By Jenn Pelly
In a recent interview, DIY archivist Michael Azerrad, author of the 10-year-old indie bible, Our Band Could Be Your Life, called the musical period of the present one of greatest he's ever known. “If you think music sucks right now, in the deepest sense you are old,” he told The Village Voice. Azerrad's words echo the ethos of seminal blog-era indie label Underwater Peoples, founded two-and-a-half years ago by four seniors at DC's George Washington University: Ari Stern, Mike Mimoun, Evan Brody, and Sawyer Carter Jacobs, now a first-year student at Brooklyn Law School.
The label has also served as an avenue for Brody, Ari, Sawyer, and Mimoun's own music; they formed the band Family Portrait in 2009, and released a 7" and an LP prior to the band's recent shift from a neo-'50s jangle-pop four-piece to a more electronics-oriented trio, which still includes Ari and Brody, and occasionally, Mimoun on drums. When I met up with the guys at Mimoun’s downtown Manhattan apartment, the four 23-year-olds continually finished each other’s sentences as they discussed UP's origins and growth.
AZ: You guys attended GW together. How did you first meet?
Ari: We lived on the same floor.
Sawyer: I lived with some dudes and hung out; they lived with other dudes and hung out.
Brody: Ari and I smoked a joint one day and walked to the National Mall. Ari’s from Livingston, 25 minutes away from Ridgewood. I was surprised I never met Ari until college. It is quite possible we attended the same Bar Mitzvahs.
Sawyer: We all eventually moved off campus and created this community for ourselves of three or four houses.
Brody: That was also my experience in high school: a group of friends with a vision of something greater. I remember after high school, we wanted to bring more people into our circle and expand it with people we’d meet in college.
Sawyer: We love the college friends of the Real Estate guys and have done [records] with them. Pill Wonder are college friends of [Real Estate frontman] Martin’s. We’re putting out a record from Sad City, a guy from Glasgow, where Julian studied abroad.
AZ: When I interviewed you guys in 2009, we primarily discussed your connection to Ridgewood. But can you describe the musical environment in DC, around the time you started the label?
Ari: Underwater Peoples didn’t really have anything to do with the musical environment in DC-- it just happened within our group of friends. Our first release was in February 2009-- the Real Estate 7-inch. Before they were “Real Estate,” Brody invited those dudes to play a party we were throwing for my 21st birthday, in July 2008. Right before those guys were about to leave, I was like, “I’ll talk to you, Martin.” And he was like, “Yeah, you’re gonna release our 7-inch!” He sent us the songs a couple of weeks later.
AZ: When did you first come up with the idea for the label?
Brody: I cite this moment when Sawyer and I were sitting outside our sophomore dorm room at college. We said to each other, "Man, we’re bored. We want to do something more exciting."
Ari: I had a blog [called Underwater Peoples], which only existed for a month. I got a call from Brody one day, and he was with this mutual friend, who decided to take it upon himself to register the blog as a domain name. We figured we should do something with it. For me that was the breaking point. The label started at the end of our junior year, and we were packing up 7-inches throughout our entire senior year. The last record that was released during school was Frat Dad, and the last record in DC was Andrew Cedermark.
AZ: Where did you come up with the name "Underwater Peoples"?
Ari: It was first a rap concept album Brody and I came up with freshman year. It was about two groups of aliens. One lived on a higly developed, peaceful, academic planet. And the others were "evil"; they would travel to peaceful planets and attack them, stealing their resources and whatnot, sucking the planet dry. The name of the record was "Underwater Peoples," I guess. We never recorded it.
AZ: Was there anything else going on in DC that you felt connected to musically?
Sawyer: Record stores, I guess, and reading about DC’s past is pretty inspiring stuff.
Ari: I worked at two record stores: Red Onion and Crooked Beat. That was my way of getting exposed to a lot of stuff that happened in DC. At a point, we realized what had happened in DC was a lot better than what was happening in DC.
AZ: The initial UP catalog was very Jersey-heavy-- Real Estate, Julian Lynch, Ducktails, Frat Dad, Fluffy Lumbers.
Sawyer: [That circle] gave us the feeling that this wasn’t going to be a one-shot deal. We knew we had friends who were continuing to make amazing music.
Brody: Freshman year, I would play [music from] all of my friends from home to the point that Ari would get soo pissed off.
Ari: It wasn’t that you were playing the music; it was the endless narration that went along with it, until 3 o’clock in the morning.
Sawyer: If you ever get in a long car ride with Brody, he’ll play you tons of music from that [Ridgewood HS] era.
AZ: Following that Jersey boom, have you consciously tried to move toward bands from other parts of the country and world?
Ari: I wouldn’t say it was a conscious thing.
Sawyer: We now have the opportunity to approach bands from other realms, with “Underwater Peoples” behind us. It’s nice to release new music from new bands.
AZ: How would you describe the mood or aesthetic of the label right now?
Sawyer: Positive. I’ve always liked music that reeks of authenticity. I listen to a lot of Klaus Nomi-- very romanticized, melodramatic pop. You read about the guy and the time he spent with David Bowie. You just know Bowie was like, “That dog is really into this, he is wearing a costume that makes him kind of look like a man-nun-slut.” It is so obvious he didn’t think to himself, “Oh, the aesthetic of these days is kind of like, nun-slut.” He’s just like, “This is who I am, this is the music.” I am so drawn to that. We try and keep it as real as possible.
AZ: Who are your musical heroes?
Sawyer: Michael Jackson.
Ari: Ian MacKaye.
Sawyer: Prefab Sprout.
AZ: Today, the Internet makes it easier for small labels to connect with an audience.
Sawyer: The “label” is basically a blog that makes records. What’s inspiring to me is how the Internet makes it possible to show love for things more easily than ever before. This guy Clay Shirky wrote a book about this. Big crush on Clay Shirky. His point is that you alone can contribute to something you like, and that can tailspin into something huge. Love can now push things forward as opposed to money and respect and power.
AZ: DIY or Die!
Sawyer: “DIY or Die” is actually what I think. You have to embrace some of these truths. Unless….
Ari: …they shut the Internet down. Check out Futureofmusic.org. I used to work for them on a big Net Neutrality campaign.
AZ: Speaking of the future of music… Sawyer, this year you proposed a controversial SXSW panel about the future of music and blogging. What happened?
Sawyer: A lot of panels that got picked were all doomsday, talking about how music sucks. I put in a panel that says, maybe the fact that people all over the world are talking about music, and people all over the world are making music at a faster rate than ever before might be good for music. And they say, “Nah that’s too intense… Can’t do that.” It was called “The Case Against Chris Weingarten.” I’d like to think that I would have had a better chance if I called it “Music is Gonna Be Great Soon”. Or “Music is Great Right Now.”