The Swarm

October 11, 2012

A Rational Conversation: Light in the Attic's Matt Sullivan on Making Undiscovered Music Relevant Today...

Eric Ducker

A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.

Over the past decade, the Light in the Attic label has gained beloved status among music connoisseurs for its practice of releasing gorgeous reissues of under-loved albums from the likes of Betty Davis, Gabor Szabo, Karen Dalton, Jane Birkin, and Ray Stinnett – but 2012 has proven an especially banner year for the indie imprint. The increased interest stems from the success of the label’s two Rodriguez reissues following the acclaim of this year’s Searching for Sugar Man documentary; in addition, Light in the Attic released what might be the unexpected breakout album of the moment in Donnie & Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild, an objet trouvé masterpiece of beguiling, unwittingly experimental soft rock recorded in the ‘70s by two Washington State teenage farm boys. Dreamin’ Wild garnered massive coverage beyond the expected music-blogging frontliners, appearing everywhere from major-media outlets like The New York Times and L.A. Times to tastemaker mainstays like Pitchfork. Meanwhile, Donnie & Joe Emerson’s affecting ballad “Baby” – which could have been a Bieber smash in a different era – even turned into a minor hit via a loving cover version by Ariel Pink, who claimed that ”‘Baby’ has been a staple on just about every playlist/mixtape I’ve assembled in the past 3 years. It is nothing short of sublime.”

That momentum continues to bubble. Last month, Light in the Attic held a tenth anniversary show in Los Angeles featuring Rodriguez, Michael Chapman, and Shin Joong Hyun; on October 12, 2012, they will host a show in Seattle with nearly the same lineup, but swapping a rare Donnie & Joe Emerson appearance for Hyun. Below, Ducker and Light in the Attic founder and co-owner Matt Sullivan discuss how to best make undiscovered, sometimes forgotten music from another time relevant to today’s tastes and economy.

Eric Ducker: Do you feel engaged with contemporary culture? On one hand, you’re immersed in the world of the past, but by reissuing it, you want people living in the present to engage with and purchase it. How do you keep it from just being a nostalgia thing?

Matt Sullivan: That’s one thing we really try to avoid, but it’s hard. Quite often, it’s an uphill battle: our job is to educate people why these records from the past are relevant today. There is always a collector audience, but our goal is to reach a younger audience as well as an older audience one who didn’t know about this artist for one reason or another. We always try to think of ways to engage a younger audience; that may be by having certain people write the liner notes, or having artists cover the songs. We’ve done the tribute or remix thing a few times, but I’m not always crazy about that. One of our first projects was we reissued the music of The Free Design, who were a 1960s pop group, and we did a remix cover series with everybody from Danger Mouse and Peanut Butter Wolf to Super Furry Animals and members of Stereolab and Belle & Sebastian. That did help reach a younger audience, but I don’t think it did as well as we would’ve liked. It was hard on the artists since there were no master tapes, and they had to go off the vinyl – there weren’t separated tracks and things like that. Now we’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of the label with a seven-inch series, released both physically and digitally, where the A-side is a contemporary cover of a song that we’ve reissued in the last ten years and the flipside is the original. We had Iggy Pop and this band Zig Zags who are on Mexican Summer cover a Betty Davis song, and on the other side is the Betty Davis original; Mark Lanegan is doing a Karen Dalton song, and Ariel Pink and DāM-FunK are doing a Donnie & Joe Emerson song. We’re doing those as a seven-inch series so they can kind of live on their own and not in a compilation, where they can get lost in the shuffle. Within that, it was important not just because of the ten-year mark, but because it shows why these songs are important. The people that you are listening to, these are the songs they are listening to – these are the songs that inspire them to make music.

ED: When you decide what you are going to reissue, do you consider the types of music that people are listening to now, like “If they are into that, then they should know about this”?

MS: No, not at all. We’re not that smart. That’s such a hard thing to gauge. We just put out things that we particularly like. For example, the Donnie & Joe Emerson record has done really well, but when we first heard the album, we didn’t know the backstory or anything; we just knew we wanted to reissue the record. As we were doing it, we found out that Ariel Pink was a fan, so we called him up and he did an interview with Donnie and Joe for our zine. Patrick [McCarthy], who is the project manager over here at the label, suggested that Ariel and DāM-FunK do a cover, and they were totally into the idea.

ED: With Rodriguez, you had the Fresh & Onlys as his backing band when he first started touring in support of that reissue, right?

MS: This guy Britt Govea – who’s behind the (((folkYEAH!))) Presents production company that puts on shows in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Big Sur – was the one who suggested Fresh & Onlys when Rodriguez came to play San Francisco in 2009. Rodriguez didn’t have a backing band, and we were trying to find bands in every city, and fortunately Britt suggested Fresh & Onlys; they were a great fit, musically and personality-wise.

