Interview: R. Loren of Local Label Handmade Birds

R. Loren won’t give his first name or talk about his day job. He started local label Handmade Birds on the outskirts of Denton this past February, seemingly out of nowhere. What we do know is that he has performed with such noteworthy acts as the equally mysterious Pyramids, Sailors with Wax Wings, and White Moth. All three groups received a fair bit of national attention, and included an impressive list of co-conspirators. White Moth was even acknowledged on NPR’s Top-20 year-end All Songs Considered list.

Loren has spent much of the past the year reissuing seminal and hard-to-find works by the likes of experimental pop icons His Name is Alive and French Black Metal band Blut Aus Nord, as well as albums by newer acts. Those two particular bands noticeably couldn’t be more different on paper, which is due to the artist and label owner’s dedication to keeping his imprint from becoming too beholden to any specific genre.

He’s intent on keeping a low profile, but everyone from the influential Aquarius Records to WFMU to specialized underground blogs have already taken notice. In fact Pitchfork gave his most recent release an unusually high score of 8.0. Though it was for a band from Finland, Circle of Ouroborus, it’s a remarkable nod for any record released by a DFW-based label. He also gives us some info about an upcoming activity with the label’s first release by a band with North Texas roots, in the following Q&A:

FrontRow: The label was started this year, correct? What project in particular compelled you to pursue an all-out label? Or was it several at once?

R. Loren: Yes, the label began this year with the release of the LP When California Falls Into The Sea by Evan Caminiti (Barn Owl), and a reissue of Blut Aus Nord’s dark opus Mort. In recent years, my hunger for collaboration had heightened to unprecedented levels, which culminated in the two epic collaborative projects I did last year, Sailors With Wax Wings and White Moth, which involved an orchestration of accomplished musicians that range from Slowdive’s Simon Scott, Marissa Nadler, ex-Swans drummer Ted Parsons, James Blackshaw, Dominick Fernow (Prurient, Cold Cave), Jonas Renkse from Katatonia, Alec Empire, Lydia Lunch, David Tibet….the list is too mega to type out in its entirety.

Needless to say, I poured my entire life force into those two releases, and crossed some threshold into a physical plane that I had never negotiated before. In other words, prior to last year, music for me was exclusively spiritual, but the visceral nature of the music I was making and the stress surrounding those two projects descended from being just spiritual to wearing on my physical health. I began having panic attacks and severe anxiety; something I had never experienced before, and never understood. I could be engaged in the most relaxing and mundane activity, and the anxiety would take over. I realized then that slowing my recording process was a necessary change of pace, but knew that my obsessive musical energy would remain.

This label is a way for me to “collaborate” with artists that I love, acting as a vehicle for that energy, whilst fostering a level of appreciation for art and music in my household that I feel will be healthy for my two daughters to grow up around. I intend to continue recording, but right now I want to focus on this label. It feels like a calling. The artist that had the most impact on me taking this from a simple idea to an actual reality was Celestiial, whose music I hold so close to me that I felt compelled to grab hold of this dream and take action.

FR: How did working with Hydra Head in your own musical project impact you as a label person, if at all?

RL: Hydra Head truly leads by example in the area of integrity. In terms of carving out a roster that is both varied and full of nothing but artists they are passionate about, and then sticking to their guns while traversing the cultural and financial nightmare that is running a music based business in 2011, you would be hard pressed to find any label as grounded and as stable as Hydra Head. I have learned a ton working with them, and much of how they operate has been ingrained in my own decision making for Handmade Birds. The biggest difference would be that I have a day job that is my focus in terms of income, and always will be. I have zero interest in making the label a business that pays my bills. I certainly don’t think it is wrong to do so, I just choose not to.

FR: You use ambient artist and producer James Plotkin (formerly of Khanate) for mastering work etc. How did this come about? What were the projects in which he has been involved that have influenced you the most? What is it specifically that he does that is different from other mastering people/manipulators of sound?

RL: James mixed and mastered the first Pyramids album that we did for Hydra Head. Since then, I have held a certain reverence for his work as a sound artist. He really knows his way around audio in all its formats and genres. I especially like his solo ambient work. He is extremely professional and artist friendly in terms of how flexible he is with reworking a master based on artist feedback.

FR: Some of the projects in your catalog have been pretty ambitious, including a box set (of notoriously expensive ten inch vinyl records) and a reissue of His Name Is Alive’s very hard-to-find King of Sweet release. Have you been at all intimidated by the scope of some of these releases? Or do you welcome the challenge? Reading through a few of the statuses on the Handmade Birds Facebook page, I see things that suggest you spend a lot of your free time assembling things by hand or standing in line to mail dozens and dozens of records. How much of your non-work time is eaten up by the label?

