Interview

VIDEO ALBUM PREMIERE + INTERVIEW: Miles Francis - Swimmers

Phillipe Roberts

To hear them tell it, there’s a star-crossed quality to the collaboration between Miles Francis and Charles Billot, a meeting of complementary dreamers that quickly became apparent when the three of us met at Greenpoint’s BÚÐIN cafe. They had been introduced a year earlier after admiring each others’ work from afar, and a chance message from Charles happened to slide Miles’ way just as the musician was sitting down to mix Swimmers, his solo debut.

“All I said was, 'Hey... what’s up?'” Charles told me, laughing at the words that launched the six months of planning that brought the EP to life as a visual album.

“'What have you been up to?'” Miles corrected. “As soon as he reached out to me, I knew: he’s the guy. I made Swimmers totally alone, played all the instruments, but when he reached out, I knew that this was what needed to happen to it. I needed to interface with him to take it to where it needed to go.”

On its own, Swimmers is a gripping work of psychological storytelling, an unveiling of Miles Francis’ vast talent for arrangement and songcraft beyond the confines of his longstanding band, EMEFE. It’s fitting that the record’s conception truly began at its final song, “Overthink,” an encapsulation of Swimmers’ themes of self-doubt and the desire to escape from its constricting paralysis. “I’d been writing songs for a potential solo album, but that was the 'level up.' I realized that there was potential there,” Miles explained. “I found my voice through that song, and the rest of it just flowed.” From there, he worked improvisationally, setting up a studio environment conducive to the freeform experimentation that birthed “Overthink” and ended up with eight completed tracks. Done and done.

photo: Charles Billot

photo: Charles Billot

Or so he believed until Charles returned to the picture. “I think the two of us work together well because we can dream together,” Miles said, eliciting a knowing chuckle from his creative partner. “We initially wanted to do three videos, but as we started working on the video proposals, the thought of it being one interconnected experience took over.” That meant making a few cuts, narrowing down the vision to five tracks to match their growing list of visual ideas, which in turn influenced the final version of the EP itself. “As we were making the videos, we decided the order of the songs as well. I had a different idea, but it shifted because I realized that the end video and the end song, 'Overthink,' was really the realization at the end.”

Swimmers is a surrealist adventure, stuffed with visuals that externalize those emotional conflicts, but it dives in with candy at the forefront. “The first thing that came through was the Starburst,” Charles explained. “He was playing 'You’re A Star' and threw them into the audience as a gimmick. I thought it was a cool idea, and that’s where we started. They eat the Starburst and things start to change.” In the video for the same song, Miles slips downstairs and into a dreamworld. Dancers in colored jumpsuits swarm him in rapid cuts to the ocean. Miles enters the water and the sea sweeps over him.

Visually, Charles initially described the videos as conveying a kind of psychedelic drug trip, but Miles pushed back on that explanation, tying the word “tripping” back to the feeling of being emotionally bent out of shape. Charles pounced to tie the conceptual knot: “You make shit up when you’re in love. Your brain goes crazy.”

“Complex,” the following song, is a slice of electronic pop cruising somewhere between R&B and funk. Miles cited D’Angelo’s Voodoo as one of his favorite albums, an influence that definitely shows in the intimate, homespun grooves of the track, and the gentle posturing infused into the lyrics. “What would you do if I left you down?” he asks, taunting, “I’m busy and I’m strong / And nothing’s going to stop me now” in the face of a disappointed lover.

The corresponding video was actually the least intentional of the bunch. “It came out of having shot things that didn’t necessarily fit with what we intended them for," Miles said. "Charles experimented with them in other songs, but when we played around with stringing them together it worked perfectly.” The seeming simplicity of the shots, featuring Miles swimming just beneath the surface in colorful fabrics as smoke piles up above him, works well with the tossed-off, soft flexing of the track. This is Miles in a moment of power and control. Emerging from the pool with the fabric barely clinging to him, that confidence is established just before it all starts to tear away.

photo: Charles Billot

photo: Charles Billot

And tear away it does on “Deserve Your Love,” the emotional centerpiece of the record. Though it starts with hushed strums, it grows into a soaring chorus, followed by a free-falling psychedelic descent of pounding drums and distorted strings that's explosively cathartic. The video is a favorite of both Miles and Charles, particularly a scene in which dancers pummel him as they circle menacingly.

“Choreographing a fight but also making it dancey was really inspiring,” Miles said. “It was great because it hurt a little bit, so I was feeling that energy. Just getting beat up over and over but getting to be part of the dancers, even though I’m not exactly popping and locking, was fun.” Charles put him through his paces though, apparently going a little bit overboard in the excitement of getting such great footage. “I think I made you run after that car for an hour and a half, and honestly it probably could’ve been done in twenty minutes,” he admitted to Miles with a laugh. “But you looked so good and I couldn’t stop.”

