Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Interview: Michael Jantz of Avant Archive

This marks the first interview feature for Auxiliary Out Redux; there are more in the works that will hopefully be realized soon. Enjoy!

Avant Archive is in it's second year of operation and has amassed quite a diverse and interesting catalog. The label has most recently released tapes by the likes of Talk West, Bret Schneider, HMS and as well as double-cassettes by mainstays Sean McCann and Ajilvsga. The label's founder Michael Jantz (known musically as Black Eagle Child) was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

Auxiliary Out: What is the origin story of Avant Archive?

Michael Jantz: I think it's common to fantasize about doing a label. You know, "It would be cool to do this or that". So like a lot of folks working with music, I had the fantasy and so finally I realized I could probably make it work. I have been in touch with a lot of tremendously talented and friendly folks over the last few years while doing music as Black Eagle Child, and so naturally when I wanted to launch the label, I called on a few of them to contribute. Some of the first invites have yet to be responded to in full, but a handful of them have already been realized in full and I've also come in contact with new friends since last year when I started the label and lots of exciting stuff is planned.

AO: Unlike nearly every microlabel out there, you don't do one-time limited editions, what's the inspiration behind that?

MJ: The collectibility of a lot of new and interesting music is a bit unnerving. It's not a new topic for discussion, but I think it bears reiterating. It seems that plenty of artists are publishing music that becomes physically inaccessible within a week or two of the music's official release. I understand the financial entanglements that I suppose necessitates this situation, but I also think that a little patience and good faith can help to combat it. So far I've only done reprints of two (of the, at the time of this interview, 14) catalog titles. The funds for these certainly could have been channeled into new releases, but I am not interested in creating a giant catalog of music that isn't available. I want to create a catalog of music that represents a certain array of artists that I find interesting, and I want the catalog to be accessible from now to the indefinite future. I realize that with the proliferation of music blogs and torrents, nothing is every truly out-of-reach. However, I think (and especially in the case of experimental and underground music listeners) that there are people who would like more than a potentially low-grade digital copy of a work. It's in the spirit of supporting and promoting forward-thinking music that a listener should be able to purchase a copy of an album, rather than download it due to its unnecessary physical unavailability.

AO: Visually, AA releases bear a lot of resemblance to each other. Do you feel like Avant Archive has a certain or recognizable "sound"?

MJ: No. I don't really want to let the label become pigeonholed, so to speak. I know and love plenty of labels that have done a great job with showcasing a certain sound (right now a lot of labels are doing a lot of synthesizer music), and sometimes it's nice to know what to expect with a label or a new artist that label is presenting. But with Avant Archive I want to keep the scope broad and offer music that is simply good and interesting, regardless of the style or genre category the music might be pushed into by listeners or critics. I listen to all kinds of music for pleasure, so it would be probably very difficult for me to only release music that met a set of specific, banal prerequisites. If I like a demo, then it has potential for release on Avant Archive.

AO: Where did the visual look for AA come from?

MJ: I designed it myself with some kind of amalgamated vision that's a result of seeing certain book editions and record cover editions. In 2010 I worked on a split cassette for the label Digitalis Limited (a tape shared between Mike Pouw's Knit Prism and myself, as W.A. Munson). I did the layout and design for the j-card and it really kind of thrilled me to work on it. I like the b&w look and I also like the very library-like template that allows for both uniformity or cohesion and also some unique and potentially very powerful or interesting visuals. So that's more or less how the 'look' was born. I initially wanted to keep it very rigid, but since launching the label I've become more relaxed and realized that I can stray pretty far from the original layout and still maintain a nice cohesive aesthetic across all the releases. Future editions will break drastically from the current b&w cassette layout, though I will always maintain it as a 'standard' for many of the catalog items.

AO: You offer free streaming of every Avant Archive release, what prompted the decision to do that?

MJ: Well this sort of follows on the heels of the idea of a permanently-available edition. I don't want any of the titles to ever be unavailable from the label, but I'm also financially unable to order more copies of every release as stocks are depleted. I will eventually restock physical titles, but the time frame inside which I do that will vary. So as a solution I have created the digital section, which I then realized would be a great way to just allow people to listen to the release entirely if they would like (without purchasing, or prior to). The streaming is really an added bonus or an afterthought to the download function. You can opt to download an album for a fee, or else just stream it for free. And if you like what you hear so much that you want to order a physical copy, then great! Perhaps total streaming availability will eliminate 2nd hand sales of Avant Archive tapes because nobody will ever be disappointed with a purchase ever again!

AO: What about the "Artists Page"?

