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Electronic Flora

Erik Gilbert, label manager of Asphodel Records, talks about identity, electronica's forefathers, and DJ Spooky's move to the majors.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Erik Gilbert, label manager of the New York-based Asphodel Records, graciously agreed to answer a slate of questions for a feature story about independent electronic-music labels, published in the September 1997 issue of Pulse! magazine (“Black Label,”). Named for the flower that grows along the banks of the mythical River Styx, Asphodel is, perhaps, best known as the home to DJ Spooky. Its roster has included such like-minded electronic types as Single Cell Orchestra, the X-Ecutioners, Invisibl Skratch Picklz, and Datacide. But the label’s releases run from word jazz legend Ken Nordine to the second volume of RE/Search Books’ Incredibly Strange Music and, recently, the contemporary classical fare of Xenakis and Min Xiao Fen. This is the complete transcript of the interview.

Marc Weidenbaum: One of the exciting things about the rise of ambient and electronic music has been the extent to which truly experimental and avant-garde music is beginning to play a strong role in visible, popular culture. Asphodel’s release of a Xenakis record is a perfect example of this. Gavin Bryars and Philip Glass’ relations with Aphex Twin are examples, to some extent. Your Min Xiao Fen CD is yet another. Who knows, perhaps Autechre will discover Phill Niblock? Likely they already know. How long had your Xenakis record been in the works? How did you decide to record and release it?

Erik Gilbert: What we are experiencing, culturally, is a merging of what has always been traditionally considered high and low art. We are striving, as a label, not so much to cross-pollinate genres and styles, but to cross-pollinate the listeners. Although there are obvious dangers with this, whereby the value and importance of a work can be negated, we would hope to introduce a DJ Spooky fan to the work of Xenakis and vice versa. Breaking the boundaries created by class and privilege.

Weidenbaum: How are Asphodel, Sombient, Recombinant, and Sound Traffic Control related?

Gilbert: Sound Traffic Control is a collective, curated by Naut Humon, which explores the possibilities of audio immersion environments, specifically with 3D sound. Recombinant has been the live arena in which these explorations have taken place — where different styles and genres have been mixed. Asphodel and its imprint, Sombient, are the labels which can bring the recorded versions of these types of environments to a home listening environment. Asphodel and Sound Traffic Control do not depend upon each other, but mutually support each other’s endeavors and explorations in sound.

Weidenbaum: This story is about independent labels, and that “independence” is generally defined in contrast with so-called “major” labels. DJ Spooky, who has long been associated with your label, has signed with Dreamworks. Could you describe the situation that led up to the signing? At what point did it become apparent that the majors had “caught on”?

Gilbert: Firstly, Spooky has not signed with Dreamworks, but with Outpost, a division of Geffen. I think it has become inevitable for the major labels and independents to mutually support and respect each others’ positions. The majors obviously have the financial and corporate power to introduce an artist to a wider audience. The independents have the vision. Hopefully in a situation like this, Spooky can be appreciated by a wider audience without losing his importance as an artist. I believe the collaboration between Asphodel and Outpost/Geffen will prove to a mutually beneficial arrangement. And most importantly, Spooky will have an arena in which to develop and grow as an artist — and continue to have impact upon the world. So much important work is today consumed by the ever-increasing corporate structures.

Weidenbaum: What do you think about electronic musicians’ propensity for multiple identities?

Gilbert: We have been through the crisis of representation, and now we are going through a crisis of identity. These developments are partly a result of our culture, our now global culture, moving into the so-called Information Age. Identity has become an important issue, as cultures around the world become consumed by the capitalist and corporate powers of America. Who are we? Where does our identity start and finish? In light of the web, and other forms of communication, these questions become more valid. Of course, these issues are extremely complex.

Weidenbaum: Which, if any, of the newer electronic labels do you feel an affinity toward?

Gilbert: I think there are some fantastic labels out there. I think we have an affinity with many of them. I would like to see more and more labels collaborate, moving away from that traditional notion that we are all in competition.

Weidenbaum: Are there any musics you wish you could record and release, but which you think would be an unwise investment?

Gilbert: Never. Any work that is deemed to be of importance can be released. Of course, as a business, we have to consider certain financial matters and budgets. But if a work is important and should be released, we will endeavor to release it. Unfortunately, time does not permit us to release everything. Sales figures are not the first consideration, however.

Weidenbaum: Storm of Drones is one of the strongest compilations I’ve heard in years. As the operator of a label, do you feel a closer creative tie with compilation albums than you do with artists’ full-length albums?

Gilbert: I think compilations, specifically compilations such as the Drones series, act as works within themselves. I think that is what makes a good compilation — a CD that acts as a continuous work, regardless of the contributors. I am very much against the idea of compilations that merely reissue 10 or 12 tracks from different places. A Storm of Drones is an artist album, made up of contributions from many different artists. I think one of the strengths of the Drones series is that is brings together artists from many different styles (industrial, new age, ambient, electro-acoustic) but successfully manages to merge them into one piece of work, without losing integrity.

Weidenbaum: You take Brian Eno to task to some extent in the liner notes of Storm of Drones. Ambient has many progenitors and precursors. It’s been exciting to see John Fahey come back, and it’s exciting to imagine Asphodel fans coming upon the Xenakis record by chance. Beyond Xenakis, who are some forefathers you’d like to have a hand in (re)introducing to the public?

Gilbert: Stockhausen, Satie. Even Marshall McLuhan!

Weidenbaum: Like Achim Szepanski’s Mille Plateaux label, your company has strong associations with cultural theory. Are there some essential philosophical underpinnings to Asphodel (in both aesthetic matters and business ones) that you feel comfortable outlining?

Gilbert: To successfully merge the commercial considerations with artistic integrity. We live in a capitalist society, and the notion of public space is forever being taken away. Hollywood and the corporate logo are becoming the political powers. In our own, perhaps small, way we want to stand against that. It is enormously difficult to be political in this climate, and art is often consumed and fed back to those that create it as a product. We can not turn back the clock, but I believe we can make a difference, to somehow make people realize what is truly important in a work of art. That is why you see no merchandising from Asphodel, little or no advertising. It is a statement.

Weidenbaum: Just as I was about to email this series of questions to you, I received the Asphodel/ADA announcement. While the ink is still wet on the contract, could you take a moment to explain how a label makes a decision about distribution, what factors are weighed, and how, perhaps, this particular move (from Caroline to ADA) came about?

Gilbert: Obviously we needed to move to the next level. With ADA we can achieve a wider and deeper distribution network. We want to be in Musicland as much as we do the smaller, cooler stores. And we aim to do this without compromise. ADA has the systems and the tools to enable us to do that. I am very delighted to be associated with ADA.

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