U.S. Robotics, Part 3/3

The owner-operators of small American electronic-music labels talk shop. Up third (and last, but not least), Michael Bentley of Foundry Records, home to Seofon and Jonathan Hughes, as well as Bentley himself.

This is the third 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, coincident with the time of the interview, Greg Davis, whose Arbor was 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.

The second conversation was with Sam Rosenthal, who founded the Projekt label almost 20 years ago. 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.

The third conversation, below, is with Foundry Records founder Michael Bentley, who participated in the following conversation in early May 2002 at a cafe near the University of California in Berkeley, where he attended college. Bentley continues to live and work in the Berkeley area.

Almost five years have passed since Bentley first released some of his own music on CD. The album was Djinn and the label on which the album appeared, Foundry, served as a haven for a series of releases that Bentley made under a variety of pseudonyms. The second Foundry recording included work by Nathan Kreisberg, a childhood friend of Bentley’s with whom he would later record as Rhomb. Eventually, Foundry began to release music by people other than Bentley; one such project was a series of six mini-CDs collected under the name Archipelago. This past year, Foundry has begun to release full albums by artists other than Bentley, including Seofon’s Zero Point, a collection of atmospheric collaborations, and Jonathan Hughes’ Trillium, a series of electronic pieces in 3/4 time. Throughout, Foundry has managed to hone an aesthetic that retains an approachable veneer, all the while exploring experimental sounds and techniques.

As Berkeley campus construction whirred in the background, Bentley talked about his not-atypical transition: from home recorder to label owner, and from self-publisher to the administrator of other musicians’ works. What appears below is a portion of a longer interview that focused on Bentley’s own recording work, largely under the pseudonym eM. That material will be published at a later date. This interview appears as part of Disquiet’s series of conversations with owner-operators of small American electronic labels.

Marc Weidenbaum: What was the first record you released of someone else’s music?

Michael Bentley (Foundry Records): Someone else’s music? Well, that’s pretty late in the game actually, because the Foundry label was really just a vehicle to release my own stuff. So, I guess the first release I did of someone else’s music was the Seofon release, last year [Zero Point]. This is my fifth year, if you don’t count cassette releases. I did some cassette releases in ’95 and ’96, and then CDs starting in ’97. And there’s one project — the Rhomb project — which is me and another guy, Nathan Kreisberg. On the second Foundry release, Eclectronica, there’s some stuff that Nathan did.

Weidenbaum: Post-cassette, what was the first music of your own that you released?

Bentley: Djinn.

Weidenbaum: Can you recall your feeling, releasing, let’s say last year, a complete record by someone else?

Bentley: It was exciting, because the Seofon record coincided with Foundry getting a distribution deal with Hypnos Records, and so I knew that these CDs were going to go out to a bigger audience, just sort of automatically. Also, because Seofon was collaborating with Steve Roach and Vidna Obmana, Robert Rich, Stephen Kent — people who had their own following. That Seofon record wasn’t just Foundry’s first album by another musician, but the first with someone who had his own thing going on. … Actually, come to think of it, the Archipelago series, from the year before, had work by other people on it.

Weidenbaum: So, describe that collection. Archipelago came out as a single box, an elegant collection of six individual 3″ CDs.

Bentley: Production was complicated. I did one of the CDs as a test, because I had them produced in Germany, and I’d never produced anything long-distance before. I’d always worked locally, because I liked to be able to talk with the people about the art, see the proofs, and I was a little concerned with how the production was going to go, so I did one CD just to test it, and then I did the other five, but I released them all together. Again, that was very exciting. It was something we had dreamed up, sitting around a dinner table, with me, Thermal/Joshua [Maremont] and Seofon. And the Archipelago was really Joshua’s idea. He wrote a really nice little manifesto, which explains why the archipelago image is appropriate. [To view Maremont’s document, click here.] I got to know these guys first as friends, rather than as collaborators, and then a couple other people — Ian Stokes, who is CSERO, and Dean Santomieri, who has been doing music forever. Six small CDs seemed like a good number. It was exciting. I’m a graphic designer by trade, that’s my profession, how I make my main income, so I enjoy designing stuff. I’ve really done more graphic arts in my life than audio, until the last ten years or so, and the packaging aspect is always kind of fun — how will the printing come out, all the things that you think about with any project.

Weidenbaum: What is it about the “Jack of All Trades” mode that seems necessitated by any serious interest in doing one’s own record label?

