Room40 is an experimental music label based in Brisbane carefully curated by sound artist, composer and coffee aficionado Lawrence English. Lawrence works in the field just as much as in the studio, recording what you might call ‘natural’ sound like the extraordinary, synthesiser-like vocalisations of Weddell seals in Antarctica or the sheer physicality of the wind in Patagonia. As director of Room40, Lawrence composes himself and curates the music of other sound artists and experimenters from across the globe who work in everything from esoteric pop to noise. In 2015, Room40 celebrates 15 years of activities with a series of curated evenings across the globe. We were lucky enough to be able to take part in these evenings during the Room 40 Openframe in Stockholm, a project humbly organised by John Chantler, who’s also one of the core members of the Room40 family. For this occasion we asked Lawrence to talk about the history of the label and also prepare a fantastic guest mix featuring only Room40 releases. What a lucky coincidence that this happens to be the 40th guest mix on Sounds Of A Tired City…
How did you first get involved with music?
With music, rather that sound more broadly, I got involved in my early teens being a very determined cassette trader. I was an avid collector of demos, live recordings and music that wasn’t so easily available. Through being part of this network of tape traders, I started a fanzine focused on a broad range of underground music. A lot of music from Los Angeles and New York and countries like Japan. I was always curious to hear these new bands that were playing live, but perhaps didn’t have any proper releases, just demo tapes, which is how a lot of bands operated in the early 1990s if they were operating outside the mainstream.
From there I started a record label and throughout the mid 90s, I was playing in bands and started to experiment in a more focused way with solo works. In late 1999 I began the foundation of what would be Room40.
When and how did you get the idea to give birth to Room40?
Basically Room40 was born out of a couple of circumstances that all converged at one. Specifically, the distributors for the first label I was running went bankrupt and I took this as an omen to refocus my efforts into what became Room40. At the same time as this happened, I was aware that the other label had run its course and my interests in working with artists had shifted. I was more interested in transforming, in some small way, the cultural landscape of Brisbane and hopefully Australia, by reaching outward and connecting what I felt were like minded communities of listeners and artists. Australia still felt like a long way away from the rest of the world back then, so I felt strongly it was important to reach outward and tie together these lines of interest and experience.
Where is the name coming from?
Room40 refers to the code breaking facility at Bletchley Park in the UK. I felt it was an elegant metaphor for what I was interested in seeking through the work within the label’s umbrella. Room 40 brought together all manner of individuals; professors, military thinkers, engineers, crossword puzzlers and others; and they all explored this question of code breaking. Similarly I wanted to label to reflect this idea of very different aesthetic and acoustic ideas all linked through a shared interest in the transcendent possibilities of sound and the importance of focused listening.
How would you describe the sound of Room40 in 5 words?
Like a very good coffee.
What is the concept of the label?
I’m not sure there’s a single concept or overarching thematic beyond what I mentioned before. I can say it’s very much a friends and family label. In that I share a great affinity and respect for all the artists we work with and I have quite strong personal bonds with a great many of them. This is increasingly important to me, and I suppose to the label. This relationship shared between everyone, no matter how distant, somehow offers a glue if you like for how the label moves and grows.
How do you usually find and select the artists/music you’re going to sign?
Actually I don’t think we’ve ever signed an artist. Beyond simple agreements we’ve never signed a contract with any of our artists. Call me old fashioned, but I am still a huge believe in common decency and respect for one another. Everything is very up front and clear, and to this point it’s worked so very well.
As for why I am interested to work with certain artists, that very much comes down to the respect I have for their work and my desire to share that work with other interested ears. The earliest inspiration for the label was very much about discovering work I felt wasn’t connecting to the right, or enough ears, and I wanted to change that. Today it’s much the same. I want to share this work I feel so very passionate about.
What do you find the most stimulating/disappointing thing about running a label?
I think the idea of the label, by this I mean any label, is increasingly problematic and requires serious thought. This is possibly the greatest opportunity and threat to any label today. I think the old rules that governed labels aren’t enough to rely on. I really enjoy these questions and perhaps that’s a new point of stimulation about what things might mean. And perhaps about how the connections to curation and the notion of the archive come into focus.
Is there something you would like to improve?
My abilities to stay on top of email!
Do you think that in our digital era the non-musical elements – eg. album artwork – are overlooked and not appreciated enough? How important are these kind of aesthetics for Room40?
Since the start of the label, the tactile experience of the music was a central focus for us. The label benefited greatly from the assistance of designers like Steve Alexander, who was central in setting a series of rules that really framed that aspect of the label. A great deal of those aspects continue today. I think now more than ever the idea of the physical object of music requires great care and consideration. Sadly I think the era of the jewel case CD did more to devalue music than we realise. There was such a disregard for any sense of artistry, it eroded so greatly the value of a physical musical object.
How does a ‘regular day’ look like at the Room40 office?
Coffee, email, coffee, email, coffee, pack orders, coffee, everything else!
Are there any artists you would secretly love to ‘sign’ to Room40?
I’ve been very lucky to work with so many artists I who I greatly admire and respect. Increasingly, what I am more interested in is developing projects with artists. This brings me a great deal of pleasure, realising things that might not otherwise happen. It’s a great joy to have the chance to collaborate and a very rich opportunity for me to learn from some great minds.
Do you have a personal favourite among your releases? Which one are you the most proud of?
I think ever record has a special story that ties it deeply to me.
Do you remember a particularly wonderful moment in the history of the label?
Probably holding the very first cds and more recently the first LPs we pressed. There is a wonderful sense of tactile satisfaction in the actualisation of music into object I feel.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who is interested in starting their own label?
Love what you do. Listen to your sense of aesthetics. Respect the work, if you don’t, no one else will.
Do you remember which record has been sold out the quickest so far? Which was the most popular?
Could you name 3 other labels that you are really fond of, that for some reason you consider as a ‘role model’? Why them?
I’ve always respected the focused aesthetics of labels like Touch, raster-noton and 12k, labels that clearly think about the catalogue as something more than the sum of its parts. Labels like Creel Pone, which Keith Whitman was working on I deeply respect for their incredible archival work, Superior Viaduct is another recently I’ve enjoyed the re-issues from. Essentially I enjoy labels with a deeper sense of themselves, not just a random selection of whatever might be doing the rounds.
What is the latest news at Room40? What should we keep our eyes and ears on?
GUEST MIX by LAWRENCE ENGLISH
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