Brassland is an artist-operated label started in 2001 by writer Alec Hanley Bemis and twin brothers/musicians Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner, both best known from their work with The National. We encourage collaboration and creation among an evolving assortment of creative folks.
Music is our current focus. We like music that transcends genre. At the same time we try not to make transcending genre a cliche by applying labels to what we do: funk-metal, progressive punk, Afro-Cuban jazz, underground hip-hop, intelligent dance music, whateva! We like musicians who play well and possess the elusive tonic of personality. Most of all we just like music.
Though we prefer to shine the spotlight on our artists rather than on ourselves, we have been featured in a few articles & interviews over the years. Here's a couple of our favorites:
THE NEW YORK TIMES: New York, New York, USA
Wednesday 2 May 2012
The caption to this infographic reads: "A Brooklyn Constellation: A sampling of the connections among Aaron and Bryce Dessner, curators of the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival, and some of the artists performing in it." The graphic appeared on the front page of the paper's Arts section, mentioned Brassland by name in the upper left, and included three of our artists (including one of whom hails from Seattle). There was also a related article.
THE GUARDIAN: London, UNITED KINGDOM
Thursday 16 June 2011
Brassland: the record label at the centre of New York's other music scene:
The New York record label part-run by two brothers from the National, is a focus for some of the city's most intriguing and creative musicians
It's spring in New York, and a few blocks west of Central Park, the chamber quartet Clogs are playing at the Kaufman Centre. Among Clogs' number is 35-year-old Bryce Dessner, one of the National's guitarists, alongside his twin brother Aaron. Clogs are often incorrectly referred to as a side-project of Bryce's other, more successful band, but actually pre-date them, having formed when Dessner studied at the Yale School of Music in the late 1990s.
Both the National's and Clogs' debuts were released 10 years ago on Brassland, the label established by the Dessner brothers and their friend Alec Hanley Bemis, who's currently driving us to Clogs' show. On Brassland's website, you can read an interview with Hanley Bemis from 2003. He talks about Bryce--a classically trained guitarist--being frustrated by "the lack of musicianship in popular music", and the paucity of emphasis within new classical scenes on "making great popular records". The implication is clear: Brassland was conceived as an attempt to rectify those two problems.
This evening, Clogs are playing alongside operatic indie siren Shara Worden, Sufjan Stevens and the 40-strong Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Dessner's gripe seems no longer relevant. Concerts such as these are becoming as commonplace in New York as scruffy punks playing dark dives.
"It's gratifying," Hanley Bemis from the drive's seat. "I feel like we started with an idea, and that idea has become true. High culture seems more open to influence from underground culture, but it's not opportunistic--these underground things can feel comfortable on that level."
WHY.ORG: Paris, FRANCE
29 October 2003
Q&A between Brassland founder Alec Hanley Bemis & image maker Vincent Moon
The label was founded by myself and brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, although Brassland is a collective of sorts. How that plays out varies with each release, but we definitely like to make the artists feel like they and the label are equally responsible for, and in control of, their own destinies.
Where in NY?
When we started the label, the founders (Aaron & Bryce Dessner & myself) were all living in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn although we worked together at the same company in Manhattan's Soho district, and our PO Box is still in that neighborhood. I've been sort of nomadic the past few years and am often in Los Angeles, California, and have a definite connection to that city as well.
You could say that Brassland exists in two of New York's five burroughs, with a satellite office in California, and roots in Ohio (where Aaron and Bryce were born and raised).
The label was founded in January 2001 in New York City, although we didn't put out our first two records until June of that year. We didn't put out our third until May 2003 because we wanted to get our footing with those first two releases, before drawing in too many other artists.
This is a good place to say thanks to Southern, our distributor in London, who were instrumental in getting us past the "two year itch" phase. (Thank you Allison Schnackenberg, Thomas Davies, et. al.)
Your wish with this label? What did you want to do when you decided to create it?
We just happened to move to New York at the same time, and events conspired to make it possible.
The story goes a bit like this. I knew Bryce in college, and Aaron tangentially through a band they both played in called Project Nim. Bryce and I were good friends, but I wasn't that fond of his band. The first time I met him, I believe the first words out of my mouth were, "I hate everything your band and your music stands for." He thought pretty much the same thing about all the weird hardcore, lo-fi, and indie rock bands I was into. But we liked each other personally. [laughs] By the time we approached graduation, I had mellowed out and our musical tastes had converged, and we were talking about working with one another on something...
