Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan has been producing music since the late 1990s, and now he’s got another project in mind – a record label. Geej fuses two of Greenspan’s interests – experimental techno and fourth world ambient – and he’s keeping it local, basing everything around his studio in Hamilton, Ontario. John Twells finds out what makes a record label important, or even necessary, in 2017.
You need a damn good reason to start a record label. There are no longer the same obstacles that used to prevent artists from selling their creations to interested customers across the globe. Load up Bandcamp and within minutes you’ll be able to connect with listeners who can hear it for free and buy it if they so choose. But labels aren’t solely nodes to facilitate commerce – they can also offer community. They can provide a space to share ideas and ideals and can empower artists to approach their art with clarity and honesty.
When Jeremy Greenspan established Geej with Ryan Smith (aka Taraval) back in 2013, he hadn’t intended to start a label at all. “The whole thing started basically for accounting reasons,” he tells me from his home in Hamilton, Ontario. “It was important to have a Canadian label set up to put out Jessy Lanza records and Junior Boys records.” Greenspan is an eager talker; he’s a musician and, most importantly, a voracious music fan whose excitement level picks up as our conversation gets deeper and, truthfully, nerdier.
“Now we have a release schedule … what it has in common is that I’ve produced it in my studio.”
“I’ve been doing more and more solo material,” he explains. “I was generally just putting it out with Dan Snaith’s label, Jiaolong. He’s another Hamilton guy. So I thought I’d put some stuff out by myself, putting my own stuff out and stuff I produce for other people. Pretty soon, I started amassing a bunch of material that I thought was really worthwhile from the area. So now we have a release schedule and a whole bunch of really interesting records. But almost all of it, what it has in common is that I’ve produced it in my studio.”
This process harkens back to another era, a time before email opened the floodgates of communication, allowing global collaboration to become commonplace. But it feels especially fitting for Greenspan who reminisces fondly about the city where he grew up and engaged with a vibrant local music community. “Daniel Lanois was the guiding force of the Hamilton music scene in the ‘90s,” he recalls. “His studio was in Hamilton. All of his early ‘80s production work was done in Hamilton, so Brian Eno was in Hamilton. The ambient records, Ambient 3, Ambient 4, maybe Ambient 2, those were all done in Hamilton.” And the story didn’t stop there, either. “What happened in the early ‘90s was Richie Hawtin. Richie Hawtin’s not from Hamilton he’s from Windsor – Windsor is literally just over the bridge from Detroit. Obviously, he was playing in Detroit all the time, but we had this world of Richie Hawtin and John Aquaviva who ran that label, Plus 8. Hamilton had this label that was a sub-label of Plus 8 ‘cause they had the same distributor, Probe distro, and it was called Steel City Records.”
“I’ve always liked music that comes out of small communities.”
Steel City is a fitting name for the label. A major port, Hamilton swelled considerably in the 20th Century – between 1900 and 1914, the population doubled as steel manufacturing brought stable jobs and a new economy to the city. But like so many areas buoyed by industry in the early 1900s, as the century dragged on, jobs were shipped elsewhere and factories were shuttered and left to decay. “Hamilton’s an industrial city,” Greenspan says. “So back then you could rent out some weird space and have these all-ages shows, because everyone in the scene was quite young. Those were the first things I went to.”
It was Steel City Records that threw these warehouse parties along with Gary Abugan, who now owns Toronto-based reissue label Invisible Cities. Azari & III’s Alphonse Lanza was also throwing local shows and was responsible for introducing Greenspan to his cousin, Jessy Lanza. At this point it dawns on me why Greenspan feels so drawn to the idea of running an imprint that focuses primarily on Hamilton: the label might just rekindle the vibrancy of the 1990s scene he loves so dearly. It reminds me of the private press era, when artists would set up bespoke labels to release music in small quantities, often just to serve the local community. “I’m not dogmatic about music necessarily being from Hamilton or Southern Ontario, but I think it’s going to be, by virtue of the fact that I’ve already liked regionality in music,” he says. “I’ve always liked music that comes out of small communities. That’s why I’ve built a studio over a long time of collecting a lot of stuff – the whole idea was that I wanted to entice people. So as much as possible, I want people to come in and out of my studio and use it. And you get a sound from that, because everything I make – Jessy, Junior Boys – they all kinda sound like they come from one place because they do – they come from one physical place.”
