“It’s StIll Amateur Hour Round Here” Eric Isaacson talks to Bill Kouligas

Dead Moon "In the Graveyard", MR089, 2011

Much is disputed or simply unknown about the mysterious, iconic label Mississippi Records, but a few facts are clear. Based on Mississippi Avenue in Portland, Oregon, like its namesake record shop, the label has spent most of the last decade releasing and selling fine vinyl-only releases and reissues of roots, gospel and unclassifiable obscurities, alongside essential new music from the lively art-punk scene. Eric Isaacson, one of the three dedicated people running the label, insists, “It’s still amateur hour round here.” We are inclined to disagree, but when J. Spaceman describes Mississippi’s output as “unbelievably beautiful”, who are we to argue?


KOULIGAS:

What is the vision behind the label?

ISAACSON:

In our own small way, to help get music heard that speaks of truth and beauty.

KOULIGAS:

Are there any rules you follow? Do you spend most of your time unearthing gems from the past or looking out for new music?

ISSACSON:

I try to look out for new music, but I’m not as good at spotting it. It’s easier to let history do a little separating of the wheat from the chaff for you than to just go out into the wide world and find things. I’m sure there’s tons of great contemporary music out there now that I’m not aware of, and should be. I just don’t have the time to travel around and find it.

KOULIGAS:

How do you discover the new artists you release—through record collectors, manic diggers, other sources?

ISSACSON:

In the beginning, it was more about what we had dug up over the years, and also which artists I was friendly with (Dead Moon, Michael Hurley, etc). Since then we’ve managed to find people like Mike McGonigal, Jay Martin, Amos Harvey, Kevin Knutt, John Glassburner, Ian Nagoski and on and on, with deeper knowledge and collections than mine, to supply us with ideas for releases.

I’m still very controlling overall of the content of each record, but the hardcore digging is more often than not left to others. I’ll usually use one out of every 1,000 rare gems that are brought to my atten

tion by these folks. My cutting-room floor is vastly populated. I’m a notoriously picky son of a bitch. It drives everyone who works with me a little crazy. It’s hard to convince them that there’s a method to my picky madness. Sometimes even I am not so sure if there is one.

KOULIGAS:

In a world of blogs and file sharing, how does it feel to persist in releasing vinyl?

ISSACSON:

When I was a youngster, in the late 1980s, I got into records because they were the cheapest, most available way to get music. It was the dawn of the CD and used records were turning up everywhere, dirt cheap. When I started my record store and label, vinyl still seemed like the most populist medium to deal in—it was how people who dig through garbage listen to music. Since then, things have shifted—records have become something of a boutique item in the face of free downloads and even used CDs, which you can find for next to nothing now. Vinyl has sadly become the most expensive way to get music.

Sometimes I think it’s really grotesque that I can’t give up my attachment to the beauty of records, sound quality-wise as well as visually. It sometimes feels like I’m participating in an ugly boutique economy. If I was a kid today and walked into a record store and saw those price tags, I would probably never dream of getting into record-collecting over collecting free MP3s. In the end, I gotta say fuck it—I just love records and am accul- turated to them and love making them, for better or worse.

Beyond that, I still have a sneaking suspicion that all this digital file fad nonsense is gonna go away one day and we’ll be glad we littered this world with artifacts like records and books.

KOULIGAS:

How do you listen to music, sentimentally or mentally?

ISSACSON:

Purely sentimentally. I am no kind of intellectual.

KOULIGAS:

What are the criteria when making a compilation?

ISSACSON:

I go through lots and lots of material and just wait for things to hit me in the gut. I keep a file of all the things that hit me in my gut, and think about their possible relationship to each other, and wait til they just kinda fall in place. I have lots of notebooks filled with lists that help me establish relationships between things. Chance comes into play a lot too—what I happen to hear or find in a collection, or lose the week that I’m putting something together. It’s not much of a science—I rely largely on the subconscious and chance.

KOULIGAS:

What about the people who lend you bootlegs or 78s for a compilation? Are they involved in the project?

ISSACSON:

All our material is sourced from either our personal archive or friends’. I handle other people’s valuables like I can’t afford to replace them… because I really can’t! More and more, we are locating master tapes and better sources. It’s a real blessing to have so much amazing stuff available to us.

KOULIGAS:

Is there any genre or artist you are obsessed with at the moment?

ISSACSON:

I’ve been on a real big Ethiopian music kick of late. Can’t get enough of it. Been listening to lots of classical Indian vocal music too. I also still listen to at least one Michael Hurley song every day, and one song by Fred and/or Toody Cole. Keeps me grounded.

KOULIGAS:

What about the artists themselves? It’s clear you’re doing this out of love, but a lot—maybe most—of these artists no longer exist. What is your policy about the rights or terms of use?

ISSACSON:

Ah—this old question. It is asked often. We take great care to find as many artists or living relatives of artists as we can, and we always pay them very well—cash in advance of release, no less. You can ask anyone who has ever worked with us. Are some of our records “bootlegs”? I suppose a case can be made that sometimes we didn’t have the absolute legal right to release certain things. Are they morally corrupt? We’ve paid everyone we could find who had anything to do with the actual production of the art, and are always open to paying others as they come on the radar.

More and more we’ve been relying on established labels and archives to license from, such as the Lomax archive, Arhoolie Records, Fat Possum, Sterns Music, Delos Productions and so on. Overall I feel the label is very morally covered, and reasonably legally covered, on all its releases. Mistakes have been made in the past and atonement has been attempted and accepted by those we may have accidentally wronged. WedoourbestandIdaresaythatwearea very stand-up operation that has put more money in artists’ and their families’ pockets than our own.

KOULIGAS:

You’re one of the labels whose releases I blindly buy 99 per cent of. You’ve created an incredible catalogue across so many different styles and time periods—how do you link all those different worlds under one roof?

I never noticed the true common link until recently. Everything we release is lo-fi to some degree. Every record on the label is very personality-driven, never about flashy musicianship or polish. When shit comes to shovel, the real common denominator is that it’s all just things I really like, for whatever reason. Very self-indulgent.

KOULIGAS:

Many of the records you put out reference Jesus and the divine, either through gospel or, more indirectly, through the blues. Is this linked to a vision of the artist as a transcendent genius, channelling inspiration from the divine?

ISSACSON:

I only really like art that cuts through the bullshit to the important issues—life/death/the spirit world/ love… that stuff. I love all music that is trying to reach a place beyond this earth. America is a 70 per cent Christian country, so a lot of its best folk art is Christian by default. I definitely think a lot of artists, Christian or not, on our label are channelled into a heavy, unexplainable frequency that I yearn to get closer to. I don’t believe in Christianity by any means—I’m a lifelong Buddhist—but I gotta respect the light that comes out of some of that faith’s music. Spiritual music from any culture is always the best music. I don’t care much for dance music or background music or music as entertainment.

KOULIGAS:

The numbers of each pressing are limited to 1,000. That makes them collectors’ items. Are collectors good listeners?

ISSACSON:

That pressing figure is actually a myth! Believe it or not, some Mississippi Records press sizes are as big as 6,000 copies. I would love to keep every release in print and cheaply available, but just can’t afford to do so. We are constantly strapped for cash and have to decide between repressing old records that are in demand, or putting out a new release. For better or worse, I find more satisfaction in putting out something new than repressing an old title. I hate it when I see a record that we were selling for $10 go for big bucks on eBay. The whole point of the label was to make things available and affordable that normally only collectors could get their hands on. What we need is some rich benefactor to come to our aid and help us crank out more copies of these records, so everyone who wants them can get them. Anyone out there?

I have no special affection or distaste for collectors over anyone else. I definitely do not produce records for their benefit. I am more interested in reaching out to people who are not aware of this music than the already hip collector. Ultimately, the collectors don’t really need our label. They are

curating their own world just fine without my help. I believe collectors’ frenzy comes from a real place of love for the music, but it can often go to some not-so-healthy places. (I myself have been guilty of unhealthy, obsessive collecting in the past, so I’m allowed to talk smack.)

