The Reign of Indie

Voodoo-EROS’ Casady and Shimkovitz define the new indie DIY with self-produced and cross-pollinated music, a holistic grassroots attitude, and a dash of gender dysphoria.

Photograph by John Minh Nguyen

Hasta la victoria siempre might as well be the rallying cry for the hundreds of independent record labels struggling against corporate conglomerates. What happens behind the scenes of your favorite record might not directly affect you, but it matters to the independent Davids who battle the “big four” industry Goliaths that control 85 percent of the U.S. market. These money-driven whales bring pop stars and vapid entertainers to the public while indie companies like Kill Rock Stars slayed with Sleater-Kinney, Sub Pop spawned Nirvana and Asthmatic Kitty coughed up Sufjan Stevens. The indie scene has been lumped into its own self-titled genre, but the styles produced without corporate sponsorship are as diverse as classical, jazz, rap and metal. The five labels we chose to highlight are hot new-comers and SOMA favorites, industry rebels who battle against the big-budgeted, bomb-wielding competitors with the slingshots of artistic innovation. As Che would say, “Always until victory.” Joe DeFranceschi

Waxploitation | “It seemed cool to call it Waxploitation, as in the exploitation of wax [vinyl],” says Jeff Antebi, founder of Waxploitation. Waxploit-ation began molding the independent scene in 1996 with the simple vision of putting out a record for a band called Strictly Ballroom, founded by Jimmy Tamborello, who is also responsible for the Postal Service. Since then, this sometimes-label, sometimes–management company has been aggressively shaping the industry like a patron saint, with records that have featured artists such as Kutmasta Kurt, the Alkaholiks, Tweaker (alias Chris Vrenna from Nine Inch Nails), Teargas and Plateglass, DJ Spooky, Rob Swift and Blackalicious to name a few.

Most recently, Waxploitation found itself as the managing force behind the varied and enigmatic projects/identities of super-producer Danger Mouse. This May, in affiliation with Atlantic/Downtown Records, they managed the release of Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere, the product of Danger Mouse’s collaboration with rapper Cee-Lo. Gnarls Barkley’s first single “Crazy” made history in the U.K. for being the first song to go number one from download sales alone.

Always the marketplace for innovation and experimentation, Waxploit-ation is also an avid campaigner for human rights awareness, sponsoring auctions and releasing albums to raise money for organizations such as Oxfam and UNICEF. Ten years gone and Waxploitation seems to be just getting started showcasing all the great things in the world. Ashley Luna

Southern Lord | With all the cool kids listening to doom drone nowadays, Southern Lord has positioned itself as the most iconic purveyor of as-few-chords-as-possible-in-a-20-minute-track metal. Founded in 1998 by Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley – both of whom comprise doom’s ominous standard-bearers Sunn O))) – the Lord harbors a stable of the slowest, sludgiest bands to have ever existed in the void of aching despair and hopelessness that is the universe. When not sucking all light from the world with Sunn O))) (or with their quaintly named side-projects Thorr’s Hammer, Goatsnake, Khanate and Burning Witch), Anderson and O’Malley oversee the Southern Lord releases of Earth, the band that single-handedly carved out a canyon of feedback and downtuned guitars to which every doom band owes their sound.

Lest Southern Lord sink too far into the pitchy hell of oblivion, the label has teased listeners with a more overground side, most notably with fighter of foo Dave Grohl and his all-stars-of-metal project Probot. Then there’s Boris, whose adventurous survey of metal has helped Southern Lord branch out into leaner psych-metal even though the trio from Japan started out in 1996 as droned out as Earth. Knowing that any self-respecting metal label should include a Japanese band on its roster, Southern Lord graciously began distributing the Boris catalog in 2001, which previously hadn’t been available stateside. So three cheers for our Lord, who couldn’t get any more Southern without being in Hell. Lee Wang

Voodoo-EROS | It’s challenging enough to create a record label – it’s far more impressive to use your intuition alone, to concoct a platform where renegade, gender-bending artists and genre-defying DIY-ers come together for art happenings, musical collaborations and haircut parties. Founders Bianca Casady (of CocoRosie) and visual artist Melissa Shimkovitz have done just that with Voodoo-EROS, the year-old Brooklyn-based label that already has three albums under its belt by musicians from the folk, art and hip-hop scene. Casady and Shimkovitz agree that the commonalities between artists on Voodoo-EROS involve self-produced and cross-pollinated music, a holistic grassroots attitude, and a dash of gender dysphoria. “We’re attracted to a very raw sound and sort of an amalgamation of aesthetics of genres coming together at once,” Casady says. Shimkovitz adds, “If you look at Bianca or I, or have access to our self-portrait or pretty much anybody whose name you could find on any of our stuff [and] you asked them to draw a self-portrait, it would probably be of a different gender than they seem to be or than they look like.”

