Who knew that such a tiny little record label started by a group of University of Maryland friends in the late 80s would go on to become one of the most celebrated and critically admired in the indie pop universe?
Over the past two decades, Slumberland head honcho Mike Schulman has offered indie music fans the world over tasty treat after tasty treat, releasing some of the most inspired and inspiring DIY recordings, including seminal work from Stereolab, Hood, Swirlies, Velocity Girl and of course, Black Tambourine (a band that Schulman was also a member of.) The man’s single minded commitment to his DIY ideals, his belief in the power of the pop song and his keen ear for talented bands has helped solidify the reputation of the Slumberland label as one of the most consistent and singularly impressive under the sun.
Now, you may have picked up on the fact that BYT is pretty into this whole Slumberland thing. And yes, we are especially stoked about TONIGHT’s not-to-be missed 20th Anniversary show at the Black Cat. But if you’re scratching your head, then look no further than the Slumberland videos Svetlana has been posting all week long. They offer a fine introduction into what makes this label so very special.
It’s only fitting that BYT concludes it’s mega three-part feature on the Slumberland label with an exclusive interview with “Golden Ears” himself, the man whose record signings prompt eye dilations and heart palpitations among the indie cognoscenti the world over. Special props to Mike for taking time out from running family errands and changing diapers to talk about his “other baby”—the one and only Slumberland Records.
BYT: Kind of an obvious question but has hitting the 20 year mark started to sink in yet?
Mike: I’ve been so busy this year with new releases and stuff that I haven’t had a lot of time to reflect I guess. Somewhere around this time last year, I was talking to some people about the anniversary and whether or not I should do anything. Will anyone even care? Do I want to go to the trouble? And everyone was like, ‘Oh yeah, you should definitely do something.’
It is kind of starting to sink in a little. Not to be bigheaded about it, but it’s kind of amazing actually. There’s a lot to be said for longevity and it’s not easy getting to where we’ve gotten; it’s been a lot of fucking work and there’s no way around that. I guess I can kind of pat myself on the back a little bit and say, well, I did a lot of that work. And I did it while having real jobs and family and all that kind of stuff. It’s pretty cool.
BYT: One of the things I find most admirable about the Slumberland label is the consistency. It seems like a lot of the longer running indie labels, particularly the larger ones, tend to make some pretty obvious commercial concessions along the way…
BYT: …yet, I don’t get the sense that you’ve ever put out anything that hasn’t come from the heart. You really believe in all your releases. And I think 20 years of doing that is something to be especially proud of.
Mike: Thanks. I mean, I can’t say that the thought didn’t cross my mind at a couple points to try to do something to make the label a little bit bigger and put out some stuff that had some more obvious commercial appeal, you know? Even with the limited arena in which we are dealing with. But I didn’t want to fuck up what the label was about and what I feel like it kind of represented for me which was basically just putting out stuff because I really liked it, and not worrying about whether it was going to sell 300 copies or 3,000 copies.
Maybe it’s kind of pig-headed or bloody minded or something? But I feel like in a way, that’s what allows us to last that long. I didn’t try to grab the brass ring necessarily. There were never overblown expectations placed on the label. And I didn’t get myself in a situation where I had to sell X amount of records to satisfy some business partner or something. It’s been a blessing in that it’s given us the freedom to just do whatever the fuck we want, you know? If that meant putting out records that people weren’t that interested in at the time and now they are, then that’s cool. Everything plays out over the long span of time. It’s easy to go ahead and sign some band that people are really into and sell your records in the short term, but are people going to want to listen to that record in 20 years? That’s always been to me a big criterion in deciding what to put out. I don’t want to put out stuff I won’t want to listen to.
Mike: And not to knock people who do. If I were to put some stuff out that would sell better and it would bring in some money, that would enable me to put out more records that no one would want to buy (laugh). Maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world?
BYT: And in pointing out that a lot of the long-running indies have done that, I wasn’t necessarily making a value judgment there. I think it’s an understandable position to take.
