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Toronto’s Pleasence Records ring in five years of sustainable weirdness

October 15, 2015

The local label celebrates a half-decade of connecting the dots between micro-scenes.

James Lindsay and Deirdre O’Sullivan are first and foremost record collectors. The intrepid pair behind Toronto’s Pleasence Records may have bonded over their love of words (he recently published his first collection of poetry while she worked as editor of the dearly departed Offerings magazine), yet their label began with the simple motivation of filing vinyl releases from their favourite artists onto their own shelves.

The label’s sensibilities have shifted with Toronto’s musical tides, yet they’ve always excelled at connecting the dots between disparate micro-scenes spread across the country. This started from the bottom of the weird-punk pit (Induced Labour, Soupcans, The Pink Noise), before moving on to glamorama pop (Young Governor, Slim Twig, Blonde Elvis), odd body movers (Sexy Merlin, JFM, Lee Paradise), full-blown psych-outs (Das Rad, Astral Gunk, Moonwood), and idiosyncratic scene-of-one solo artists (Man Made Hill, Black Walls, Tenderness).

These days, Pleasence continues as a two-person operation, yet the duo have settled into a successful m.o. of spearheading releases individually. Lindsay’s recent pet projects have included a coast-spanning 7″ split from New Fries/Old and Weird, and the free-improv psych of Not the Wind, Not the Flag. Meanwhile, O’Sullivan focuses on limited run art editions from the more challenging output of artists like Andrew Zukerman, Alex Moskos, and Brodie West. This two-headed approach allows the depth of their catalogue to know few bounds.

To ring in their first half-decade, the label is throwing a five-year anniversary bash at Toronto’s Smiling Buddha on Friday, October 16. It features sets from the Soupcans, New Fries, Blonde Elvis, and Zones. I sat down with Lindsay and O’Sullivan to revisit their past and look on to the future while her dog Murph (pictured above) snored next to me on the couch. Reader warning: It’s a long one with way too many names mentioned and hopefully some helpful links.

AUX: Deirdre, you’ve previously shared the story of the label’s origin at an Induced Labour show that ended with you picking glass out of vocalist Leslie Predy’s ass. Do you mind telling it again?

Deirdre: “It was a show at the Garrison that was very early on for Induced Labour. The show was pretty sparsely attended, yet Leslie played like she was performing to 100,000 people. She picked up a chair and threw it out into the audience, then took a pint glass and smashed it on the floor. Then she got down and proceeded to writhe in a snake-like manner. Her shirt was coming up so she was basically rolling around in broken glass. It was a truly profound moment for me, so much so that I decided I had to do something to get this music on vinyl.”

James: “That was a big moment. We both agreed that Induced Labour was our favourite band, and all of their shows were sparsely attended. They were mostly playing at Teranga in Kensington Market, where most of the artsy punk stuff was happening with bands like the Soupcans and John Milner You’re So Boss. Those shows got rowdy sometimes and it felt huge to us because the energy was so massive. Everyone was killing it, and it didn’t matter if there were 10 people or 40 people there. Every weekend there was some variation of those bands playing.”

D: “After the Garrison show, I took Leslie into the bathroom. I’m sure her bandmates would have done it for her, but they were all dudes and there were some areas of her body that they didn’t necessarily want to touch for the sake of her privacy. As I was pulling the glass out of her ass, I thought surely there was some way I could get involved in this magic.”

Induced Labour – The “final” show (June 25, 2011 at The Port)

Who else was releasing this music at the time?

D: “Kevin Hainey’s label Inyrdisk was doing a lot of really good stuff, along with Kevin Crump’s Wintage, and Ayal Senior’s label Medusa Editions was also pretty active.”

J: “Induced Labour and the Soupcans both had self-released demo tapes as well.”

D: “So some of that stuff was covered but none of it was on vinyl. Plus at that time people were making so much amazing music that the other labels had a hard time keeping up with it.”

Why did you decide to concentrate your efforts on a label instead of a different kind of project like a magazine (like you would later do with Offerings), blog, radio show, or just putting on shows?

D: “I wanted to start the label because I’m a collector. Basically, I wanted to release the Induced Labour record so I could have it in my own collection and listen to it forever.”