After we graduated, though, we each went our separate ways. I moved to California. Aaron and Bryce's band imploded. Bryce went on to get a degree from the Yale School of Music, and afterwards spent about a year living in Paris. Aaron did a fellowship at a Holocaust archive and had plans to get a PhD in modern European history.
It just so happened we ended up moving to Brooklyn at the same time in March 2000. Soon enough all three of us were working at the same dot-com design firm in Manhattan's Soho district. At the time, we were all caught up in the internet boom that was going on in New York, but I think we all had a sense that it would end eventually, so we began hatching plans...
Basically, after years of trying various musical combinations that didn't take off, Bryce and Aaron made two records almost at the same time with their separate projects. Those were the debuts from The National (Aaron) and Clogs (Bryce). They didn't really have any sense of what they would do with the recordings or any preconceived notion that they could be sold or become popular or critically lauded. They just recorded them because they wanted to document what they had been working on.
However, they had a kind of magic to them, and we listened to both, and all thought there was something important going on there. At the time, I was making my living writing about music, and thought putting out records was a far better outlet to express my love for the stuff than writing about it. So we agreed we'd set up a label to develop an outlet for their material, and foster the growth of the bands and the community around them. We thought it'd be a breeze. [laughs]
There were some more high-concept reasons for starting the label, as well. Bryce had just finished his classical guitar training and was more frustrated than ever by the lack of musicianship (virtuosity, technique) in popular music -- especially indie rock. Yet he was also bothered by the fact that the "new" music scene (classical, jazz, etc.) didn't place a great deal of emphasis on making great popular records. He wanted an outlet to reconcile these two issues. At the same time, I had started to outgrow my musical roots -- which were in alternative metal and punk and indie rock -- and was no longer getting as excited as I used to by the latest releases on Matador, Drag City, SubPop, et. al. I started to feel like the underground was obsessed with novelty and lacked "roots." I'd started listening to lots of contemporary classical music, r&b, Southern hip-hop, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, and 70s classic rock. I felt that these influences hadn't been properly integrated or considered in the indie/underground scene, and wanted to be part of a label that helped bring these (and other) sounds to the fore. Aaron didn't really have any "issues" per se -- he's less snobby than me and Bryce -- but Brassland was definitely a way to address some of this stuff.
As for our long-term wishes, our greatest hope is that we can widen the musical palate of the underground music audience, and teach everyone some new things about sound. We also want all of our artists to earn enough money from music so that they can quit their day jobs, buy homes, and support families. Anything after that would be a bonus.
Which artists are on your label? Are they close friends?
The current roster is The National, Clogs, Erik Friedlander, and Baby Dayliner. We hope to expand as we meet new musicians whose work we fall in love with.
Some of the current groups are close personally, some not. We recently had cause to ask Erik this question and his response was better than anything I could come up with: "Little communities of like-minded musicians have a 'scene' but then these little scenes morph as musicians from other scenes join in, other players leave on tour, people move out of town or new amazing players show up, close friendships lose momentum and breakup, older players reach out to younger musicians for fresh ideas or to have their own ideas fulfilled by players who won't question their authority. It's a mad, sane, exuberant, inspiring and troubling community of very talented people."
That sums it up.
Could you describe the music of Baby Dayliner? Who is he?
Baby Dayliner is Baby Dayliner. I can't exactly categorize what he does but we like it. Some have described his music as combining Leonard Cohen's songcraft with Jay-Z's beats and Al Green's performance style. Others have called him a 21st century Frank Sinatra.
Some people have labeled him as a rapper or a singer-songwriter or a new wave musician or even a follower of Electroclash (yikes!), but none of those designations are correct. Rather, he is a romantic, a realist, a comedian, a showman.
He was raised in Chelsea and now lives in Brooklyn, and Brassland is releasing his debut record in January 2004.
And Erik Friedlander? I think is a much more experienced musician isn't he?
Erik Friedlander's music is a deeply spiritual, deeply felt, classical/jazz amalgam that combines the chops and flexibility of jazz; ethnic influences (mostly Jewish and Middle Eastern); and classical music's formal power. He first became really visible about a decade ago when he became one of John Zorn's "go to" guys, and he's just now coming into his own and getting a lot of recognition as a leader and soloist, be it in Downbeat (he was just named a "rising star" in their latest critic's pole), or among aficionados and supporters of "new" music. He's been very prolific of late, and since 2002 has made records for labels like Cryptogramophone, ECM, and Tzadik, as well as Brassland.