Mike: You know how it is, you know people who do labels so you know how hard it is. People do what they have to do. And I totally understand that. Some people who run labels I’m sure are maybe not in it for the same reasons. But ultimately, it entails a great deal of financial and personal sacrifice. If there are ways that people can ease some of that sacrifice without really totally blowing it, then great. I can’t knock that.
BYT: We’ve talked about music a few times before and I know that you’re someone who is interested in a lot of different kinds of music that aren’t represented on the label.
BYT: And I was curious how you came to sort of define Slumberland’s musical aesthetic in the way that you did?
Mike: I don’t know, it certainly wasn’t premeditated or anything. When we started, the bands we had going on––Big Jesus Trash Can, Powderburns, Velocity Girl and even before Velocity Girl when they were the Godderdammacrats––it was stuff that was a bit noisier and we were all pretty heavily into The Birthday Party, the Lower East side stuff like Swans and Sonic Youth. And some of the records we put out were more in that vein. But we also liked the poppier stuff. You know, it’s just kind of the direction that our bands went in. And because that’s the direction we went in, the next handful of records we put out were in that vein. And then we started meeting other bands that shared those similar interests. So then we started putting out records by bands like Jane Pow, Small Factory, Honeybunch…we kind of got into that genre. And I guess in some ways, that’s pretty much where we still are. It’s 3 minute songs that generally have melodies, that may or may not have some crazy guitar noise. It was kind of an organic thing and we’ve just kind of stuck with it.
BYT: Did you have any concerns in the early days that the label’s sounds might be a bit too specifically anglophilic for DC’s area music scene to appreciate?
Mike: Uh…nope. I mean, I was conscious of that but I didn’t really care either. Again, it’s just the stuff that we liked, you know? If people were afraid of English bands who ironically sounded like 60s American bands, you know, the Beach Boys or The Byrds or whatever, the idea that that form of pop music is kind of exclusively English, it’s so disappointing/outlandish anyway.
I’ve always been conscious of how that kind of sets us apart from a lot of other American labels. A lot of people think of our stuff as kind of being English style. To some people that’s a negative, and to other people it’s a positive. People get out of it what they get out of it. I don’t stress about it too much. I don’t think it’s really the case that we’re just anglophiles. I mean, it just happens that a lot of the stuff I like is English but…it’s not like I would immediately say, ‘Oh this band is English, I like them more than I would like them if they’re American.’
BYT: Well, I think it’s more a byproduct of the fact that you’re someone who really appreciates a good melody and the DIY aesthetic at the same time, and I think around that time, for better or worse, a lot of the bands that were making those sounds tended to be overseas.
Mike: Yeah. I mean, New Zealand had a lot of bands that we all really loved. England obviously. Sweden did, Germany did. It just is what it is. I never really thought of the label as trying to be a regional kind of label or being an American label. I just always thought of it as the music we liked. So it didn’t matter where a band was from, whether they were from DC or Brighton or Providence or wherever. It was just the good stuff. And that’s kind of what it’s about.
BYT: When you look back at the early period of Slumberland, how do you feel about those really key years of growing the label? Do you have mostly positive memories or do you remember things being really difficult?
Mike: I look at it really positively. It was really exciting. We were all really…almost to a one, we were all super amateur. Most of us had never even picked up an instrument. I think Archie and Kelley maybe had a little more musical background, but you know, I certainly didn’t. I don’t think Brian did, Rob, Dan, a lot of us, like…we were just into Sonic Youth and the Jesus and Mary Chain. We were like, ‘Fuck! We’re going to start bands! This is amazing!’ And uh…to take it from that level to having records out and having people kind of take you almost seriously as a label…and to have all that transpire in 3 or 4 years…it was thrilling.
I was always a record collector and a music fan and the idea of participating at the level of the people who I was inspired by, it still is exciting to me. I look back on that and think, ‘I can’t believe we fucking did it.’ It seems crazy that a bunch of people who didn’t know anything about playing music or running a record label, started bands, played shows and put out records. It’s totally punk rock. But the music we made wasn’t punk rock (laughs). I look back on that time not with nostalgia but with pride. I think it’s pretty ballsy what we did. The fact that people are still listening to those records 20 years later. I’m humbled. It’s kind of amazing.
