White Denim is an independent label run out of Philadelphia, PA by Matthew K.
Though he’s perhaps best known as singer and lyricist with Pissed Jeans, Matthew is a man of wide-ranging taste. He single-handedly operates Yellow Green Red, possibly the only music site on the internet where you can find hardcore punk 7″s from the US underground and top-drawer Berlin techno 12″s reviewed with equal authority. With White Denim, meanwhile, he’s provided an outlet for artists as diverse as Mi Ami, electro-noise freak M Ax Noi Mach, powerviolence heroes Ultimate Warriors and acid house lothario Tin Man.
Rejecting an governing aesthetic or “sound” for his label, and instead focussing on realising unique projects that honour each artist’s eccentricities, White Denim is a label deserving of immense respect. Releases are made available in limited vinyl editions, and there are no re-presses. As Matthew prepares to open White Denim’s 2012 account with an LP of spaced-out, electronically-enhanced country blues from Daugh Gibson, FACT’s Tim Purdom dropped him a line to find out how he makes it all work.
“When I really enjoy something, I want to get involved in all possible aspects.”
“I’ve been passionate about music for as long as I can remember, going back to elementary school. I’ve always been interested in learning more, and digging deeper, and discovering new music.
“There are probably three major events that have led to my personal music development, though. Firstly, finding out about a local punk scene, and going to see local bands play at various firehall venues as a freshman in high school. Then spending countless hours at Double Decker Records, a record shop in Allentown where I made so many unexpected and exciting discoveries, both on my own and through the recommendation of others – I heard Bastard, The Smiths, Flying Luttenbachers and Drexciya for the first time all thanks to Double Decker. Lastly, a speedy internet connection. At this point, there is hardly any music or artist that isn’t documented on the internet somewhere. It’s an endless well of information, for better or worse, and it’s made so many things easily accessible that I may have never found out about otherwise.”
“I don’t really have much to offer an artist that’s already well-established.”
What was the thinking behind White Denim?
“White Denim started in 2001, I was a freshman in college at the time. I wanted to try to put out a record, and get involved with that process… when I really enjoy something, I want to get involved in all possible aspects, and running a label was one thing I hadn’t done as a fan of music.
“My aim was essentially to bring artists who weren’t really getting a fair shake elsewhere to vinyl; I focused on artists that I absolutely adored, who weren’t getting the proper attention I thought they deserved. My tastes have certainly expanded since I started, but my aim essentially remains the same. I like working with artists who don’t already have a substantial fanbase, and artists that aren’t necessarily guaranteed to move 500, or even 300, copies. It’s
exciting to help them create.”
“I think it arose over time, although right off the bat I knew I’d be working with weirder, marginalized artists, because that’s the type of art I usually gravitate towards – and honestly, I don’t really have much to offer an artist that is already well-established.
“Essentially, the only true thread that ties all of White Denim’s artists together is that I am personally a big fan of all of them. There probably aren’t many people out there who feel the same way about everything I’ve released, which just says to me that I’m doing the right thing. As soon as I start to try to cater to a specific audience, or try to predict what will sell and move in that direction, I’m really wasting my time. I pay the rent from other means in my life, White Denim is purely a labour of love.”
“White Denim is purely a labour of love.”
Tin Man is a very different listening to experience to, say, M Ax Noi Mach; Ultimate Warriors is a very different beast to Nice Nice or Mi Ami. Do you think there’s something – beyond you liking them – that links the artists on the label?
“Everyone I’ve worked with has a pretty specific vision, and is creating their music because they simply must, not because it’s stylish or a means to greater success. You can just tell that they have to create, and they have something unique to say. Really though, that’s a bit tenuous… I can’t really say there is much of a connection between everyone I’ve worked with. Which I think is fun.”
What’s White Denim’s “office” like?
“White Denim’s physical presence is a desk in the second-floor bedroom in my house and the boxes of records next to it. Quite humble, really. My stereo is set up in there too, along with all my personal records, and it makes for a pretty fun place to fill orders and send emails.”
Your policy is to release vinyl-only, one-time pressings of music, not available elsewhere. Why did you decided to do things in this way? Have you ever regretted the decision or felt like relaxing the rules?
“I love vinyl as a medium and a product. That’s what I want to spend my money on, and I feel like it’s the most ‘legitimate’ format one can use. Which is good, because I have put out some music that could be hard to take seriously if it were an mp3 or cassette release. I want to show that I think these artists are all worth me personally spending thousands of dollars on. I do a one-time pressing because I like to do something and move forward from it, and I generally press enough copies that my records are available for a good six months after they’re released (and in many cases, much longer).”
“I want to show that I think these artists are all worth me personally spending thousands of dollars on.”
Tell me about Pennsylvania…are you a native of the area? Is location important to the label?
“I’ve lived in Pennsylvania since I was teenager, and have lived in the city of Philadelphia for the past seven years. It surely affects any of my creative ventures, but not in any particular conscious way that I can discern. We have cold winters and warm summers, which I like. I’m comfortable here, and used to living in Northeast America, and there are multiple other cities, beaches, forests, farmland, and suburbs all close by.
