On Halloween, (that’s October 31st for you non-pagans out there), Chris Scofield and his Portland, Oregon-based Strange Attractors Audio House label will celebrate their fifth anniversary of releasing some of the most important, exciting and challenging listening experiences this reporter has had the pleasure of reviewing. From wyrdfolk (Six Organs of Admittance, Nick Castro) to acoustic folk (Steffen Basho-Junghans, Harris Newman), hard psych (SubArachnoid Space, Vocokesh, Kinski) to floating quitar drones (Cul De Sac, Landing), little of musical consequence in the 21st century has passed the golden ears of Mr. Scofield unnoticed. It’s an honor and a privilege to sit down and uncover what makes Chris tick and what gets him excited enough to run a one-person business in an industry that eats indie labels for breakfast and spits them out with their overbrewed double-espresso lattes.
Haw…I’d like to think that KAOS was made famous by the amazing people who forged the station’s vision in the latter 70’s/early 80’s and beyond – Bruce Pavitt/Sub Pop, Calvin Johnson [K Records], Steve Fisk [producer and member of Pigeonhed and Pell Mell] all had shows there, among many others in the early indie scene, and Op Magazine (later Option) started at KAOS as the program guide. But anyways, yeah, I hosted a show called “Strange Attractors” for about 7½ years, and served as Music Director at the station from 95-96.
I felt that the show embodied the spirit of the station. That is, I strove to program all independent artists (the station to this day has an 80%/20% indie vs. major programming policy), and the artists I broadcast ran the gamut of genre. The one common link in everything I broadcast was the challenging aspect of the music, and that by and large the music came from the heart and soul, rather than piped out of the head. Meaning, the music was honestly and organically challenging, not a product of cold calculation.
I realized that I was more and more drawn towards labels as entities in many ways. I became interested in who was producing the music I loved and their overall aesthetic, especially when a track record was achieved in which I was finding myself buying much of what a label was producing, to the point where it didn’t matter if I heard something first or not – if it was a label I admired, I just bought what they were releasing, no questions asked. I felt compelled to enter that world, and I felt in some ways, being that I am not overtly artistic, the label could and would represent my personal art in some ways. That type of allure, combined with the influence of the incredible independent music that flooded KAOS from all across the globe, from nice studios, bedroom recordings and beyond, forged a dream to start my own label to document music. Hence the “Audio House” appellation attached to Strange Attractors.
The underground was percolating as it perennially seems to do. The music scene per se wasn’t any influence in terms of trying to tap into a trend or capitalize on anything – the timing just seemed to be right, and a few things just happened to come my way at the time that I was interested in.
It’s a mixture of both. In the beginning, I approached The Lowdown, but Steffen Basho-Junghans sort of came my way just at the right moment, responding to an informal invite passed through [Cul De Sac guitarist] Glenn Jones about a year prior. Glenn sent me what became “Song of the Earth” (Sublingual, 2000), looking to see if I had any ideas of people who would be interested, and I was summarily knocked out by it, but not ready to release anything just yet. Steffen wrote me out of the blue at the right time, sent me a bunch of new recordings he had and let me choose. I chose “Inside” as the first release [in 2001], and to this day that album has some of the deepest personal resonance with me of anything I have released on the label. It was the most magical of serendipitous moments for me, and almost acts as a parable to what came after….
By and large, I have been blessed with artists coming my way. It has been tremendously flattering. Cul de Sac, SubArachnoid Space, Vocokesh, Paik, Thuja, Bright…all found their way to me naturally, in one way or the other, I didn’t hunt them down. Kinski happened because of Ampbuzz, Chris Martin’s solo ambient project he solicited to me, which started the relationship and friendship.
“The Manifestation” by Six Organs of Admittance, however, is an example of a very specific title I sought out – that is my favorite Six Organs recording, and I worked for two years with Ben [Chasney] specifically on reissuing that title and that title only. It blossomed beyond my dreams.