BYT: One of the things that Archie touched on was that there seems to be a bit of revisionist history going on with how some young musicians in particular perceive Black Tambourine. Because the proper context isn’t there, Black Tambourine’s history has been mythologized to the point where they are sometimes seen as having an impact on par with the Jesus & Mary Chain. But that wasn’t exactly what happened (laughs).
Mike: (laughs) We probably played to a total of 50 people across all the different shows we ever did. And mostly it was the same people coming to see us (laugh), which would have been the people in the other bands.
Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, it’s interesting that that context might not be there. But it’s also exciting that the context isn’t necessary for people to enjoy the music. To me that’s kind of what it’s about. I never say that I can’t enjoy the Exploding Plastic Inevitable because I wasn’t at the Dom or wherever. I can listen to those records and enjoy them and get fired up and want to get drunk or do drugs or jump around my room and listen to them and want to start a band. And the fact that I can appreciate them without having the first-hand context; or even the truth behind it, not really knowing what it was like, it’s great. That’s one of the things that I love about music. It operates differently for different people. And they can project different things on the same records and it’s a very personal thing.
But it’s just cool that Black Tambourine can operate outside of that context. And the people who do know the context, maybe that excites them even more? They’re like, ‘Wow, these guys were making this music and no one really liked it.’ You know? And no one wanted to come and see them play because it wasn’t punk rock enough or something.
BYT: I also wanted to ask you about your move, and really the label’s move, to the West Coast. I think that was in ’93 maybe?
BYT: How did moving to the West Coast affect your running Slumberland? Did it help or hinder you in any way? I know things started to slow down towards the middle to late 90s and you had some periods of inactivity.
Mike: Um…I don’t know how to formulate this. It kind of took the label away from being more of a community effort into kind of being my effort, which was difficult for me because it’s a lot of work. I don’t know…It’s more exciting putting out a single when you have 10 friends that you can get together with and stuff the singles. It sort of left that aspect behind…
BYT: I know you were able to do that when you were working at Vinyl Inc. in Silver Spring, Maryland. Archie told me about how Vinyl Inc was sort of the defacto headquarters of Slumberland at one point.
Mike: It was great. I could get stuff delivered there. We used to have our record stuffing parties there. George, who owned the store, was just really behind the label and he helped us financially a few times when we got kind of stuck and didn’t have enough money to put a single out.
I personally left a lot behind when I moved to California. I left some of my best friends behind. I left behind this zone of safety which had been forged for the label. And uh…maybe it forced me to work a little bit harder or to kind of focus my efforts a little bit more. Certainly over the 17 years that we’ve been on the West Coast, there’s been times when I’ve just had other priorities where the label had to take something of a back seat. You know, switching jobs or when I got married, that kind of stuff.
I think from the perspective of the kind of day to day mechanics of running the label, the flip side is, I still work in a record store in Berkeley even though the people in the store aren’t quite as sympathetic as George was. It moved me much closer to my primary distributor who is in San Francisco. And that was convenient logistically. I could go down there and talk to the people who run other labels because people would just be stopping by and dropping things off, picking things up. So there are definitely some advantages to it as well. Nothing is as good as being in the city as where a lot of your bands are. That’s exciting. Eventually, we had Henry’s Dress who were in San Francisco, Rocketship were in Sacramento, and The Aisler’s Set were in San Francisco. We were able to find some like minds out there as well.
BYT: And more recently you’ve got a band like Brilliant Colors who are out in that direction too, right?
Mike: Yeah, they’re out of San Francisco.
BYT: I was going to say it seems like there’s a pretty good jangly DIY scene going on in various parts of the West Coast these days.
Mike: Yeah, there’s a lot of great bands. I don’t go out as much as I used to because of the baby and being a little bit older so I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff going on that I’m missing as well which is frustrating. But there’s a lot of great stuff going on. There’s a lot of interesting, kind of garagey bands like Thee Oh Seas and Grass Widow who I know we both like.
