Remembering Hippos in Tanks co-founder Barron Machat
Far Side Virtual, Hour Logic, One Nation, The Redeemer: Hippos in Tanks’ back catalogue speaks for itself.
The Los Angeles-based label may not have been the first label to champion a wave of US experimental artists co-opting pop, hip-hop, new age, techno and more with an outre approach and refreshing naivety (as well as the aforementioned albums, by James Ferraro, Laurel Halo, Hype Williams and Dean Blunt respectively, Hippos in Tanks housed music by Games, Autre Ne Veut, Arca and more), but it was crucial in terms of taking some of these artists to the next level in terms of presentation and exposure.
In a way, Hippos in Tanks took its cues (as well as its acts, in Autre Ne Veut and James Ferraro’s case) from Todd Ledford’s Olde English Spelling Bee, a lovably ramshackle indie label that released a series of DIY classics (Forest Swords’ Dagger Paths, James Ferraro’s Last American Hero) before entering a period of relative inactivity at the end of 2010. Hippos in Tanks, after a promising 2010, stepped in to fill this gap, releasing 10 records in a 2011 that saw them crowned FACT’s label of the year and Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual named The Wire’s album of the year.
Hippos in Tanks stood out in the underground for its organisation, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. Machat came from a family of music lawyers: his father, Steven Machat, is the music lawyer and manager behind the book Gods, Gangsters and Honour, while his grandfather Marty Machat represented Phil Spector and Leonard Cohen. It would be silly to suggest that Machat didn’t use these links to his advantage – few indie labels can boast a distribution deal through the Sony-owned RED after only a handful of releases – but in my experience, Machat spent his money honestly and generously rather than cynically. When Hippos acts played shows in Europe one summer, he rented an apartment in Shoreditch for them to use as a base, and God knows what happened to the James Ferraro book he allegedly commissioned. Six releases into the life of my own label, Local Action, Machat tried to hook me up a similar distribution deal with RED – an offer as generous as it was ridiculous.
Machat was ridiculous at times, and artists sometimes left Hippos in Tanks as quickly as they signed. But my memories of him will always be at his most enthusiastic: the time he tried to coerce an apparently unamused Dean Blunt into coming to meet us at an East London diner at stupid o’clock one weekday morning, or the time he arrived with his father and champagne to meet me at a barely-attended Gatekeeper show. Music will miss him for his keen A&R eye, his enthusiasm and his vision. He saw no reason that an indie label couldn’t run like a major, and for that he will always be an inspiration.
Some of Hippos in Tanks’ numerous great records: