Sunday, February 12, 2012

Interview with Kevin Greenspon of Bridgetown Records

Kevin Greenspon photo by Sarah Collins

Over the past few months, I've been pretty blown away by the sounds coming out of CA based Bridgetown Records.  You may have even seen write ups for the incredible "Hope" by Former Selves, and the stunning synth mastery of Giant Claw.  Well, I've been fortunate enough to chat via email a bit with Bridgetown artist and label head Kevin Greenspon.  Turns out, Kevin is one of the most open, communicative, and hard working dudes I've met in the tape scene.  He was gracious enough to answer a few questions about running a label, his own personal music tastes, and even give his opinion on the always polarizing topic of digital distribution.


The new Spring batch of Bridgetown tapes was just released, please tell me a bit about the origination of the batch and how it relates to the context of Bridgetown as a whole.

Each season, I like to release a batch of albums that I think complement each other nicely musically and stylistically. Planning for this batch really started probably a year and a half ago when I helped Bryce of Reighnbeau out with a few Southern California shows when he was on tour with our mutual pal Emma, playing songs as Elephant Paintings. I had already released an album of his solo ambient works and seeing him perform these beautiful folk songs made me instantly want to release more of his music. He had already burned me a CDr of music he was recording as Reighnbeau a few months prior when I stayed at his house in New Mexico, but after this show we played together, he gave me a copy of the first Reighnbeau tape that I fell in love with. So a year later, he finally had the "Ashes" album finished and I was thinking of who else would work well with this. Jeff of Sky Stadium and I were talking about releasing his first full-length to follow up his recent "Plateau" EP I released and it felt like a great fit because the two albums had this really rich character that was very sincere and understated. The Hakobune tape was a no brainer because I was already a fan of Takahiro's work and he had helped me out with getting some of the label's music to Japanese fans, and his work is very humble as well. I could go on, but the bottom line is that I like to group artists that I think work well together. Sometimes we forget that genre or sound isn't the only thing that can link different musicians, that our approaches, personalities, ideas and mutual friends can be just as important.

The Bridgetown roster is very diverse, much more so than many labels in the tape scene. Was that an intentional direction to you chose to pursue, or did diversity "find you"?

It's subconsciously intentional. I like a lot of different kinds of music and that reflects in the variety of artists I choose to release. I do like to keep things varied on purpose, but oftentimes it does "find me" when something I didn't ever think about releasing materializes. I don't ever plan out that I want to have one each of a pop, folk, rock and ambient tape in a batch with the intent of adhering to a road map. I simply release what I want to, and it happens as naturally as picking out something to play on my stereo.

When selecting artists to work with, do you consider their place within the context of your current aesthetic, or do you consider each artist's release individually, and separate from the canon of Bridgetown?

They need to be able to stand on their own in both regards. I want to release music that can hold up when removed from the rest of the label's history and also contribute to the greater picture of Bridgetown's entire discography. Just because an album is great doesn't mean it necessarily fits alongside the rest of the artists I've put out releases for, and if something is too dependent on what surrounds it to be able to withstand scrutiny, it might not belong here either. However, this balance is never mirrored between different releases or from separate viewpoints. What may seem like a perfect fit in the canon of the label to me may seem like a curve ball to the audience. The Dr. D.R. Barclay tape I just released is a good example. A lot of people have already wrote me saying that it was extremely unexpected and completely unlike anything they'd ever heard on Bridgetown. One could see it as a compelling document on it's own because it was such a unique idea but not realize how much it makes sense in the catalog to me. David Barclay is someone I have a great deal of respect for in what he's done in the underground music community, and our few times hanging out together quickly proved how similar we are personality-wise. His DJ tape represents a lot of those connections I have with people who are serious about what they do but still kind of goofball weirdos that often take bad ideas too far. Rest assured, if I'm releasing it on Bridgetown, it's because it belongs there, whether my reasons are clearly visible or not.

Kevin Greenspon photo by Sarah Collins
As a single individual running a DIY label, you obviously have a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears invested in every tape you release. Exactly how many hours of prep does each release take?

There is no way to really know how much time goes into the label. I don't punch in and punch out on a time card or separate the time I'm doing things related to the label from the rest of my life. It's always meshed together. If I'm doing something while the computer's on and I get an order or an email, I can't help but put together the package as soon as possible or answer whatever question comes my way or reply to someone who just liked some album I put out and wanted to talk for a minute. I know other people who do this who need to differentiate the two 'worlds' and it's understandable how one might not want to let the two conflict and encroach upon one another but I just can't do that. I don't ever think of albums I release in terms of their exact monetary cost of materials or the total time it took to make them from start to finish because a lot of the steps are staggered over several months, and I try to get other things done while I'm waiting for supplies or final masters or whatever else. Long story short, I've almost always got some step of the tape-making process for at least one release on my mind at any given time, and that's an understatement!

Are there artists and/or labels, now or in the past that inspire you to create, and have driven the direction of Bridgetown?

Pretty much all of my friends and all of the other small labels across the world doing this as well. There are so many and they're all doing such different things that it would be a crime to just summarize them under an umbrella term. For the most part, I don't really listen to current music that isn't on DIY labels with the exception of pop radio. I'm not really checking out the bigger indie or punk stuff. So my interaction with modern music has this large gap between tapes and records that rarely make it to more than 100 or maybe 500 people over the course of their existence and music that's pumped out of the speakers of every Payless Shoes or dentist waiting room in the country.

