SUCTION RECORDS: The Dignity of Labour of Love
Interview by Erkki Rautio / pHinnWeb
16 September 2003 -- Suction Records from Toronto, Canada, is one of pHinnWeb's personal favourite labels at the moment; like Detroit's Ersatz Audio, releasing a continuously unerring line of combination of finely-honed synthpop, electro and IDM, and taking the late 1970s' and early 1980s' most beloved analogue electronic sounds to the new millennium's post-techno generation.
To describe their idiosyncratic sound, on their Website they simply publish a list of keywords mentioned in their reviews over the years, which goes like this: "'70s, 808, '80s, analog, Adult., Aphex Twin, Autechre, basslines, Boards of Canada, Bochum Welt, childlike, Depeche Mode, distortion, drum machines, electro, electropop, Ersatz Audio, Gary Numan, Giorgio Moroder, Human League, IDM, I-f, intricate, melodic, modern, Moog, Morr Music, Mute Records, New Order, nostalgic, OMD, Kraftwerk, Rephlex, Roland, Soft Cell, Skinny Puppy, synthesizers, synthpop, Tangerine Dream, µ-ziq, Vince Clarke, vintage, vocoder, Warp Records, Yazoo".
So, if these ring any bells, then you know Suction Records is just a label for you. pHinnWeb talked with Jason Amm (a.k.a. Solvent) and Gregory de Rocher (a.k.a. Lowfish) who jointly run Suction Records. It's the attack of the Snow Robots...
- So what's now happening in the life of Suction Records, any news?
Jason Solvent [JS]: We've been working hard for several months to relaunch the label. I gave up the day job earlier this year as an experiment, to devote myself to the label for a while. We have a very active release schedule planned starting in October 2003. If anybody wants a taste of what's coming out on Suction Records in the near future, we pressed up a limited promotional CD called Snow Robots Volume 3, which is available to buy exclusively on our website: http://www.suctionrecords.com.
Gregory Lowfish [GL]: Our focal point of late has been my new album, 1000 Corrections Per Second. It comes out on October 14, so we've been working hard to promote it and do lots of live shows. With this release we want to make sure that for once everyone that wants a copy can actually get it! So we've also been working hard on sorting distribution all over the place. I'm hoping the release isn't cursed as the first show I was to do to promote it was in New York the night of the big black-out. It was very screwed-up and surreal.
- How did Suction Records get started?
JS: We released a split Lowfish/Solvent 12" in 1997. We pressed 300 and we probably gave away half of it. It was really weird, dark and uncompromising. We had some labels that were interested in releasing us as artists, but we wanted to release this crazy 12" and we didn't think anybody else would get it. We had no big plans with the label at the time.
GL: From the get-go we were pretty obstinate about wanting to do it all ourselves. I sent some demos out in 1995 to some of the "Who's Who" of electronic music labels at the time (no, I'm not telling who) and got a good response, but I quickly got a vibe of how long it would take for stuff to come out and felt weird giving over my stuff for someone else to control/market/screw-up. I'd rather do it myself, including the screwing up.
- How would you describe your style of music?
JS: We have our own sound. I know every label is supposed to say that, but I really believe that we are one of the rare labels with such a distinct and focused musical vision. We mainly release highly stylized, intricate, melodic analogue synthesizer pop. We've also been known to release the odd distorted, dark EBM-ish track as well. We call the Suction Records sound Robot Music. Sometimes when people review our stuff they say things like, "It's like Aphex Twin providing the beats for Depeche Mode circa '81". I think a comment like that is totally relevant. I know for me, I'm always striving to create synthpop like my early-80s heroes Vince Clarke, Daniel Milller, the Human League, etc., but in the end I've been so irreversibly affected by post-techno stuff in the '90s like Aphex Twin, that my music is always a strange hybrid of both.
GL: My newer stuff is firmly rooted in the electro-world, but I don't really do "real" electro as I've no history in that arena, and at the end of the day I'm an industrial/wave guy at heart obsessed with drum machine-accurate beats and OMD-like lead lines. But I do listen to a lot of the IDM heroes and that obviously has soaked in.
- Tell me a bit about your roster of artists. And are there any new signings on Suction?
JS: I'm Solvent and Gregory is Lowfish, and we've always been the two main artists on the label. But we're making a real effort to expand our roster and open up our sound a bit. We'll be releasing a second full-length release by Skanfrom from Germany in 2004. He definitely shares Suction Records' musical and melodic sensibility. We share similar musical backgrounds, coming from new wave and EBM influences and then being totally inspired by post-techno and electro stuff in the '90s. He is also really passionate about raw, obscure minimal electronic pop stuff from the early '80s; stuff that almost nobody's heard of like Vice Versa, Absolute Body Control, Ceramic Hello, Transparent Illusion, and this is the part of his sound that makes him different from Solvent and Lowfish. His music has an uncompromisingly primitive approach. That's what we're looking for in our artists: a sound that is complimentary yet individual.
