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SHELVE THE REQUIEM: The Resurgence of Slumberland Records

13 February 2012

Note: the following is an online expansion of a profile of the independent label Slumberland Records that ran in the print edition of the current Big Takeover issue #69. Click here to order that back issue, or here to subscribe including that issue.

While many indie labels flicker and fade alongside the scenes they propagated, Slumberland Records’ beacon continues to burn brightly. The imprint has outlived many of its peers and predecessors, as well as the indiepop movement it emerged from in the early nineties. “I don’t think I could have ever imagined that the label would still be going two decades after it started, more popular than ever. It’s nice to see younger people and newer bands and labels that seem to ‘get’ what Mike [Schulman] has been doing this whole time,” asserts Archie Moore, guitarist of Black Tambourine/Velocity Girl.

Mike Schulman aka Papa Slumber

Schulman is Slumberland’s owner and sole employee—the bands lovingly refer to him as “Papa Slumber.” He is also part of his own roster; previously a member of Black Tambourine, Whorl, Powderburns, and Crabapples; and currently the guitarist for Manatee. His commitment to the perfect pop record is inciting a resurgence of interest in the label’s “noise-loving, pop-obsessed” aesthetic, as well as inspiring a new generation of artists—just listen to The Pains of Being Pure At Heart’s Self-titled record from 2009. “With the Pains it was full circle—they love Velocity Girl, and they love Black Tambourine, and they love The Ropers and weren’t shy about saying so when I met them,” shares Schulman. “I really love their music and that’s what it comes down to. And the fact that they’re aware of the history of the label and that motivates them in some way is a bonus. But even if they didn’t, I’d still be into putting their records out.”

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

For the Pains, it’s not necessarily about obsessing over groups from the past. Lead singer/guitarist Kip Berman explains, “All bands draw on the sounds and ideals that they love, and to an extent that they reform those ideas in their own language and voice, create something that is new. Expressing an aesthetic continuity with so many of the past Slumberland bands would seem a rote exercise in revival—those bands were great, and they don’t need new bands to rip them off explicitly to remind the world of that. But Slumberland has continued on for 20+ years, offering new sounds and ideas of what great pop should sound like, and we are proud to be a part of what they’re doing. Of course I could wax poetic about the genius of Aislers Set, Black Tambourine or Rocketship. But modern bands like Big Troubles, Weekend and Crystal Stilts (to name just a few) are going to be just as important to how future generations view the label.”

On the surface, the second wave of Slumberland bands (especially The Pains, Veronica Falls, Brilliant Colors, Girls Names, Gold-Bears, and Frankie Rose) appear to be wearing many of the same badges worn (and minted) by the label’s earlier roster. Moreover, both generations of bands share something deeper at their core; it goes beyond any scene or era. Berman describes it as “that unrelenting, unrestrained quality, that ‘hell yeah!’ call to unfolded arms that sets the label apart from many of its peers in indiepop.” Singer/guitarist/drummer Amy Linton suggests the same “vibe” existed in her bands (Aislers Set / Henry’s Dress / Go Sailor) and labelmates in the nineties. “I feel like most of the groups were making really unique music relative to the other active bands on the roster. I think that’s still true of the ‘new breed’ as well. It’s reflective of Mike’s eclectic taste and enthusiasm for good music, not trends.”

Black Tambourine

“When we started doing the label, we were all into Big Black, The Unsane, and Drunk Tank, and that kind of stuff,” Schulman reveals. “I’m sure a lot of people who just think of Slumberland as a twee label would not imagine the principles [of the label] being as into Pussy Galore as we were Sea Urchins.” Schulman and Moore, along with their bandmates from Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine, and Big Jesus Trashcan/Whorl, started the label in 1989 as a cooperative imprint. Moore sets the scene, “We were a very small group of close friends and housemates who played music together. Consequently, the vibe was one of excitement mixed with a sense of exclusion from the larger DC scenes. Early on, we didn’t feel particularly connected to anything else going on. The bands had zero ambition; they were more like excuses to make a racket and get buzzed with people you loved.”

