Label Love #16: Argot/Tasteful Nudes


Steve Mizek is a very busy man. He's been running the excellent Little White Earbuds website for almost a decade and somehow has found the time over the past few years to launch two highly esteemed record labels – Argot and Tasteful Nudes. I've been a big fan of both imprints for some time now and they've graced the pages of Audio Love more than once. Finally I caught up with Steve to get under the skin of these two fine record labels;

First off lets start with the basics – you’re based in Chicago right? Did you grow up there?

I was born just outside Chicago and grew up in the suburbs. My family visited the city a couple times per year, and then I started going regularly during high school to see punk shows.

How and when did you get into house music?

I came to house music through disco, actually. During the mid-90s there was a resurgence of all things 1970s, especially disco. A few disco radio stations popped up during this time and 11-year-old me listened to them regularly as a respite from my parents' classic rock tastes. Although my active interest in disco faded as the trend did, I found Basement Jaxx, Daft Punk, and a few others through Spin Magazine, which kept up my interest in dance music and lead to a short but intense love affair with progressive house/trance through the lens of John Digweed's and Sasha's various mix CDs. Blogs, Resident Advisor, and the I Love Music board on lead me to the underground, and was founded as I was navigating real house and techno for the first time. Growing up in public.

It must be a pretty amazing and inspirational city to be in so far as music goes, does that ever feel daunting having all that history behind you?

Not for me personally. I imagine Chicago-based producers might feel more anxiety about it.

What was the spark that pushed you to start up the labels?

Back in 2011 my pal Ike Release was working for the Chicago record distributor Crosstalk INTL and recommended they offer me a production & distribution deal to start my own label. The idea of running a label had always intrigued me but seemed prohibitively expensive, so this was too good to pass up. Stolen Kisses was born in July with a record by Hakim Murphy featuring Santiago Salazar remixes. In the end, not having control over the manufacturing was frustrating, so I shuttered Stolen Kisses and rethought my concept. I decided to focus on American producers, both because I'm surrounded by them and because I feel like I understand where they're coming from — what it's like to try to make and release dance music in a country that doesn't really understand or appreciate it. A lot of European labels have become popular by scooping up American producers, and while I'm glad they've given said artists international exposure they deserve, I feel like it makes more sense coming from a compatriot. 

Describe the musical influences that were informing the labels when you first started out.

It's difficult to talk about certain sounds or artists for this question, because my influences are so vast and disparate. It's easier to think about record labels as guides. Running Back is a big one, and not just because Gerd Janson and I have followed somewhat similar "career" paths. I don't want to limit my labels sound-wise, so it's nice to have an exemplar for doing that successfully. I greatly admire Live At Robert Johnson. They perfectly balance releases from Frankfurt-based regulars and those who intrigue them, and every record they put out is a piece of art from front to back. Dial is along those lines, too. Aim is absolutely exceptional; many of their records have made me jealous I wasn't the one behind the release. There actually aren't many American labels that inspire me, at least contemporarily. And that's fine — we all do our own thing. 

Talk me through the differences between Argot and Tasteful Nudes. It seems that Argot has a more classic sound, taking in disco and house whereas Tasteful nudes has a bit more of an experimental techno scope, but I feel there is definitely a grey area between the two. Would you say that’s fair?

Yeah, that's definitely fair to say there's grey areas between the labels. What I release is based solely on what I enjoy rather than a particular aesthetic, so even I'm hard pressed to sub-divide the two that way. I didn't plan to start the Tasteful Nudes sub-label; the excellent music I kept receiving from overseas producers kinda forced my hand, if you will. I wanted to stay true to the concept behind Argot, so only through a new label would releasing these tunes make sense. 
There are a few guiding principles that apply to both labels: I generally go for more melodic music, especially stuff that can be enjoyed by both home listeners and club audiences. Arrangements that feel like songs — clear development, lots of personality — are especially attractive to me. These are things that usually keep me coming back to records over and over again, so I guess a better adjective for what I'm attempting is timelessness. If there is any difference between the labels, I guess you could say Tasteful Nudes is a little more aimed at dance floors.

Do you ever get sent music that you love but can’t quite fit between the two?

If it doesn't fit, it's usually just because I don't like it, or like it enough. 

Is it just you running the labels as a one man show or do you have a team behind you?

I am the only one making the decisions behind the labels. I do get a lot of help from my fiance, Mark Hofmann, who serves as the graphic/web designer to my art director (although the logo and initial artwork was created by Seth Hoekstra). I'm also getting a little help with the marketing side of things, but everything else from shipping out records to writing contracts is done by me.

What have been the biggest challenges in running the labels over the last few years?