After a brief segue of Miles brushing seaweed out of his teeth, it's on to “Take It,” a high-energy dance track with a buzzing synth lead reminiscent of house maestros Justice. In a black box theater, Miles confronts a dancer, Lukasz Zieba, who contorts and twists in a powerful routine. Watching Lukasz express himself so freely had a tremendous effect on Miles, and helped him unravel some of the inner conflicts that had subliminally played into the album’s creation—particularly a deeper understanding of and reckoning with his own masculinity.

“The short really brought out something in the music that I hadn’t considered while writing the songs, and it was showing the decomposition and faults of a man. What it is to be a man, and how that role can become a default, going through relationships,” he explained. “When I reflect on my own experiences with love and relationships, there’s definitely something personal to it, but so much of it is dealing with the social programming of that experience.” It’s a theme that Miles wants to explore more deeply in other subject matter, but the film, and particularly “Take It,” is a clear stepping stone in contextualizing those thoughts.

The crowning visual of Swimmers, the climactic moment that seems to quite literally crash back into reality, is a shot of Miles in a white suit plummeting into the water. The cover art shares the same image, also shot by Charles, but it took hours of practice to perfect the jump. “I practiced that with a wetsuit on, just to get comfortable so that I wouldn’t flinch at the impact,” Miles said, with a hint of exhaustion in his voice. “It was hard,” Charles explained, “because I didn’t want you to bend. And every take, hearing you hit the water straight with that slapping sound, I was like, 'Sorry, Miles, but we need it again.'” The end result is stunning, this perfect sigh of relief at the end of a long road.

Clichéd as it may seem, Swimmers concludes with Miles walking off into the sunset, barefoot and drenched, somewhat directionless but clearly changed. And that’s much how Charles and Miles left the project, with ideas still overflowing. One of Charles’ dreams is to do a musical, in the vein of West Side Story. “They take you somewhere that’s surreal,” he said. “It’s supposed to relate to reality, but someone snaps their fingers and they just disappear. We don't have West Side Story in Europe.” Miles has some different ideas: “I don’t want to do a musical, but I do want to do a show where I’m singing the songs, there’s a set, there’s dancers... and it tells a story,” he managed before erupting in laughter.

“So maybe I need to rethink my definitions.”

 

Catch Miles Francis on tour:

5/31 - Brooklyn NY - C'mon Everybody (with Spirit Twin, Ora Cogan)

6/19 - Winooski VT - The Monkey House **

6/20 - Montreal, QC - Brasserie Beaubien **

6/21 - Toronto, ON - The Garrison **

6/22 - Hudson NY - Half Moon **

6/28 - Brooklyn NY - Elsewhere Rooftop **

**supporting TEEN

INTERVIEW: Elbows

elbows.jpg

Phillipe Roberts

From the second I slip through the foam-white door into Cafe Cotton Bean and reach to shake Max Schieble’s hand, it’s clear that I’m interrupting something. Draped in a purple corduroy shirt adorned with a golden trumpet pin, he slides the cap over his pen and guides it back into his pocket. There’s the slight but familiar full-body sigh of an artist yanked out of the moment. “I actually haven’t gotten much time to just sit and draw lately,” he says, gingerly placing his notebook onto the table in front him, “I was really getting into it.”

But an innocent, almost bashful smile spreads over his face—no harm, no foul. We grab a pair of cappuccinos, sit down, and lean in. He guides me through his last few pages, filled with tessellated grids of anthropomorphic everyday objects—clouds, cars, hills, leaves—floating through negative space. Under his pen, they balloon into being with a goofy, animated warmth. It’s almost as if they’ve sprung to life unexpectedly, gate-crashing our reality from a Mickey Mouse dimension in the far reaches of his memory.

Max’s music as Elbows hits you in a similar way. From samples snipped out of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on the Corduroy EP to the wavy psychedelia of his latest effort, Sycamore, rose-tinted nostalgia cuts through his work like a knife. “The Rain,” the opening track on Sycamore, spins into frame like a time-warp, reversing violently until a thunderclap brings Max in, beckoning you into his memories: “Through the cobblestones / Fish are swimming / Up, down, smothered in their coats / Bound homeward.” This kind of visual storytelling is a trick nicked from Philly rockers Dr. Dog, a band whose soft psychedelic touch is definitely part of his musical lineage. “You can definitely hear it in the harmonies I use,” he says, “But I love the way that their stories are so hard to piece together, despite the strong imagery.”

"The album is this journey back home,

and seeing all the changes that have taken place."

Born in San Francisco, but moving to New York for undergraduate studies at NYU, those opening lines from “The Rain” mirror his own musical journey over the past few years. It’s a journey that forms the central narrative of the album he’s been building towards, and that’s still coming together as we sip our coffee.

“The concept of the album is this journey back home, and seeing all the changes that have taken place,” he explains. “So Corduroy and those singles are kind of like short stories leading up to it. Sycamore was this street in the town that I went to school in, but I always lived far away and it was a huge pain to get there, so it became this kind of mythically significant place for me. This record is about trying to get back to that place.”

