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In The Warmth of Winter: An Interview with Projekt Records' Sam Rosenthal

21 December 2023

After I recently reviewed the reissue/restoration of Black Tape For A Blue Girl’s 1987 release Mesmerized by the Sirens I slipped down a Darkwave rabbit hole with Projekt Records. While sliding through hits of gothic rock, post-punked rhythms, ambient waves, and electronic vibrations, I realized that 2023 is a banner year for this label. So, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Projekt I convinced label founder and Black Tape For A Blue Girl leader Sam Rosenthal to answer some questions.

Marcel Feldmar: When you started Projekt, did you know it would last, or did you just hope it would last?

Sam Rosenthal: I had no thoughts about it lasting, really. In the early 80s in Florida, I was making a fanzine, Alternative Rhythms. There was no internet, so readers couldn’t hear the obscure bands I and friends were writing about. In 1983 I decided to put out a cassette, Projekt Electronic South Florida, of some of the local electronic bands we covered. I think it was all instrumental, there might have been one track with vocals. It included a track of my own instrumental electronic music. Projekt was started to complement the fanzine. I dubbed some cassettes with a xeroxed cover and left them on consignment at some local record stores and sold them via an ad in the zine. Then I started putting out my own music; I was at community college going for a journalism degree. I moved to California for my BA in TV/Film (with an Art minor) and released the first Black Tape For A Blue Girl LP, The Rope in 1986. That’s when the label became a bit more real. But still, I didn’t think it would last, I wasn’t really thinking of it that way, it was something I was doing while getting a degree to get a career. I worked in computer graphics for a while after college, but by 1991 Projekt became my full-time job. Not many businesses last 10 years, let alone 40 plus!

MF: While the label encompasses a wide range of sounds and styles, it also seems like Projekt has kept a very steady aesthetic. Has it been difficult to keep this going over the years?

SR: There is so much great music out there, as far as finding music I enjoy, that part has not been difficult. The difficult part was the financial challenges. In the late 90s, Projekt got deep in debt. There were eleven employees at the peak in Chicago around ’97-98. I was paying two main people a good salary, and health care. Even with Black Tape, Lycia, Love Spirals Downwards doing quite well we ultimately weren’t bringing in enough money to cover all Projekt’s bills.

MF: Looking at those early releases and moving through all the other offerings from the past 40 years, I am amazed and impressed at the solidity of your vision. Is this sort of musical curation difficult?

SR: As far as the solidity of the vision, it started with Black Tape For A Blue Girl which attracted certain fans, and then selecting other artists that would likely also appeal to those fans. We were doing a lot of mail-order so we had a nice direct connection to the listeners, we could introduce them to the new artists on the label. There are some further-afield artists I’ve released over the years, generally they just didn’t connect with the core audience. The exception to that is Aurelio Voltaire. I released The Devil’s Bris, his debut, in 1998; the style was catchier/pop-accessible in its own way. It was such a strong release (musically, and as a seller) that he brought completely different people to his music. Projekt had six of Voltaire’s albums, and since he’s self-released his music, he continuously brings new listeners to what he’s doing. His new fans are often very young, even the kids of his fans from the original era. The ambient and electronic artists that make up the majority of Projekt’s releases these days have a much older average fan.

MF: That sort of brings me to my next question, with releases moving from the cabaret to the ambient. Your discography is obviously not streamlined sonically, but looking at all the multiple genres there is a solid line that seems to connect everything, from the ethereal to the industrial. Is there a specific sound or mood that you search for?

SR: I see two solid lines through the label. One on the darkwave side, and one on the ambient/electronic side. I suspect I am the only person who has heard every release on the Projekt label. Not even Shea Hovey, who has worked with me for 22 years, has heard all the early ones.

MF: How do you feel about the term “Darkwave” as it is used now, seeing as you helped bring it over into the United States in the early 90’s?

SR: People use the term as a wide umbrella, which is fine. That was my idea when I started using “Darkwave” in the ‘90s: it encompassed all sorts of music, rather than something very specific. I hear a lot of music that I personally hear as more in a synth/electronic lineage vs what I would consider goth or Darkwave. But it’s not really mine to say anymore, is it?

