Interview: Brian Miller, Deathbomb Arc Records

It’s been a busy year so far for LA’s Deathbomb Arc, a fiercely independent record label run by Foot Village’s Brian Miller and his cat, Leroy. Not only did the label release rRope’s We Are You There, a 3LP discography of a vilely overlooked band, and announce their first foray into the cassette game, but they also found themselves wrapped up in a bit of controversy. Patrick Wensink released his audiobook Broken Piano for President (featuring music by True Neutral, Brain’s project with sometime member Brian Chippendale of hyper noise terrorizers Lightning Bolt and Black Pus), but found himself in a bit of legal trouble when Jack Daniel’s—yes, the Tennessee whisky-ists—decided they didn’t much like the look of the cover, alleging that it bit a little too much from their iconic label. Start here for a bit of the story. But the result? Sucker went to number six on Amazon. That ain’t so bad.

Oh yeah, and that Foot Village band Brian’s in – they’ve got a record coming out, this time on Northern Spy. I wouldn’t sleep on that one…

Brian graciously took a moment to go back and forth with me via email, and for the love of God, I hope I don’t sound like a babbling fanboy. (I really dug the rRope record…) It’s my first interview after all. Be gentle.

Critical Masses: So the rRope 3xLP discography We Are You There is clearly a high point for you this year, and even though I’m sure you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in every Deathbomb release, this one seems to have a little extra TLC behind it.

Brian Miller: My mom is a host of epic proportions. I remember her organizing giant Make-A-Wish Foundation fundraisers, coming up with amazing ways to make them have the most impact. One of them had Alf (the alien puppet) teleconference in. Maybe this rubbed off on me because I find it just as important for my soul to help other artists as I do to make art myself. The first release ever on Deathbomb Arc was by Turbine, which features a member of rRope. It just seemed that if I didn’t step up as a patron, their mind bending music could go unheard forever. There is a huge difference between making a business out of selling music and being a patron. Sometimes they can overlap, but ultimately I see myself as a patron. I want to get great music heard.

With the rRope discography this was the plan as usual, but just amped up way more. Giving this music a 2nd chance felt a lot different than putting out something new. For the rRope release to fall flat would be just such an insult to the musicians who made it. This is music that needs to be a cornerstone of 90s experimental rock. I’m really honored and relieved that it has done so well. Especially critically. The success of this release has also really inspired me with what I can do with Deathbomb. 2012 is only half way over. If I can’t top the rRope release, I got to at least live up to the new standard!

CM: One of the things about the rRope re-release that stuck out to me was the inclusion of live material from their final show. With myself (and others) only coming around to them in 2012, I found that quite revealing to be able to hear, since the rRope live experience has long passed us by. And as far as the connection between being a seller of music (yourself as DBA head, specifically) and patron (which can mean many things), how important to you is the relationship between performance and product? To clarify a little, is it key for a Deathbomb artist to be a performing (i.e. touring, but not necessarily restricted to that) artist, or do you consider the products to be sellable on their own?

BM: The last few years of rRope’s existence, I went to every single show they played in California. I would drive up and down the coast to make sure I didn’t miss a single one. It was insane how good they sounded live. They crafted their sound so well. And making their own amps from scratch to accomplish this made their sound so unique. I eventual found myself listening to live recordings of them more than the studio stuff. So including their final live show was just a no brainer for me.

As far as live performance influences my decisions with releases, it certainly matters for things that cost a lot of money to put out. A band that can go out there and tour (and actually puts on a great show) can certainly help make sure enough records sell so that I don’t go totally bankrupt. But I also do things like the Digital Singles Club and small runs of cassettes and such so that I can support acts that don’t have the ability to tour. It’s a nasty world out there, I understand that touring isn’t for everyone.

CM: I’m incredibly jaded by the music biz, and a lot of what I imagine to be the harsh conditions of the road (and yes, I used to play, but I’m much more content with listening to and writing about music these days), so I can only imagine. And what you’re doing, with the Digital Singles Club and with (relatively) low-run but highly intriguing releases, is exactly what I find fascinating about labels like DBA. I think this approach grants a sort of freedom, too, to take risks on some artists and bands that a wider audience might not “get” at first listen. Do you find this to be true? Do you consider any of the artists on your roster to be far enough outside the realm of conventionality that they could only be Deathbomb artists? I’d love to hear about some examples.