The Resurrection Series is conceived to offer a bit of context to any reissues the label has up its sleeve. It is still on Strange Attractors, so it isn't a seperate label - just a framing of context for anything exhumed, or even for material that never had a proper release in the era it was originally slated for.
The first in the series was "The Manifestation" and, of course, the recent Kinski reissues. In the future, Cul de Sac's first album "ECIM" shall be resurrected. Some others are being conceived…stay tuned. There is no regularity in scheduling, it is as things come before Strange Attractors.
Intellectual Drunks is the new imprint from Chris and Lucy of Kinski. "SpaceLaunch for Frenchie" was originally issued by the band in 1999, and "Be Gentle With the Warm Turtle" was on Pacifico in the US, who shuttered their doors nearly two years ago. The rights for that record reverted back to the band so they own it. Kinski didn't have the means to deal with distribution, so a solution was to co-release it with Intellectual Drunks. It just seemed simpler for all parties involved - they own their material, I help them with my distribution network, and all are happy.
Intellectual Drunks will issue some titles in 2006, and Strange Attractors may be involved in a similar capacity as it is with the Kinski reissues (think unreleased Kinski material and some stuff with Oneida - or so I am told).
Handshake agreements are how I work with the artists. I prefer to forge relationships based on trust, friendship and communication, and want to encourage the artists to have freedom. I’ve been lucky to be able to put out multiple releases by Cul de Sac, SubArachnoid Space, Steffen Basho-Junghans, Kinski, Vocokesh, Landing and Harris Newman. My wish is that they are happy, and if that can come from SAAH then that is fabulous, but if artists wish to work with others for whatever reason that is cool too.
Too many. And the sad thing is it is impossible to listen to everything that comes in, so I need to take that down from the site or alter it a bit. I never thought I would get the onslaught of demos that I have gotten fairly steadily over the past few years. Its mind boggling to me.
Miniscule is the staff – me and me only. I do virtually everything. The only thing that I receive assistance with is graphic design – I hire a really great individual for most of the releases who has been responsible for what I consider wonderful aesthetic direction, someone who works closely with the artist to articulate what they are looking for. Certain projects I hire out independent publicists and radio folks, but the vast majority of the promotional tasks have been performed by me. Bookkeeping, mailorder, website…all me.
I do hold down a day job as Director and Label Manager for NAIL Distribution, an independent music distribution company here in Portland. Obviously the job affords a lot of relevant crossover to the label, which is quite fortunate.
I had wanted to relocate from Olympia to Portland for a while. Olympia was fine and good in the heyday…being there from 1994 was exciting, but things began to fizzle a bit, some of the undercurrent (creative folks, former students of TESC [The Evergreen State College]) began to move away and some of the unpleasant aspects of Olympia and ultra small-town life began to show through. 7½ years had passed and Portland had been beckoning…I'm so glad I ended up here, this is where I want to be for a very long time.
I had been working at K Records for about 4½ years. Yes, I was offered a job at NAIL, so that helped bring me down to Portland as a financial infrastucture was waiting. Olympia was very instrumental in the early development of Strange Attractors, but it was time to move on and relocate to the friendly environs of Portland, a move that I had again been contemplating for a while before it happened. Things just happened to fall in place at the right time, so it was difficult to ignore the signs.
Harris Newman was straight from a demo submission. Now there are two Strange Attractors releases under both of our belts (“Non-Sequiturs” and “Accidents With Nature and Each Other”) with more on the way in 2006 I think. He is a tremendous talent. Ampbuzz was from a demo…, and that lead to working with Kinski on some projects. My introduction to Steffen Basho-Junghans was from a tape of music that Glenn Jones sent to me, and a subsequent email from him a year later. Charlie Schmidt [“Xanthe Terra”] was revealed to me much in the same way, via Glenn (such a matchmaker he is). My introduction to Landing was similar too…Adam Forkner of Yume Bitsu flowed me a copy of “Oceanless” and that is how the relationship with them began. Nick Castro [“Further From Grace”] wrote me out of the blue, and he marks the very first artist that I ever listened to an mp3 of online as a submission he gave and made a decision that way. He’d been on my radar screen anyways, because I had heard his name bandied about, but had not heard his music yet.
