Clint Simonson of De Stijl Records talks Mother Of Fire and the fine art of running a record label
You may not have heard the name Clint Simonson before, but diehard music collectors know him as the mastermind behind De Stijl Records, the local DIY label that has, over the course of 60 releases, released some of the most cutting edge, experimental indie music going today. Simonson's "localism meets globalism" mentality has led him to work with artists "as close as the Seward and as far away as Malmo, Sweden," and his hands-on approach has often flown the face of the click-and-grab nature of music in the internet age, but that's part of the draw. His releases are hands-on affairs, slabs of vinyl carefully packaged and meant to be looked at and contemplated as you hear them. In the past couple years, his approach has led him to a distribution deal with SubPop Records and breaking artists like indie rock darlings Wavves; his upcoming release by the local violin/bass/drums art combo Mother Of Fire has collectors buzzing. Clint took some time out while exploring California wine country to answer some questions about small labels, small pressings, and keeping successful in the unpredictable music industry.
You got started doing mostly really small releases, some of which have become instant collector's items. Whenever a label does limited runs, folks use terms like "boutique" and "microlabel," but that's not what De Stijl is about. How do you run things these days?
I still do a limited release from time to time, for whatever reason, a tour single or something, but I'm definitely trying to maximize the sale of each and every release. why fuck around? Jakob Olausson is finishing up his forthcoming release and some British label asked him to do a track on some lathe release, limited to around 40 pieces and his response was, "Why? Why would I spend three years making a record and then only allow 40 people to hear it?" After working [the distribution] deal with SubPop, I'm assessing the past few yrs of business and finding that I have no inventory, but people still seem to want the records. So the brilliant conclusion there is, I should've made more LPs. So it's just been in the past year that I'm trying to step outside of the comfort levels and try to increase the pressings sizes.
What or who inspired you to start a label? Did you have any sort of idea of what you were getting yourself into?
I was inspired to start a label when I realized it was something that an individual could do, which might seem like a retarded statement in post '90s environs when manufacturing processes have been explained ad nauseum (there was that simple machines zine that caused a massive glut of records) but there was a time when those channels weren't so
illuminated. there are still so many myths about the entertainment industry: I watched this recent Jeff Bridges movie [Crazy Heart] the other night, where he is a drunk, old as fuck, forgotten legend and is at odds with his slave driving label, who cracks the whip to keep him on the road, etc, and I just found this an absurdly outdated portrayal. You know, as if Roky Erickson would somehow find himself in a deal such as that in this millenium. There is an industry willing to bend over backwards to happily accommodate his every need to make records and play whatever gig he'd like. I mean, not even someone at the level of Roky Erickson; this happens for Simon Finn and Yoshi Wada!
Your next release is the Mother Of Fire LP. What made you decide to put out their record? In general, what's your criteria for working with a band?
Well that criteria is just a feeling and when it feels good, do it. But, you know, I want to work with bands that make great records and that people want to own. Mother Of Fire struck me as very original and not a brand that was concerned with personality but just this very sincere, understated, non-flash thing. And I found their signifiers to not necessarily be obscure, but definitely blurred in a special way.
How did you get into music? Was there a point where you knew you were addicted--hooked in a way that 99% of the population isn't?
I grew up w the same shit everyone else did, big time, don't-try-this-at-home rock / roll. But in the last few yrs of high school and college I was exposed to the whole DIY culture and witnessed people participating and creating in a way that was very healthy and comfortable and I suppose it was that which was addicting. It's that sort of production that I'm drawn to in terms of collecting and making records, I love the touch of the human hand.
There has been a lot of gloom and doom about the record industry for a few years now. Do the problems of the majors just open up opportunities for
independent labels? Do you have plans to expand/do things differently in the
future, or will you keep working within the basic framework you have right
Are the majors really having problems? Whatever adjustment curve they're currently in midst of will be figured out in a manner that maintains the bloat; I'm not personally very worried about the majors.
My plan to expand began long ago, right when I signed with SubPop. After working with them, and they gave me what is arguably the best possible distribution channels available to anyone, I've learned that expanding my sales isn't really going to happen overnight, not without changing my aesthetic and pursuing more "mersh" acts. They might sway a couple
hundred here or there, but I seem to have relatively fixed numbers. There are certainly surprises. I sold a huge number of Sperm LPs, while the 39 Clocks CD sold a far lesser amount than it should have.
So the current plan is to make more with far less. I'm trying hard to widen the network, deal more directly with stores, etc. All this is just a process of simplifying the channels, I'm only making vinyl and I'm only going through one digital distro.
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