BABEL ~ Thirteen Exquisite Corpses

a4035646274_10“Consequences” is a great rainy-day game I remember playing with my grandparents. Following the same narrative formula, each person writes one line of a story, before passing the folded paper to their neighbour. The end result is an absurdist, comical tale, often mildly offensive to at least one person in the room. The visual equivalent, cadavre exquis, has been a favourite of surrealist artists of the past hundred years. For the latest instalment of his BABEL project, Jakob Rehlinger has hit upon a musical version, untested until now.

Like Rehlinger’s other monikers, BABEL has ranged widely, from psychedelic rock through to vintage electro. Most of the releases have been solo endeavours; but on this new record Rehlinger finds a halfway house between isolation and collaboration. Each co-creator was sent a minimal recording of synth drones, over which they improvised with instruments including violin, guitar, saxophone, and voice. Rehlinger has combined the separate recordings into a unified piece, adding his own contributions in synth, guitar, and percussion. The literary and visual forms of this game might produce entertaining dissonance; but the musical experiment finds coherence and a consistency of vision. Across much of the first disc, the synth tones resemble a church organ, which the bowed strings, gongs, and minimal vocals accompany to perfection. A gradual, uplifting ceremony takes place. Listeners may struggle to detect the variables of chance and improvisation that helped produce its ritualised gestures.

Setting aside the collaborative process, “Thirteen Exquisite Corpses” is a fitting title in other ways. The 2CD release comes in 24-page hardback booklet, where hi-res photos depict the remains of thirteen animals in varying states of decay. This may sound like a morbid shock tactic. On the other hand, the struck-down creatures seem elevated: an avian skull sits as an offering to the gods; mammalian claws reach up from the grass of a sky burial.

Commenting on his 1989 composition “Ascent of the Deer Ghost”, Paul Sturm figures his music as the symbolic last rites of hunted deer, whose spirits are trapped in the earthly realm. Rehlinger has a similar idea, titling his thirteen tracks “Release of the Spirit” (1-7) and “Release of the Flesh” (8-13). Whilst the former feels salutary to the listener’s soul, the latter sets our bodies on edge as anxious trepidation creeps into the saxophone and violin. The percussion turns to ominous drumming, and the synth to eerie droning. Only in the final minutes of the record do we return to restiveness, as the drones carry us forward into the light of distant chiming.

The decomposition of the flesh serves as a parallel for the composition of the music. The record may sound fully formed and endowed with life. But the artistic monoliths we erect will eventually disappear – the body of the songbird fallen low. Individual matter returns to something larger, altering it minutely in the process. These facts are on Rehlinger’s mind, as Thirteen Exquisite Corpses marks the end of his Arachnidiscs label. Across 20 years and 200 releases, Jakob Rehlinger has offered a platform for diverse forms of sound, which belonged under his imprint mostly by virtue of not belonging anywhere. We caught up with him to discuss the reasons behind the closure, and his plans for the future. (Samuel Rogers)

 

 

You started the Arachnidiscs label two decades ago. What were its initial aims at that time, and how did its agenda evolve over the years?

My initial aims were quite self-centered, but not an unusual motivation for starting a label: to have a place to release my own music. Truth be told, I started the label thirty years ago as No Love Records and changed the name to Arachnidiscs in 1999 when I adopted the newfangled CD-r medium. Soon after the name change I started releasing EPs and albums by my friends and the aim was more altruistic, to help them and our small-town, underground scene out.

Those aims remained more or less the same when I moved away from that small town (Nanaimo, BC) to Toronto a dozen years ago. The only changes were after about 2010, strangers started approaching me and I wasn’t just releasing local friends’ music but also artists from Europe, Asia, and the States. The second change was I developed a slogan to serve as a mission statement of sorts—“Music for and by weirdos”—which had previously been a given, due to the weirdo nature of my circle of friends. But some very “normal” acts started to pitch demos to me so I felt like I needed to plant a flag in the ground. I suppose, third, for 2019 I also changed the focus of the label to be exclusively instrumental.

 

Once you planted that flag, what did “weirdo” music come to represent? Was this a commitment to avant-garde experiment, or just material that couldn’t find a home elsewhere?

“Weird” is very much a subjective and relative term that’s in the ear of the beholder. What I’d consider some of our more normal, accessible releases others might find avant-garde and difficult listening. And what I might think is a risky, envelope-pushing release someone is bound to scoff at as being tame and hackneyed. At that same time, I’d get people pitching their “weird” album to me and it’d almost always be pretty standard electronica. Very by-the-book and to a template created by Aphex Twin in the ’90s. Probably they have people in their life who tell them it’s really weird, but to me it’s boring and normal. So, in a way, it’s too subjective a term to be useful. But I will say, everyone on the label has been at least a little socially awkward (often very), a bit out-of-step with “normal” society (often very), and just by any rubric a “weirdo”. And I think that’s represented in their music—even if it’s what might seem at first blush to be a standard acoustic singer-songwriter thing, they’re coming at it weird.

 

In your announcement of Arachnidiscs’ demise, you suggest that the importance of micro-labels has diminished. Is this a positive thing for musicians, or has something valuable been lost?