It’s been a long road indeed: Max has been working on some of these tracks, in some form or another, since 2010. “With ‘Windowpane,’ the main keys section is the oldest thing on this record. I had the chorus since 2010, but the verses I wrote last year,” he tells me. “I knew the lyrics would take more time, because those are the most revealing part of the music for me. The chords for ‘The Rain’ were done in early 2011.” But even as he started to collect band members and perform live, he felt that he needed more time before they were ready to put it down to tape. “It’s a story I’ve been trying to tell for a while, but it’s been a process of becoming a better musician—particularly with vocals. It took awhile for me to feel like my abilities were there to do these songs justice.”

“I wanted it to have a sound

like a blimp walking through the forest”

The grind pays off on Sycamore, whose songs are his strongest yet vocally, particularly due to Max embracing the odd, half-rapped vocal cadence that he began developing on Corduroy. Inspiration-wise, he’s eager to praise Frank Ocean, whose string of singles last year featuring a more prominent sing-rap swing struck a chord that goes back to his earliest musical memories. “The first song I remember writing was a rap about my Aunt Joyce and how she loves to shop. I showed it to my Mom and she said ‘I’m not too sure about that one,’” he laughs, “At the time I didn’t even realize it was a rap. I was just spitting out these monotonous, heavily rhythmic melodies. Basically scatting.” The technique’s stayed with him ever since. “I always have more lyrics than I know what to do with, and it’s easier getting around that with rap” Max says, grinning.

When I ask if there’s potential synesthesia linking his music and bubbly visual style, Max tells me that the connection isn’t so concrete for him. You wouldn’t get far, as a friend of his learned, “putting on a Mötley Crüe song and asking me what color it is.” Though he’s fine with the term, he thinks that a few too many artists have turned it into a played-out concept. Still, a rare instance of it occured for him on the song “Blimp,” and sent him searching for an impossible tone to match the image in his head. “I had this idea that I wanted it to have a sound like a blimp walking through the forest,” he explains. “I didn’t know what that sound was going to be for a really long time. It didn’t sound right for months, until I found these 808s that hit the spot.”

Those electronic touches are part of what makes Elbows’ music so wonderfully disorienting, even when they’re cloaked in catchy, immediate arrangements. “Psychedelic” is a bit of a loaded term, generally pushing listeners to expect something in the vein of ‘60s and ‘70s progressive pop like The Beatles or Pink Floyd. Oozing with slippery textures and teeming with effects, Max’s music aims to confuse and disorient in a similar way, but by looking at the spirit of those recordings rather than the tones themselves. “The sounds we consider ‘psychedelic’ came initially from electronic effects and experimenting,” he explains. It’s a lineage best carried on by electronic producers, he believes, naming Flying Lotus, Knxwledge, and Thundercat as artists he considers instrumental in forging a path ahead. To further break from the past, most of his processing ends up in the vocals or synthesizers, rather than guitars—a choice he credits to Bon Iver’s 22, A Million.

"But that concept, imagining that one person was literally

singing all of those things, stuck with me."

Even as the sonics for the record were starting to come together, it took a literal journey home to get a real spark going—an album about growing up just didn’t feel right without being surrounded by the places into which Max was trying to pull his listeners. And it meant bringing the band, some of whom also play in Space Captain and Alto Palo, along for the ride. “We went out to San Francisco in January of 2015,” he says, squinting into his memories for clarity, “and the first thing I did was take the band on a tour of all the spots on the album: ‘You know how in this song I mention the 2AM Club? This is that. Sycamore street? Here it is.”’

And when it came time to press record, it even involved discovering that a few places had been hiding secrets all along. “We were looking for a spot to record and it dawned on me that my next-door neighbor had a full studio in his basement. As a kid learning to play, he’d always let me borrow an amp, or some cables, but it was crazy to go down there and find this entire setup just waiting for us.” Stepping into the past often dredges up secrets, but few of us are lucky enough to find them intact and ready to be put to good use.

Before we part ways, Max returns to the question of psychedelia as you’d expect someone so perpetually steeped in nostalgia to: by spinning more childhood tales. “I have one memory of playing The College Dropout for my Dad, and he thought that Kanye was singing all of the samples,” he laughs. “He didn’t understand sampling at all, so he was going off about how this guy was insane. On the one hand it’s like, ‘Dad, that’s clearly Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire.”’ But that concept, imagining that one person was literally singing all of those things, stuck with me. For me, that’s truly psychedelic.” With an album on the way, and an accompanying visual EP that’ll serve as a trailer, we can’t wait to see the ways that Elbows throws his expanding vision at the wall.

INTERVIEW: Sarah Sexton, OIM Records

Will Shenton

The Bay Area music scene is, and will likely always be, inextricably linked to local politics and economics. As people decry the role of gentrification in the mass exodus of artists from San Francisco, Oakland and the rest of the East Bay finds itself undergoing similar changes. Rents are too damn high, and the cultured weirdos who keep their respective cities interesting simply can't afford it anymore. Yet despite all the setbacks, the creative scene in the Bay is as vibrant as ever—if you know where to look. Oakland's newest label, OIM Records, is determined to keep it that way.

