Every month we feature one fantastic record label. As much as we are able, we highlight collectives that show our love of sharing and adoration for good music. Brassland manages to encapsulate these ideas with tremendous ease.
Founded in 2001, twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (The National) and friend Alec Hanley Bemis were inspired by two unique personal projects that seemingly had nothing to do with each other. They were inspired to transcend genre boundaries and set out to operate a label that would not limit the creativity of the group itself.
This Brooklyn, NY based project so intensely emphasizes the importance of community. Brassland maintains a community unrestricted by the typical structures of a label, yet with enough infrastructure to facilitate creative work and harness the potential of a diverse set of artists. They have succeeded in an effort to cultivate a pure, genuine collaborative approach that is driven by fluidity and adaptability. The goal of great music is met with an unwavering emotional resonance that is undeniably recognized as the Brassland brand.
During March we will be treating you to a superb two-hour mix put together by the label that includes a bounty of incredible label highlights as well as tracks from friends and like-minded folk.
The Brassland Label Of The Month mix will premiere on Saturday 11th March NY time 19:00 – 21:00 and in the UK the day after on Sunday 12th at 19:00 – 21: 00 GMT. If you are crazy person and miss those shows then we will be repeating the mix two weeks later on Saturday 25th and Sunday 26th. Follow us on Twitter or on FB and we will give you plenty of reminders too.
In addition to their brilliant LOTM selections, Brassland were kind enough to take time out to answer some questions for us about their fantastic label/collective/movement, and who better than to give us the scooby on Brassland than the label founder himself Alec Hanley Bemis:
What is the story of the label/collective’s birth?
The uncut version is that I had befriended Bryce in college and, in a more distant way, Bryce’s brother Aaron and their mutual friend Bryan Devendorf. (Those three had been playing in bands together since their teenage years.) All four of us moved to Brooklyn around 1999. Bryan’s brother Scott and a friend of his, Matt Berninger, had been living in the city for a few years already. All of those guys except for me had one thing in common: they’d all grown up in Cincinnati, Ohio. And all us (except for Bryan) worked at companies associated with the internet boom v1.0. The offices we commuted to were all within a three or four square block radius in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood— maybe Bryan was closer to Union Square? — and we all lived in the same South Brooklyn neigbhorhood, Carroll Gardens.
At this point, anyone reading this who is a fan of The National can see where this was going: That’s the core membership of the band right there.
As for where Brassland got going…
By the time the year 2000 rolled around, Aaron had in his posession an almost-finished first record by The National and Bryce had an almost-finshed record by his improvised chamber music group Clogs. (Bryce had not joined The National as an official member, at that point, though he was helping out with their recordings a bit.) For some reason we thought these two projects could be on the same label and find a common context. To paint a clearer picture of the time, post-rock was the big thing at that moment in underground music circles: Tortoise was huge and their label Thrill Jockey could do no wrong. (Bryan, in particular, was in love with a Thrill Jockey band called The Sea and Cake.) The epically dark Montreal band-slash-collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor had just made it onto the cover of the British music magazine NME. To give you an even broader sense of things, people also still read the NME back then. And people still read things longer than 140 characters long. And many popular periodicals were still printed on newsprint or other cheap forms of paper. So it was a very different time. We thought Clogs would be the more successful project. Ha!
Point being, we were definitely wrong about some things. But I think we were very right about more things: in particular, Aaron, Bryce and myself thought it would be a valuable thing to create a musical community that didn’t pay particular attention to genre & was really based on a community of nice, ambitious, diligent and talented people. When Clogs’ founder Padma Newsome essentially joined The National for a stretch of records—from Sad Songs to Dirty Lovers (2003) through Boxer (2007)—our first two signings had effectively merged into a single band. At that point we had a proof-of-concept that the community function would be an essential part of the label’s reason for being. And, since then, it’s definitely been a pattern, that artists on the label don’t just coexist but interact with one another in cool, creative ways that result in new projects, new music, new friendships.
So, from the beginning we were a record label, but we were also an extended family. The boundaries are always being defined and redefined by the artists we’re working with at any given moment — and that evolving community plays out not only on the records we release on Brassland, but on projects that develop outside of the label’s boundaries: festivals; charitable projects like the RedHot compilation records the Dessners have pulled together; and hell, even an occasional dinner party or night out or wedding/anniversary/et. cetera.
Who named you and why/WTF?
I’ve been using the name Brassland since I was in my late teens when I had a zine and a cassette label. Those initial incarnations are, for the most part, unrelated to Brassland in its current form. I made up the name — so it doesn’t have a fixed meaning. But I’ve long harbored a dream about an island. Imagine a cross between a commune, an artist’s colony, and the television show Giligan’s Island. (Maybe Lost is a more contemporary reference?) The idea is that a bunch of creative people have voluntarily stranded themselves among a small group of people — and are then using that energy to make new things, and have ridiculous adventures.
I hope the Brassland name connotes that idea and that feeling — independence, community, a place in and of itself.
What is your manifesto – what are your aims?
We actually have a mission statement.
“Brassland encourages collaboration and creation among an evolving assortment of creative folks. We like artists who are community-minded and possess that elusive tonic of personality.
