It’s been over a year since Deathbomb Arc label head Brian Miller and I spoke at length via email, and we decided it was time to bring you all up to speed on all things DBA related. And we here at Critical Masses love keeping you up to speed on all things DBA related. Why? Because there isn’t a label that so consistently and excellently releases genre-pushing music like Brian does through Deathbomb. And because there’s no one who is so artist friendly – Brian’s on the front lines, personally interacting with every musician he releases, and collaborating with most of them too. That combination is rare, and refreshing. It’s what makes Deathbomb so exciting as a record label.
2013 has been a big year for Deathbomb, too, perhaps most visibly with clipping., a noise-rap hybrid who has released material on the label, signing to indie juggernaut Sub Pop. This of course caused some residual buzz for DBA, and hopefully that wider recognition will positively affect future releases. But no matter how fleeting the attention is, Brian’s not going to budge from his vision one bit: “My dad … always warned me that there is little thanks for people on the bleeding edge; the people that try out ideas first.” That’s Deathbomb in a nutshell, the “bleeding edge” of experimental music, as it has been for the past fifteen years. Let’s show him some of that thanks.
Critical Masses: You’ve had some pretty wild stuff going on at Deathbomb Arc since we first talked in 2012! Where to begin?
First, to play spoiler, we did a year-end podcast instead of a typical bloggy list (because those get REALLY old), and Deathbomb artists are featured quite prominently. I included True Neutral Crew and I.E. as two of my favorite releases that I wrote about for the site, and clipping.’s midcity as one of my favorites that I didn’t write about. Also, Foot Village’s Make Memories tied (with Derek Piotr’s Raj) as one of my two favorite albums of the year. So … well done, from my perspective! In the spirit of all the year-end madness, tell me a little about how this year went for you.
Brian Miller: Recently, a radio DJ asked me about Deathbomb’s sudden turn toward being a hip-hop label. I thought it was an interesting question to hear because, as much hip hop has been a big part of the label since the get-go, it meant that the outside perception of it has changed. In the early ’00s, I released a tribute comp to No Limit Records followed by one for Cash Money Records. And those are just emblematic of themes always with the label. But it’s definitely true that since clipping.’s sudden runaway success, I’ve been pushing just how deep that relationship to the genre I should dig. To me, the most exciting thing about rap for the last few years is just how open it is to experimental music. I’d say far more so than rock/punk is. As someone primarily interested in experimenting with new ways of arranging sound, plus always having an active interest in hip hop, I see the new open door as a huge blessing and feel no remorse about the one that has closed. It’s like a fates aligning moment. Even Daveed Diggs’ involvement with True Neutral Crew is something that was in the works before clipping. got hot, but given that TNC made our debut after the excitement, it definitely starts to paint Deathbomb as an experimental rap label. So I guess this shift is about equal parts fate and choice. Going along with the flow has meant I have some years, like 2010, where there just isn’t too much for Deathbomb to contribute to art/culture, but this year it has felt bold.
CM: OK, you beat me to it – I was totally gonna bring up the rap thing next. I think maybe Deathbomb isn’t necessarily perceived (or at least I don’t necessarily perceive it) as being involved in hip hop as much because the focus has been, at least in the past couple years, on other things. To wit (and cherrypick): rRope, Fairhorns, Turbine, Black Pus, and, earlier, Gang Wizard, Rose for Bohdan, and Captain Ahab (which, I know, there’s quite a bit of hip hop influence there, but still). I guess what I’m trying to say is, as an outsider, the divide between experimental rock, etc., and hip hop is a little more distinct, especially with the focus on TNC and clipping….
BM: This just furthers the question of what really defines a label, the releases themselves or the audience perception of them. The rRope discography really defined Deathbomb last year, getting attention in big places like Pitchfork and The Wire. But that same year, I put out more releases by beat oriented acts, two of which fall under the experimental hip hop category (clipping.’s debut cassette and a cassette by Yola Fatoush). My dad, who is in robotics development, always warned me that there is little thanks for people on the bleeding edge; the people that try out ideas first. Those that play things a bit safer and wait till the new ideas have been tested a bit, then cash in, are the ones that get the recognition of being first. Apparently I’m unable to heed this warning. The list of popular, game changing, bands that Deathbomb was there first for continues to surprise me. Julia Holter, Death Grips, Black Pus, clipping., etc. I used to feel like it was tacky to name drop like that, but I realized it is important make sure audiences know that Deathbomb is the place they can come discover tomorrow’s breakthrough acts today. The bands I’m putting out now definitely deserve attention. I think I’ve paid my dues, nearly 15 years doing this label. If the larger press outlets that worship former Deathbomb acts aren’t taking a moment to look back on where this shit comes from, it’s my job to make sure people know. I’m not afraid to hustle.
CM: …AND, your upcoming tape batch, is all hip hop. Talk about that a little – I’m especially psyched about Signior Benedick the Moor. His El Negro release is great, and his revision of True Neutral Crew’s “I Guess” (with Catfish Candywrappa) is phenomenal. How did you and he connect?
BM: I try to pay attention to the music made by fans of the acts I’m involved with. Signor Benedick the Moor (from Sacramento) is someone I discovered because he is a clipping. fan. So I took a sec to check out his music and was absolutely mind scrambled. I knew the moment I heard him that he will be huge. One of the most talented musicians I’ve ever had the honor of working with. I also felt a real kinship with him. His approach to hip hop, playing all his own live instrumentation and being very blind to the idea of genre differences is really in line with what we are messing with as True Neutral Crew. I felt like TNC was just kinda alone in this weird “krautrap” territory until I heard him. But Signor Benedick is like way ahead of us actually. Dude really knows what he is doing. His new tape is no exception. The closing track on it could very well become his most popular song to date. Also, the other two acts that are a part of this batch, Mad Murderz and Viper Venom, are so amazing too. And even though technically this is a rap batch, all three acts couldn’t be any more different. So excited to see what people think once these drop.
CM: About format – cassettes have made a comeback in recent years, and you’ve embraced them with your recent releases, as well as this upcoming hip hop batch. Fairhorns’ Satan Replicant (not to mention clipping.’s midcity) seems to have popped up on some nice year-end lists. Why cassettes over vinyl or CD? And what about the Fairhorns release gave the cassette its impact – or, why do people like it so much, why was it so well received?
BM: This question made me go and actually figure out just how many cassettes have even come out on Deathbomb. 64! Plus 3 more on the way. I dove headlong into putting out cassettes for sure. The first thing I ever did with the format was a subscription club back in 2004. Subscribers got one tape a month for a year. Each tape had two bands, each doing a 9- to 10-minute-long song. The club ended up going for four years. The list of acts includes No Age, Thurston Moore, Deerhoof, Black Pus, Julia Holter, and tons more. To me, the ’00s felt like a bigger time for cassettes than currently, but I’m probably wrong about that. The excitement then was just close to home. Now it seems to have spread to mainstream press. While most of the tapes were to help new acts get some exposure, it was fun working with the bigger ones like Deerhoof because no one would expect them to do a cassette. They definitely were taking part to help endorse the format, which was super cool of them. I think that is the same for the Fairhorns cassette. Since the dude [Matt Loveridge] is from Beak> and does just absolutely masterful stuff, it breaks the negative stereotype of cassettes that they are just for bands in their formative stage still. But just like the difference between water colors and oil paint, it’s medium. And various mediums offer interesting ways for acts to communicate their work.
Your midcity note brings up an interesting issue though. It is actually clipping.’s first EP [Untitled], before midcity, that I put out on cassette. midcity still is digital only. And technically midcity is not on Deathbomb. But Deathbomb’s relationship to clipping. was the first project that really embodied this new idea I have that labels should be Artist Labels rather than Record Labels. Even though midcity is self-released, Deathbomb served as the sole promoter and in a sort of new way, distributor. The idea is that labels should be helping acts reach the biggest audience and only worried about putting out actual records if that makes sense for such a plan. With clipping., we didn’t think a physical album made sense, but giving away a free one did. So Deathbomb did everything we could to help build clipping. an audience. It ended up with them getting signed to Sub Pop, but they will also be doing a vinyl album on Deathbomb too. So while helping spread the word about a group for a year doesn’t help financially in the immediate sense, when the clipping. 12″ on Deathbomb does finally drop, there will now be way more people actually interested in it. Long-term-plan type stuff. Obviously this is an amazing case of that going way better than one should normally hope for, but damn if it doesn’t feel like we had the right idea.
CM: Whoops! Uh, yeah, I meant the clipping. EP… (It’s that clipping. family thing with Captain Ahab and True Neutral Crew that threw me off…) That’s a great description, though, of what you’re trying to do as a label, and it seems like it couldn’t have worked out better in this instance. But that also seems to set a false bar, maybe? As in, do you measure all future releases or plans against clipping.’s success? And what does that mean for Deathbomb going forward? How do you see your vision of an “Artist Label” playing out, at least in the near term?
BM: While the rate at which clipping. went from unknown to hugely popular definitely falls in that “overnight” category, I still haven’t forgotten that I was working with them for two years leading up to all this madness. And before that, Deathbomb had been completely committed to Jonathan Snipes’ previous project, Captain Ahab, for nearly a decade. I’ve always believed in his work and it’s always felt like the audience appreciation for it was growing. The same was true for Foot Village, which in a way, evolved out of Rose For Bohdan. From the release of the first, pretty much unnoticed, Rose For Bohdan release in ’96 all the way up to Foot Village getting to play at ATP fests and participate in Boadrum88 in recent years, it was definitely a long road. Some ups and downs, but overall, very rewarding to have things really grow. And even if other acts I work with don’t see the type of success of signing to Sub Pop or playing ATP, I can still offer more now to them than I ever could because people take Deathbomb more seriously because of these associations. The one act I’ve started helping out in a similar manner as I have with clipping. is Signor Benedick. He mentioned in an interview that I was able to get him more press attention in a couple weeks than he was able to in years. By no means was this attention on the clipping. level, but it made me really happy for him to say that.
CM: I had no idea you did Boadrum! As a quick aside, how was that? I always thought that was an amazing idea.
BM: The most powerful thing about Boadrum was the audience. It was like how athletes describe the energy they get from stadiums. We were all set up at the bottom of this natural amphitheater, with something like 3,000 in attendance. At the first break in the music, five minutes in, the roar from the crowd came rolling in from all directions around us. I immediately burst into tears. It was like an unstoppable physical reaction. The good version of catching on fire.
CM: Tell me a little more about True Neutral Crew. It’s evolved a little bit since your soundtrack for Patrick Wensink’s Broken Piano for President audiobook (as simply “True Neutral”), and your digital single “Call on the Herd/A Few Lights on the Wall.” You’ve got Margot Padilla, aka I.E. (whose DBA debut Most Importantly was awesome), and clipping.’s Daveed Diggs along for the ride now. Their contributions to your debut EP #MONSANTO are amazing, as we’d figure. What’s next for True Neutral Crew? How active do you envision the project will be in the near future, since all three of you are quite busy with other things? Is it strictly a studio project?
BM: I’ve actually started work on some technology that will allow True Neutral Crew to put on a very unique sort of live show. But it does require making some simple circuit boards from scratch and some other assembly. But I really hope to have the TNC live show ready in 2014. I don’t want to give much away about it though. Think “The Muppets” I guess. 🙂
We’ll also be dropping a bunch more music. In early January Deathbomb is doing a benefit comp for Rolling Jubilee that will feature exclusive tracks from True Neutral Crew, Black Pus, Signor Benedick the Moor, Viper Venom, and a bunch more. Plus we have two new mixtapes in the works. Both still involve Margot and Daveed, but also a lot of other people. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, I used to work with tons of guests for Rose For Bohdan. It’s really nice returning to that style of music creation. I feel right at home, much more so than strictly defined bands.
CM: I can’t wait to see what’s next for TNC – I loved #MONSANTO and can only imagine a crazy Muppets-like live experience. If it’s anything like Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” video, I think we’re in for a treat. (I kid…)
So besides the cassette releases, the TNC live experience, and the benefit comp, what does 2014 have in store for Deathbomb? Anything deep in the pipeline that you want to tease? Any rRope-like mega-release?
BM: The big thing for Deathbomb in ’14 is definitely the clipping. 12″. I realize their album on Sub Pop, and how exciting that is, will probably make people think that their release on DBA is some sort of auxiliary thing. Don’t forget though that before midcity even came out, this is what the plan between clipping. and Deathbomb was all along. A slow deliberate road toward taking them from unknown to doing a full-length vinyl. And that is still the same plan, just now it has all this other amazing stuff we couldn’t have anticipated like giant fest appearances and even more releases on a giant of the industry. Their release on Deathbomb will be epic. I’ve gotten glimpses of what it entails and it is definitely unlike midcity and the sub pop album. Very cinematic. Very scary. I don’t think I can say more though. Maybe that was even too much? You’ll just have to wait on see.
Okay, I’m going back to mixing this next TNC release now! Working with a really cool skating crew for this one, so brace yourselves. #POPPUNK is on its way!
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Brian! Everybody: Buy Deathbomb.