What’s in a Label? // Art As Catharsis & Worlds Within Worlds

If you’ve followed Heavy Blog over the last few years, you’ve likely noticed how much we adore the output of Art As Catharsis. This year alone, we’ve seen phenomenal albums ranging from the nu-jazz-fusion of COAST to the artsy chamber pop of Lack the Low to the blackened, deathly metalcore of Bridge Burner. I’ve long wanted to sit down with label founder Lachlan R. Dale to ask him a slew of questions about what’s behind AAC’s exceptional diversity and quality. Well, lo and behold, that’s precisely what we have for you today. Not only do we dissect the impetus for and ethos behind AAC, we also explore Lachlan’s latest venture, World Within Worlds, a new label dedicated to releasing new music from across the globe. There’s a lot to cover, so without further ado, let’s dive into his thoughts on running a label, the term “world music,” the state of Australia’s music scene and more.

Anyone who’s followed Heavy Blog for the last few years knows how much we love Art As Catharsis. There’s a lot I want to ask you about, but firstly, how and why did you launch AAC?

I had spent five years helping a friend run his record label, which focused on extreme metal. It was an excellent chance to help build skills and knowledge about how the space operates, but after a while, I wanted to work on a label that more accurately represented my tastes, which were in a state of rapid expansion.

At the same time, I found myself being exposed to more and more of the incredible talent in Australia’s underground. I remember seeing Squat Club perform, and just being utterly blown away by their creativity – to this day I have never heard anyone quite like them. They’d play to small crowds of a few dozen people and were essentially invisible on the global scale.

This was unfathomable to me – particularly when the whole world seemed to be drowning in bland, soulless, nondescript, commercial rubbish. I wanted to do what I could to help the artists that were inspiring me and to raise the profile of Australian musicians.

 

Besides the amazing roster you’ve made with AAC, my favorite part about the label is your knack for curation. How do you find the bands you sign, and why have you decided to focus more on a diverse lineup than a roster dedicated to a specific genre(s)?

I want Art As Catharsis to be representative of my personal tastes. Honestly, it just feels like we’re playing catch-up most the time, with Worlds Within Worlds being a case in point. And I have a need for a constant stream of new sounds to inspire me. It’s almost a curse: after a while, the bands you loved five years ago sound stale in your ears, so you’re forced back out into the digital wasteland to dig for hidden gold.

From my perspective, there are undercurrents that run through all our releases – no matter if the style is progressive metal, acoustic folk, noise, post-rock or experimental jazz. Music that is cathartic, introspective or progressive – those are our guiding ideas. I’ve always had a sense that there are far more connections between disparate styles then we’d like to admit. I’ve tried to underline that with our releases. Our roster can be taken as a challenge for people to open up.

Over the last few years, it has been fun to think of the actual order or flow or releases: releasing two post-rock bands one after the other is no fun. Why not create an interesting sequence to keep people on their toes? Doom; experimental jazz; post-rock; Persian classical; psych rock.

But there is no single way that I discover a band. Sometimes I’ll see them live, or a friend might recommend them, or they might send me an email (though I’m pretty overwhelmed with the sheer volume of emails these days), or I may have been a fan of on them for years, plotting silently on how I can finally convince them to release something with me.

 

Similar to the first question, can you explain how and why you launched World Within Worlds, as well an explanation for what the label’s focus will be? From an outside perspective, it feels like the label is a way to better represent a growing niche on AAC’s roster, such as when you moved Eishan Ensemble’s Nim Dong from AAC to WWW.

An argument has been raging in my head for the last seven years: what should Art As Catharsis’ focus be? Am I alienating people with my release schedule? Am I making things harder for myself, and the bands? Is the range of styles too broad? Do I need to be conscious of cementing a core sound? Will our fans enjoy the weird rides we’re forcing them on?

Recently, I think I’ve conceptualised how I’m going to curate Art As Catharsis in the coming years – but Worlds Within Worlds is a separate question. While there is a bridge between the two labels (which might see me absurdly co-releasing records with myself), Worlds Within Worlds will focus on classical, contemporary and fusion “world music” from across the globe. That international – and largely non-Western – focus is a clear break from Art As Catharsis.

I formed the new label for a few reasons. Firstly, I’ve been delving into the classical music of India, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and so on – and am slowly stumbling my way through playing instruments like the Afghan Rubab and Persian Setar. Worlds Within Worlds is an attempt to establish a new community around these artists, and help spread the excellent music they are producing.

Secondly, I’ve been looking for ways that I can integrate my travel and engagement with other cultures in a more meaningful way. For a while now, I’ve been planning to spend an extended period around the Middle East. The label provides me with a reason for engaging with local musicians.

