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Pop (Do We Not Like That?)

Wednesday, Nov 24 1999
Pop (Do We Not Like That?) You're forgiven if you thought that Berkeley's Slumberland Records went out of business a few years ago. You're even forgiven if you've never heard of Slumberland in the first place. But quietly -- of late, very quietly -- Slumberland has helped to define and support what's been codified as indie pop, at least in the Bay Area.

Slumberland owner Michael Schulman is the type who bristles at these sort of comments, though -- any sort of statement that attempts to define or pigeonhole exactly what Slumberland does. "The guiding philosophy of the label is that the bands do stuff that sounds like them," he says. "And it's hard to run a label like that, if you can't say, 'I have this band and they sound just like Pet Sounds or the Ramones' first album.' I don't want people to do that with my records, because I don't do that in my head with the records that I love. If I only have $3,000 to make a record, why spend it to make an album that sounds like one I already own?"

Schulman is, for all intents and purposes, Slumberland, though it wasn't always thus. In 1989, while a student at the University of Maryland near Washington, D.C., he was part of a collective group of musicians and music fans who all shared a love for melodic underground pop music. That's not such a big deal these days, what with the current indie rock label scene from Elephant 6 to Merge putting out records bowing in fealty to the shrine of Brian Wilson, but 1989 was a different time. Back then, punk still hadn't completely used up every last one of its ideas, and the ruling theme of the independent rock underground was still hard-loud-fast. "We had a group of bands where ... nobody in America put out those kind of records, anything that was independent but also pop," says Schulman. "It was all punk or proto-grunge like [Minneapolis punk label] AmRep [Amphetamine Reptile], when they actually put out interesting records. I was in bands, and we did that kind of stuff, played with Unsane and the Godbullies and the Cows and all that shit. That stuff was pretty cool at the time, but there's more to life than that."

Instead, Schulman and his associates posited a new indie order. Taking their name from Winsor McKay's comic Little Nemo in Slumberland, they proceeded to release music that, like the comic, was hallucinatory, beautiful, and just a bit off- kilter. Early groups were upbeat, guitar-driven, and melodically sophisticated bands like HoneyBunch, Powderburns, Schulman's own Black Tambourine and Whorl, and, most notably, Washington, D.C.'s Velocity Girl. That band's Slumberland singles in 1989 and 1990, particularly the demiclassic "Your Forgotten Favorite," helped lead to a signing to then-no-name Sub Pop Records; Velocity Girl rode the crest of the Nirvana wave with moderate success before breaking up in 1996. There were a handful of labels that were tinkering with the idea of releasing underground bands that didn't play punk -- Olympia's K, most notably -- but most of Schulman's inspirational models were overseas: Summershine in Australia, Sarah in England, and Flying Nun in New Zealand. (In December 1989, stoked by the excitement of finishing their first 7-inch single, Schulman and Velocity Girl's Kelly Riles found themselves stuffing singles and drinking beer at the same time, which led to the idea that they should call Flying Nun founder Roger Shepard -- right then. They neglected to consider the time difference between Maryland and New Zealand; Schulman describes the resulting phone exchange as "brief and scathing.")

A few years later, Schulman moved to the Bay Area, frustrated with the D.C. scene and looking for "new adventures." By the mid-'90s the label was essentially his, releasing singles and EPs from the Swirlies, Small Factory, Boyracer, and others. And by that point, the mainstream was beginning to validate what Schulman had felt all along: Pop had more to say than punk. Whatever it was being called -- twee-pop, cuddlecore, indie pop -- by then it was at least being called something, and new labels like Simple Machines and Teen Beat were emerging to map out their own territories. Even unrepentant punk contingents were paying attention. "I've always been trying to figure it out, where it ... flipped," says Schulman. "Somehow Velocity Girl really catalyzed people. I remember when I first moved out here and I met a bunch of Maximumrockandroll people. All they would do is rave about Velocity Girl. [I said], 'You're kidding me! You guys really like that?' I couldn't believe it."

In 1991, Schulman was exchanging letters overseas with Tim Gane, whose band McCarthy had just broken up and who was busy forming a new group, Stereolab. The band sent Schulman a tape, and in October 1992 Slumberland put out Switched On, Stereolab's first release in the United States. The group, now signed to Elektra, played one sold-out show on Nov. 23 and plays another tonight at the Fillmore. "I don't get a lot of people saying, 'Wow, you discovered Stereolab,'" Schulman says, smirkingly.

The Slumberland legacy is still best represented by Why Popstars Can't Dance, a 1994 compilation that included San Jose's Jupiter Sun, England's Boyracer, Sacramento's Rocketship, a pair of Stereolab tracks (including "John Cage Bubblegum," still one of their finest moments), and other assorted songs. For anybody who truly believes that a great pop song can come out of nowhere, Popstars is sweet validation; five years on, it still sounds thrilling, and it remains one of the defining independent rock collections of the '90s.

More releases followed, sweet songs from bands that emphasized female vocals, like the Softies, Go Sailor, Tiger Trap, and locals Henry's Dress. But by 1997, having released around 50 singles, EPs, and full-length albums, Schulman was tapped out. "I spent all my money putting out all these records," he says, confessing to a few gray hairs and ulcers. "I don't know what impression people have of the size of the label, but it's basically me -- it runs out of my basement and if I sell 5,000 copies of something it's great." By then, the bands were gone as well, either having broken up or moved on to other labels; after the indie-pop honeymoon Nirvana helped finance was over, what Slumberland was doing wasn't such a big deal anymore. "I said, 'Fuck this, nobody cares,'" recalls Schulman. "I had no bands, and I felt like it had reached a logical end point." Pursuing an interest in experimental electronic music instead, he launched Dropbeat, whose catalog includes records from bit-wise locals Malcolm Arthur and Kit Clayton.

Then the Aislers Set came along, formed by Amy Linton out of the ashes of Henry's Dress. The quartet released a beguiling, haunting pop-folk record, Terrible Things Happen, just over a year ago, and it remains Slumberland's most recent release. In the midst of all this, Schulman realized that, gosh, he's been at this for a decade now. At Bottom of the Hill Dec. 1, Slumberland hosts the first of four planned 10th anniversary parties (New York, Washington, D.C., and Glasgow gigs are in the works) with the Aislers Set, Steward, and the Fairways. The show starts at 9:30 p.m. and tickets are $6; call 621-4455.

"I never thought of Slumberland as an indie pop label," says Schulman. "It's just a label." Regardless, DJs will be spinning "indie pop classics" to help everybody feel that much older.

Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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