TEN QUESTIONS WITH TAYLOR DEUPREE
Very few in electronic music circles can match Taylor Deupree in terms of recording and label activity. The amount of material issued under his own name verges on staggering, and the catalogue he's assembled under the 12k name since its 1997 inception is equally impressive; it would be no exaggeration to say that the label name has come to be synonymous with consistency and quality. Born in 1971, Deupree is one of the key figureheads responsible for experimental electronic music as we know it today, whether the music in question is digital minimalism or electro-acoustic soundscaping. In collaboration with Richard Chartier, Deupree expanded on 12k's vision in 2000 by establishing the sub-label Line, which delved even further into microsound projects and has proven to be as influential (in its own naturally quiet way, of course) as its parent label. The packaging for the two labels' releases is characterized by a refined design aesthetic that perfectly complements the musical content, and Deupree has received deserved acclaim for his design work, photography, and mastering. He recently discussed with us his recent full-length release, Shoals, and generously shared his thoughts on the life expectancy of the CD, illegal file-sharing, future 12k projects, and a number of other matters.
1. An understated and refined design aesthetic informed 12k releases from the very start of the label's existence. Could you talk a bit about how you managed to have such a clearly defined design aesthetic in place from the very beginning, and also how that aesthetic has changed (if you think it has) over the course of 12k's existence?
Well, 12k definitely had no plan at the beginning, besides me wanting to start a small label. Aesthetically, there was nothing very refined about the first few releases. I suppose my own design style gave it a unifying look, but even that style, looking back, was not very refined, not terribly elegant. It wasn't until I believe, Active/Freeze (with Tetsu Inoue), 12k's tenth release, that I started to use the same typeface on all of the releases and began to unify the design. At that point 12k's design entered into phases where I'd use the same design or template for a while and then change. I still do that to this day, keeping the same aesthetic, but changing the packaging every few years, basically to keep it interesting for me and perhaps to signify new directions or new mindsets. Eventually I really wanted to highlight photography on the covers and move any typography off of the images to enhance that. That happened when I moved the packaging to digipacks and still remains the same today. 12k's covers used to be dominated by architectural photographs. Clean lines, angles, mathematics… over the years I think we've seen that obviously change to more organic and natural imagery. Photographs with or about flaws and imperfection. The packaging, as well as the A&R for the label, follows my own interests in a more analog and natural approach to both sound and photography. Acoustic instruments, Polaroid photography… getting rid of the grid, shying away from the computer as the star of the album.
It's important to me, for the longevity of the label, to make sure everything is constantly changing... and also to have no solid plans for the future. I like to work on impulse, with a natural flow yet always very sharply with the big picture in mind. While 12k sometimes seems pretty free, I obsess over the details and the vision and try to make sure every aspect of the label is well-crafted.
2. Your label has managed to weather the industry's storms and is still standing after may years of operation despite all of the challenges of recent years (i.e., illegal downloading, vanishing CD sales, etc.). How have you been able to keep 12k alive (and seemingly flourishing) throughout all such challenges?
I think one of the most important things is to make sure the label stays small. I believe that if you try to be big, try to be popular or bombastic, you set yourself up for being trendy and short-lived. I've always played 12k under the radar, letting it slowly and organically grow… letting people discover it as opposed to me shoving it in their faces. I'm very proud and touched by the fact that 12k has a strong reputation around the world. The reputation certainly outweighs the size of the label, which is fine by me, because affecting people in a positive way, giving something to listeners that they know is created out of care and passion, is a lot more important than sales.
Illegal downloading is finally starting to have a big effect on small labels like 12k. Three or so years ago when it was all coming to a peak, the small labels still weren't affected very much it seems. But now, it's having a big impact and is really hurting. The thing that pisses me off about a lot of the file sharing is that these blogs claim to be "supporting" the artists and labels by featuring an album, even sometimes writing a review about it, and then at the bottom of the page supplying a link for a stolen copy. Why not link to the label's own online shop? Or iTunes? And not only do these places claim to be helping, they act all high-and-mighty when you confront them about it. I don't want people stealing 12k's artists' music; as the label owner I feel responsible for my artists and end up having to apologize on the behalf of the thieves.
