But to hear the founders of the Sex Tags Mania label tell it, Moss is a failed place in a "small, shitty country," a bedroom community of Oslo being squeezed dry in the transformation from industry to a service economy. TrioVing, a local manufacturer of hotel keycards ("The global leader in door opening solutions"), recently moved its factory to China. Moss Glassverk, the Moss brewery and a major shipworks have all closed down in the past decades. The sailing and skiwear manufacturer Helly Hansen, Moss' most iconic brand, maintains its headquarters in town, but the company is currently majority-owned by Investcorp, a Bahrain-based investment group, and it outsources its manufacturing to third-party suppliers in countries like China, India and Turkey. (Ethical Consumer rates them 6.5 out of 20, or "poor.")
Sex Tags Mania presents Bass Drum (MANIA 14) - and Bjorn Kowalski Hansen Call Me, installation view, 2008, Lydgalleriet, Bergen..
"The city is nothing," says Stefan Mitterer, who runs Sex Tags Mania with his brother, Peter Anatol Mitterer. "It's for nobody and it has only the same destiny as so many other cities and small towns in Norway." A recent headline in the local newspaper backs him up: "Moss: A City without Vision."
Those cold, late-capitalist facts might be more mundane than Vikings galloping across dewy heaths, perhaps, but they're also more instructive for getting at the heart of Sex Tags Mania, one of the most unorthodox record labels around, and also one of the most exciting. (When, in early 2009, Resident Advisor's Thomas D. Cox asked Omar-S what he was feeling, Sex Tags was the only label the Detroit musician cited as being worthwhile—alongside Donato Dozzy, Scott Grooves, Theo Parrish, Kyle Hall, "and that's it.") Their discography includes deep analog house, homespun disco, studiously minimalist techno, mutant Russian electronics, gothic synth pop, narcotic Afrobeat, psychedelic rock and lo-fi, instrumental hip-hop recorded in the '90s and mastered off an overdubbed cassette tape. One record—"Bass Drum," credited to TR-909 and released in conjunction with an art exhibition—consists only of a single lock groove; the title is self-explanatory.
Not only is Sex Tags Mania idiosyncratic; the more you explore, the harder it becomes even to define the boundaries of the project. In addition to Sex Tags Mania, there's Sex Tags Amfibia, a sub-label dedicated to music falling outside the spectrum of house and techno, and this year saw the launch of still another sub-label, Sex Tags UFO (run by Peter alone). Their mail-order site, cheerfully called shitfuckyou.com, also distributes titles from allied labels like Laton, Acido Records and the Berlin-based General Elektro/Atelier Records, as well as a series of CD-R mixtapes from the deceptively named Sony Norge. The shortened "Sex Tags" itself is reserved for the brothers' own work across a range of media: records, performances, drawings, posters, installations and B.L.A.D., a self-published magazine of drawings, comics and ephemera.
"Sex Tags itself is not a record label, it's us two," explains Stefan. "Everything we do, we usually do under the name Sex Tags. We just divided it into Sex Tags Mania and Sex Tags Amfibia. Mania is house and techno related—our idea of house and techno—and Amfibia is what doesn't fit into Sex Tags Mania. It's very simple, but it's very hard for people to get."
His mild exasperation seems not to acknowledge the fact that mapping the Sex Tags universe is a little like following a trail of breadcrumbs through a windstorm. Three of the label's 20 releases listed on Discogs are credited only to "Unknown Artist," and still more are credited to mystery producers like Transilvanian Galaxi. Before launching Sex Tags Mania in 2004, the brothers had a label simply called Sex Tags, releasing one record apiece from the anonymous projects Hammon Decks and Kompjosa.
