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Friday, May 11, 2012

Inside Slumberland Records, Berkeley's Legendary Indie Pop Label

Posted By on Fri, May 11, 2012 at 8:56 AM

click to enlarge Mike Schulman at Slumberland Records
  • Mike Schulman at Slumberland Records

Name: Slumberland Records

Owner: Mike Schulman

Founded: 1989

Headquarters: West Berkeley

Creation story: Inspired by mid-80's Lower East Side noise rock artists like Swans and Sonic Youth, Schulman formed Big Jesus Trash Can without any prior musical experience in Washington, D.C., where he was attending school. Although interested in the burgeoning hardcore scene based around Dischord Records, Schulman and his peers considered their artistic endeavors to be woven of a different thread. "We had this idea of a renegade art uprising. We were going to make films, make books, and infiltrate what was happening. That stuff was mostly drunk talk, but we did a little recording."

Those primitive recordings became the first Slumberland release in 1989, a compilation 7-inch featuring a track each from Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine, and Powderburns. Either unable to, or disenchanted by the thought of sending demos to labels, Slumberland was founded as a loose partnership between related D.C. bands that didn't feel a part of any scene already established. In its first few years, the label carved a niche in the American indie market, with flag-bearing artist Velocity Girl even signing to Sub Pop. Schulman relocated the label to the Bay Area in 1992, and has been its sole operator since.

click to enlarge Inside Slumberland
  • Inside Slumberland

Musical focus: Despite being influenced initially by noise rock ("It's kind of hard to fuse Galaxie 500 and the Birthday Party), Slumberland's roster quickly became focused on rock groups with keen pop sensibilities. In the '90s, it was affiliated with twee revivalism, a delicate, minimal variety of indie rock. Schulman is right to describe his label as eclectic, but admits that "some bands are janglier than others, some are busier than others, but they're all pop records of some stripe." Even in regards to S.F. post-punk outfit Weekend, Schulman praises the immediacy and succinctness of the band's catchiest moments.

Charm of the 45 RPM single: Nearly all of Slumberland's early releases were 7-inches. Singles were vastly more popular at the time, but Schulman feels a special affinity for the 45 and continues to release them in droves today, while most labels regard them as financially impractical. To Schulman, they are the ideal pop format. If the elusive essence of a pop group cannot be distilled into a 7-inch, then it certainly isn't capable of writing a compelling album. To illustrate, London band Veronica Falls proved its pop viability on a 7-inch for Slumberland, followed it up with an acclaimed self-titled LP last year, and then released an additional 7-inch on the label.

click to enlarge allo_darlin_art.jpg

Reinvigoration: In 2001, personal circumstances led Schulman to place the label on indefinite hiatus, but Slumberland has enjoyed a period of reinvigoration since 2006, with a particular emphasis on local groups. Since then, Slumberland has released music by locals such as Brilliant Colors, Sic Alps, Weekend, and the Mantles, in addition to other groups around the world. Schulman has never cultivated a deliberate regional focus with Slumberland, but his pop sensibilities seem to have inexplicably aligned with the Bay Area's since 2006.

Latest release: Slumberland's two most recent releases are LPs from Allo Darlin' and Evans the Death. Both groups are from the UK and reflect two major strains of pop in Slumberland's history. Allo Darlin' is firmly aligned with twee, considering its relentless syrupy hooks, minimal instrumentation, and personal lyrics. On the other hand, Evans the Death is equally adept at crafting pleasing melodies, but it tempers accessibility with punchy techniques and dissonant sonic counterweights. Or, in Schulman's words, "They do noisy pop but play the shit out of it."

click to enlarge evans_the_death_art.jpg

Philosophy of the price point: New releases on vinyl often command exorbitant prices, but Slumberland respects its followers enough not to exploit the rekindling of consumers' interest in the format. Its singles usually retail at less than $5. Schulman seeks to entice consumers' interest in a group with his modestly priced singles, simply because that is how he experimented with new sounds as a teen. Additionally, the profit gained from slightly raising prices seems negligible to Schulman, but an additional dollar on the price tag could lose a sale in the record store.

Origin of the label name: Slumberland is named after the early 20th century American comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay. The comic revolves around childish fantasies, but the comic is vividly imbued with an odd, dark surrealism. The parallel can certainly be drawn between the comic's sense of innocence tainted and Slumberland bands' generally oblique approach to pop.

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Sam Lefebvre

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