Label Love #22: Night School Records
Unlike many other labels, tied to a more rigorously uniform sound, Night School have been distinct in their concord of variance. Helmed by Glaswegian Michael Kasparis, the records released in their three year existence reflect the singularity of the artists more than any fixed sonic trademark. Yet such an open platform has still assured a sense of character, of something diverse, unpredictable and far from ordinary.
Although based out of London, such a location factors little in the approach to what the label sources. A love for the sounds made, and a desire to share the work of the artists, overrides any of the more prosaic hindrances that often limit exploration. That might account for the range of the cast assembled on the label and its residing sounds.
Scanning the output to date reveals myriad riches, from the entrancingly doped, leaden sound collages of Yong Yong to the seething jackhammer batter of Prostitutes, and from the homegrown suburbanite absurdism of Charcoal Owls and The Bomber Jackets to the eccentric, interplanetary synth pop of fabled street performer The Space Lady.
Defying limitations and expectations and favouring a certain dedication to the difficult and ineffable has informed such a course, as Kasparis explains here. We also touch on the premature mid-life languish that started it all, deliberate the relevance of ‘outsider-ism’ to his own activites and whether it’s now a defunct concept, the scenes of London & Glasgow and a whole load more.
When did the idea of starting a label begin to take shape? Has it always been something you’ve wanted to do?
I'd thought about it for years before plucking up the courage to do it. I'd always made music in some form or other but thought of the mechanisms that release it as dark arts. A few things – mostly moving to London and meeting people who had similar ideas about things – kicked me up the arse.
Can you pinpoint any early inspirations for Night School in terms of labels, artists, aesthetics or otherwise? Similarly, can you highlight any formative experiences that led you on the path to its inception?
There's too many to list all of them. I would say a lot of personal endeavours by friends of mine were initial inspirations: La Vida Es Un Mus / PAN / Alter / Static Shock, all run by friends who helped out in one way or the other. For ethics I really love ESP's focus on the artists and their anything goes policy. Albert Ayler, The Godz, Cromagnon, you can't fuck with that roster. I've always been a big Impulse Records fan – that's an aesthetic thing too. They were funded by a major label and they always spent a lot of money on each LP, they're really lush objects. In terms of experiences leading to the inception, nothing out-of-the-ordinary: Basically I was at a low-point, maybe even like an early mid-life crisis and decided to sell half my record collection to release some records by artists I really loved. That was going in to 2011. I remember watching Until The Light Takes Us at 3am on Christmas Day on my own thinking "fuck I've got to do something else." Previous to that I'd always seen myself as a musician and not a business man. Which hasn't changed really..
How would you describe the Night School sound?
What do you look for in the work you release?
I have to feel like the world, or at least my world, would be a better place with this music in it. Does that make sense? I like a lot of music but every release I've worked on has been something that just felt right, instinctually. Of course sometimes it doesn't chime with many other people but that's cool. To put it a way that doesn't sound so New Age I'd say I look for something which doesn't quite fit in. If I'm releasing a techno record I don't want it to be just another techno record. It has to be something weird, maybe a little difficult to describe exactly.
How do you initially source what you release? Is it purely about something you yourself find interesting and would listen to?
Yeah that's right. A lot of the earlier releases were by friends of mine who were making really exciting music and I wanted to be involved, though they perhaps wouldn't fit in so much with what Night School is doing now. As time has gone on I've occasionally asked people I didn't know if they wanted to work on something together but every time it has to be something I personally feel passionately about. I've turned down a few offers from 'bigger' artists that I just didn't like enough to release. I have no interest in doing something just to sell records.
From spuriously collected search engine information and previous articles – I know that you’re a Glaswegian who relocated to London (before setting up the label) – how do you feel about the result of the referendum and what’s happened in the wake of it?
Man, how long do you have? I moved back to Glasgow in March of this year and personally I was disappointed by the result but it was and is a very exciting time to live in Scotland – the referendum campaign played a big part in that. From my own point of view, and I won't go into too much detail, it felt like a chance to create something new. I'm an idealist and certainly not a nationalist of any kind; I just wanted to be able to live somewhere that was more egalitarian and socially responsible, perhaps shielded in some small way from the neoliberal, free-market fundamentalism espoused by the UK's 3 main political parties. Fuck sorry, I've had a lot of coffee.
Do you still feel connected to the Glasgow scene? There seems to be a lot of freshness and energy to it at the moment, emanating especially from Green Door Studios (Golden Teacher, Whilst) and the Clan Destine label, and with the Optimo label still going strong.
Yeah! I think it's always strong here to be honest, but there seems to be a cyclical thing with when it pops up in other people's consciousness. The general atmosphere in Glasgow and it's various scenes is a lot more convivial than anywhere else I've seen. There's just a can-do attitude up here; Green Door was set up by friends of mine and they are a great example of how to do things ethically but successfully. They do stuff like offer free production classes for the unemployed, stuff that is not profit-driven but more about sharing information about 'the means of production'. Clan Destine is a great label: Carl's a good example of following your ears into new territories, following your own path. And Optimo were very important to me as a youngster; they're still essential listening. I'm excited about contributing to the city in anyway I can.
The first Night School release was in 2011, but I understand you came to London prior to that, did those years shape the label in any significant way?
Maybe the fact that I floundered around and got drunk and met a lot of people and played a lot of music to not many people for 7 years previous inspired me to stop going out so much and to take the whole thing a little more seriously haha… Also London has a work / life dynamic which is tough. When I first lived in Glasgow in my early twenties you could feasibly work for 3 days a week, go out 4 nights a week and still make records and get stuff done. But if you're in your early twenties you end up just doing the first 2 things. In London there's space for WORK and then a small amount of time for doing fun stuff. So you make your free time count. Instead of going out or sitting in watching TV you cut up record sleeves or stamp mailers. You know what I mean?
How do you feel about the London scene today? Is there one of note that interests you and effects what you do with the label?
There's a lot of amazing stuff going on there for sure, on all levels. However my personal relationship with the various scenes there was always a little precarious.. I didn't go to as many shows as I should have… but there's energy and time constraints, you know? I do feel the scenes there are a little too compartmentalised though. Like if you go to a techno all-nighter at Corsica you go there expecting something and you get it. Same with punk shows, or whatever. That's one thing about, say, the original Optimo nights.. you'd go there and some fucked up rock band would be playing and then Jonnie would come on and play Surgeon right after it. And then "These Boots Were Made For Walking" would come on. There's something magical in the unexpected and I feel like even though London is so vibrant, everything's so niche: it seems a little predictable to me.
I was reading a Ron Morelli interview the other day and he mentioned what he thought was special about labels like Factory and Bunker, in that they captured a particular time and place where a certain group of people made something memorable, does that matter in the internet age? Does channelling a certain locale matter to you? You seem to draw work from all over (Yong Yong in Lisbon, Group Rhoda originally from San Francisco, Love Cult originally from Russia, and more recently James Donadio/Prostitutes in Cleveland)
That's an interesting point. Certainly, I think, the labels that inspire a rabid following have something like that, a geographical element or a defined sound. It's hard to really love a label like EMI you know? But your point about the internet is a good one. The world is a much smaller place that it was in 1979. For me locale isn't important in how I feel about the music. It's important when it comes to practicalities though. Like if you're sending 50 records to Russia, it starts becoming an issue. Or if the artist is based in the USA but you're a small UK label you're going to be constrained in certain ways. But then I never seem to do anything the easy way…
The Space Lady ‘Greatest Hits’ collection was a pretty interesting coup, she seems like a fascinating and eccentric character – putting it mildly – what have your personal dealings with her been like?
Amazing. I feel genuinely thankful that she's in my life. Our dealings were mostly phone-based until we met in person this year. Her husband Eric has been the conduit for her re-emergence and he's fascinating and eccentric in his own way. The whole thing has been framed by the fact that Susan had no idea about the sort of reception she would get, she had no knowledge of 'the scene' of electronic music that's been inspired by her, any of that. So a lot of my dealings with her have involved trying to introduce her to playing concerts, the "record business" etc in a way that meant she could actually support herself playing music for people who are really, really moved by what she does. But it's a fine balancing act..
I’m pretty interested to find out what she’s like as a person!
Warm, sharp, funny, shy occasionally, a little spaced out.. she's lived a lot.
The Space Lady and many of your other acts – for lack of a better, more reflective and cohesive term – might be classed by many as something close to the increasingly adopted generic term ‘outsider’, how do you feel about the term yourself and its current usage (‘outsider house’, and in the previous sense describing work by artists like Jandek etc)?
It's complex. Personally I hate the term and I think it's becoming increasingly irrelevant, as you're insinuating. When everything is discoverable, when you can research and hear every limited lp Jandek has self-released, you lose the obscurity factor. I'm not saying that's a bad thing though, I believe in absolute access to information. Put it this way: when broadsheets are doing special features on a hardback, glossy book about private press records made in the 70s (i.e. "Enjoy The Experience" book/LP), it's hard to see how one can continue calling it "outsider." "Outsider" has become a magical cloak that people try on to earn some credibility. Turning up the distortion on your kick drum through a mega PA in a bar owned by Vice magazine is different to living in a hollowed-out tree, playing music on the street to feed your three children. That sounds bitter but I don't mean it to be; I like a lot of "outsider house" but I don't understand how that term applies. I'm pretty sure a lot of "outsider house" artists hate the term too. What are they outside of? Can you be outside house but still be house? But like I was saying, it's hard to see The Space Lady as legitimately "outsider" any more when she just played to 500 people in Stockholm in a concert venue. Molly Nilsson makes pretty accessible, great pop music but has removed herself from the pop music apparatus. She's "outsider" by choice (though she wouldn't use the term) but I saw her play to 600 rapt people in Berghain last year. I think eventually we'll move beyond the term – it means something different to when Irwin Chusid used it. Once you can buy complete "Outsider-inspired" outfits on Asos we can put it to bed.
