An Interview with Kiya Babzani, Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part interview with vintage-style menswear and yoyo impressario Kiya Babzani.  If you haven’t already, check out the first part at: https://thecrossfire.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/an-interview-with-kiya-babzani-part-one/

Sneaker Review Videos and Kiya’s Rick Owens Story

Touching back on finding about things on the Internet – with something like superfuture, you now have people exposed to designers like Rick Owens at the age of eighteen, whereas before – you read about people like Shawn Stussy, getting Italian Vogue and looking for trends to start keying off on. But now – and I have no idea how they afford this stuff – these kids are going out and buying Rick Owens jackets.

Yeah. Did you see that video of that kid?  He does sneaker reviews.

Well, I think a lot of kids do sneaker reviews, right?

OK, but there’s this one… oh wow. He’s doing a Raf Simons sneaker review and then he wears them with his full Givenchy / Rick Owens outfit – the “Birds of Paradise” shirt, you know what I’m talking about? He’s in his parents’ living room. It’s really good. It’s really, really good. It was posted to superfuture, that’s how I knew about it. You’d die if you saw this thing. It’s really, really good.

The Rick Owens quote(*) was really good – you have to work and work and work!

Exactly – you don’t have to go to parties.

No!

I think it’s a good point though. In order to do something useful, you have to do enough of it so you can throw out the bad ideas, yes?

Right, it was well said. It was funny and well said. You know he ordered a bunch of stuff from us?

Yeah?

Yeah. It was a funny story, we got an order on the online store a couple of years ago and it’s for four or five different items – a couple of Iron Heart things, a couple of Flat Head things.  And the credit card was declined over and over again… and then it went through finally – and that triggers a fraud alert for us. So I’m looking at it and thinking – OK, it’s going to Paris, it’s going to Owenscorp – I don’t know what that is! It doesn’t have someone’s name on it… so I e-mail the person, I didn’t even put it together – Owenscorp. So I e-mail the person and she says, “oh it’s for Rick – he wants these things, sorry if the credit card didn’t go through – he just wants it sent to his studio. And I’m thinking, “holy shit, this is Rick Owens.” It’s his assistant e-mailing me!

So we go back and forth and we send him his order. I remember I put in a copy of Sidney [Lo]’s book [Taking Pictures of People Who Take Pictures of Themselves], because there’s a couple of people wearing Rick’s stuff in there. And I wrote a note – “this is a good friend of ours, I thought you would enjoy the book.” I sent it to him and never heard back.  I was kind of curious if he even got any of it – they must have, but I never heard anything.

A year goes by and I get an e-mail from the woman at his studio – “Rick lost his favorite flannel [shirt].” It was a red buffalo check from Iron Heart. “Please send another one and charge us.” Well, that was a year before and we didn’t have that flannel anymore. But then I looked and in New York or somewhere, we had it in blue. So I e-mailed her and said, “well, we have it in blue” – and she replied, “no worries, mail it.  We’ll dye it.”

<laughs>

And that was the end of it. We sent it to her and never heard back. But I thought, “dye it? You can’t dye a buffalo check flannel.” But then I was thinking, “I’m not arguing with Rick Owens.” Maybe Rick Owens has this crazy-ass way of dyeing. It’s a blue and black flannel, how are you going to make it red and black? You can’t, it’s impossible!

That’s my Rick Owens story. But I just can’t imagine him, in any way, shape or form, wearing anything from our store.

Right. In the same way I can’t imagine you wearing Rick Owens.

Exactly!

Iron Heart Flannel

Fig. 1 – Rick Owens’ Favorite Flannel?

But why not?

The entire thing was so strange that I don’t understand it. Some of my employees in San Francisco thought, maybe he wanted it for research? And I was thinking, “research? These are heavyweight flannels. It’s Rick Owens!” He doesn’t need to buy these things. He knows all about fabrics and everything! He can make a phone call and get a mill in Japan to send him almost anything he wants!

Well, we are talking about Iron Heart right?

Yeah!

I love that brand. It has this certain will to it, like “we will try to find the heaviest things that cannot be put together or stitched together, and you know what? Fuck it, we’re going to do it.”

There is a limit to that. The weight game is out of control. It’s calmed down a bit, but there’s a limit to how heavy you can make a garment and have it still be wearable. It passes the point of being functional to being a gimmick and then, all of a sudden, beyond a gimmick – it’s not even wearable and you’re just selling something based on specification. I’m not referring to Iron Heart specifically, I’m saying in general. But Iron Heart is an amazing brand, still one of our top selling brands – people love it.

What Makes a Brand a Self Edge Brand

That’s good. I gravitate to brands that have a personality, you might say? Like there’s a purpose to it.

Yeah, I agree. A brand has to have one cohesive personality. People always ask us, “why don’t you carry Oni or Momotaro?” They’re great brands with great products – but where’s the personality in the brand?

You see a theme in all the brands we carry at Self Edge, they’re goofy, Japanese vintage-style brands that have a sense of humor about them – a personality that’s apparent through everything they do. It’s like an age-old hobby turned into a clothing line. You can say that about Iron Heart, Strike Gold, Flat Head, Real Japan Blues. But you have the other side of the Japanese denim thing – brands like Oni, Momotaro, Pure Blue Japan – great brands, but the personality of each brand is Japanese. They’re about the heritage of Japan and have Japanese imagery in their artwork. I can’t relate to that, because I’m not Japanese – I just can’t relate to those things. And I have to be able to relate to it in some way.