With the exception of Padma Newsome from Clogs (who is 40something and has a musical career stretching back 15-20 years), Erik is definitely the most experienced artist that Brassland works with. He has played as a sideman with Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas and done session work with everyone from Maxwell and Dar Williams to Courtney Love and Laurie Anderson.
That he let us put out his first solo record is a big honor for us. Honestly, we're just happy that he has the patience to put up with our bullshit as we figure out how to run a label!
The National is beginning to have a certain success in France, what about the USA and NY?
In America, The National and Brassland are still in the embryonic phase, but people are starting to take notice. This fall, the band have done their first serious US touring in a long while, and they're beginning to make some inroads in the popular press. From what I understand, next week's Rolling Stone is going contain a review of their new album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. That's a big deal over here for a young band and we expect the magazine will be saying some nice things. The reviewer, Greg Kot, has previously called Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, one of his top 10 records of 2003, and said he preferred it over the new albums by Interpol and the White Stripes.
The French response has been unexpected but much appreciated. Considering the current state of Franco-American relations, we were a bit surprised that the band was embraced over there, what with our logo (a silhouette of the USA) and the band's Midwestern roots. It reminds me of the reception of Robert Frank's photo book, The Americans, in the late 50s. It was first published in France, where it was immediately recognized as an incredibly subtle and accurate -- even sublime -- portrait of the American people, but it took a number of years for it to be recognized as such Stateside.
How would you compare The National and Clogs? At first they seem very distinctive, but aren't they really close?
The most tangible thing The National and Clogs share is Bryce, who plays guitar and does a fair bit of arranging for both groups. Padma also contributed strings and arrangements to The National's Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers.
However, both groups share a lot of intangibles, perhaps just because the Dessners have a certain musical sensibility that they bring to every one of their musical projects. Everything sounds both lush and precise, intellectually compelling without being cold-hearted.
Initially there was some confusion about how our label could embrace both an improvising chamber quartet (Clogs) and a fairly traditional rock band (The National), but it seems like people are starting to catch on. Even the artists have begun to embrace one another a bit more. There's been talk of The National's next album being a collaboration with Clogs; Erik Friedlander has played with Stick Music, a project spearheaded by Padma and Bryce; and I've heard members of The National say that nothing would make them happier than to have Baby Dayliner open every show they play.
How could you compare the music of The National with other "hypest" things like YYY or The Rapture? What do you think of people saying that The National is a more classical rock form?
First off I should say that I really like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Rapture. The YYY's first EP, especially, really captures a time and place: turn of the century hipster NYC? (Or maybe just post-collegiate Willamsburg dreams?) The Rapture's new album, Echoes, fuses hardcore punk aesthetics and house music grooves in a way that reminds me of Nirvana's fusion of metal and underground rock. I like it. The National, by comparison, are trying to make music that is timeless and American -- urban and suburban all at once.
Let me put the difference this way: in five or ten years, when people are going back through their record collections (if they have still record collections!) and listening to the YYY's and the Rapture, I think they will be reminded of a certain moment in their lives -- back when they got their tattoos; were living in a loft in a Williamsburg; and squeaked by as waiters and bartenders and graphic designers, and via the good fortune of unemployment checks and generous parents. Then they'll put those records back on the shelf, and get back to their current, workaday lives. When they revisit records by The National (or Clogs, or Erik Friedlander, or Baby Dayliner), they'll feel compelled to listen again and again and again, and it will sound as fresh as it did the day they first heard it.
What about electronic music? Do you listen to some? Which bands do you like? And what about an electronic album on Brassland?
I love Aphex Twin and Amon Tobin and Boards of Canada and Aki Tsuyuko. I like DJ Assault and DJ Shadow and Neu and Kraftwerk and Nobukazu Takemura and Tortoise. I'm an acquaintance of some member of Los Angeles's Dublab.com crew -- Frosty, Dntel, Nobody, Carlos Nino, Plug Research -- and I like their work a great deal. If you'd consider Terry Riley or Steve Reich electronic music they'd be in my all time top 20. Brian Eno may be my favorite artist of all time -- up there with Dylan and Coltrane. So, yeah, I have a great deal of interest in electronic music.
We don't really respect the distinctions between electronic music, acoustic music, or electric (guitar?) music, though. Brassland's records have reflected that. Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers has a fair deal of drum programming. Clogs new album has a few songs that use loops and what not. Baby Dayliner's album was largely composed with synths and computers. We're proud to say that none of these records draw attention to their sound sources or genres, though. We hate music that rubs your face in the fact that certain tools were used to produce it; we like music that is more about composition, style, and content then it is what kind of gear was used in creating it.