MF: No, that wave has found many shores to crash upon, and many bands have jumped into those dark waters. So, with that wave reaching as far as it has, do you actively seek out new bands to release on your label, or do you trust they will find you?

SR: These days, they find me. In 2023, Projekt released two new acts on the Darkwave side, Armenia’s VEiiLA and Italy’s DELREI. They both sent digital demos, and I liked them, and they have done quite well. Honestly, I think they are both kinda far from that throughline we mentioned. They are on the darker side, but they aren’t the ethereal/Darkwave people knew Projekt for in the 90s. VEiiLA is downtempo pop. DELREI is spaghetti-western-infused Americana.

MF: I guess after doing this for so many years, it’s nice to discover sounds that you haven’t heard so many times.

SR: I hear a lot of demos from bands that are of the style you’d expect I would hear: goth-rock or post-punk. I think they are fine, but it’s not sparking my interest. Nothing new. They might be just fine, but I think, “I heard this in the 90s.” Which is ok, of course. Nostalgia and retro is always going to be popular, so I’m not knocking them for being into that style and performing it… but that music needs to be promoted by the right label. Dais Records or somebody. I suggest to those bands that they look for a label that is doing the 90s post-punk sound; that’s not where Projekt is at these days, we don’t have the contacts to really succeed there, nor is it something that really interests me.

MF: So what does interest you?

SR: With both VEiiLA and DELREI, I listened to their tracks and thought, “Wow, this is well done, it’s enjoyable, and feels fresh and interesting!” I didn’t realize there’s a “Gothic Western” genre happening right now. And even one called “Y’alternative” if you want to believe that’s really a genre and not just a marketing term to sell clothing or something (laughs)! DELREI has the right sound at the right moment to fit into some of these new subgenres. Alessandro Mercanzin’s [Delrei] music has been getting on a lot of Spotify playlists and earning a lot of reviews in Italy.

SR: But back to your earlier question, bands find me. I’d say I hear a good electronic/ambient demo every week. I gotta restrain myself from releasing them all. An amazing thing about 2023 vs 1997 is Projekt can release a new album every week, when it’s digital-only. We don’t have the financial and storage restraints of physical product like in the 90s. Back then, there were years where Projekt only had 2 new releases. But back then, a release could be promoted for 6 – 12 – 18 months. Those Lycia, and Black Tape and Love Spirals Downwards releases had long legs (as they say). Now, the stream wants to be replenished continuously.

MF: Visually speaking, the releases on Projekt all (with some exceptions) fit together. How involved are you with the design/outward appearance of the releases?

SR: I guess I’ve designed 85% or more of Projekt’s album covers. I’m the label’s graphic designer. The artists often (but not always) provide the images to choose from, and I go at it and come up with the design. This is like the way 23 Envelope did the 4AD covers in the 1980s. As a designer my directive has always been to make each artist’s cover unique, where 23E tried to make every band look like a 4AD release. Don’t ask me where I got an eye for graphic design, but after designing 500 covers, I know where the bar is, the standard I need for a Projekt cover. There are a few dogs in there, I admit. These days, I reject the covers that just aren’t gonna be good enough. We find other solutions in those cases.

MF: Is there a band from days gone by (late 80s/early 90s) that you wish had been on your label?

SR: You know, London After Midnight sent me their demo in the early-90s. I was a pompous ass and thought, “This doesn’t fit the sound of the label.” Where if I had stretched my mind, it would have been a very lucrative release for Projekt. Hearing it again years later it’s much more listenable that I gave it credit for, in a Death Rock vein. But as far as a release I wish had been on Projekt, Rozz Williams / Gitane Demone’s 1995 Dream Home Heartache is an amazing album, that I’ve listened to so often. It was released on Triple-X here in the USA, so it’s not like it was an option. Another is Spiritual Front’s 2006 Armageddon Gigolo; I wanted to license it for U.S. release, but the German label didn’t want to give up their export-to-the-usa sales, which didn’t help the band at all. Spiritual Front never really grew in the USA because they needed a domestic label. But that’s almost 20 years ago now.