Maybe with our customers, a part of their personality comes out and relates to something from one of our brands.

Iron Heart vs Samurai

Fig 2. – Americana vs Japanese Heritage

Iron Heart is the easiest because it’s a fucking motorcycle brand. You either have a motorcycle, had a motorcycle or want a motorcycle. So it’s an easy sell – it’s motorcycles! And even if you don’t match any of those three things, it’s motorcycles. Motorcycles are fucking cool! Even if you’re scared of them, you can’t say motorcycles aren’t cool. So the Iron Heart thing is one thing and one thing only – motorcycles. They make motorcycle-inspired clothing – that comes along with something that’s very real and today.

Yeah, you’re right – it’s like punk, a visual vocabulary that everybody understands.

With Flat Head, they’re into hot rods and motorcycles and rockabilly and music in general – records and guitars. They have this huge personality that you can somehow find something you can relate to. But then, you take all these other brands from Japan which are also awesome brands, but – what does anything in Kapital’s collection relate to my life, or my customers’ lives? And people say, it doesn’t have to relate to anyone’s life, it’s a good product – and I want to buy that indigo-dyed thermal. And I’m thinking – well yeah, it’s a cool product [but]…

Does that make sense?

Is this because, if you can’t relate to it in a way, it makes it harder…to sell?

To convey the message?

Hmmm, how should I put it? You write all the descriptions on everything you post [for sale online], right? I’ve noticed there’s always a story to it in some sort of way.

Right!

Is it more of a matter of that? Or do you just want to focus on the things that you can get behind?

When you have a retail store and you’re the owner and buyer, you have to sometimes remove yourself from the store and think, OK – I can’t only just buy for myself. But at the same time, I look at all my customers we sell to and I think, “does anything this brand from Japan says or does relate to their lives in any way?” And if the answer is, “no” – which is true for many brands – you have to think, “well, that’s not very fun.” Because otherwise we’d carry every Japanese denim brand.

Flat Head has an employee named Kyle, who’s an American – the first time they’ve had an American employee. He nailed it recently on superfuture(**), even without me saying anything. He got it – he used to be a customer of ours before he started working for Flat Head. The items Self Edge carries are Americana, whereas the rest of the brands that we don’t carry, most of them are not necessarily Americana – they’re more Japanese heritage-style brands, but inspired by Americana. So it’s a five pocket jean and a flannel, but the inspiration and imagery comes from ancient Japanese textile manufacturing and dyeing.

So more on the Visvim side of things, like the noragi?(***)

Yeah, exactly.

I suppose you could stock fifty different Japanese denim brands, but then if somebody walked into your store then you’d have to explain one versus the other, right?

Yeah – we already have so many models, so what are we really adding by adding another brand, you know? Of course, if someone wants to buy Pure Blue Japan, they can buy it – Blue in Greene carries PBJ, almost the entire line up – it’s not like it’s unavailable. There are very few Japanese brands that are unavailable in the US.

“People treat [Self Edge] as a community center and I am totally OK with that.”

SENY

Fig. 3 – One of Four Self Edge Stores, 157 Orchard St

On the subject of your stores – you have four stores and you’ve obviously put time into the way they look, and you also have online and I assume you do a fair share of online business. I find it difficult to conceive of one without the other, as it relates to you.

I do too, but there are businesses – successful ones – that don’t do business online. The online store ships out of our San Francisco store for all intents and purposes. The other three stores, the only sales that come through those stores are people who walk in the door. So we definitely see both aspects of it – a retail store that’s selling in-store and online and three stores that only sell in-store. Obviously it’s a big challenge, because once you break that one store barrier – what you’re saying is, I think I can sell product well enough to be able to open a store that is only selling to people walking through the door. In today’s day and age, it’s difficult – it’s a challenge. And sometimes we wonder, “why do we keep opening stores?”

That was going to be my follow-up question!

<laughs> Why do we keep opening stores? Why don’t we invest the time and effort into our online store? Which we have now, our online store launches soon and it’ll be completely different. I’m kind of scared, it doesn’t look at all like our current online store.  The day it launches, we’re all going to look at it and think, we no longer look like a small company. Our current online store was designed eight years ago and hasn’t been changed since then. That’s unheard of – that’s wrong in the Internet, you know?

So you do the online store out of business necessity?

Yeah, you just have to. And the other thing is – without the online store, it would be very difficult to do collaborations because there are production minimums. When you do a jean, the brand says you have to do two hundred pairs. Now we have four stores, but seven years ago we had one. So you have one store but the brand says you have to order two hundred pairs of jeans. You can only imagine that you cannot sell that number of jeans of one model that quickly in-store. So you need the online store to back that. Now, it’s a little different – we have four stores, so the minimums don’t mean anything to us anymore. But at first, we had to have the online store.

Also, with the Japanese it’s all pay up front – there’s no terms. So as a small business, you can imagine what it’s like to pay for two hundred pairs of jeans and hope to god you don’t sit on them for long.

So you can imagine not having an online store, can you imagine having an online store with no brick and mortar?

Oh, that would be terrible.

<laughs> So that would be a no?

