Worthy Vessels – A Word with Lighten Up Sounds

Labels used to be huge piles of dung whose purpose it was to make us listen to things we didn’t actually like, or make us like things we shouldn’t actually listen to. While most everything else has become progressively worse since the middle ages or so, the accessibility of quality music and the direct contact between microscopic artists and fans of quality obscure music is, along with the progress of medicine, things that have objectively improved. One way such contact comes about predates the internet – the independent tape label. We established e-mail contact with Lighten Up Sound’s Matthew to discuss his label, and all the beautiful music that flows therefrom. Enjoy.

From where I’m sitting, the first quality that is striking about the Lighten Up Sounds catalog is that it is thoroughly un-categorizable. That sounds like a cliche, “genre bending” and “eclectic” being used for just about anything these days, but in your case such catch phrases clearly apply. So, if you wouldn’t mind helping me clear things up: what is Lighten Up Sounds about?
I personally see a description of “un-categorizable” as a positive thing. To me there is an obvious connection between all artists that appear on the roster, in that they capture a certain spirit that appeals to my personal sensibilities and I feel each makes a complimentary addition to the constant evolution of the catalog. I like to keep things interesting. I’m a man of varied and divergent tastes and I feel the works released by the label ultimately reflect my aesthetics and sensibilities.

I would say that the over-arching label “sound” is rooted in the senses of both realism and escapism. Our catalog background is largely rooted in the avant-garde, but we see light shining through the spectrum of modern sound in various forms of psychedelia, doom, ambient, improvisation, electronics, folk, noise, ritual music, raw synthesis, neo-classical, pure sound &

The label statement reads:
“Lighten Up Sounds is a small private imprint focused on the publication and distribution of contemporary art and sound.”

There is officially no limit or definition as to what we might consider important work that deserves a powerful physical presence in the world. We have an extreme ear, please try to blow our minds.

You’ve been around as a label since 2009, and I think a little history might interest more than one of our readers. What got things started, and how has it progressed? Is Lighten Up Sounds
your first label?
LUS is the only label I’ve ever operated. The imprint officially started in Pittsburgh 2008, though the first handful of releases aren’t very well documented. I’d been playing in numerous bands, making small runs of cassettes and documenting music for years at that point so the evolution seemed fairly natural to establish a label that the work could be collected under. The origin was a just a humble effort to help spread the sounds of a few musicians and friends that were making recordings I liked and felt that folks should be able to check out. Most of these first few titles were made in small runs of 10-20 cassettes to sell in the merch case at shows or give away to friends. There were several HACKLES tapes in this period, an electro-acoustic improvisation trio I was quite active with at the time, along with recordings from obscure projects like VERAS UNLIMITED and EYE OF VISION. Over the years it’s evolved to the point we’re at now, which I would say has grown to be larger and more professional in approach. Running the label is definitely much more time consuming than it used to be, but I’d say the general attitude hasn’t changed too much from the initial vision.

These days we will sometimes spend 6 months just in development of the concept for an album release, working together with the artist to master the audio and finalize sequences, along with creating new artworks and visual approach, sometimes shooting original photography and footage for music videos. Another notable change is that we now usually offer most titles as digital downloads on the official Bandcamp site, which was never initially the focus. The label existed for several years with just a P.O. Box before it had any internet presence at all, it has always been focused more on the making of a nice physical release to be a worthy vessel for the sounds contained within.

You cover a wide variety of genres, including noise and dungeon synth. Do you ever get “turned on” by a genre, and go shopping for artists to release, or do you operate strictly on an individual, artist by artist basis? What is the overall process by which you select and release music?
I’m not that interested in the strict classification of genre for an artists work, to me the mood and approach can often be felt more clearly without adhering to firm preconceptions of what one may think they are about to hear. Some of the things I’m putting out aren’t even easily described, like the recent DOGGERELLA DECIDED UPON cassette for example. Those recordings are quite unlike anything else I’ve ever heard, with a distinct and bizarre mold-sound approach. It’s sometimes better to frame music as an experience, to recognize the effect it has, rather than worrying too much about how to necessarily define and categorize the work.

My personal tastes are clearly reflected in the catalog. I like dungeon synth and noise, certainly, but I listen to all types of music. Sometimes certain titles relate to each other through the use of different approaches to similar forms, in pattern of synthesis or use of more traditional folk structures, but generally offering atmospheres which compliment each other. I would also argue that a stark contrast between artists can provide an equally powerful method of distinction and clarity. I’d say that I curate a spectrum of work on an individual case by case basis, but within a sense of greater context. Each release is carefully chosen to compliment the catalog in creation of a greater whole.