Founded as a collaboration between local concert guru Sarah Sexton, musician Angelica Tavella, and producer Jeff Saltzman, OIM takes its name from Sexton's booking and promotions company Oaktown Indie Mayhem. In the year since the label's inception, they've signed acts as diverse as Hot Flash Heat Wave, Foxtails Brigade, TV Heads, and Lila Rose, among others, and today are excited to announce the addition of The Tambo Rays to the family. The Oakland-based brother-and-sister act will be releasing new music with OIM this summer, and we've been told not to miss their upcoming show at The Independent in SF on Friday, July 8 with Midi Matilda and Panic is Perfect.

I met Sarah for a cup of coffee on Telegraph to talk about the birth of OIM Records, how she ended up in the Bay Area music biz in the first place, and the challenges of feeling responsible for artists (and, in many ways, an entire scene) that you truly love.

Sarah Sexton | photo:  Odell Hussey

Sarah Sexton | photo: Odell Hussey

ThrdCoast: How did you end up in Oakland?

Sarah Sexton: I’m from the South, I’m a southern child. I was born in Texas, raised back and forth between Alabama and Florida. I finished school early, around 16, and was not doing well down there [laughs]. I knew I needed to get out of there and away from all those crazy people, so I decided to go to art school and randomly picked Seattle. I hadn’t been to that area of the US, and it seemed really cool. It totally blew my mind, life is just so much better out here. Like, this is the West Coast, and the West Coast is badass. Cool people, the police weren’t as bad—I mean, the police would just harass kids down south. Seattle was a far cry from that. I mean, they have a weed festival [laughs].

So I stayed there for a couple of years, and then made my way down here. The plan was to go to Berkeley, and somehow I ended up in Richmond for over three years. Not The Richmond in San Francisco, mind you. Richmond [laughs]. It was a little crazy. So, right off the bat I didn’t really see the appeal of the Bay Area. And then I split up with my partner at the time, and he had always said, “No Oakland, it’s too dangerous.” To which I always said, dude, we’re in Richmond [laughs]. So I found a place in downtown Oakland, before it was like a million dollars for a closet, and I just fell in love with Oakland. I was like, holy shit, this is the fuckin’ Mecca. That was in 2007.

I started going to shows, getting out and meeting people, and finally building a friend network out here. I was really inspired by how much art and music and creativity there was out here. I was always an art kid, and I mostly did painting and writing—it’s funny, I always loved music, but it was never my art form. I used to organize poetry slams, and I was really into it. We even had a few poets from our events go to national competitions. So I always loved building family by helping people share art and their love for art. It was already in my blood to bring people together for that sort of thing, and when I started getting into the scene out here I broke into it by screening independent films and putting together art shows.

I started doing these shows every other month where I’d come up with a theme and I’d bring together 30 or so artists in all different mediums. We’d have a chef come in, we’d screen videos, we’d do dance and performance art, and it ended up being basically a four-hour, immersive variety show. They were badass, people loved them. Unfortunately, they didn’t really end up making financial sense, since I was working to put them on and I was lucky if they broke even. So I needed to find some other outlet, and I knew someone who was looking to put on shows at their cafe.

The musicians were always the artists at these events who kept coming back and clamoring for more. There weren’t enough cool spots to play. So I started booking shows about once a month, at Rooz Cafe and at Actual Cafe, and then eventually at Awaken Cafe on Broadway. Our first sample of shows at Awaken did really well, so the owner offered me a full-time job as their music booker. I did that for about two and a half years with my booking company, Oaktown Indie Mayhem, and then I was just spent. I couldn’t do it anymore. I learned a lot about the scene, but it was exhausting [laughs]. It’s been kind of hard stepping out of that world, but now I’m just putting that energy towards the label.

TC: So how did OIM Records come to be?

SS: I met Angelica [Tavella] because she wanted to do a music crawl, Oakland Drops Beats, which she started in I think 2014. I participated in it with her for the first couple of years. Inevitably, over time, I just had too much going on and dropped off of ODB, but it worked as the driving force behind our friendship. We really jived with one another.

That summer, she was working on her EP with our third partner, Jeff Saltzman. They also jived really well, and that first EP was badass. She kept in touch with him about the Oakland scene, and he was looking into it as well. Jeff started in entertainment law, but he spent a decade or so managing metal bands. He helped build up Testament, he produced records for Blondie, he produced The Killers’ Hot Fuss… he’s done a lot of very cool shit. So he’s got a really cool and diverse background in music, and he was ready to work with some local folks. He was sick of LA [laughs].

Angelica suggested that we meet, since she knew I was really into the Oakland scene and that he was looking for something in that vein, and we immediately hit it off. He’s like an older man version of me [laughs]. Or I’m a younger girl version of him, whatever. He’s a very interesting character. So we decided to do this compilation together, and we had a lot of fun on it and wanted to keep working together. We started to put together the idea of starting a label, and we were wondering what to call it. Nothing was coming up, and finally he suggested OIM, after my company. It just felt right. Ever since then, I’ve been slowly redirecting my energy towards the label.

