In isolation, the pieces of the White Material picture—exotic-sounding producers with their own distinct sounds, limited pressings, a clued-up artistic direction—aren't new or novel, but few labels bring them all together so coherently from the start. Across its four releases to date, the label's three core artists have pulled off monochromatic techno, experimental electronics, and various shades of house, from Dance Mania-inspired beats to velvety deepness.
The label's founders—Young Male, AKA Quinn Taylor, and DJ Richard, who requested that his real name wasn't used—were both part of the experimental noise scene in Providence, Rhode Island, playing in bands and regularly crossing paths. Both Taylor and Richard attended Rhode Island School Of Design, the city's famous old arts college. Richard graduated alongside White Material artist Galcher Lustwerk (who also asked his real name wasn't used).
All three moved from Providence to New York around the same time in 2010. By then they'd already been playing around with electronic music, and when they arrived in New York they began sharing their tracks with each other. "We realised we'd been doing similar things in isolation without ever really talking about it," says DJ Richard.
"We were buying records together, playing them, hanging out," Taylor adds. He started to think the material they were sitting on needed to come out. "I would see other labels and they'd release a record, nice and simple with a printed image on it. I thought, 'Who can't do this? Anyone can do it. I can do this.'"
White Material released and distributed 300 copies of their first 12-inch, Young Male's All R, a hypnotic exercise in stark, groovy techno. Taylor's sound was direct and shorn of extraneous elements, and his Providence roots were evident in the way he played live, jamming out on a 909 set up on a table at ground level with the crowd gathered around him.
Armed with copies of All R, Taylor visited two of New York's best-known record shops, A1-Records and Halcyon. "Halcyon bought two copies—no, you know what, they took three copies and paid me for two, because one was kind of a gift," says Taylor. Over at A-1, L.I.E.S. founder Ron Morelli was working behind the counter. "He took it in the back, listened to it, came out five minutes later and said, 'I don't normally do this but I'll take three.'" Some A-1 customers speculated that White Material was affiliated with L.I.E.S. "I'd have people asking me, 'So is this a L.I.E.S. sub-label?' because A-1 doesn't usually sell much new stuff besides Ron's records," says DJ Richard.
This initial exposure gave the label a nudge in the right direction, but it was Berlin vinyl institution Hard Wax that put a rocket up its backside. Taylor travelled to Berlin after saving up for a summer, working in a factory. "I brought 20 copies with me to the shop," he says. "DJ Pete was working and he said, 'If we like it we'll get in touch, and if not, you will hear nothing.' The next day I got an email at 8 AM saying, 'We'll take every record you have.' I brought over another box of records and they paid me on the spot."
Taylor doesn't try to hide his excitement at the breakthrough. "I was looking on the Hard Wax site the day it happened and I saw it—my record was listed on the top of the page. A couple of days later I wanted to show someone and I couldn't find it, and I realised it was sold out." Taylor's belief in their music was vindicated, but there was one thing they hadn't planned for: success. "When we started I'd never even heard of distribution," he says. "I didn't understand that you sell your record to someone for less than the store is going to sell it. I didn't understand those simple concepts. I also thought 300 was a shit-load of records. In fact, I gave away most of mine at first."
"I thought we'd sell 50 if we were lucky," DJ Richard adds. "The only thing I knew about selling music was selling cassettes at a noise show."
Bearing in mind the label's art college roots, the "Working Man's Techno" line that was stamped on the Young Male record may have seemed a little dubious. But, as Taylor explains, the money that started the label was earned during his stint making hand tools—hammers, handsaws and the like—in a factory. "I was working this job and I would be filing and grinding steel all day, and then I would come home and work on music. I would think, 'This is like working man's music.' I thought it was a beautiful idea. I wanted to make music for other people out there who work a job that sucks, because that was my reality."
