Chain D.L.K.: Roger, you run a historically important label concerned with experimental music. Can you recap the early days for the youngest readers? Is it just an impression, or is Extreme “back on the map” with a revived enthusiasm, lately?
Extreme Records: It all started when I began listening to ‘alternative’ music on a community radio station at the tender age of 13. There was Punk, Reggae, Avant-Garde (Henri, Stockhausen, Xenakis et al.) along with Industrial (SPK, Throbbing Gristle, Neubarten etc.). My ambition at that time was to become a radio announcer, not as a profession but as a means of playing music I liked on the radio for others to hear. Needless to say I wasenjoying listening to music of all types and going to see bands whenever I could. Australia has a great and deserved reputation for independent music and venues. Once I was on the radio I was sure that there was even more music out there that was great and wasn’t being released.My focus shifted to wanting to release music on my own label. I really wanted to release a record and this is how the Merzbow/SBOTHI Collaborative LP came to be. Of course, this was at the birth of the CD and I haven’t released an LP since. The first CD was by Paul Schutze, the next by Muslimgauze and on from there. The Muslimgauze CDs were significant as they introduced the now famous “Extreme band” that graces nearly all Extreme releases. This was, and is, intentionally a means of introducing people to music and artists on Extreme that they had not heard of or experienced. For example, the popularity of Muslimgauze gives people an introduction to try out the music of Pablo’s Eye. There have now been more than 60 releases, and with each release it is hoped that some new or innovative musical element is brought out. It is also my aim that the music stands the test of time, being enjoyed as music, rather than a fashionable moment, in years to come. Over the years Extreme has worked with and introduced to the world the music of Jim O’Rourke, Soma, Merzbow and many others. A significant moment came in 2000 with the release of the Merzbox by Merzbow, an achievement I am still proud of. Having had 3 years’ break from new releases, 2003 to 2006, it is good to be back. This is definitely a return for Extreme and there is a lot happening now and a lot planned. My enthusiasm has shifted more towards Australian artists but this has not precluded some great overseas artists, such as Claudio Parodi, from being on the roster.
Chain D.L.K.: Taking for granted that Australia is full of talented experimental musicians, the fact that your enthusiasm has shifted more towards your countrymen has to do with your continuing to be a label working in friendly territory, is that right? (Obviously I think Australians are more marketable in Australia a lot more than Italians are in Italy.)
Extreme Records: It has a lot to do with my having had a more outward focus, perhaps even favoring overseas artists over Australian artists in the past. If we take the Pareto principle it was 80:20 overseas vs. Australian and now I am hoping to turn that around. Most people know that Extreme is an Australian label but our reputation was about experimental music from all over the globe. Now that Australian musicians are aware that Extreme is actively seeking to release domestic artists, the number of Australian demos is increasing steeply. The opportunity to market Australian artists in Australia is definitely better, with great support from the media at all levels. There is still a cultural cringe, meaning that Australians will sometimes wait for approval of an artist in other countries before providing support locally. I am sure this same situation is what you allude to with Italian artists in Italy. However, as with any release on Extreme, I want it to be distributed and marketed in the entire world.
Chain D.L.K.: The music scene/market has changed a lot from when you started with Extreme. Just this morning I was reading Greg Ginn recalling the early days with SST and it seems like millions of years ago….
Extreme Records: The music scene has changed incredibly for many reasons. Firstly there are so many different styles/genres of music now. A label can’t just be experimental; it “needs” to be some subset of that. Secondly, the ease with which music can be created has given so many people the chance to express themselves musically. Thirdly, the competition for the entertainment dollar now includes games and DVDs and whatever other options the internet can provide. It’s a complexity that is certainly different to twenty years ago and with all of these factors are the market forces that have caused so many record shops to close. I see it all as a new challenge for Extreme and the label has to adapt or fade away.
Chain D.L.K.: Do you earn a living with the label or do you have other work to [supplement income from] Extreme?
Extreme Records: This is something that changes over time. Sometimes I can and other times I can’t. The real decider is that you need to keep investing in a label and there is no way I will compromise the music for commercial success. Hence, maintaining the integrity of the label is paramount. The other issue that makes living off of the label difficult is the delays in getting paid, or not paid, for the music sold. It was this very reason, lack of payment by now defunct distributor Dutch East India, which caused me to take a holiday from Extreme.
Chain D.L.K.: Is there any artist/release you regret putting out (or regret not putting out)? Why?
Extreme Records: I don’t regret putting out any of the releases on Extreme. I have always been happy with the music. I know that some releases have sold better, or worse, than others and this sometimes causes tension with an artist. Going back to the challenges of getting paid by distributors, this can also cause tension but not about whether the music was right. It is true that not all releases have musically stood the test of time; if only every album was a classic! But that could only be changed with the benefit of hindsight.I do regret not being in a position to release more of the music of Muslimgauze. I really enjoyed the way [Bryn Jones] continued to evolve, albeit very gradually, as an artist. However, it was good for other labels to step in and maintain the musical outpouring.
Chain D.L.K.: Is there anything in the past years — any consistent “change” in the actual music scene — that made you consider seriously the fact you could [also evolve]?
Extreme Records: The most important change of recent years is digital downloads and this has made a remarkable change to the music industry and I don’t think it’s all negative. In fact, it can be a positive with people being able to more easily communicate to other people the music they like. While this might seem like a reason to quit, with many people not paying for music, I feel it is a reason to continue as the upside is that people who like the music they listen to in this way often choose to buy the music, be it a download or a CD. I continue to believe that people need to hear this music, experimental music in general, to be allowed the chance to decide whether they like it or not. Of course, I do want people to ultimately pay for the music in some way as without this there can be little incentive for labels and musicians to put so much time, money and effort into releasing music. The other side of the digital era is being able to sell direct to customers online. What has often caused serious consideration of quitting is not being paid by distributors (of course, there are good distributors). Selling directly to music fans is one way to minimise this problem. I say minimise as it is still important to have CDs in store for people to buy and, once again, listen to at this stage. Who knows exactly what the future holds?
Chain D.L.K.: Primo Levi, speaking about Jean Amery, said that art is somehow “antisocial”; between the lines, it bespeaks the figure of the intellectual. What would you answer to those who say that in a dark age like this, “experimental music” is getting too abstract and non-communicative?
Extreme Records: I think firstly it depends on the definition of art. For me art is something that is new, innovative and challenging but not necessarily in that order or in equal quantities. I always listen to demos with these highly subjective criteria in mind. Given that’s my idea of art then I agree that art is antisocial in that it doesn’t ask for approval or acceptance as a condition of it being created.I think it is an easy trap to fall into to be overly and overtly intellectual in art, and I find music that is all about the thought process can be cold and distant — in short, antisocial, to the listener. I prefer music that has a human quality, the unique voice of the artist, and this is what I aim to release on Extreme. I don’t know that this is a dark age for experimental music but I do feel that there is a sense of frustration in what the next style or genre will be for some musicians and labels. Where do we go now that Merzbow is acceptable? Perhaps some will seek abstraction and some will seek to isolate, but for me this is all too often searching for a new sound and not for a new music.I definitely believe there are more avenues for expression and I defend the goal of someone aiming to produce something entirely new in music, whether that is achievable or not. I hope that Extreme can lead people to listening to music that is outside their comfort zone and to do this there needs to be music on the label that can communicate in some way to take them there.
Chain D.L.K.: But in the “standardized society” in which we live, don’t you think “leading people to listen this or that artist” may imply one must adapt to a codified message or to “conform” to the market’s rules? I don’t say you do, but is somebody really ahead of his/her time sellable?… I think the whole idea of the underestimated artist out of a “network”(scene, whatever) is a lie. For example Van Gogh was a friend (and roommate) of Gauguin; Nietzsche was appreciated by Wagner; Kafka, although “underrated,” was publishing books; John Cage has been nourished by Eco, Berio and many other Italian intellectuals who already had a sort of status… and so on.
Extreme Records: I think “leading people” is often what marketing, and consequently advertising, sets out to do in many instances and not just about music. The most obvious means of doing this in the music industry is through the image of the artist and not necessarily through the music itself. Having an image is powerful in today’s market, be it Muslimgauze or Merzbow or whoever. My aim with Extreme is to realize the music in the best way possible, including production, mastering and graphic design, and tell as many people as possible how good we believe it is. The music must maintain its integrity throughout this whole process. Preserving the musical integrity is not the hard part, [but] telling more and more people within a limited budget is. Of course, the real challenge to this is choosing the music for its own reasons and not swaying to fashion, or image, in what is released. I think it is something that has been achievable for Extreme as there has never been a need to compromise, to conform to market rules, to make a dollar at the expense of the music.I would concur that an artist ahead of their time has limited appeal and salability in any artistic market. The expectations change as popularity grows or falls, although it would be hard for an artist or label to predict this. A musician could go from being happy selling 500 CDs to being unhappy selling 50,000. The other part of what you ask is something that has existed since the beginning of the arts, be it a patron or, more appropriately, a champion of that artist. Nowadays it is often a key person in the media that can make or break someone’s success. These are now dubbed the “tastemakers” and it is a powerful position they hold. Extreme doesn’t have such a lofty position but it is certainly acknowledged that a release on Extreme is an endorsement to some extent. I am aware of the responsibility inherent in each decision about a release and I do hope fans of Extreme respect my decision while knowing that each release may not be immediately likeable or similar to previous releases.
Chain D.L.K.: OK, I think it’s time you told us: what are you planning for the future of Extreme records?
Extreme Records: The future for Extreme is continuing to release new and innovative music that crosses boundaries and challenges musical ideas from artists around the world. Extreme will continue to search for new artists, such as Claudio Parodi, Luca Formentini, Scott Tinkler, Marc Hannaford and Robert Vincs as well as continuing to work with ether, Maju, John Rodgers, Mr Geoffrey & JD Franzke and Terminal Sound System. There will also be new DVD projects as well as exclusively digital releases and of course whatever format the future holds. As always, we hope that people will also continue to explore the music of Extreme.
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[interviewed by Andrea Ferraris] [proofreading by Benjamin Pike]