The first Slumberland record was a 7” compilation titled What Kind of Heaven Do You Want?, and featured tracks from Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine, and Powderburns. Schulman describes it on Slumberland’s website as, “This home-recorded document of ineptitude, hope and enthusiasm. You could say we didn’t know any better, but that makes it sound like an accident.” The co-op went on to release a canon of 7” singles from their own bands, as well as Lilys, Small Factory, Swirlies, and Lorelei. Ropers’ guitarist Mike Hammel reflects on that time, “There really were no other labels like it in the US. We were huge fans of Slumberland’s first few singles and really wanted to get on the label. The fact that they had these great, noisy, loud bands with catchy singles was what drew us to it right away.”

Velocity Girl

The label came under the sole guise of Schulman in 1992, when he migrated from Silver Springs, Maryland to Oakland, California. The move marked a stepped up effort and focus on the label, which unleashed a wave of monumental releases that year: Lilys In The Presence of Nothing, Stereolab Switched On, Jane Pow Love It, Be It/State, and Lorelei Asleep EP. Year after year, Slumberland continued to dish out sweet sticky slabs of pop confectionery from The Ropers, Henry’s Dress, Boyracer, Hood, Rocketship, Softies, Nord Express, Aislers Set, and The Saturday People.

Schulman somehow found time in 1996 to start up a record store and another imprint with friend Ryan Cone. Drop Beat was located in Oakland and operated separately from Slumberland. Its focus was primarily on Jungle and Techno, genres that might surprise a few Slumberland fans and noise-pop purisits, but ones that Papa Slumber was (and still is) totally nuts about. “I absolutely thought that Jungle was going to change the face of music. It sounded like the most insane futuristic music—you could tell how it came out of rave and dancehall, but it also sounded like such a break from the past. I found the stuff thrilling and still do. I went back and listened to some of the records we did on Drop Beat recently, and I thought, ‘God damn!’ They sounded so good to me. That was a great period (in time).” Unfortunately, Oakland wasn’t quite ready for the future, and Drop Beat shutdown in March of 2000.

Come 2002, Slumberland’s release schedule slowed down dramatically, as the stars of its roster disbanded and/or moved onto activities other than making music. Schulman focused on family and his other career as a software engineer. America’s unfaltering indie/noise pop label went silent, and after three years of inactivity, many fans assumed its extraordinary existence had expired. Slumberland would be celebrated as post-punk folklore and immortalized alongside legendary imprints Postcard, Creation, and The Subway Organization …that is, if its time were truly up.

Unbeknownst to many, Slumberland was only hibernating. “People feel we stopped then started label, which really isn’t the case, because I was working on it everyday,” claims Schulman. He was surveying a barren crop of 21st century guitar pop, while patiently waiting for the future stars of Slumberland to show their faces and share their music. The label began to stir from its slumber in 2007, as a handful of bristly sounding 7” singles from The How, Sarandon, and Schulman’s own band The Crabapples trickled out, along with an album of soulful, Postcard-inspired guitar-pop from UK’s The Lodger. However, 2008 would mark the start of an unexpected and resurgence-themed chapter in the label’s already esteemed history.

Sea Lions

The “year of awakening” began with an intriguing series of split 7”s. Aptly titled Searching For The Now, Schulman introduced a smattering of little known bands who were reviving a style of “pop” that caught his golden ear. Next, Slumberland came roaring back to life, releasing much lauded records from new signings Cause Co-Motion!, Crystal Stilts and The Pains of Being Pure At Heart. Consequently, long time fans got fired up, and indie music enthusiasts from the modern era were effectively smitten. Moore describes these records as, “the shot in the arm, (that) made the label an even more attractive destination.” Adrian Pillado, the 23-year-old singer/guitarist of the recently signed Sea Lions, agrees whole-heartedly, “They put out amazing records! The Crystal Stilts albums totally blew me away. Cause Co-motion is one of my all time favorite bands now. Even the old stuff; when they reissued the Fourteen Iced Bears stuff and Black Tambourine. It’s something to look up to. It’s not just the music, but the label in general. Mike is totally doing something that no one else could!”

