Label profile: Frkwys

Starting a record label is a huge investment – of time, money, blood, sweat and tears. You have to be pretty stupid or pretty masochistic to get yourself involved.

Matt Werth is a masochist all the way; he seems to derive serious pleasure from all that pain. While most of his contemporaries were smoking bongs and navel-gazing, Werth channelled his high-school boredom into releasing punk records. His arrival several years later in New York – via Philadelphia – prompted him to found a new imprint, Rvng Intl., indulging his increasing interest in dance and electronic music. To begin with, the main strand of Rvng’s output was the Rvng of The Nrds series, with artists from near and far – including The Flying Squad (Tim Sweeney), Wade Nichols (Todd Terje), Greg Wilson, Pilooski and Jacques Renault – contributing re-edits of obscurities and forgotten gems by the likes of Wire, R.D. Burman and Munich Machine. A significant cut above the usual mutant disco fodder, these 12″s were clad in distinctive artwork from Kevin O’Neill and sounded, without exception, killer; but Rvng was never going to restrict itself to re-edits. Running alongside the Rvng of The Nrds was the Rvng presents Mx series, a run of eccentric mix CDs that peaked with mind-bending entries from Purple Brain and JD Twitch, and since then Rvng has brought out two original releases, Pink Skull’s Endless Bummer LP and These Are Power’s Candyman EP.

But the focus of our attention today is Frkwys, a division of Rvng which sprung into life last year. More than a mere sub-label, Frkwys’ stated ambition is to bring together “contemporary artists and their progenitors by way of remix, reinterpretation and original collaboration”. The first 12″ release on the label, perversely entitled Frkwys Vol.2, featured two remixes of Jon Fell Ryan’s much-loved experimental troupe, Excepter. The Brooklyn band, who have released their last few albums on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks, surrendered the stems for their tracks to Carter Tutti and JG Thirlwell. Carter Tutti is of course the duo of Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, founding members of Throbbing Gristle and all-round electronic envelope-pushers (can you believe this was made in 1983?), while JG Thirlwell is best known for his grandstanding industrial recordings as Foetus, and more recently the Morricone-influenced instrumentals he makes under the name Manorexia.

As if all this cross-generational collaboration wasn’t extraordinary enough, Frkwys is an interesting business proposition in and of itself, being based around a 100-strong base of subscribers who help to finance its releases and feed back with ideas for projects they’d like to see happen. This additional funding allows the label to compensate all artists involved upfront, and also enabled Vol.2‘s amazing packaging: a tip-on style jacket wrapped in black leatherette and overlayed with “family portrait”-style photographs of Excepter, Thirlwell and Carter Tutti.

This month sees the release of Frkwys Vol.3, an album-length collaboration between ARP & Anthony Moore, comprising seven modern minimalist instrumentals and one vocal track born out of sources old and new. It features reworkings of original and unreleased 1960s material by Moore, and contemporary pieces by ARP (real name Alexis Georgopoulos). The project came about as a result of Georgopoulos’s love of Moore’s 1971 album Pieces From The Cloudland Ballroom, a record once described by Alan Licht as neither “a Krautrock or artrock LP but a bona fide minimal classic”. When Moore heard some of ARP’s own music, he claimed to be “struck by a powerful sense of familiarity, a recognition of certain musical values close to my own heart being explored by someone else”.

The upshot of this instinctive connection was the coming together of Moore and Georgopoulos at Atlantic Sound’s Brooklyn studio in September 2009, where they recorded Frkwys Vol.3 with a 24-track, 2″ Studer tape machine. A range of instruments and strategies were employed in the making of this soaring, contemplative record, including tape loops, cello, violin, piano and analogue synthesizers. Fans of Arthur Russell, Steve Reich and the more pensive, organic end of kosmische music will find much to admire here; and of course it all comes in sumptuous tip-on packaging replete with family portrait and spot-on design from Kevin O’Neill.

ARP is one third of experimental ensemble The Alps, who have released records on labels including Type, Smalltown Supersound and Root Strata. In 2007 he released a fine solo album for Smalltown, entitled In Light. Anthony Moore, meanwhile, played a significant role (primarily as keyboardist) in the groundbreaking English avant-rock group Henry Cow, which was formed by Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson in Cambridge in 1968. The duo performed music from Frkwys Vol.3 live in New York last month, by all accounts a very special evening.