No… for me, there’s no love in online – you’re just moving units around.  You never get to meet anyone. The closest you get is an e-mail from a happy customer. We get e-mails all day, but it’s just a name and an e-mail address. The real amazing thing about being in retail is being in your stores, meeting customers and helping them pick out a jean or a shirt or a wallet. And that personal communication between two people is amazing. Any retail store owner will tell you that. The only ones who won’t, only do online! <laughs>

Maybe I’m put off a little bit, spending so much time in New York City. You don’t get that feeling going into boutiques here…

I’ve noticed! <laughs> New York City is a very unique place in that regard. Before I started Self Edge, I had two other retail stores. I loved going into retail stores when I traveled. And part of that was like going into a record store where the people weren’t dicks. You go in and want to talk about the product – and that leads into you buying something, right? You’re not going into a Duane Reade and buying toothpaste.  It was an experience and the whole thing.

So I did Self Edge and the requirement was – I told the employees, “people are going to come in here and they’re going to want to hang out. You’re going to hang out with them.” This was before anyone got hired. “You’re going to hang out with them and it’s part of the job. People will treat this as a community center and I am totally OK with that.” I’m totally OK with people coming into the store and not buying anything, just hanging out and talking about the stuff. It’s fine. And the idea of that transferred when we opened in New York. But it wasn’t until a year or two later that I realized – what we’re doing in New York is very unique, with the vibe of the store. Because I started going to other stores in New York – I’m not necessarily talking about direct competitors of ours, just retail in general in New York – the vibe’s very different here.

I would also say that crosses over to the big ticket restaurants.

Yes!

I put together a top ten of my restaurant experiences and maybe there’s one in New York City, it’s really remarkable.

Customer service is not the top priority for a lot of businesses here.

Maybe it’s customer service towards the people who are the high rolling spenders that come in? But this is my pet theory that this is why there are no stores in the city that stock a brand like acronym and why Visvim couldn’t keep an independent, small boutique account (****)

Because you need the whole package to go along with it? You need the sales associates and the feel of the store to go along with it?

Yeah! In some ways, the best way to sell a thing is to be really passionate and really into it and in some way, communicate that.

Right, right

…and for whatever reasons, that didn’t happen with those brands in the city.

Getting It Right

With this heritage focus thing, there are a lot of brands that have come out and tried to do “workwear” / heritage. I’m thinking Todd Snyder working with Champion plus Adam Kimmel and Carhartt.

And there’s Russell Athletic being re-released by John Lofgren, have you heard about this?

No I haven’t.

It’s all made in Japan, loopwheeled sweats and tees branded with the vintage Russell Athletic branding.

Russell Athletic Archive

Fig. 4 – Russell Athletic by John Lofgren

Are there any of these brands that you’ve looked at their stuff and thought “they got it right” that you’ve yet to work with professionally?

I thought the Russell Athletic line looked good, but I never got to see it in person… I’m assuming if John Lofgren was behind it, it’s going to be great – but it’s really hard to say without actually seeing it in person.

We picked up his John Lofgren line, actually – we start carrying it next month.

Any other brands you’re looking to bring in that may be unexpected? I notice you snuck bagjack into New York and I don’t think I saw anything about it…

We didn’t put anything online about it, but they made those bags for us. When I went to Bread & Butter in Berlin, I hung out with Errolson [Hugh] from acronym and he was telling me about bagjack and how they make all the acronym bags. He told me to visit their store – it’s right down the street from the acronym offices. So I went to their store and I thought – jesus, this stuff is insane! And fairly inexpensive for the type of technology they incorporate into it. So they made us a couple of sets. They didn’t make us that many, we have them in three of the four stores in two sizes.

Cool. Any last thoughts?

No, this thing went quick!

Thank you very much for your time!

Of course, anytime.

(*) I’m unable to find this now – mostly due to my personal disorganization, but also because the Internet as experienced through a social media timeline only moves forwards.

(**) Kyle’s post is here: http://supertalk.superfuture.com/index.php/topic/10622-the-flat-head/page-274#entry2963446

(***) The noragi is a three-quarter length sleeve shirt with a front similar to a kimono. It’s traditionally associated in Japan with field workers (the sleeve length is cropped to not interfere with scything), so I can imagine it’s considered to be a “workwear” piece there in some odd menswear parallel. The greeters at the Uniqlo flagship in New York City where them, the semiotics which are probably worth a blog entry in itself.

(****) This is highlighted by the closure of Atelier in NYC. Eugene Rabkin wrote a great interview with its founder Karlo Steel for the Business of Fashion: http://www.businessoffashion.com/2013/12/op-ed-goodbye-atelier.html. The most relevant quote is below:

“I had a friend tell me somewhat flippantly that he didn’t think there was any juice left in this idea of a multi-label boutique,” said Steel. “His prediction for the future retail landscape is that we will be littered with flagship stores that are there to promote the brand. This idea of a boutique, things from all over the place, is a hopelessly oddly 20th century idea.”

“I laughed, but inside I was crying, because I felt maybe there was some validity there.”

Photo credits:

1, 3. Courtesy of Self Edge (http://www.selfedge.com)

2. Iron Heart courtesy of Self Edge; Samurai is a Crossfire in-house job

4. Russell Athletic Archive (http://russellathleticarchive.com)

Many thanks to Kiya for his time and forthrightness and many apologies to his PR company!