The Aisler’s Set

Today, a quick review of the blogosphere will confirm Slumberland’s presence alongside other popular indie imprints (Mexican Summer, Captured Tracks, Hozac, Hardly Art, etc.), some of whose bands, curiously enough, name check past Slumberland artists as an inspiration. “There is a certain satisfaction to be gained in that stuff coming around,” admits Schulman. “That’s one of the things I noticed a couple of years ago, with Black Tambourine specifically, I was coming in contact with these bands that were really influenced by what we were doing back then. It was surprising to me and really gratifying.” When asked about Slumberland’s relevance in today’s arena of indie music, Aisler’s Set’s Linton responded, “I’ve no interest in trying to trace patterns within it all, but somehow, tons of people are finally paying attention to the kinds of bands and sounds that Mike has been promoting for decades now. Mike, I’m sure, has never compromised and put out a record he didn’t believe in and love.” Schulman’s dyed-in-the-wool approach to the label is something that Moore ultimately believes is an asset, “I think that the label’s current popularity is a result of Mike’s bloody-mindedness and refusal to put out stuff he’s not wild about.”

The Ropers

So, what makes a Slumberland record, and where does Schulman discover these bands? Ropers’ guitarist Hammel knows from first hand experience, “(Schulman) easily has the most encyclopedic knowledge of music of anyone I know. That, combined with generally fantastic taste in music, let’s him find the great bands to release. I remember back in the early nineties, Mike and I, and some other Slumberland guys were sitting around talking about bands as usual, and Mike said, ‘You know what band someone should sound like? Josef K, nobody sounds like them.’ He was a full decade ahead of that one.” Schulman admits that there is an X-factor, “ I hear it, and I just think, ‘That’s a Slumberland record,’ and ‘I want to work with these people and see what they come up with.’ And, more so, ‘Am I going to feel excited about listening to (this) in ten years?’” Schulman also believes in developing a personal relationship with a band, “I ask myself, ‘Can I help this band?’ and, ‘Do I like them?’, and ‘Do they like me?’ To me it’s never just a business thing; I want to have some kind of bond with the band as well.” This point was illustrated by Weekend’s singer/bassist, Shaun Durkan, during a recent interview with Michael Stock on Part Time Punks radio show. Durkan recounted his band meeting Schulman in person for the first time, “We consumed a hundred beers at some bar in San Francisco, then went back to our practice space and jammed with Papa Slumber on bass until four in the morning.” The episode gives ‘hooking-up’ a whole new meaning.

A younger generation of listeners, who were not around for Slumberland’s first chapter, are doing their homework and discovering more about the label. Schulman observes, “Knowing that some people are going to dig deeper and pick up a Sleepyhead record and be like, ‘that is so cool,’ or a Ropers record or the St. Christopher single, or some other fairly ephemeral piece of catalogue is great. Also, I’m perfectly happy to know that there are people who really love some current band and buy the current stuff and are really pleased with that, who may not be record collectors, and they don’t look at the label. They don’t even know it’s on Slumberland, they just know it’s the record they like.” Most new fans are encountering the bands when trolling the ocean of music blogs and YouTube clips. Schulman admits, “I wish I were a teenager now discovering music, and be able to have this incredible history of music in front of me on the internet available, and then be able to buy it, which is something that’s near and dear to my heart as a collector. It’s definitely interesting seeing that kind of transition from it being so hard to hear the music that you might hear about to it being completely effortless. It’s just there. There is scarcely any piece of music that’s ever been recorded that you could not obtain given one half hour on the internet. There’s more music to listen to then anyone could ever have an opportunity to listen to.”

It brings to question, though, just how committed and appreciative is today’s listener, as compared to the pre-internet era fan who needed stamina and persistence to seek out a specific record. Schulman sees them as one in the same. “There will always be those people whose lives are really enriched by music or who hear a song that really speaks to them. Or, there’s some scene of bands in their town that they really feel a part of. That might not be expressed in going out and buying the records as when my friends and I were driving to the record store to buy Birthday Party records. But it’s just as real to them as it was to me. It affects them just as much. I feel that it’s the more casual listeners whose connection to music and the people who make it is really broken.” Leisure audience or record collecting devotees, Slumberland is still finding its way into people’s ears and hearts.

Terry Malts

Schulman has gracefully navigated his label through two transitory decades. Most likely, his days as a software engineer have aided with acclimating Slumberland to the digital era—remarkably, vinyl remains the label’s most popular format (especially color, swirled, splattered, et al). He has seamlessly bridged the gap between the two generations of bands and fans of the label, while maintaining a favorable status with bloggers and critics who celebrate its pedigree. The label is not showing any signs of letting up. In 2012, many tongues are dragging on the floor in anticipation of upcoming releases: a new album from Frankie Rose (one time member of Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, and Crystal Stilts), a full length from L.A.’s Neverever (featuring Joe Meek’s great niece and nephew, Jihae and Wallace Meek), and the debut full length from power-pop/SoCal-punk-inspired trio Terry Malts.

Schulman often considers his label’s future, “I obviously like a lot of kinds of music, and I can’t put out everything. It’s been useful for the label to release stuff that’s more or less guitar pop oriented. And, given a fairly broad range—I mean a band like Hood doesn’t really sound like The Softies—it’s been helpful to stay consistent; it gives people something to hang on to. People who like Slumberland can say, ‘I like the label, and I like what this guy does, and I understand his aesthetic.’ If I had put out a bunch of jungle records in the nineties on Slumberland [instead of Drop Beat], I think people would have been like, ‘what the fuck!’ I still have hopes of stretching out a little bit, and it seems that people might be a little more tolerant of that now.” How Schulman “stretches” and where the label goes from here, will be interesting and exciting to track.

Perhaps, Slumberland’s fate rests on the smallish shoulders of Theodore George Alouf Schulman, age 3. Papa Slumber brings the new releases home for his son, “He likes music and he definitely pays attention to what we listen to. If I put a record on, he always asks to look at the cover. He wants to know the names of the guys in the band and wants see pictures of them, and to know what [instrument] they play. His favorite band now is Big Troubles, which I think is awesome.” One can only imagine the soundtrack Theo is growing up with; Schulman’s collection tips 30,000 records. The kid is bound to develop refined tastes and an amazing ear. Also, consider the influence of his Mom (Nommi Alouf). According to Linton, Nommi has been instrumental in helping the label through the years, “She was a huge support for all the groups and Mike, back when my bands were putting out records and touring.”

Theo’s Papa is already making plans to include him in the business, “I think it will be a few years before he totally understands the idea of music, like somebody makes it happen. He understands the idea of someone playing it, but I think the idea of the commercial side of it is so abstract right now. I like to think at some point he’ll take the label over and fill the mail orders and keep it all going so I can retire.” With Kid Slumber waiting in the wings, the music world can be rest assured Slumberland has another lifetime worth of exciting records and music in the making.

This just in: Chickfactor (the excellent 90’s music zine) has announced it will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a mini-tour of concerts featuring Black Tambourine along with other guests (which include past Slumberland luminaries: The Softies, Aisler’s Set, Lilys, Lorelei, Small Factory, Honeybunch). Three shows will take place in Brooklyn and two in the Washington, DC area throughout April. Plans for shows in London and Portland, Oregon are also being drawn up. No word on a Los Angeles show, as of publication time, but one can dream…