Recorded music has been our primary focus though we have expanded into live events, publishing & film. We love good music that transcends genre & is virtuoseque (as opposed to virtuosic). By that we mean that while we like well-played music, we think technique is less important than art that resonates emotionally, physically and/or intellectually–hopefully all three at the same time!
We are not governed by fashion & cool, though don’t mind if our artists are considered cool, or come into fashion.”
The exact language has shifted a tiny bit over the years — adding or dropping a word here or there — but that just about nails it…
Tell us about your City & how it shaped you?
Brassland reflects time spent in several different cities.
Cincinnati, Ohio is where all The National guys grew up. It taught them about Midwestern values, both good & bad: warmth, friendliness, corporate discipline, blue collar struggles, white collar boredom.
I’m from the suburbs of New York City. That taught me that you need to move out of the suburbs and into the city to launch a creative life.
A brief period living in Los Angeles is what gave me the stones to try starting an entertainment company — albeit an independent one, run on a shoestring budget. (I mean, I just laughed out loud as I typed the words “entertainment company” in relation to Brassland.)
South Brooklyn is where we all met. I’m not sure what that taught us beyond the fact that gentrification is real & rent can be really expensive & proximity to other creative people is helpful. I guess there are a lot of small businesses in Brooklyn. And Pitchfork once called us a “venerable artpop boutique label.” Maybe we’re actually an ‘artisanal’ music company?
What was your first record?
The first record we put out was The National’s self-titled record, though Clogs Thom’s Night Out came out around the same time. As a listener, probably Thriller by Michael Jackson or Mötley Crüe’s Theater of Pain.
What 3 tracks define the sound/intent of your label/collective best so far?
This is a really hard question. I cannot give a definitive answer. But here are three recordings that point to three different tendencies.
“About Today” by The National is a wildly popular song — a fan favorite across The National’s entire discography. It’s quite minimal lyrically & musically — but also amazingly warm and emotionally powerful.
The “Translucent Remake” of Bryce Dessner’s solo album “Music for Wood and Strings” is a perfect example of how collaborations in our extended artistic family play out. The original version of the track is from a solo album that Bryce doesn’t actually perform on. He was just the composer; it’s performed by a percussion quartet called So Percussion. But then the number of collaborators involved in making this recording goes way beyond that. Aron Sanchez of our Brassland band Buke and Gase designed & built a set of custom instruments for the piece. Bon Iver members Justin Vernon & Sean Carey tore apart & reconstituted the track in the studio then added ghostly vocals. And the remake/remix only came into being because the Eaux Claires music festival was looking for a soundtrack to a promo video — and that festival is, itself, a project by Justin, Aaron Dessner and Michael Brown, who is the festival’s creative director and a lighting designer for artists like Tom Petty and Grizzly Bear, as well as The National and Bon Iver.
“You Push I’ll Go” by Baby Dayliner: For a long time this song was only available as a bootleg of a demo on YouTube — but in that form it become a favorite of internet radio station KEXP in Seattle. Brassland is finally giving it an official release in 2017. What I like about this song is that, as much as we talk about art music or composition or collaboration, sometimes we really just want to dance. And sometimes we put out music that is the complete vision of one person — in this case Ethan Marunas who is Baby Dayliner. It’s also going to be one of my personal favorite single tracks that Brassland has ever released.
p.s. It’s ridiculous that none of the songs I’ve selected include Thomas Barlett (AKA Doveman) or This Is The Kit — both of whom have been essential members of our community.
What has been the best moment for your label so far?
There’s way more than one ‘best’ moment, but Michelberger Music — someties referred to as Endless, Nameless — is fresh in my memory. It was a collaborative music festival held in Berlin in the autumn of 2016— an attempt to remove egos and brand names (and band names) from the festival experience. You can read more about it & see some pictures from the event here
Who is the Diva on your label?
The New York Times Magazine once wrote a piece about The National in which they revealed that one of Matt Berninger’s nicknames among his bandmates is the Dark Lord.
But the Diva is probably me, Alec Hanley Bemis. Hi again! I have a pretentious middle name and everything!
How many hours a week do you spend working on your label?
How many hours are there in a week minus sleeping?
Recommend 3 other labels/collectives?
We came up with the Secretly Group people — I often commiserate & share tips with the Montreal-based Canadian label Secret City and Brassland’s offices are in space provided by Saltlands / Reservoir Studios.
In a parallel universe where anything is possible, who would contact you to do an album for your label/collective?
I think we could all agree on Neil Young. Thomas ‘Doveman’ Bartlett and Aaron Dessner would make a killer LP with him. And the rest of our roster would probably love to contribute however they could.
If you could bring one band back from the grave to record for you who would it be? (It can be musicians from different bands united into one super entity.)
Fugazi, or The Band. Maybe Crass. Or am I allowed to consider Erik Satie a band? A supergroup would be lame. But I’d book some studio time for a collaborative project by Penny Ribaud, Guy Picciotto & Garth Hudson just to see what they came up with. And I’d nominate Aron Sanchez from Buke and Gase to engineer that session, though I might want his bandmate Arone Dyer to help produce.
Answer these questions using only music videos:
Where do you get your inspiration?
If you started your label in another decade what would it sound like?