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U.S. Robotics, Part 2/3

The owner-operators of small American electronic-music labels talk shop. Up second, Sam Rosenthal of Projekt Records, home to Steve Roach, among others.

By Marc Weidenbaum

This is the second in a series of interviews with the founders of small American electronic labels.

The first conversation was with Todd Hyman, who in 1999 founded Carpark Records, which has released music by such artists as Marumari, Jake Mandell and, most recently, Greg Davis, whose Arbor is the label’s 12th release. Hyman discussed his origins in college radio, his role in the development of New York City’s electronic community and the simple pleasures of stuffing envelopes.

This second interview is with Sam Rosenthal, who founded the Projekt label almost 20 years ago. The label’s first release, in 1983, was a various-artists cassette tape. One of the artists was Rosenthal, and the others were people he knew in South Florida, where he lived.

Rosenthal has moved around quite a bit since then, and the label has moved with him, first to Los Angeles (for college), then to Chicago and then, in 1999, to New York City.

Projekt may be best known for its recordings by Steve Roach, one of America’s premiere atmospherists, whose music is infused with the textures and rituals of the Southwest. Rosenthal has presented the work of dozens of acts, and also released much of his own, largely with his longtime group, Black Tape for a Blue Girl, which combines haunting vocals and a mix of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. The Projekt catalog is diverse, and includes a series of reissues that Rosenthal deems essential to what he terms “darkwave”; among the reissues are albums by Controlled Bleeding and Shinjuku Thief.

In the midst of preparing the latest release from Black Tape, Rosenthal talked about the acceptable realm of typographical errors, the perspective of a musician-entrepreneur, and the peculiar geographic concentration of Projekt’s recording artists.


 

Marc Weidenbaum: Please describe the process that led up to the very first album that Projekt released.

Sam Rosenthal (Projekt Records): Well, the first “album” on Projekt was a compilation cassette back in 1983. The process was getting some material from friends’ bands and then putting them in order and dubbing a few tapes at home. This was very lo-fi; it might have sold 25 copies in the first year! If you wanna talk about the first somewhat “legitimate” Projekt release, then we’d be talking my 1986 vinyl LP, the rope, from my band, Black Tape for a Blue Girl. I’d definitely say that these days, the process of releasing a record is much easier and more straight forward. Computers have simplified everything along the way and there’s a lot of reputable places offering work. The album cover of the rope was really poorly printed by a place in Miami. They weren’t very interested in rerunning the job, when I pointed out the scuffs on every cover, or the upside-down spine! The vinyl itself sounded like it was cut with a fork. … ugh!

Weidenbaum: What was your emotional response to getting that record released? Were you relieved from the unforeseen complexity, thrilled at the final product?

Rosenthal: I would think that my main emotion was, “Aw man, this sucks.” I was so disappointed with the printing and pressing quality, that I limped away from the project vowing to do things differently in the future. Like I said, I think that these days people have a much better chance of getting a good quality CD.

Weidenbaum: How are your emotions different today when you release an album? Is the process more of a routine, is it still exciting every time, do you have a different response entirely?

Rosenthal: It’s definitely a routine. Sure, I sometimes get things back and go “Ack! I didn’t notice that weird symbol there in the lyrics …” but generally they come back and they are close enough for rock’n’roll. I can’t say there is a sense of joyous celebration when I get my album back, because so much time and energy has been put into it, that it’s really a sigh of relief that it’s done.

Weidenbaum: How do you think your being a musician influences how you operate your label?

Rosenthal: I treat my artists the way I would want a label to treat me. I look out for their best interests — Projekt also serves, pretty much, as our artists’ managers, making decisions of that kind for them — and pay them on time. … I wouldn’t be able to do it any other way.

Weidenbaum: How far ahead do you plan — do you know exactly what Projekt is releasing this year, or does the size of your label allow you to act more spontaneously? By early January of 2002, your website listed information for the first half of the year.

Rosenthal: I plan about seven months ahead, but there’s always room for improvising. For example, in November Steve Roach said he had an album done and wondered if I could get it out sooner than later. Because Steve’s releases are really ready to roll when he gets them to me, I was able to push it to the first slot of the year and have it out January 22. On the other hand, I have a vague idea of what’s coming out in the fall. I think you need to have the ability to do both.

Weidenbaum: Is there something uniquely “American” about the music your label releases, or the way you do business? I’m thinking of Steve Roach’s environment-informed soundscapes, for example, or about aspects of America’s goth-music community.

Rosenthal: I never think about it as “an American label” even though most of the artists are American. I think it’s much easier for me to work American bands, because I know the way things work here and because the bands already have some of their own promotions going. What’s really weird is that five of the bands live in Arizona. What is that all about!?!

Weidenbaum: Is there another small record label that served as a role model for you when you were getting Projekt started?

Rosenthal: No.

Weidenbaum: Are there other small labels today with which Projekt works particularly closely, for mutual support?

Rosenthal: Hmm. I’d say that Charles at Soleilmoon is my closest record-label friend, even though our labels don’t really work together that much. We definitely share advice and have an artist or two that have recorded for both labels. Sadly, there really aren’t many little ethereal labels around, anymore, except for Neue Aesthetik, who we’re friends with. I’m also quite good friends with a few of the people at Metropolis; Athan [Maroulis] (formerly of Spahn Ranch) actually sings on Black Tape’s new album, the scavenger bride (due in April).

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