MF: But you managed to get some fantastic and important bands on the label, and not all of them hitting that darkwave/deathrock vibe, either.

SR: Fortunately, yes. I have some of the most important classic American Ambient/electronic releases on Projekt. Steve Roach’s Structures from Silence, Quiet Music, Dreamtime Return and Michael StearnsPlanetary Unfolding. They weren’t originally on Projekt, I licensed them from the artists over the years. Steve and I have been working together since the early 90s. We have a long collaboration, and he has 100 (more?) releases on Projekt! And Projekt is releasing the 40th anniversary remastered edition of Structures in February 2024. Many people think about the 90s heyday of Projekt’s darkwave releases, but when the clock struck 2000 Projekt only had around 100 releases, and now Projekt’s is releasing its 417th release. And there are 300 more on the Archive digital-only label. The ongoing focus has become artists in the space music ambient genres: Steve, Erik Wøllo, Forrest Fang, Stearns, and many others.

MF: Do you feel that social media has expanded the label’s audience? Has it changed how you promote/advertise the label?

SR: There was an article recently about how NPR left Twitter, and it had no negative effects on their reach. That’s the way I feel about social. Twitter is useless at getting people to check out the music. Facebook does still work some, but mostly at my personal page vs. the Projekt page, because of how Meta has squelched down the reach of their business pages. When I do my Kickstarters, I have tools to track where people come into the campaign to pledge. On the campaign for Mesmerized by the Sirens in early ’23, Facebook was 7% and Twitter was 0%. Of course, I abandoned Twitter for all the reasons you’d expect. It’s useless, Musk is fascist-adjacent, and it’s a toxic cesspool.

MF: So how do you promote?

SR: The most effective way I promote Projekt is via our email list, and our Bandcamp page, which has over 18,000 followers. Projekt does a Name-Your-Price new release almost every week of the year. We are always building our following that way. I don’t advertise much anymore. I did two ads in #93 of The Big Takeover. These were probably Projekt’s first adverts in 5 or 10 years. I have rarely found ads to be effective. They are more Projekt showing its support for a publication. Maybe there’s some “branding” that comes from an ad? Back in the Alternative Press mid-90s era (pre-internet) I suspect the ads were effective at getting the word out. And earlier, I did 1-inch ads in the back of Spin that got 1000+ letters in the mail each time (asking for the catalog). Where is there to advertise that would really make a difference these days, anyway? I’ve known Jack forever, but I hadn’t seen Big Takeover in ages. It was really nice to see there’s still a magazine with 50 pages of album reviews. Reminds me of Option or The Bob, or what-have-you from the 80s.

MF: The Bob! That’s a blast from the past, but I know what you mean. I discovered so much of the music I still listen to now by scouring the ads, reviews, classifieds from Flipside and Maximum RockNRoll, and of course, growing up in Vancouver, Discorder. But now that whole landscape has changed. Like the genres you started with, even. Have you seen any noticeable shifts over the past four decades within the darkscene? Has there been a movement towards more ambient or more folk, for example, or is it always a nice mix of shadows?

SR: I gotta honestly say that I don’t pay much attention to what the overall scene is doing, because Projekt has never really been part of what to me is more of a club-music scene. When Lycia was big in the mid-to-late 90s, they were pretty out of step with whatever was being played in clubs. A few tracks, such as “Pray,” were played by DJs. But really, it seems that club music has always been the primary sound in the scene-version of Darkwave. Lycia put many years into touring and getting their music out there, mostly on their own terms. And Black Tape played 151 shows. The last one was in 2011, and I don’t expect there’ll ever be more. To your question, though … I dunno what’s really the big new thing in the dark music scene.

MF: Are there plans to reissue any other artists on the label soon?

