It's the end of a long week, and I'm not sure I'm ready for a chat about continental philosophy. But Alex Cobb, founder of the label Students Of Decay, is a man of broad intellectual tastes. Before his webcam winks into life, Cobb's Skype profile displays a sober portrait of San Francisco poet Jack Spicer. His label's name is taken from The Dead Father, an obtuse novel by postmodern author Donald Barthelme. The music he releases—a selection of ambient, drone and contemporary composition, always compelling and frequently gorgeous— doesn't depend on verbal explanation. But a read through Cobb's past interviews causes me to compile a reading list all the same.
Perhaps it's the circles he moves in. Cobb speaks to me in between marking undergraduate English papers on his morning off. He teaches at the University of Cincinnati, from where he earned a masters in creative writing. He'd planned to study for a PhD until a stint in San Diego, and the grim state of the job market, put that idea on hold.
But Cobb is far from pretentious or intellectually intimidating. He wears his ideas lightly, both in person and on the page. The press material for Students Of Decay releases—all of it lovingly prepared by Cobb himself—tends to be suggestive but not declarative. It's a good complement to the music, richly detailed and uncompromising in presentation but with a pop immediacy that speaks for itself.
"I really tend to dislike didactic elements to art," Cobb explains. "One of the red flags for me when I look at a demo is when somebody explains the whole concept. The music could be phenomenal, but it's off-putting to me. I can already see the press release and the whole media narrative of the record, you know?"
Cobb has reservations about the way the experimental underground conducts itself in this press-savvy digital age. Back in the mid-'90s, Cobb, then at a Cincinnati middle school, uncovered a new musical world through limited channels like the Forced Exposure mailorder list. These days, experimental musicians are part of a vibrant economy of hype and counter-hype.
"It's still weird to me coming from where I come from, when I'm being marketed a Kevin Drumm record or something on Boomkat," he says. "It's the album of the week, there's a big hyperbolic blurb about what it is. And I'm not an elitist at all—I'm happy that that has happened—but I think other stuff happens when music starts to be sold a certain way.
"I guess I am a little suspicious of, like, trending micro-movements within experimental music. The thing I try to do—and my favourite labels do too—is make something that might dovetail with what's currently in vogue, but you don't feel like the label's just, 'Shit, now it's a techno label,' or, 'Now it's a modular synth label.'"
So what ties Students Of Decay releases together? There's certainly something: from the pearlescent synth compositions of Bryter Layter to the earthy textures of Anne Guthrie, Ekin Fil's Grouper-like balladry and Cobb's own soporific ambient, the SoD catalogue feels scrupulously considered and unified in tone.
Cobb has cited two books as particularly important to him: Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, a pre-WW1 French novel about lost adolescence, and, from 1981, John Crowley's Little, Big, which falls somewhere between a New England dynastic saga and a magical-realist fairytale. Both slip woozily between reality and unreality, and are shot through with a sense of longing. Listening to one of Cobb's own releases, like 2012's wistful A Passage To Morning, it's easy to see the parallel.
"One thing that factors into music I like is this idea of a subjectless nostalgia," Cobb says. "In the Alain-Fournier book [the protagonist] is nostalgic for the estate that he finds and he can't find again. In Little, Big there's this general sense of nostalgia: people are trying to find things that they've lost that they maybe never had.
"I try to approach music composition like that, trying to find these chord changes that work really well in pop music, and then just smear them out, and try to keep some of the pathos in there if I can. I try to make something that still resonates with people even if it's done over the course of ten minutes and is, you know, super abstract."
Beyond Cobb's music, the Students Of Decay catalogue features plenty of examples of this abstracted nostalgia. Perhaps the finest is last year's Kyle Bobby Dunn And The Infinite Sadness. Spanning two LPs and over two hours, it's an endlessly beguiling album, its celestial washes of ambience tugging gently but persistently on the heartstrings. Dunn has explored such sounds repeatedly throughout his career, but The Infinite Sadness might be his best work.
Cobb often pushes artists to do their best. He takes a very involved approach to A&Ring, or what he calls "producing," the music on his label. "If somebody sends me a demo it's only rarely that I'll just take it and say, 'OK, I don't think it needs improvement,'" he explains. "The [artists] that I say, 'We need to work on this' to, it's not that I think they're any less good, but I think that they can do something better."
Cobb gives the example of Sarah Davachi, a Canadian composer whose debut LP appeared on the label this month. "She sent me a record that she thought was done. It was half sort of glacial, microtonal minimalism and half what I would call, hopefully not in a pejorative sense, kind of modular craziness—stuff panning around and fizzing and popping. That stuff's cool but it's not really my thing, and I thought it was at odds with the other stuff that drew me to her work initially. So she ended up giving the crazy stuff to Important [Records], and they did a tape of it, and then she sent me other stuff that's more textural, and the record became really good. I feel like it's much more complete, as a record, than what she sent me initially."