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An Interview with Kiya Babzani, Part One

I met Kiya Babzani through his store Self Edge, which specializes in vintage-style menswear and is known worldwide for its impeccably selected collection of denim (particularly), apparel and leather goods. I came to really know him through his informed posts to the online forum Supertalk (part of Superfuture). He’s always great to talk to, so I imposed on him for the first ever Crossfire interview.

We caught up over at the Coffee Foundry in the West Village, shortly after he and his wife and business partner, Demitra Georgopoulos Babzani, opened their fourth Self Edge store in Portland.  The other three are in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles – you don’t need to be a denim nerd or vintage expert to appreciate the care that goes into everything that their stores sell, so I highly recommend a visit if you haven’t already. They’re also online at http://www.selfedge.com. And if you’re a yoyo geek, you probably already know about his company, Anti-Yo – http://anti-yo.com.

As befits Kiya’s varied interests, we covered a lot of ground over the course of an hour… so I’ve split our chat into two parts.

 

Fig. 1 - View of Mount Hood from the Portland Japanese Garden

Fig. 1 – Mount Hood

How is Portland?

Portland’s amazing. my wife and I’ve traveled the world over the last twenty years, separately and together and every time we go somewhere, we’re like – this is awesome, but then you always feel like you’re missing something by being somewhere else… you’re missing your home, right? Not necessarily missing your home but you’re missing things happening around your home – the art scene, community, friends, whatever. Portland’s the first place anywhere in the world that when we got there, we don’t miss San Francisco – we want to be here instead…  [we went] to Portland and it was like – this is it! We’ve found the place we want to live. We live in San Francisco, it’s a pretty awesome place but something about Portland just fell into place. It’s a combination of the people, the scenery… it’s very fresh feeling.

The tech industry has taken its toll on San Francisco.  I lived through the first [boom] in the late 1990s – the Internet tech industry was booming for the first time and it killed a lot of things. It killed the local music scene.  San Francisco was a very special place in the late/early nineties.  It didn’t matter if you’re talking about rock, grunge, metal – and of course electronic music was huge in San Francisco in the early nineties. And the tech industry played a large part in taking the focus away from that. We recovered slightly, but this last boom taking place now is displacing so many people – so many artists.  And it used to be they were being displaced from neighborhood to neighborhood, but now they’re leaving San Francisco. Because the entire city has become completely unaffordable, but beyond that – the energy there is completely different.

“The focus [in San Francisco] is no longer on arts, it’s on apps”

In Portland, you have these extremely creative people doing things for their own good, not to make money… The general consensus in Portland is it doesn’t matter if you make money. This is not the general consensus of any other major city in the world! …

A lot of the Portland thing has been the culmination of food.  The slow food movement, the fancy coffee, the fancy beer, the fancy gin – all that stuff. It’s interesting to me because there’s a huge misconception of where that’s really big and where that’s really come from. Obviously, I’m not an authority on it – but traveling, I’ve noticed that a lot of these things like coffee or microbreweries… as you travel, you see heavy handed marketing of third-wave coffee shops and things like that. When you spend time in California and visit a city like Portland and you really get to know it, you notice these types of things just exist in Portland and most of it’s void of any strong marketing. I think the reason for that is businesses now that open have backers – everyone’s got a backer now in California and it’s the same in New York. Partially because it’s damn expensive to open a business like that – open a brewery. In Portland, the costs of everything are so much lower that you have people with very little money and no financial backers opening cafes, roasteries, opening microbreweries. What that means is these are small business owners that do not have the luxuries of PR, marketing and copywriters. So what you have are businesses that may have an amazing product but can’t sell themselves. So what that results in is, hundreds of cafes and breweries and distilleries which are making an amazing product with none of the pretension that comes along with making a product that good. Because a lot of that pretension (I feel) is stemmed from the marketing behind the company and the direction PR takes. So in Portland, you’re getting a high level of food without the sort of bullshit that comes in California.

And I’m not one to talk – at Self Edge we hired someone to do our PR a year ago. So now we’ve got PR. And I always thought – “No! We’re not hiring anyone to do PR, that just seems weird.” But one day, you sit down and you’re like, I can’t take this business any further with my own PR work. You’re winging it, right?

So in Portland, that’s why you’re getting an amazing product and it’s not being shoved down your throat

It’ll be interesting to see how that evolves, because if it becomes a place where you can do that kind of thing and the overhead costs are low then it’s more attractive for other businesses to come in.

Right, and take advantage of that. I keep going back to the coffee scene. Ten years ago, nobody gave a shit about coffee, it wasn’t a thing. Now it’s like – everybody who has a business somehow relates to the coffee industry in one way or another.

On the subject of coffee places, what’s up with the barista look of wearing vintage something and a driving cap and…?

Let me tell you something about that – that’s not Portland.  That’s San Francisco and Los Angeles, Los Angeles more than anything. You’re talking about the mustached, suspender, bowtie…

Yeah. I’ve seen that at Blue Bottle here and Stumptown.

It’s an LA/New York thing. In Portland, you have Heart, Barista, Maglia Rosa, Courier Coffee, Sterling. Those are, in my opinion, the top roasters in Portland. For the most part, you don’t see that in any of those places. When you go into a cafe in Los Angeles or New York – those cliches are there, and they’re strong. I can’t explain it.

double fisting it

Fig. 2 – Double fisting it in Chicago

Going there, I don’t feel like – I’m going back in time in the 19th century and I’ve gotten off at the train station and I’m going to a dedicated coffee bar where there are coffee professionals waiting to give me a pourover.

Yes! It may have slightly started in Portland but it definitely didn’t turn into what it became today in Portland.

[At this point we digress into the speakeasy revival, the death of the album, the iPodization of menswear, the possibility of wearing Jordans with skinny jeans and a Rick Owens top and the digital revolution in music before coming to…]

I have a friend who’s a producer who I hung out with yesterday – he just put out a new album. He’s been making music for about 15-20 years and he’s produced stuff for E-40, he was friends with nearly all the important hip-hop artists of the 90s in NYC back in the day. His name is J-Zone. He put out this new album and I was like, “why the hell did you put it out on cassette?” Because he released it on CD, Bandcamp, a limited edition, signed, 12″ pressing and then he did shitloads of cassettes. And the cassettes sold faster than the CD or vinyl. And he was complaining that the cassette sounds like shit and he wanted to do it because it was kind of cool. And he’s really urging everyone who bought the cassette to download it with the code from Bandcamp in high res so you can actually hear the two years he spent on the production of the thing.

That’s fucking great.

And I’m thinking, “I don’t understand the direction this is going in.” I’m not dissing him in any way, it’s just kind of funny – you release the cassette because it’s kind of cool and then you have to give a download link. You kind of hate the download link because it negates the fact you did the cassette now.

“The music industry is so convoluted that everything is working forward and backwards at the same time.”

You buy a 12″ and you get the download link and put it on your iPhone and you never really take out the 12″. Isn’t the whole reason you bought the 12″ so you could take it out and listen to it and look at the liner notes and artwork that are really large… do you know what I’m saying? We cannot separate ourselves from the convenience of digital music.

I think that has something to do with the economics of a label – you can make more money by selling more of one format [than another]. But I agree that people want to have it both ways – they want the artifact of vinyl so they can say, “vinyl sounds better” but –

But doesn’t it make you sad that these are just showpieces now? Like, I bought the last Zomby 12″, downloaded it and I think I’ve taken out the 12″ once or twice.

For me, it’s that I listen to my iPod [#oldschool] more hours of the day. I’ve invested a lot of time in my stereo, I like it and I think it sounds good. I think where I’m challenged is this idea that vinyl automatically sounds better than the same record on CD without thinking of the mastering process, without thinking of how it was originally recorded.

Yeah – the age-old argument of CD vs vinyl is – do people even talk about it anymore?

Yeah, people still talk about it!

After years and years of talking about it, you just realize that there are too many variables to determine whether or not one sounds better.

Yeah, of course.

You don’t buy a record for convenience and you don’t buy a record because you think it necessarily sounds better. It’s all about the experience, right? You want to use your thousand dollar record player or whatever you play it on, it doesn’t matter. You buy the record because you want the record – because you could have bought the CD.

But now artists are moving away from CDs which, for me, sucks – because I buy a shitload of CDs still. I buy way more CDs than vinyl. Now artists are putting out releases on digital and vinyl only. Which leaves out that middle ground of someone who wants something convenient but also sounds really good.

It does kind of suck. And actually – we’ve talked about IDM numerous times in the past. I think CD is the perfect format for IDM(*) – it’s made digitally –

Yeah. Because of so many IDM artists pushing the boundaries of recorded sound, they need that really wide spectrum and that wide spectrum is available on CD, not on cassette, not on vinyl.

That’s where I always go back to in terms of vinyl vs CD – what format did the artist originally intend for you to listen to their music on? So in the eighties, it was all vinyl because CDs were this weird thing, right? That whole thing with the poorly remastered CDs coming to market. And that’s probably where some of that thought process comes from – that vinyl is always better.

Fig. 3 - Sid Vicious, 1977

Fig. 3 – Sid Vicious, 1977

You mentioned the skinny jeans – I remember a time, if you wore skinny jeans, you were doing it deliberately – that in the eighties and nineties, nobody wore that kind of thing.

Yeah, people wore it – in the punk rock scene, that’s what you did – tight pants

Right, exactly – so it was a marker of a subculture that you expressed through the way you dressed.

Yeah – I’ve always said this: it was really cool to think until somewhere around the mid/late nineties – I’m not sure why, but I have a reason to think the Internet is responsible for this. Up until the late nineties, the way you dressed was a signal to what music you listened to. And that was especially true in the seventies and eighties. You can name the top ten artists of a person by just looking at a photograph of them. But then, something happened in the late nineties where that’s gone – completely. You can look like one thing and act like another. I think it’s because of the Internet, but I don’t know why… do you? can you connect those two things at all?

I think probably… that’s exactly right. Because in the mid to late nineties you started finding out about things from a source that wasn’t the five punks you hung out with, the hardcore kids…

Exactly – it wasn’t the record store you went to, it wasn’t the bookstore you went to, it was like a faceless blog you found stuff out from or a message board.

Yes, mailing lists!

Mailing lists. You were listening to samples – you had no idea what anybody looked like, really. And there weren’t digital cameras yet either – these were faceless bits of information… it just went into a thousand different directions. And we’re not immune to that, you and I.  Because of the Internet, we do things that we would’ve never done. You know what i mean?

“Because of the Internet, we’ve become so many things that we would’ve never become.”

Yeah, I think it’s a way of connecting people that normally they wouldn’t have anybody to connect with or develop in that way locally. But it’s interesting, in the nineties you could find out about weird stuff, but you still had to go and physically get it. We didn’t have the infrastructure to be able to download it.

I had this conversation a couple of nights ago – one of the things I’m most grateful for is, that I am at an age where i got to experience a little bit of life without the Internet. Barely, because I got internet at a very young age, in 1990 or 1991 – I was thirteen.  Then, nobody had the Internet – very few people. it was Prodigy, CompuServe and AOL and that’s pretty much it. But before that, I was still young, still into what I thought was music – but I got to experience things without [the Internet] there. I remember, I would order Sub Pop [records] – I was really into Sub Pop, right? In the late eighties and early nineties. And I would get the one piece of black and white paper [catalogue] that you would mail away for – they would mail it to you and you would mark off the records you want and include cash or a check and mail it to Seattle. And they would send you the records or early CDs. And then, even myself, I forgot about that paper completely as soon as Sub Pop had a black and white text only website. Where I was like, “here’s what I need” and send them an email. You’d still send them money, but it changed everything. And even to see that transition at a young age, I kind of wish I was even older so I could have experienced more without the Internet. But now it’s like – everyone I know in their twenties, they have no idea what it was like before the Internet.

It’s interesting, I’m friends with a lot of people connected with the underground music scene in Columbus, Ohio, which is where I grew up. And there’s that aspect of it, but there was also a tendency to feel a little isolated as well [in the pre-Internet era]. So maybe that’s a good thing [to find those connections via the Internet].

In Part Two… Kiya’s Rick Owens story, the theme behind the Japanese brands at Self Edge, retail in the online age and why customer service still matters: https://thecrossfire.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/an-interview-with-kiya-babzani-part-two/

(*) Robert Henke (of Monolake) has a superbly insightful article on the mastering process, which also explains that there are physical impossibilities in cutting records of certain IDM-type records: http://www.monolake.de/interviews/mastering.html

Photo credits:

Fig. 1 – Tess Freeman, Oregon Public Broadcasting (www.opb.org)
Fig. 2 – Intelligentsia Coffee (www.intelligentsia.com)
Fig. 3 – Photograph by Dennis Morris, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org)

Feed Bands, Save the Planet, Make a Capitalist Rich

columbiahouse

This content-rich post is brought to you by…

I first found out about this company Feedbands from a promoted tweet on Twitter – I challenge you to read “Feedbands is the Netflix of vinyl” and not think, “what the fuck does that mean?”  In the meantime, they updated their description to the more prosaic: “Feedbands presses an unsigned band to vinyl and sends it to you monthly.”  Records are only available to subscribers, for the month that they’re available and the band isn’t disclosed until the pressing is sold out.  All this costs you $25 a month (i.e. the cost of buying almost any new album that you actually want).

I can’t do a better job of conveying how ludicrous this sounds than they can, so I will note the following highlights from their website:

  • First Pressing – “Our records are always the first pressing of fresh tunes that rock. That makes each record an instant rarefied collector’s item.”
  • Biodegradable Download Card – “Your vinyl record comes with a biodegradable download card that you can use to download a digital version of the record. The download card is embedded with wildflower seeds: plant it, water it, and watch it grow.”
  • Why vinyl? – “Any true music lover will tell you that vinyl offers the absolute best listening experience. The analog and uncompressed sound of a vinyl record is leaps and bounds above mp3s -a difference which simply has to be heard to fully understand. […] Vinyl is physical. It’s something you actually own, as opposed to streams and digital files that can disappear into the ether. […] A vinyl record is sacred, handled carefully, and stored conscientiously. A vinyl record is forever.” [nb – that’s great but then does that make the downloads sacrilege?]

That last point is particularly of interest, considering how the bands are selected.   Musicians upload songs – if they pass muster with the “curators” of the site, they’re published to an app where listeners can listen and vote on their favorite.  Said curators then select the lucky band who makes it to the vinyl stage and is paid “thousands of dollars.”

I’m kind of fascinated by how expensive bad ideas make it to the stage where they can start losing money (“Hey VC, I have an idea for a record-of-the-month club from a label that doesn’t exist!  It’s like American Idol meets Columbia House!”), so I did a little digging.  What I found is:

Feedbands has been around for a few months before starting the vinyl thing, purely as a streaming music service – in fact, the records weren’t even mentioned before the recent ad campaign.  So what was their original purpose?  According to founding partner Nico Salakar(**):

“Feedband’s mission is to create an environment in which music can thrive. But what does it mean for music to thrive? It means that a talented artist or talented group can make enough income off their music to support themselves, to pay rent and buy food. It means that people around the world will hear their music.”

OK, well everybody can get behind that.  Salakar continues:

“To accomplish this, we accept only original music from truly independent artists. By working with artists who have the ability to make their own decisions about their own music, we can distribute music worldwide. Did you know that Pandora and Spotify are available only in a very limited number of countries? That is because the process of bringing the major label catalog to a new country is so administratively complex that it is nearly impossible.”

Now it’s interesting – as anyone familiar with music licensing for streaming media could tell you(*), the “administrative complexity” is because artists and record labels have to get paid by those operators.  And guess what! The Feedbands Artist Agreement indicates “Artist hereby waives the benefit of the ‘performance complement’ and any other provision of Federal law limiting or governing what recordings or songs are playable over Company’s Internet radio station.”  Rather convenient.