Bentley: For a lot of these people, it’s a one-man operation. They have to be able to do everything. If you’re running a small label, you can’t afford to hire people to do stuff. If you’re fortunate enough to have friends who dig what you’re doing, maybe you could have them over to help you stuff envelopes, and I always ask for advice. I have people I ask for advice, but basically you have to be able to do everything yourself, or you’re not going to survive.

Weidenbaum: Do you think that the community of electronic-oriented musicians that exists could have existed without the Internet?

Bentley: I think it did exist before. I think of the cassette culture, for example, which I only marginally participated in. It had really started to fade by the time I was into that music again — I was away from electronic music for a while. And I gather there were some publications that specialized — that had ads for these cassettes. I think a lot of that has transferred over to the Internet. There has always been a gathering point, but it’s much easier now — but it’s also created a real proliferation of material, which is a mixed blessing.

Weidenbaum: There’s a lot of music being produced.

Bentley: A lot of bad stuff, and a lot of good stuff. I think someone said once that everyone has a good novel in them, if they can write, if they can put two words together. Well, I think everyone has a good recording in them. It may be one track; it may be an album. But if you like music, you probably have at least one thing to say. I see that on compilations all the time, by people that are unknowns. Like, that’s a great track, and then you listen to their other tracks and you think, well, that was probably their best idea. I don’t mean to criticize, but that seems to be the way it is.

Weidenbaum: I like the idea that everyone has soaked up so much music that they can give back in some way. When you released that first record of your own, what had preceded your making music for consumption by others?

Bentley: That’s tricky. When you put out your music, there’s got to be some ego in it. If there wasn’t, you’d just sit in your room and do stuff. And that’s fine. I do think the primary reason I do music is because I enjoy doing music. I don’t listen to my stuff a whole lot. By the time I’m done with the recording process and mastering, I’m usually a little sick of it, but the better I get, the more accomplished I get — not only technically, then I can stand to listen to it. And I think some of my early stuff wasn’t as good. That’s the way it is. So, I think there’s some ego in it. And I think art is about communication and commitment. I sketched my whole life, like all kids did, but it continued past the point when it was fashionable, like junior high and high school, when you begin to be a geek. Art for me has always been a kind of communication. My mom and dad were always into art. We went to galleries a lot and concerts. My mom, in particular, was really into music..

Weidenbaum: And at some point, you decided: I’m not just going to make music, I’m going to put it out, which is where Foundry came about.

Bentley: I did music a long time ago, electronic music, in high school, on very primitive equipment. This is in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It was pretty hard as a poor college student to afford much in the way of equipment. My friend Nathan and I went to high school together and to college here at Cal, and he went away to graduate school, and we had cobbled together a small studio with a four-track reel-to-reel, and did some recording then. And I got away from it. I did a lot of Scottish folk music, actually. I still play for Scottish social country dancing.

Weidenbaum: What do you play?

Bentley: My best instrument, the only instrument I can say I truly play well is the bodhran. But I also play penny whistle and flute and a little guitar, and sing. I used to perform in pubs, and that’s most of what I did musically for a long time. We thought about releasing that stuff, but it was just for fun. So, when I came back to electronic music, it was after a time when I had a lot of unusual stuff happen in my life, and I had a chance — and this sounds all foo-foo — but I had a chance to reevaluate my commitment to be creative, and all these kinds of things that are a little hard to talk about, a little embarrassing, just because they’re very personal. And then, after I kind of went through that, it was like, I want to do this seriously. I started to work, and I got to where the Djinn project actually was the motivator, because I did this stuff and it was cool, cool beyond me — not because I did something and could play it for my friends, but it’s cool because I didn’t have a lot to do with it in a way. Like a lot of creative work, you’re really just curating it in some way; you’re the conduit in some way. It’s hard to talk about these things without sounding odd, but it comes from somewhere else. What is inspiration and all that? Djinn was a project I did and was ready to let strangers listen to it, I guess. And, I liked the idea of being part of the music community. I’ve listened to music all my life, I’ve created music for portions of my life, and it’s a primary interest. A lot of friends I met through being interested in music. So, it’s sort of like being part of a community.

Weidenbaum: Were there role models for Foundry in terms of other, more established record companies?

Bentley: Well, yes and no. Despite the fact that I’ve been around the music business for a long time, I’d never worked in a store myself, but I did work in retail, in a book store, and a lot of my friends worked in record stores. I’d managed a book store, so I knew about ordering and some of the business realities. I think I was a little naive in approaching what a label was, especially in terms of a scale and I wasn’t clear on some of those issues. So my business plan, such as it was, was faulty.