TC: Who do you guys have signed so far?

SS: We just announced our signing of Hot Flash Heat Wave, which we’re really excited about. We have an LP in the works with them that is fucking incredible. It’s dreamy and lo-fi, but still really clean… oh man, they just croon. So we’re very excited about that, the LP will be coming out in late 2016 or early 2017. We’re not gonna rush it [laughs]. We have Be Calm Honcho on the label as well, they’re this great, summery pop group with an amazing vocalist. You have to see them live. They’re a three-piece, but they feel so big and they have a great energy. We’re going to be releasing our first song with them on the OIM compilation, and it’s so good. I think people are gonna really, really love it. All their songs have such great hooks, they’re so catchy, you can’t help but just get stuck in their sound. We also have another single and a video with them coming out in August. Again, really amazing.

Then we’ve got TV Heads, which is Angelica’s project. It’s her, her partner, and a friend, they all grew up together. We just released their debut single called “Chin Up” on Impose, which is just gut-wrenching, it’s so good. They’re indie rock, indie pop, but they have this really deep sadness, almost turmoil behind all the synths. You can feel the pain and the light at the end of the tunnel all at the same time. Their EP is coming out next week, and they’re about to kick off a pretty big West Coast tour to support it.

Foxtails Brigade is also on the label, they’re brilliant. If you don’t know much about them, Laura’s got a really interesting background. Her dad’s a horror film director, so she grew up in this totally weird environment, and you see it in her. She’s like this little porcelain doll meets Wednesday Addams. All of her stuff has this dark twist on it, you almost expect her to start singing some cute little folk song and then threaten to kill you all in the same breath. Just a little murdery [laughs]. They’ve been such unbelievable artists to work with. Theirs was the second full-length we put out, and they’ve been there every step of the way. They’ve really been a template for all the new artists we’re signing, that this is a team and a family and we’re all in it together.

Then there’s Whiskerman, their album was our first full-length release. It’s a beautiful piece of work. I’m really grateful that it was our first. Of course, there’s also Lila Rose, we just put out a single with her a few months ago. It was particularly special to me, because Lila and I have been close friends for several years. That song really ended up feeling like the anthem for our new year.

One of the big things we thought about prior to starting OIM was, if you don’t have a ton of money going in, what are you really offering to these artists? Because that’s a big part of it, you need money to be able to do the things you want to do. As a band, unless you have a lot of time, you need a publicist. Even if you have a studio, you need the engineer, you need the mixer… there are just so many things that cost money. So as a label, you have to be a resource to these artists. You’re their support system, and I think all that stuff is imperative. Being able to say, “I don’t know how to do this, let me check with the team,” is a big deal for a band.

I can say this generally about art, but specifically with music, there are a number of times I can point to in my life and say, “that album kept me alive.” Whether it was being profoundly sad and needing something to help me through it, or the happy moments, when I needed an outlet to just dance and celebrate and put a smile on my face, music has always been there. So, even though it has been a ton of work, it just makes more and more sense the deeper I get into it.

INTERVIEW: Filip Zemčík of Z Tapes

Laura Kerry

Even for the most avid of musical aesthetes, cassette tape collecting is a mostly off-the-map activity. Also off the map—at least, I’m guessing, for most of Thrdcoast readers’ music sensibilities—is the Central European country of Slovakia. Filip Zemčík, though, doesn’t care about either fact. For the past few years, he has run the label Z Tapes, which exclusively produces cassette tapes, out of a studio in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava.

As I learned over email, Zemčík seems to possess near-limitless energy to get things done. On top of Z Tapes, which has now released more than thirty tapes of lo-fi bedroom pop and rock from artists all over the world, he has also started the music blog start-track.com and United Cassettes, a site promoting the “cassette movement” (in addition to some culinary pursuits and the sales work that pays him). Here’s a bit from Zemčík on his label and how he’s putting tapes back on the map.

Thrdcoast: So, first of all, who are you? Where are you from and what’s your background?

Filip Zemčík: I am a boy running a cassette label. I am ‘90s child. I live in the small city, Bratislava, Slovakia, where I also work as salesman for my father's company. Food industry stuff—something on the opposite side of my hobbies. I was into music since childhood and remember listening to cassettes with music by The Offspring and Bloodhound Gang. My passion for music turned into my blog, start-track.com, which has been alive for more than five years.

TC: How did Z Tapes start?

FZ: While doing my blog, I have been following many cool labels such as Crash Labels, Spirit Cat, and, of course, Orchid Tapes. I loved what they were doing and wanted to join them. First, I planned to collaborate with Spirit Cat Tapes but ended up starting my own cassette label. Cassettes quickly became my favorite medium, and I have been collecting them since. It's almost three years from the point when I started. It's been a great journey.

TC: What draws you to cassette tapes over other mediums?

FZ: They’re cheap, they’re small, and they look cool. Also, the fact that tapes are not meant to last forever makes them more alive. I like that. Also for me, as a label manager, the production costs, the accessibility, and the fact they are still part of a niche market made me choose them. I do not have money for pressing vinyl. I want to stick with tapes forever, but vinyl might be an additional bonus, like the 10" lathe cut we are currently doing.

