Interview with Kriss from Notes and Bolts!

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Notes and Bolts is a relatively new independent label in the Chicago area, started in January of 2012. When it comes to the label itself, they’ve got a unique feature. They put out music that is and comes from Chicago, they don’t release anything else. Compromised of a few pretty anonymous people, they’ve also started up a podcast-series for the label itself. Accordingly, they like the “weird“, “spectacular” and “bizarre“. When it comes to the label, they say they’re 67% D.I.Y. and 100% independent. Since I stumbled upon them by accident, I decided to interview one of the label-heads, and his name is Kriss. I asked him about the origin of the label, why they’re only 67% D.I.Y., what goes on behind the scene and many more things that you’ll simply have to read and digest.

It’s always felt like the bigger towns were the central hubs for “creativity” and “culture”, if you’d even call it that. Not because they are like that naturally, but rather artificially. It seems like you’re one of the only labels in Chicago that actually do something about it. What do you think need to be changed, in terms of their centered approach around big cities, to give more justice to other areas in the US?

– I’m definitely not one to speak to what should be changed in other areas; certainly, I doubt I have the place to speak for Chicago, itself. Really, we work as a collective out of the general notion that things should be unified. With smaller towns, the fertile ground is existent – we’ve seen this in Athens, Omaha, and onward. Unfortunately, that potential doesn’t often get tapped. In a city as large as Chicago, while there’s a lot to look at and pay attention to; the kaleidoscope can tend to get fragmented beyond the ability to focus without getting distracted and ultimately not settling on any one thing at all. There are folks in the shoegaze circle who won’t cavort with folks in the drone or modular synthesizer circles. I don’t think this is necessarily on purpose, per se; but I certainly think that it’s something that could stand to be modified.

I think that, oftentimes, we – and by we, I mean any one of us – tend to narrow our worlds down to what’s centrally around us, that is to say, our record collections, the block we live on and maybe a few neighboring areas around us within a mile radius. In a city as big as Chicago, there need to be forces that at least try to help pull people together from one part of the city to the other. I’m not saying that Notes and Bolts is that force, but we’d certainly like to be a catalyst – to make some guy over in Edgewater familiar with what’s going on with some other guy in Logan Square, and vice versa. With the dozens of neighborhoods and borders in this town, it can oftentimes feel more like a continent of different countries, rather than one centralized ground.

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As a label, you started out in 2012 from what I’ve gathered. Which isn’t a long time ago since you’ve, only been around for a year or so. Yet, you’ve managed to release a staggering 21 releases in this period of time. Including one-hundred podcast episodes, which you seem to have managed well, too. Where do you find the time to do all of this?

– I started the podcast on April 17th, of last year. Literally talked into my Macbook’s on deck mic for half an hour and cut in some music and that was it. From there, I started bringing on folks whose stuff I liked and then things progressed towards getting musicians on. Lately, I’ve been exploring the small and bizarre world of lathe cut vinyl, and those account for – as of the end of March – 7 out of the 21 releases we’ve done. They’re super short run and we put pre-orders up for each one that last for one week. Once that week is up, so is the opportunity to order and own that record. I’ve begun to tie the podcast and the label together by corresponding new episodes aired on Wednesday with lathes featuring those guests – Disappears, Chandeliers, Lightfoils, The Drastics, BIGCOLOUR, etc.

We’ve tried our hands at larger release runs – 45’s in excess of 500 copies, and honestly, even with promotion, they simply don’t do that well. Lathes, cassettes, and flexi discs, on the other hand, seem to work really well for us and break even as opposed to sitting around for months and years the way larger print runs do. We’re starting to explore the idea of mega short run vinyl that are limited to 100 copies as well. We’ll see.

As for finding time; I’m a personal chef and work at an independent bookstore one day a week, so my time is far more malleable than most, in that I’m not locked into a traditional 40 hour work week, which allows me – for the most part – all the time I want and need to do things like packing mail orders, attending to email, corresponding with artists, getting visual art lined up to correspond with releases, etc. I typically cut out a day or two each week to record episodes of the N+B show, which at this point, has done 101 episodes, but has 20 more sitting in the queue waiting to be aired. I typically record two months in advance from any given air date, which gives me a good bit of padding and makes things relatively stress free on that front.

Pressing vinyl on the other hand. Well, stress ahoy!