KOULIGAS:

I suppose it’s a common comparison, but would you like to talk about Folkways [the Smithsonian Institution’s legendary nonprofit record label] and Mississippi?

ISSACSON:

Oh yes! Folkways is by far my favourite label of all time and a huge influence on my work. Moe Asch’s idea behind Folkways was to create a catalogue of every sound and idea worth a damn—and it was a very subjective version of “worth a damn”—that nobody else was documenting. He had a grand vision that the whole label’s catalogue would have greater meaning than any individual piece. It was not a business or record label so much as an art project, and one of the greatest art projects in the world, if you ask me. Sometimes I just sit and read the Folkways catalogue—sounds of North American tree frogs, Elizabeth Cotton, Alan Lomax’s prison recordings, Tony Schwartz following his dog around, the interspecies communications of Jim Nollman, who’s conversed with 300 turkeys, a pack of wolves and a pod of orca whales, Howard Finster, angry letters to Bob Dylan read aloud, pygmies of the Ituri forest, Angela Davis, sounds of juvenile delinquents—I don’t even have to listen to the records. Just the list of titles fills me with awe and wonder as to how big and beautiful our world is. It’s not just linking history to the present, but all things that are real to all things that are also real.

Folkways is everything I want our label to be one day—a fully realised world vision of everything of substance that is not being documented enough. I don’t know if we’ll ever get even a fraction of the way where they took it, but it’s worth trying. Thank you for even thinking of us in the same breath as the mighty Folkways!

KOULIGAS:

Your music is so varied, but there’s a very consistent, strong aesthetic to your artwork.

ISSACSON:

I do most of the artwork myself. Once in a while I’ll commission someone else to help, but overall I’m pretty possessive of the job. The aesthetic is based more on my limitations than my skills. How do you make a good cover when you’re not very skilled is the question, and a Mississippi cover is my answer. I’m proud of all my covers even if they look absolutely stupid to some folks.

I got an amazing hate letter yesterday—three pages handwritten, all about how bad my art is, how it’s essentially a crime against humanity.

I can’t argue too hard beyond saying that I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got, and I enjoy the work too much to hire a “real” artist. When I was a kid, all I wanted to be was an artist, and now I’m perhaps foolishly taking advantage of my position in the record world to realise a small version of that dream. It really is the most fun part of the job.

KOULIGAS:

For some of your releases, you reproduce the original covers, but for others you have [the acclaimed American painter and street artist] Chris Johanson illustrate them.

ISSACSON:

Yeah, Chris is a friend of mine. He’s at the record shop nearly every day for a check-in. Usually he just harasses me about keeping my stock alphabetised. I still don’t get the joke, which is probably why he persists with it. I love his art and feel very privileged that he’s done a couple of covers for us. He’s a real visionary and I suspect history will treat his work well.

KOULIGAS:

Do you try to reflect the music in the art?

ISSACSON:

I usually mull over a cover for a month or two in my head, while listening to a record, and wait for some images to come together. Sometimes it works great and the cover will really speak to the music, and vice versa, and sometimes the cover is a real head-scratcher, even to me! Such is the danger of trusting the subconscious even when it goes to weird places. All my favorite artists—[Werner] Herzog, Hal Ashby, Raymond Pettibon, Sun Ra, Moondog, Michael Hurley, Ray Davies—take risks and thus have a lot of failures. I’m trying to follow suit.





Interview originally published in Dapper Dan magazine’s fifth issue, February, 2012; Thanks to Vinyl Microstore and Marika Konstantinidou; Photography by Natalie Papadaki

Filed under: Issue 05

2 Responses to “It’s StIll Amateur Hour Round Here” Eric Isaacson talks to Bill Kouligas

  1. Pingback: » Artifacts

  2. Pingback: Artifacts | Connections

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>