BYT: Oh yeah, definitely. Grass Widow are one of my favorite current bands no question.
Mike: It’s really an amazing time for music right now. And I think maybe you and I talked about it before, that as hurt as the music business is at the moment, it seems like there’s more music than ever and there’s so much good stuff around. It might be harder for labels to sell it but there’s definitely no dearth of good things to listen to.
BYT: Was that sort of what prompted you to ramp up Slumberland activity again pretty intensely a few years ago? Did you have a sense that the indie zeitgeist might be shifting back to your way of thinking a little with all these great jangly sort of Slumberlandish bands starting to emerge?
Mike: Um…not that explicitly I don’t think. It definitely…things slowed down for the label like around 2001 and 2002 and partially it was due to the fact that I wasn’t hearing a lot of new bands that excited me. Around 2005 and 2006 it seemed like I was hearing more bands that I was excited about. And I guess in a way, it was people kind of coming around to our way of thinking to the aesthetic we appreciate.
When I kind of kicked the label back into gear in 2006, it was almost like starting over. I didn’t have a big ambition beyond putting out The How single and The Crabapples single that were sitting on my shelf. And you know, finding all these new bands, I had been listening to them but the idea of putting out records by them wasn’t a big motivation until I got the singles out, made a new Web site and got the MySpace page going. Then I realized that people were still kind of into what we were doing. They were paying attention and it kind of struck me as being feasible. But to get in touch with some of these bands and work with them, it’s turned out great. Way beyond my expectations.
BYT: And at the same time, it seems like the indie media started to open itself up a little bit more to covering that side of the scene. Whereas back in the early 90s, I would imagine it would have been a lot more difficult to get some national media attention.
Mike: Yeah. I would say that’s pretty accurate. I mean, we were really struggling to get noticed back then. And I think partially that was because of the kind of music we were putting out. It wasn’t quite like what all the other labels were doing. And uh, the press does seem a little bit more receptive now. Maybe they’re more receptive to the kind of lower-fi side of things than everything that we do.
BYT: Any theories as to why that might be the case?
BYT: Do you think part of it has to do with a bit of a backlash against the more commercialized Franz Ferdinand/Killers sound––especially since those kind of bands have been in the spotlight for a few years now and maybe there’s a hunger for something more gritty? Or is it something else?
Mike: Ahhhh…I don’t know. I’ve puzzled over it a lot. It seems at some point the idea of liking the Television Personalities, My Bloody Valentine and The Pastels…like some of those pretty key bands got totally rehabilitated. It became not just acceptable but expected. Like, if you were a cool American indie band, then these are the bands you’re into. It doesn’t naturally follow from that, but a lot of people who are into those bands are also into C86 or The Shop Assistants or whatever. I don’t really know why it happened. It’s weird. I think about it a lot. Because it really seems like in the 90s, American indie stuff wasn’t big on melody and songs…I mean, there’s always exceptions like Yo La Tengo or something. But pop was not exactly on the main menu in American indie land. Now it’s the main course.
BYT: Maybe it also has something to do with the instant accessibility factor of YouTube and MySpace and other sites? At any moment, a young kid can hear any of these great influential C86 bands or the post-punk stuff, or a band from your label and it’s easier to kind of hear something that’s really really great that’s also more underground or obscure. Whereas it used to be a lot harder to be exposed to that stuff.
Mike: Yeah, and you had talked earlier about not necessarily having the context for things. Maybe that’s a plus? Now kids can listen to stuff on the internet. They don’t have to have their tough guy friends with flannel shirts seeing how lame they are listening to pop music or something. No one has anything to prove when you’re not at the all ages show trying to be a tough guy. You’re just at home listening to the music that you like.
You know…I don’t know. I overthink these things a lot. I think about the masculine and the feminine. I always thought of the American indie scene as being pretty geared toward the masculine. There’s a lot of machismo—not that they were macho guys—but like SST or Touch and Go, Homestead, a lot of the stuff on those labels was not about pop songwriting…
BYT: Or even using space as a mechanism to create a wider sort of scope…
Mike: And the thing is, I really liked that stuff too. It was definitely a big part of our diet. I mean, if you were buying records in 1989 in America, you were buying the Volcano Suns record, you were buying Dinosaur Jr. It’s not like you didn’t know about that stuff.