I think back to a group of musicians I met in Khorog, which lies on Tajikistan’s border in Afghanistan. They invited me into their house and performed some Pamiri Sufi pieces which were unlike anything I have ever heard. If I was able to capture that performance – through audio, video and the written word – and help provide them with some additional income, I would be very happy.

I suppose Worlds Within Worlds is an answer to a number of questions that have always concerned me: how can I ethically travel through countries like Tajikistan? How can I meaningfully engage with other cultures? How can I use my obvious privilege to give back?

 

Let’s talk about WWW’s first full release – Yama Warashi’s Boiled Moon. I have to say the lead single “Kofun No Uta” has me wicked excited for the full album. How did you connect with Warashi, and why did you decide to lead off WWW’s catalog with his latest album?

This release came to me through the fine people of Small Pond. They’re a UK-based label that is home to bands like The Physics House Band, Alarmist and Town Portal. I feel like they’re on a similar wavelength to Art As Catharsis.

We’ve had a partnership for the last six months whereby we share co-release opportunities with each other. Small Pond have kindly worked with us on Brian Campeau’s new album and Hashshashin’s recent live albums. We’re taking on a few of their upcoming releases.

They put Yama Warashi’s album in front of us at just the right time. I was looking for an excuse to actually put my plans for Worlds Within Worlds into action – and this delightful record, with its unique mix of Japanese folk music, African rhythms and psychedelic edge, seemed like the perfect opportunity.

 

This has actually been something I’ve wondered for a while, and you seem like a perfect person to offer an opinion on it. What are your thoughts on the “world music” tag? It’s admittedly an easy way to convey an overarching “sound” to most listeners, but it also feels like it segments a variety of cultural music movements with established genres styles into one meta tag. For example, Saagara’s 2 was one of my favorite albums from last year, and after doing some research on the album/group, I found that its genre is Carnatic Classical Music, which is a traditional style of music created in Southern India. But in all honesty, it seemed more practical to describe it as “World Fusion” and just simply “World Music” or “Jazz” so more of our readers would have a sense of what it was, even though it felt like it discounted the established tradition the band pulled from to produce the album.

You and I have been thinking about similar things it seems. I’m still trying to work through my thoughts, but I’ll give it a go.

My instinctive reaction is that I dislike the label. It seems dismissive to categorise the various universes of non-Western music under the term “world music.” It smacks of Euro-centricity, elitism and ignorance, and it makes me uncomfortable.

But then, my view on genre-labels more generally is that they’re a necessary evil; they serve a pragmatic purpose. I’ll happily use them in other contexts to help anchor listeners in the sea of words and sounds they’re forced to swim in every day.

I haven’t yet worked out how to resolve my discomfort with the labels, and the expectations of our potential audiences. We’re too early in the piece to have a definitive answer.

I can see that education is going to be a necessary piece of the puzzle. Where I can, I am going to be quite explicit about the traditions we’re representing – the classical art-music of Afghanistan, for instance – but fusion acts complicate things further. I’ve actually been mulling over the idea of writing an essay for each release, delving into the history and culture of the style in question. This would require me to shift the hours of laborious admin work that is currently consuming my time with the label, but that has been a long time coming. I hope it’s something I can do.

 

Karlo, one of our longtime writers, is based in Australia and has written several pieces for the blog highlighting the Australian music scene, including this comprehensive piece from a few months ago. I’ve seen you post your thoughts on the scene over time, and particularly the fact local venues have been closing frequently as time’s gone on. This is obviously a pretty broad question, but what are your overall thoughts on the state of Australia’s music scene?

I am heavily conflicted. To a degree, I’m attached to this romantic notion that, because of Australia’s vast geography and small population, musicians are forced to accept that a career in commercial music is untenable, and therefore are freed up to focus on more creative and experimental forms. Truly, I think our circumstances do open up a space for this type of, shall we say, commercially-ignorant art – but then I’ve also seen many excellent musicians suffer trying to make a living through studio work or tours, and I can’t pretend like that is okay.

Despite my general optimism for Australian underground music in general, I am beginning to feel gradually more hopeless when it comes to Sydney’s local scene. There are only a handful of venues left for labels like ourselves to hold events, and a small fraction still that combine good sound and a good location with a pleasant atmosphere. Honestly, it feels like we are one or two venue closures away from being unable to host shows to a standard we find acceptable.

I previously took solace in the fact that Sydney had a strong underground warehouse venue scene – but these have been hunted to near-extinction. We lose more iconic venues each and every year. At the State Government level, I see only nepotism – policies which only serve the interests of the real estate sector. The lock-out laws have crushed the nightlife of the city. Stagnant wages, rapidly rising rental prices and stifling red tape are killing any chance we have of opening innovative new spaces – the death of Black Wire Records being the case in point. That space is irreplaceable.