The way I like to frame it, to make an analogy here... if you think it's okay to steal someone's music and deny them of any money they earn from it… I'd like these people to go into work tomorrow and tell their boss that they don't need to get paid for what they do. Tell their boss that they'll work their job for free. I guarantee you that no one would do that. They feel it's okay to steal from labels and artists they have no physical connection to, yet won't deny themselves of a living or getting paid. It's hypocritical. A lot of 12k's artists try to scrape a living by with making music and it's sad to see them ripped off.
Falling CD sales is another concern, but one we've been preparing for slowly for a while. 12k has had a presence on iTunes since 2004, I believe; we were one of the first small labels to get our catalog in there. As CD sales fall, digital sales and illegal pirating climb. I still strongly believe in the CD as a physical object and presentation. I agree on some levels that the CD doesn't need to be the medium of playback; iTunes does a great job of that, but a screen full of a list of titles just still seems lacking in some way. CDs are also great for artists to bring to live shows, or send around; they remain an important part of promotion, if even not as important for sales as they used to be. I can see a future where "albums" are sold merely as artwork with a download code inside... so you can still have a booklet and some nice art, but no plastic disc.
Also, vinyl production is up. I have a close friend who lives thirty minutes away who cuts vinyl for a living and he's insanely busy. Vinyl is a beautiful way to present a limited-edition object for those who want it while letting the download people buy the music from iTunes or something. I think it makes a great combination. There have been three vinyl releases on 12k and will absolutely be more. I really like the seven-inch format. What it lacks in length it makes up for aesthetically, I think.
I'm ready to roll with the punches. The public will determine how they want to consume and listen to music. If they don't care about packages or CDs anymore, they will speak with their wallets and 12k will adapt. The other wonderful thing about being a one-man operation is I'm very adaptable; I don't have anyone to answer to or an office full of people to manage, I can change at the drop of a hat.
3. I love the fact that in creating the material on Shoals you opted not to play the gamelan instruments in the conventional way but instead used the objects' surfaces as sound-generating objects. First of all, how did you hit upon that idea, and secondly what has been the reaction to the recording from the people who were involved in having you join the UK-based University of York Music Research Center as an artist-in-residence?
Well, the mere fact that I have no idea how to play traditional gamelan pretty much got me exploring the instruments as objects, with no biases or pre-conceived rules. I did, however, get a lesson from an artist there named Angie Atmadjaja, which was really fun and a good learning experience, but I still ended up being more fascinated by taking these immensely traditional instruments, with such a history, and reducing them to mere objects made of wood and metal, and removing all of that history. During the recording process the staff at the university was very supportive, but they invited me there based on being familiar with my music, so I'd expect they'd appreciate it on some level, hopefully not too disappointed that I didn't approach the instruments in a more traditional way!
4. I remember seeing you perform at the first MUTEK festival where you presented Tower of Winds, the collaboration with Savvas Ysatis that was issued on Caipirinha Productions in 1998. That memory prompts me to wonder whether your thoughts about live performance have changed in the years since that performance (which from what I can recall was a striking marriage of sound and photography) to today. More specifically, to what degree do you prefer working in the controlled studio or home environment versus the live setting, where certain things might be outside of your control (sound quality, crowd noise, etc.)? And when you perform live, how much room do you allow in the presentation for musical spontaneity?
I still prefer working in the studio, as it's really a private space of creativity for me. I love being surrounded by the instruments and submerging myself in the process. I try to use the computer less and less for my music writing, yet it still often remains the centerpiece of a live performance due to portability and convenience. That said, I do love performing collaborations, such as with Kenneth Kirschner… where there is interaction among musicians and the ability to more easily integrate more instruments. When I perform live, even if it's all computer, I typically give myself a small handful of sounds to manipulate and improvise with. I only like to establish the very beginning of the performance ahead of time and leave the rest to chance. I'll often prepare the night before in the hotel room and the actual performance comes out sounding completely different, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse. I've done a few performances with little or no computer and I really prefer that. I wish I'd have the opportunity to perform Shoals live with gamelan instruments; I think that would be really interesting and challenging.