BM: When I started the label, I quickly ran into the resistance of those who think only certain things are acceptable…. even in underground music. The first release on Deathbomb Arc, Turbine’s Thanks Karen 12″, combined live guitars with IDM inspired electronics. The results sound completely normal to our ears now, but at the time most stores wouldn’t carry it, saying that it would alienate both rock and electronic fans. Eventually everything becomes normal. Yet still, the pursuit of short money keeps people thinking like this. I knew from the first time this happened that one of my main goals would be to help make the unusual more accepted. rRope was a band that many found too strange at the time. Now people are hearing this discography, not knowing it is old, and saying it is the sound of the future. Ha! Mostly I’m just trying to break down these preconceived notions by keeping things fun. From the colorful tumblr page to the thrill of music being delivered to your inbox to anything else I think of, I try to come up with ways of presenting the music that anyone would want to experience. Creating an atmosphere of acceptance. Personally, I can only tell if I like something or not. It is typically a surprise both when people say it is too weird or when people all clamor for it. That said, if people want to hear new music first; be the ones to get auditory thrills before anyone else, Deathbomb is the place I’ve created for them. Deathbomb was the first label to put out Death Grips and Julia Holter. I could never have predicted how big both those acts would become, but that isn’t why I put out their music. All that matters is that it sounded really amazing to me.

CM: Yeah, I couldn’t believe you had Death Grips on your backlist – Tonstartssbandht too (I have an irrational love for those guys). And that Turbine record is great – and you’re right, I thought it was fairly conventional, compared to what’s “weird” these days, but I really liked it. Speaking of weird, or at least “weird on a fixed point on our continuum” (or something like that), you’ve also done some work with Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale recently, both on the split with Foot Village and True Neutral’s side of Broken Piano for President. He must have been fun to work with.

BM: One of the big projects we did early this year was get a full discography of Deathbomb releases put online. Cargo Collective helped make it full sortable and searchable. You can generate it based on specific bands, formats, cost, or some combination of those. It is the best place to find out about just how deep the DBA history goes. Not sure what else to say. I’ve been really fortunate to meet a lot of brilliant, creative people doing this. I am really thankful.

CM: DBA has also been a personal distribution mechanism for you as well, as you’ve been involved with quite a few bands and records on the label, from Foot Village and True Neutral to Rose for Bohdan and Gang Wizard, as well as your ambient/drone/noise output as Back to the Future the Ride (nice name that, by the way). Did I miss any? Was that an underlying focus all along, to cultivate an outlet for your music? And how “perfectionist” would you consider yourself, meaning do you slave over all your projects equally, or are some intended to be more off-the-cuff or improvisational?

I like to spend a lot of time thinking through a music project/song before actually touching an instrument. Really get my mind around all the details of arrangement, composition, lyrics, etc. Then, when some ineffable thing tells me I’m ready, just bash everything out really fast. When I’m actually touching instruments, I don’t like to noodle around with a million variations. I feel like my best, most sincere takes are in the first couple passes. So some projects, that don’t allow for all that planning, come out differently because I still insist on just doing a couple takes max. Some end up being entirely off the cuff. Others just end up being ones where tons of computer fuckery goes into it after the fact. Cuz as much as I like playing music in just a couple takes, I also love fucking with computer editing for ages. So yeah, you get a wide range of approaches from the projects I’m in. A complete list of all those projects… I don’t know if I can stomach seeing them in one place.

CM: Now’s the time you get to plug DBA however you’d like. What records (I mean, other than all of them) are you really excited about that you’ll be releasing throughout the rest of the year? Any wild ventures? Tour excitement? Collaborations? This is your soapbox… or at least virtual megaphone.

I just announced a batch of three cassettes that will come out on September 11th. They are Deathbomb’s first pro-dubbed cassettes. All of them represent different approaches to DIY electronics: Clipping are a modular synth/noise based hiphop group; Yola Fatoush takes a sort of Pet Shop Boys approach to contemporary R&B; and Alphabets is a minimal bedroom beat maker. Announced, but not with a date yet, is the debut 12″ from I.E. one of the most loved acts to come out of what we called the Ravesploitation scene here in LA… our own brand of punk techno, of which Captain Ahab reached the most worldwide popularity. But I.E. is kinda our secret gem and she has a charm unlike really any other performer I’ve seen. Super D&D gaming nerd but not of the spoiled white girl sort. I think this video of her performing at her family’s rural home explains it all – for those of us in LA her lack of a proper album after all these years of playing is a true crime. I’m very excited to help bring this long overdue album into existence.

Thanks again to Brian for taking the time to submit to an interview. And again, I can’t recommend Deathbomb Arc’s discography enough – it’s full of weird, interesting, and violently catchy music, and it’s a perfect break from the norm.


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