Providence-based record label Secret Eye has long been one of my favorites —so it was with great pleasure that I was able to write a piece about the label’s history and accomplishments for local arts-and-entertainment weekly The Providence Phoenix.
I think of Secret Eye as a worthy successor to radical 60s label ESP-Disk —IE, their overriding aesthetic seems to be to release what they love, period. And thankfully, what they happen to love is music that treads its own idiosyncratic, often wayward path. The label is home to an eclectic mix of acts both homegrown and international. Their curatorial scope runs pell-mell from sepia-toned, pastoral Americana to frantic Krautrock drones and mind-expanding, psych-jazz improv. Picking up one of their releases means acquainting yourself with unusual instruments like the shruti box, the mbira, the bul bul tarang — alongside more commonplace elements like cello, tape loops, vintage synths, and guitar. The label’s ever-shifting roster runs the stylistic gamut from extroverted, organic mysticism (Spires That In the Sunset Rise) and chaotic Faustian improv (Finnish sound collectors Avarus) to the ecstatic, dreamlike echoes of Appalachia folk (Larkin Grimm, Kathleen Baird), and BF/BS’ own delicate cello-laden soundscapes.
The piece is online here.
What follows is my conversation via e-mail with label co-founder (and Black Forest/Black Sea member) Miriam Goldberg…
Are there any record labels that you would claim as inspirations for Secret Eye (either aesthetically and/or musically)?
In terms of Secret Eye, the biggest inspirational albums for me starting out were Odyshape by the Raincoats and First Utterance by Comus. I heard those two albums right when I started working with Jeffrey on Secret Eye, and they definitely informed the kinds of roster choices we made. Also, BF/BS had been touring a lot with Christina Carter and Fursaxa at the time, and hearing them live every night definitely made a huge impression on me. More recently, big inspirations have been more rock- and Japan-oriented, like Les Rallizes Denude and LSD-March…
My generally inspiring albums include… The Dreaming and Hounds of Love (and, oh heck, all the other albums too) by Kate Bush. Transcendence and Journey in Satchidananda by Alice Coltrane. That’s just the tip of the iceberg (not even the tip, but just a part, equal to many other parts of said iceberg).
But (and maybe this is cheesy) the albums that inspire me most are the ones we put out. That’s why we put them out, because they’re inspiring. I think that this is the whole point of running a record label, to put out the music you like the most, that gets you the most excited.
As for record labels —philosophically, I think that Secret Eye is pretty in line with ESP-Disk, and their philosophy of “The artist alone decides what you will hear…” Also, I admire Wholly Other, which is the CD-R imprint home of the Charalambides and related projects, for their steadfast workmanship, putting out so much good music at such a fast pace, always bringing something new and gorgeous and personalized. They’re kind of like a bakery —everything is so fresh. Last Visible Dog, our evil twin label here in Providence, is our good friend Chris Moon. We really grew together, sharing artists, advice and resources like good CD pressing and distribution deals.
Other than the aforementioned, not particularly. Generally, a label is just a means to an end and that end is music. There are a bunch of labels that I think are lame because they forget this important fact.
It’s the music that inspires me, not the dorks like me who put it out. I never got that thing where people will buy every album on a given label, simply because it is on that label. It’s kind of like having a stylist or a personal shopper. I guess I don’t have much in the way of brand loyalty.
How would you define the Secret Eye aesthetic? How do you feel it has it changed (if at all) since its inception?
I think our aesthetic is about directness and freedom. It’s not overly caught up in process, production or artifice (which are all cool, too, but somehow more interesting to me as a listener than as a label-person). To me, the music we release sounds like it’s always been there, hanging in the air and channeled through incredibly talented and intuitive artists. All Jeffrey and I do is press it to CD.
To put it in anthropological terms: I think that some labels are like farms… they cultivate sounds and direct and develop their artists, which results in a catalog of corn, veal, and tomatoes —juicy, well-formed and consistent. Jeffrey and I are more suited to being hunter-gatherers than farmers and that is borne out in the nature of our releases. We find and distribute the stuff we like as we find it, so our catalog is filled with berries, venison, and fiddle-heads —more gamy, pungent, sometimes stringy or gritty and inconsistent.