Besides the aforementioned, and exempting The Lowdown and Six Organs of Admittance, literally every one else on the label approached me either by submitting a letter and a recording, or emailing me. Hard to fathom, and to me as a fan of so many of the artists I work with prior to a working relationship being forged, it is highly flattering.
Booking is not my department (nor is it of most labels) – bands field that stuff either on their own or via a booking agent. I’ve helped communicate to booking agents and send packages, however, and continue to do so. In terms of promoting the tour, yes that is my responsibility. In some cases I have given advances to bands so they can get on the road.
I’ve turned down submissions from artists with established names out there, much to my surprise and dismay, only because I couldn’t get behind the music for whatever reason. I just didn’t dig it. One or two I was regrettably too slow to respond to, but only regrettably in a selfish sense as these artists have gone on to work with labels I admire. In each case, it has nothing to do at all with “reputation.” As for my current stable of artists, I haven’t turned down anything that was requested of me to my knowledge. I’ve dug it all!
I have input in terms of sequence and artwork from time to time, but it is usually part of the dialogue and not from any sort of mandate I slam down. I’m basically the executive producer so I offer direction where necessary. It is important to me to be a conduit, offer advice where requested and chime in on a few aesthetic points, but never to the point of squelching the artsts’ vision. “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their Strange Attractors disc.” Pretty true!
Well, I do have national distribution beyond the niche-oriented outlets, and I do have a list of press folks that is expansive in which I evaluate every release to see if it warrants submission to outlets that cater to those beyond the cozy niche SAAH may find itself in. Lately, and again where warranted, I have employed publicists to assist in the cause. Mostly though, the evolution of the label has been slow and deliberate based on what I am releasing finding the right folks and letting the rest run its course.
Oh sure, plenty. I mean, that could be as extensive as anywhere from Popol Vuh to Dirty Three to Robbie Basho to Ghost or Jack Rose or something. Hard to really finger anyone today as I wouldn’t try to snipe anyone away from another label. But working backward…if they weren’t already reissued, I’d say Popol Vuh with a bullet, that is one of my favorite bands of all time. And perhaps, Basho or Sandy Bull or something. Max Ochs actually is a good one, but he is resurfacing lately thanks to the amazing guitar solo compilation “Imaginational Anthem Vol. 1” that just came out…. [Note that this Near Mint release also includes performances from SAAH artists Glenn Jones and Harris Newman, as well as contributions from Bull, John Fahey and Jack Rose. See our review here.]
Mailorder is brisk. Perhaps 10% of sales come from direct mailorder from the site. MP3s absolutely have contributed to the spread of information and therefore sales for my stuff.
Oh, I’ve seen the need to create a comp, believe me – lamentably I just haven’t gotten around to it! I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with my release schedule the past 2-3 years, quite honestly. Hard to say no when, to me, every release screams “yes!” MP3s certainly help but you have to rely on folks coming to you, rather than a sampler that can go to the people. Thanks for reminding me, I do need to get an SAAH comp out there someday….
Key, of course. It helps get the word of mouth started. Its amazing to see which publications have impact on awareness.
I honestly don’t really know, but it is cool to think that may be the case…I dunno, does it? I certainly feel that way about some labels I admire, that they have this magnetism from mystique, so therefore it would be flattering if SAAH has aspects of that in play. But it isn’t for me to say.
To document honest, challenging music that moves me, in order to help spread the word to others. If someone discovers an artist or band I work with that they didn’t know of before, and became a fan, and told friends – mission accomplished for me. Subsequent to that, I just want my artists to be happy and content. I guess I am simple.
-- Jeff Penczak (1 July, 2006)