RL: More of my time is being absorbed by the label than I originally thought. But it is a labor of love, so part of me welcomes it. In fact, I was reflecting the other day that one of my favorite releases so far, in terms of satisfaction from doing this label, is the Sun Devoured Earth 4xcd boxset that I assembled in my living room. And even though we just printed 100 sets and SDE is a brand new, virtually unknown artist, they all sold out in pre-order, and the assembly process was a truly romantic experience.

Incidentally, the box set of 10″ [records] hurled me in a mound of debt coming right out the gate. But it has almost sold out now, and again is an amazing piece; satisfying my obsessive need to share music of its caliber.

FR: I read in an interview that you have an issue with a name not properly representing the project and I agree that some names can be crippling. Do you feel the same about album art, since it seems that you also labor over that aspect of the label as well? I would really love to ask you an example of a great project with a bad name, but most people might shy away from that. But feel free if you’d like!

RL: Names are a huge deal for me. I am trying to think of an effective analogy….here we go…most people don’t enjoy listening to a band, no matter how great they are, if they dislike the vocalist. The vocalist is draped over everything else, and if you don’t like it, then the well has been poisoned. For me, the name comes even before the vocalist, because it is the first thing I encounter, and therefore impacts my first impression either positively or negatively. It has nothing to do with “branding” and everything to do with the shadow it casts over my experience with the music that I take very personally. Listening to the records that give you chills and make you take the long way home is an intimate thing, and I can’t have an intimate relationship with something that is ruined in the first impression. That may seem shallow, but I am trying to convey the fact that it is the exact opposite.

Let’s see…despite my love for Kyuss, I can’t handle Queens of the Stone Age. Horrible name.

FR: So I assume you dealt with His Name Is Alive’s Warren Defever directly. How was that?

RL: Absolutely. One of the nicest guys I have had a chance to communicate with. Considering how influential he has been to experimental and indie music overall, he is a very mellow, grounded human being. And it is a great honor that he was so trusting of me. I hope to work with him again soon.

FR: You’ve stated that you don’t want Handmade Birds to be an indie label or a metal label. How does one avoid such marginalization? Does it seem to have affected the the way the label is covered as far as you can tell?

RL: So, far, there has been no pigeonholing that I can tell. Of all of the curatorial intentions I have with the label, of the utmost priority is avoiding too many artists in one genre, but making sure that all artists share a loosely overarching aesthetic and affinity for texture.

FR: Through your own music (in Pyramids, Sailors With Wax Wings and White Moth) you’ve worked with the aforementioned Lydia Lunch, Alec Empire, plus Dalek, Current 93, and finally Blut Aus Nord (who seem to be your personal heroes). Not to name drop too heavily, but it’s not every day that I interview a local that has worked with such a wide variety of respectable artists. The underground blogs and even sites such as Stereogum and Pitchfork seemed to have a handle on this, but I’ve seen very little in the local press. Is that a result of you maintaining such a low profile? Or are the music writers just not digging enough or aware enough? What is the current status of Pyramids, or any of your own music endeavors?

RL: I think it is the low profile. I have zero desire for my own persona to be somehow lifted in the limelight. I don’t want to tour colleges as a guest speaker or somehow front like I am an authority whatsoever in the very thing that keeps me alive. If anything, I am submissive to music as an entity, and it lives and breathes on its own. I am just in some sort of Hellraiser movie, feeding the monster so that it can continue to take shape, because it is a living entity apart from my own ego or aspirations. I feel privileged to be able to do it.

FR: How did you get involved with Thrill Jockey as a distributor?

RL: I approached them due to their recent endeavors taking on a few exclusive labels for distribution—one of the ways I think they are branching out in their own business. My first release was a solo LP from Evan Caminiti of Barn Owl, who is an artist on Thrill Jockey. Erik Keldsen (Immune Records) runs distribution over there and himself champions experimental music. We had a good chemistry and they were nice enough to take me on.

FR: What can you tell me about your recent release by Circle of Ouroborus?

RL: It is my favorite release in ten years, and to me shows a reinvention of music. Like post punk and black metal being played inside of a womb. It is a highly interesting record and I really recommend it to virtually any serious music listener. They are from Finland, and are on a roll right now with ideas.

FR: Anything you’d like to add?

RL: Year two will find me scaling way back from the aggressive output that I did in year one, and really concentrating on the current artists on the roster and spacing out releases more, to focus on rolling them out in an even bigger way. Sans Soleil is the first band truly native to the Denton area that I intend on working with, in early 2012.


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