Sometimes Cobb goes even further. He talks about an upcoming release from the Brooklyn-based Billy Gomberg, for which Cobb, inspired by a Tim Hecker album he'd been listening to, suggested a stylistic direction for as-yet-unmade tracks. "So we shaped this record together, and I think it's really good. It has this vibe of, like, crumbling."
Of course, this sort of process depends on a robust relationship between artist and label, and Cobb has learnt not to take that for granted. "If I don't get along with people or I feel like they're prima donnas, I usually will cut the cord," he says. "And hopefully I'll cut the cord before any money has been spent. It's happened a bunch of times over the years."
Lately, Cobb has expanded his vision beyond new music. Last year saw the label's first reissue, Mark Banning's Journey To The Light, a New Age gem released in a tiny run in 1985 and long coveted by collectors. Cobb concedes that reissues are a "huge trope" in contemporary vinyl culture, and the unearthing of lost New Age records, in particular, is on its way to becoming a dreaded "micro-movement." But in the case of Banning's longform compositions, which balance saccharine drift with a wonderful sense of space and depth, their closeness to the Students Of Decay aesthetic is remarkable.
Not long afterwards, Cobb embarked on some more recent archaeology. The 2LP Marble Sky collected music made by Jeff Witscher—better known as Rene Hell—in the late '00s. Predominantly a CDr label when it launched in 2005, Students Of Decay was perfectly placed to capture the wave of meditative synth music coming out of the US underground at the time. Witscher's recordings as Marble Sky, grandiose but tender, are a gorgeous and lesser-known artifact of the movement that produced Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never.
"The era was so weird, because all of a sudden all these guys who were making very harsh, aggressive noise started to do more pastoral, beautiful stuff," Cobb says. "And that's what that Marble Sky record documents I think. I felt like it was time for a reappraisal of that era of experimental American music, which is under-documented."
Cobb wasn't the only person to have this idea. Some of his own music from the era was also reissued last year, on the Helen Scarsdale Agency, and it's in much the same vein of "introspective, lost, quiet American experimental music," as Cobb puts it. It was his own productions, initially under the name Taiga Remains, which led him to start Students Of Decay, even if these days he's largely subservient to his label duties.
"I'm somebody who needs a creative outlet, but the label fills that niche for me," Cobb says. "There are musicians who are prolific, where the process of making music is something they can't not do, and then there are musicians like me who really only make music when you feel like you have to."
Cobb was gripped by just such a compulsion recently, and the next Students Of Decay release is one of his own. Named after a French verb meaning to sing and cry at the same time, the four-track Chantepleure was recorded in the midst of a crumbling relationship, and perfectly embodies Cobb's smeared pop sensibility.
Now entering its tenth year, Students Of Decay has changed a lot since its CDr days. For one thing, a distribution deal with Revolver, arranged with the help of Ben Goldberg from Ba Da Bing Records, has made it possible for Cobb to work with vinyl. His striking sleeve designs, often featuring little or no text, make maximum use of the format. For another, Cobb's vision has grown ever more convincing. 2014 was the label's strongest year, crowned by the Banning, Dunn and Marble Sky releases. In 2015, Cobb promises Billy Gomberg's "crumbling train station" record, a label debut from M. Sage, the second part of a trilogy from Maxwell Croy and Sean McCann, and plenty more.
But while Cobb's curation is unfailingly thoughtful and meticulous, there appears to be no master plan behind it—or at least none he's willing to divulge. "I don't like music and art to be over-explained, and I don't think it should be," he says. "The construction of meaning is so subjective. What makes art successful is when people can come at it with their own subjectivity, and it still works for them."
Crushing drum breaks, eerie ambient and mutant strains of UK funky and grime: Keysound phase three is in full effect on this mix of almost completely unreleased material.
Filesize: 92.7 MB
Breaking through: Lotic
J'Kerian Morgan is an American artist whose sexual and racial identity bubbles at the surface of his work. Lisa Blanning tells his story.
Top 10 April 2015 Festivals
We see what's looking good around the world this April.
Breaking through: Bwana
From post-dubstep to prog house revival, Andrew Ryce charts the evolution of a Toronto rising star.
The art of DJing: Tama Sumo
For the first edition of our new feature series, Will Lynch talks shop with the Panorama Bar resident.
Label of the month
Label of the month: Basic Channel
On its 25th anniversary, we examine the roots and philosophy behind one of techno's most beloved labels.
Label of the month: Version
Will Lynch checks in with one of Germany's best sources for sub-heavy sounds.
Label of the month: Kranky
Andrew Ryce talks to the artists behind the influential label as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Label of the month: EM Records
We celebrate 20 years of this Japanese label's humble dedication to obscure music.
Label of the month: Sound Signature
Waajeed, Specter, Lakuti, Gerd Janson and more reflect on 20 years of Theo Parrish's pioneering label.