J: “At that time I was starting to collect a lot of new records. I became aware that many of these were released by bands or smaller labels in limited runs. They were coming from all over the place and finding their way to Toronto stores like Rotate This or Hits and Misses. Once I started researching, I realized it was a very doable thing. A band from Oklahoma could release a 7”, get it released in Maximum Rock ’N’ Roll where I would read about it, and then I could buy it.”

Were there any other local labels that inspired you when you were starting out?

D: “Bennifer Editions for sure. I don’t think I would have had the idea to start a label without being around Jacob [Horwood] and Andrew [Zukerman] and watching them do it. When they were releasing a Dolphins into the Future cassette there were several inserts they included and a sticker on the cassette itself. Andrew was lamenting having to do that work, so I went over there one night and helped them package it together. I got really into that repetitive task and remember thinking ‘Oh right, anyone can do this.’”

J: “Telephone Explosion had put out a Ty Segall album around that time. They put on one of the first local record release shows that I ever attended, and I remember being totally floored. Teenanger were a big up and coming band at the time and knowing those guys were behind the label made me want to learn more and more about the process. Finding inspiration was the easy part, and from there it was just trial and error.”

D: “The Induced Labour release was the hardest one. There were so many things that went wrong, but I think it was a good way to cut our teeth. We also learned that even the disasters can be smoothed over and that it doesn’t have to be as bad as it seems in your head.”

Fleshtone Aura – “Soliloquy For Lieven”

Your tastes have a ton of crossover but I know they differ as well. How do you navigate and operate the label as as a two person operation?

D: “The Induced Labour release was equal parts James and myself. We both contributed financially and made sure all of the deadlines were met. These days, James chooses a release and makes sure it follows through while I do the same with my separate projects. We do kind of operate independently in that way, though of course we discuss what we’re doing and give each other emotional support.”

J: “If either of us need help with anything we’re always there for each other. It’s still a two person operation in that way. We never object to what the other person wants to put out either, even though our taste do diverge. I think it makes for a more interesting roster.”

Deidre – it seems like the releases you work on are typically more challenging musically and come out in limited run art editions. Why have you decided to take that route?

D: “I have a thing about releases being special. That means something to me. I like limited runs with things like silkscreened art, inserts, or foil stamping like we did for the last Fleshtone Aura record. I like employing different artists to help make it beautiful. I do pick some challenging releases as well because I’m so enamoured that this kind of music is being made in Toronto or Canada in general. It’s something that deserves more support.”

Alex Moskos – “How The Avant-Garde Stole Its Mojo”

Some of your releases are total outliers even within the experimental world. The recent solo piano LP from Alex Moskos is a good example because he’s known for a completely different kind of music.

D: “That album is so tender. I feel like it’s his heart, somehow. It’s extremely vulnerable music that could only come from the mind of Moskos.”

J: “He’s known for making guitar music with an acidic edge in AIDS Wolf and Drainolith. That solo piano album strips away a lot of the bite. Outside of someone like Cecil Taylor, there’s really not much you can compare it to.”

D: “That’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to release it. Totally anomalistic.”

How have you seen music in Toronto change in the past five years?

J: “There are more labels now, for sure. We started at roughly the same time as Buzz Records and definitely went in different directions. It’s crazy to see a small label like that rise to what they are now. As Deirdre said, there were other labels at the time like Medusa Editions, Inyrdisk, and Bennifer doing some vinyl, and then Telephone Explosion started doing just that. It was a very different sort of thing from labels like Arts & Crafts and Paper Bag. Since then, it seems like a ton of new labels have popped up. I think it’s a great thing for all corners of the music scene to be represented.”

How has the way you deal with media changed?

J: “There was very little at stake in the beginning. No one was ‘getting big’ at the time or even being noticed. No one was concerned about getting online premieres; that wasn’t even an issue. Back then releasing the album was the accomplishment. If we could move most of them, that was fantastic. But the longer you operate as a label, the more you have to think about how you’re going to let people know about your releases. I don’t want them to pile up around my apartment. What’s the point if no one’s going to hear it?”

“In the beginning we didn’t even have a website. We started off with a Tumblr blog that allowed us to sell Soupcans and Man Made Hill records all over the place. That continued to happen on a larger scale when we received wider distribution. Once that starts happening you begin to realize there are people outside of Toronto that are interested.”

Does any kind of increased exposure affect the types of records you’re going to release?