I am only now beginning to comprehend how extreme the contraction of the Sydney scene really is. Fewer and fewer new band are breaking onto the scene, while the older ones slowly fade away. What is left are the acts who are happy to play safe, trend-focused music – those groups who seem content to rehash what Nirvana or Sonic Youth have already produced. I will abstain from naming names, but there are some truly awful, derivative bands who seem to be enjoying considerable success. How should I regard these bands? They take no creative risks and seem to be devoid of personality. Do we really need another ironic indie rock band? Another ode to pub culture? Spare me.

You have probably heard the term “cultural cringe” – a phrase which names a tendency for Australians to devalue art, music and literature produced in our country in favour of those imported from overseas. I can absolutely see this in play. Why is it that festivals like Big Day Out or Soundwave have enjoyed such success, while the majority of Australian groups playing in the same styles only draw meager crowds?

As may be obvious, you have caught me at a time of peak frustration. Rest assured I will continue to channel this into building the types of spaces, events and communities that we want to see. I consider the onus to be on me.

I should say that I am continually inspired by the people doing excellent work all around me: venues like Lazybones Lounge and Camelot; radio stations like RTR FM and FBI Radio; online magazines like Overdrive (who have been a very welcome addition to the media landscape in Australia); studios like Sleepwalkers Dread, One Flight Up and Underground Audio.

Lachlan playing an Afghan Rubab. Photo: Margret Ellen Burns

 

Do you find that the phrase “Australian label” or “Australian band” is positive, negative or neutral? Have there been any challenges you and bands on your label (or Australian bands in general) have faced specifically because of where you’re based?

I don’t know how to answer that question, because I don’t have any point of comparison.

When I began I had the sense that I was fighting against the tide to some degree: the high costs of touring coupled with our geographic isolation mean there is generally little awareness of the bands we work with – but then that’s the entire reason why we exist.

I’ve had to make peace with the fact that we’re never going to break through to the level of Hydra Head Records, but then again, they do have 18 years on us.

 

Taking the last question more broadly, what are the main challenges of running a label in 2018? Considering the popularity of AAC and the fact you’ve just started a second label, I imagine you’ve found some level of success and enjoyment from what you do.

You are right. I am driven by the pleasure I derive from the work. Musicians in this country do not have it easy, and I am happy to help however I can.

In terms of the challenges; well, I’d say that there are so many possibilities when it comes to how you structure and run a record label these days. Our model is very different from most of those out there. My biggest challenge at the moment is time. We don’t take much from artists, but we’re also getting to the stage where I can no longer do this alone. I need help, and I need to pay for it. This has been the year of coming to terms with this and thinking about how I can put structures in place to allow for our continued expansion, without diluting what I think is special about the label. If that means I can get out hundreds of hours of mindless admin each year, I suppose that will be a good thing.

One particular challenge is the bone-achingly slow internet in this country. That is a source of constant frustration (generally 5 to 10 Mbps up, and 1 Mbps down).

The other is our shallow media landscape. I would have expected more blogs and more magazines with a focus on non-commercial music. Regrettably, this is not the case.

 

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions, and of course for all the great music you’ve put out over the years. To close things out, will you let us know what we can look forward to from AAC and WWW going forward? Any new albums or projects you’re particularly excited about?

With Worlds Within Worlds, I am spending the rest of the year making contacts and plans for 2019. This is part necessity, because our schedule for Art As Catharsis is exceedingly full.

In terms of what I’m looking forward to: I have always loved Brian Campeau’s music. His new album Old Dog, New Tricks is a delight.

Skullcave’s FEAR has to be one of the best pieces of forward-thinking, progressive doom I have come across. They are the perfect expression of Art As Catharsis’ ethos, and I hope they receive the reception they deserve.

We should be working with Zela Morgassian on her debut album – which is a wonderful Armenian-tinged jazz record that reminds me just a little of Tigran Hamasyan.

A few of my good friends have started some new projects that I am very excited about. One of those is Anti Guitar Trio, whose music is composed by Simon Dawes of Instrumental (adj.), and whose debut I’m hoping to release in early 2019. There is also an unnamed trio featuring two members of Squat Club who I can’t wait to hear.

Personally, I have been working with the rest of Hashshashin on our follow up to nihsahshsaH. It has been exhausting, but it feels like the endless hours of experimenting with new writing styles, new instruments and new vibes are beginning to coalesce. I had no idea what our debut album was until we’d finished mixing it, and this new album will be no different. I’m curious to hear how that all turns out.

Be sure to check out both Art As Catharsis and Worlds Within Worlds on Bandcamp. All photos were taken and provided by Margret Ellen Burns.

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"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger - something better - pushing right back." - Albert Camus






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