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Dark Ambient, Down Under

Interview with Darrin Verhagen, aka Shinjuku Thief, founder of the Dorobo Records label.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Marc Weidenbaum: You are a musician as well as someone who operates a record label. How do these two activities cohabitate? Do you turn off Verhagen/Dorobo and on Verhagen/Shinjuku?

Darrin Verhagen: Just from a time management perspective, the two activities rest fairly uneasily together. The label started off as an outlet for my own material, and fairly quickly turned from servant to master, stealing time previously reserved for the studio. Obviously this is a cause of considerable concern to Verhagen/Shinjuku — but as the label gains more momentum and recognition, it becomes more difficult to slow down. And given that much of the time spent on the label is in chasing outstanding accounts, it’s not something you can really afford to neglect. When composing, the relationship between the two Verhagens is interesting. At the moment, for example, Mr. Dorobo is a little concerned at Mr. Shinjuku’s direction for third Witch instalment. Whilst compositionally it’s more interesting than the previous two albums, from a marketing point of view it’s much more difficult to pigeonhole. Resting midway between “serious” ECM post-classical and CMI dark gothic ambient endears you to neither crowd. Despite having such reservations, such are never acted upon in the studio. There, I just work on what interests me. Where it finds its market, is a different, later problem. (Unfortunately, not someone else’s though!)

Weidenbaum: There’s no record companis like Virgin U.K. in the U.S. Which means that there’s really no corporate-size label producing electronic music. There are licensing situations — Island has relations with Pork, American has Too Pure, Elektra has its contract with Aphex Twin. Most types of music (rap, rock, jazz, classical) have independent and major-label corollaries, but not so with electronic music — it is almost entirely an independent-label world. Why do you think this is?

Verhagen: I think it just comes down to sales. No major label is going to invest good time and money into a niche market product if it’s not likely to yield significant returns. Far better to survey the field, pick the already “proven” winners then licence the product — allowing it to sell virtually through sheer force of distribution power (rather than any costly investment and “push”). I think the sheer fickleness/unpredictability of, and change in the underground scene would worry majors as well. When they sign a Mariah Carey-type figure they know she’s marketable for at least five years. This month’s smash trip-hop act isn’t necessarily bankable into the next season.

Weidenbaum: What experience has Dorobo had with majors. Have they come courting? Have they threatened your relations with any of your artists?

Verhagen: Can’t say they have — and I guess it’s hardly surprising. Take Alan Lamb’s Primal Image. The demand for the hum of telegraph wires is yet to take off in the mainstream,and it’s hardly a market they could cultivate with just a sexy TV campaign. By the same token, that’s not to say I’d dismiss any approaches out of hand — they’d just have to be assessed on their merits. Clasping your integrity too tightly doesn’t help pay for the next release. It’s all very well to spend outrageous amounts on packaging, and give support to underground acts — but at the end of the day, going out of business doesn’t help anyone.

Weidenbaum: Do you sign artists to long term contracts, or do you work on an album-by-album basis?

Verhagen: It’s generally an album-by-album basis. Personally I don’t like the ring of contractual obligations. If both parties are happy with the relationship, then they’ll continue to work together. Being locked into something where either side is miserable is no fun for anyone. I can understand the majors looking at “first option” clauses — to protect what is often a significant investment — but if you’re only spending $1000 on advertising for a given release, there’s less of a need to look at a long term relationship to recoup your initial expenses. Majors like the idea of the long term for obvious reasons.

Weidenbaum: I understand that you have a relation with Fifth Column Records, which has led to distribution through Caroline in the U.S. Could you explain this relation, and give a brief history of your experience with distribution?

Verhagen: The doorway to a distribution network came through our first Dorobo release, Shinjuku Thief’s Scribbler, having previously released Bloody Tourist on Extreme. Most overseas companies were familiar with the band — and picked up on the label from there. Our relationship with Fifth Column is in its early stages — so we’ll see how things progress. At this stage it looks more likely to evolve supporting non-Dorobo label releases (such as the albums on our techno arm, Iridium) — but we’ll see. Our main distribution has been done through Projekt/Darkwave. Whilst not having the distribution muscle of companies such as FCR, they’ve been very supportive of what we do, reliable and enjoyable to work with.

Weidenbaum: What are the names Iridium, Nova Zembla and Helix — all, apparently of record labels, associated with Black Lung releases?

Weidenbaum: Iridium was set up as I didn’t want to confuse the image of Dorobo too much — covering anything from dark ambient, through gothic postclassical up to pumping techno. Nova Zembla (KK, Belgium) licensed Black Lung’s Depopulation Bomb from us for Europe. And Helix is an Australian label which signed up Black Lung’s Disinformation Plague when we turned it down.

Weidenbaum: What’s ahead for Dorobo?

Verhagen: At this stage, the next release is a CD of Alan Lamb remixes. All contributors — Lustmord, Koner, Gunter and Ikeda — were given the same raw wire footage (from Alan’s forthcoming CD, Night Passage) and were given free reign. Given the calibre of the musicians, the end result is four extended tracks of fantastic dark ambience. Later in the year, we’ll issue the actual album, together with the next Shinjuku CD. Beyond that, things are open. I’m very keen to spend more time behind the keyboard than the fax machine.

Weidenbaum: Oh, yeah. What do Dorobo and Shinjuku mean?

Verhagen: The band name was taken from the experimental Oshima film, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief. The film’s mix of genres and jump cuts we felt appropriate to what we were doing. The use of the word “thief” also seemed appropriate given the amount of “found” footage in Bloody Tourist — with all the bagage associated with such “cultural theft.” Dorobo is just the Japanese for “Thief.” (In retrospect, hardly an encouraging name for an honest record label, huh?) Thanks again for involving me! Hope the above is useful.

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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