SR: I have 13 Michael Stearns albums I am slowly reissuing. Two of them are out, and we’re looking at the next one for March or April. I digitally reissued the catalog from a German band, Solitaire. I am digitally reissuing albums from Czech art-project Autopsia. For the bigger Darkwave bands, most of them have taken their catalog back from their respective labels and reissued themselves. The work has already been done in promoting those titles (by the labels and/or the artists) and now they can pocket the streaming income directly, as they have classic titles. There’s a logic to that. It’s what Black Tape has always done: self-release.

MF: Speaking of reissues, the recent re-release of Mesmerized by the Sirens was, according to you, a total restoration. Using today’s equipment and technology to paint a much more detailed sonic picture of what you wanted it to sound like in 1987. Are you working your way through your discography or just picking certain ones that you know can sound better.

SR: I had Mesmerized transferred from the analog 1/2” multi-track to digital, so I could mix the album from scratch. I didn’t add any new performances, I wanted to keep the same general levels between all the parts, because the concept and execution works for that era. To me, the goal was to do it the way Steve Wilson has remixed a lot of classic albums: make it all sound better, more distinct, less mud, hear all the instruments. I’d do this with all of Black Tape’s albums released prior to 2002 when I started recording digitally; except there’s something holding me back. In the 90’s when I started using MIDI to sequence the synths, I stopped recording my parts onto the multi-track tape. Now those sequences (and some of the synths) are gone, so I have 8-track tapes with just the vocals, and the instrumentalists, and maybe a few warbly synths, but not the overall backing track. For 2024, I’m going to remaster 1999’s As One Aflame Laid Bare By Desire. I am having the tapes baked and digitized at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio in Chicago. I would like to remix a few of the songs on the album, but I don’t know if enough of my parts are on the tape to do it. My main issue with that album is my vocals on a few tracks. I am not quite in tune. I can fix that now with Melodyne in a way that nobody would notice, because I’m not going crazy with the pitch shift, just bringing each note closer to in tune. I’ll see what I can do, once the tapes are back.

MF:Are these reissues getting new listeners as well as repeat customers?

SR: Interestingly As One Aflame is now one of the popular Black Tape albums at Spotify. And also interestingly, more than half the listeners are under the age of 27. They weren’t even alive when that album, or the six earlier ones, came out. Like I said about Voltaire having a lot of new young fans, that seems to be happening with Black Tape too. It’s honestly weird to realize that I’m now an “oldies” act, and the music is getting discovered by a new generation.

MF: I suppose this is somewhat like restoring a great piece of art or some fantastic architecture. Are you careful to keep the original intent pure?

SR: Oh yeah! I don’t want it to turn out like that Spanish Ecce Homo (laughs) disaster. My goal is to keep the original intent pure but make each instrument’s EQ sound as good as it originally did, and make it possible to hear more of the parts that were lost under my awful mixing skills (and gear) back in the day.

MF: I assume this process is probably harder to use with some albums, depending on the technology originally used. The way things change I imagine some early albums being harder to remaster than others.

SR: The big challenge will be remixing 1986’s The Rope. It was recorded on a porta-studio which is a 4-track cassette tape. I ping-ponged multiple instruments to a single track; one might contain the guitar, bass and drums smashed together. I’m not the Beatles with endless AI (and money) to help me out! I have no way to separate those into separate tracks again. There’s only so much I can do. I remixed one track from the album for an upcoming English compilation. On this new mix, the mix and eq of the music and Oscar Herrera’s vocals sound a whole lot better. But on the other hand, it doesn’t have the same muddy/mushy “special” quality of the original. I end up asking myself IS IT BETTER? It’s not a question with an answer, only a subjective opinion. Oscar and I like the new mix better, it sounds better. But I asked others who knew the album, and they leaned towards the original. Of course, the original is never going away. It will always be streaming in that original mix. And there’s thousands of CDs out there with the 90s mastering. Used bins and eBay will always have those available. There was a 25th anniversary remastering, and since The Rope will be 40 in 3 years, I am thinking of aiming at 2026 for a remixed rerelease. Possibly have both versions. CD 1 is a remix from the porta-studio, and CD 2 is a remaster of the mix from the original 2-track mix down. Do it as a 2CD/2LP so people can choose their own adventure (laughs).