On that note, we have a new signing from NYC called The Mitgang Audio, who's debut full-length, The View from Your New Home, is coming out on Suction Records in November 2003. It's totally mind-blowing pop that's pretty far removed from anything we've released before. It's like a combination of glossy '80s synth pop stuff like Duran Duran or even Pet Shop Boys, mixed with an authentic Italo disco influence. If I were to read that description, I'd be pretty turned off, to be honest, but it'll all make sense when you hear it -- it's fantastic!
Finally, we'll be releasing full-length albums in 2004 from two new side-projects: Black Turtleneck is a side project of mine, with a vocalist & collaborator from Toronto, named Thomas Sinclair -- it's more like classic vocal synth pop stuff inspired by stuff like early Soft Cell, Human League, etc., but of course, also with a modern, Suction/Solvent touch. The other side project is the Solvent/Lowfish collaboration, Tinfoil Teakettle, which sometime sounds exactly like you would expect, but often sounds like nothing we've done before: the Skinny Puppy influence really comes through when we collaborate.
- Are there any role models or influential artists for you?
JS: As a label, we really look at Ersatz Audio as a role model, because we've watched them grow to the level of success they have now, totally on their own terms and with their own unique musical vision. Le Car, along with I-f, were the first artists that made me realise that my true passion is in my new wave roots, and together with them we incorporated these elements into our music in the late 90s, when it was still totally uncool and unheard of. But they did it first, and in a totally different way from us, so it's fantastic and inspirational to see their success.
GL: I really look to Factory Records for inspiration, in terms of the quality of music AND art they had going for such an extended period of time. The artwork I do for all the Suction stuff is pretty intentionally lo-fi and sometimes unpolished/raw in a way that I've totally stolen from Factory (not literally, their stuff was very polished at times -- I'm just so inspired by it). To me it's totally timeless -- which is something at Suction we are totally obsessed with.
- And any current acts which would particularly impress you, or you feel are on the same wavelength with you?
JS: On the same wavelength, and not working with Suction Records already? Not really! But I'm very impressed in particular with Perspects.
GL: I listen to a lot of music, but the artists on Suction are doing almost exactly what I think is missing when I listen to other stuff. I have a very narrow vision about what I want to hear!
- What kind of equipment you create your own music with? And your favourite musical instruments?
JS: Lots of analog synths and drum machines exclusively for my sounds, then recorded, edited and manipulated in the computer. For sound sources I'm a total analogue purist. My favourite synths at the moment are my Roland System-100 (models 101 & 102) and my MiniKorg 700s.- What about your live performances, and any interesting anecdotes about them? What have been the best and worst places to play, for example?
GL: Like so many people that have been doing it for along time I've owned a foolish amount of gear over the years. But in the last three years I've settled on a fairly stripped down set-up (compared to Jason/Solvent for sure) of gear that I know everything about and can get most of the sounds I need. It's no secret that I use a lot of 808, Jupiter-6, Arp Odyssey and analogue delays. Everything goes into the computer now. I've recently started using software samplers -- as the timing for drums is impressive enough for me to get over being a snob about NOT using software instruments.
GL: Well, like I said, I was supposed to play New York the night of the black-out a few weeks ago. I flew down, checked into my hotel and was just about to leave for soundcheck and FIZZ -- the whole city went out. To see New York without power, without the ability for people to shop, to force people to stop and go "woah, what the hell is going on", was priceless. The police told me not to even bother trying to go down to where the club was so, I was like, "OK", and so Maik, who works for the label with us, just started drinking and that was the end of it. Solvent Vs Lowfish also recently played some dirty outdoor festival where we played in the forest by generator, which kept running out of gas. There were about 100 people there, many of them IN THE TREES, but they were totally into it. I lost about one litre of blood to the mosquitos, but it was worth it...
- How is it to make your living with an independent record label these days? Is it possible at all when the music market seems to be concentrating more and more in the hands of big multinationals?
JS: It is difficult and probably impossible for all but a few. Check back with me in about 6 months and I will let you know how my little full-time-label experiment worked!
GL: Well, not to sound cliché, but it really is a labour of love. You have to want to get this music out so bad you are willing to have some bad selling releases or be ripped off or meet some evil people, etc. But you have to make enough money to keep going which we've obviously done for the last 6+ years. Every cent goes back into the label to release more stuff/promote/travel, etc. You can't make any real living -- no one is driving a Mercedes. You have to sacrifice and/or have something else going on.
- Do you think it's hard to create original synthpop type of music these days without reverting to do pastiches of what e.g. Kraftwerk, Human League, John Foxx, Visage and so on did during their heyday in the late 70s and early 80s? As a fan of that sound whose interest to electronic music started with those artists I've often been wondering this: how to update that sound, or is it necessary at all to update it?