I am not suggesting that this is inherently evil (although it’s a little disingenuous to say your mission is to ensure artists are adequately compensated while making them agree to waive part of the rights that ensure this – however, the artist is still entitled to 2/3 of any gross revenue derived from their sale of the music under a non-exclusive license (***)) – but it does really illustrate where the future of media lays – content creation belongs to everyone and no-one, instagram for mp3s.

While we inexorably slouch towards a Jacques Attali-gone-wild post-authorship apocalypse, I’ll be thinking of all those people whose daily passion is to find and share music that turns their world upside down – maybe I should designate $25 of my monthly budget to one I’ve never supported in the past.

(*) or why not find out for yourself and read Damon Krukowski’s excellent piece for Pitchfork?

(***) taken from a Facebook post soliciting contributors, January 2013:

feedbands

(***) meaning the “thousands of dollars” guaranteed by the FAQ is generated from a number of subscribers ranging approximately 200-700; presumably towards the bottom of that scale

The Revolution That Few Heard – aka An Ode to the Import Bin

Last week, I mentioned the distorting lens of history relative to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and thought it would illuminating to remember how you heard about that kind of band back in 1991.  Not in a get off my lawn / walked to school uphill both ways kind of way, but rather to show how the 90s so thoroughly transformed how underground culture is disseminated.

Back in the 80s, there was college rock and there was modern rock(*).  The ur-college rock band was R.E.M. but it basically covered all the small, independent music being played on college radio stations across the US – your Pylons, your Butthole Surfers, Dead Milkmen, Del Fuegos.  Lots of local bands – it was the era of the college radio station LP featuring local bands who dreamed of playing the gig of their life in front of a major label A&R guy at the annual CMJ music conference in New York.  Modern rock was usually from Britain and generally descended from New Wave.  The Cure reigned supreme, alongside Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Smiths, Sisters of Mercy, Echo and the Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs etc.  You could still go to your local mom and pop record store and buy Killing Joke t-shirts long after anyone would have any cause to.

Back then, record stores enforced this segregation via bins dedicated to imports.  I think the idea was that imports were more expensive and that most record buyers wouldn’t want to swim through $10 extended remix 12″es.  But it was more of a cultural divide; if New Wave yielded modern rock, then it was easy to go backwards one step to arrive at dance music and disco – the most unpunk thing ever.  This animosity (to Animotion?) was never better expressed than in the Dead Milkman’s tongue-in-cheek “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything).” (**)

By 1988, My Bloody Valentine had signed to Creation and released Isn’t Anything.  This was before the wave of bands that would make that label a marker of cool in the US – maybe you’d have heard of the House of Love, but the Primal Scream didn’t get big until “Loaded” and the Jesus and Mary Chain weren’t associated with Creation (***).  So rather, they were lumped in with the sensitive (non-dancey) foreign bands like the Cocteau Twins, the Smiths and the Church.  I’m sure there are still loads of underground music heads in their 40s who still associate this era of MBV with the goth kids at their school.

By the turn of the decade into the 90s, there were signs of both camps breaking large – on the US side there was Sonic Youth, the Pixies, The Replacements and Dinosaur Jr (sorta).  The UK had the Stone Roses and the Jesus and Mary Chain.  All of this was scooped into an emerging alternative / modern rock commercial radio format which had a bumper crop of hits from both sides of the Atlantic to choose from.  I remember a new station launching in Columbus, Ohio called CD101 and it’s hard to believe they would have bands in rotation like Siouxsie, the La’s, Ride, Lush, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Blur and the Farm – on top of the Blue Aeroplanes, Something Happens and An Emotional Fish.  So in retrospect, you’d think Loveless would have every opportunity to make a mark.

And then came “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

I can still recall seeing that video for the first time in the living room of one of the last parties of the summer (September 1991), just after debating the merits of the Sex Pistols album (my argument was: great songs, major label production).  I cannot remember another moment where one song came out of nowhere and changed everything overnight.  But change it did – thereafter, commercial alternative was on a non-stop kick of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, followed by Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and the soundtrack to Singles.  And so the metal-leaning, male sound of grunge became the sound of rock for the early 90s in the US, even as rave culture in the UK gave rise to the early Too Pure stable and the “true” rockers went Britpop.

So where did that leave Loveless?  It appeared two months after Nevermind and My Bloody Valentine toured the US that winter in support of Dinosaur Jr with a regional opener (the Midwest got Babes in Toyland).  Several of my friends really liked it but nobody thought it was any kind of revolution.

(*) yes this is slightly reductive

(**) Which, ironically, made the Billboard club charts.  Also, please don’t tell me about the pre hip-hop Beastie Boys mixing it up at Danceteria or the Mudd Club.  That’s exactly why kids like me spent their childhoods dreaming of moving to New York City.  In Ohio, acid washed jeans landed in the mid eighties and I had a mullet in high school.

(***) That the Jesus and Mary Chain weren’t associated with British indie acts of the late 80s and early 90s demonstrates that they kept their punk credentials intact.

The New, New Record by My Bloody Valentine

Tell me again why we agreed to this photo? (HT: http://shadowplayfanzine.blogspot.com)

Careful with that axe, Bilinda (aka – “Tell me again why we agreed to this photo?” HT: http://shadowplayfanzine.blogspot.com)

If you had given birth to a baby on the day that My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless was released in 1991, your child would have been able to celebrate the release of its follow-up mbv by legally raising a glass to it.  It is true almost by default that your hypothetical child would regard Loveless as the sine qua non of MBV’s existence, as the Pitchfork generation who just missed the band as an actual living entity cascaded their received wisdom to those who now hold the nineties as a remote, holy land of legend (more on that in the next post).

