seemingly die out at the end of the 00s. Another comment by a childhood friend I heard last week also speaks to a withering of the critical lexicon. Speaking to the seeming dissolution of any healthy music scene in the area I grew up in, my friend commented, "We would have more bands if we knew how to critique those we do have," referring to the fact that a publication like Rolling Stone seems more eager to talk about Game of Thrones than review the latest GAS album. It's all about the clicks, bb's.
Still, that old friend's point rang all-too true, something he's had a penchant for since we became friends in middle school. These days, music journalism largely tends to feel like lifestyle journalism as the celebrity culture that has been slowly strangling the American mainstream throughout this century has bled into music writing itself. Writers are often expected to do the work that I can't help but feel publicists largely did not so long ago when they should be trying to create concepts and deploy critical theory in the aid of better understanding a particular movement, label, scene,genre, trend. And unlike fashion bloggers who, you know, make money, music writers are supposed to be happy to get asked to be sent albums in advance and write reviews on them for no real self-benefit? I won't lie; the first time I was contacted to review an album shortly after starting this site, I assumed that the (totally independent) record label that had contacted me would pay me for my efforts. After all, I write blogs about digital marketing and a ton of other bullshit, which is cool by me cuz at least I'm making some money, though the amount walks a fine line between the nominal and just-enough. But it's like, I'm doing this because I love music more than I can really help; it's a compulsion, obsession, addiction, whatever. It's also deeply personal.
I've been thinking about the Protestant work ethic a lot lately and whether it's still relevant in our service economy. And as such an economy and music industry tends to demand homogeneity even in its call for diversity--the number of male and female producers of color who do get covered is nothing compared to those who don't--it's people like Pete Swanson, Troy Wadsworth, and now Tommy McCuchon of Unseen Worlds who remind me of just how many others are out there staying true to their aesthetic vision. The label heads I admire so often tend to remind me of the best liberal arts college museum curators in their willingness to work with individuals of all types while also generally being on top of their shit. Admittedly, that analogy is very much the product of a week spent in my hometown of Wooster, OH, a dull but pretty exurb-cum-college town.
I went back home to attend the first truly celebratory memorial I've ever experienced. You see, I've had my share of sad fucking deaths in my relatively short life, so when my octogenarian mentor--who was a mentor to many over his eight-plus decades--passed away back in March, I was able to gather my sadness and joy together to pay my respects to one of the hardest working individuals I've ever met. And still, I had no clue that this person who I spent at an hour a week with between 2001 and 2008 had been instrumental in founding the soccer league I played in, the arts center in which I studied, and helped to bring the College of Wooster's black studies program into existence. Hell, I almost laughed when I learned that the scholarship created in his name would benefit only female art historians of color, because who else would a scholarship in his name benefit? I've always felt most comfortable amongst minor voices and outside of my father, this art historian was the only other "male role model" in my life for the first eighteen years of it that did as well, and actively encouraged me to seek them out. That's my dude and his legacy has also been hanging heavy over my head as of late, and with good reason.
Unseen Worlds first popped on my and plenty of others' radars with their clutch 2012 reissue of Laurie Spiegel's The Expanding Universe, not realizing until after I bought the record that the label itself was named after that artist's 1991 album. I also failed to realize that many of the songs I had cherished of hers were in fact collected on Unseen Worlds' digital/2xCD collection of the composer's work, a loving thoroughness that is a hallmark of McCuchon's releases dating back to his first in 2007. I had first encountered Spiegel's sprawling melodic tapestries in middle school courtesy of one of the 90s flagship reissue labels and comps, the Ellipsis-released Ohm 3xCD set of early electronic musicians. Her ability to pivot between gridded, melodic meltdowns and formless explorations into the space beyond us--there's a reason she has a song on the legendary Golden Record--spoke deeply to both myself when I was first discovering electronic music in junior high. Spiegel is just one part of a dense, layered aesthetic that trades in quality above all else. McCuchon is a long-time traveler within the world of reissues before vinyl became the format du jour, citing that other staple of 90s hipsterdom, the Ethiopiques' series, as just one example within the vast world of digital reissue culture. For those unfamiliar with the music of Mulatu Astatke and his peers--whose mighty Mulatu of Ethiopia just received a vinyl and digital repress--the Ethiopiques label's influence can still be heard in such unexpected places as on Woods' fantastic 2016 City Sun Eater in the River of Light LP. The series was just one arm of the Buda Musique label, an outlet for eclectic, vital transmissions from streets around the world and an even better example of a label whose influence might not yet be fully grasped in 2017 due to its primarily digital format, though the it is certainly undeniable.