“I like working with local artists, because I can work closer with them, hand delivering records, hanging out, seeing them live regularly, developing friendships, all of that. It’s also cheaper than, say, shipping a box of records to Australia, which is a nice little bonus.
“As far as Philadelphia is concerned, there’s a lot of musical activity here, and plenty of great artists. I can frequently go see Blues Control, Purling Hiss, Kurt Vile and M Ax Noi Mach, sometimes walking from my house to the gig. It’s a pretty popular spot for touring acts too, so I don’t find myself bored too often.”
“I’m really happy with everything I’ve done, but my favorite is probably the Closet Full of Clothes compilation I did a few years back. I put the most effort into it, coordinating artists, working with an artist to do the cover and insert, and just putting it all together. I feel like it’s a pretty good representation of some of the more aggressive and strange sounds that were coming out of the underground in 2003, and it was by far my largest pressing: 1000 copies. I finally sold out about a year ago.”
Were there any particular labels that inspired you to create your own?
“I’ve been inspired by many labels…great labels have always shaped my tastes through their excellent curation or style or presentation. Off the top of my head, I’m a huge fan of Vermiform, Ostgut Ton, Doublethink, Subterranean, Hessle Audio, Richie and X-Claim, to name only a small few. I just have always really loved records, and wanted to get involved as intimately as possible, so why not do a label? I came from a scene where doing things yourself was the rule of thumb.
“I came from a scene where doing things yourself was the rule of thumb.”
How do you find the practical business of running a label – manufacture, distribution and all that?
“I hear horror stories all the time, about mastering problems, or shady pressing plants, or jerky bands, or distro nightmares, and thankfully I have no stories of my own to share. I’ve worked with a few different pressing plants, and printed the covers various ways, and it’s always worked out fine. I’ve only had one record fall through, but that was before getting it pressed, and it was certainly for the best. I’m definitely learning more with every new record, but the record pressing process has been pretty clear since I first got started and really hasn’t changed all that much. I’m definitely lucky in that regard.”
“I think the best thing I can do to avoid such conflicts is to choose the artists I work with wisely. Before I ask a band to do a record, I’m pretty sure that not only will their music be great, but the artwork will be as well. I usually give the bands mostly all of the control with that; it’s their product, and as I’m not trying to cultivate a specific White Denim aesthetic, I’d rather them put together a product exactly as they’d want it. I have never had an artwork issue in the past, or rejected any of the music given to me.
“When I like an artist and want to work with them, it’s usually their entire vibe that I love, from the name of the project to the artwork they’ve used in the past to the music they make. If an artist ever did give me artwork that I didn’t like, though, I would talk to them and try to work out a compromise. I’m not opposed to discussion, and I don’t want to do something I’m not entirely pleased with myself, I just haven’t had that issue arise yet.”
“I’m not trying to cultivate a specific White Denim aesthetic.”
What are you looking forward to about White Denim’s life to come? And what are you afraid of?
“I’m certainly looking forward to finding the next little-known artist who totally blows me away and gets me excited about possibly putting out their record. It’s such a great feeling, hearing someone new and original and asking to work with them.
“There’s really nothing I’m particularly afraid of…I’m not going to run out of money, because I only do about two or three records a year and make sure I can lose the money I put in without losing my shirt. I may have to reduce the number I press, depending on continued interest and who I work with, but that’s not the worst thing in the world. I’ve got nothing upcoming planned at the moment, yet things always seem to fall into place.”
You write and run the Yellow Green Red music review site, which is at once highly discerning and wide in its focus, covering noise, punk, techno, dubstep, anything of interest. Were you aware of a “gap in the market” for a kind of regular critical rundown of new vinyl?
“There seems to be a lack of actual criticism, or even more importantly, actual mental consideration for a lot of what’s coming out, no matter what genre of music. Blogs are more interested in being the “first” to mention an artist, rather than actually mentally chewing on it for a bit, and I think it does a disservice to those who actually want to discuss and consider new music, rather than just consume it.
“I love music, and I love talking about it and thinking about it, and I thought it’d be fun to try to do this with all the new music I encounter on a monthly basis. I think that a press-sheet regurgitation isn’t even fair to the artists… they deserve to have someone actually think about their music and listen, rather than just file it away. As a musician myself, I would prefer a negative review to a one that just mindlessly repeats what’s already been said. Where’s the fun in that?”
“I know a punk rocker who tried hard to get into T++, and while it may not have worked, at least he was willing to try, you know?”
You obviously have a big interest in techno, the more adventurous tributaries of dubstep, and other electronic dance music. Are there many people in your locale who have the same interests?
“Locally, there’s a handful of people who dig the same sort of leftfield and obscure techno as myself, although I think some of that could be attributed to my own enthusiasm about it. There’s a lot of music going on around here, there are a bunch of smart and inspiring people here.
“I think most people that I encounter are pretty open-minded when it comes to music. I mean, I know a punk rocker who tried hard to get into T++, and while it may not have worked, at least he was willing to try, you know? There are certainly people who are strictly interested in a certain genre and hate everything else, but I try to surround myself with people who are interested in new things and crossing boundaries rather than treading water. I can’t imagine just listening to any one specific sub-genre of music for the rest of my life.”