MF: Is there an album from Projekt’s early days (NOT Black Tape) that you would love to hear remastered in this way?

SR: Two albums I’d love to hear remixed / remastered are the first two Brian Eno albums from 1974. Obviously not Projekt releases, but Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy are quite a mess, considering how much Eno later became known as a producer. On some songs, it sounds like the drums are in the next room behind a closed door. I know the issue preventing a remix is he did a lot of processing through his synths during the mixing, and there’s no way to get that back, but they could be so much better if you could hear all the parts.

MF: But Projekt…

SR: Ok, hmmm … I’ve always known what the sonic potential was of my early Black Tape albums, and where I failed to get that across in the mix. Oh, wait, you said “remastered” not “remixed.” In that case, the answer would be: ALL OF THEM. For example, I mixed LYCIA’s Ionia and A Day In The Stark Corner with Mike Van Portfleet, at my studio in the bedroom in Los Angeles. My equipment was pretty minimal in 1993-ish. We did what we could mixing off Mike’s porta-studio, but the mastering could be crisper for 2024. Mike did have Martin Bowes (of Attrition) remaster them for the re-releases a few years ago. So probably it’s already been done for LYCIA. My point is all the early albums could use/did get a remastering. For those initial early-90s CD releases, I was at a mastering lab using some very old equipment for the mastering from DAT to the CD digital master. All the old CDs that came out in the 90s were the best I could do at the time. But what one can do at home now is so much better than that. Martin does a really great job. He’s mastered a lot of releases for me/Projekt, in the last 3 or 4 years.

MF: Is there new Black Tape material on the horizon?

SR: I suppose it’s a question of how far the horizon stretches (laughs). I have nothing new I’ve been working on, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be something new one day. I just don’t really feel the need, desire, inspiration to work on new music. 2021’s The Cleft Serpent was such a good album. It was well-conceived as a concept album. And Henrik Mierkord and Jon DeRosa did such a great job in their performances. And it was successfully funded via Kickstarter, looked beautiful, satisfied the backers of the project, and then completely fell off the map within days. It’s tough for music to have any longevity these days because there’s so much more music rushing down the stream right behind it. Of course, I didn’t tour, there wasn’t a video, blah blah blah. So, I’m not blaming anyone, as there always was more I could have done. I know how good of an album it was. But frankly, the wider public mostly want the 80s and 90s releases from the band. So, the reissues are where I’ve been putting my energy. In January Projekt reissues my 1992 collaboration with vidnaObmana, Terrace of Memories. On LP, CD, & MiniDisc. Because there’s always a new old technology to revive!

MF: And me without a MiniDisc player. On that nostalgic note, I’ll wrap this up. Is there anything else you want to share?

SR: In interviews these days, I end up talking about the business side of Projekt, and the historical side. It is Projekt’s 40th year, so it makes sense. But do visit us at Bandcamp because there’s always several brand-new releases that are Name-Your-Price. And you’ll be signed up to get information on the new ones as they are releases. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me!

MF: Perfect. And thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Here’s to many more years of riding that Dark Wave.

Photo by Lisa Feuer

And as a holiday gift for our Big Takeover readers … while there is an 8-hour Spotify playlist Projekt 40th – darkwave, ethereal & goth out there, here is a special Just For You Projekt Top Ten put together by Sam. Something to give listeners a solid grasp on the complexities of the label. A sonic sampler that shows all sides.

1. Michael Stearns – Planetary Unfolding (2022 remaster)

2. Steve Roach – Structures from Silence (40th anniversary edition coming in Feb 2024)

3. Black Tape For A Blue Girl – Mesmerized by the Sirens (2023 Stereo Mix)

4. Love Spirals Downwards – Idylls

5. Lycia – A Day in the Stark Corner

6. Aurelio Voltaire – The Devil’s Bris (2020 remaster)

7. Various – A Dark Cabaret 2 ‎

8. VEiiLA – Sentimental Craving For Beauty

9. jarguna – Retrospective of Deep Days (2006-2023)

10. Delrei – Desolation and Radiation