Liverpool Psych Fest: Sacred Bones Records interviewed

It's a prolific time for Brooklyn's Sacred Bones label; with some of the finest records of the year under their belts, and ahead of Liverpool Psych Fest (where they’ve co-curated a stage with Chile’s BYM label), we chat with general manager Taylor Brode

Feature by Will Fitzpatrick | 17 Sep 2015

“I can’t imagine that I would ever be interested in doing something else as a career,” Taylor Brode tells us. It’s a familiar expression in the music industry, as common from the mouths of pouting indie rock hopefuls as from doe-eyed X Factor auditionees. Though intended to convey a mixture of romanticism, determination and focus, it almost always betrays the pie-in-the-sky hopelessness upon which dreams of fame and fortune are built – a lack of experience clouded, sometimes wilfully, by blind hope that the reality of ambition is neither intangible as clouds nor delicate as bubbles.

And yet when Brode utters those words, they sound perfectly straightforward; completely reasonable. Then again, her role as general manager of Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones Records is one where dreams and ideals have to be wedded to pragmatism – where romance has to be tempered by practicality without losing its sheen. “This is what I love to do,” she continues. “I love working with bands and finding out about new music, and just helping bands realise their goals.” That balance, it would appear, is in good health, which is presumably just one of the factors behind the renowned and increasingly respected indie label’s meteoric rise over the past eight years… but back up a minute. Let’s start earlier.

Sacred Bones was founded in 2007 by Caleb Braaten, an employee of Williamsburg’s Academy Records, who simply wanted to release an EP by his friends and reissue some curate’s eggs from the 80s heyday of British post-punk. Even as a youngster, he had always been surrounded by records. “His friends’ parents owned a store – they still do – called Twist and Shout, in Denver,” explains Brode cheerfully, with the knowledgeable air of someone well-versed in their own history. “He got into music from working there when he was younger, and he’s been a lifelong record collector. His taste is really wide, he likes a lot of post-punk and darker music, but also a lot of jazz and soul music and rap music… pretty broad.”

"We really try to have a community" – Taylor Brode

This open approach served Braaten well when he moved to New York over a decade ago, and began to immerse himself in Brooklyn’s notoriously hip music scene. “The first record that he ever put out was a seven-inch by this band called The Hunt, who were just good friends of his. He started a label to do that and also to do some reissues. It was mostly a New York-based label, and the bands were from here – people he’d met in the shop. Blank Dogs was the first 12-inch he ever put out, and that was [Captured Tracks boss] Mike Sniper’s band. They worked at Academy together, so that’s kind of how that came up.”

Food for thought is offered to anyone who imagines that starting a label – even in such a cultural metropolis – might be a glamorous pursuit. “He started the label in the basement of Academy, and he did two, three years there. I moved here in 2010 [having worked previously for Chicago’s legendary Touch and Go stable, the effortlessly professional Brode is no stranger to the industry] so we both worked in their basement for about two years. We moved into our office in 2012; we didn’t have internet and there were rats in the basement, no windows… it was truly a basement for a long time. But we have a proper office now with phones and stuff…!”

Since those humble beginnings, the label has relocated (along with Academy) to Green Point, slightly further to the north of Brooklyn than their Billyburg origins. It’s also become one of the most widely respected indie labels in North America – a tastemaker label in the mould of Sub Pop, Homestead or even Touch and Go, covering a wide base of genres from the glistening electronic pitter-patter of Blanck Mass to Jenny Hval’s deconstructivist, gender-freeing pop to Destruction Unit’s sandstorm-buffeted hardcore to… well, you get the picture. Did the label always have designs on such eclecticism, we wonder? Brode pauses to consider. “I think it was more just what was going on in Brooklyn; I don’t think [Braaten] started the label with the intention of it just being one genre. We’ve done folk records and a lot of psych records, and experimental, and noise… we try to keep it open.”

And yet it feels like there has been a consistent strand of darkness in the label’s output. “We don’t like to box ourselves in as being goth or dark or anything. People sort of attach that to us. I think a lot of it is because of Zola Jesus; we did all of her early records, and a lot of her coverage at the time was comparing her to Siouxsie, so I think we kind of got lumped in with that genre. It’s not really what we consider ourselves.

“You know The Men? Leave Home, the first record we did with them, sounds really different than the stuff they put out after; they got a lot more into country and folk and blues. They were sort of like a hardcore band at the beginning, but they really evolved over the four records we’ve done with them. We’ve had opportunities to work on stuff like that before but we’ve passed; we veer more towards the avant-garde, or edgy, weirder stuff.”

