[Night-People founder Shawn Reed, playing live in Montreal as Wet Hair]
By Jenn Pelly
If you really want to get inside the mind of Night-People founder Shawn Reed, start with his website. His descriptions of the tapes and records in the catalog read like copy from your uncle's collection of dusty, late-'80s fanzines: raw, sincere, and witty, unearthed from some creaky, time-warped attic. "The end is coming and this is what it might sound like," Reed writes of Earth Station, a "now age" or "power ambient" collabation between Mike Pollard and Peter Friel for whom he has released a tape. In his description of "new wave trash" group Sewn Leather, he sums up the underground ethos that defines his eight-year old, Iowa City-based imprint: "Dance party tunes for dead beat punks, dirty weirdos, and those who aspire to morbid underground lifestyles," Reed writes. "Always on tour, or sleeping on your friends' couch."
Shawn launched the imprint in 2003 as a means of self-releasing Is Night People, the debut cassette from his old band, Raccoo-oo-oon (coincidentally, the band also claimed the "001" spot in the Woodsist catalog with "Mythos Folkways Vol. 1," far more esoteric than anything the label slings today). Reed has had a track record of putting the best of contemporary music counterculture to tape, archiving the standout acts of the global underground, from Melbourne to Los Angeles. On the phone, he describes his aesthetic in 2011 as pop filtered through a Xerox machine. He says that he approaches the label more like an art project than anything else, and that he uses his background in printmaking and multimedia to design, silk-screen, and hand assemble art for each release. "It's hard for me to keep up as one person," he admits. "People get mad at me, but dude, I'm not like, Insound. I am one dude in a house in Iowa."
Reed is, nonetheless, excited: he just capped off a holiday weekend swimming at a reservoir with friends, and is slowly regaining his walking abilities after a "gnarly knee injury" from a soccer league scrimmage. Immediately after the accident-- but before surgery-- he played a string of shows with his band Wet Hair, supporting Zola Jesus and Naked on the Vague in Madison and Minneapolis. He's lived in Iowa City since 2004, but averages three months on the road per year. "There’s hardly any local recognition of the label in Iowa City," Reed says, "or of anything we do." Read on for a condensed version of our conversation, wherein Reed explains the origins of Night-People, his art background, and how running a tape label in Iowa has shaped his thinking about music.
AZ: Can you describe the path that lead you to Night-People?
Shawn: I grew up in a small Mississippi River town, Muscatine, about 45 minutes from Iowa City. I left for college in 1999 to study printmaking at the University of Northern Iowa, then ended up in Iowa City in 2004, and have been here since. Iowa City is like the yuppie cultural oasis of Iowa-- a university town. I started going to shows in Iowa City in '96 or '97, as soon as I tapped into underground music. [Night-People] came from being involved with that when I was in high school. Eventually I ended up in this band Raccoo-oo-oon with some friends; the label started as a way to release our own stuff. The label was collaborative, at first, between all four members of Raccoo-oo-oon: Andrew Spore helped shape the label, but he moved to LA. And then Daren Ho [now, of Driphouse] moved to New York. Ryan Garbes and I kept doing Wet Hair.
AZ: When did the label become more of a full-time focus?
Shawn: In 2007, I had this big transitional life-crisis. All these things ended: I finished graduate school, with a multimedia degree, after being in school forever, so I wasn't teaching college classes anymore. Raccoo-oo-oon ended, some of my best friends moved away, and a major romantic relationship ended. I had been showing my artwork; I had a solo exhibition in New York and Tokyo, and a lot of group shows. I could have gone into teaching, or moved to New York to do the gallery thing. But being so involved with touring and doing the label, I felt I should try to do it full-time. It seemed more sustainable. I still do some gallery stuff, but the art world is so fickle. You're trying to sell stuff to wealthy people you don't have anything in common with. It was a lot more fun to put out records, and have the art be distinct and handmade, and sell it for cheap, and have people like myself be able to afford it, and have these tapes and records that are also art objects.
AZ: Can you tell me about Night-People HQ?
Shawn: The house is so cheap and integrated with making art and music and doing the label that, despite very much wanting to move at times, I haven't. I've lived in the same house for eight years. I have a practice space and a silk-screen studio in the basement, and a big storage space in the attic for the label stuff. I don't pay much, which allows me the freedom to not have another job. But I barely break even; I'm in this constant state of financial flux. I have this crazy tape-dubbing system that people get a kick out of, because when you open the front door it’s the first thing you see.
I have eight stereo cassette decks, in two towers. One side's the A side and one side's the B-side, and they’re all chained together, dubbed from CD-R masters. The tape decks aren't very noisy-- a bit of a low hum from so many running. Usually I let it play at my leisure, and while I’m working on the computer or sitting at my drawing table, I’ll periodically flip out the tapes and put new ones in. I dub eight at a time. I like being able to make more, as I need them. I'm not interested in making stuff that's hard for people to get. I just want to sell it until there's no more demand. Every month I dub thousands of tapes, essentially. The dub machine literally rolls all day, every day. Basically the only thing I don't do is press the vinyl. I used to do shows here, but I've ceased-- I've been bummed out on the vibe of the local scene.
