Mike Schulman guides Slumberland Records into its third decade
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Earlier this week, The A.V. Club published a primer on Slumberland Records, the seminal noise-pop label that celebrates its 20th anniversary on Friday, Nov. 13 at The Black Cat. Over the course of putting that together, we spoke with label founder Mike Schulman, who had a lot to say about his life project. The early days of Velocity Girl singles and shooting the shit at the local record store are long gone, replaced with new bands like The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and Crystal Stilts (the latter of which is performing on Friday night), and new ways of getting music to more would-be fans than anyone ever thought possible. Schulman's steady hand has helped the label maintain a consistent mission in the face of all that change—to not just adapt to current realities, but also to serve as a vanguard for other independent labels. With that in mind, The A.V. Club spoke with Schulman about the early days, other labels he likes, and the medium behind the message.
The A.V. Club: What was the impetus behind starting Slumberland?
Mike Schulman: I worked at a record store in Silver Spring, Md. at the time, which was an amazing learning experience. All of us working there had bands, and we were playing some shows and getting a teeny-tiny bit of interest. And because we worked at a store, starting a label seemed very possible. The idea of making demos and shopping them around to other labels was extremely unappealing, so we thought to just do it ourselves. It started out as more of a collective thing, but a lot of the other guys involved were in Velocity Girl, and when they got popular and were always on tour, a lot of the work wound up in my lap. And it just kind of evolved like, “Oh, I guess Mike kind of does the label.”
AVC: What were your musical touchstones when you started Slumberland? People tend to mention Sarah Records and Creation Records—niche British labels—but surely there were more.
MS: That was all certainly in the mix. We all listened to a lot of that kind of stuff. Postcard [Records] was really big for me personally. K [Records] was really big—somewhat musically (I love Beat Happening) but also the ideals of what they were doing was really inspiring. Dischord was big for me. We were all into noisy stuff too. We all loved Big Black and Birthday Party and the Lower East Side stuff like Sonic Youth and Swans and Unsane and Drunk Tank and Dustdevils. We’d put on shows in D.C. and have Drunk Tank come down, and we would go to New York and play with them. Some of the early Slumberland records were a little more on that noise kick.
AVC: Do you see any common strands from the early records to the ones you’re releasing now?
MS: It is to some extent my aesthetic that drives it, but of course I have to make choices within that aesthetic. I don’t necessarily put out everything I like, because I can’t afford to. I look for bands that write good songs, kind of appreciate the value of a song. People who get into making some noise—I do like some noise with my stuff. But there are certain bands and records that just kind of really grab you, like, “Oh, that’s really special. I will be listening to this record in 10 years no matter who puts it out. I would love to be the one who puts it out.”
AVC: You mention being pigeonholed. A lot of critics do characterize Slumberland as an indie-pop label, even though there are many releases in the catalog that defy that categorization. What do you think about your label getting lumped into that niche?
MS: It bums me out a little bit, I guess. I just don’t think it tells the full story. In journalistic shorthand I guess it’s kind of an easy way to categorize this stuff. Even just given the records we’ve put out in the last two years—Sarandon are awfully different from the The Lodger, who are awfully different from Cause Co-Motion, within the limitations of being guitar-based with melodies. It’s so broad, it could almost cover everything or anything. If the common thread is all those bands had heard the Shop Assistants or Belle & Sebastian—well, lots of people did. I think that what we’re doing, frankly, is more interesting than just being an indie-pop label, and I want to see the bands get their full due.
AVC: You come from a record store culture where a record is something to collect and cherish. People are still interested in limited-edition stuff and records as art objects, but that’s not really how they’re consuming music as a whole. How does a small label like Slumberland find a balance between those two poles?
MS: It’s hard. I think you’re right—I think most people do listen to the music electronically one way or the other. They buy the vinyl that comes with a download code and then download it and never listen to the vinyl. I listen to most of the music I listen to on vinyl, and I would imagine I’m definitely in the minority. I really believe in records. I guess it’s partially nostalgia, because I’m old and I grew up buying records and listening to records and having my parents’ old 45s and that kind of thing. I just feel like it’s a great way to experience music. I do a lot of colored vinyl and that kind of thing, but I try not to do things that are too limited, because I want people to have the opportunity to buy them. I don’t want people who don’t know about a band this month to be punished six months from now because they’re late and have to buy something for $30 on eBay. I’ll make records as long as people buy them, but you can’t turn back the clock and there’s no way you can get people to start only buying records. So for the people who still value that type of experience with their music, I’d like them to be able to have it with our stuff. If you don’t, I don’t want to punish you and make you have to go get an illegal download or something like that. If you’re going to have a download, you should have something of quality.