“What I want to do is merge these two parts of the city’s history that I’m interested in.”
Greenspan has already managed to entice Kranky-signed synthesizer guru Steve Hauschildt to play in his sandbox. Hauschildt was on tour and “did a little bit of work at the studio,” Greenspan say. “We really got excited, so I think we’re going to do an EP.” He’s also recorded a solo guitar album with Caribou-collaborator Colin Fisher and released an experimental techno collaboration with Taraval, who’s best known for releasing music on Four Tet’s Text imprint. “What I want to do is merge these two parts of the city’s history that I’m interested in,” he says. “One is the experimental techno records and then on the other hand it’s trying to evoke some of the same spirit of the ‘80s Hamilton stuff like the Jon Hassell, Daniel Lanois records.”
The genre plasticity is completely by design – a modern representation of the duality of a scene that’s long faded. If that sounds like a narrow focus, it’s exactly how Greenspan likes it. “There’s a kind of freedom that opens up when you have very humble ambitions,” he admits. “Because you don’t have to sink to the depravity of modern music marketing. Which is so grotesquely disgusting. Even if you’re selling a lot more records it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day because if you sell 10,000 records but you have a label and some big bloated marketing scheme behind it as opposed to selling 1000 copies of your album on Bandcamp, it’s probably the same amount of money anyhow.”
The label already appears to be taking risks that position it way outside of the commercial realm. While Jessy Lanza and Junior Boys are reasonably well-known at this point, there’s no commercial potential in something like Reverend Marco D’Andrea’s bizarre and brilliant The Garden, which Greenspan released in May. It reimagines Deep Purple’s Deep Purple as an acid-frayed suite of organ and guitar drones. “Every song perfectly corresponds in length to every song on the Deep Purple record,” he says, tripping over his words in excitement. “If the title on the Deep Purple record was ‘Up’, his is called ‘Down’. [It’s all] these weird mirrored images. It’s a super weird record. I was really into it, it’s one of these ones where I was like, ‘That is conceptually so weird.’ I got a little bit of blowback on that. But I can’t not put this out.”
“It’s a super weird record. I was really into it, it’s one of these ones where I was like, ‘That is conceptually so weird.’”
Forthcoming is an album from local musician Dave Hickey that’s completely created using bowls and gongs. “It’s an amazing, amazing record,” Greenspan assures me. It was recorded in Hamilton at McMaster University’s LIVELab, a research institute with 75 speakers that can approximate any acoustic environment. The University asked Greenspan to build a “weird interactive synthesizer patch” for the room and as payment, Greenspan was allowed to record Hickey’s gong record in the LIVELab. “That was a pretty cool experience,” he laughs.
The most ambitious project Greenspan is working on however is maybe his most personal: a reissue campaign that will eventually put the Steel City Records canon back into circulation. “It’s a lot of music,” he tells me. “I’m not sure what the best way of going about it is, whether we should start with a compilation or we’re gonna to reissue the 12”s as they came out. They’ll definitely be remastered, for sure. A lot of ‘em sounded pretty wonky; I don’t think it was the best vinyl.”
When Greenspan talks about this era of techno he lights up. He starts rattling through the names of DJs and producer he saw perform at the time: Derrick May, DJ T-1000, Dan Bell, Plastikman. “These are the best of the best, I think. The best guys who ever made techno, in my opinion.” When I mention my own formative experiences listening to Plastikman’s Consumed as I walked to high school, Greenspan is reminded of a time when he lived in England – in an apartment not far from where I grew up, in fact. “I lived with Steve [Kode9] but really he was never there,” he says. “I spent all of my time at this other place with a guy who ended up being an important music writer, named Mark Fisher.”
Mark Fisher, aka k-punk, was a music critic and cultural theorist who died in January. He wrote for an number of publications, including FACT, and co-founded the influential Dissensus forum. “He was the guy who taught me basically everything I know about music,” recalls Greenspan. “I remember listening to Consumed with him when it came out and both of us were like, ‘what the fuck is this?’ We used to stay up really late at night and listen to music and watch movies. In the mornings we’d wake up and he’d always point out how quiet the stereo would be. The interesting thing about that is how heightened your perception gets late into the night. So the thing about an album like Consumed is that it’s music made for a state of heightened perception. All the music I’m doing now is in that spirit. This is almost a governing philosophy for the label.”
John Twells is on Twitter