Sharply intelligent but easygoing, almost everything about Werth seems at odds with his label's esoteric leanings. He's rakish and shaggy-haired, with an unhurried drawl. He spent his youth in Little Rock, Arkansas, collecting hardcore zines and playing bass in drugged-out psych bands. Under his guidance, RVNG has evolved into a label where Maxmillion Dunbar's blissed-out stoner house coexists with the abstract experiments of Julianna Barwick and Ikue Mori, where Julia Holter's elegant tones share space with the boisterous techno of Stellar OM Source. Trawl further through the back catalogue and you'll find disco next to punk and experimental rock.
RVNG could be considered a modern-day torchbearer to Lovely Music. Though primarily a vehicle for releasing music, its forays into the art world are conducted in both a tangible sense—Julianna Barwick and Ikue Mori recorded an album live in Manhattan's White Columns gallery, for example—and in more indirect ways, with its consistently striking sleeves and ventures into film.
Lovely was home to a succession of minimalist and experimental heavyweights, from Steve Reich to John Cage to Pauline Oliveros, Peter Gordon and Philip Glass. "Their output not only was adventurous, but it was firmly rooted in a scene of rotating musicians, and that's what I admire," Werth says. "If you look at the catalogue, there is this cross-pollination that's so amazing and fascinating to see, where different players were collaborating and contributing their talent. It's like this perfectly incestuous, creative, productive catalogue of music and for me, it's a great example of New York's art and music worlds coming together."
Werth's primary link to the art world is Kevin O'Neill, a New York artist who has provided the artwork for each of RVNG's releases to date. "He's really innovative with his own ideas and concepts for modern art," Werth says. "I think via people like Kevin or Matthew Higgs, from the White Columns gallery, I've had these opportunities to explore incredible art. There was legitimately a time when the door [between art and music] was closed, but now it feels like a great time to be collaborating in that context. Being in New York, you are surrounded by incredibly talented people and artists experimenting in all forms."
RVNG's A&R approach more or less revolves around recommendations from Werth's circle of friends. "My friends are fucking great. They have great taste. I'm surrounded by people who guide me towards new music. And because I'm an obsessive music conversationalist, I'm always talking about music to an obnoxious degree, and new music becomes a part of all sorts of different conversations."
He tells me the average RVNG release doesn't require much digging or research, with the exception of the archival projects (the label has revisited the work of Italian prog outfit Sensations Fix and synth explorer Harald Grosskopf). "Even the archival stuff that we've done are part of those conversations," he adds. "They are evolutions. If something catches my ear then I will pursue it more and more."
Werth's modesty disguises the efforts that go into every RVNG release. In addition to his exhaustive curatorial and administrative work, he writes nearly all of the label's press releases. In fact, calling them a press release sells them short; in reality they're part essay, part love letter. His enthusiasm leaps off each word, encouraging people to wrap their heads around even his strangest projects.
Though RVNG's aesthetic is woven into New York's past and present, its origins lie 100 miles south, in Philadelphia. Werth moved to the city from his home in Little Rock, Arkansas, to study journalism in the late '90s. "I was playing in a psychedelic band, making really bonked music," he recalls. "There was something in the water in Philadelphia that threw everything into a kind of hazy sector of music. I was very happy to drink that water, and experience that mind-expanding music. Philadelphia is a very communal city, so there was quite a bit of crossover with electronic music, too. It all kind of worked in tandem, the two types of music."
Werth met David Pianka in Philadelphia around 1998, and the two started looking for ways to expand on Pianka's Making Time party. They began putting out mix CDs as a way of promoting their events, which they renamed RVNG. "Dave is, God bless him, a better partier than I am. He has a much better stamina for late nights than I do. So he continued doing the event production, while I was really, really attracted to developing the label aspect of RVNG."
Werth and Pianka continued putting out mix CDs, and their breakthrough release came in 2005 with Tim Sweeney's Rvng Prsnts Mx 3. Further installments came from Optimo's JD Twitch—who indulged his and Werth's love of classic US punk and hardcore—as well as the likes of Mike Simonetti and Dan Selzer (as Crazy Rhythms). This was followed by a vinyl edits series, Rvng Of The Nrds, which put out disco-tinged tweaks from Lovefingers, Pilooski, Greg Wilson and Jacques Renault between 2006 and 2010. As time went on, Pianka moved onto other things, leaving RVNG as Werth's baby.
The RVNG evolution continued with FRKWYS, an ambitious (and ongoing) series of inter-generational collaborations that pairs younger artists with their elders. The launch of FRKWYS coincided with Werth taking more interest in avant-garde music, edging to the fringes of the dance floor but never deserting it entirely. "I knew I wanted to work with a few underground artists," he says. "I shifted more out of the club and into the DIY spaces, these corners and pockets of the New York underground."
Leftfield icons Chris & Cosey and JG Thirwell remixed New York band Excepter on the first FRKWYS release. "I had a wonderful conversation [with Chris & Cosey] and it became very clear that they were going to turn it into something monumental, " Werth recalls. "When they submitted their remix, I was still delighted at the quality. I thought, why not do some more?"
Subsequent FRKWYS LPs have seen synth nerd foursome Laurel Halo, Daniel Lopatin, James Ferraro and Sam Godin working alongside David Borden, Sun Araw partnering with legendary reggae troupe The Congos, and Arp collaborating with revered experimental composer Anthony Moore. "It usually starts with these ideological pairings I have in my head," Werth says. "I plant the seeds, and if it resonates with the artists, then I'll continue to push."
In 2010 RVNG released an album by Pink Skull called Endless Bummer. In what still stands as the label's most grueling art/music project, Werth and O'Neill individually hand-pressed 1000 different "bummers"—from "Spoiled Cat Food" to "Foot Fungus" to "Nuclear Warfare"—onto each vinyl sleeve. "There were a few different layers to that concept," he says. "I mean, the album is called Endless Bummer, so we made 1000 things that can bum you out. The idea was that we would be infinitely letter-pressing these covers. The concept of Endless Bummer translated to the process, too, so by cover number 333 we wanted it to be over, but we couldn't. We were slave to the bummer."
In the past couple of years Werth has showcased a string of talent, from Blondes to Julia Holter to Holly Herndon. Last year saw the label release four excellent albums. Maxmillion Dunbar's House Of Woo was the kind of rosy-cheeked opus that melts away all your problems. Then came Stellar Om Source's Joy One Mile, which showcased a new direction for Christelle Gualdi, moving from her kosmische roots towards a playful slant on Detroit techno. The Gardland and Blondes LPs were both living, breathing dance records infused with enough funk to mark them out from the pack.
It all amounted to arguably the label's strongest year to date. Though each album had its share of club-ready tunes, there was something deeper tying them together, something Werth loosely defines as a "cerebral dance sound." He adds: "The artists were stylistically removed from one another, or in some cases, the exact opposites of each other, but each kind of contributed these deeply meditative works of dance music, and interpretations of dance music." But the one thing that serves as the glue between those records—and everything that bears the RVNG name—is Werth, the obsessive music conversationalist from Arkansas who's continuing a proud New York tradition.