Purveyors of Escapism

Lawrence Lazarou, Jim Colvill and Jamie Johns in pursuit of modern music and antiquated ideals.

The “play kingdom” of Social Registry

Text by Matthew Nestel
Photographs by Lane Coder

On a summer afternoon, Greenpoint is the Brooklyn-enclave of Polish natives gobbling kielbasa and pierogies between cigarette drags. Closer down toward the water is an old pencil factory fit with oversized wooden carpenter pencils built into the body of the building. The landmark was the first place in the U.S. where erasers were affixed onto the ends of pencils. It has since been converted into a madcap domain filled with busybodies running on the irrepressible fuel of imagination. Need an originally restored Beatles poster from Melbourne ’64? There’s a guy down the hall that will furnish the request.

A few floors up a freight elevator one will find a white room with wooden flooring freshly coated red, hit magically by natural light and filled to the brim with records, books and a handful of people tapping keys on snazzy G5s on top of fallout-friendly warhead–deflecting 1950’s steel desks. Fresh rare vinyl tunes are spinning. Welcome to the Social Registry record label. Their motto: Modern Music and Antiquated Ideals.

Co-president Rich Zerbo is from Brooklyn but harder to track down than a KGB operative. A less eccentric Willy Wonka, Zerbo hopes this office remains a play kingdom; the staunch rules of the outside need not apply. Given the tight confines of previous years, the expansive room is not overrated. “In our old space, we were so on top of each other,” says Zerbo. “It was awesome because I’d lay out artwork for upcoming albums and everybody in the room got involved. That still happens a lot, actually.”

Hailing from Delaware, co-president Joe Gaer boasts of living for over a year in the Czech Republic when it was still called Czechoslovakia. Loyal to his Jersey City radio statio WFMU as DJ on-call, Gaer carries a countenance that could get into Mensa blindfolded if he would actually bother to take the test. He is a fill-in-the-blanks kind of guy. Gaer describes what makes the Social Registry special. “The label borrows from the past but updates it for today without trying to make it feel as though it is of the now. In other words, it will not be grouped into whatever flavor-of-the-month design. We use quite a bit of imagery that is in the public domain but take it somewhere new.”
A knock on the door and behold, Thomas and a pregnant Fern of Brooklynphono (a local rare-record pressing company) arrive bearing a fresh batch of cookies in exchange for stealing Jamie Johns, intern and recent high school graduate. Johns shares gopher duties at both the label and at the Sunset Park–based record pressing company.
“We were pressing in the West Coast and the South and they were all doing horrible jobs,” says Zerbo. “We were running into all of these problems and then I discovered these two idealists in Sunset Park that are trying to make records. At one point we were one of six clients. And a year later we were one of 60.” On the back of the Social Registry’s records, Brooklynphono inscribes, “Manufactured with care.” Others have since adopted verbatim this gesture of gratitude.

Merch and Art Workers
Zerbo revels in the chance to hit the silkscreens with the bands just before they take to their tours. They usually procrastinate until the 11th hour on a Friday night and hustle until 6 a.m. cranking out T-shirts. “Blood on the Wall is always fun to work with,” Zerbo adds. “Their last tour with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they had someone else do their T-shirts. And I was really glad they did that. But part of me was hurt because it’s usually our time to bro down before they hit the road.”

From merchandise sold during concerts to album cover art, Gaer considers the process to be collaborative. “Many of the bands have either artists in the band or friends who are the artists,” he says. “They usually have ideas or artwork and they come in and we start figuring out the layout.”

Zerbo considers the process of presentation to evolve as the music takes its form. “Sitting down with an artist or band making decisions about how we are going to present the music to the masses is very much the end of a long process, with all of those decisions being very much grounded in the preceding months, if not years. I would say that there are certain records which we have released that – when looking at the genesis of the idea for the record, the recording, the sensibilities from which the release took shape, when thinking about the actual physical packing – it can seem to be the weakest link.”

Glimpses of classic and modern are married into the final design. TK Webb’s new album Phantom Parade, illustrated by Brian DeGraw from Gang Gang Dance, bears a sublime drawing of Webb that blends a geological formation with a rearview glimpse of his head. The packaging, according to Gaer, will encase the CD “in a less common paper

Artanker Convoy opts for a risqué picture of a female dancer’s torso tracking back to late-’60s and early-’70s jazz/funk album covers. Gaer mentions a host of 12-inches from their catalogue that will continue to integrate silkscreen into their visual repertoire. Bands like Vietnam, Telepathe and Blood Lines fall into this sect. Gaer also points to the Interface 12-inch that is going to be released. “This is music that was recorded in the early ’80s and was a part of the whole downtown New York scene, but it never had an official release until now,” he explains. “The artwork harks back to the sort of collage, wheat-pasted posters that were all over place back then.”

Ergo Sum
It seems as though the Social Registry bands (who all live in New York) pledge their devotion to one another’s success. Each faithfully attends their fellow band’s shows and DJ sessions. The musicians are quite distinct in sound, yet they share enough similarities that they consistently exchange ideas and even get romantically involved. “It occurred to me recently when the drummer from the Electroputas and the guitarist from the Psychic Ills got engaged,” says Zerbo. “I was like, ‘Huh!’ And then the bassist from the Psychic Ills started dating the bassist from Jah Division and I thought that was a little weird.”

Maybe the nod to the thick past dipped in today’s sprinkles distinguishes the Social Registry from the pack. “At times,” says Zerbo, I have drunkenly described it as modernity in decline or something to that effect – self-aware, and often trying to allude to an era that exists solely in writings and folklore, not so much to celebrate some time which we cannot even begin to suggest we are connected to, but to try to whimsically pretend that we can detach ourselves from the context we exist in.”

Gaer adds, “It is just like listening to music that you love but better, because you had a hand in seeing it come to the public. We didn’t do the heavy lifting but hopefully when that little LP stumbles into the record stores, people will think we did a good job of nurturing it and that it will be a good addition to their family.”

The Real
Six years ago Gaer and Zerbo frequently crossed paths at Brooklyn’s illegal art spaces where bands would perform on the q.t. The duo then verbally decided they were going to “do this for real.” The first two years they ran the label in a downtown Brooklyn brownstone with zero ventilation and even less natural light while trying to avoid vitriol from “two very patient roommates.” Then the AM Radio album was released and the label got on the scoreboard. Through the best and the worst of times, the two have come to realize that they have a knack for hatching album-oriented records that are less about hits and more about timeless drifts. Each record offers a robust listening experience. Zerbo faithfully believes “that’s what records are supposed to do.”

The clamor to keep the ears tuned in to come back for more is no small feat given the saturation of the market and the mundane and overplayed mainstream tracks on radio waves. However, the daunting mission to cut the kind of visuals and handmade sounds often found in the deep recesses of the unconscious finds a portal (however momentarily) when a Social Registry album and its art go to Sunset Park to be pressed. And the band and its family play on.


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