Since taking the time to reach out to me following my near-manic cheerleading of Carl Stone, Tommy has genuinely struck me as a unique anomaly amongst most of the people I meet who work in music on the label side of things, one whose purpose is passion, not publicity. And while I had already a deep-seated respect for what he has done with Unseen Worlds, when I sat down to edit the following interview last Thursday night, it too me literally three paragraphs before I thought to myself, "I have to run this ASAP." Serving as the perfect follow-up to Troy Wadsworth of Medical Records' in-depth tour through his own musical journey, Tommy ended up looking more outwards, providing an informed and enlightening look into the at-times thankless yet essential role played by more esoteric or niche reissue labels as well as the effect that such entities can have.
What comes across in our conversation below is that whether it's the continuous music of Ukranian pianist Lubomyr Melnyk, the postminimalist compositions of Elodie Lauten, Maria Monti's romantic art rock, the post-Glass minimalism of saxophonist Dickie Landry, or the many other artists he does mention McCutchon strikes me as not one of Simon Reynolds' retro maniacs, though he will readily admit a suspicion that music might have been better a few decades removed. Rather, he is a connected music fan through and through, someone who is readily approachable online and all the more so if you are coming at him from a place of mutual admiration. Outside of Blue Gene Tyranny, Stone, and Spiegel, Tommy has introduced me to worlds within worlds through a not-sprawling but beyond golden discography in which each release is at the very least worth a listen for those who are committed to discovering new and old music alike, committed to challenging themselves by taking familiar tropes and running them through the ringer to produce music that ultimately transgressed formalist notions of what music should be, and sought something bigger, grander, perhaps more spiritual or transcendent than what music was.
If I had to make a single generalization about the records put out by McCutcheon, it would be that each first seduces the listener through slight subversions before plunging them into a wholly new and/or challenging soundworld. He trades in environmental music of the highest order; music that benefits substantially from considered listens, a critical arsenal, and an understanding of historical context. The music he releases and collects could be considered a sonic rendering of the concept of the longue durée, a school of history that sought to uncover long-term historical structures. For as nice as the vinyl renaissance has been, pieces that stretch into the several hours and longer challenge such a limited format when it comes to how much data it can hold--I've long accepted the fact that I'll likely never hear a vinyl pressing of Eliane Radigue's landmark drone triptych Trilogie de la Mort alongside the fact that I probably wouldn't enjoy getting up to flip each part one-to-three times. And perhaps what I found so refreshing about his responses was that sure, we can talk about these records all day, but what are the realities and rewards--if those even matter--of such passion and how do changing tastes in platform shape the output and expectations of a reissue label?
Ultimately, the rewards are largely experienced by the listener, the fan, who not only gets two discs of Philip Corner but forty-four pages of notes on the American composer's interpretations of Erik Satie on the hypnotizing Satie Slowly, an album of modernist ambient standards so to speak that is rendered subtly alien through the performer's peculiar affectations, yet remains somehow more powerful than most interpretations. The artists with whom McCutcheon works are typically from another era altogether, one in which the relationship with one's instrument could be seen as far more more intimate as he eloquently argues. And while the 3xLP vinyl compilation of Carl Stone might have been a risk for any label, for a label as barebones yet relentlessly progressive as Unseen Worlds, it was nothing short of daring. Yet its seeming instantaneous reception speaks, at least in part, to the goodwill that McCutchon has gradually built amongst listeners since first founding the label in 2006. And he'll continue that tradition of releasing albums that might not command the attention or publicity that less deserving albums so readily get with next month's retrospective of Carsten Schulz/C-Schulz's late 80s and early 90s output, taken from his first LP 10.