D: “The excitement that comes from press is always great. For this solo piano record or this solo saxophone record that I just brought to the plant, maybe I can use that press to promote it. I’d be putting those things out press or no though. Maybe some people that I’d be interested to work with become aware of what we’re doing as a result of the press.”

J: “Success is really relative for each release. More press doesn’t necessarily result in more sales. At this point I’m just looking for artists that will work hard and be committed to following through with the release. All press is from a marketing standpoint is trying to find the audience for each release. It’s easy when you have a band from Toronto that’s hot like Induced Labour or the Soupcans when we first put out their records. I do think we owe something to the artists to find them a larger audience though. Part of being on a label is getting the word out, and that can come down to finding alliances with writers.”

Slim Twig – “All This Wanting”

How has releasing vinyl changed in the last five years?

J: “The vinyl boom is insane. Record Store Days have properly fucked everything up. Everyone is delayed, and it doesn’t seem to matter who you’re working with. When we started five years ago, the major labels weren’t doing vinyl. Now every major release gets a huge vinyl run. Taylor Swift has millions of records pressed. There are only so many vinyl plants, so it’s finite. There’s only so much machinery, it’s hard for new plants to open, and it’s kind of archaic technology. Record Store Day started as a great, communal idea, but it’s blown up into a toy of the major labels. I first noticed it the year we did the Slim Twig record, which is when every Beatles release was reissued. No one expected that, including the record plants. It was a ton of money for plants that had been operating at 70% or less for a long time. When a major label comes to you with stacks of money, you have no choice but to take them. That turned into a panic, and you hear horror stories about more and more people experiencing crazy delays.”

How long have the delays been for you?

J: “The Moonwood record that we’re putting out in November will be a year delayed. Plants get overwhelmed, and the first one we went through for Moonwood shut down entirely. We only heard about that from reading an article in Exclaim! That’s how suddenly it happened.”

New Fries – “Water & Water/Plexiglass”

Is that why you’ve started doing so many cassettes – as a stopgap release?

J: “We’ve always done cassettes. Technically, our first release was an Andrew Zukerman cassette. I think they’re a great medium for certain kinds of music. CDs can still be great too, like the recent one we did for Blonde Elvis. We did the Man Made Hill and New Fries tapes for expediency, and both of those sold out and been reprinted. New Fries wanted to tour at a certain time and it wouldn’t have been possible to get vinyl pressed anywhere, so we went with tapes. Those have sold extremely well in stores, distros, mail orders, and through the bands.”

“I think cassettes are a good way of doing a physical release where you can still do something interesting. Heretical Objects Cooperative, Doomsquad’s label, are doing all kinds of cool things. They had one tape packaged in wood. Bennifer and Healing Power cassettes always look great too.”

Arachnidiscs is really raising the bar too with things like their recent cassette packaged with a chicken claw.

D: “Bryan Ruryk’s tapes are really crazy too. Some of them are packaged in papier-mâché and I haven’t been able to bring myself to open them. They’re these impossible objects that are just so perfect for a Ruryk release.”

Are all of these factors changing the way you think about vinyl?

J: “You definitely have to keep how long it’s going to take in mind when you start a project. Records are super expensive too. You have to be sure about the quantity you’re pressing for each release and that there’s an audience for it on vinyl. That said, I think the bubble will burst. Vinyl and the way people listen to it isn’t a fad, but a lot of the products being made for it are. The major labels essentially treat records like a promotional object. Last year for Record Store Day, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was reissued on vinyl. That’s one of the most mass produced records of all time.”

It litters dollar bins across the land.

D: “Not anymore. Now it’s a $20 used record and the reissues cost $40. It’s actually saving used record stores. It’s not just Fleetwood Mac, it’s Phil Collins, Wings, all of the stuff that people want to buy. Those records are everywhere, so we can access them and people will pay for them.”

J: “At this point it’s like watching someone over-inflate a balloon. The vinyl bubble is really big and it could go further but it’s also getting close to bursting. This has already happened once. Punk bands never stopped releasing vinyl, and neither did hip-hop and dance artists. Labels like Thrill Jockey and Drag City always had their releases on vinyl because there was always people that wanted it. At first they were made fun of, but then this happened. History has a way of repeating itself.”

