Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Lucid Culture Interview: Tom Derungs of New Indie Label Weak Records

Unlike the other music blogs, Lucid Culture pretty much steers clear of showbiz news. After all, it’s the music that listeners are interested in, not who’s pushing it. Did you ever go into your local record store, if it still exists, and ask the bewildered clerk, “Do you have anything new from Universal?”

And in the indie rock world, vanity labels come and go as fast as the label owners’ parents can write a check – or stop payment on one. But once in awhile we get a news release that grabs our attention – like the relaunch of Ardent Records, Alex Chilton’s original label, or in this case the launch of a new Swiss indie label, Weak Records. Founded by songwriter Tom Derungs – who records under the name of Bobby Vacant and released a haunting, auspicious album last year on Luxotone titled Tear Back the Night, Weak Records isn’t your ordinary record label, as we found out quickly:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Isn’t starting a record label in 2010 something akin to opening a blacksmith shop in 1920? Or a typewriter store in 1990? Can I ask a fundamental question: why?

Tom Derungs of Weak Records: Or a vinyl shop in 2010. Every artist needs a hook, a signifier to be signified to. Call it a desirous and symbiotic crucifixion. Most artists just need help. We at Weak come from the book business. Long ago we recognized the need for an outside source to support the little guy. Most bands or writers can’t afford it on their own. They are hopelessly inept at marketing and self-promotion. We started this to help them. It’s a non-profit label and a platform to get people’s work recognized. Nothing more. And a labor of love in a world of dead blacksmiths.

LCC: “Weak Records” sounds pretty sarcastic to me. Why that name? Is there any underlying philosophy behind the concept of the label?

TD: Again, the little guy. All the shy, trembling waifs writing songs and poems in their dirty bedrooms. We want to deconstruct the word “weak” and spit it out again with new energy and meaning. Empower it. Ennoble it. There are four physical forces in the universe and one is the weak force. The sun is fueled by it. Decay is a part of it. Our bodies are fused by it. We are all decaying. Every big bad-assed, bully one of us. You can watch it at the subatomic level. And as the biggest bully of them all once wrote: the meek shall inherit.

LCC: These days most musicians are making a go of it on their own without a label. Other than the positive association that comes with your name, what does Weak Records have to offer artists?

TD: We’ve got really cool badges. And free household objects for personal ritual use that come free with each one of our fanzines in zip locked bags. But seriously, we also support our artists with hard cash. It’s not a huge amount, but they can then decide themselves if they want to use it for quality mixing, production, mastering or packaging costs. Or just keep it outright. Our contracts are simple. Artists own copyright flat out and can move to a larger label at anytime and take their content with them. Weak is there to help. Not to make money.

LCC: Will you be producing physical product as well as distributing via the web?

TD: Yes. Both.

LCC: Where are you located? Will you be distributing where you are or worldwide, or are you going to license to other labels/distributors for various markets?

TD: We are located in Switzerland and will be working with distributors mainly in the US and Europe. As we know the indie shops are sadly having a tough time. Be they bookshops or record shops. We can also supply direct, but the logistics of working with a distributor is easier. Licensing with another label would be great, too.

LCC: In addition to your own album coming out next year, you’re also releasing albums by Riders of the Worm, a punk act; the Black Iron Brothers, whom I believe are a spinoff of Captain Ludd, an acoustic/Americana band; Police Bulimia, who from what I can tell sound kind of like Snakefinger; and the Jesus Taco, whom I only know as a takeout Mexican restaurant in Spanish Harlem here in New York. What can you tell us about these bands? Is there a common link between them, a specific reason why you chose to launch the label with this stable of acts?