The second White Material record, DJ Richard's Leech2, invoked the spirit of classic ghetto house on the title track, which was more playful than the Young Male 12-inch. The rest of the EP, however, trudged through stranger, more experimental terrain. It soon gained traction, and helped shift the remaining copies of All R. "It snowballed," Taylor says. "All of a sudden I was carrying 60 copies of DJ Richard's record to the post office in the winter. I would take them to work and on my lunch break I'd go to the post office and send them to different stores around the world."
As with the first 12-inch, Leech2 was entirely self-funded and distributed. DJ Richard says he spent "basically my entire savings" on putting out the EP. "I saved up for six months—I sold my car, I sold so much shit." Around the time of Leech2's release, DJ Richard followed Taylor's lead and went to Berlin—but unlike Taylor he stayed. These days he busies himself working on music, both solo and in collaboration with Dial co-founder Carsten Jost, and holds down a regular slot on Berlin Community Radio.
The third 12-inch came from Galcher Lustwerk, whose laconic style is the one fans of White Material have savoured most. Onto a bed of deep house pads and chords he lays the spoken-word vocals that have become his trademark. As far as debut records go, Tape 22 is one of 2013's best, and his "100% Galcher" mix for Blowing Up The Workshop, which is made up entirely of his own material, suggests there's plenty more to come. "The vocal thing started from trying to make rap records," he says. "I became more and more interested in using words to communicate ideas—but only inferred ideas, not explicitly explained ones."
White Material records began to appear online for as much as €70. Anyone who uses Discogs regularly will know that the site is like any other marketplace, and with only 300 copies of each record in existence, demand was outstripping supply. All three seem surprised, annoyed and a little bit honoured by the clamour for their music. DJ Richard shakes his head, saying, "When you see these records for sale on Discogs and it says in the description 'mint, new, unplayed'—I mean, they're meant to be played, they're meant to be heard." Respected music journalist Philip Sherburne offered both praise and a gentle rebuke for the label in a recent column for Spin, calling on White Material to repress or "go digital."
The good news for Sherburne and others is that White Material will repress all four records (but don't expect digital any time soon). The label has also secured a global distribution deal with Honest Jon's in London. "We're lucky enough now that there's demand for the records, so I would love more people to have them," says Taylor. "We're making music for people to play in a club, you know? And to hear in a club and feel free and dance. If we can put out more, and the distributors will pay for those copies, then we're going to do it."
The label's ascendency was helped by an invitation to host a showcase at this year's Unsound festival. Held in Krakow, the annual event is known for its prescient eye when it comes to talent spotting; at the time of the booking, White Material only had two records out. "We got the email and it was like, 'Wait, what? Is this really directed to us?'" DJ Richard says. "It's pretty incredible that the people who were organising it decided they'd really take a risk on asking some totally unheralded—we hadn't even hosted a label party before."
The Unsound event was the first of three label parties that have gone down to date (the other two were in London and Glasgow). Seeing all three artists play one after the other shows how different they are in their own right, but also how they work as a unit. "I think you get a strong sense that we all have individual visions, but I do think it somehow works together," Taylor says. "I don't know exactly what it is, and I don't care to analyse it and figure it out. Maybe it's just that we've known each other for a long time and we're friends."
This sense of togetherness was strengthened on the label's fourth 12-inch, released under the collective name White Material. Listen closely and you can tell who's behind each track, but anonymity isn't the aim: "It's about showing unity and a shared vision as a crew," Taylor says. Their next record will come from DJ Richard, and then there will be a new addition to the label, Morgan Louis, who's something of a guiding light for White Material. All three say they were turned onto dance music by Louis, a local Rhode Island artist who Galcher Lustwerk describes as "a consummate DJ." After that they'll put a record out from Alvin Aronsen, another RISD graduate, and then Young Male will return with another EP.
The three showcases have clearly had a galvanising effect. Taylor points out that the crowd at the London party this month was mostly "friends and people who know the label well." He says: "I have the most fun playing shows with and for friends. That's the way it was in Providence. That's when I'm most psyched—when I go somewhere and there's people that like me and I like them, and I get to show them what I've been working on, and they get to party and feel good. I never want to lose that."