TC: What’s the status of cassette tapes these days? Do you see them more as collectors’ items, or is there an argument to be made for how they make music—particularly the “bedroom music” on the Z Tapes label—sound?

FZ: I love the sound of tapes. It's different; it's lo-fi; it's real. But people do not buy cassettes because of the quality of sound. People just collect them or want to have something from bands they like. Also they look so nice. Cassettes are pieces of art. And they suit bedroom music 100%.

TC: Can you give a little overview of what's involved in the recording and production of cassettes? Do you have a creative say in how the music and cover art will translate to the cassette medium?

FZ: I usually ask bands just for music; sometimes I ask my friends to master it; and sometimes bands do it themselves. It depends. Then there is art, which is done by my friends or by bands or by some designers. I am always open to the wishes of bands for artwork design, cassette color, or any other things connected to release. As I am not a designer, my input is only as a critique. But I always have a clear idea about how the tape should or should not look. For dubbing, I use amazing services of a guy from the Czech Republic running Headless Duplicated Tapes. The collaboration with him is very good and it makes the whole process of creation very easy. Also, it is more professional than home dubbing.

TC: Along those lines, are many of your releases cassette versions of albums already released, or are there also some cassette-only releases?

FZ: To use an example, split is released on 10" Lathe Cut and cassette. Also, Ashland by EP was released on vinyl though my friend's label Paper Dove Records. All of my releases are available online for free (excluding few). I am not doing reissues, but might in the future.

TC: You also started United Cassettes (UC). Tell me about this “cassette movement.”

FZ: Last summer I had an idea to unite cassette labels and create a platform that could be all about cassettes. I thought cassettes deserve more attention than they are getting, so we created a site and we made an awesome map, where we have more than 150 labels that are releasing music on cassettes. Now, the site is run by Mia. She is the best "CEO" I could have ever hoped for for UC. There are many reviews, interviews, and other stuff going at this moment. We want to work on more things, but it is hard to manage it beside all the things we do. I am personally working on European cassette distro, but that will take some time.

TC: I think everyone who grew up pre-Internet music sharing remembers his or her first cassette/record/cd. What was yours?

FZ: As I have mentioned above, The Offspring and Bloodhound Gang are in my memories. Also, this Slovakian band called Ine Kafé. With my brother, we used to record songs from radio onto cassettes and listen to them over and over. Cassettes were at my beginnings. It was a good time.

TC: I’m guessing you have a pretty sizable cassette collection. What’s the crown jewel of the collection? Are there any tapes you have been looking for but haven’t been able to find yet?

FZ: I used to buy more cassettes when I was not doing my label, but now most of my money goes towards producing cassettes. I still buy cassettes, though. My favorite pieces are from Orchid Tapes, Sports Day Records, and Fox Food Records. It is hard to choose one, but anything with Elvis Depressedly/Coma Cinema music is dear to me.

TC: I’m based in Brooklyn, where there tends to be some music-scene tunnel vision; you sometimes forget that there are other fertile music scenes in the rest of the world (beyond Philadelphia, PA). How would you describe the music scene in Bratislava for us narrow-minded Brooklyn folk?

FZ: The scene in Bratislava is not present. Maybe few years ago there was some small scene, but now there are just a bunch of bands and some electronic producers. I do not listen to Slovakian music at all. It's not my cup of coffee, but bands like Queer Jane or Elections in Deaftown and producers like Foolk or Whithe are worth checking out. I’m planning to work with them in future. Hopefully one day I will be proud to say that the Bratislava scene is cool and I am glad to be part of it. Maybe one day.

TC: It seems you have collected a pretty diverse roster of artists from all over the place. How do you find the bands that end up on your label?

FZ: Mostly through Bandcamp. Without Bandcamp there would not be Z Tapes. I always write to bands or musicians that I want to release. Most of the time it is successful. More over past weeks I have been getting many submissions, but I do not want to release something that I am not 90-100% sure about.

TC: What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on with Z Tapes?

FZ: My two favorite things are our Theme Song Benefit Compilation FRY YR BRN that we did this spring together with the blog Cereal and Sounds. I am very proud of every single cover of a theme song featured there. Also, the fact that it was for a cause makes me so happy. I have always wanted to give something back to people that need it more than us. My second favorite thing is our last, split. It is our first not-only-cassette release, and it features music gems. I am very proud of it, too. But I love every single release I did. I do not regret any of them.

TC: It seems that you stay pretty busy doing a lot of different things. What other kinds projects are you working on now? What’s next?

FZ: I have tons of things that interest me. I am taking 35mm photographs; I work as a salesman; I am starting a blog about Slovakian gastronomy; I am offering marketing services; I am a huge coffee geek; and I like to travel. I always have many things in my mind, but so little time. I want to do more stuff for UC, write reviews, do vlogs, work on UC cassette distro, go to more events to promote tapes, etc. Also I am planning a wedding soon, so there will be a lot happening. I am thrilled.

INTERVIEW: Laser Background

Kelly Kirwan

Andy Molholt’s brand of psych-pop is unexpected and infectious. Taking the name Laser Background for his solo ventures, Molholt’s recent single “Jawbreaker” intertwines lingering, space-age synths with lilting choruses that’ll turn your world into a dreamscape. Turns out Molholt, the man, is just as intriguing and mind-bending as Molholt, the musician. Answering the phone for our interview he said, “I just got really deep and heavy with my landlord, especially on what’s going to happen this century.” What came next were questions of eternal consciousness, kick-ass bands and influences, and his approach to music and the Laser Background platform. It was both trippy and timely—words that I expect could be used for his upcoming EP, Correct. Dive in below and get to know Laser Background’s vibe and philosophy.

ThrdCoast: When did you first become interested in music?

Andy Moholt: That’s a really good question. I was actually really into acting for the beginning half of my life, and thats what I thought I wanted to do, but my dad got me this shitty Yamaha keyboard from the '90s—and I actually use great Yamaha keyboards now from the '80s—but this had a four track recorder built in to it, and I was just curious and fucking around. I guess the first instrument I played was violin in school, and, I don’t know why, if I thought it was lame or I wasn’t into it but I tried to quit immediately.

But I didn’t really take [music] seriously at all until I was like 21, it was just a hobby that I enjoyed, and I think I actually got cast in musicals because I was musically inclined, but then ultimately I exited from acting. Actually, this is pretty cool, my family is from Hungary, and my mom’s half brother who died before I was born, I never got to meet him, but I’m named after him—my middle name is Balazs—I was gifted upon his death his guitar, and you know, my sister’s boyfriend taught me some chords. Also of note is that I recently inherited another of his guitars! This one was hiding in Paris at a family friend's house, and I discovered upon bring it back to the States that it is a seven string Russian guitar. My friend is currently fixing it up for me.

TC: That’s so cool! And how has your musical style changed?

AM: I guess in a weird way it's reverted back to my original state. I’m really influenced by video game music, I loved playing video games, and sometimes, you know, I wonder what my life would be like if I grew up in the forest, just away from pop culture [laughs]. But, like Super Mario/Super Nintendo—Koji Condo is incredibly clever I think, and just those songs you can hear again and again on a loop. But, my dad’s a scientist and my mom’s a veterinarian and they didn’t really play other music for me, it was like Koji Condo and John Lennon [laughs]. Like, I would hear Bruce Springsteen if I went to Kmart or something, but I didn’t have a computer until I was 12 and I didn’t have cable either actually—and maybe this is just the romantic part of me realizing this, but we’re literally the last generation to have that.

TC: Absolutely. We kind of touched on this earlier, but where did you come up with Laser Background? What’s the story and concept behind it?

AM: Well, I guess my original stoned concept for Laser Background was that we are all influenced, for better or worse, by our early childhood. You know, “the sponge of our youth,” and obviously we’re affected by nature vs. nurture but I think nurture has a really big fucking part of it.

TC: When did you move to Philadelphia?

AM: I moved to Philly the summer of 2006, and I moved here specifically to start a band, with Michael Chadwick, who is absolutely to this day my musical soulmate. It was a band called The Armchairs.

TC: Has living in Philly affected you as an artist at all?

AM: Philly influenced me pretty much only in the good friends that I’ve made here. The scene has been kind of transient, and that’s not me dissing it, because it’s actually pretty diverse. But you had Dr. Dog, who sort of paved the way for psych-revival, there were all these bands that were psych-pop and they’re kind of gone now. I actually kind of feel like I’m an outlier in the city almost.

TC: How is writing and performing independently different for you as an artist?

AM: I love collaborating with people and I do it pretty often. I really like playing the songwriter or the conceptual person or just being a player in someone else’s machine, but it’s a little lonelier, I would say, which is not necessarily a bad thing. When I first started writing songs I was sort of terrified of being a songwriter. I didn’t feel comfortable writing drum parts and bass parts and, essentially, I would rely on other people to do those. And it was important for me to grow as an artist in that way.

TC: Who influences you as an artist?

AM: Andy Kaufman—one of my biggest influences, and I’ll say The Kinks or the The Velvet Underground. More contemporarily The Unicorns from Montreal, and Brian Eno, his early stuff like Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain, that stuff’s my shit. Oh, and Ween—one of the best bands ever.

TC: From perusing your Facebook page I saw you listed Ray Bradbury as one of your influences, is that true?

AM: Oh, very true. Specifically because that book [Something Wicked This Way Comes] is crazy. The concept behind Laser Background originally was mixing childhood with the psychedelic, and figuring out existence, that sort of thing—which actually had a lot to do with this album. And that book is basically about crazy immortal carnival people that use a carousel to play backwards music and brainwash everyone. So I had read that book and it kind of ties in with this idea, “time dictates all humanity,” and I think we’re really bound by time in a way that we don’t understand. Like, you and I having a conversation that started 20 minutes ago that we cant undo, and time being on a linear spectrum for humans... I’m going on a tangent here, but, we’re the same people that we were when we were children, just our bodies have changed.

photo: Gerard Marcus

photo: Gerard Marcus

TC: How would you describe your sound?