TD: We’ve always been torn between folk and punk, blues and rock & roll. Like a Frank Black song that goes from light to heavy within just a few measures. But poetry is a huge part of it. Poetry is the main link among these bands. Whether it be a juvenile punk band from Reno Nevada like Police Bulimia or a hopelessly melancholic singer-songwriter like Bobby Vacant. There has to be rage and expression, depth and meaning, sadness and elation, textual substance. Angst. Weakness and vulnerability. We’ve got a large folk, post-punk and blues feel to our acts but poetry threads them all. Riders of the Worm is just plain wild, like the Minutemen meet Negativeland, and the Black Iron Brothers is pure blues, slide-guitar, ambient experimentation much like Califone.

LCC: You’ll also be launching a zine, Savage Laundry. What can you tell us about that, will you have a dead tree edition or just an online presence with that?

TD: Well, you won’t be able to download THIS! We’ll be hanging it up with clothespins at venues. Copy, paste, and print. The theme of Issue #1 is neo-hoboism. Traveling hobos had a code of ethics. Rule number one: “Decide your own life and don’t let another person rule or run it for you,” and also, “Don’t take advantage of another person who is in a vulnerable situation.” It’s all very beat-ific. Woody Guthrie. Kerouac. The homeless. We’ll also have lots of poetry in it. Rants. Reviews. The official “Squat to Pee” column. There might be a free PDF download but you need the real issue to get the free mystery object in the baggie. We have some graphic novel artists to contribute drawings as well.

LCC: If I can be completely harsh and cynical here, we get dozens of news releases a day from fledgling record labels. What makes you different?

TD: Poetry. We are perhaps the only indie label (I think) recording both music and poetry. We want to merge the two genres wherever possible. We will be issuing poetry EPs, full-length poetry albums, both on CD and on the web. Currently we are working on a Weak Poetry sampler with poetry/music combinations such as “Cancerland” which is a guitar-based and Patti Smith inspired poem/song and hugely critical indictment of motorway-exit ugliness and industrial, cancerous consumerism. There will also be cross-over with bookshops. Bobby Vacant has done a number of gigs in independent bookshops and we plan to distribute there as well.

LCC: Can I ask what your association with Luxotone, the marvelous little Chicago label that put out your previous album, will be?

TD: Luxotone is a fantastic indie label and we will be supporting them one hundred percent. The production on Tear Back the Night cannot be beat. There will be another collaboration down the road sometime, hopefully. Luxotone have done great things but haven´t got the recognition yet.

LCC: As Lucid Culture readers know very well by now, your 2009 album Tear Back the Night is very highly regarded here: it made the top ten on our Best Albums of 2009 list; it was  number one on my personal list, so I’m naturally interested in what we have to look forward to on your next one. Who will you be working with, is there a theme, whatever you feel like telling us about it. Unless you’re going to keep it a complete mystery until release date…

TD: Thank you for your support. The next Bobby Vacant album is tentatively called Pull Down the Clocks. It will still have the acoustic singer-songwriter whispery feel to it but with more of an edge. Less production. Some faster, punkier songs with just a little bit more distortion. The songs are written and ready to record. There will be extra vocals and some session musician work as well. The songwriting is more solid and only the best songs will make the cut, even if it´s only 10 songs. No fillers. Only the best songs. There’s about 20 songs ready to go. It’s all about the quality of the songwriting.

LCC: What will the initial release on Weak Records be and when is it coming out?

TD: The Black Iron Brothers are currently recording and the album should be released by this summer or in the autumn at the latest. Again, we are looking for the best quality here. Their first album Deliver was recorded in Zürich at a really good studio with really good session musicians, and we want to make the new one just as good. They still haven’t decided on the title yet. We would also like to do a Weak sampler but refuse at giving it any official FAC-style number but are hugely inspired by Factory Records, their graphics and packaging. Sandpaper sleeves are our favorite at the moment.

LCC: Ouch. I once had an album by the Feederz, an obscure punk rock band from the 80s who did a really funny cover of the Olivia Newton-John lite FM hit HaveYou Never Been Mellow. And that came in a sandpaper sleeve. I ended up getting rid of it, which I probably shouldn’t have. Can you send mp3s instead?