[The Night-People HQ, in Iowa City]
AZ: I used to think Night-People was based in Australia, because Naked on the Vague and The Twerps were two of the releases I listened to a lot.
Shawn: The Australia connection came years ago, in New York. I was there for an art show, and I met Jack Mannix, the singer of Circle Pit. We kept in touch, and shortly after, Naked on the Vague played at my house. Eventually I started corresponding with Fabulous Diamonds, and it snowballed. I've played an active role booking bands [in Iowa], and through the Australians, I've helped people book tours over here. That's where a lot of good music is coming from right now.
AZ: You've also put out early releases from artists like Dirty Beaches and EMA, who have become very popular beyond the tape crowd. How did you find them? Just from being connected to so many people in the underground?
Shawn: Probably. There are a lot of tape labels around right now, but I feel I've been doing this long enough that people take the tapes I do seriously. If I offer to do a tape for someone, they're usually excited. My label has no financial backing; it's literally operated on pennies. There have been quite a few bands on the label whose records I really wanted to do, but couldn't afford [to press]. But I don't get bummed out because that's just the nature of the thing, and I'm happy that some of these bands I like are getting opportunities.
AZ: From a fan perspective, looking at the discography, it’s like a snapshot of the best underground/weird music over the past seven years.
Shawn: That's what I wanted. Things shifted when I was in Raccoo-oo-oon. In the '90s, bands would get on a label, sign a contract, and things would be more exclusive. That environment doesn't really exist anymore. Bands hop around. I knew I didn't have a lot of money, but I realized I could focus on curating something with really solid releases-- and really focusing on the artwork. Some of the stuff I've put out on tape, I know I could reissue on vinyl, and probably sell a lot of copies. But with my mentality, I can't. I've always wanted Night-People to be about taking chances and putting stuff out that no one had heard. I never want to get into chasing the hype game. That’s just... the death of everything. I think if I got too concerned with being able to sell something, there wouldn’t be as much sincerity in it. I would be trying to release stuff that catered to some imaginary thing. I’m way more interested in creating the situation, as opposed to hopping on the wagon.
AZ: Was there anything in particular that influenced the way you think about music?
Shawn: It was an amalgamation of things. The town I went to college in also had nothing going on so we had to make our own venue, and be really proactive and write bands to get them to come. At art school [some professors] really helped me with my ideas and turned me onto things that were very significant. I had [already] been into stuff like Discord Records in high school, and Crass and their artist, Gee Vaucher. Then in college, getting exposed to Sun Ra and John Cage, and even Andy Warhol-- finding people who merged art and life in a distinct way.
In the early 2000s, I started ordering records from Load Records in Providence. They sent me this zine, Paper Rodeo. It's where a lot of art people got their start. This was a revelation in terms of the stuff I was into-- this visual aesthetic and philosophy being combined with this community music zine. I started writing to those bands. One of the first bands I invited to come play a show I booked was Wives-- Dean and Randy from No Age’s band before No Age. Jack Rose played here a lot.
AZ: What inspired the aesthetic of the album art?
Shawn: When I'm working on artwork, it's a ritualized thing. I'll spend a lot of time sifting through books at thrift stores, and magazines, and art books at the library. I have thousands of Xeroxes sitting around that I use for collage and inspiration. Over time, I've become really invested in using the history of underground culture-- the history of it in the art world-- and re-appropriating that back into new things, making a thread between what I'm doing and older stuff. In some of the Night-People artwork there are references to obscure Japanese photographers from the '70s that I'm into, or homages to things that probably not many people pick up on. The Xerox machine is my biggest influence. I filter everything through the lens of a Xerox, using it to degrade images to this place where they look interesting. I'll go to the copy store and stay for hours on end with 50 books and piles of images and work from that. That’s connected to the history of underground music.
AZ: Would you say the Xerox aesthetic has a parallel in the music you release?
Shawn: The palette of the label is a bit all over the place, but everything I've been putting out recently has a bit of pop sensibility, usually in kind of a warped, degraded way-- similar to using a Xerox in interesting, artistic ways. I think the way a lot of bands record-- mashing hi-fi and lo-fi sound-- also mirrors the Xerox's ability to make images crisp with contrast and density, but fuzzy and grainy if desired. Many of the bands use old gear, old amps, analog synths. It makes sense that the visuals have an antique quality.
AZ: Today, bigger labels are constantly trying to figure out how to make people pay for music by adding "value" to record packages. Meanwhile, with tape labels like your own, there's necessarily a lot of emphasis on the product. Have your ideas about the role of tangibility in music evolved since you started the label?
Shawn: I think about this a lot. It's mainly about personal preference. Some people like the simplicity of having one device with everything on it. I can see the appeal, the minimalism. But I'm an artifact person. I'm attracted to objects and sculpture, visual images with weight and presence. A lot is about presentation for me. An interesting photo has more presence on a wall in a frame than on a computer screen, where it feels disposable. I don't listen to music on the computer or through [digital] devices. I want music to be as dictating of my attention as possible. Music is like religion to me, like scripture, so I take it seriously.
Night People recently co-released the Ela Orleans/Dirty Beaches Double Feature Split LP with Atelier Ciseaux/La Station Radar. Stay tuned for full-length wax debuts by Blanche Blanche Blanche and Goldendust