Weidenbaum: But there aren’t 10,000 copies of the Djinn record in your basement.

Bentley: No, I was smart enough to do 1,000. But still, the idea for the potential sales was not in line with what’s out there. So, backtracking into the label question, I didn’t think about looking at a label in that way, in a business-model sense. What I thought was, That label’s doing some interesting stuff. So, the label that most influenced me probably was Touch, which did some really creative cassette releases, in terms of creative packaging, and creative music, though some were more musical than others. I remember one cassette titled North. Touch did a bunch that were, like, in a vinyl sleeve, with posters and cards. I found out later that one of the label’s prime movers, maybe a co-founder even, was Jon Wozencroft, who was responsible for the graphic design. And Touch’s approach to audio is so unusual, the things they’ve done on CDs, like Disinformation, and the North album by Hazard, and collections like the Mesmer variations. Very experimental. “Difficult listening” is a term I enjoy, and they’re along that line. They are musical, but they’re also not musical. And the design is exquisite.

Weidenbaum: So, it was Touch’s design, and the label’s transition from tape to CD, that appealed to you?

Bentley: Yeah, I was aware that I wanted to do CDs. Cassettes were obviously on the way out. So, I think Touch was a big influence. I liked a lot of independent labels: 4AD, for example — mostly British ones, I suppose. There weren’t as many American independent labels. American artists, perhaps, but not labels. Once I started doing this, I have to say that Mike Griffin at Hypnos was very helpful.

Weidenbaum: That’s the next question: what labels do you consider peers? Who do you call up for support or advice or to commiserate?

Bentley: I have talked with Mike at Hypnos over the years, a fair amount about business, and about the promotional side of things. We’ve shared mailing list information. And when it came to the point when I kinda had to be realistic and say, I don’t know whether I can continue to put out CDs, which happened pretty much after the Archipelago series, Mike said, Well, here’s an idea: we’ll make a distribution deal, so you’ll be guaranteed a certain number of sales out of the gate, plus you’ll get into these stores. I was not having any luck getting distribution. Another person I’ve spoken to in these terms is Seofon, who co-ran a label in the ’80s and early ’90s, called Visible. Steve Roach has been helpful in answering some questions about how he manages his own online shop. I recently had a chance to talk with him while he was in the Bay Area for a couple of shows, and he once again proved to be eminently approachable, friendly and helpful. Not only has he done some very cool music over the years, but he has been something of a pioneer in the artist-run shop — and label too, I suppose — his Timeroom Editions are somewhat unique, or so it seems to me. And I’ve been lucky enough to have some conversations with Kim Cascone, who ran Silent Records. He’s been very generous and he’s an interesting musician as well.

Weidenbaum: And Cascone is on the recent 360° compilation from Foundry.

Bentley: Yeah, he put together a CD for MIT’s Computer Music Journal, and I have a piece on that, and he was doing a feature on microsound-type music, and I can’t remember exactly what his thesis was — music from dysfunction, like glitch music. … We had some conversations through that, and he runs the microsound email list, which I’m on. [Information on the microsound email-discussion list is available here.]

Weidenbaum: Is there something uniquely American about what Foundry does?

Bentley: The easy answer is yes, because I’m American, and most — well, on 360° there’s a Norwegian band and a British guy — but most of what Foundry releases is American-made. I think in this area of music, especially if you go into microsound and ambient, it’s pretty international. A lot of German musicians are seen as the primary people in this area. I think the American marketplace is more difficult. I know of some British people who sell their albums by consignment: take a train ride over the weekend and drop by stores. Here in America you have to depend on distribution, or the online-store model. I think when you look at what someone like Steve Roach, who is American, has done, I think he’s an important role model, whether you’re doing music like what he is doing or not. I think there’s something unique about how American labels have to do business, and that has to do with the size of the country and that there’s better support for the arts in Europe, and while I don’t know how that effects the releasing of music, public funds in Europe do support events and, in some cases, book publishing. It’s a different kind of support, not necessarily better or worse. I do wish we had support for the arts, so we could pursue this as art rather than as business. Especially, in terms of viewing music as art. I’m all for producing a piece of personalized art, which is cool, but that’s not my goal — my goal is to get the music out and create an interesting artistic environment for further Foundry projects.

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