5. The first CD of yours I obtained was the one you mentioned earlier, Active/Freeze, your 2000 collaboration with Tetsu Inoue, and it naturally sounds very different from the more recent full-lengths Northern and Shoals. Can you talk a bit about some of the changes you believe have taken place in your music-making over that ten-year stretch (one thing might be a shift in balance between pure electronics and natural sounds, for example)?
Back when I worked with Tetsu on Active/Freeze, making music only with a computer was very new and exciting. The whole birth of the microsound movement was really exciting, and the music was considered quite radical. As always, though, I'm looking to things that continue to intrigue and challenge me and to always keep my sound changing and evolving. I had shunned acoustic instruments for so many years that when I finally became interested in their sonic potential it was a whole huge, new world for me. Around the same time is when I moved out of the city and really reconnected with nature and began exploring imperfection as an aesthetic. Acoustic instruments, by design, are imperfect, so they have been a really great sound source for me and to blend them with modern technology as well as vintage recording techniques offers an immense palette of rich sounds to work with.
6. As you mention, a number of years ago you moved from New York City to a rural setting outside the city, and I know that you have a strong connection to places outside the US, in particular Japan (as evidenced by the Happy label you started in 2003, which was dedicated to Japanese pop music, and the release of projects such as 2009's In Light by Small Color). Could you talk a bit about the degree to which, if it does, your own geographical situation has affected your own music and the music you've curated for 12k?
I think moving to such a rural and wooded area has certainly affected my music and 12k's output. As Kenneth Kirschner likes to joke, I now make "hillbilly" music…now that I've grown a bit of beard and own a chainsaw. The wonderful thing about running a small business today is that you can be anywhere to do it as long as you have the internet and FedEx… so I can be in a very quiet place and still interact with the world. I find it much more enjoyable than being in the middle of everything, like I was in Brooklyn. There was very little peace there, unless you worked hard to find it or partook in some sort of manufactured "peace." As it's well known, I love to visit Japan and a lot of 12k's music comes from there. It's a place I feel very connected to and have a lot of close friends… each year more and more. It's great to travel and meet other musicians and I'm very proud of the fact that 12k has such an international roster, but these days, with the world being so small, I guess that isn't so difficult.
7. I'll occasionally pull out an old copy of The Wire from say, 2002, and am struck by the number of artists covered in the issue who have vanished from the scene for one reason or another. Yet fourteen years after the release of your first recording (the twelve-inch Freak Of Nature on Rancho Relaxo in 1996), you're artistically thriving and releasing new music on a regular basis. How do you account for your staying power?
My first recording as "Taylor Deupree" was, I believe you are correct, the Freak Of Nature vinyl… but my first released recordings were back in 1993 on Instinct Records. To think I have been releasing music out there for almost twenty years amazes me. I think I've been able to stay relevant maybe for a few simple reasons… for one, I'm extremely passionate about what I do so I will do anything it takes to make sure things keep moving forward and, like I said above, it's important to keep things small and under-the-radar. I don't want to be the most popular niche label or ever be "number 1." That doesn't interest me at all. I want to stay quiet and stay around for a long time and hopefully continue to inspire others to do similar things. 12k never shies away from new artists, and typically doesn't release anything from "big" artists in our genre; there's something predictable about that. I'm a terrible businessman, always putting creativity and interesting ideas ahead of making money. Somehow i've managed to keep it all going.
8. The 12k catalogue is a remarkable one, to say the least. No doubt all of them are favourites of yours in one way or another (Kenneth Kirschner's Filaments & Voids and Christopher Willits and Ryuichi Sakamoto's Ocean Fire would be two of mine), but could you maybe pick two or three that you regard as particularly important or landmark releases for the label and explain why you see them as such?
