Friday, January 28, 2011

Like Badgers and Birds: A Compilation to Support Wikileaks

Whatever your political persuasions, and whatever you think of the particular content that Wikileaks has unveiled, I think we can all agree that a movement toward transparency in the dealings of governments and corporations is necessary.  Orwell's doublespeak is here, loopholes are the lingua franca, and diplomacy has become the art of placation and duplicity.

C.J. Boyd, a bassist/multi-instrumentalist that I had the pleasure of gigging with several months ago, decided to put together a benefit compilation for Wikileaks in the wake of Julian Assange's pursuit (and subsequent arrest), when corporations like Amazon and Mastercard were making it quite clear which side of the debate over corporate and governmental secrecy they were on.  The compilation was released digitally December 19, 2010.

From the notes for Like Badgers And Birds:

Besides helping raise funds, I have organized this compilation with the hope that--through music--we can draw attention to the vital role that Wikileaks and other whistleblowers play in keeping us informed and our governments accountable. If you think this is a worthy cause, please give more than your money. Please stay informed, help educate those around you, and pursue actions in accordance with this understanding.  

The purpose of this compilation is to spread the word of Wikileaks' plight, and help gather support so that this irreplaceable organization can make it through this extremely difficult time. The music offered here has been donated by the artists in support of Wikileaks. All of the proceeds from this album will be donated to Wikileaks.

Independent musicians, labels, and listeners come together to support Wikileaks in its struggle against corporate America's unofficial sanctions. The Pentagon has bombarded this organization with denial of service attacks. Meanwhile, PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, Amazon, and other corporations have all succumbed to pressured from the US Government to deny service to this organization that has broken no US law. Therefore, Wikileaks needs more support now than ever. 

One of the unique things about Like Badgers And Birds is that it is not a static compilation.  Every week, songs are added, songs are subtracted, the order is altered -- producing a living document that eloquently maps the unease of the time (I almost said "zeitgeist").  Secrecy has always been a favorite tool of tyrants.  Star chambers, secret prisons, new definitions of torture, new definitions of terror -- these are ways to quell due process, to stifle open debate.  

I think we all know that true privacy has been gone for a long time.  From employers, parents, and law enforcement spying on individual's social networks, to identity thieves, to corporate buying and selling of private debts, to bots scouring the internet for flagged words and phrases, to closed-circuit security cameras everywhere you look; our former concerns about nosy neighbors and invasive advertisers seem silly and small by comparison.  The question has become, how many ways is your privacy not being violated?

Wikileaks is the test case -- and by no means will it be the final test -- of our resolve to hold institutions to the same standards that we expect of fellow citizens.  Certainly there is a place for secrecy in governments, in banks, and in businesses.  However, unlike privacy, secrecy is not a right.  It is a privilege only due to those institutions that do not abuse it.  It is ironic that some among us are quick to surrender a right but loathe to retract a privilege.

Stargrazer offered an instrumental track to Like Badgers And Birds, written especially for the compilation, called "Ecliptical Ovoidance."  This week, Stargrazer's track is featured, and ITAV is honored by the opportunity to support this effort to further accountability among principalities and powers who would usurp our rights and place us in servitude to their privileges.

You can download/listen to the entire compilation, which is a musical testament to artistic revolution, and a moving statement of solidarity beneath the flag of Truth,  at the link below:

Every Sunday, C.J. reconfigures the compilation, rendering it a fresh sensory experience and maintaining the organic artistic outlook that informs this particular creative outpouring.

By purchasing Like Badgers And Birds, you are not only obtaining a unique body of music that captures some of the spirit of humanity's struggle to be human -- to be humane -- you are directly supporting Wikileaks' ability to continue to make the hidden, criminal elements entrenched in our institutions extremely uncomfortable.  And in time, to afford changes on the global stage that favor civility, transparency, and honor over furtiveness, mendacity, and rancor.

In an ideal world, we would be able to place our trust in financial institutions, corporations, and governing bodies.  The laughable nature of that previous sentence, currently, is the reason why activist organizations like Wikileaks are necessary to the survival and advancement of the world community.  While perhaps total transparency is a similarly naive ideal, the time is long past to expose abuses of power and privilege that have directly fed into a world model of poverty and warfare.

For as we were told so many times when our civil liberties and assurances of privacy were being rapidly eroded in a post-9/11 world, "those with nothing to hide, have nothing to fear."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Two Sides of ITAV: Audio/Visual

It Takes A Village To Make Records, despite what its name suggests, is not all about making records.