You can tell by now why we’re so interested in Frkwys, right? FACT got hold of the eternally busy Matt Werth to talk about the label, its origins and his plans for its future….

Anthony Moore and ARP by Jody Rogac

First of all, please tell us a bit about yourself – who you are, and what your life in music up to this point has been…

“I’m an 8 year NYC transplant from Arkansas via Philadelphia. I moved to Philadelphia when I was 18, leaving a punk rock record label I’d run through high school and seeking asylum in a city inherently exposed to more music because of its locale.

“Once arrived, I gradually moved beyond the selection of Spacemen 3 and My Bloody Valentine records I transported with me to the grittier sounds of mid-90s Philly noise & psyche a la Siltbreeze (The Dead C, Harry Pussy) and, for the first time in my life, electronic music.

“After finishing college in Philadelphia and playing in several bands, I moved to New York for even broader exposure to music. Rvng released a couple mixtapes prior to my move but really grew legs after the first or second year I was settled here.”

“There are still a lot of incredibly smart and passionate artists left under the mutable and mutant skin cells of NYC.”

To what degree to you consider Frkwys (and Rvng) to be a product of New York? Spiritually and culturally, I mean…

“Thus far, only one of the six artists we’ve involved for a Frkwys edition are based outside of NYC. I don’t need to convince anyone that NYC is a cultural nexus where creative movements both large and small resonate on a worldwide level. I’m just fortunate that I can draw from this truth for inspiration, especially for a project that involves an intense knowledge and respect of music tradition. There are still a lot of incredibly smart and passionate artists left under the mutable and mutant skin cells of NYC.”

Tell us more about the high school punk label. What was the driving force behind it?

“Like most punk rock labels of the early 90s, the driving force was to stave off boredom. Alcohol and drugs hadn’t really seeped into our scene where the average band member age on the label was 16, so there was a lot of idle time to fill with home recording, screen-printing record covers, putting on shows, and booking tours. The idea was to hang out with a bunch of friends and have something to hold and listen to at the end instead of barfing in each others shoes. I’m sure that’s why I’m a quality control freak now with Rvng.”

Was their a eureka moment, a sudden awakening, a particular record that opened you up to the world of electronic music, or was it more of a gradual process?

“Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album was a eureka moment. I was just dipping my toes into the worlds of drum & bass and jungle –  at this point having had limited exposure to “electronic music” beyond Weatherall remixes and E.A.R. oscillations – and was finding the waters tepid. Then I discovered that album. Richard D. James was beat manic and texturally exciting to my ears but also possessed immediately identifiable melodic and pop qualities.”

“Alcohol and drugs hadn’t really seeped into our scene where the average band member age on the label was 16, so there was a lot of idle time to fill with home recording, screen-printing record covers, putting on shows, and booking tours.”

Why did you choose to start Frkwys? You’ve already got one label – Rvng Intl. – so are you a masochist or what? What distinguishes Frkwys from Rvng, what’s the idea behind it…

“I am a masochist. I have the paper cuts to prove it. Although Frkwys requires a whole new set of responsibilities (and possibilities), it isn’t a separate label from Rvng. It’s a series, like our Rvng of the Nrds 12″s (Pilooski, Greg Wilson) or the Rvng Prnsts Mx mix CDs + vinyl (Purple Brain, JD Twitch).

“What distinguishes Frkwys from the other series rooted in re-edits and DJ mixes is the focus on original music and the reinterpretation of. The guiding concept behind the series is to bring contemporary electronic artists together with their creative forebearers of sorts and allow them to collaborate as inspired.

Excepter by Andy Curtain

Tell us about the subscription model, indeed, the business idea in general of Frkwys. What led you to go with this kind of approach?

“Honestly, the biggest benefit from employing a subscription model is a sense of duty and timeliness to our subscribers. The Frkwys series lives for the artists and subscribers first and then warmly and receptively fans out to anyone that missed the subscription opportunity. It allows me to communicate and almost consult with a cluster of people that have entrusted their confidence (and money) to us. One of the next series installations is almost entirely built upon a subscriber’s input for collaborations.