Voodoo-EROS began as a labor of love when Shimkovitz and Casady collected lost and rare recordings of their favorite artists and friends – including Devendra Banhart and Vashti Bunyan – for a compilation entitled The Enlightened Family. The idea of creating a label for The Enlightened Family quickly became a full-fledged business venture that took off nearly overnight. Recalling Voodoo-EROS’s humble beginning, Shimkovitz says, “I made myself a little desk and a little business area and I started bringing my mug and I got a water cooler in my apartment, so there was a business going on all of a sudden. And Bianca was sort of like, ‘Okay let’s have a business then.’”
The Enlightened Family has served as a touchstone for Voodoo-EROS, as subsequent releases come from artists on comp and include Diane Cluck’s Countless Times and Desert Doughnuts by Metallic Falcons (Sierra Casady’s goth-lullaby-metal project).

Thus far, Shimkovitz and Casady’s magic, which relies primarily on their gut feelings and non-stop brainstorming, has proven successful. In addition to organizing a basketball team (the Voodoo Arrows) along with ongoing events at their ever-evolving art space, the Museum of Nice Things, Shimkovitz says the next Voodoo-EROS musical endeavor will be an album from hip-hop folk artist Nomi. “And you won’t have to look out for it,” she says, “because it’s gonna punch you in the fucking face.” Sara Graham

Kranky Records | Sometime in the distant future, music enthusiasts will probe into a hard-drive vault filled to the brim with the compositions that have stood the test of time. Among all the genre-bending artists to be found therein, Kranky Records would have its own sector in the spectrum of psychedelic cyber-history. Founded in 1993 by Joel Leoschke, then an employee at Chicago’s infamous Cargo Music distributor, the label embarked upon its voyage into the ambient-laden unknown with Labradford’s Prazision. Thirteen years later the label has become an exquisite anomaly, recently releasing some of the most unique and challenging records, such as now-household names like Low, Out Hud and Godspeed You! Black Emperor – all while refusing to compromise the freedom given to their artists who bravely probe into the untapped perimeters of sound.

Running a label that embraces the more avant-everything side of the business hasn’t been all glitter and innovation, though. Leoschke says, “One real hardship is being confronted every day with the realization that if you aren’t releasing music containing guitars, drums and vocals, then you are going to have a hard time getting any large number of people to pay attention to it. With a few notable exceptions, the market is completely gutted with derivative, mediocre music and the gatekeepers [music magazines and college radio] are not doing a very good job of filtering.” However, it is exactly this opposition that has enabled the Kranky machinery to reconfigure numerous creative boundaries.

In 2005 and 2006 alone, Kranky has already released albums from Oakland’s noise pioneer Gregg Kowalsky, space rock legends Windy and Carl, TV on the Radio contributor Robert Lowe (also known as Rob Lichens), Japanese minimalist Chihei Hatakeyama, among a cascade of others. As mainstream audiences play catch-up, Kranky’s short-and long-term goals continue to stay the same: to try and get people to expand their musical horizons. Leoschke adds, “We are just a very small mark on the ass of a brutal, unforgiving business.” Fred Miketa

Team Love | You can’t help but love Team Love. Their entire catalog is free to download. Saddle Creek Records has their backs like a protective older brother. And one of the biggest names in indie rock hand-picks their titles. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and his manager Nate Krenkel created the label in 2004 to release Tilly and the Wall’s debut Wild Like Children. “No one would release it,” Krenkel says. “Conor and I loved the band. We played with the idea of starting a label for a while, so we approached them.” Hip-hop artist Mars Black and Shudder to Think frontman Craig Wedren followed. Convinced by the label’s DIY philosophy, “Craig played us some music,” recalls Krenkel, “and we were like, ‘Yeah, make the record.’ He got to make the record he wanted, with his musicians, on his terms.”
Others got a push as well. Friends with Bright Eyes since 2002, Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley never considered making a solo record until Oberst approached her. Released in 2006, Rabbit Fur Coat is a haunting record that’s raised Lewis’ profile up to indie chanteuse Neko Case’s. Reaching out is not only a natural reaction for the label, it’s also their business plan. While some labels cringe at free downloads, Krenkel embraces it. “We put everything on the site for free with the hopes people like it and buy a record or go to a show. We’d rather they have the record than be shut out. And they’re more likely to tell their friends, too.” Stephanie Laemoa