D: “The reason I thought it was exciting to collect records as a teenager is that you could go to Value Village or the Salvation Army and buy great things for a buck. I’m so excited for that bubble to burst, for records to be really cheap again, and for us to release our albums really quickly.”

Have you ever thought about doing reissues?

J: “Yes. There’s so much great stuff out there, like Telephone Explosion’s reissues of the Bruce Haack albums and the things that labels like Light in the Attic are doing. There’s also the Fleetwood Mac reissue side of things but then there are the lost releases that people are digging out of obscurity. These albums have never been reissued and go for hundreds of dollars for an original copy online. That’s the kind of thing I want to search for, because you shouldn’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for an album in any format. You may be able to find a couple of clips on YouTube or a download, but it’s hard to find. There are so many things that deserve to see the light of day.”

Tenderness – “We Lay Our Broken World In Sorrow At Your Feet”

You have a bunch of new records that have come out recently and a bunch of stuff locked in for 2016. Can you talk about what’s coming next?

D: “I’m really excited about the new Tenderness album. Chrissy [Reichert] has been working on that for a long time now. She makes devotional experimental pop created to express reverence to God through the joy of music. Chrissy always incorporates other musicians like Ryan Driver, Brodie West, and Andrew Zukerman. Her last record was exceedingly textured and really beautiful. I haven’t heard any of the new stuff she’s working on because she’s been pretty guarded about the recordings so far but I have heard her play a few of the new songs live and it’s really exciting. I’m very much looking forward to that.”

Brodie West is also doing two new releases on Pleasence. First up is a solo saxophone record, which is a pretty close, intimate listen. Then we’re doing a Eucalyptus album next year. I’m also doing a Wasted Nymph release that’s going to be really great. James just worked on the Not the Wind, Not the Flag album which is really beautiful. Moonwood is coming out next month, and the Zones album is coming out next year. Oh! And there’s a new Doom Tickler album coming out next year as well.”

J: “The follow-up to the Blonde Elvis EP is coming out next year too. I’m also looking for some new projects at this point. I want to keep the label diverse, keep putting out pop music, and look for the next weird punk band from Toronto like the Soupcans.”

c_RL (2010)

Have you seen anything recently that’s excited you?

J: “c_RL opened for Not the Wind at their release show and really blew me away. They’re basically a free-jazz/noise trio with Allison Cameron, Nicole Rampersaud and Germaine Liu. That’s the problem with running a label, though: You get so involved in your own projects that you don’t always have time to go out and scout new artists.”

D: “I’ve dreamed of approaching Lieven [Martens Moana] from Dolphins into the Future and doing a release for him. I’d also love to release something for Isla Craig.”

Last question: Where would you like to see the label in five more years?

J: “Oh man. I’d just like to still be doing it in a way that makes sense for us. One of the neatest things about running a record label is that you meet other people who run record labels and are able to talk to them about how they do it. There’s no one way to make it sustainable. It doesn’t necessarily include positioning yourself for big grants. We’ve done two co-releases with my friend Mike who runs Resurrection Records from Portland. He just putters away putting out 7”s and tapes. Inyrdisk from Toronto is another good example. Kevin Hainey is calling it quits soon, but he’s been doing it for 10 years. When he found something he was excited about and had the money, he did a release.”

You’re definitely past the hobbyist stage at this point, though.

D: “Right, but I never imagined this being my career. This is what I have a career to sustain. Of course you want to achieve a lot of reach, but for me it’s all about the artists having the best experience that they can. I want the people on our label to have as much exposure as they can get. This is a dangerous thing to say, and some people have probably figured out a way to do it without compromising, but it seems like the things you’d have to do to make a lot of dough would stop me from achieving the things I want.”

J: “Some labels get lucky with one super successful artist. When I think about Constellation, they’ve released a wide variety of stuff but have also done a lot of releases for Godspeed You! Black Emperor and keep those in print. A label like Thrill Jockey can do everything from black metal to ambient releases, but they also have Tortoise to keep them afloat. Then again, there are so many labels that have been at it for so long and are able to do what they do on a small scale. If we can be in this position in five more years, I’ll feel truly lucky. There will always be interesting things and I think our output has changed stylistically since we started. As the people releasing music change, we’ll change with them. If we’re here in five years, I have no idea what kinds of music we’ll be releasing. I can’t even predict what we’ll be releasing a year from now, but that’s what keeps it exciting.”

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