ED: Did it take the Searching for Sugar Man documentary to really make those Rodriguez reissues take off?

MS: Those reissues actually did really well – Cold Fact had sold 20,000 copies since our August 2008 reissue before the movie even came out. In the reissue world, that’s a really good amount of records, but Rodriguez is reaching a whole other audience from that movie: now my 81-year-old aunt in San Diego is going to see him play. I think I first heard Rodriguez in the early 2000s. We went to Detroit and met him around 2005 or 2006, but we didn’t know there was a documentary in the works; that came later. I think Rodriguez first told us about the documentary in 2007 or 2008, when we were putting together the reissues. When I met Malik Bendjelloul, the film’s director, at a show at Joe’s Pub in New York, I had no idea the documentary would be as good as it was. It’s so hard to make a good film, especially a good music doc. He sent me rough cuts of the film for years, and it turned out so spectacular.

ED: Going back a little bit, why is it important for you that the music connect with a contemporary audience in the first place?

MS: All these records are classic and timeless. These people’s careers, most of them, were failures back in the day, and they didn’t deserve that. If we just simply put them out, only heavy music fans like us would pick them up; that’s great, but the artists’ music deserves so much more than that. None of these artists made music so that some collector in his basement could just hoard it – that wasn’t the point. At least any artist we’re dealing with, they want their music to be heard by kids, and old people, and people of all ages around the world. To us, that’s important. Music should be shared.

ED: Do you listen to modern music?

MS: Yeah, but I’ll be honest: I’m 36, and as I get older, I seem to listen to less of it. Every year, the label’s gotten a little better and more successful. It grows and grows, and then my wife and I just had our first baby four months ago, so it feels like there’s less time in the day to just listen to everything that’s on my plate for the label alone. I really like contemporary music, but for me it’s so overwhelming now. There’s not a label – and there are very few websites, blogs, or magazines – that I can trust as, for lack of a better word, a brand. Back in the day, you could trust certain labels to lead you down this path to discover all these artists, and I feel like there’s not a lot of that now. The Pitchforks and the Mojos, I look at them all the time, and it’s such an overwhelming amount of information and artists: it’s great, but there’s no human in the world who can digest that amount of music. That’s fine – you don’t need to digest every single thing – but I love discovering new sounds, and I lose patience trying to find them.

ED: I understand what you’re saying about being overwhelmed by the amount of music and sounds that are out there now, but you can also look at it the other way: you’re trying go through forty or fifty years of music to find the right reissue, or the next project you want to devote so much time and energy to. That seems equally daunting.

MS: To me, it seems like there was less music then as there is now, but I see what you’re saying. It’s easier to make a record now, and that really is a wonderful thing, but because of that, there are more of them. There’s more music out there, and more film, and more art, and maybe not enough quality. Some people would argue with that. Back in the day, it was so hard to make record or a film, maybe more time went into it, more sacrifice. That’s not to say someone making a record right now isn’t sacrificing – it’s harder than ever now to make a living on it. I commend anyone who is able to do their art now and can pay their bills with it. The Internet is, of course, a huge part of our process. The person who turned us on to Donnie & Joe Emerson heard their music through someone else, who discovered it through the Web, where it ended up, more or less, from that guy Jack Fleischer, who found it in a thrift store and put it online. The Jim Sullivan record, I found that through the Waxidermy blog. Thank god for those types of people.

ED: I know you’re doing these anniversary shows in Los Angeles and Seattle, but did you ever think about taking them to a college town to see what would happen?

MS: Taking it to Tucson, Arizona as an experiment would be wonderful, but we need to win the lottery first. Logistically, it’s been so difficult just to get two shows. The average age of the performers at the Los Angeles show was like 71 or 72 years old, but there were a lot of young people there, which was nice to see.

ED: Would you like to see reissues play a larger part in the landscape of contemporary listening?

MS: Definitely. I think reissues are looked down upon, just because they are from the past, but I do believe they deserve to have a bigger impact on the world of today. It’s all about educating people: some kid who’s fourteen years old and just getting into music, why should he care about Donnie & Joe Emerson? Someone has to explain it to them, or just play them the music, and that’s not so easy when there’s so much stuff out there. People want things that are from their generation and their moment, and I understand that. There’s nothing like watching something unfold right before your eyes: you feel much more part of it than listening to or looking at something from the past. But quite often, what these albums are about – lyrically or musically – is just as relevant now as it was then. A lot of the time, what was first is frequently the best.

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