photo Pawel Kulczynski
room 40 origins
English’s sound work explores environmental and musical sources and is highly regarded for its intelligent invocation of perception, memory and space. He also curates the ROOM40 imprint, which has consistently issued an impressive array of sound-art related activities and events. ROOM40 is celebrating its 10th year, so I talked with English about the label and his thoughts about how this last momentous decade unfolded. He explained, “ROOM40 came about as a sort of umbrella organisation. I thought of it having the publishing arm, the curatorial/gallery/installation project-oriented arm and then the concert/festival part of it, with them coming together under that banner with some kind of focus. So people could have an idea of what they were going to experience or at least think, ‘I’ve gone to two other events or I’ve bought two CDs so I’ll take a risk with this one even though I don’t know who that artist is.’ In some ways it has been a process of building up that trust.”
I ask English about his history in music distribution and he tells me about how it all started with cassette tape trading: “I got my first PO Box when I was 15, because my parents got sick of packages turning up at the house, and I was kind of paranoid about them not turning up—they were always oversized and never fit in the letterbox. In fact we only closed that PO Box this year…it felt like a real cutting off. You should have seen the lady at the post office when I went to close it, I was like, ‘I’m really sorry, I’m going to have to close this box now.’ She was really upset...Tape trading was a fundamental part of how I got into music. You’d basically send off a bunch of stuff, and cross your fingers a package was on its way to you…What’s so interesting now if you want something, even something that’s out of print, you type it into Google, or iTunes, or whatever, and it’s there, and you download it, and you’ve got it in 10 minutes. I remember, when you started reading about a band, first you had to find the person with the demo tape, trade with that person…it could be a process of like 18 months before you finally heard the band! You’d built up so much anticipation by then. But when you finally got it…you’d spent so much time invested in it, and it was so great finally getting to hear that music and say, ‘Oh these guys, they sound so amazing!’”
becoming a label
On the animating forces behind becoming a label, English nominates “the satisfaction of getting people’s work out there. Every single record we’ve put out, I can say, 100%, I have a very deep respect for. They’re essentially giving you their child, their artistic first-born, saying “Here, can you deliver this to the right ears?” English explained how he tried to express this responsibility in the creation of ROOM40’s aesthetic, which is “not necessarily a sonic aesthetic—it’s an aesthetic of the label, involving non-standardised packaging and attention to the overall presentation.” Though creating a catalogue wasn’t on his mind when he started out, “When you look at it now, 10 years later, it looks like a catalogue.”
|ROOM40 covers, clockwise from top left - Erik Griswold - Altona Sketches , Tujiko Noriko/Lawrence English/John Chantler - U, Luc Ferrari - Tuchan Chantal, Chris Abrahams - Thrown|
The archival aspect of ROOM40 “has always been a big part of it” according to English, “because, in traditional music circles, in six months’ time an album’s irrelevant. Ideally what I wanted to do was have an album where you could come to it in five or 10 years and still have an engaging and meaningful experience.” He gives the example of Melbourne artist Rod Cooper’s 2006 Friction album: “it’s still current, it still makes sense, it’s still a total summary of part of the work he’s done.”
filling a brisbane gap
We discussed how ROOM40 differs from a traditional music label, and how it evolved organically. “Obviously, being [in Brisbane] in the 1990s, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. There was Small Black Box [an exploratory music series] and that was it. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity for international artists to come here. A lot of people skipped Brisbane. Even What is Music? didn’t come to Brisbane until like 2003...That has really only changed in probably the last 10 years. There was a big gap up here.
“So that was the motivation behind the Fabrique series at the Powerhouse (40 events over eight years), to try to build up the audience. I always felt frustrated at the way events featuring experimental music felt a bit…exclusive. I just didn’t agree with that. As far as I was concerned, you could be into pop music, and that wouldn’t matter; you’d come to one of these events and, if it was articulated to you in the right way, you’d give it a try and maybe like it, maybe not, but at least you had the experience. I was definitely not part of the scene, because I was interested in a lot of other things as well, like punk rock and hip hop. I thought “I love experimental music…if I can come to it, surely other people can. And obviously that happened, look at the way things have developed in Brisbane. Take Audiopollen (the weekly underground music club 2007-2009) for example. You can see that the audience has grown massively.”
As part of the ongoing conversation with that growing audience, this year also sees the fifth anniversary of Open Frame, ROOM40’s annual festival (Brisbane Powerhouse, Oct 6-7), which this year will also present an event in London in November. Legacy projects involve the reissuing of some of the label’s albums on vinyl, such as Ben Frost’s classic Steelwound (2003) and Chris Abrahams’ Thrown (2005). There are other interesting plans afoot.
a guide to site-listening
English explains that ROOM40 is to release its first book through the label, a site listening guide—“Rather than sight-seeing, I’m asking people to site-listen.” The book’s introduction promises not “an exhaustive list of listening locations around Brisbane,” but rather, an offer of “possible encounters, personal reflections and suggestions as to what sounds might be worth listening out for in this city.” It’s easy to see how this publication, with its “open-ended invitation to listen to the spaces you might find yourself in,” has evolved naturally out of both the artist’s creative explorations of sonic environments, along with ROOM40’s ear-opening agenda. As Lawrence English explains, “it’s about privileging the ears over the eyes.”
RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 39
© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org