This week I interviewed the elusive “M” from Bay Area Black metal label Sentient Ruin Laboratories, he runs one of the best new labels to come out in recent years – check out his words of wisdom here
Hey dude thanks for doing this
* So you are based in Oakland, were you born and raised there or move their at some point? What drew you to the area? Late last year I spoke with both Atrament and Cardinal Wyrm and marveled that there is a such a tight knit group of musicians in the Bay Area , even though real estate is some of the most priciest in the USA
I’m originally from Europe. I came here casually on a two week vacation to visit a friend and never left. Eight years later, that vacation is still ongoing I guess. Staying here was easy and painless and made total sense for a person like me, and for someone who’s into music as much as I am. I found my ideal environment here. While I was here visiting I went to a few house shows and thought to my self “ok, this is it”.
* Following up on that why do you think the Bay Area has been such a great source for underground bands for 60+ years?
I think we need to trace this back to “quest for the West” in contemporary history… California has always been – and was especially in the past – a “frontier land”, that attracted all kinds of fortune seekers in search of new opportunities. This is known history. Soon this mass migration of different peoples and cultures into a specific geographical area turned into a fertile ground for countercultures, and SF and the Bay Area started to attract many artists, hippies, and a wide array of people dwelling in countercultures, poetry, alternative arts and philosophies and so on.
This is also known history. This migration turned the Bay Area into a place full of gifted and often eccentric people, and I think this is where the music scene started to become a thing of its own. So even more people moved here to be a part of it and I guess it just snowballed from there. I think people bored with average arts/mentality in suburban mainland American come here to be a part of something that better matches their vision, so a lot of talent ended up flocking here. But you are right, things are changing now. The Silicon Valley started attracting completely different people, who now seek wealth, money and careers, and who are pushing out the long-time artist residents who once could survive on their art and now can no longer do that.
* I call the whole Bay Area the Goldilocks zone weather wise, as in my mind it’s weather is perfect – not too hot not too cold – why do you think (on paper) such a mellow area as the Bay Area has produced its own unique spin on Black Metal?
Well, coming from a Mediterranean country with cold and snowy winters, I can tell you I do enjoy the often sunny/mild winters we have here but I hate the cold ocean in the summer and the otherwise somewhat “spineless” summers where it’s hard to enjoy the beach and the water. I grew up using the amazing Mediterranean water to cool off from the hot summers, and now I feel always “summerless”. The weather here definitely has its pros and cons.
Black Metal here has nothing to do with the weather, as I believe the weather had nothing to do with it in Scandinavia either. Other factors determine the presence, quality, and genotype of black metal in my opinion. With a lot of Bay Area thrash I think that it eventually transmigrating into black metal only made sense. And again, people from all over the world moved here, so they probably also brought their black metal influences and leanings here with them.
* How much of an influence do you think Neurosis has been on the whole Bay Area scene?
Enormous. First in punk, then in heavier and more extreme metal environments. They are a world institution who changed everything. Their legacy transcends and goes well beyond the Bay Area.
* What made you want to launch a record label in this day and age?
I was (and still am) in a band, and while for a band being on a cool label is always an easy seduction and something nice to think about, I’ve always also felt the same about the opposite direction: self-releasing. It’s always seemed like a cool thing to me and something to be proud of. So, when my band finally recorded a debut release we looked for labels to release it, but at the same time I also wanted to use the opportunity to experiment with self-releasing.
Since experience and funds were limited I started with a tape release of our debut album since it seemed cheap and viable. Later, without a real plan in mind, I ran into a very cool release by some friends of mine – an album I was deeply drawn to – and which in my eyes was extremely overlooked and which existed only on the band’s Bandcamp as a digital thing. So I decided to put it out on tape for them, and try to get the word out about it, and things haven’t stopped since.
* What record labels did you follow growing up? I know when I was a kid and record releases mattered, if I saw a band’s album I had never heard of before, looked on the back and recognized the record label – I knew what I was getting..was that the same for you?