The process is fairly simple, if I find an artist who is doing work that resonates with me, and I feel they would be a good fit with the label, I typically reach out and let them know that I like what they’re doing and ask if they would have an interest in working together. We receive a surprising amount of unsolicited demo submissions, which can sometimes become a bit overwhelming. There is so much interesting art and music going on, I’m always excited to find new artists doing interesting work. I do try to give a listen to everything that comes our way, and I’d like to be releasing even more music than we do, but our resources and time are finite and we simply can’t commit to putting out every good demo that comes our way.

Given the diversity of what you release, do you also have a widely divergent customer base? In other words, does each release attract different people, or do you have a “fan base” of people who buy lots of the stuff you put out there?
Sure, I’d say we attract listeners of all kinds. Everyone coming to the label for new music would likely already have some level of interest in the contemporary underground, but some of the folks who are into the FLESH COFFIN and THE HOWLING HEAD harsh noise tapes may not be too interested in the arch top/theremin mantras of JOHN ZUMA ST. PELVYN or cosmic ambient music from OVERSCAN.
I’d say it’s a balance of both, there are a good share of folks following the label that have open minds and trust our tastes, so they are willing to check out almost anything in the catalog, but then there are plenty of people that are interested only in a specific project or with interest only in work within strict stylistic guidelines. I personally think it is a strength to offer variety. I don’t want every release to look and sound the same, each artist is an individual entity, and each project is approached with the idea of finding a distinct treatment suitable to the work. It does complicate things a bit when considering forums for review, distribution and promotion, as so much music these days is crammed into tight genre-specific corners, but when folks do find us, many are surprised at how much of the music they enjoy. We challenge ourselves to be continually pushing the catalog further out there for listeners to potentially discover and appreciate, hopefully folks find work that stimulates and resonates
with them on a personal level.

Where do you see music, popular and more artsy, these days? Is it as magical as it ever was, or are the scenes over saturated?
I love music. I already own more records and tapes than I will probably ever be able to listen to in my entire lifetime, but am somehow always looking for more. There is so much that I still don’t know about, artists I’ve never heard of that have been working for years, records from the 70’s that I didn’t know existed, and new artists with interesting ideas and distinct approaches. It seems an endless cycle of discovery. I honestly don’t know too terribly much about modern “popular” music, I deliberately avoid pop radio and am fairly oblivious to the seasonal “summer hits”
beyond what I’m subjected to.

Over-saturation of any particular form is potentially a negative thing, but it really depends on where you are looking. There are certain recordings that completely transport me. That experience can be incredibly powerful, and I feel like I’m always looking for new work that can deliver that magical feeling of complete loss of self and help open the door to higher levels of consciousness.

Is it even possible to make general statements about “music”, given the amounts and availability of musical works these days?
I would hesitate to make too many generalizations about music, as it seems such a subjective and diverse world which includes piles of pure rubbish alongside works of inspired brilliance, depending on who you ask. It can be a daunting challenge to weed through endless flavors of the month and
flowery hyperbole to discover something worth actually spending our precious time with, but it can be an immensely rewarding experience when the magic strikes. There are still many crucial works being made, it just might be more difficult to find them amongst the spam.

What about the effect of the internet on music – pure blessing, pure curse, or something in between?
I’d say the internet is both positive and negative. The effect it has had on the general erosion of real world human interaction can be horribly depressing, but the connection and infinite access to communication, information, art and music from around the world is an incredible tool at our fingertips. It’s definitely an important resource in helping to spread the sounds, but it has also changed the way that people think about music and art.
The world is so much bigger than Bandcamp stats and YouTube plays. Folks are still driving around in their pickup truck everyday, listening to their favorite tapes over and over again and living the dream.

You do very limited releases, generally, but also reprint when there is much interest in a release. More importantly, you place a lot of emphasis on nice packaging. All of your releases look pretty great, and some (like GOBLINTROPP) are absolutely stunning. Any thoughts on packaging and the non-musical aspects of publishing music?
These days most label releases range from editions of 50-100 copies. I dosometimes make second pressings if something disappears quickly or there is great continued interest, but often I’m more focused on keeping forward momentum and moving on to the next idea I’ve already got cooking. There are almost always a few projects in the works simultaneously, sometimes in the planning stages for months before finally being released.

We always strive to make the presentation for each release as strong as possible. A big part of what the label does is to help develop and produce a powerful physical presence for the music. We are actively working to always push the quality levels higher, and to continually experiment with new, interesting and challenging concepts and designs. The physical object that the listener holds in their hands is a crucial aspect of the way one ultimately experiences the music, so the format, artwork and visual presentation all play critical roles in the actual perception of the listener. Our goal is to keep the bar set high.