JS: For me personally, it's impossible not to update it, I always make something that sounds like a cross between new and old. I never understand it when people review a Fisherspooner or an Adult. record and say that it sounds like it could have been recorded in 1981. It really doesn't! Everyone who's making music inspired by those early-80s artists has also been affected by post-techno stuff too.
Anyway, I think the only real goal should be to make great music, whether it sounds totally new and innovative, or like an outtake from a Yazoo record. If somebody could make a track that sounded exactly like a great outtake from a Yazoo record, I would buy it. But to be honest, I still think the quality on some of the early-80s synthpop records is totally unmatched by anything that's been released since. That remains something for me to aspire to.
GL: I seriously don't try to update anything or have anything in mind when I make tracks. I just do what I do and what comes out maybe shows my influences sometimes. If something is totally derivative or I go "wait, I've totally heard that before", then I don't release it.
- How's the music scene in Toronto (and Canada) at the moment? For example, any good clubs there?
GL: Toronto is a wicked place to live and provides us with nearly everything we need to do what we want to do. But it's no hotbed of forward-thinking electro, and the clubs are full of mainstream garbage and club techno, etc., like any other city. There are some people doing interesting things, who find outlets on labels around the world. Toronto is a good place to be connected to the world, as it's a major international city and many cool things/people come through -- but nothing is going on that's cool enough to distract us from what we want to do. The funding for the arts where we live is laughable compared to European standards.
- What is your own take on "electroclash" craze?
JS: A lot of artists and labels who were doing the synthpop thing before all this electroclash really hate electroclash. At first I was really excited about it, because I think that this kind of music deserves to be mainstream, and the scene could really benefit from having some major backing behind it.
You know, all of the best 80s synth-pop records were recorded and produced at top of the line studios with amazing producers, engineers, etc. This is one of the main reasons, I think, that they still sound so much better than the stuff of today. Listen to the synthesizer programming and production on something even as mainstream as Duran's Rio album -- it is totally out of this world and virtually unattainable in the home studio. Some of those sounds are like high-art to me.
But with electroclash, this is not the focus. The direction quickly degraded into this trash angle, where nobody distinguishes between what was crap about the 80s, and what was great about the 80s. In fact, the crap stuff seems to be the focus now: dumb lyrics, cheap blatant synth sounds, bad clothes, bad jokes... I'm really afraid of how badly it has damaged things for those of us who take this form of music very seriously and understand and respect its true artistic value.
GL: Fashion fades, I'm not worried.
- Your own Top Ten for the moment/all-time?
1. Yazoo "Upstairs at Eric's"
2. Depeche Mode "Speak and Spell"
3. Soft Cell "Science Fiction Stories"
4. Human League "The Dignity of Labour"
5. Fad Gadget "The Singles"
6. Japan "Tin Drum"
7. New Order "Power, Corruption and Lies"
8. Gary Numan "The Pleasure Principle"
9. Skinny Puppy "Back & Forth Series 1 & 2"
10. Aphex Twin "I Care Because You Do"
From this decade (not in order):
- The Future/The Human League "The Golden Hour of the Future"
- Skanfrom "Soothing Sounds for Robots"
- Charles Manier "Bang Bang Lover"
- Perspects "The Third and Final Report"
- V/A "Disco Nouveau"
- Japanese Telecom "Virtual Geisha"
- Adult. "Resuscitation"
- Isan "Clockwork Manegerie"
- GD Luxxe "21st Door"
All time top-11
1. Polygon Window (album by Polygon Window)
2. Orchestral Maneuvres in the Dark (original album)
3. The Hurting (album) - Tears for Fears
4. I feel love (track) by Giorgio Moroder
5. Incunabula (album) by Autechre
6. Many things by Front 242
7. Warlock (track) by Skinny Puppy
8. Everything's Gone Green (track) by New Order
9. Your Silent Face (track) by New Order
10. Speak and Spell (album) by Depeche Mode
11. The Chauffeur (track) by Duran Duran
- Your own future plans now?
JS: Besides all of the Suction Records releases we have planned, there is a 5-track 12" coming out in October by "Solvent vs Lowfish" on the Dutch label Vynalogica. It's a label run by Rude 66 and The Centre for Electronic Music in Amsterdam. We spent two days in the studio in Amsterdam making crazy sounds and loops with their collection of vintage modular synths like the Arp 2500 and 2600, EMS VCS3, etc. There is also a pair of Solvent remix 12"s coming out on Ghostly International in November, called "Radio Ga Ga" parts 1 & 2. It's a new, extended version of "My Radio" from 'Disco Nouveau', plus some other new tracks, and a bunch of remixes: Lowfish, The Mitgang Audio, Legowelt, Isan, Schneider TM and Perspects.
GL: Lots of playing live in NA and in Europe. Some remixes and starting work on the Tinfoil Teakettle album with Solvent.
- Your favourite question they never ask in interviews?
JS: Not so much an interview question, but a FAQ that I'd love to put to rest:
Q: I bought a computer last month and now I make IDM music. Can I send you a demo?
A: Pretty pretty please, don't!
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