AM: People ask me that all the time, whenever you’re in a band or make art in general. And with the visual it’s a little easier, because you can look at it, and I kind of want to say, I don’t know what do you think I sound like? Not to you, of course, just in general. But, hmm, “what do I sound like?” Here’s my answer: I hope that I sound like something vaguely reminiscent but also new. I want to give people a little piece of something they can hold on to and then yank it away from them. I think people are actually really lazy and it pisses me off. I don’t sit down and say, I’m going to make this type of song, I actually never do that. And a genre is necessary I guess, I actually had to write my own bio, which I really didn’t want to do, but I said “lo-fi sci-fi” which I thought was kind of funny. I mean, it is what is.

But, you know, there are so many options right now and technology is so crazy and I think it’s interesting to fuck with that. So Carlos and Julian from Ava Luna, who I’m serendipitously very good friends with, we worked together—and I’m always trying to be one step ahead of myself—and we recorded in Georgia in a cabin, and I wanted to intentionally limit myself, and give us a framework and work within that.

TC: That’s interesting, because I feel like so many people are trying to add as much as they can and cross over, and you’re being creative by working within a limited structure.

AM: Yeah, I think that’s the problem with our culture, constantly being rewarded for bullshit—like, you put out a tweet and say four people like it, and you think, oh cool! But it means absolutely nothing! And that’s the problem with the internet, it’s amazing and it exists but I feel like it’s Pringles, “once you pop the fun don’t stop.” And we see everything as being fixed, but... everything is this flickering candle you have to appreciate while its there, and I think that makes the best art.

Thats my philosophy in life. I’m not a nihilist but I’m definitely like, “fuck it” [laughs]. Being nihilistic is a problem because its like, no rules, and you should be a good person but at the end of the day you’re just going to die. Sorry, I’m a dark person [laughs].

TC: What was the inspiration for "Jawbreaker?"

AM: The impetus behind "Jawbreaker" is—well, it’s an existential song about a really shitty situation I witnessed with a roommate of mine, that was dear friend, in a horribly toxic relationship with someone who was taking advantage of them. And when you’re in a relationship you make compromises in ways that you don’t even understand, which ties into what I’m saying about time. Life is too short. If you’re in a miserable situation you’ve got to be the one to change it. And I went through an intense relationship, the person was awesome but... if you’re violating aspects of your personality that are detrimental to your life you have to change it and you have to change it for the better. You know, eternity is a human invention, and eternal love we’re sold on since youth, and I think people experience it sometimes but it’s one in a billion. I don’t know, I’ll probably fall in love in the next three years [laughs].

TC: It’s true though, because when you’re in a relationship with anyone—platonically or romantically—you see them through a filter.

AM: Yeah, absolutely, it’s any kind of relationship. It’s funny, maybe in a way that's what being in a relationship is—even friendship or a working relationship.

TC: Were you involved in the music video at all?

AM: Oh, you know, that video was my friend Ross Brubeck, and I basically just said I trust you as an artist to do whatever you want. I like picking artists that I already know and trust and saying okay, you’re going to make something cool, why don’t you take it and run with it. Like, my friend Greg O’Connell directed my new video called "Tropic of Cancer". That is fucking crazy, it's like a 3D full immersion on your iPhone, its going to come out sometime in the next few weeks.

TC: So what did you think of the video after you saw it?

AM: It’s fucking weird, but I like it. I like weird stuff, and on the one hand it’s really serious seeming, especially in the beginning with the girl, and that hand reaching up towards her mouth, but then you have this guy spitting toothpaste into a ghost cup, and okay, that’s absolutely ridiculous [laughs]. But I’m a ridiculous person and I like art imbued with a sense of humor sometimes—art that understands life is frivolous.

TC: Do you have a favorite venue?

AM: There are so many factors, but to be honest, Johnny Brenda’s. I’ve played there more than anywhere else, I’ve played with a bunch of my other friends there, and it’s a home away from home. I’d be remiss not to say it, they’ve just been so good to me. I feel lucky to play there, it’s the best place. And maybe the old warehouse space we lived at in Philly back in like 2009 called The Ox.

TC: What are your goals for the future?

AM: My goals for the future are to do the things that will make me happy and bring me ultimate fruition as a human while helping as many people I can. I care about people. I care about my neighbors, my friends... and you know, my dad was really involved in environmental science and Toms River, and what happened in Toms River, New Jersey, was all these chemicals leaking into the water and everyone got crazy brain cancer and my father was one of the leading people that went in there and said, "this is fucked up." But then I weirdly rationalize it, like everyone needs music—not that everyone needs my music, of course, that’s super pretentious—but like, I make very specific shit that maybe people aren't going to like at all. But if I can succeed in doing my thing and having fun while simultaneously helping people as an artist... yeah, that would be it.