Will Lynch explains how Ital's New York-based label has become a totem for a distinctive new group of American artists.
This dusky jungle comes to life on Lovers Rock, Martin-McCormick's label. Different listeners will imagine different things, but it's not hard to see where he's coming from. The music on Lovers Rock is murky, ambiguous and poetic. Some of it has a beat, some of it doesn't. At face value, it's techno with an ambient streak, but to Martin-McCormick it's simply music, made without any blueprint in mind, guided only by each artist's intuition and personality.
Halal and Ital
"The people on the label are all friends, people that I really care about on a personal level," Martin-McCormick said. "If I hear their music, and it's a vivid manifestation of that person, I want to put it out." So far, those people have included Jacob Long (AKA Earthen Sea), DJ Wey (AKA DJ Python), Gunnar Haslam and Aurora Halal. "The label is not just a place to put music that I like. It's a place to put music that I think exemplifies this very personal criteria. Earthen Sea's music sounds like the thick, rolling clouds of San Francisco. DJ Wey's music has a certain sort of warm glue in the middle of it that just exists. It's not just a production technique, it's a natural manifestation of their spirit. So that's what I look for. Maybe that doesn't make sense to anybody but me, but it's there."
In a previous life, Martin-McCormick played in Black Eyes, an acclaimed post-hardcore band on the seminal DC label Dischord. Following in the tradition of local legends like Ian MacKaye (founder of Dischord and former frontman of Fugazi), Black Eyes did whatever they could to tear up their genre's rule book. The five-piece ensemble included two drummers, two bassists and an ever-changing arsenal of other instruments, and delivered what Pitchfork once described as a "convulsive squawking of rhythmic, sometimes experimental and gauzy, dubby post-punk."
"Basic Channel, Ricardo Villalobos, Arthur Russell and all this sort of stuff," he said. "And it was just this click, even more than it had been with punk. I was 21, 22, trying to figure out what direction music was gonna take for me, trying to find people to play with and everything, and then I heard this music and it was like, 'Cha-kook!' Everything just clicked into place and I was like, 'This is it.' I started making tracks immediately."
Martin-McCormick grew up in DC with punk's origins and culture right there in front of him. Electronic music, though, was more mysterious. Like many Americans of his generation—too young for the country's '90s rave scene—he'd never had the experience of "a great DJ in a small dark club." To his ears, these records existed in a vacuum, "weird artefacts of human creativity" with no clear connection to anything he'd ever witnessed firsthand. As he tunneled further and further in, his connection with it remained entirely private, forged at home on headphones rather than at clubs or festivals.
"For years it was like hearing these alien transmissions from across the ether," he said. "I felt like this world was calling me, but I didn't know how to find it. The first records I made were coming from this super private place, which I think was the case for a lot of people. When I think about friends I had, people who are now on L.I.E.S and who have careers or whatever, they spent years in this loose network of ten people who shared tracks with each other and didn't really get to interact with the culture at large. That's actually a cool place to be in when you make music, hidden away like that. But it took a long time to figure out how to really engage with it, or how to make it. After a while you need the culture and infrastructure to go further."
New York had that infrastructure when Martin-McCormick moved there in 2011, but he and others like him gave it a scrappy new tier. Sometime around 2011, the "loose network" began to congeal—slowly at first, then all at once. Artists who'd been making music at home for years were discovering each other and making things happen. One example of this was L.I.E.S.—in his RA Exchange, Ron Morelli said he started the label mainly to release music his friends had been sitting on for years. Another key force was Aurora Halal, who Martin-McCormick already knew from DC. She'd moved to New York and started her own party series, Mutual Dreaming.
"That was the first time I saw people in our peer group," Martin-McCormick said. "You know, Steve Summers, Steve Moore, Morelli, Beautiful Swimmers, all these people were playing these parties and it was amazing. People were dancing to this music that, like I said, had until then just been privately enjoyed through headphones. And all of a sudden it was like, 'Wow, this is not some weird fantasy of people having cool parties 20 years ago somewhere else, this is a real thing that is happening here and now.' That was around 2011, 2012. That was when the flood gates opened."
Lovers Rock already existed by then, though not in its current form. Martin-McCormick had started the label in 2008 to release the first 12-inch from Mi Ami, a frantic art rock band he'd formed in San Francisco. Mi Ami turned out to have legs—the band went on to release music on Thrill Jockey and 100% Silk. But Lovers Rock remained a one-off until 2011, when Martin-McCormick finished Culture Clubs, the first collection of Ital tracks he was ready to show the world.
"It wasn't really a plan to start a label," he said. "But I'd just made 'Culture Clubs,' which felt like a really personal song. So I thought, 'I'll just put this out myself.'"
Though it began with something very different in mind, Lovers Rock felt like the right place for Ital. "I always loved the name for the label, because it sort of epitomizes exactly what I want in music," Martin-McCormick said. "When I think of rock I think of, you know, rocking out, rocking hard, some kind of heavy, aggressive thing. I like the idea of that being for lovers. That's the manifesto in a way of the label: that the music could could be intense or dark but it's also beautiful and is not a malicious force. It represents a force of love."
Culture Clubs is a snapshot of an artist in transition, a house production whose spirit is pure post-punk. The title track, for instance, offsets sunny chords with sudden moments of dissonance, echoing bands like The Pop Group or Swell Maps (to whom Black Eyes had once been compared). Martin-McCormick's metamorphosis continued from there. He'd been honing his DJ skills "at a really bad bar called Tandem." Before long, something new and interesting arrived: Bossa Nova Civic Club, a clubhouse for New York's recent wave of electronic artists and a cornerstone for its scene in general. Martin-McCormick became a resident.