Yes it was, though some labels were a mixed bag for me, and while I loved most releases they did, I knew they’d publish a turd from time to time as well. At first it was Relapse, HydraHead, Southern Lord, Willowtip, Neurot, Touch and Go, Prank Records, Slap a Ham, Amphetamine Reptile, Profound Lore, Peaceville, Candlelight, Season of Mist, Profane Existence, Earache etc. Toward the mid/late two thousands however I started to get really into labels like Aurora Borealis, Utech, Cold Spring, Norma Evangelium Diaboli, Nuclear War Now, Anja Offensive, Osmose, etc. Today those labels are still a huge inspiration.
* Why do you think you primarily focus on digital and cassette releases. The mainstream music industry sees cassettes as a redundant format. What made you focus on cassette releases and have you had any problems with this format yet?
The premise is that we operate outside of any industry and as such what the industry thinks has no role in what we do. Cassettes actually have their loyal cult following, and are highly sought after in some inner circles.
You just need to crack that awareness barrier, and make the tape nerds aware you exist, and of course then put out cool tapes that people will enjoy. I actually love tapes. I think that they are fun and cool items and I definitely fight on their side for their survival and preservation. They also have a cool sound and are practically convenient: small, resistant, etc. I started with tapes simply because they are a great training ground to teach you the job. A label is a thing you build solely by learning from your mistakes, and tapes allow you to make mistakes without taking a huge financial hit. Now that I know more what I am doing, I’ve decided to release vinyl as well. It’s still a learning process, but what I’ve learned from tapes has helped me and now I have some experience and knowledge to curtail bad “business” decisions.
* Your A+R feels like it is all over the place, (which is fucking awesome if you ask me) what does a band have to do to qualify for a Sentient Ruin Laboratories release?
Make music they strongly believe in, be serious about it (record it well etc), be humble, be real, and be homies. Styles don’t matter, it’s more about “this shit’s amazing, and people need to hear it” and that’s where I step in to offer them a hand.
* How do you yourself discover new bands? scour bandcamp daily? word of mouth?
It’s all over the place. I’ve definitely found bands on Bandcamp or from Facebook shares. Other bands like Necrot, Vastum, Leather Glove, etc. are personal friends of mine, people who make music I respect. We became friends through their music even before we worked on a release together, even before the label even existed. I yet have to release a band who contacted me asking for a release however….
* What’s been the release you have been most proud of so far and why?
That’s a tough question. American – “Coping With Loss” was the initial defining release that somewhat shaped the initial outlines of the label and kind of established its sound and intents.
* Are there any bands from music history you wish you had gotten a chance to work with?
Holy shit yes, hundreds. But let’s be real(istic)…. I’d like to work with this Spanish band called Emanation, and I’d like to work with Sutekh Hexen again soon. In general I’d like to work with more noise, industrial, ambient etc. bands.
* What advice would you give to any bands looking to partner with you?
Mine is still very much a small label, so I don’t know how much bands are “honored” to be on it, haha. But in general – record stuff that sounds good, and let’s just focus on having fun and learning from each other.
* With your palace of worms release you split the vinyl release with Broken Limbs records, how did that partnership come about? Do you see yourself doing vinyl releases any time in the near future?
Actually, BLR did the LP completely on their own, I released a tape and co-released that tape with another very cool Bay Area black metal/noise label called Acephale Winter Productions. But, I know Pete from BLR as being a fan of his label, and cause he worked with my band in the past on a vinyl release.
* What’s been the biggest headache in running your label so far?
Right now my dog and my girlfriend are hating the boxes of tapes and vinyls that keep piling up in our small apartment seemingly with no end, ahah
* What can we expect in 2017 from Sentient Ruin Lab?
Upcoming in the next month or so are the Gateway tape, the Friendship “I&II” tape and the Petrification debut demo tape along with the vinyl version of VRTRA’s “My Bones Hold a Stillness”, of which the tape came out last fall. The first half of the year will see The new American LP/tape, the new Show of Bedlam LP/Tape, and the Friendship “I&II” LP. Planned but with no release schedule set yet are the Leather Glove full length LP/tape, a Black Earth LP/tape, and a few other things I can’t really disclose right now cause they are either still unconfirmed or the bands would not permit.
* Any final words?
It means the world that anyone would want to know more about a small entity like SR. Thanks for the interest and the support!