“A lot of the artists we’re working with went through the industry ringer at some point in their careers. This isn’t to say they process an opportunity with a bitter filter, they actually seem more keen to work on a project that trumps the system.”

What’s your A&R approach with this label? Where did the ideas for the collaborations spring from?“Chris & Cosey and JG Thirlwell were my idea but I did run both by Excepter for approval before pursuing them. Chris, Cosey, and JG all come from hands-on and adventurous music production and the presentation of it via packaging and live performance, so it was fairly easy for them to identify with Excepter and the series concept.

“It’s a respect thing, not hero worship (even though I probably fanned out a bit when meeting Throbbing Gristle on their US dates last year). None of these artists are relics, most are actively producing music. And, even if we are sparking a creative fire, it’s still and will always be within them.

“It’s also a trust thing. A lot of the artists we’re working with went through the industry ringer at some point in their careers. This isn’t to say they process an opportunity with a bitter filter, they actually seem more keen to work on a project that trumps the system. I believe that’s why we’ve accomplished such interesting results so far.”

ARP & Anthony Moore’s collaboration is album-length. What kind of practical challenges does putting out an album, as opposed to a three-track 12″, present you with?

“Well, practically, the budget swells considerably. In the case of this collaboration, we facilitated travel accommodations so Anthony could extend a trip to the US to rehearse and record with Alexis for ten days in New York. So, rather than sending session stems to artists for remixes, we were dealing with a full-on studio production – engineers, session players, tape reels, etc. I can tell you though that sitting and listening to the rough mixes at the end of Anthony & Alexis’ session in the serenity of the Atlantic Sounds studio was worth every bit, and completely mind-melting.”

Tell us about the artwork concept behind Frkwys – who designs the sleeves, and how do you achieve the results you want?

“The artwork is compiled by Kevin O’Neill at Will Work For Good. Kevin’s been a part of every Rvng release from the ground up. Our Peter Saville. The portrait concept is part documentarian and part family portrait. You can choose which artist is the weird uncle. OK, they all are.

“For the Excepter 12”, I ran all 1100 jackets in leatherette wraps and adhesive tip-ons. The cost on each jacket was already insane and then I got the freight bill from California. Holy fuck. For the second series, I killed the leatherette and produced some beautiful black jackets and adhesive tip-ons with Stumptown Printers in Oregon. We manufacture all vinyl locally with Brooklyn Phono.

“Everyone should be blessed equally for buying music in its physical form.”

Frkwys’ name obviously alludes to Folkways. Do you feel an affinity, however abstract, with that label?

“It is a bit abstract but I do feel an affinity. Like Moses Asch’s label, what we’re doing with Frkwys is documenting a music movement but enabling the movement to happen in order to document. We’re not travelling the world for field recordings but we might put together some artists in a live space or living room and preserve the sound.”

The first release on the label was Frkwys Vol.2. What happened to Vol.1?

“Not to worry. It’s coming together but continually evolving. We really didn’t make it easy on ourselves releasing Vol. 2 before Vol. 1 but that’s the freaky nature of this pursuit.”

Do you feel like the subscription model is going to be something we see more and more of? Is it the future of vinyl?

“The vinyl market is at a saturation point. There are so many records available now compared to just five years ago. I’m all for it but it does create a sense of bewilderment for buyers. We’re about to see pressing numbers drop, a number of labels that adapted to the “vinyl craze” dropping production with them, and records becoming specialty items all over again. I feel like fans that buy the 100 to 1000 records you press from release-to-release naturally constitute a subscription base and there’s no real need to differentiate reward levels. Everyone should be blessed equally for buying music in its physical form.”

Can you tell us anything about your plans for Frkwys in 2010 and beyond, or is it all under wraps?

“Under wraps but keep an eye our our Facebook for subtle and not-so-subtle hints.”

Are you particularly feeling the work of any other labels out there?

“I love Mississippi Records. So much care going into those records. A few NYC labels that I really respect are Golf Channel, Sacred Bones, and Olde English Spelling Bee. Beyond the City, D-I-R-T-Y Soundsystem and DC Recordings always bring it. I’m a full on geek for label culture.”

What advice would you offer to someone thinking of starting their own label in 2010?

“Go for it but do it well.”

Kiran Sande