It all started with a broken arm.  Well, actually, a broken arm and four broken fingers.  Not exactly an auspicious beginning for a budding bass-player/graphic designer -- but, there I was, drugged up, in a cast, and officially unable to work for about a 4-month period.

It was boring.  Oh, I learned a lot about the true nature of friends: a friend is someone who will tie your shoes for you, wash your hair for you, cook all your meals and wash all your dishes for you for a couple months.  Needless to say, after I was all healed up, I took over the meals and dishes, but hair-washing and shoelace-tying returned to being individual pursuits.

My very first thought, when I hit the ground and felt my right arm go *crunch* was "shit, how am I going to play my bass?"

Well it would be a few months before I could even clumsily strum (with cast still on), and over a year of squeezing a ball of putty, stretching giant rubber bands, lifting soup cans, etc. before I could play for more than a few minutes at a time.  So I amused myself by designing fake album covers, like any sane person would.

I've always believed in teaching myself how to do things.  I taught myself to play the harmonica just by carrying one around for 3 years and playing it at odd moments.  I took a similar approach to bass.  And around the time I broke my arm, I'd been teaching myself the rudiments of the Adobe Creative Suite.  One day, my roommate Genevieve saw me carefully crafting the cover for a fictitious Joy Division album and remarked "why don't you just design real album covers?"


It's not that the thought had never occurred to me, it's that I'd never taken it seriously, or never thought anyone else would take it seriously.  I think that happens to a lot of us.  And then someone gives you just the right shard of encouragement and it's like they've opened the blinds.

My first real CD design was for Joshua Davis' (of Steppin' In It) first (and only, so far) solo album, "Fool Rooster."  The design went through several different stages before it emerged, in fact the front cover was just a playful design originally intended to sit underneath the clear tray of the jewel case!  One thing that really characterized the design process for this CD, and that has come to be my preferred working method, was that Josh supplied me with demos and acoustic versions of the songs that would eventually make up the album (with lyrical contributions from long-time collaborator Aaron Allen), and I listened to them and tried to channel the imagery and feel of the music as I worked.  The album came out on Earthwork Music in 2005.  "Fool Rooster" was album of the year on WDBM’s “Progressive Torch and Twang” show, a Tuesday-night varietal survey of roots music from traditional to modern, and Josh's album (with each full-band song recorded live to 2-inch tape by Glenn Brown on the same Neve mixing console that captured the legendary Muscle Shoals recordings by Bob Dylan, The Allman Brothers, Aretha Franklin, and many, many others) merited this award in every way.

This CD would also be the first, last, and only design I would render on a PC.  Shortly after that I upgraded to a Mac and have never looked back.

It Takes A Village To Make Records came into being early the next year, with the "First-Hand Accounts, Theories, & Their Repercussions" compilation being the first physical product.  In addition to showcasing bands that I liked, the compilation also served as a calling card for my graphic design work.  A flood of fliers and CDs followed, and I'd love to give each one the spotlight in turn, but that might cause this entry to stretch on and on.

ITAV is more than just a record label.  In fact, it's greatest impact has not been recordings (yet), but a flood of fliers and CD designs for other musicians, on other labels.  I haven't required that anyone plaster my logo onto their posters or into their liner notes -- too often these things get crowded up with logos and websites, and personally, I find that to be borderline offensive.  Visually speaking at least.  A poster is already an advertisement for something, and I prefer to keep things to a simple, readable who-where-when.  Anything more seems interference with the core message.

Which brings me to ITAV's other mission.  Besides acting as a traditional record label, albeit a small one, specializing in fringe and experimental sounds. ITAV seeks to bring visual magnetism into the picture.  I would like everything we do -- from a record jacket to a poster -- to draw people across the room, to want a closer look.  I suppose that, in an unspoken way, that's what every record label wants, and some become known for it.  Think 1960s Blue Note jazz album covers.  Think Factory Records.  Those are some of my touchstones -- I want to find visual solutions as unique and arresting as the music that's packaged inside.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Hello, Internet! A Brief History of ITAV

Formerly existing only on MySpace (deleted) and Facebook, It Takes A Village To Make Records (ITAV) has now established a foothold in the blogosphere!  This is all a prelude to our dedicated website, which is under construction and slated for launch in late February -- more on that later.

Perhaps a brief history is in order?