Brassland plans on releasing music that is more explicitly "electronic" when we discover electronic musicians whose work we fall in love with. Bryce and Aaron have actually composed almost an entire album of electronic/acoustic music with a friend of ours named Paul Heck, who co-produced Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. The project is called Jujulele. I've been trying to convince them to finish it up for months now, to no avail.
You're encouraged to write them and complain via our employee, glenn AT brassland DOT org. Maybe that'll get them working. Ha!
What do you think of the New York music now? And what about all that "garage-post-punk-cold-wave revival"?
I'd return to my previous comments about The Rapture and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Although on its surface a lot of it seems like imagined nostalgia for the "No Wave" movement and the Paradise Garage scene of the late 70s and early 80s, I think much of the current New York scene is a good reflection of the time we live in now, because these days New York feels like I imagine it did in the late 1970s: a lively yet dissipated city filled with good, organic artmaking; a bit of danger; and energy to burn, but also a vague cloud of ennui and aimlessness. ALSO: Real estate values are higher now and there are a lot more Starbucks franchises. So you can easily get a good cup of cappuccino almost anywhere. I'm not sure if you could say that about NYC circa 1970.
Is Brassland a family?
Brassland is a family and that is true in every sense of the word. It is dysfunctional, wonderful, warm, cold, enlivening, and frustrating -- filled with petty arguments, hurt feelings, random laughter, the occasional celebration, and the occasional holiday. We'd like to think it's one of the only things our artists can count on when the chips are down.
What about your future? Your next releases?
Well, we're putting out Erik Friedlander's first solo record, Maldoror, first in Europe (Oct 10th) and then in the US (Nov 10th). Baby Dayliner's debut comes out in January 2004. At some point in the first half of 2004, we're planning on putting out Padma and Bryce's Stick Music project. And then there's that Jujulele project. After that only time will tell. We're talking to a number of musicians but nothing is set in stone. People should keep sending us music!
And last one: do you feel close to others labels? And in NY, to some others musicians?
The short answer to both questions is "yes." As for more detail, well, I'm friends with the folks who run Birdman Records an excellent, eclectic label from SF; Messenger Records, a label from New York that leans towards classic rock; and Dublab an open minded internet radio station and DJ collective from Los Angeles. Recently I met a bunch of the folks who run Saddle Creek and they all seem like good people with similar attitudes toward running a label, community, etc.
We draw inspiration and steal ideas from the examples of labels both historical and current. Atlantic in the 50s & 60s; ESP in the 60s & 70s; Reprise in the 70s; SST in the 80s; Touch and Go and Dischord in the early 90s; Drag City and Thrill Jockey in the mid-90s; Cash Money and No Limit in the late 90s. These days I think Matador, Nonesuch, Saddle Creek, SubPop, Warp, and GSL are doing an especially great job at crafting a certain aesthetic.
I'm a total music geek, and spend way too much time around musicians. Sad but true.
We always welcome INTERNS & HELPER PEOPLE who live near New York City and can commit to being in our office 1-2 days per week. Here is a guide to our internships & how to apply.
For further details, email: glenn (at) brassland (dot) org. Include a resume, a list of 5 recent shows you’ve attended, and your 5 favorite artists or records of all time.
Send inquiries about using our music in your film / tv / advdert / mobile app / video game / etc. to licensing AT brassland DOT org. We can clear licenses very quickly. And you can preview most of the catalog at Bandcamp.
Each of our ARTIST PAGES includes booking, management and publicity/promotion contacts. You can try glenn AT brassland DOT org but note that it may take up of 30 days for a reply. You should be able to find more direct contact info for our roster on the ARTIST PAGES.
The best way to get digital downloads is via our BANDCAMP PAGE. Most records cost under $8.00 -- and it is the most direct way to support Brassland and its artists.
We sell direct at very competitive wholesale rates. Email glenn AT brassland DOT org for details. Our primary distribution partners include:
Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA)
Our titles are also available from one-stops such as Super D, Baker & Taylor & all the usual suspects.
In most cases, these partners only handle select titles, so the best starting point is to email glenn AT brassland DOT org with your enquiry.
Note that a few titles by The National and Clogs were initially licensed to the French label Talitres for European release. They are now distributed worldwide by Brassland. Please report any sightings of unauthorized editions to our friend glenn AT brassland DOT org.