You’ve been dealing with different formats for each release, from what you said – lathe cut vinyl, to cassette, regular vinyl and flexi discs. Also, your first release was with the band “Plastic Crimewave Sound”, in the format of 7¨ vinyl in a 500 copy run. Could you tell me something about the individual process, in the making – of all these releases so far?

– Do you mean, like, the pressing and the finalizing with bands to get songs and such?

Yes, indeed!

– For the most part – with proper planning and timing – pressing is a relatively simple process. For larger run vinyl records, we get our fair share of headaches with hold ups from the plants due to large, more high priority projects like Beatles re-issues, being pushed through. Our 1 year anniversary show is on April 17th and it’s doubling as a record release party for a new 7″ we’re putting out for Architecture, and I’m praying to the pressing gods that be that this thing is in our hands by that time!

With flexis and cassettes, the process is relatively painless. Those usually take four to six weeks to turn around and we’re able to get them out quicker, as a result. The lathes are even quicker, usually taking under a month to turn around.

Visually, we have a pretty solid aesthetic for the releases we do. All of our cassettes have matching spines and fonts and layouts with only the front cover art changing from release to release. For vinyl and flexis, we tend towards various shades of green for limited variants and I often design alternate covers since we package each release in two to three different guises. There’s a collector’s market in that, I’m sure, but fortunately, we’ve not had to look down the hard nose of it just yet. I just really like solid visuals and feel that those are just as important to a good record as the music, itself.

What kind of ‘field’ of aesthetics are you seeking inspiration from and do you have anything that is strictly forbidden (e.g. aesthetically unfavorable) – from a personal standpoint?

– In terms of layout and visuals, I prefer minimalism. The only aspect of the art that is busy in what we do is the stuff that I personally draw, since there’s a good bit of detail in it – but even then, I’m not a fan of putting text of any kind over that art. I like keeping it clean and clutter free with the text elsewhere. Peter Saville, who did a good portion of the design work for the Factory label, once talked about his fascination with the idea of the ‘mass produced secret’ – the idea that a group of people could walk into a record store and pick up a record, knowing full well what it was without the band’s name even being on the sleeve. Some of the stuff we do certainly borrows from that idea. With a Panda Riot flexi we did, I made a variant where I wrapped the record in 7×14″ sheets of cotton cloth I’d gotten from a medical supply store. The concept was taken from the song title which was ‘Amanda In The Clouds’. For a Radar Eyes flexi that we’re unveiling on Record Store Day, the record will come packaged in a translucent 7×7″ envelope with only the N+B logo stamped onto the back.

In terms of things I’m not personally a fan of visually, I’m not into the idea of gaudiness. There have been one or two examples of that in our catalog, and we’ve mainly let those stick because they were chosen directly by the artist and we feel that there’s definitely a bit of give and take in facilitating that freedom. We’re not a major label – we exist to help bands foster what it is that’s compelling them to create. I won’t lie and say that I was a fan of a couple of things, but overall – when I’m the one behind the wheel, at least – N+B definitely sticks to a certain visual identity that I feel will become synonymous with us as time goes on. Hopefully.

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Obviously, you quoted Peter Saville, one of the people who did design work for Factory. There have been a lot of influential labels in history and that particular label could be considered one, too. But when it comes to labels in general, which labels have influenced you the most in the way you work with your label and the releases?

– From a visual and design standpoint – Factory stands heads and should above the rest. One of our logos is even a send off from an old letter head that they used to pass around the offices. As far as our business practices go, I think Dischord is the largest one – the idea of giving the artist a fair share in their work monetarily as well as giving them the creative freedom to do what they want. Ian MacKaye as a person has been a huge influence on me from the time I was a 16 year old straight edge kid onto now and how I view the music ‘business’  and how things should be handled in a manner that’s professional but fair and balanced.

Aside from that, we don’t really have any other influences, but there are certainly a ton of labels – especially here in Chicago – that continually inspire us in what we’re doing and propel us to keep putting out quality work. BLVD Records are label who we’re working with on an upcoming release and they do great work. Hozac are a mainstay at this point with well over a hundred releases and we’ve been sharing quite a few artists with them in terms of releases. Tape label wise – there’s Lillerne, Teen River, Catholic Tapes, Field Studies, Retrograde, Modern, Already Dead, Manic Static, Priority Male, and countless others that I can’t remember at the moment. So many riches.