By 2013, this cast of artists had jelled into a proper scene, built on records made in cramped apartments and performances at Mutual Dreaming and Bossa Nova Civic Club. They were younger and less experienced than many of the city's old guard, but if anything this gave them more kick. Many of these artists were in their honeymoon phase with dance music, still discovering essential music all the time and having life-changing experiences on the dance floor. For Martin-McCormick, two artists in particular made an impression: DJ Sprinkles and Function.
"Function was intense, futuristic, and yet very emotionally open and beautiful," he said. "I was coming out of this scuffed, underground, jerry-rigged sound—outsider house, basically. So it totally blew my mind. I thought, 'This is what music can be like.' And then with Sprinkles, there was just so much power in the music, it was very hypnotic and beautiful and in one sense very chill, but also with a lot of anger and rage. Sometimes it would be very calm, and then you'd get the screaming of somebody being ripped limb-from-limb fading in over a mellow flute. The storytelling, the sense of urgency—it still gives me chills just thinking about it."
"Seeing those sets, it was like a gauntlet being thrown down," he continued. "I always wanted to be making music that was real and politically and socially expressive, or that had something powerful to say about the human experience. But then you go into the studio and sometimes you're just flubbing around and your just like, 'OK, what is my mission here?' And those two gave me such a strong sense of what we should be doing in music."
Another essential performance came from one of Martin-McCormick's old friends, Jacob Long, who'd played in Black Eyes and Mi Ami, and now made techno as Earthen Sea. "He was on tour, I went to see him play in Brooklyn somewhere, and it just totally blew my mind. He had two Casio keyboards with the preset beats run through a bunch of pedals so it made these rhythmic rumbling textures, and then he was looping and stuff on top of it, and it felt really private, but just with one more step that could go into this whole other area. His sense of melody and just the overall sound of his music, the sounds he gravitates towards, make so much sense to me. I've been listening to his tapes for years, you know just drone tapes things you put out on California cassette labels. It always blew my mind, I loved it. So I was like, 'Dude, if you've got a drum machine and we develop this, I think this could be a really amazing direction for your music, and I'd be really honored and excited to work on the record with you and make it happen.' So we started talking again—we hadn't talked that much over the last couple of years—and that's how the Earthen Sea 12-inch happened."
At that point Martin-McCormick still wasn't sure exactly what he wanted with Lovers Rock. He'd put out one more record since Culture Clubs—2013's Throbbing—and considered using the label only as a platform for his own productions. The Earthen Sea show changed that. Later that year, Martin-McCormick caught a set by someone named DJ Wey, and the ranks swelled further.
"Aurora and I played at this crazy house party in Chicago, it was one of Aurora's first live sets," he said. "This guy Brian had helped organized it and we just hit it off. He moved to New York and was living in the room that's now my studio for a while, and we became really close. I love his ear—he's always playing me records that blow my mind, like digital dub stuff and all sorts of weird electro. So he was working on these tracks and I was like, 'These are sick, these are great!' They were coming from the next room and I was like, 'What's going on?'"
Until then, Lovers Rock had been putting out one 12-inch every three years; in 2014, it released three, including a mini-compilation featuring Ital, DJ Wey, Earthen Sea and former Mi Ami member Damon Palermo. "There was a point where I thought, 'Wait a minute, this is starting to become something,'" Martin-McCormick said. "I could feel things around me that were at home on Lovers Rock, as opposed to somewhere else."
Throughout all this, Halal and Martin-McCormick influenced each other enormously. Though they mostly work separately, their relationship and their ongoing exchange of ideas connects their various projects. "Regardless of whatever we're drawing inspiration from specifically, this idea of immersive, introspective and journeying music is a constant theme in our discussions," Martin-McCormick said. "One time, I was DJing one of my songs, and a friend came up and asked if it was Aurora's. I told her it was mine, and she said, 'I figured it had to be one of you two, you both have these sounds that are like flickering lights reflecting off the shadows.'"
As this mini-scene expands, so does Lovers Rock. "I'm trying to work with some artists who I don't know very well," Martin-McCormick said. "I think that actually as it grows, there's gonna be room to welcome in more and more people who aren't necessarily part of the crew. The goal of the label isn't a social goal but I can't deny that those social relationships are really critical to the records we've done so far. All the people on the label are people who have really influenced the way I think about music, and they've been with me for a couple of years or longer. But there are artists who I am talking to who I've never met before at all, and they just make sense with the music."
"I think that we're in this time right now that's really special. I feel that what we're working on in our little hub here is making the music that's as powerful and deep as we can make it, and exploring, trying to get it sounding as incredible as possible, as lush and evocative. All these artists are over the hump of the outsider thing as an idea or a trend, and now they're really expressing their voices. It's come to a new chapter of development, a more mature phase, where we need to focus not just on putting out hardware jams but really capturing that indefinable quality of music. We've really got our work cut out for us."
Ital mixes a Lovers Rock showcase packed with forthcoming material from the label.
Lovers Rock Studios - Unreleased
Earthen Sea - Unreleased
Ital - Unreleased
DJ Wey & Ital - Unreleased
Yoshinori Hayashi - Agent Dissolving Device
Ital & Halal - From the Brink
Earthen Sea - Unreleased
DJ Python - Amazonia
Ital - Unreleased
Damon Eliza Palermo - Unreleased
Earthen Sea - Unreleased
Ital & Halal - Shenzhen River
DJ Wey - Nosebleed
Gunnar Haslam - Vector No Campo
Ital - Unreleased
Ital - Unreleased
Damon Eliza Palermo - Unreleased
Earthen Sea - Saharan Ocean
Sleeper Cell - Sleeper Cell
Ital & Halal - Where Exactly I Am
DJ Python - Unreleased
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