There are so many non-musical aspects to the reality of publishing music, much more to the process than just making tapes. The music speaks for itself at a certain level, but arranging distribution & promotion, operating various media platforms, writing code, shooting product photography, drafting descriptions, and packing orders are all examples of label activities that I spend way more time on than seems normal.

Regarding physical formats, it seems many underground, small edition labels are moving from CDr to audio cassette tapes. You yourself have done a lot of releases on cassette, VHS and even 8-track. The charm and fetish value is rather obvious (at least to me), but is there also a “commercial”
aspect here?
I honestly never got that into CDs, so I don’t think about it too much really. I do appreciate the archival aspect, but I’ve found them to be unstable, easily damaged and they just never really clicked with me as a format. It seems parts of Europe and the greater world are still into CDs & CDRs more than here in the States, but I’ve chosen to focus on producing analog formats from the beginning because that has always been my personal interest, that is where my passion lays. I’m not trying to convince anyone to stop using CDRs, I just do what I like. Cassettes, vinyl, VHS and 8 tracks are all formats that I love and use in my personal daily life. These are my preferred methods of experiencing music, and so they are my formats of choice.

Has the interest in music on CDr waned, even as the interest in old tape formats has increased?
It does seem like much less underground music in general is released on CD/CDR these days, at least here in the US. Some folks still strongly prefer CDs, and seem to think it is the only “professional” format, and I say more power to them. I occasionally buy and distribute CDs if the work is excellent and I can’t get the music any other way, it’s just not my preference.

Do you have any long-term ambitions with Lighten Up Sounds, realistic ones or dreams?
The label continues to exist because of a perpetual desire for growth as time passes. I’d say the long term goal is to continue to make my own art and music, and establish a balance with everything else I want to do with the rest of my life other than the label, and strive for sustainability in
that sense.

Securing wider distribution is always a work in progress, that’s a crucial aspect to keeping the imprint alive and thriving. It doesn’t matter how nice the tape looks, if folks don’t check the album out, it isn’t doing anybody any favors. I would like to finally get our own domain name and legitimate website one of these days. That’s been on the list for several years now, but there are always other projects that somehow seem more important.

Funding and putting together tours? Living off of it?
We do tend to arrange local record release events for new albums, but I’ve traveled in bands enough to know the amount of work it takes to put a successful tour together. I’m happy to contribute however I can to help book shows for friends and label artists, but I don’t envision my role to ever become that of a full-on booking agent or event promoter. As far as someday living off the proceeds from the label, I think that’s unrealistic. The investment of time and energy in comparison to the return just doesn’t allow me to pay myself. We operate more on the aim to eventually break even on a release to help justify the expenses of producing the next one. It’s done as a labor of love for music that I think deserves to be heard, and in that sense is a success.

More immediate, mundane ideas? Any interesting releases in the pipeline?
Up next this Summer we will be releasing the debut s/t album from BLOOD OF SOKAR  (Crushing funeral doom metal w/ droning organ and tortured vocals) along with a new cassette from DER ELEKTRISCHE TRAUM (German hardware kosmische ambient synthesis). These should both see the light in the next month or so. Several projects are currently in the planning stages, with releases in the works from PREY OCUPADO (deep-strange electronics / viola delinquency), BURIAL GROUND (Horror
obsessed HNW from Wisconsin), and MAR HABRINE (Minneapolis electro-grizz wire tanglers). As always there will be a few exciting surprises, but we usually keep our cards pretty close to the chest until the work is ready to be officially unleashed.

The last words are yours, unless you make them a question. Did we miss anything, is there anything particular you would like to market?
New cassettes from WAPENTAKE and FALGAR were just announced with the recent Summer Solstice. These are both acoustic based Neo-folk projects from artists with respective Black Metal backgrounds. Each has distinctly different approaches, but offer a grand sense of melodic minimalism and pastoral atmospherics. Check them out!

Thank you for the interest and support. Long live Archiac Triad.

STORE http://lightenupsounds.storenvy.com
BANDCAMP https://lightenupsounds.bandcamp.com
BLOG http://lightenupsounds.blogspot.com/
TWITTER https://twitter.com/LightenUpSounds
FACEBOOK https://www.facebook.com/LightenUpSounds
INSTAGRAM https://www.instagram.com/lightenupsounds
YOUTUBE https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7tH1nVeqUG9cOLFQde34rw

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