The brothers found their way into house music via the graffiti scene—or at least, the graffiti scene as it existed in Moss in the late '80s and early '90s: tagging with friends, reading graffiti fanzines from abroad, and listening to hip-hop on mixtapes and radio shows. "Every Saturday, we sat at home and made drawings and sketches," says Peter. "We would turn on the radio and there was this DJ called Strangefruit." Strangefruit, today a member of Mungolian Jet Set, is a legendary figure in Norway—one of the first DJs to introduce underground disco, house, electro and hip-hop from abroad, and a godfather of the nu-disco boom associated with Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas and G-Ha and Olanski's Sunkissed parties.
Peter recalls, "The first time we heard him, he played this more breakbeat music"—hip-hop and electro—"and we thought, 'Oh! This program is for this kind of music.'" On subsequent Saturdays, though, Strangefruit played house music. "Every Saturday we were listening, thinking, 'Maybe he'll play some break music again,' but then we came into this house thing instead."
"Which was just as funky," says Stefan. "And the breakbeat stuff, the B-boy music, you'd heard it all before. It wasn't the same rush when you heard it. But the house records were so fresh, and we'd never heard it before."
As to how they went from listening to the radio to making records, it's really just the classic story of bored kids stuck in an out-of-the-way town, making do with whatever fragments of culture came their way. "There's nothing happening, so you have to do it yourself," says Stefan.
"We've always been good at saving up, in order to do things we want to do," says Peter. "We weren't part of any scene or anything; we just thought, 'We've saved money, now we can make a record.'"
"We found an ad in a graffiti magazine for a Swedish pressing plant," remembers Stefan. "I called and asked him, 'How much is it to make a record?' We didn't even make music. We just asked because we collected records, and we thought this was an interesting thing to do. He said, 'Yeah, you know, give me the specs—how many of this and that,' and I thought, 'Shit!' I had to make an email account just to send him the information."
"We did everything wrong with the first release, basically," says Peter, but it got them over the hump. After two releases with Sex Tags, not including a hyper-limited CD-R—Kompjosa's "partially unofficial" Madea9tracklpbrokeitdownandputittogethertoa8:44minremix, released in an edition of 10 and given the curious catalogue number of SEX TAGS 0,6—they launched Sex Tags Mania in 2004 and Sex Tags Amfibia in 2005.
If there's any constant across all the Sex Tags labels' releases, it's their vintage sound—not just pre-digital, but often pre-MIDI. Machines tumble along, wavering in and out of sync; tracks are suffused in line noise and warm distortion. Volume levels may differ wildly between records, and the rhythmic slippage of some tracks will test all but the most hellbent of DJs. On Sex Tags' forthcoming Frankfurt Sessions EP, featuring two, long machine improvisations recorded in a friend's studio in Frankfurt, you can even hear faint voices sneaking into the mix at the end of one jam session, presumably picked up by a stray mic and left embedded in the recording like a footprint in cement.
"We don't know what would have happened if we had lived in a bigger city," says Stefan, "but we know people from bigger cities and they know everything about compressors, how this drum machine works, synchronization—they know how to make a house track! You don't learn this if you're not living in that environment." Sex Tags' music, in contrast, values spontaneity, raw sonics and creative misinterpretations.
It's all too easy to mythologize "renegade" producers, especially when hand-stamped, vinyl-only labels cover the wall at Hard Wax, and every other producer claims to have sold his laptop and bought a sampler. But you really can hear Sex Tags' autodidactic background in their music. Today, both brothers are based in Berlin—though they continue to spend much of their time in Moss, Bergen, and traveling abroad—but you won't find them in the any of the more obvious corners of the city's professionalized club scene. They continue to operate on the fringes—hand-distributing their records to Hard Wax and Spacehall, selling records via mail-order, and trading single-digit quantities of their records with likeminded labels and distributors.
Stefan explains, "I've been buying records from people I like. It's not a lot, but I know we were happy when people bought one record from us, so I try to buy maybe five from other people. It's a circle. We do it for them, they do it for us. It's very easy. If you have some spare money, you just buy some copies from them and you get it cheap." As a result, shitfuckyou.com offers a bounty of the far-out and under-the-radar, from Finnish skwee seven-inches to black-metal cassettes by a one-man band from Moss.
Both the DIY ethic and the lo-fi aesthetic are rooted in their Moss upbringing. "Back then, everything was kind of far away for us," says Peter of the period when they discovered house music. "Even the club scene in Oslo was far away from us, because we were too young to get in."
Stefan continues: "If you grow up in the club, you know what's going on, the real sounds, how the bass drum should be. But if you grow up outside… it's kind of a strange chain. First you have the DJ who has the vinyl and plays the record on the radio, proper FM radio. Then you record it on cassette, and the sound changes. You don't have this real sound, you don't have the first-hand sound of clubs. You have this third- or fourth-hand sound. This is this sound that we love."
It goes almost without saying that Sex Tags Mania and Amfibia are vinyl-only, with the exception of the occasional CD-R. That's partly to do with their sonic preferences—there's no better way to set Stefan off than to ask what he thinks of the quality of digital sound and digital timekeeping—but it's also a political decision.
Peter explains, "Before, you had to work to get the cool records, and now you don't have to do shit. We like people who work for what they like, that's kind of the attitude. We also work a lot to get our records, or our influences. If you're really interested, you buy the records. If you're not that interested, if you're like, 'Yeah, yeah,' then you don't need our records."
I ask how they would answer the charge that putting out vinyl-only releases is elitist, that it excludes listeners who don't have turntables, and Stefan bristles. "Who really wants everything to be available for everybody? That's the elitist part of society. Everything isn't for everybody. That's it. Nothing more to say about that. The people who want everything to be pushed on everybody, they just want to earn money on it."
Using slogans like "Deliberate surplus productions" and "Favouring the possible over the feasible," theirs is an idealistic, even quixotic enterprise, one designed to counteract the accelerating force of the internet and the life-sapping character of contemporary mass culture. Stefan refutes the idea that if something doesn't exist on the internet, it doesn't exist: "It's probably the opposite. If it's on the internet, it's very close to its own death. It exists, but it's always on the edge of dying. Everybody knows it, everybody can Google it, but you don't really have it. The records we make are cut so that the sound is really good on the record itself. Of course, you can rip a record to the computer, but it will sound different." Many Sex Tags Mania records are, literally, objects to behold, like XI's "Xi" (MANIA 16), which was mastered by the veteran house engineer Rick Essig and pressed in New York, with the smoothest rounded edge you'll ever feel on a 12-inch. ("Compare your Euro-vinyls to this soft handy crafted beauty," boasts their blurb for the record. "Challenge one.")
"It's like a map," says Stefan of their catalogue. "We've been to Frankfurt, we make a record in Frankfurt. We've been to, I don't know, here and there, we just meet people—it's not really that hard."
"It's like a process, basically, a chronicle," continues Peter. "Everything we do, wherever we are, has something to do with the things we make."
Download: RA Label of the Month 1012 Mix: Sex Tags Mania Mix: Millennium Classics Vol. 3
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Filesize: 32.9 MB
Bjorn Torske - Intro: Nedi Myra (Ferox)
Moodymann - Stairway 2 Heaven (Skit) (Neon Music)
In Hope For The Best - AB (Elektro Music Department)
U - A.O. Gastspel (Borft)
Super Discount Interlude (Solid)
Roxy Music - Tara (EG Records)
Pomassl - Rubber Taggs (Sex Tags Mania)
Aardvarck - Buuv (Extended 12" Version) (Rush Hour Recordings)
DJ Shadow - Transmission (Mo Wax)
Bjørn Torske - Brus (Telle Records)
Mains Ignition - We Paint with Sound (Tummy Touch)
Kompjosa - Untitled (B4) (Sex Tags: 2003)
Drum Island - A Daeven (Apollo)
The First Club Rectum EP - Words of Wisdom by Franz Pomassl (Sex Tags Mania)
Hammon Decks - Dahni! (Sex Tags: 2002)
Blodfet & Dj Lonely - Att Knulla i Orebro (Ufo Mongo)