Schulz, an artist McCutchon was first exposed to via his love for the A-Musik sublabel Entenpfuhl alongside Jim O'Rourke and Frank Dommert, creates a hypnotic, chaotic, but ultimately inviting montage of sound, samples, and rhythm that retains the punk-y energy of late 80s German industrial while also calling to mind the vaguely ethno-ambient bricollages of Randy Greif or Richard Horowitz. Ultimately, he encapsulates the label's mission statement to release "revolutionary, yet accessible, avant garde music." It's with those words in mind that McCutchon shares some of his thoughts on running such a backward-looking-yet-forward-thinking label.
Z: First off, let's talk about what led up to you starting the label. Was the idea for the label to always be a mostly reissue-focused label? What were you trying to accomplish by starting a label that you felt others weren't and what are your primary musical influences? One way in which the label was perhaps a bit unique when it launched in 2006 was that you released your first five releases on CD only (not that there wasn't a thriving CD reissue scene still). Was this a budget necessity, an aesthetic preference, or some entirely other reason that led to your not releasing an album on vinyl until 2011?
TM: Yes, the label has always been conceived of as a reissue label and new recordings have always come out of a desire to do context-building around artists and music that have a recorded history that I find inspiring. The Girma Yifrashewa record would not have come about were there not Francois Falcetto doing the very focused work he has done with the Ethiopiques series. Or Satie Slowly might not exist if not for Emanuele Carcano of Alga Marghen dedicating so much energy into the archives of Philip Corner. “Blue” Gene Tyranny is such an honor to have worked with that when he offered me new material to release I couldn’t say no. Detours was the first time we ever put out a new recording.
Work on the label started in 2006, and it was an interesting time to be starting a label. I mostly bought CDs myself and preferred them to vinyl in many ways. Most of the music I listened to was either so very longform that it didn’t fit well on a vinyl format or benefitted from a pristine digital playback. I had started building a budget hi-fi setup in college and felt like I had figured out how to get all the warmth out of CDs that I needed so that vinyl wasn’t as much of a concern. Though I still collected a little vinyl and enjoyed it, I can definitely say that at that time I would buy a CD of a new release before a vinyl one. Part of that decision was that I could buy more music if I bought the CD. In that way, I still probably buy more digital music than I do vinyl, though I’ve been a little more enamored recently with filling out my vinyl collection. A big part of that, though, is that my wife prefers seeing LPs around to CDs.
But getting back to the era that I started the label, I definitely saw (and still see) the foremost purpose of the label as being bringing out a high quality digital copy of recordings from the best-possible master sources with the full involvement and approval of the artists. The artists I work with generally feel the same way. Music blogs that fetishized record objects and devalued digital mediums were at their absolute peak when I started the label, and the label is in many ways a defensive response to that culture that was rising. I found it both hilarious and frustrating looking at a blog post about an obscure record that had a totally legitimate and wonderful CD reissue out in the world for sale would not only disregard that fact in their posts about obscure vinyl albums, playing up the obscurity of the vinyl but not necessarily the ability to engage with the music. Oftentimes, these posts would even be using a rip of the CD to share on the pretense that the music was so obscure that it justified being illegally shared outside of any music economy. So, Unseen Worlds was very much about making an effort to give something better to the music my friends and I loved that didn’t exist on CD yet.
As far as influences, it is hard to overestimate how important John Fahey was to my entire musical outlook, including with the label. I was in Austin when the label first started and Revenant was putting out lots of great releases then. I washed dishes in a restaurant that Dean Blackwell of Revenant’s wife did the books for and I thought that was the greatest thing. I never even met her or Dean, but apparently we both shopped at Whetstone Audio. I also worked in an audio visual library at University of Texas, so I had access to lots of great releases there. In particular I remember checking out Pogus’s CD of Pauline Oliveros’ Alien Bog / Beautiful Soop on a whim and it still remains one of my most memorable listening experiences, and one of my favorite recordings.
Z: What do you think the role of a reissue label is, especially an independent one, in the greater musical ecology? I've definitely gotten the feeling from our exchanges thus far that for you, the music comes first and foremost, and while you certainly can't divorce your own story from the label's, there aren't too many labels that come to mind that possess both the passion and considerable DIY ethos, considering that you handle pretty much everything yourself (please correct me if I'm wrong in this presumption). What keeps you going, what makes you want to continually release new records, whether actually new or just new to most?