The biggest challenge is how to keep the labels self-sustaining. It's difficult to make desirable products inside and out, keep the wholesale price affordable, and then recoup those expenses. It's the same struggle most smaller labels have. Beyond that, it's been quite a challenge to do a good job on all aspects of the labels while having a full time job and also running Free time was a foreign concept for a while there. That part is getting better, but it takes a lot of dedication to keep things in balance and myself sane.

How do you balance picking up on new artists and working with established names? You’ve got people like the Black Madonna, Amir Alexander and Gunnar Hasalam on your roster, were these guys big news when you worked with them or did you manage to catch them “on the up” as it were?

More than anything I just have a list of people I'd like to work with, and that list keeps growing as I hear new stuff. The three you mentioned all had prior releases before working with me, but I feel like each has significantly grown in stature since. I prefer to work with artists who are coming up because it's a great feeling to help expand their audience. That being said, I've been lucky to work with a few established artists and that's been just as much fun. I expect to continue dipping into both talent pools regularly, and hope to have most if not all of the artists I've worked with contribute additional releases.

What do you feel are your greatest achievements over the time you’ve been running the labels? Also, what is it you want to achieve in the long term?

While I'm quite proud of what I've achieved so far, I don't think I've been at it long enough to have any great achievements yet. It's made me very happy to see Amir Alexander's "Gutter Flex EP" stay highly sought after even after two re-presses. The "Lady of Sorrows EP" by The Black Madonna proved pretty popular in Berlin last year and helped open doors for her, which is a point of pride. It was an honor to release the "Smalltown Blues EP" by The Citizen's Band, as Chris has been a longtime favorite of mine.
I guess one cheeky accomplishment was hiding the fact I was the one behind Tasteful Nudes until the record was in stores and press had covered it. I wanted audiences and critics to appreciate Borai's beautiful "Moonlight On the Malago" for what it was rather than as a new project from me. Unfortunately a lot of people STILL don't know I run TN, so perhaps my slight of hand was too effective. 

You seem like a very busy individual, what with running two record labels and also running Little White Earbuds. How have you managed to spread yourself between the two?

Mostly just through an indefatigable work ethic. I like staying busy and these projects certainly keep me that way. Thankfully I have a lot of help with LWE. And the labels are something I could spend almost infinite time on, it's just that big of a passion for me. Working with artists is extremely satisfying. That said, I'm doing more to carve out some personal time so I don't get burned out.

It feels like there’s a ramping up of your operations at the moment and the releases have been coming thick and fast. Do you feel that this a particularly strong time for you?

I think the labels are certainly well poised at present. People are starting to anticipate new Argot/Tasteful Nudes releases based on their track records instead of whether or not audiences know the artist, which is helpful. I need to push even harder, though, in order to keep the momentum going, hopefully through label nights around the U.S. and in Europe. I've never been great at promoting myself, but I'm doing what I can to overcome that and bring Argot/TN to the people. 

How important do you think it is to keep up a busy release schedule and keep yourselves in the public eye? Do you ever feel the pressure to get stuff out there or can you just do it all in your own time as and when the music is ready?

The pressure I feel has more to do with wanting to put a lot of music into the world with limited resources and a calendar that is, in my experience, only friendly to releasing music nine months out of the year. Having a regular flow of releases is definitely important if you want to stay on people's radar, but releasing just to release seems like a mistake. Those filler releases are why people stop checking your records. I'd rather have anticipation and demand grow than put out something I felt less than stellar about. Many of the labels I respect most seem to agree with that stance.

You’ve recently moved into the field of the longer release with the ambient/soundscape cassette tape by Paul Levack. Are we going to see some more extended format releases from you guys soon?

For now that tape is something of a one-off for me. Paul is a good friend and he showed me the recordings with no intentions besides the desire to share. They were just deeply affecting to me, made essentially by Chicago itself. I can imagine there being more releases like it if something else interesting comes my way, but I'm not actively pursuing it. 
As for longer format releases, I'm guessing you're hinting at albums. I'm a bit wary of releasing them because they're a headache to manufacture and promote. That said, I've been swayed to push beyond my comfort zone before, so the right combination of factors will probably change my mind at some point. 

Describe each label in 5 words and 5 images (See the images throughout).

Argot: Made in America by American artists.
Tasteful Nudes: No boners on camera, please.

Finally, tell me what you’ve got coming up over the next few months to a year? Who are you going to be working with and what are you planning?

There's a handful of releases in progress at present, but a few are solid enough to discuss. By the time you read this there should be a new single called "Back Down" from Eamon Harkin (of Mister Saturday Night fame) hitting shops. Following that, I have an EP from Anaxander scheduled for sometime in September. There are also records by Community Corporation and Olin & Savile on the books for this year, as well as one by John Barera & Will Martin that'll touch down in 2015.