There seem to be a lot of labels that do what they do, but differently from each other. At least when it comes to independent labels. Major labels seem to have stagnated, at least the further in they got into the 2000’s. You say that you were, and (maybe) still are a straight edge kid, when it comes to this. Accordingly, you’re 67% D.I.Y. Why are you only 67% and not 100%? Also, do you apply the ethics of D.I.Y. on a daily basis?

– The fractions thing is a bit tongue in cheek. We say that we’re 67% DIY because, while we do things like cut and fold all of the record sleeves, and so forth, and so on – we don’t physically press the records, ourselves. We have to go to a pressing plant for those. It’s a bit of a smart assed thing, but technically, we’re NOT doing those ourselves. Therefore it’s not 100% DIY, is it? Hahah. As for the application of diy aesthetics on a daily basis, yeah, I’d say we do. Everything N+B has generated in terms of attention has been word of mouth by either the work of the bands on our label or the work that we, ourselves, have done, to get that attention. We don’t have a marketing team or a consultant or a group of analysts telling us how to approach things and what step to move towards next.

On a more labor intensive level – while there are a group of people behind Notes and Bolts, I’m the guy who does the emails, packages up the mail orders, puts together record sleeves and cassettes and makes sure that everything gets out to folks buying the stuff. I know it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn – I’m not; it’s just the reality of how it works. I don’t mind, because I like the work, but the diy thing is only halfway voluntary. It’s definitely a bit of a necessity, as well.

Who are the other people working for the label?

– It’s a team who works into the funding of the projects that we do. Ryan McCauley is our numbers go and does all of the crunching that we don’t want to do, while Jared Flores is our advisor on pressing costs, shipping and so on. Milos Marcicevic and Matt Miller are more in the silent partner vein, and are great dudes.

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I also wanted to ask you about the podcast. As you’ve already recorded over 100 episodes of it, there’s always been different bands included. You’ve chosen to call it the N+B show, which makes it even more interesting. Before, you said it slowly became a more integrated part of the label itself. But what is the criteria for appearing on the show, and which episodes are your personal favorites?

– Calling it the N+B show is more of a shorthand; really, it’s just Notes and Bolts – but that tends to confuse folks, which is why I’m folding the label and the podcast further together. I’d already aired nearly 30 episodes by the time we put out that first 7″, so the show definitely predates the label. I call it a show, too, partially because I’m pretty self conscious about calling it a podcast, a word, which, I think is pretty lame, honestly.

I used to feature folks who weren’t musicians – artists, food types, comics writers – but honestly, they’re really hard to pin down, and since the format of the show revolves around each guest bringing in a playlist of songs, it just made more sense to devote it fully to musical artists. The criteria for being on the show is a lot like the label in that most of the time, I approach people about being on, while turning down folks that I don’t feel are the best fit. Sometimes I think folks see the show as being bigger than it really is. I’m not going to give away numbers and stats of listeners each week, but it does seem that folks think we have way more clout than we actually do, hahah. There have been times where I’ve taken folks up on recording an episode when they’ve asked and I’ve liked their music, but a good portion of the time, I tend to ignore solicitations. I know that sounds a bit arrogant, and I don’t mean for it to be, but especially now, with us running the lathe 7″s every week in correspondence, I have to be even pickier in what I put on the show since that guest is now permanently going to be a part of our catalog.

As to personal favorites – I won’t necessarily name guests, but I’ll say that the episodes I prefer are the ones where folks are willing to engage in a conversation on a few topics, as opposed to me having to just fire questions at them Kurt Loder style. That’s never fun, and honestly, I never have that many questions – I usually form those out of things I hear the guest saying.

This begs for a question of the origin of the label. Slowly, labels seem to progress to their set goals, or simply fold before even getting there. As you said, things seem to be bigger then they actually are. So how was it to start a label from scratch and how do you think you’ve progressed throughout the years? Do you even have a goal you’re aiming for, and if so – are you any closer to it?