How did you become involved with running the label? Was it just a natural extension of being in Black Forest/Black Sea, or had you always wanted to learn all the multi-disciplinary behind-the-scenes stuff that goes into running a label?
I really just sort of fell into it via BF/BS. I’ve always loved sharing music I like with my friends, and this is just an extended version of that. I saw Jeffrey working on this label and I was like “that looks like fun.”
What kind of learning experience has running the label been for you? How are the day-to-day responsibilities split up between you?
This label has taught me the importance of being organized. I am not, but I am trying to be. For the day-to-day, Jeffrey does most of the wheeling and dealing: with manufacturers, booking agents, press, etc, etc. I do the book-keeping. We share packing and assembly duties, although I have a bad habit of getting people’s orders wrong. We pretty much share A&R duties (such as it is). One of us will come to the other and say “I just heard X and they’re awesome. What do you think?” Usually when one of us likes something, the other one does too, but not always.
What project and/or release have you been most proud of? Has there ever been a project that you weren’t even sure you could pull off, but it turned out better than you could have hoped for?
I think I’m the most proud of Urdog’s Garden of Bones. This was the first album that I was involved in for Secret Eye. I suggested to Jeffrey that he put out an album of theirs. He hadn’t put out anything from Providence and I thought the label should have a more local focus. It was also the first Secret Eye release that totally “rocked.” I think that that release really changed the course of the label.
Before that, JR was mostly putting out stuff by friends of his he had met on tour with the Iditarod. Good music, but it seemed kind of ad hoc and disconnected from our local community. Now, we release stuff from near and far, and we also try to bring the far and near people closer together, through tours here and abroad.
The biggest Secret Eye nail-biter was definitely Terrastock 6, which we sponsored and Jeffrey masterminded. For a while there, we thought we might lose our shirts and that the whole thing would fall apart. But we broke even, people came, bands played, friendships were forged, and we all had an excellent time. The lead-up was so tense and uncertain, but the festival itself was one of the best moments of my life.
What’s your dream release (any band, any song)?
I’ll know it when I hear it. We’ve already put out a few of my dream releases.
Tip(s) for anyone starting their own label?
Just remember that you are a conduit connecting excellent musicians to thirsty ears. Trust the artists, work with them, support them as best you can, and only put out stuff you love. Do small runs (like 500 copies or less). You can always repress, but it sucks to have all your closet space filled with CDs.
Future projects and/or collaborations? [Brand-new releases include an Avarus/Manbeard split tour CD-R on the Secret Eye sublabel Eye Secretions, which focuses on small run releases with silkscreened packaging and other special goodies.]
All of that hand-made packaging, small runs, CD-R’s, tapes, vinyl, etc. —this has been going on for a long time and we’re really just jumping on to the bandwagon late. Plenty of labels and individual artists have taken this approach for years.
I guess Jeffrey and I have wanted to scale back a bit and focus more on hand-made short runs. As we’ve grown and signed up with bigger distributors and started pressing bigger runs and getting more “pro”-style packaging we started feeling a little detached and a little less interested in what we were doing. So Eye Secretions is a way for us to stay psyched on what we like, get music out there without having to deal with all of the machinery that can delay release, stay flexible and responsive, and have fun. It also allows us to keep our dollars local by hiring our friends to screen print sleeves, rather than farming it out to some manufacturer in Canada. And besides —mp3’s don’t come with beautiful artwork made by your friends and neighbors.
Secret Eye releases can be found by visiting Providence’s Armageddon Shop or the Secret Eye home page. On Saturday, July 14th, Avarus and Spires That In The Sunset Rise play Providence’s Foo! Fest, a free all-dayer with 20+ bands, food, arts + crafts, records and books! Did I mention it’s free?! For a downloadable schedule, visit AS220’s FooFest page.
My own fest recommendations can be found here.
Spires That In The Sunset Rise, “Morning Song” [from their latest, This Is Fire]
Black Forest/Black Sea and Larkin Grimm, “On the Cliffs of Fort Wetherill” [from the out-of-print Terrastock 6 compilation]
Larkin Grimm with Lara Polangco, “The Most Excruciating Vibe” (Live) [You can find a re-recorded version of this song on Larkin’s latest release, The Last Tree]
IMAGE: ”DOLLHOUSE” BY S. SCOTT