ITAV was launched in 2006 with the release of a free compilation called First-Hand Accounts, Theories, And Their Repercussions.  This 20-track, eclectic joyride featured all unsigned bands (mostly from Michigan, although Indiana, Illinois, and Texas also made appearances), from dark indie-rock to trip-hop to stripped down singer-songwriter fare.  Compiled on a first-come/first-serve basis, F.H.A.T.A.T.R. was mastered by Scott Bozack at Thin Black Line studios, professionally pressed, and handed out like candy.  The 1,000 copy pressing quickly went out of print.

F.H.A.T.A.T.R. featured amazing performances by Canada, Rubber Band Banjo, Oh My God, The Mnemonic Devices, That's Him! That's The Guy!, Stare Into The Sun, Bit, The Casionauts, XU, Pat Zelenka, Rattling Wall Collective, Bradford, Brickburner, The Strawberry Explosion, and Sam Corbin.  F.H.A.T.A.T.R. also boasted exclusive tracks by Jen Sygit, Nick Schillace, Phil Avalos & The Quiet Lanes, Animal, and Freel.

Indirectly, F.H.A.T.A.T.R. led to me getting a job as gallery coordinator for (SCENE) Metrospace in East Lansing, Michigan, which I held from 2006 til 2008.  (SCENE) is a art- and performance-space sponsored by the city with the purpose of exposing new art, music, and theater to the surrounding community.  While I was helming the gallery, we learned that the space we occupied at 303 Abbot was slated for demolition.  So we moved the gallery over to its current location at 110 Charles Street, and renovated the former coffee shop into a sleek and versatile art space.  During this time, ITAV was largely dormant, although I booked tons of bands to play the gallery, designed scads of gig fliers, and developed my own musical project, Stargrazer.

Working at (SCENE) and booking bands introduced me to a lot of the artists that were from my own community, like The Plurals, The Playback, Ruberdus, Frontier Ruckus, Head And Toe, Vapidity Consulate, Syscrusher, The Break Ups, The Darts, Calliope, Auburn Lull, New Canyons, A Story Told, Falcorps, Father Time, Double Saginaw Familiarity, The Cartridge Family, Narc Out The Reds, The Hat Madder, A Story Told, The Hallows, Spitzer Space Telescope, Catherine Midway, LaSalle and Flatfoot.  In addition, we hosted two paint-peeling Noise Fests with 517Noise.  It became obvious that the naysayers were just being lazy -- Lansing was veritably bursting with bands of dizzying variety and tireless commitment.  With dwindling venues (that time period saw the loss of The Temple Club, Magdalena's Teahouse, and Small Planet) and minimal community support, these bands were delivering the goods week after week: doing their damnedest to entice and support national touring acts, giving them couches and floors to crash on, too.  I became friends with many of these performers -- one of the beautiful aspects of Lansing's scene (and maybe as an outgrowth of the community's general indifference) is that a crowd can be frolicking with the Cartridge Family one second, and gathered in a quiet circle around an un-mic'ed Jeremy Quentin (of Head And Toe/Small Houses) the next.  There's very little clique-ishness, the metalheads and the indie rockers and the punks and the avant garde improv guys all gig together, drink together, and hang up eachother's fliers.

I also got to know a lot of the performers from the Grand Rapids scene (A Paschal Circus, Ribbons Of Song, Jesse Stephanopoulos, Spectral Mornings), the burgeoning Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti/Flint/Detroit scene (The Novel Citizen, Chris Bathgate, Beilby's Ball, Onett, Child Bite, The Bell Tree, Mason Proper, Kinetic Stereokids, Anna Ash, The Hard Lessons, Indian Guides, In Civilian Clothing, American Mars, Sunlight Ascending), and from Northern Michigan's Earthwork collective (Breathe Owl Breathe, Luke Winslow-King, Brandon Foote & Laura Bates, Seth Bernard, May Erlewine).  You may think I'm just listing everybody who ever played at the gallery... but I'm not!  These are just the highlights.

...because I'm not yet including the higher profile and/or national acts I had the good fortune of working with, like Paleo, Arms And Sleepers, Brazil, Mount Eerie, Julie Doiron, Hezekiah Jones, A.M. Syndicate, The Lisps, Nathaniel Bartlett, Jenny Hoyston (of Erase Errata), Cotton Jones Basket Ride, Tartufi, Zelienople, and Our Brother The Native.

