Slumberland Records turns 20
There's an argument to be made that record love really begins when you start noticing the labels. Slumberland was one of my earliest such epiphanies. I was bit by one of the label's groups, Velocity Girl, because, as much as anything, I felt I had come to them on my own. This secret knowledge kept me satisfied until an older friend made me a cassette mix heavy on the Slumberland set: pastel guitar music by Rocketship, the Softies, Lilys, Black Tambourine, the Ropers, and Amy Linton's much-missed Bay Area groups, Henry's Dress and the Aislers Set. I started paying more attention to the sleeve.
Slumberland has been a byword for the more melodic runoff of post-punk since 1989, when its premier release — a three-band 7-inch titled What Kind of Heaven Do You Want? — closed the gap between New York noise and English indie-pop. This is an area of music subject to quarrelsome subdivisions (see shoegaze, C86, dream pop), but Slumberland's common denominator is the taste and passion of Mike Schulman, former member of Black Tambourine, Powderburns, and the underrated Whorl.
Though still associated with its initial crop of D.C.-area groups, Schulman has run Slumberland from the East Bay since 1992. After a dry spell in the early aughts, the label is disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald's quip about second acts with a much-buzzed-about round of releases by Brooklyn pop stylists Crystal Stilts, Cause Co-Motion, and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart — an impressive slate that puts Schulman in the unusual position of encountering his own footsteps.
"I look at what we're doing now, and I could easily imagine any of these bands being on Slumberland 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago," Schulman tells me between sips of coffee on a gray Sunday morning in Oakland. He's expansive about the joys of record collecting and vicissitudes of music press in spite of having been up since 4 a.m. with his new baby. Schulman's tastes are eclectic — he ran the dance record store/label Drop Beat in Oakland's Rockridge District from 1996 to 2000 and is happy to gab about doo-wop or Japanese noise — but Slumberland was dedicated to scruffy pop from the start. It was an obvious niche, though striking for its proximity to D.C.'s thriving hardcore scene. "I used to go see Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, and I loved those bands, but there were tons of hardcore labels," Schulman reflects. "I couldn't have named three labels in America that would do stuff by HoneyBunch or Small Factory. That music just seemed underserved."
The Slumberland aesthetic was also a romance with a format. Schulman traces his own 45 rpm fixation back to his father's R&B collection as well as a life-altering experience with the Jesus and Mary Chain's 1985 A-side "Never Understand" (Blanco y Negro). "It just makes so much sense — the one great song on the one great side, something that fits in your hand. You can pick it up and carry it around. You can have a little box to take it to your friends to play it for people.... Historically, it was a very economical way to transmit the most amazing three minutes of music you've ever heard."
This kind of object-oriented pleasure, along with visual aesthetics and the relative gender equity of the Slumberland bands, tends to get short shrift from blog critics who take the label to task for "playing it safe" with unabashedly melodic music. "I just think rock music is inherently conservative," Schulman weighs in. "Everyone goes back to the same 15 references. I love the Siltbreeze stuff — those are great records — but you can't tell me that there's something shocking or new about them."
Of course, a credible brand has the upshot of generating its own ancestry. The Brooklyn bands are all well-versed in the Slumberland back catalog — easily navigable on the label's smartly designed Web site — though the Pains of Being Pure at Heart earn extra points for tapping Archie Moore (Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine) to mix their eponymous debut. Listening to the first 10 declarative seconds of every song on the album is a humbling refresher course in the elevating art of the single.
The Crystal Stilts don't play for the same caffeinated high, but their 2008 full-length, Alight of Night, is addictive nonetheless. The disc's zoned out, organ-laced stomps pull off the neat trick of making New York City post-disco punk sound good again. The creamiest song on the album, "Prismatic Room," lights up the same pleasure zones in my brain as those early Velocity Girl tracks. I find myself going for seconds as soon it finishes — something I didn't think I did anymore