MJ: This was sort of done without thought. I think one of the elements that defines a label is the group of artists it brings into the fold. And I think it's important to give potential listeners or patrons of the label a chance to read the label's description of the artists it’s working with. My description of a particular artist should be unique to my perspective, which I channel through the label. It's an opportunity for me to explain what's great about artist X and to justify the existence of that artist's album in the label's catalog.

AO: What is it about an artist or release that makes you say "I want to put this out"? Or "what qualities attract you to an artist or release?" may be a better way to phrase it.

MJ: Things so far have fallen into three categories: 1. music made by folks I've been in touch with (friends) and whose music I enjoy; 2. music made by people whose music I've admired for a long time but have not yet spoken with; 3. music submitted by strangers via demos. So in the first case, it's pretty straightforward; a friend is doing a cool music project and I want to work with the person. In a perfect world, this would be the case 90% of the time. However there are a lot of labels and folks are busy. Also, it's good to let some new voices enter the stage. In the case of putting out music by people I don't know yet (either someone whose music or project I'm already familiar with or not), I think the most important thing is that I enjoy the music and I can envision others doing the same. Like there is no formulaic approach for targeting a sound aesthetic, there can't really be a distinct method for picking what music gets put out. If I like the music and the person is interested in working with me, then we will likely be good to go.

AO: Are there any releases you're extra proud of or particularly excited you got to release?

MJ: I don't think it's fair to pick one or two above the rest, because honestly I am very proud of all of them and I think they're all excellent contributions to both the label's catalog and the global music community. BUT I will say that I was particularly excited to put out the first catalog title, which is my own "Born Underwater"/"The Arquebus". I'd been waiting for the perfect opportunity to put these out and then it came. I had only submitted the demo for this tape to a few labels back in 2007/2008 and not surprisingly, got no response from anyone! But over the following years, I spent a lot of time listening to and relistening to these tracks. I'm glad to finally have them out in a respectable edition and one I feel entirely satisfied with, since of course, I handled every aspect of the production. I'm also right now eagerly awaiting the delivery of the label's first vinyl edition, a 7" record by the band Horse Marriage. It's been a thrill to do a vinyl project and having 'broken my cherry' so to speak, I now feel pretty excited about tackling more projects like this in the future. I'll also mention that the 7" rocks hard! As much as I love working on experimental music, I am also very excited about working on a full-fledged rock'n'roll record.

AO: That makes for an easy segway into my next question. "Born Underwater"/"The Arquebus" are probably my favorite Black Eagle Child recordings. You sort of covered this, but why did they sit on the shelf so long? They seem to stand out or separate themselves from most of your catalog.

MJ: Well it was recorded at a time when I didn't have a very concrete vision of how Black Eagle Child should sound. Albeit, I didn't really form that vision until after putting out a good dozen or so cassettes of music under the name. After a certain point I felt like the stuff was too different from everything else I was doing that I couldn't see putting it out alongside the rest of my rather pastoral catalog. But then I realized I could do it on my own label because I could kind of explain it myself. And I think now that I justify it by saying that it is still largely guitar music, and Black Eagle Child is predominantly a guitar project.

AO: You mentioned you've got a 7inch by Horse Marriage coming out soon but all of your releases thus far have been on cassette tape. Are you pretty dedicated to the cassette format or do you intend to do predominantly vinyl releases down the road?

MJ: Similar to my views on playing and recording music, I am opposed to the purist approach in music publishing. I am a proponent of the Rooseveltism, "do what you can with what you have". So while I love cassettes and the possibilities they offer, I also think CD and vinyl are terrific formats. I think it's unfortunate that formats go in and out of fashion, though I suppose I owe my realization that cassettes are a viable format to the fact that cassettes are now in fashion. But trends aside, I think that all formats have their own benefits and selling points. Down the road, I would like to be able to pick a format that I think most fits the music that I'm publishing. So a couple of 40-minute pieces will obviously not fit on an LP, even if (fingers crossed) I could just decide to do an LP version of any given release. Just an example there...some stuff is great on CD, I think. The vinyl record is considered by many as the king of music media, but I think that's a little simplistic. So no, I don't think I would do vinyl predominantly, but I do want to do more projects on media other than cassette.

AO: You're last few releases (HMS, Bret Schneider, Talk West) were from artists unknown to my ears, how did you come across them?

MJ: All three of those were instances in which someone contacted the label to inquire about submitting a demo. So they were all pretty straightforward and easy; simple introduction, here are some samples or our demo, and then we would talk about what would potentially become a release in the label's catalog. I think I've been fortunate so far in that I've not got too many demo submissions that I've turned down (i.e. I have had some pretty excellent demo submissions!).

