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Bay Area Record Labels: Slumberland Records

The Bay Area's got world-class music and killer indie record labels to match. But what does it take to run a tastemaking label? In this new series, we look at the movers & shakers who've been changing the music game here in the past decade.

It's hard to overstate the influence Slumberland Records has had on indie bands around the country, and maybe even the world. Born in 1989 by former Black Tambourine member Mike Schulman, the one-man operation has used the DIY aesthetic of punk and a passion for fuzzy, noisy pop and experimental music to nurture groups like Stereolab, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, SF's very own Weekend, Brilliant Colors, The Swirlies, and Crystal Stilts.

What was the first band Slumberland signed?
Wow that was a long time ago. The first band was probably my band I was in at the time, which was called Big Jesus Trashcan. That’s kinda how we started the label. There were a bunch of us who knew each other from college and we had a little group of bands and we just decided to start putting out records and see how it goes. That was in the University of Maryland. I moved to the Bay Area in 1992.

What's the music scene and business like now, compared to when you first started Slumberland?
Wow that’s a big question. We’ve always put out bands from all over the world and there’s definitely been some times where there’s been a local focus. More recently, there’s been Weekend, Brilliant Colors, Grass Widow and bands like that, but how much change over time is hard to say. Nationally, I feel like we’ve always tried to almost not pay attention to what’s going on and just do our own thing and take our own aesthetic path and not get too caught up in what other people are doing.

Even other labels?
Yeah. One of the reasons we started the label was to put out stuff we felt like other people wouldn’t necessarily want to put out. To serve a purpose. And it seemed like once we started doing the label, most of the bands we were putting out were more noise bands, but we kind of started thinking in more of a pop direction because there weren’t a lot of US labels that were doing that kind of stuff. And I think there’s now more overlap aesthetically between what we do and what a lot of other labels do, like with Mexican Summer or Captured Tracks. I guess there’s something to that, there is some commonality, but I’d like to think that what we’re doing is a little bit different and justifies our doing it at all! Because if all we’re doing is putting out records anyone else would want to put out….

What’s the craziest thing a musician or band has done to get their music on your label?
I’ve had people be extremely persistent, to the point of complete annoyance, but in some of those cases, it turned out they were people I would end up putting out records by. I’m actually really glad those people were persistent. But I’ve gotten some crazy stuff in the mail, like extremely elaborately packaged demos and love letters to the label that were pretty charming. I got one demo from a guy once and it was actually pretty hilarious, he included a picture of himself posing in front of all his Slumberland records. He had a LOT of them, all these super limited editions. I know I still have that picture somewhere.

What’s the least glamorous thing about owning a record label?
It’s just an awful lot of work, there’s no way around it. But I really like doing it. I really like knowing I can keep stuff available way longer than it would be in a retail store. I like the idea of people being able to get records for a couple dollars cheaper, or a different color vinyl for mail orders, stuff like that. It’s definitely worth doing, but there’s a lot of work that is not glamorous at all [laughs]. If all it was was going out to clubs and hearing your bands, that would be awesome.

Favorite band to work with over the years?
They’re all special, but there was something about Henry’s Dress that was really unique and there was an electricity at their shows that I very rarely experience when seeing a band. The community that grew up around them and seeing the same faces at all their shows around the Bay Area, there was just something really f-ing amazing about that band. Mat Hartman [now of the Sic Alps] and I are working on a Henry’s Dress compilation of all their stuff, with a DVD and little fanzine too.

You guys have been around for over twenty years at this point….why do you think you’ve been able to stick around so long?
I think maintaining an aesthetic has something to do with it. One of the things that really allowed me to get through the last ten or twelve years was having a day job. I actually just quit my day job again two weeks ago; for the last twelve years I worked in software. During the last 18 months, once our Crystal Stilts and Pains of Being Pure at Heart records came out, there was no way to balance having a full time job and the label, and I also have a baby who just turned two, so it was absolute madness.

How did you come upon a band like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart?

I was thinking about this the other day. It was definitely Myspace. They sent me an email and said “Hey, we really like Slumberland’s stuff. You should check us out.” At the time I was getting quite a few emails like that from other bands. And so I was like “Eh, maybe, if I have time”. But I went and I looked and I remember seeing their musical influences and one they listed was a My Bloody Valentine record no one liked, which was one I liked. So I had to listen to it and it was fantastic. I was setting up a tour for this band The Lodger who were doing records with us, and we had an empty slot on the bill at a show in New York. They played at the show in New York and they just killed me, they were the best thing I’ve ever seen.

It’s cool to know that they reached out to you.
I never stopped doing the label but there were a couple years when I wasn’t putting out a lot of new stuff, and it was really nice when I finally got back into doing it in 2006 and started putting out new stuff. All these bands were approaching us saying “We’re totally influenced by the stuff you put out.” And it was really encouraging to know. I always hear people talk about Black Tambourine, but it was cool to find out that there was this undercurrent of new bands that were somehow influenced by Slumberland.

What’s your own musical background? Why do you trust your musical ear?
Well, I think I trust my own musical ear at this point! I was in Black Tambourine as well, but I got into playing music because I was a fan. I had no musical training, I never knew how to play an instrument until I started a band when I was in college. I’ve always been a record collector and I listen to a lot of stuff. The whole DIY aspect of punk rock was a big takeaway for me, and while Slumberland isn’t a punk label, it’s about being able to trust your instincts and aesthetic. It’s just me who’s picking out the bands, it doesn’t really get much smaller. Things have really picked up so much velocity in the past couple of years, I can barely keep up.