In Top Five, we dig into the back catalog of one of city’s many independent record labels and get the back-stories on five of the label’s more significant releases. In our third installment, we focus on drone and metal label Utech Records, and talk to label head Keith Utech about the visual nature of the label.
The label: Utech Records started in 2004 and has since released over 60 different pieces of music. The label has a distinct visual focus, pairing cutting edge photographers and illustrators with the musicians behind the releases. Last June, the label hosted the Utech Records Music Festival at the Cactus Club, bringing together 11 different artists in the Utech roster who traveled from as far as Europe.
The label head: As a graphic designer, Keith Utech has designed over 100 different cassettes, CDs, records, and (for some reason) 8-tracks, including all of the releases on his own label and a few for the likes of Relapse, Land of Decay, and others. He has put out two different fine art series, and is completing his third this year.
Vulture Club, Live Fast, Die Young, And Leave an Exquisite Corpse
Keith Utech: Vulture Club was a guitar-based band from Thomas Lee, who lived in Kansas City. He did this sort of drone record, and it ended up being the record that I had been waiting a long time to hear, though I didn’t know what that was until I heard it. He was a strange guy, kind of a recluse. I put this thing down, but I haven’t heard from him since.
The artwork was done by Charles Gilchrist. He did a lot of drag racing photography in the ’60s and ’70s, just amazing stuff. I’m not really a gear head, but I find this whole muscle car, hot rod thing very fascinating. There’s a lot of power behind it. It’s really great imagery.
The Skull Defekts, The Sound Of Defekt Skulls
KU: I had this idea to do a series that was a different take on what may be considered normal—where the music might be different, but the artwork is kind of holding it together under a visual umbrella. I decided to work with Max Aguilera-Hellweg on this, and he was really into the idea. The image is a double exposure he did for another piece. He does a lot of editorial stuff, so some of his things will get used in magazines—National Geographic and what not—but some of it he has a little more freedom to license for other things. I guess just given the nature of the band at that point—two people making this music having to do with skulls and heads—it seemed like an appropriate image.
Horseback, The Invisible Mountain
KU: Jenks Miller emailed me with these tracks, and I took a listen to them, and I remember emailing him back and being like, “This stuff’s pretty good and I’m not trying to blow you off, I just have other things going on.” He was like, “I really like what you’re doing with imagery and sound, it’s really cool and you’ve got a good thing going on.” So this almost didn’t happen at one point, but I took a listen to the tracks again and said, “Yeah, we really need to do this at some point.”
The cover art was done by Denis Kostromitin from Russia. He was actually doing this art for another project I was working on that kind of fell through, so it was a lot of weird things that sort of happened to make this release. Dennis had this beautiful imagery with the horse and the wolves, and it just sort of happened to fit with some of the poetry and lyrics Jenks had going on. It worked for the music and we put it all together and everyone was excited about it. Jenks has gone on to do stuff for Relapse, and he’s taken Dennis along as a visual representation for Horseback.
Sum Of R, s/t
KU: That’s Reto Mader, who was at the Utech Records Festival, and does Ural Umbo with Stephen Hess. He approached me with this project and I didn’t really know too much about him. I did a design for one of his Crouton Records releases [former label of Milwaukee musician Jon Mueller], so I knew his name, but I really didn’t know too much about him. He’s a talented guy, way underrated. He’s so creative musically and really dedicated to what he does.
This was the first time I worked with Rik Garrett from Chicago, a photographer. I had seen Rick’s work around for a while and wanted to team up with him and do something. So he did all the photography for this, and everything just came together perfectly. It helped elevate what I was doing and the way I thought about putting releases together.
Locrian, The Crystal World
Sometimes [artwork] goes in a different direction than I had anticipated. This is a good example. We went through some initial research and I looked at some initial ideas and visual things, and it just wasn’t really gelling. So the band suggested trying Justin Bartlett, and I said, “Okay, I’m open to that.” He did this sort of panoramic thing, and I was a little bit hesitant, but it worked out. I let him do what he needed to do and I think he’s done one of his best pieces ever.