...and if it seems like I might have had my hands full with that (and renovating the new gallery space with mostly volunteer labor and a shoestring budget), I also curated over a dozen themed group exhibits like Anger: The Best Medicine, Transparent, 3D/4D: Shapes In Time, and my personal favorite Sonic Landscapes, an exhibit entirely based on sound that featured work from Mecca Normal, Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, and experimental bassist Wendy Atkinson.  The exhibit ran for two months, and also featured soundworks from closer-to-home audio experimentors such as Will Soderberg, Chuck Sipperley, Ben Gaydos, and Tom Sheerin.

I'll not kid you, I was a little burned out by summer of 2008.  Exhilarated, but burned out.  I had been privileged to work with a lot of amazing artwork and artists -- from famed international postal artist Ryosuke Cohen to people in my own community who were pushing the envelope of expression (Deon Foster's inflatable, motion-detecting sculptures, Adam Winnie's beeswax-and-photography sculptures, sculptor Mark Chatterley, fascinating mixed-media artist Robert Park, and many more).  I resigned from my position at (SCENE), handed the reigns to the new director Tim Lane, and got a job at a bookstore.  At first, I was happy to return to relative invisibility.  Stargrazer still gigged once a month or so.  I got married.  I got back to painting and exhibiting my own artwork.

But sometime in the fall of 2009, I realized I missed being deeply invested in the music scene.  I had learned a lot since F.H.A.T.A.T.R.  I wanted to put that life experience into action.  Thus was born In The Orchard Of Osiris.

In The Orchard Of Osiris began as little more than a title for a new compilation.  Osiris was the dark green-skinned Egyptian god of the underworld, associated with crops and fertility, but best known for weighing the hearts of the deceased and deciding who was worthy to travel into the underworld.  The scenario of a god passing judgment on the dead is a familiar one to members of nearly every modern faith -- however in contrast to our contemporary deities, Osiris was considered somewhat lenient and understanding of human flaws.  That aspect of Osiris really caught my imagination, and in a rather naive way I imagined a smoldering, burnt orchard where the pale green shoots of new trees pushed through the fine ash remains of a former orchard, bearing and dropping fruit.  The fruit was us -- humans -- fecund and flavorful and juicy with artistic potential, humanitarian potential, infinite potential.  Too often, we started new fires instead, burning down the orchard once again.  But Osiris would always give us another chance, pardoning egregious mistakes and listening to our motives -- no matter how awry they  might have gone.

Unlike with F.H.A.T.A.T.R., where I had cold-called dozens of bands and scoured MySpace, sequencing and releasing the first 70 minutes of music I received back, I.T.O.o.O. was invitational.  I knew the basic feel I wanted it to have -- reflective, autumnal -- and I called upon artists I had developed an affinity for from my days at (SCENE).  This one was going to be a mix-tape, as opposed to a sampler.  I also decided it would be beautifully packaged, and that the finished product would be a physical object only -- not invisible mp3s that could disappear in a hard drive crash, but something for the collector-fetishists to hold in their hands.  Something with exclusivity, solidity, rarity.

You can stream it in its entirety here.  But if you want to own it, it's only available as a CD in a lush, tri-fold digipack.  Wait, before you cry fowl and rush to the comforting slimness of your iPod, it's priced lower than it would be if it was parceled out as digital files.  Much lower.  Even with shipping.

Another key difference between F.H.A.T.A.T.R. and I.T.O.o.O. is that I.T.O.o.O. is for sale.  F.H.A.T.A.T.R. was an elaborate calling card, a way to get my graphic design and a clutch of the music I passionately promoted into lots of hands.  I.T.O.o.O., on the other hand, is a love letter.  It's something your ears can drown in.

The idea is that, I.T.O.o.O. will take the investment of the donors from the Kickstarter campaign, and roll them into our next batch of releases!

It was fun to give away 1,000 copies of F.H.A.T.A.T.R.   Fun, but also expensive.  Several months before I put out F.H.A.T.A.T.R., I had broken both bones of my right arm and all the fingers on my right hand in a work accident.  After receiving a settlement and paying my medical bills I used the rest to press my first compilation CD.  For my second compilation, I was not willing to get injured again -- so instead I followed the lead of Arms And Sleepers, Rioux, and Chris Dorman and decided to "crowd-fund" it using Kickstarter.  In a whirlwind 45 days, we raised $2,171.  That paid for most of the manufacturing and shipping of the CDs, but let me confess that the funding process was nerve-wracking.  Up to the last 24 hours we were $200 dollars below our goal, and the way Kickstarter is structured if you miss your monetary goal by even a little, none of the pledges are collected -- and your project doesn't get funded.  The Kickstarter model is based on the idea of funding projects that people are willing to pay for upfront.  I'm extremely honored by the backers of In The Orchard Of Osiris -- and the compilation is everything I could have hoped it would be.  I plan on spending several blogs profiling the songs and artists that populate this beautiful, elegaic album.  So stay tuned for that.