I think this has had a pretty big influence me because while I'm primarily releasing home-recorded music by artists who may only have a limited knowledge of music theory or audio production (myself included), I want to present it as something that a broader audience can like. I believe underground music doesn't need to be condemned to obscurity, where only other people who are heavily involved in the underground worthy of enjoying it or being aware of its existence. So I'm trying to present what I release as something that people are all allowed to be a part of. I just don't want to go the typical indie label route and hire some press agent, put together a slick website and promotional campaign or try to tout my albums as a hip thing that comes at a premium. I still do it with a DIY ethic dubbing and assembling tapes myself and relying mostly on word of mouth and a small but dedicated base of supporters who trust my judgment. I think this direction of making one fan at a time has been pretty successful.

The other day someone told me he had only been to one show ever- obviously he's not living in some punk/artist co-op, but that doesn't mean he can't be into this stuff. In one of our first conversations, he said he pretty much got a cassette player to hear some tapes I released and now he has a ton of Bridgetown titles.

Just this week I was talking to a pal in the UK who's been really supportive of the label and when he was curious about some of the upcoming releases, I shared some live videos of my friend Nial who's one of my favorite guys going in California right now. Despite being completely unexposed to harsh noise, he was floored and wanted me to send him a copy with some other stuff he wanted before it comes out, which won't be for a few months. And I sure will because I'm really happy he was into it. These are just a few examples of how I think underground music, genres and aesthetics don't need to be confined to the previously initiated. "Regular" people can like this stuff just as much as anyone else.

Are there directions you aspire to take Bridgetown that you have not yet explored? Do you attempt to challenge your audience with Bridgetown releases, or meet their current expectations, or maybe a bit of both?

There are, one of which is that I want the music to be a bit more readily available and not strictly limited. I'd like to do larger initial editions for a lot of releases but it can be risky or I just don't have the space. When possible, I like to be able to make more copies of albums that should be heard by a larger audience, even if it's only 15-50 more people at a time over a period of a few months. There are a few larger editions coming up because I don't want anyone to miss out on being able to have a copy of the release as intended, so I'm making progress.

I do like to challenge the audience a bit and throw the occasional curve ball. Coming out with 15 new releases simultaneously last June was a great opportunity because I was able to put out a lot of really different music that I felt was related in some way, and people ended up picking up some albums they wouldn't have normally checked out. There are a few avenues I'd like to go down as well. I've been wanting to release more DJ-oriented works that steer away from the artist as a performer of a traditional instrument. The Dr. D.R. Barclay tape caught a lot of people by surprise just simply from how different it was compared to everything else on the label... and his sheer skill didn't hurt either. The next installment will be available on my label showcase tour this Spring and I'll put leftovers on the site when I return. This one's definitely going to be something the audience won't foresee at all simply because of how much sense it makes if you know me. Expectations are important too though, and I think people are safe to assume that certain artists like Former Selves, Vehicle Blues, Jon Barba and Reuben Sawyer will have releases on the label every couple of months. I don't ever think of the label as a "roster," but these guys are as close to one as it gets. Expect to be seeing more of them on Bridgetown.

Kevin Greenspon photo by Sarah Collins
Sites like Bandcamp seek to give independent artists a full service platform to share music without the encumbrances of iTunes and Amazon.  Do you support this approach to digital distribution, or does physical distribution remain central to your approach? 

I'm really on the fence about digital formats. It's been very tough figuring out where I truly stand on the subject, but the more I see Twitter accounts and Bandcamps populate the underground, the harder it is to join the ranks. I've had a couple of releases that blew up on mediafire or blogs and from the moment that would happen, it just wouldn't sell anymore. I've seen how it works for larger scale releases where a much bigger audience needs to "try before they buy" to verify that it's worth their money, but I think for most tape labels, the fanbases are so small that it cripples our ability to recoup expenses and release more music. While it's great that many more people can potentially hear the music that way, I think it's really devaluing to the time, energy and devotion that a lot of us are putting into our labels and music. 

My friend Elijah of Terrors runs a label called Cavelife and closed his 2011 roundup with some words that ring very true in this era where art is becoming increasingly more relegated to monitors and hard drives than physical presentation:

"Finally, I want to say that if you're excited about new music please buy more of it. I can imagine that I hear sighs of exasperation, but I'm serious. Supporting this stuff is crucial. This was THE year when all my friends who run labels, distros and record stores discussed closing up shop due to lack of sales. Which is funny to me because I feel like more people than ever before are hearing the sort of tunes they're hocking, right? It remains to be seen if this is a passing by-product of the terminal/permanent economic recession or standing backlash against a growing glut of cultural-garbage. Either way, if you like any F.U.B.U. poor people musick and you want to see it proliferate you might have to be a patron to it in some way other than mediafire."

What are your own personal listening habits, and how do your personal listening tastes relate to the music you create and release?

I can't really handle being exposed to music constantly, so I actually tend to keep the stereo off most of the time and almost never download anything unless it's sent to me directly. I listen to a lot less music than one might think, given the fact that I run a label, release solo albums and go to as many DIY shows as I have time for. These days, I mostly just alternate between whatever my friends and peers are doing pedestrian FM radio. In between, there's a really wide variety, lots of straightforward electronic/dance stuff and 90s rock with experimental sound peppered throughout. The label isn't necessarily very indicative of my casual listening. That is to say, you won't find much trance, RnB or harsh noise on my label. But don't say I didn't warn you about curve balls.

In addition to Kevin being generous enough to take time out to complete this interview, he has also made available, totally free and legit, a mix tape of his latest batch of tapes.   You can also hit up his personal site for more details at 

Much thanks to Kevin for his time and generosity.  Meeting and connecting with folks like this, either in person or over the web is truly what makes this scene so special.  Bridgetown has a complete tour schedule slated for 2012, so take the time, get in your car, and support Kevin and the Bridgetown artists.

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