AO: They're all very different but really good.

MJ: Thanks...I would have to agree with you. I like keeping the sound varied.

AO: Do you see any of those as in line with previous releases you've put out? Do you ever choose releases with the intention to stake out new territory for the label?

MJ: I don't really think too strategically about the catalog, except for one avenue, which is simply that I don't want to put out too much of the same kind of music. I have a loathing for genres and categories as much as anyone, but in the case of operating a label I think it's important to be aware of the categories into which people will inevitably put the music that you're producing. So I try to be mindful of what I've done and what's on the slate for near-future and I try not to give any critic or listener any grounds for pigeonholing the label with some term that would serve to oversimplify my mission.

AO: What are some of your favorite labels? How much does your personal engagement with other labels influence your work with AA?

MJ: My desire to start a label was definitely born from watching some of my favorite labels grow and turn into these incredibly inspiring and impressive entities. For the last few years I've been obsessed with Stunned Records (no doubt many other folks have as well). Stunned is probably the sole underground label that has time and again wowed me. Also, Housecraft records, owing largely to the fact that Jeff has released so much of his own music on that label, as well as the many collaborations and solo efforts happening in his neck of the woods. Digitalis was the one label that actually opened my eyes to a lot of underground music. I don't think any other label is doing the same as Digitalis right now, in terms of volume and quality...they just put out a lot of great music on a frequent basis. I'm also a long-time fan of the Rephlex label, and I kind of revel in a lot of aspects of that label, including the minimal production specs and a lot of the 'mysterious' releases they've produced over the last 20 years. Roll Over Rover is another fave, owing to my ties with the folks running that label...they're just super-nice guys and their putting out great tunes that I've spent a lot of time with over the past couple of years. I could probably list dozens of excellent labels, but those are some that have been consistently excellent.

AO: Do you feel like AA is line with other labels, for instance a number of the artists on AA have released music on Stunned and/or Digitalis. Is there any sort of comraderie or, perhaps on the other hand, competition that develops when you share a "stable" of artists?

MJ: I think the overlap is pretty evident among many labels working in this realm, and I definitely want to let Avant Archive be something more than "just another tape label" or whatever it might appear to be to the untrained eye. I do enjoy a lot of what's happening on these other labels, but I also think there are artists who, for whatever reason, are not getting any voice, but whose music is every bit as incredible. So while I like to work with artists who are already established in the music community, I also think that working with new artists is probably more important. I think, "If I don't put this out, who will?", and it is something that really deserves listeners' attention. And I suppose my hope is that some of these new voices will be then welcomed into this mystical stable of artists!

I also think that it shouldn't matter what an artist's back-catalog looks like...listeners should listen to a sample (or the whole album, if you want) and decide from that basis whether or not you want to buy a tape or record. I'm sort of unnerved by the circumstances we sometimes create in which we foster wild proliferation of a certain handful of artists' discographies, which then 'dominate the scene' so to speak, while new voices are unheard because they aren't 'abuzz' right now. I don't claim to 'solve' this, but I do want to do my best to make the music the most important part of why I operate the label.

AO: Any music been wowing you recently?

MJ: Well the last two Super Minerals tapes (both on Stunned) have been on frequent rotation, as has another couple recent Stunned tapes. One is a split between Nite Lite & Waterfinder. Really I've been digging hard on the Nite Lite side, but the whole tape is pretty grand. Then also the summerTales/Knit Prism split, equally great. Then also the newer 2xCD by Lionel Marchetti called Une Saison, issued on Monotype (literally wowed me...just floored me on first listen!). Not on the WOW scale, really, but I've also been listening to the Art Museums LP a lot, and plenty of Chris Weisman, Kurt Weisman, Happy Birthday, and Ruth Garbus.

AO: What's next for Avant Archive?

MJ: Definitely more cassettes. Cassettes from Hakobune, Olli Aarni, Jeremy Bible & Jason Henry, Keith Fullerton Whitman, Bjerga/Iverson, Travis Johnson & Jeph Jerman and a few other less-certain but equally awesome artists. I've invited a guest photographer/designer to contribute to some of the future editions also, which I'm very excited about. Upcoming 7" lathe-cut acetates from Will Long and Fabio Orsi. Then there will be a CD edition of a live performance from He Can Jog, including a remix by another existing Avant Archive alumnus. Finally of course there are some very exciting things I'm not quite ready to share...but hopefully 2012 will be excellent.

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