– At the moment, we’ve barely hit the year mark yet. As a label, we’re only eight months old, so I definitely think there’s a long way to go. I’ve always wanted to have a label – for years, since I was a kid poring through liner notes of my favorite records. It seemed impossible, though. Being able to press records and approving artwork, things like that were really mythical for me. Now, they’re fairly commonplace. It’s still exciting to get a new record in or come home to a test pressing at the door step, but it’s just part of the deal at this point. I don’t think there are any ambitious, long form, over arching things in mind for Notes and Bolts at the moment, aside from just continuing putting out solid records and being able to sustain ourselves. Like I was mentioning a little bit ago – flexis and smaller press things seem to be helping us actually break even and profit so that we can put out more stuff, so that’s likely the direction we’ll take. I don’t ever anticipate that we’ll get to the size of DFA or Matador, though certainly, I’d welcome the challenge if that were to ever happen.

The whole idea of running a label, as a concept, is a still surreal one to me. I actually avoided calling N+B a record label until we’d gotten a handful of releases out into the marketplace. There are countless ‘labels’ floating around there that only put out one or two things and then vanished. Look at Discogs – you’ll see that they’re legion – just crowds and crowds of people playing make believe who didn’t have the stomach to keep pressing – literally – after their first project or two didn’t burn up the shelves the way they hoped it would. My theory with N+B is that we’d be in the red for the first few years until we got lucky and found something that would make people pay attention to our back catalog. Fortunately, that’s starting to happen a little sooner than any of us thought and we’ve been able to come away from projects having not lost any money on them. That in itself is good news, given the downturn of people buying music in a physical format, these days. That story about the vinyl ‘resurgence’ or the cassette ‘revival’ – those are all a load. At the end of the day, the same folks who buy those formats then are buying them now. Everyone else is using Spotify or iTunes. The market is shrinking and anyone who doesn’t believe that is naive. Being able to press things and walk away with a feeling of accomplishment often has to be enough.

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Speaking about goals, you’ve already branched out as of the 30th of March. Creating your own sister label “Pocket Transparencies”, which seem to have a radically different goal than the label at hand. Or yeah, since reading your answer here, it might not be that different. Since you’re aiming to release more flexis. But what will come from that sister label and how does it differ, if on any level?

– Hah, you found that already, eh? I figured PT would be a little under the radar for atleast a little while. I listen to a lot of music and a lot of what I like, can’t fit into the Notes and Bolts framework. With N+B being so city specific, there’s no way I can really break continuity at this point by releasing stuff from other folks in other cities. Aside from that, the music that we release on Notes and Bolts falls more in line with what ‘serious’ folks tend to like – drone, ambient, shoegaze, psych, and so on. With Pocket Transparencies, I’m planning on working out the love affair that I’ve always held with pop music. As much as I love things that the average record collector likes, I’ve always loved modern electronic music and top 40 pop. I know that in the music world, it’s kind of like MSG in Chinese takeout, but I can’t get enough of the stuff. Ke$ha’s “Warrior” record was in my top 10 for 2012.

I’d say that you’re right in pointing out that Pocket Transparencies is radically different than Notes and Bolts. The music that I’m releasing through PT is stuff that most folks would call guilty pleasure fodder, but stuff that I really love. I’m not ashamed of anything that I listen to and make no qualms that I listen to things like Britney Spears in equal measure to stuff like Can and Neu! It makes sense to split the difference and do two different things for two wildly divergent ranges.

With that said, could you tell me what’s going down in the nearest month for your label(s)?

– Notes and Bolts will be releasing a new flexi disc by Radar Eyes on Record Store Day. 150 of them will be available with normal sleeves while the other 100 will be packaged in sealed, translucent envelopes and available only at Saki Records on the day of. Any leftovers will be available by mail order after. We’re also releasing the new Architecture 7″ at our 1 year anniversary show on the 17th and then, a few days later, on RSD, we’ll be featuring a clear variant of the 7″ that will only be available on that day at the three locations of Reckless Records. We have a thing or two more planned for RSD, but don’t want to really reveal much yet. We also have a flexi disc coming out for the band White Mystery which will be debuting on 4/20 (RSD coincidentally, but completely unrelated) at their fifth anniversary show. That one is going to have some really rad packaging that I’m ont at liberty to discuss until it’s actually up for sale!

Aside from that, just more records being pressed, more tapes being dubbed, and on and on.

Alright! Thank you for letting me interview you. Fill in with whatever you want here, in the end.

– You’re welcome! Thanks for taking the time to interview me about Notes and Bolts! To check out what all we’ve got going on, head over to our site at www.notesandbolts.net and sign up for our mailing list!

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