There’s just so much out there. So many different things to listen to. I guess it’s interesting now to see some of these other sounds kind of getting synthesized in with everything else. It’s all mashed together. I think it’s awesome.
BYT: So I do have kind of a tough question for you about the Slumberland back catalog. Obviously, quite a few Slumberland releases are regarded as classics and have gotten a lot of critical attention. But then there’s also a good chunk of underrated, overlooked gems. I was wondering if someone gave you the opportunity to pick out one Slumberland release…
Mike: Oh no! (laughs)
BYT: …to say what do you think might be the most underrated record that you’ve put out? A record that you really wish people would give another listen to.
Mike: It is hard to choose but the record that bobs to my mind immediately when people ask me that type of question is the Jane Pow record. I just think that those guys were such amazing songwriters. They were kind of nominally coming from a sort of Mod side of things but they transcended that…
BYT: It was mod but they incorporated other elements.
Mike: They were super angry too and they were really into The Jam. On “Love It Be It” I hear a lot of Beach Boys. I think they were great songwriters and great arrangers. They were starting to work on new stuff that was sort of in a Norman Whitfield kind of vein that they had demoed. I just think they should have been much more noticed than they were.
They actually came over to the East Coast. We had them play with Stereolab. At the time, I thought, ‘Oh! This will break them big!’ But it didn’t really play out that way. I think the two records that I compiled on that cd are fantastic records. I still have a bunch of them at home (laughs). I would love people to hear it. You know, like I actually thought about just taking them out of the jewel boxes and sending them out for free with all the label mail orders. At this point, I figure the money I’ve spent on it has basically evaporated. I’m trying to earn it back by selling them now but what’s the point? I’d rather people just hear it.
BYT: Well, I was going to promise that when I get back to my apartment tonight I’m going to put on that Jane Pow cd.
Mike: You should. It’s so good!
BYT: So I did want to ask you about the reunion shows this weekend. Is it just the two gigs or are you doing more than DC and New York?
Mike: It’s just the two that are currently planned that are really happening. I’m trying to get some shows together for San Francisco and Los Angeles. Um…those will probably be in March I would think.
BYT: I’m sure Michael Stock (ed: Michael Stock runs the too awesome for words Part Time Punks event at The Echo in L.A.) could give you the hook up in L.A.
Mike: Oh he’s dying to do it (laughs). The one we’ll do in L.A., we’ll definitely do with him. But I still have some details to sort out about that. For some reason it just turned out to be logistically more complicated to get all the bands on the same page in the same place at the same time.
But yeah, I’m so excited about these shows man. I think it’s great that we’ve got some of the older bands and we’ve got some of the newer bands.
BYT: By the way, I did hear some murmurings that there might be an appearance from Black Tambourine.
Mike: No. It’s not going to happen (laughs). Unless somebody really surprises me and that would be a pretty big surprise because I’m in the band (laughs).
BYT: But you guys did have talks about the possibility of making it happen, right?
Mike: Um…I definitely tried to feel out the other guys to see whether we could do something because we’re going to reissue the compilation. And I thought it would be really good to be able to do some shows to support it when it comes out, but Pam really doesn’t like to travel.
BYT: Okay, so you’ve crossed the 20 year mark. What’s in the immediate future for the label?
Mike: Some more 20th anniversary shows hopefully. A lot of new records. We’ve got the Black Tambourine reissue coming out, Brown Recluse is working on an album, Devon Williams is working on an album, Never Ever started recording their album this weekend, basically the Champagne Socialists. Um…some other bands that I’m quite not at liberty to discuss just yet. But…as great as 2009 was, I feel like 2010 is going to be off the chain.
BYT: I can’t wait! Hey, thanks so much for taking the time for the interview. I am so looking forward to Friday night. See you then.
Mike: Alright Rick, see you soon.