For all this wilful diversity, however, Sacred Bones have always been drawn towards the concept of visual uniformity: the vast majority of their sleeves bear a simple design concept created specifically to draw regular listeners to new projects. The significance of this straightforward notion is not lost on Brode. “It’s really important!” she exclaims. “Basically all of our full-length LPs carry a template, so they have the record label logo on the front, and then the album title, and all the tracks listed on the front of the record. Caleb designed that format with our graphic designer David Correll – he really wanted to have our records be instantly recognisable, so you could look at something and know it was a Sacred Bones record. It was inspired by the Factory Records stuff, and Impulse Jazz. We really tried to make it coherent, so our listeners could trust our taste and take a chance on a band they don’t know because they recognise it from being on the label.”

This format is a little more flexible for bands who’ve stayed with the label for more than two records, but it begs the question of whether anyone has been reluctant to go along with the theme. Brode laughs. “There’s been a couple of bands that don’t love it, but you know, it’s sort of part of our deal. So I think bands know when they sign with us. We’re pretty upfront about it and if bands don’t want to do it, we don’t do their records. But that’s really only happened one or two times at the most.”

In terms of the US labels we mentioned earlier, are Sacred Bones conscious of being part of that lineage? “I think we are now. We’re in our eighth year and things are pretty different from when we started. We’re getting to work with a lot of artists and filmmakers who really influenced us, David Lynch being the forerunner there [Sacred Bones reissued the soundtrack to Lynch’s uber-surreal debut, Eraserhead]. We really count that as a blessing and not something we try to take that for granted.”

Are indie labels of that ilk important, then, in terms of defining eras or places? “Yeah, absolutely! It’s a document of what’s happening at the time – I mean, that’s literally what the word ‘record’ means. But I don’t think Caleb ever intended for it to just be that, you know? We have bands now from all over the globe, which is amazing.”

Indeed, it seems the process of bringing acts into the Sacred Bones fold is a shared task: “When we’re looking for new bands, we’ll ask our bands who they like, and we pay a lot of attention to who they’re touring with. We really try to have a community and a lot of our artists work together on releases or just become friends and hang out and do shows together. That’s really special to us.”

That community has since extended to BYM Records, an independent label based in Santiago, Chile, who share elements of their roster with Sacred Bones – specifically trance-tinged krautrockers Föllakzoid and the motorik dreampop of The Holydrug Couple. “It’s their friends’ label,” Brode tells us enthusiastically. “I think two of them are in this band called La Hell Gang, who are amazing – they were touring with Föllakzoid and Holydrug Couple in the United States a couple of years ago, so we hung out with them. They’re really sweet guys and we’re mutual fans of each other.”

This shared love has even extended to one of the highlights of late September, as the two labels jointly curate a stage at the hotly anticipated Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia. Placing the likes of Blanck Mass and Destruction Unit alongside South American wonders such as The Ganjas’ stoned fuzz brilliance and the epic Chicos de Nazca, it’s sure to be one of Psych Fest’s greatest spectacles thus far. Brode admits that, as this interview takes place, the two labels “haven’t gotten too far into the particulars” of how this joint curation will work, but is looking forward to her first experience of the festival. “We’re gonna try to do some limited-run merch, maybe some T-shirts or something,” she says, “and I think we’re gonna try to do a record just for Psych Fest… Most of it was really just arranged through the Psych Fest guys. We didn’t really know what BYM were planning and I don’t know if they knew what we were planning. But we’re really excited about the bands that will be there for sure, and meeting the Liverpool guys should be really cool.”

In the meantime, Sacred Bones has its own schedule to stick to, with Destruction Unit’s new LP (“A very aggressive punk record. It’s also very weird”) foremost on the horizon. We raise the subject of the label’s continued evolution, and Brode’s enthusiasm remains in place. “We’re just gonna keep doing what we do. I don’t expect us to be very rich any time soon… but you know, that’s the state of the music industry; it’s really tough with the way things are rapidly changing.” With all those obstacles in the way, how does a label maintain its enthusiasm? Hang on, this is where we came in: “Caleb and I both feel like this is our number one passion,” Brode states firmly. “I don’t see it changing any time soon. This is the one for me.”

Sacred Bones Records and BYM Records bring Blanck Mass, Destruction Unit, The Holydrug Couple, Chicos de Nazca, Vuelveteloca and The Ganjas to Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia, which takes place at Camp and Furnace, Blade Factory and District on 25-26 September