badge photo from Unpopular’s flickr
Nineteen years ago Slumberland Records set up shop in Silver Spring, Maryland around the peak of the Washington, DC hardcore scene. At the time the label was like this little beacon of light that soon became much brighter. Kids who read the UK music weeklies and bought a lot of imports from labels like Creation, Rough Trade, Sarah, and Flying Nun discovered this new US label that was releasing records that could have easily been on any one of those labels. Early singles by the Swirlies, Honeybunch, Small Factory, Lorelei and Whorl were soon followed by albums from the Lilys, Stereolab, Sleepyhead and Boyracer. All of sudden Slumberland was on par with the labels that had influenced it. During the past 19 years Slumberland has been run by one guy, Mike Schulman. The history of the label is an interesting story, starting on the east coast and then relocating to the west coast. It also went through a mysterious dormant phase where there were a few years that went by without any releases. A lot of people assumed that Schulman had decided to put Slumberland to rest. But like a phoenix from the pyre, the label has been reborn in recent years. It started as a trickle with a couple singles in 2006 and then an album by the Lodger last year and now it’s a full-on gusher with numerous singles and albums this year including some of the year’s best like the Crystal Stilts, Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Sexy Kids. Next year promises to be just as good with eagerly anticipated albums from Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Bricolage. No doubt about it, Slumberland is back and better than ever! What brought on this resurgence and what was behind the dormancy at the beginning of this decade? I was curious about all of this and I figured a lot of other people were as well. I emailed Mike and he graciously agreed to answer some questions.
Back in 1989 in DC, and the rest of the US for that matter, there were very few labels putting out music that was influenced by the UK. I know my record buying habits around that time consisted of a lot of UK imports. What was it like back then as far as the DC music scene for bands like Velocity Girl and Black Tambourine as far as getting gigs and putting out records?
Let’s just say we were fighting an uphill battle to get stuff accomplished. We never tried to do too much with Black Tambourine since it was kind of a side project for everyone but Pam, but Velocity Girl and Whorl were quite active, and it was something of a challenge early on to find some sort of a niche. We were all into UK and NZ imports, and there were some really good shops in the area handling that stuff so there were other people that shared our interests, but not a lot of fellow bands or labels that into that stuff. Hardcore and post-hardcore was still pretty happening, and there were a fair few bands that were kind of straight-up college rock who were looking to break big. The fact that both Whorl and VG started out being noisier bands influenced also by NYC noise/lower east side stuff probably helped us ease in with people a bit. There was really only one club, DC Space, that would consistently book our bands, but boy did they. I’m very grateful for the support Cynthia Connolly there gave us; I’m not sure the label would have happened without it.
When you started Slumberland nearly 20 years ago, was it just you or was it more of a group effort? How was Vinyl Ink owner George Gelestino involved?
It was more of a group effort when we started, but the other folks who helped out were mostly in Velocity Girl, so when they got bigger and were on the road a lot, I kind of absorbed most of the work. By the time I moved to California I was pretty much doing the label by myself and so there’s wasn’t a lot of discussion about whether I’d continue doing it.
George wasn’t directly involved with the label, but he was EXTREMELY supportive and gracious about letting me do label work on his time from the shop, and did lend me some money on occasion when things were tight. He really liked the bands and his general desire to support music he liked and educate customers (and his employees!) did a lot to help us build an audience and broaden all of our horizons about music.
What was the impetus to move out to the bay area from DC?
At the time I moved all of my bands had kind of stopped playing and I didn’t really have anything cooking so the idea of moving *somewhere* seemed appealing. I considered Providence and NYC pretty seriously, but I made a trip out to Berkeley to visit and ex-girlfriend and immediately decided on the Bay Area. No regrets whatsoever – it’s great out here!
In 1996 you started another label called Drop Beat which focused on drum n’ bass and techno music. This seemed to roughly coincide with Slumberland’s release schedule slowing down. Were there any life changing experiences that caused the shift in focus or just a need for something different?
I don’t think there was any real connection between the two. I’ve always been interested in lots of different kinds of music (and have the ridiculous record collection to show for it), but in the early-to-mid-90s i did get totally turned-on by developments in techno (especially Detroit techno) and jungle. The store that I worked at in Berkeley (Mod Lang) was really resistant to moving in that direction, so another employee there (Ryan Cone) and I decided to go out on our own and focus a shop and label on that music. Around the same time, a lot of Slumberland bands were breaking up or taking breaks (The Ropers, Henry’s Dress, Lorelei) or moving on to bigger labels (Lilys, Sleepyhead) and I found myself with not much to put out, and I wasn’t hearing a whole lot of new stuff I was really fired up about. So I guess it was sort of a perfect storm that all of this happened around the same time, but I wouldn’t say that doing Drop Beat in any way diminished Slumberland.