TM: Well, clearly some people are better at self-promoting through their labels than I am, but I think people like Andy Votel or Jonny Trunk, who are themselves often as synonymous with their releases as their label name to the listener, still do a very good job of putting the music first. I’m doing this interview mainly to draw attention to the label and thus the music, and I think that’s how it ends up going most of the time with these things. So, I kind of disagree with the idea that the two things blend overly much. Even with a label like Numero Group, which has built such a following that many listeners know their releases more as a Numero release more than they do the artists, probably, I trust that someone has that release on their phone or on their record player there’s a moment where they are disconnected from all the context that surrounds it and it’s just them with the music. The context and community around a recording helps add meaning, but ultimately each person makes their own record experience. The only exception I could think of would be something like a Late Night Tales or other DJ compilation where the mix maker is by far the most prominent and identifiable element guiding the listening and the object making and people get a little fixated on the person hitting play or making a mix.
As far as what keeps me going, I still feel like there are a number of things that I set out to do with the label that I just have not finished yet, and I feel like I’ve been pretty good at doing the job of working with the artists and releases. When you feel like you do a good job at something, I hope that someone lets you keep doing it or gives you an opportunity to. I usually think about it for myself along the same lines as Mats Gustafsson lays out for record collectors with his Discaholics premise, but, not so much a record collector and more as a label. I’ve become a person that really values and craves the feeling of developing a release with an artist and releasing it to the world. What keeps me going, in a way, is not only to complete the projects I’ve set out to do, but find more people like myself to work with. Usually artists are even less record collectors than I am, but they are equally or more committed to the importance of the recorded document and the personal experience that it is capable of.
Z: I think it's fairly noteworthy that the label's first three releases were by “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Carl Stone, and Lubomyr Melnyk, who make up a considerable chunk of the UW catalog just by themselves. What drew you to each artist and could you speak a bit about working with each? How do you select what you release?
TM: Each of those three is a very different person from the other, and it’s a privilege to work with them in every case. There’s too much to relate about all of them, but I think what I said previously about each’s commitment to their recordings does a good job of providing a through line to understand why we have worked together.
In terms of selection and how that’s done, I like recordings that are capable of creating a stillness within and offer moments of relaxation and personal reflection yet don’t leave you alone with your thoughts completely. They also offer an opportunity to look outside of yourself and engage with other ways of thinking that feel expansive or new.
Z: How do you approach streaming services in terms of possibly exposing these artists to all new fans yet perhaps not earning the revenues they should be? How do you view streaming in 2017 and the role of companies like Spotify?
TM: Streaming services are obviously the most convenient way for people to access music these days, but Spotify is a complete hustle on every front except for the major stakeholders. I think that’s common knowledge. Everyone knows Trump is a crook, and yet somehow he’s allowed to be at the top position. Some industry people will tell you they’re very happy with their streaming payments, but that’s only because it feels like free money to them since they can remember when every dollar had a mixture of returns for cracked jewel boxes or bent corners mixed into the equation and the trade-off seems magical to them. The magic really is, though, that every person has access to an immense amount of music now and it is much easier to turn a good record that would have remained nearly hidden into a modest success. The potential of streaming services, with a fairer deal, I believe, is so much greater than it currently is. Once people have the sound quality, the interfaces, and the payments to artists and labels better sorted, it’s going to be much, much better, I think. I don’t want people to lose sight of maintaining personal file collections, though.
Z: Ditto. You once said something to me on Twitter that I thought was a joke, but later realized it perhaps wasn't. I was bitching about the cost of records and you mentioned that most records should actually cost between 30 and 40 dollars. Would you care to elaborate at all on that statement? What do you think a fair price for a record would be?
TM: I was half-kidding with that statement. The economics of running a record label aren’t glamorous and they really vary project to project much more than you’d expect, at least for me, so I won’t try to get into that. But, to focus on answering your first question, it’s true that the price of a new vinyl record hasn’t changed that much over the past ten years while the costs of doing business have steadily gone up. For a label like Unseen Worlds that sells a relatively small quantity of each of its records, it would make a lot of sense to charge $40 for each LP if I was trying to run this like a business where there was a direct correlation between when an LP sells and when a payout happens to a professional person who is involved in its creation who is receiving a reasonable rate.
