Andrew Ryce profiles the label at the forefront of one of electronic music's most exciting new scenes.
After discovering Birth Of A New Day I explored the label's back catalogue, which was full of impressive, polished releases from artists I had never heard of. Some were pure ambient, others were rhythmic, in shapes close to hip-hop or techno. Before long, new labels started emerging in the same vein, though none had an identity as strong as Dream Catalogue's. The music was plentiful and hard to keep up with, and seemed completely disconnected from the larger electronic music scene, inhabiting its own little ecosystem on Bandcamp.
The scene that's formed around Dream Catalogue is home to nascent subgenres—dream music, hardvapour and ghost tech—and exists mostly on the internet. Though physical releases are becoming more common, live performances are rare, with HKE making only tentative moves in the festival and DJ circuit. That's in part because of his shyness, and partly due to the scene's geography—Russo is from Liverpool and lives in London, while Telepath (AKA Luke Laurila), his key partner in the label, lives in Ohio. wosX, who created hardvapour and drove Dream Catalogue towards more beat-oriented sounds, lives in Montreal. Russo has also released music from producers in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Portland, Manchester and Chicago. Plenty of others keep their location secret or claim a fictional place as home.
Dream music was a reaction to what Russo and his longtime friend Halo Acid (who now runs the label Tekres) saw as the increasing functionality of electronic music. They felt that in the late 2000s, the electronic music they liked was moving away from the more ambitious, album-oriented days of '90s electronica, and they wanted to take a more thoughtful approach.
"A lot of it is conceptual—trying to create a picture in the listener's mind through suggested ideas, rather than there just being a tune or whatever," Russo explained. "Halo Acid started linking me to vaporwave stuff around 2013, and I saw some similarities between what we had been discussing and what was going on in vaporwave at that time. Vaporwave, even though it has a lot of weaknesses—it's amateur music—I found it engrossing how conceptual it was, the same idea of creating a vision in the listener's mind."
Russo tends towards big gestures and lofty ideas. Much of his music is unabashedly grand, and on Twitter he speaks of it in self-aggrandizing terms, though in person he's much more humble. Then again, there's no denying his prolific talent: Russo has released over 100 albums in just a few years, with over 20 different aliases, all of them with their own theme or specific angle.
Russo found vaporwave late in its existence (it was popularized by Oneohtrix Point Never's Eccojams in 2010) but the formula hadn't changed much. You take samples of '80s pop, muzak and other genres, slow it down and loop it into something hypnotic. From the outset, Russo's method was different. He would record samples and then write original melodies on top of the loops, because he assumed that's what everyone else was doing. Since he started making beats on a Playstation as a teenager, making music and writing melodies came naturally to him.
Russo's idiosyncratic take on vaporwave gave his earliest releases—under aliases like Hong Kong Express (the excellent 2047 album especially), AIR Japan, Penthouse Apartment and Subaeris—an otherworldly quality that a lot of other vaporwave music lacked. It was obvious that there was something special and more considered about Dream Catalogue than your average vaporwave label.
"I love stuff that's escapist, in a sense," he said. "A lot of the albums I've released are my ideas for films or even novels that I just put out through music instead. My DARKPYRAMID project was actually based on a book I started writing years ago but never finished. And Wong Kar-wai was a huge inspiration to me, especially for my Hong Kong Express project. He does the same thing in his films—he'll use a lot of abstract imagery, and music, to suggest things, rather than be direct about it. Through his films he creates a certain mood and message through abstract ideas. I try to recreate that style with music."
Unable to get a label off the ground with Halo Acid, who was dealing with personal issues at the time, Russo found a kindred spirit in Telepath. The Ohio-based producer specialized in lengthy ambient compositions that split the difference between celestial new age and vaporwave's sample flips. Russo described his music as unusually "genuine," a quality that goes a long way in a scene known for layers of irony.
Dream Catalogue's early releases were an ethereal take on vaporwave, turning the genre into something beguiling and emotional. But the label did a complete 180 less than a year into its life. When Russo and Laurila first teamed up as 2814 and put out an album made entirely without samples, it signalled the start of an ideological shift for Dream Catalogue. It transformed from a late-period vaporwave upstart into an internet music trailblazer.
