If that unconventional spirit is something you notice in a quick trip through the artists in the label's now lengthy discography—Circus just celebrated its tenth anniversary—then it's even more immediately apparent upon speaking with Mathias. Though he's quick to admit that being influenced by momentary flux is only natural, Circus doesn't trendspot. Mathias can't even really describe their music. More importantly, he gets pretty uncomfortable with one of my descriptors. When I refer to one of the Homewreckers recent releases as flirting with "tribal" sounds, he quibbles. Actually, he returned to question the characterization. Twice. Mathias seems to shrink, puzzled, from genre signifiers and labels.
Any listener with even a passing interest in the label would acknowledge this diversity though. Circus has always played more to the cross- than the clear-eyed—often offering up material only nominally dance-oriented. Funneling in jazz, funk, avant-garde skronk, and deeper house touchstones, the label's perhaps difficult to pigeonhole by genre, but its aesthetic sensibilities have always been shrewdly guided. Like many longstanding dance labels, you know a Circus Company track when you hear it, mainly in their case 'cause you're uncertain just how you spent the last eleven minutes and how you got paint underneath your fingernails. Delirium: Circus has "batshit" down pat.
But the label is perhaps first and foremost a product of its multitudinous urban environment. It's hard to imagine it existing outside of a city with the many-cornered largesse and long-night wonders of Paris. When I spoke to Mathias about what kind of stuff they grew up with in the city, Circus' myriad reference points showed up immediately. "Since the '50s, there's a serious link back in Paris to black music. Starting with Saint-Germain-des-Pres, which was back in the day the place where everything was going on for jazz music. It was like Berlin for techno today. And many of my generation were also strongly influenced by funk," he reveals. (In fact, when Mathias finds out that I live in Minneapolis, he flips; he spent three hours in line waiting to get tickets for a Prince show in Paris earlier this year.)
Still, dudes didn't start a shit-hot funk 'n soul imprint. Eventually, they discovered electronic music or RA wouldn't be here to proclaim their awesomeness. As for their introduction to Paris' club scene and electronic music, Mathias says, "My partners and I were definitely influenced by our local heroes. The guys who showed up with a serious alternative to the so-called 'French touch,' which was all around Paris clubs that time. At a certain point, guys like Ark, Pépé Bradock or Oizo came up with a different sound and a different musical philosophy, even if some of them previously flirted with that sound. Compare this to the Berlin or Köln sound, and that difference comes from our musical background in Paris." He's also quick to credit Ark, one of the label's initial artists with his famed Alleluyark EPs, as a particular inspiration; Mathias and Nicolas ate up his discography "like good students" and used them as a springboard to discovering various acts and segments of dance music. (In speaking to Marc Barrite, AKA Dave Aju, another of the label's core early producers, he too remarks upon Ark's centrality in his introduction both to Circus and to dance music in general).
For Nicolas Sfintescu however—who Mathias credits with Circus' emphasis on "free jazz" experimentation—the label's reliance upon acoustic and "live band" sounds was important in creating the kind of fenceless electronic music he thought was important. Their idea was a "rough" mish-mash of sorts, part press-play-and-we'll-just-see, part compositional formalism. When Nicolas met Ezechiel Pailhes—now the other half of Nôze, his sister's boyfriend at the time—Pailhes had just finished studying at the Conservatory and was trying to make a go as a jazz musician. A fish-out-of-water, Pailhes soon adapted to electronic music, not only as a means of making ends meet but as a place, like Nicolas, he thought could help dissolve genre constrictions.
In these stories, though, there always comes the point where you transition from pupil to prof. And Circus Company's birth story is all too common. What began in shits and giggles, weekend kicks and boozy romps, morphed into a desire to say something more personal than inherited. For two producers with the eccentric tastes and production leanings of Mathias and Nicolas, that was going to be a bit of a challenge. "When we were sixteen years old, Nico and I were playing in bars, clubs, and house parties every weekend all over the city. Each week the mission was to find the party. It was a good way to make a bit of money and have fun. After a few years, the wish to produce our own music came up. Once we were confident enough about our material and realized that no one would release it, we decided to start our own label," says Mathias.
During its earliest days, Circus kept things in the family, so to speak. If RA's Todd Burns described liebe*detail as a label for which it was difficult to think of associated artists, Circus Company resides on the other end of the scale. Beginning with a few EPs including Sety and Nôze themselves and featuring Ark, Dave Aju and Mossa, the imprint quickly established itself around a central core of artists that set out an aesthetic and tonal sensibility. "These guys are the ones responsible for the Circus Company identity through the years," says Mathias. "The label would be so different, maybe even over by now or might never have started, if we had never crossed paths."
Talking with any of their longstanding artists, the collectivity amongst the stars of this Circus comes through. You sense the kinship and similarity of musical taste amongst them—one that has enabled Circus to continue to gather material from the same producers now six, seven years later. Barrite was attracted by the label's flair for "exotic sounds or unique arrangements." Starting out in San Francisco doing a weekly club night, he discovered the unconventional minimal house cuts Circus was turning out. The label quickly became a go-to for the young producer. "I think they've always struck a good balance between reverence for dance music culture which keeps them rooted and adaptable, and maintaining their own vision of music as art and as a life essential," he elaborates. "We were born and raised halfway around the globe from each other, but grew up on a lot of the same music, started out as b-boys and graf writers, and eventually arrived at the same place."
Barrite also makes note of the label's support for releases to which other, more customary dance labels might be less receptive. When he fell in love with the drum sounds he was able to get out of his mouth—the process of play and discovery, how "this snare or that kick doesn't hit like an 808 because it came from my mouth, not Roland," as he says—and decided to make an entire album using it as his sole source of sound for last year's Open Wide, he knew Circus would love it.
Of course Circus has attracted many new artists over the years. The label has expanded its roster to include acts like My My, Oleg Poliakov and Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts. But in terms of selecting new tracks, there's no formula to apply, no math involved. There too, Circus is a smaller circle than you think. For Mathias, it's simply a matter of feel: "Most of the time we get our tracks by meeting friends and listening or sharing music with them. We receive demos, but we haven't signed many artists that way. It just needs to make sense for him and for us."
With its tenth anniversary celebration now behind them and an excellent double-disc compilation to mark the event, Circus is already looking ahead to the rest of the year and the wintry early months of next. Homewreckers are putting out their first 12-inch soon, with a remix by Dave Aju. Then Robag Wruhme and D'Julz will follow with EPs of their own. Fresh from an EP on Matthew Herbert's Accidental Records, Dave Aju will return with another EP for the label. As far as 2010 goes, Mathias and company are turning their focus to full-lengths, with albums expected over the early part of the year by dOP, Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts and recent RA spotlight star Nicolas Jaar.
For a label as loony as Circus Company, this might seem a pretty tame celebration. No costumed champagne parties for Snuggle & Slap's release? No high-wire troupes over homebase, 39 Rue de Turenne, to ring in year eleven? I guess I'm okay with that. I don't live near Paris. Snuggle & Slap ain't more than ten feet away.