Judged by what you’ve released in the past, I personally didn’t really expect Night School to put out anything by Prostitutes (James Donadio) how did the release come about? Does it signal a change in the labels future trajectory?
As you've probably guessed, I like curve balls. James does too. I was a fan anyway but James and I played the same festival (Les Urbaines in Switzerland) last year and we got on really well, we kept in touch afterward. Originally we were talking about a Prostitutes remix but I just asked if he'd like to do a record and he was keen. It's not any more complicated than that: he liked what I did, I liked what he did and so it just worked, we made a great record. Personally I don't see the release as strange because it's just another record that I really love. Of course a lot of people who loved The Space Lady would have been put off by Prostitutes but that's not my problem. I don't believe in patronising or molly-coddling people who buy records from me. I'm not earning a living from this, I don't have to think in terms of maximum profits, streamlined products, creating a "USP" that will make the label more digestible for certain demographics… You'd be surprised how many people buy a Yong Yong and then a Molly Nilsson record. That makes me happy! The future trajectory will be as wayward and pock-marked as it has been already haha.
You’ve recorded yourself as Apostille, and in The Lowest Form, how has that effected how you connect with the artists you release on the label?
I would say it's the opposite: having experience making music and being on the other side has affected how the label works. Obviously there's more crossover with Apostille than with The Lowest Form but in general I know how I like to be treated by a label and so I think I know how to act with other artists.
You’ve released a lot of material on cassette and often with what you release it seems to really suit the format, what do you find are the special merits of cassette and what do you make of their resurgence?
The merits are mostly economical, for me. I have a lot of nostalgia tied in with it as a format but I think nostalgia should be fought against. Economically it's nice to be able to experiment. The first Yong Yong cassette suited the format: it was kind of smokey and muddy, in the sort of dynamic range that cassettes really work well with. But if I had the choice and the confidence that I wouldn't lose too much money I'd always put out an LP over a cassette. The resurgence – I think it's good it gives labels experience on what running a label is like, it's a means to an end. Some labels like Winebox Press make exceptionally beautiful artefacts, so there the end product wouldn't really work in any other format. But generally, massive indie and major labels putting out expensive limited cassettes of back cat seems a bit pointless to me.
Similarly with vinyl, what have been the merits and pitfalls in your experience?
Merits – Sound, aesthetics. It's what I'm used to, what I buy myself.
Pitfalls – expense, weight (carrying 60 orders to the post office is good exercise I suppose), lead-in time (these days it's taking longer and longer to make an LP)fallibility – I dread getting a pressing back with a flaw or something. Hasn't happened yet though.
What’s the most satisfying and unsatisfying thing about running a label?
I don't mean to sound like a hippy love-guru but the most satisfying thing is sharing the music with other people. I'd gag if I read that from someone else but that's the truth. Sending an LP to someone and them writing back to say they love it is a wonderful thing. So when people get Space Lady tattoos or lose their shit at a Group Rhoda show I feel "job done." Not because I'm involved in any of the artists' creative processes but because I feel I've contributed to getting the stuff out there. The most unsatisfying thing is the gnawing feeling of rejection when you really love something and it feels like pushing a boulder up a hill, with magazines, blogs etc. There's obviously an unprecedented amount of new music out there and the media has a lot to sift through but sometimes, I think, that small labels with little or no PR budgets really struggle to fight through the noise. It's a shame because, obviously, the things that are done at the margins are often the most exciting.
What have been your personal highlights and lowlights?
Highlights: Night School label night in Vienna. The Space Lady's 1st US tour. Molly Nilsson at Berghain. Prostitutes at Les Urbaines festival in Switzerland. Selling out of the first 7". Group Rhoda in Brighton 2013.
Lowlights: Moving house with boxes of unsold stock. Various production delays. Other stuff too boring to mention.
What contemporary labels do you feel you share a certain affinity with?
I buy a lot of records and really love what a lot of labels are doing. However, I can't think of any particular label that I feel any affinity with. I'm not being conceited though…
Has anything changed in how you approach your work with the label since you started? Your general outlook or anything else?
My outlook hasn't changed but almost everything else has. When I started I needed to save as much money as possible while still not compromising the vision or the "product." The first 7" by Golden Grrrls has sleeves I screenprinted with a friend (we learnt on the job) and hand-painted labels. That's 600 mini paintings. The Divorce 7" was similar and I sliced my thumb open while cutting up card, i didn't have spare card so about 6 of those records have bloodstains on them. My approach is now to be more economical with my time – a lot of it is still DIY but I can do everything better and more efficiently. The approach is still hands-on but I'm just better at it.
What are your future plans?
I try not to have too many plans for "the label" other than to work on every release as best as I can. Release wise there's a lot coming up. The next LP is by new duo Happy Meals from Glasgow (part of the Golden Teacher / Green Door axis). After that I've got releases booked until April 2015, including the beginning of an archival project with my favourite singer of all time. That's a real "pinch me" thing right there.
COMING NOVEMBER 10th: HAPPY MEALS "Apéro"
Describe the label in 5 Words.
We do what we want.
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