There have been many landmark 12k releases along the way for me… I guess the first obvious one would be the .Aiff compilation which set me off on the direction of minimalism and microsound and as well established a solid interest in packaging. Immediately after that was Shuttle358's Optimal.LP which helped me blend my love for ambient and tonal music with the strict electronics and is sort of the earliest example of where 12k still is today. Christopher Willits' Folding, And The Tea, while not the first 12k album to feature a guitar (that may have been Sogar's Basal), was the first to do so in such an obvious way. It was my way of telling myself that I wasn't afraid to branch out of electronics. Moskitoo's Drape was another landmark which again told people that 12k wasn't adverse to injecting a little bit of a pop format into the experimentalism… while right before that Seaworthy's Map In Hand was one of the first 12k releases to really sound totally non-electronic (even though it's not totally) and really was the birth of 12k's solid acoustic/electronic grounding. There are many other 12k albums that were released for very specific reasons, twists and turns that I'd allow myself to do or statements I thought I should make. As well, there are indeed favourite releases of mine… too many to list here, but two that come to mind are Map In Hand and Motion's Every Action (or Dust... I can't decide)...
9. We hear regularly that the CD format is dying (if not dead already), which prompts me to wonder what you're doing in terms of planning strategically for 12k's future. And given that holding the physical product in one's hands has been such an integral part of the 12k experience, how do you see the ongoing shift away from the physical to the digital release affecting 12k in terms of design?
I covered a lot of my feelings about this above, but strictly from a design point of view I'm now exploring vinyl and have some ideas for download-only releases that still involve packaging. Visual presentation will probably always be a part of 12k in some way, it's just a matter of finding a way to do it that the consumers want. If no one wants physical objects anymore, then that means they don't care so much about a visual presentation, at least with their music. Ultimately, I suppose, the public will decide the fate of all of this and I'll just have to adapt 12k while still keeping true to my own beliefs. Change is inevitable. It's hard to let go of the past, but there's always a lot of exciting avenues to explore when paradigm shifts happen.
10. Finally, can you give us a snapshot of what's ahead in the coming year for 12k and for Taylor Deupree?
Looks like there are four more releases on 12k this year. Two in September and two in November. On September 22nd, we'll see an artist new to 12k but not totally to the public. David Wenngren from Library Tapes, who has done some really great releases out there, has a side project with a girl by the name of Ylva Wilkund called Murralin Lane. It's a really different sounding CD for 12k… a bit dark, really distressed with some rather haunting vocals. Quite the opposite of the other release that month which is Seaworthy and fellow Australian Matt Rösner. Seaworthy needs no introduction for 12k followers, but Matt is a great guy who I've had the pleasure of meeting while in Australia and he's done some great releases including one on the lovely Apejestaart label. He and Cameron from Seaworthy headed out into the Australian wilds and set themselves up in a cabin and created Two Lakes which is a really stark and very lonely sounding record of guitar, ukelele, field recordings from the surrounding lakes and some really understated electronics. It's great to have Matt on the label and I'm excited any chance I get to release music from Seaworthy. November also sees a newcomer to 12k, an artist from Oregon named Marcus Fischer. Marcus has released music as MapMap on some net labels and caught my attention last year with his Dust Breeding blog (http://unrecnow.com/dust/) where he was spending just about every day of 2009 doing creative projects from sound to photography to product design, video, design... and making entries in his blog. I began following his work and was completely blown away by this guy's talent. When we began exchanging e-mail I quickly realized he was also the type of person I like to have on the label… kind, down to earth, passionate… and began to watch what he did and listen to his music more. After I heard his MapMap album Arctic/Antarctic this year I knew I wanted him to do something with 12k. I warmly welcome Marc to 12k and hope he has a long future with the label. He and I would like to collaborate on some projects as well. The other release for November will be a limited-edition CD archiving some of the performances of this year's 12k events in Japan. We had an amazing 12k family gathering there in April and everyone played some really beautiful sets. The CD will contain edited-for-length performances from myself, Solo Andata, Sawako, Minamo, and Moskitoo. It will be a great way for all of us and the attendees of those concerts to re-live those memories as well as a chance for others to hear these musicians in a live context. It's a lot to get together for the rest of the year, but I feel strongly that all of these need to be heard and I'm preparing for 2011 already.
As for myself I'll finally be getting headway into a few collaborations I've been needing to start, one with Seaworthy, some work with Marcus Fischer and another with a fabulous duo from the states well known for their beautiful, super-ambient guitar/post-rock sound. Kenneth Kirschner and I are also starting to think about how to follow up our Post_Piano albums, as we quite enjoy working together.
Always very, very busy... really the only way I know how to be!