"We wanted to show that you could push the same idea without having to fall back on just ripping music off YouTube and slowing it down," Russo said. "It was so easy for people to get into vaporwave, so you had a lot of artists who had never made music before just ripping songs and retitling them, saying it was their own work. The laziness was off-putting. So in 2015 there was definitely a divide between those of us who wanted to get better as musicians, and those who just wanted to keep doing the same thing over and over."
The leap in quality was staggering. Listen to albums like I Am Chesumasuta by Russo, or Pyravid's GooglePlex Bionetwork, and you'll hear music that inhabits its own fully-formed world, largely untouched by other contemporary electronic music genres and made with stellar sound design. Every few weeks, Dream Catalogue released something new that explored a different facet of dream music. Its output ranks up there with any other contemporary ambient label, complete with beautiful artwork, whether you were buying tapes, CDs, vinyl or digital.
In 2015, even the label's more traditionally vaporwave music became ground-breaking. Nmesh and Telepathe's split album ロストエデンへのパス was a watershed for the genre, warping layers upon layers of samples into something genuinely like listening to a feature-length film, fulfilling Russo's dream almost literally. The new direction wasn't without its detractors, however, especially in the surprisingly prickly world of vaporwave and post-vaporwave music, where people get into heated arguments over Twitter and occasionally rip off each other's work. This climate, Russo explained, led to the creation of hardvapour.
Since then there have been a number of releases exploring Dream Catalogue's new frontiers. Equip's I Dreamed Of A Palace In The Sky appropriates 16-bit video game soundtracks, while Yoshimi's albums explore the urban alienation of metropolitan Asia. And yet another subgenre, ghost tech (essentially sleek ambient techno submerged in reverb and other heavy-handed effects), has emerged, in part through projects like Russo's Subaeris alias. Releases like these have opened up Dream Catalogue to a wider audience.
Other labels—BLCR Laboratories, House Of The Leg, Antifur, Tekres, HVRF Central Command among them—have surfaced to chronicle this new scene of artists, though none have the same history or quality control of Dream Catalogue. Russo's label has amassed almost 150 releases in three years, and yet nearly every one of them has its merits. The label has started to slow down its release schedule—Russo's goal now is to allow Dream Catalogue's artists time to develop and perfect their art, and nurture them along the way.
Russo has also become a savvy A&R man and a natural leader in his scene. Dream Catalogue acts like a springboard for some of the sound's newest and most promising artists, while Russo's many aliases and projects make him the most visible of all his peers, and an easy starting point for those interested in the post-vaporwave world. The community he helped create with Dream Catalogue is spilling over with creativity, inspiration and new ideas, like little else in electronic music right now. He's created a new platform for a new kind of music, taking Dream Catalogue from an obscure digital-only Bandcamp concern to a fully-fledged record label—and turning his own life around in the process.
"I was on the dole at the time of Birth Of A New Day, and I had to borrow 100 quid off my dad just to get the CDs done," he told me. "I didn't expect them to sell out in 24 hours like they did. The earnings I got from Birth Of A New Day went right back into the label. The second CD was a Chesumasuta album, then a Death's Dynamic Shroud.wmv album, and it kept building up to the point where it was a business rather than just a hobby. At the end of 2015 we were putting out tapes every two weeks.
"I've always just been a bedroom producer, never had any grand vision of doing these kinds of things," Russo said. "I've been broke my entire life. I've been in and out of jobs for years, I dropped out of university, I was living off my girlfriend's money for some time, which felt terrible. So being able to make a living out of what I enjoy most has been an amazing experience. It's getting to the point now, where from this summer onwards, we'll be doing a new album on vinyl once a month. I don't think there are many labels like us doing that kind of thing."
David Russo highlights the hardvapour and ghost tech side of Dream Catalogue.
Yoshimi - Epigenetic
MOD-COMM 81 - Lucy
Somnus & S.ONN - Control
Sour Gout - IRON//01
Somnus - Faith
Subaeris - European
Telepath - Enchanting Mist
DJ ALINA - Femen
pscu - يجلس بصمت
Flash Kostivich - Modem Tumour
HKE - Fashion
Zomby & Burial - Sweetz
AUT2M - Экспотенциальн
HKE x AUT2M - Next Level
HKE & Somnus - Valhalla
Halo Acid - Distress Network
Chungking Mansions - Cave
Shinatama - Presence In The Midst Of An Unspoilt Forest