Z: Additionally, and again, please ignore if you prefer, but what does it feel to sell out at source of the Carl Stone record, a 3xLP that ran upwards of $40 containing 6 sides of not exactly easy listening music within a month of its release? What is your philosophy in terms of making the music you release readily available and do you ever decide not to repress a certain release?
TM: The Carl Stone 3-LP format was definitely somewhat of a risk to take on, so I was very happy that people embraced it the way that it did. I am glad to hear that it inspired a certain level of personal responsibility in you to think about it and talk about it. I would like to think that that was built into not only the object as a product, but as a whole with the music and object together. Feeling personally responsible for a recording, I think, is probably one of the best reactions you can have to a piece of music.
I have tried in the past to advertise how many we pressed of a certain record to inspire people to buy it, but honestly I have never noticed that changing purchase behavior. If anything, the records I have tried that with have incidentally sold a little more slowly. You’re right that in general I want the music to be accessible and available to anyone who can get their hands on it. I also feel strongly that these records are not more precious in one medium more than another. I think that’s kind of up to the listener to decide how to connect, and we can’t always anticipate what circumstances someone is approaching the music from, so I want to make the music available in as many ways as possible.
I am concerned with being efficient in my efforts. I have such limited resources that if I commit to a project I’d like to think that I’m doing the most important thing first and that I’m getting it mostly right on the first try. Of course, sometimes that’s harder to achieve than others for different reasons, but it is always a concern.
Z: What are your listening habits like? Do you find you spend much of your time listening to music for the label or focused on future reissues? Or do you find yourself interested in contemporary music as well and if so, who are you digging?
TM: If I’m deep into a project for sequencing or mixing or mastering then that’s probably the primary thing I’m listening to for the majority of a month. I generally focus on finding different threads of music that I love and following them as far as I can take them. Where I stop depends on if I continue to find it rewarding or not, or, more often, I’ll hit upon something I love so much that I have a lost week with it and forget what I was doing before with all that searching, and so the discovery period ends.
I’m not sure how good I am with contemporary music, but I try to listen to as much as possible, old and new. I'm still trying to figure out how to best explain what it is about older music that attracts me so much. In talking with various older musicians, I feel that the best explanation I've heard is that forty and fifty years ago there was a greater bond not just between people making music, but between people and their instruments. I think if you consider where in the world right now do you find people who describe themselves as trying to change the world for the better you would find more computer programmers than musicians in that category.
Z: I imagine picking a release you're most proud of would be like picking a favorite child. Nonetheless, I was hoping you could highlight 3-5 releases that have been particularly rewarding for you and some of the stories behind them.
TM: This could get really long. I haven’t really done that many releases compared to most of my contemporaries, but I’m a pretty sentimental guy when I start digging into memories and it’s all probably less interesting to anyone else than it is to me.
Z: Fair enough, man. Let’s talk a bit about the upcoming C-Schulz release and how that came to be? What drew you to his work and how did you become familiar with both him and the German experimental scene of the 80s?
TM: When I was first buying records from Forced Exposure many of the most interesting new music releases were coming from the A-Musik label in Germany. IDM was a really popular genre at the time and I was listening to acts like Tortoise and Boards of Canada. The A-Musik releases often sort of touched on that but with something that went much deeper in certain respects. Later on I found out that Frank Dommert ran a label before A-Musik called Entenpfuhl that had released the first LPs from himself, Jim O’Rourke, and C-Schulz. The C-Schulz record is what grabbed me the most of the batch (though I’ll say Jim O’Rourke is as big if not bigger influence in sum total than John Fahey) and the rest of his albums are all wonderful as well. His work, and especially the really early work, for me, really captures an intuitive creative spirit that I respond very well to. It was one of the first projects I had an intention of working with for the label and I’m glad it is finally coming out.
Z: What future plans, if any, do you have for UW? Do you have additional performances planned for anyone on UW?
As far as performances, Philip Corner should be visiting again finally for some concerts in September, one as part of a Vexations performance at the Guggenheim and one with Blank Forms. Carl Stone will be touring through again, surely, as will Girma Yifrashewa and Lubomyr Melnyk, and I hope eventually Carsten [C-Schulz].
I also plan to mark our 10th anniversary with some special commemorative activities and products that I can only hope will help push the label into its next chapters.