So that's the ITAV's past through today.  So what's next?

Well, actually we're not quite finished with the catch-up yet.  In addition to the two compilations, ITAV has quietly released one other recording, The Nanobots' debut E.P. Enlarged To Show Texture.  The Nanobots (not to be confused with the Scottish electro-pop duo Nanobots) are a Michigan-based duo.  Based in my living room, in fact, for The Nanobots are myself and my wife Randi.  Dubbing ourselves a "quiet noise" band, we meld some of the ear-splitting avant garde, anti-aesthetic sensibilities of the bands we observed at 517NoiseFests with a quieter library of sounds: kitten purrs, raindrops, teakettles, etc.  Somewhere along the way, this original mission got subverted into something a little more sinister, and Enlarged To Show Texture is the result.  Composed of odes to sonic pioneers John Cage, Kim Gordon, Terry Riley, and Wendy Carlos, this E.P. is available digitally on a pay-what-you-will basis at

A limited-edition physical release of 100 copies of the E.P., each with a unique miniature nanobot sculpture/figurine made by the band members included, is in the works.  The Nanobots' full-length album, Pink Circuits, is also in progress and is slated for release this spring!

And what of Stargrazer, you ask?  Stargrazer, the more song-oriented solo project I've been undertaking since 1997, is actually a member of GTG Records' roster.  GTG, the imprint helmed by Lansing's noisy pop power-trio The Plurals, is an energetic and dedicated label based out of an unassuming gray building near Lansing's Old Town that has been raising its profile with a catalog of fantastic releases over the past few years.  In addition to The Plurals' confectionary guitar-bass-drums releases, the label also boasts The Break-Ups, Frank and Earnest, Small Houses, Narc Out the Reds, The Hat Madder, Jason Alarm, CrookedSound, Josh David and the Dream Jeans, Fade to Black, and Drinking Mercury.

Stargrazer has been holed up at the attic studio CrookedSound with ex-Calliope bassist Eric Merckling for the better part of 2010 recording my full-length debut album, the aptly named My Dreams Are Running Late, which will also see release sometime in the middle of this year.

As an interim release, last May I recorded an instrumental E.P. which is a bit of a departure from the strummy, acoustic bass-only solo sound audiences are accustomed to hearing from Stargrazer.  Veering into minimal instrumental post-rock, the Trieste E.P. (GTG #039) was released November 20 of last year digitally, and can be streamed/downloaded at

Like The Nanobots' E.P., a physical edition of 100 copies is in the works (once I get some more copies of I.T.O.o.O. out the door!)  And in fact, if you contributed to the Kickstarter Campaign for Osiris, you're probably going to get one in the mail... how fun is that?

Trieste is a 15-minute musical retelling of the January 23, 1960 dive to the deepest point in any of Earth's oceans, the Challenger Deep, by Swiss scientist Jacques Piccard and US Navy Lt. Don Walsh -- the only time a manned dive to this depth (35,797 feet down) has ever been attempted! The specially designed submersible, Trieste, was built by Piccard's father, balloonist Auguste Piccard, who also held the world's altitude record (23,000 ft.). The descent to the seafloor took place over 5 hours, most of them in complete darkness (sunlight only reaches down about 500 feet). Communication with the surface was lost partway into the mission, and a window cracked at about 30,000 feet down. Unexpectedly, communication was restored when Trieste reached the bottom, where the men stayed for about 20 minutes before beginning a 3-hour ascent back to the surface.

The Trieste E.P. has gotten some really great initial reviews!  Here's one at the music blog Mostly Midwest, and here's another one from the UK-based OhDrat! blog.

Finally, on the immediate horizon, ITAV's next full-length physical release is a tribute to the band Low orchestrated by recording engineer extraordinaire Bryan Kay at Shoeshine Studio in East Lansing.  Bryan assembled an ever-shifting ensemble dubbed Cardboard Academy to seamlessly interpret several of Low's gorgeous compositions.  I even cameo on bass for the closing notes of the song "Point Of Disgust."  It's done, it's mastered, it's ready to go -- we're just waiting for the right stars to align.

But that'll be the subject of a future blog.