I don’t think anything has been lost for musicians, it’s just different now. What I meant in my announcement is there was a time, pre-internet, when artists literally needed their music on a physical medium for it to be heard. You obviously couldn’t just upload your music for anyone in the world to hear. So labels of all sizes played the very practical role of making that music literally exist. Now an artist doesn’t need a label the size of Arachnidiscs to make their music available, they can cheaply and easily do it themselves on Bandcamp, SoundCloud, or Spotify. And a band doesn’t need a label to find distribution for their CDs, LPs, or cassettes, they have Bandcamp for that too.

Labels can still play a role in promoting an artist and producing that fetishized physical product, but they’re no longer essential. And exponentially less essential the smaller the label gets. A micro-label used to make available music that was too weird, too outsider, for even a small indie to release. Now, again, Bandcamp exists.

 

How quickly did Arachnidiscs embrace those online platforms, and did they cause a big change in the way the label operated?

I embraced Bandcamp immediately. I’d been waiting for something like that to come along. Previous to that I’d used Big Cartel to sell physical items, but their free accounts had a limit of six products or something, and there was no way to listen to previews of the music and they didn’t host downloads. So I started using a WordPress blog with those awkward embeddable PayPal buttons as a webstore and SoundCloud to host streaming audio. It was all kind of messy. Then Bandcamp came along with a really good, clean store architecture, no limits on number of products, unlimited file hosting… Completely worth the “revenue share” they charge. In fact, I’d say it’s the only thing that made running a label as small as Arachnidiscs viable for a number of years. The alternative is to build a real, functioning webstore into your own website, which I’d have had to pay someone to do and maintain, and to offset the cost of that I’d have to spend money on promoting the label and hope sales would then cover the costs of web development and PR. Arachnidiscs would’ve probably had to get a lot less weird to make that sustainable. Bandcamp let it stay small and weird.

 

Looking back at 200 Arachnidiscs releases, do you have one or two which hold special meaning for you personally? Is there one artist you are especially proud to have offered a platform to?

Releasing the first Heraclitus Akimbo (Joe Strutt) tape, A Part of My Inheritance, is something I’m happy to have done. Joe is a recordist who had been a huge part of the Toronto weirdo scene by archiving hundreds of shows on his Mechanical Forest Sound blog. I’m not sure if it’s entirely mine to take credit for, but I wanted to give him a nudge into releasing and performing his own music which he seemed have to an erroneous imposter syndrome about. Now he’s really broken out of his shell and I even play bass in his band, Stargoon. So I think if there’s one thing a label should exist for, it’s something like that.

The other would be, to toot my own horn, Thirteen Exquisite Corpses, the 200th and final release which is by my own BABEL project. It is exactly what I’d always wanted a BABEL and Arachnidiscs release to be, musically and aesthetically, for twenty years. RAIC’s Lamentations and the Espvall / Jakobsons / Szelag album came really close though. That sort of neo-classical, slightly gothic vibe. So I’m delighted and relieved the album worked out! Of course I have my eight collaborators, most who are Arachnidiscs alumni, to thank for that.

 

It’s definitely a fine release to end with! How important has the collaborative process been to your own music over the decades?

The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. That said, I myself am one of the “weirdos” I describe. I’m a control freak and don’t play well with others, though I’m not sure how much the people I’ve played with realize this. A friend once described me as “the quietest megalomaniac.” Plus, I’m very adverse to conflict. If I have to fight for my ideas, it makes me feel physically ill. So in collaborative situations I’m usually either consciously taking a backseat, feeling uneasy about forcing my ideas on people, or unhappy with the compromises made. Pretty standard band politics, I guess. Of course, the fruit of those compromises is what make collaborations shine over solo work. And I do admit that, begrudgingly or enthusiastically, afterwards.

With Thirteen Exquisite Corpses, I wanted to include as many Arachnidiscs veterans as possible but I also only invited those I knew would play exactly what I wanted. That is, I didn’t give any instruction, or if I did it was extremely minimal, on what to play but I was confident with each that they’d magically play exactly what I had in mind. And they did! Yet with enough of their own voice and surprises, things I’d have never thought of on my own, to create that ensemble magic.

 

Has running a label been in competition with your own creative work, or do the two activities complement each other?

Oh, it’s definitely been in competition. I’m also the stay-at-home parent of a three-year-old so it’s amazing I’ve been as personally productive as a musician over the last few years as I have. The label though, has also been part of my artistic expression in itself. Both from a curation standpoint and a graphic design standpoint. Doing elaborate, creative packages was a hallmark of the label for a while. It was a creative outlet for me as a graphic designer who at the time had a boring, uncreative graphic design day job in government. This year, with the exception of RAIC and BABEL, the packaging has been a lot less elaborate due to time constraints. Which was part of the decision to close the label.

 

So what’s next in your own creative endeavours? Can we expect albums at an even faster rate?

Actually, no. My goal, now that I have time, is to be a little more meticulous on my next few releases. Spend a little more time developing and refining ideas and editing out the filler. Though this really runs contrary to how I work naturally, in any medium, which is fast and improvisational. I’m also really enticed by the idea of creating music just for myself for a while and not releasing anything. Or just releasing the work I honestly think is exemplary. I’m also sort of focusing on painting these days, and I’d like to get back to a couple novels I was writing, so I’m not at all sure what’s in the cards.

A Closer Listen thanks Jakob for his time and congratulates him on the completion of this 20-year project!

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