While the narrative of a sui generis masterpiece followed by incapacitating artistic struggle trying to follow it up is an appealing one (Loveless as Pet Sounds; Kevin Shields holding the baton for a new generation of teenage symphonies), it’s difficult for me to swallow for a couple of reasons:

  1. If there was a sui generis masterpiece in this story, it’s the “Glider” EP – released half a year earlier.  As much as I like the two prior My Bloody Valentine albums(*), the band was always at its best in a shorter format.  It is ridiculous to imagine that they went from “Strawberry Wine” to “You Made Me Realise” in one year and then another 18 months to “Glider” – a series of artistic reinventions on par with some of the greats – take your pick: The Who? The Beach Boys?  Dare I say the Velvet Underground?
  2. The narrative presumes that the failed follow-up to Loveless can be recognized as a work of genius even in debased or draft form.  Since this never existed, we would have no reason to believe that it would be great.

Which brings us to mbv. After a de facto build up like this, it almost seems like a joke that it’s actually here, almost as cosmically perverse as MBV’s sonic perfectionist-in-chief, Kevin Shields’ decision to release it initially as a digital download.

The most surprising aspect is that the album sounds plausibly like it could have been released in the early to mid 90s alongside later Bark Psychosis, early Seefeel or other groups trying to reconcile the twin creative explosions in British dance music and indie pop. Which is to say, it sounds like what a follow up to Loveless would have sounded like if it had been released in a more timely manner.  As many have already observed, it’s roughly a triptych of three songs each which I will presume to label as: a) Loveless outtakes before being finished, b) simpler arrangements similar to some of the Loveless era non-LP tracks (c.f. “Don’t Ask Why”)  and c) an attempt to incorporate more aggressive drum programming (**).

None of these are problematic directions and the sonics are pretty great – one thing that none of Shields’ direct disciples were able to do is capture the emotional nuance of his guitar playing and this is the fullest and richest sounding record they’ve done since “Glider” and “Tremelo” (***)  The swooning dive of his tremelo just may be the blue note of white guitar nerdness and he is still the unchallenged master.

But while I find it an easy, enjoyable listen, I instantly forget what it sounds like after it’s over because there’s little memorable to hold on to.  In their great records of the past, it could be a tune (“Sunny Sundae Smile,” “Sue Is Fine”), memorable arrangement (“Soon,” “Strawberry Wine”) or both (“You Made Me Realise”).  It’s almost like there are too many ideas that it became overwhelming to express them simply, which is always the magic trick to pop music.  Or maybe Shields is on a post-pop evolution and just wants to make cool sounding guitar music.  Totally fine, but he has a ways to go if that’s his intention.

Going back to the Beach Boys analogy, mbv seems like a Smiley Smile.  Which is cool with me because two albums later came Friends and four later was Sunflower.

Whatever the case, my hopes now are that he’s cleared out the last twenty years of ideas and can focus on whatever it is that floats his boat without all the ballast.

(*) for the record – really good flecked with greatness but not amazing

(**) It should be noted that Shields has been working with looped dance beats since the “Instrumental” 7″ that accompanied some copies of Isn’t Anything (based around “Funky Drummer”).  What’s notable here is the aggression, not the idiom.  Anyone telling you otherwise is probably easily sold on late 90s IDM or early dubstep – if you disagree, please contact me at your earliest convenience for a great opportunity to purchase said IDM on the cheap

(***) From the perspective of dynamic ranges.  My favorite thing about Loveless is the way its layers are stacked up in such a compressed range but easily teased out on closer listening.  Miles Davis just may have been impressed.

Midlife Mixtape Part Three

9. UGK “One Day” (1996)

A litany of setbacks and struggles – which only emphasizes the underlying will to live that gives this song its power.  I’m never sure of how much coordination there is when different MCs put together their verses, but it’s a nice touch how it begins with a matter of fact statement of child abandonment and ends with an urge to show love to your kids.  It is crazy how tuned in I am to this song right now.

10. Cat Power, “Lived in Bars” (2006)

The vocal turn kills me every time (“We know your house so very well”) .  I haven’t seen Chan Marshall perform since a live show more than ten years ago and find the video somewhat unexpected.  I don’t know why I need the Alex Olson skateboard deck with her on it, but I do.

11. The Beatles, “Hey Jude” (1968)

I got so tired with the idea that the Beatles invented music as we knew it that I probably still own more Yoko Ono records than those by the Fab Four.  It’s always been a stupid and false dichotomy – Beatles / Stones, John / Paul.  While I spent years of dismissing McCartney for no real reason other than my personal sense of opposition, it’s a great gift to be able to appreciate something special for the first time at my age.  There’s something about this mix that sounds like Paul McCartney is singing right into my ear.

So that’s it – I’ve always been of the mind that a compilation should be album-sized.  I’m sure I’ve broken that rule many times but in general you have to quit while you’re ahead.

The reverse-scroll nature of a blog doesn’t suit this kind of thing so I’ll post up a Youtube playlist shortly and you don’t have to do all the clicking