Students Of Decay is a record label founded and curated by Alex Cobb, based in San Diego, California. Since 2005 it became the home of various drone, ambient, improvisational releases, representing artists such as Natural Snow Buildings, Fabio Orsi, Pausal, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Kyle Bobby Dunn and one of the most exciting projects at this time, Secret Pyramid. Alex told us everything that you need to know about Students Of Decay.
How did you first get involved with music?
I started making music in high school in the late ’90s while living in Cincinnati, OH. I was doing prepared guitar improvisations, both solo and as part of a duo. There was actually a very fertile improvisational/experimental scene in Cincinnati in those days – spearheaded primarily by a youthful C. Spencer Yeh.
When and how did you get the idea to give birth to Students Of Decay? How did you find the name?
I started the label in 2005. It was initially conceived of as a means by which to publish my solo work – a vanity/private press more or less. When I got good feedback on the work from critics/peers and other labels began requesting recordings from me, I decided to develop it into a full-fledged label. I started soliciting work from musicians I admired/respected and things snowballed. The phrase “students of decay” occurs in both Donald Barthelme’s ‘The Dead Father‘ and in the theatrical PR copy for Peter Greenaway’s ‘A Zed & Two Noughts‘. It stuck with me and I think it functions well as a name for a drone-centric imprint.
How would you describe the sound of Students Of Decay in 5 words?
I’m not sure I can or would want to do that.
What is the concept of the label?
Cohesion across what are at times disparate sonic terrains. As a child of the ’80s, I grew up in a bygone era of labels that strived for consistency and a refined aesthetic. I remember very well the experience of buying records because they were on labels like PSF, Alchemy, Drunken Fish, Ecstatic Peace!, Corpus Hermeticum, Road Cone, etc. There are very few labels like this anymore; I like to think SOD carries this torch (alongside a few contemporaries).
Whose idea was the cylindrical logo, who created it?
Robert Beatty created the logo. I’m a huge fan of Robert’s visual art and music, so he was my first choice when it came time to create a logo that embodied the label’s identity.
How do you usually find and select the artists/music you’re going to sign to your label?
I listen to a lot of music and I receive a lot of demos. If I find someone whose output I feel is apiece with the general tenets of SOD, I’ll get in touch with them to see if things gel – both personally and musically. I don’t sign artists per se, but I do like working recurrently with musicians whose output I connect with to a particularly strong degree (En, Secret Pyramid, Aquarelle, etc.).
What do you find the most stimulating/disappointing thing about running a label?
I value the producer role strongly, something which I’d like to see more of in our “scene.” I’m committed to critiquing the minutiae of a prospective album and telling artists what’s working and not working for me as a way to help them get an objective perspective and put their best foot forward. It’s also of course quite stimulating to be releasing music that I feel is important and deserves documentation/preservation on hard format(s). On the other side of things, it’s disappointing how hard it is to make ends meet putting out music, particularly given the amount of work and financial overhead involved. Many people seem to operate under the delusion that label owners make a decent income from their productions once their operation gets to be a certain size. More often than not, this is absolutely not the case. Personal drama is also something that can be disappointing and frustrating. I simply refuse to work with dramatic, egotistical, or unreasonable musicians.
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 Students Of Decay?
In the experimental community, I think we’re lucky to have a base that values things like aesthetics, physicality, production values, etc. Lord knows this isn’t the case with all genres. I do contend that in order for it to make sense to release physical media, particularly vinyl, in 2014 it’s important to have the format enrich the experience of listening to and even holding/looking at a release. There are far too many record plants and labels that cut corners and produce poor quality records with shoddy jackets and noisy/thin/impotent pressings. I find this more or less inexcusable. With SOD releases I’m committed to a certain (high) production spec – it’s something I really believe in. Otherwise, what’s the point?
How does a ‘regular day’ look at the Students Of Decay office?
I don’t have an office, really. I live in a small house in coastal southern California with my wife and two huge dogs and this is where I do label-related work. A regular day involves waking up early, drinking coffee, and doing a lot of emailing/copywriting/listening, provided I don’t have to go to my other job.
Is there any artists you would secretly love to work with at Students of Decay?
Do you have a personal favorite among your releases? Which one are you the most proud of?
I can’t pick favorites. I’m very excited about the upcoming Kyle Bobby Dunn record, and I quite enjoyed the process of putting together the Mark Banning reissue. Really, I’m fond of all SOD releases in their own ways.
Do you remember a particularly wonderful moment in the history of the label?
Early on, James Blackshaw (who continues to be one of the closest friends I’ve made through music) was a key motivator in convincing me to develop SOD and send my work to other labels. He was an early champion of both my solo output and the label’s aesthetics. As I think about it, developing lasting relationships that transcend business (and music) altogether is one of the absolute best things about running a label. Basically, everyone I work with I come to consider a true friend.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who is interested in starting their own label?
Do it for the love, because you’re surely not gonna make a fortune. Have a sense of purpose. Take risks. Don’t cut corners. Don’t chase trends. Be critical and demanding. Don’t take shit from, or work with, primadonnas.
What is the latest news at Students Of Decay? What should we keep our eyes and ears on?
I’m really excited about the upcoming slate of releases, which includes the aforementioned Kyle Bobby Dunn 3LP/2CD (due out 10th of June!); a mammoth collaborative LP by Duane Pitre and Cory Allen; an urgent and wonderful 2LP reissue of Jeff Witscher’s Marble Sky output; the debut full-length album by Canadian composer Sarah Davachi; and the final album, a 2LP, by En, among other equally fantastic records.