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March 23, 2010 Posted by | interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Bobby Vacant & the Weary – Tear Back the Night

This is one of those rare works of art where every element strengthens and reinforces the other. Consider the cd package: the wraparound cover photo shows a house at night from the shadows, beckoning yet unreachable like Kafka’s castle. Inside under the cd, another photo, a weatherbeaten wooden shack behind a picket fence, decrepit lounge chair rotting in front of a half-furled plastic canopy. Truth in advertising.

Roger Waters once said that he crafted the lyrics to Dark Side of the Moon to read as simply as possible to make sure he got his point across and the same applies to singer/songwriter Bobby Vacant. His words are plainspoken yet potently metaphorical: there’s always another level of meaning lurking underneath, and it’s not pretty. It would not be an overstatement to call the new album by Bobby Vacant & the Weary a classic of dark existentialist rock, right up there with Closer by Joy Division and anything Pink Floyd ever recorded. Vacant sings in the thin, worn-down voice of a middleaged man. Homelessness and addiction are not merely alluded to but addressed directly with a disconcerting offhandedness: there’s a ring of authenticity here. Yet as bleak  as much of this is, Bobby Vacant maintains a vise grip. “Don’t look to tomorrow, just get through the day…don’t go gently, just leave the sky aflame,” he encourages in the nocturnally atmospheric Some Walk. From time to time, he imbues the songs with a gallows humor, as in the hypnotic seafaring ballad Waveflowers, where he can’t resist pulling up anchors and slipping off unseen into the night: “And if they ask/What the hell is the past/Just tell ’em it’s deep down below.” Or on the vitriolic Dylan’s Dead, a Nietzschean slap upside the head of boomer complacency:

You’re the one said Dylan’s dead

Flew a jet right through his head

Once again we killed the dream

Onward marching soldiers sing

The Weary (AKA George Reisch, mastermind of Chicago’s Luxotone label, one of this era’s most acerbic, accessible writers on philosophy and editor of Pink Floyd and Philosophy and other titles in the series) takes Vacant’s simple, catchy songs and orchestrates them with the gravitas of Floyd yet also with the terseness of Joy Division: as with pretty much everything else Reisch has ever recorded, there are no wasted notes here. A bell tolls in the distance, just twice, as Some Walk builds to a close. The title track works up an understated feast of jangly guitars worthy of the Byrds. The marvelously textured crescendo of guitars on Dylan’s Dead takes a blithe Forever Changes mood into surreal, distantly reverberating Sandinista territory; the stark twelve-string on Waveflowers evokes Marty Willson-Piper of the Church. There’s also a beautifully wistful interlude straight out of the Moody Blues circa 1967, and the even more lushly, vividly plaintive crescendo that closes the album.

Vacant vacillates between embracing the darkness and the occasional grasp backwards at a doomed relationship. The opening track, Don’t Love Me Anymore cautions that he won’t be around much longer: “All my years just wasted smears, wings too wet to fly.” The title track, on a literal level a snide after-the-party tableau, gleefully announces that “The night is kind, the night is warm, the night is calling your name.” The best song on the album is Never Looking Back, an anthem for anyone with a checkered past. “Here we go. Stand back. It’s a road. It’s black,” Vacant sings with not a little triumph in his voice: he knows that this isn’t merely where we all end up – it’s where we’ve been all along, and he’s finally been vindicated. “Went to the town, went to the school, went to the park with the lonely fool, uh huh,” he relates: the story of our lives, isn’t it?

Not much is known about Bobby Vacant. His real name is Tom Derungs, he lives in Switzerland, records vocals and guitar tracks in his home studio and sends the product to Luxtone for overdubs, mixing and pressing. He also plays the occasional acoustic gig (the next one is in Lausanne on August 14) and contributes to the blog Library of Inspiration. One hopes this cd – as strong a contender as any for best album of 2009 – will not be his last.

July 29, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments