[Matt Mayer and Toby Aronson of NNA Tapes]
By Keith Rankin
Started by Toby Aronson and Matt Mayer in 2008, NNA has flourished along with a general analog music revival, fostered predominantly by homespun labels and the heavy doses of vintage synthesizers that often blanket this website. Since 2010, the label (the name of which originally stood for "Nu New Age" as a way to half-jokingly assess this resurgence) has become the gold standard of tape imprints, instantly recognized by it's uniform circular cover designs and hand-painted cassette stickers. Spurred on by their recent foray into the vinyl medium, I spoke with Aronson and Mayer about the motivation behind the LPs, the social benefits of running a label, and where noise and ambient music appear to be heading in the cluttered 21st century.
AZ: Tell me about how the label started.
Toby: We started around 2008. Matt and I were in two different projects [Oak and A Snake in the Garden], on tour together. We would just talk in the car about starting a label. We ended up putting out three tapes, but didn't start really going heavily with it until 2010.
Matt: The first three tapes were completely DIY, with one-at-a-time dubbing and all that stuff. We're doing pro-duplication now.
AZ: What were those first three releases?
Matt: NNA01 was a split between Sun Circle, which is a project with Greg Davis and Zach Wallace, and Pregnant Moon, which was an alias of mine -- it was ambient music I recorded a little bit in Vermont and little bit in California. NNA02 was from Duane Pitre, who is a really cool dude: kind of a drone composer who used to be a pro skateboarder. He did stuff for motorized electric guitar. And then NNA03 was a split between Oak, Toby's old project, and a band from Pennsylvania called Pink Desert, who are one of our favorites ever.
AZ: Were most of the early releases from local bands?
Matt: I mean, Pink Desert was from rural PA. We met up with them through touring in Connecticut. We had heard their recordings, but were super blown away when we saw them live. They just created an incredible zone in a dude's living room.
Toby: We've never really put out many Vermont artists, to be honest. That was never really the goal of our label, you know? We did do this Burlington box set thing that was featuring all our favorite projects from the town we live in. But other than that, we've never really intended to do much local stuff.
AZ: It seems like a real community has started to crystallize in the past few years along with NNA. I remember seeing bands in the mid-'00s doing a lot of synth stuff, and no one really knew how to neatly categorize what they were doing. Now it's all over the place.
Matt: Yeah. NNA originally stood for Nu New Age, which was just a joke we made up on tour to describe this music. We didn't know what to call it. It was mainly electronic music I guess, inspired by the new age movement of the '80s.
Toby: It was pretty much dudes that used to play noise getting synthesizers and trying to make something more musical.
AZ: You could almost say this ambient music is the new "youth movement" or... I'm not sure what to call it. But that and noisier stuff are comfortably going side by side.
Matt: With harsh noise in general we both noticed a shift in the mid '00s. Like Toby mentioned, a lot of the dudes doing the harder noise started doing ambient, which seems like a total 180 shift. It definitely created a lot of interesting results, where the noise influence would rub off on the ambient and vice versa, creating this cool hybrid. And now where we are in 2011, it's all become totally smeared together.
Toby: It's interesting. I still perceive there to be a "noise scene" in a way, but when I think about all the musicians I would categorize under that umbrella group, I'm not sure if there's much of it that's actually noisy. It's kind of a weird thing. When our friends went to the [Voice of the] Valley Festival in West Virginia, they were saying how almost 75 to 80 percent of the music wasn't noise, but it was the noise community. So it's an interesting phenomenon that doesn't really make sense anymore, but in my head I still see it that way.
AZ: Can you tell me about your individual roles in the label? What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Toby: We kind of just do whatever needs to be done at the time. Matt is really the one that handles the design and layout stuff. Other than that, though, it's kind of divided by however much time we have, and what there is to be done. And the things that need to be done keep expanding every day.
Matt: Toby has been handling the more administrative stuff.
AZ: Burlington is a pretty small town, isn't it?
Matt: Yeah. Burlington is one of the bigger towns in the state, but it's tiny compared to other cities. The amount of people per the size of Vermont is pretty ridiculously small.
AZ: Small populations can breed really creative music sometimes, because of a lack of other things to do.
Matt: Yeah totally. The more atypical music up here is a really weird melting pot of all sorts of things. Everyone is gripping influences from each other's stuff, which produces interesting results. There's not much else around. The closest city is Montreal, but we have no passports.
Toby: There is a lot to do in this town, actually, for how small it is. It's not like we're sitting up here in fucking log cabins with one bar. We've got lots of friends, people are out every night, there's lots of places for shows, lots of cool bands. It's a cool town for the size it is, really.
AZ: Are there more bands and venues in the whole New England area that form any kind of network?
Matt: I've got a bunch of homies in Massachusetts, and we've made friends all over New England just from touring. The Northeast is pretty tight just because it's a relatively small community compared to, you know, New York City or LA. So there's a lot of camaraderie there for sure.
Toby: That's what I love about doing our label, I have so many more friends from running NNA. We can go to lots of different towns or people can come through here and have a place to stay. I just met Alex Moskos, who plays with Drainolith; we put out one of his tapes, which is one of the weirdest things we've put out. Now we'll go up to Montreal and hang out with him. It's really cool building friends from all over the country who you wouldn't meet otherwise. That's one of my favorite things about running the label, actually.
AZ: That is an aspect often overlooked, the whole social aspect of music.
Toby: Especially since there's not much money in it for anybody anymore, it's a reason to do it, you know?
AZ: Are you guys breaking even? You have day jobs obviously?
Matt: I have a nine to five, which gets a bit intense to juggle at times. Toby is rocking unemployment right now, which is great for our label. I wouldn't necessarily say we're breaking even.
Toby: We're trying, dude. [Laughter]
Toby: We've made a lot of changes in how we do that recently. The business side is something that we're still figuring out.
AZ: What made you decide to do vinyl releases?
Toby: We've always wanted to do vinyl, man.
Matt: It was kind of a goal, actually. When we toured in 2007 we had this split tour cassette, and as a goal to psych ourselves we were like, "Man, one day we want to have this on LP." Which wouldn't happen now. [Laughter]
Matt: But there was always that goal of working our way up to vinyl. Not switching over, but rocking a different format in addition to the tapes. We have more tapes on deck right now, and those will keep coming out, but we're dipping into vinyl because it's the best format. Sound-wise, and because records are cool.
AZ: Did you ever consider NNA's circle cover format for the vinyl?
Matt: We really toiled over the vinyl layout, but ended up deciding it was a bit too obvious to rock the circle. We wanted to switch it up, to get into a different space and explore artwork in a different way.
Toby: We always want people who put out stuff on our label to be psyched all the way with how it looks. We have the tape design, but for vinyl and bigger releases, we didn't want to limit what should be a major work. Though, in the three years we've been a label, nobody has had too much of a problem with the limitations of the circular artwork. So that's really cool. I always think that some people might, because a lot of artists we put out have a very strong visual aesthetic, and if you've made a record you want it to look exactly the way you want it to look, you know? I'm just so fuckin' psyched that people are always down, always down to have that look.
Matt: One of the more fun aspects of it is collaborating with the artists to reach something that both of us are psyched on that sits in the format. I mean, the idea of the format originally was for people to drop whatever they wanted in there, and it would still look like NNA. It's cool getting that collaboration going with the artist and executing a vision that we're both psyched on.
AZ: I want to talk about the tape scene, and the sheer amount of releases artists will come out with in a year. I was talking with another artist about it: if you don't release like ten albums a year, you're almost forgotten.
Matt: I think it depends on your approach to your own music. Certain dudes are jammers, you know, and they'll drop a tape that's just a snapshot of the zone they're currently in, just exploring. Whereas other people take more of the album approach, and work really hard on it. They have a vision and work for it and, you know, it seems like that stuff takes more time. But I'm definitely personally down with quality over quantity, for sure. I mean, I dig jams, but I dig intense compositions and masterpieces.
Toby: We tried to create a tape label in a format that wouldn't let someone's work that was very involved be overlooked, like, if it was the only tape they were going to put out all year because they worked so hard on it. We didn't want that to be lost in the pile of tapes. So if you want to put out your masterpiece with NNA, we'll try to take that as far as it can go with the tape format, and not just make ten copies and then it's out of print, you know? Cause that's your masterpiece! That was one of our ideas about NNA that we thought was maybe different from other tape labels.
Matt: But cassettes are becoming a more widely accepted medium. People see them now as a legitimate format like a record or CD, as oppposed to something a dude is doing in his bedroom, only making like 15 copies. It's kind of cool seeing it transform in that way. We've approached people to do vinyl releases, but instead they've said they prefer a cassette release, which is interesting and really cool.
AZ: Do you want to talk about any of the new releases? I really like The Co La and Nate Young albums. Have you gotten the Co La in yet?
Matt: Uhh, no. We got the masters cut and the ball rolling and everything [though]; we're so psyched to hold one.
Toby: Actually, we should mention that we got the vinyl cut at a mastering place in Berlin, [Loop_O]. I wouldn't usually make [such a] sweeping statement, but it's like the best vinyl mastering in the world. This guy Lupo, he's kind of our bro now. It was awesome seeing someone that was cutting the plates actually make comments on the music. He thought Nate Young was, like, amazing. This dude did amazing, amazing work on the plates, that's all I can say. So we're definitely going to rep dudes like that, because I think high quality vinyl right now is important, just because of the difference between buying physical media compared to digital grips. You know, it's really important that you're hearing quality music, because quality suffers with mp3s, and a lot of people might say, "Well why am I buying a record or a tape?" It should be because it sounds better, man!
AZ: Is the Co La all samples, or do you know if he's doing overdubs on there as well?
Matt: Yeah, that's purely sampled. It's amazing to hear music made from such a wide variety of other music. His samples are all from stuff that he feels and believes in and, like, that goes along with his whole aesthetic. It's no surprise that he's sampling old soul, rocksteady, reggae, and everything, because thats what the dude's about. That's a real indication of the way things are going, I think. Everything is just being thrown in a blender right now, as far as music and sound, and Co La is kind of riding the forefront of that.
AZ: Yeah. Even on the Coppertone and Innercity releases, it's almost like more experimental music is embracing the backbeat-- drum beats. All these elements that used to be thought of as pop are now meshing into this weird new thing.
Toby: Another thing, it's not necessarily that people who are playing noise now are just playing pop or something, it's more that... well, you could say that our label is experimental, but we like all kinds of music! We're actually putting out a pop record next year, and the guy doesn't come from an experimental background whatsoever.
AZ: What record is that?
Matt: It's a local Burlington artist named Ryan Power, and the record's called I Don't Want to Die. It's pretty incredible. It's electronic, but it's definitely pop.
Toby: There's actually nothing experimental about it, to be honest, you couldn't draw a comparison really.
AZ: Sometimes that's more experimental now.
Toby: [Laughing] We're past comprehending what that word even means, to be honest. We could have the whole interview about it. I don't usually like to use it because it sort of puts things in a box, you know what I mean? Everyone I know that is really passionate about synthesizer music or noise, they all like pop music. I literally don't know very many people that don't like something with a verse and a chorus. It's somewhere in their iTunes.
Matt: For our label, we try to describe the kind of stuff we put out as "freestyle."