Slumberland has kind of gone through a resurgence in the last few years, what was it that seemingly got you interested again in indie music?
Basically it stems from hearing a lot of new bands that I really like. I went through a pretty long period of being burned out on the label and all the work involved, and also just not hearing a lot that got me super-excited. Then in 2005 and 2006 I started hearing bands like Cause Co-Motion!, The Lodger, Good Shoes, Sarandon – really great guitar bands with an exciting take on the music I liked. I had the Crabapples and How singles in the can for a while and wasn’t able to get them done for personal reasons. So mid-2006 I decided to do those singles and make a new website, and response was very positive! So I decided to maybe try and do a few other records. I loved The Lodger’s “Let Her Go” single and wrote to see if they’d want to do a single for us. They offered us the compilation album, and that just got the ball rolling again. Now we are unstoppable!
Geography aside, technology today gives everyone the same tools for finding new bands to release. Are there ever any indie label bidding wars for bands? Or do you have any juicy stories about ‘signing’ (or not signing) a band to Slumberland?
I’m sure some bigger labels do end up in bidding wars, but I don’t participate in that sort of thing at all. I only want to work with bands who share our ideals about the DIY spirit and community, and who want to be a part of the Slumberland community specifically. So the bands that are interested in joining us generally are pretty down with what we do and aren’t looking for a pile of money. There are some notable examples of having talked to some pretty well-known bands about doing records and not having it work out for various reasons, usually money, but I don’t think I can share any names. There are also some funny examples of discovering demo tapes in our stacks from bands who went on to be really big – Sigur Ros sent Drop Beat a demo, Devendra Banhart sent SLR one, and there’s more. Not that I necessarily would have released records by those bands, but it’s just sort of funny to see my “i don’t have time to listen to demos” policy backfire like that.
Slumberland is you putting out records you like. Everything on the label has a similar aesthetic, has there ever been a time where there’s been something that you wanted to release, but didn’t because it didn’t really ‘go’ with what Slumberland is about? I guess you could say that was the reason behind Drop Beat, but are there any other genres of music you’ve considered starting another label for?
When we started the label the bands were much noisier and more abstract, and I always think about broadening out more in that direction again. It’s really hard with a label as small as SLR, people (press and fans) get to expect a certain sound from a tiny label and any deviation is punished. And that’s understandable in a way – small labels usually have a pretty specific aesthetic and rely on hewing to that niche to find an audience. Nobody expects labels as big as Merge and Sub Pop to put out stuff that all sounds the same, but a label like ours releasing something like No Age would just be baffling to most observers. I’ve seen a lot of that with the reaction to the Crystal Stilts record. Now, that is not an indie-pop record – the people in the band may be conversant with that kind of music, but I just don’t think they make indie-pop themselves. But so many of the reviews come at them from the angle that Slumberland is “twee” (which is a ludicrous idea), or that we’re somehow following in Sarah’s slipstream, so therefore Crystal Stilts must be twee. Or indie-pop. Or something. Pretty funny stuff.
I’m constantly amazed at the sheer number of quality bands today. How would you compare the current indie pop scene with the one in the late 80’s and early 90’s? Is it easier or harder to find stuff you want to put out?
Oh, i think it’s about the same. The hard part is narrowing down all the possibilities and just focussing on a few bands at a time. Long ago I realized that I just can’t put out records by all the bands that I like, so I have to choose bands that really hit a special chord with me. Now with new ways to find bands like MySpace, it’s even harder to keep things manageable. It’s a good problem to have.
I know that you have a music blog, offer mp3’s for download of bands on the label, and do podcasts on the Slumberland web site. What is your opinion of the music blogosphere and what is you philosophy on people posting mp3 and sometimes the entire album? In other words, is there no so such thing as bad publicity or is there a point where it’s counterproductive?
I freely distribute MP3s to blogs and other web sites – I think it’s a great way to reach potential listeners and much more concrete that just having someone post a review. i think that letting punters hear some of the music before buying is the best way to get across what a record is about. That said, I’m a little less than thrilled about people just posting up whole albums, especially before release. I think that makes it too easy for people to indulge in their more unsavory urges. I know that people who want to download an album for free will find a way, but as an album-blogger don’t tell me that you’re helping me in some way by posting my albums to your blog, especially without any context. review or link to purchase.
This is my record geek question about the Slumberland catalog. Whatever happened to the McTells’ Smash Up/Cut Up ? Did that ever get released anywhere? I loved the stuff that they put out on Vinyl Japan.
Both of the albums came out on vinyl – “Smash Up” on Frank and “Cut Up” on Little Teddy (I think, working from memory here). That project just kind of petered out for some reason. I was waiting on some artwork, then one of the guys moved and my letters didn’t get forwarded, and we just lost track of each other. I love those albums, I wish the comp had worked out.