SA Issue 4: Eric Isaacson and Mississippi Records
Eric Isaacson is a bit of a romantic and shadowy figure. Okay, maybe that's hyperbole. I don't want to play him off as a subversive loner, although there is definitely an element of subversion in what he's doing at Mississippi Records that feeds into that "romantic" image. As for "shadowy", I refer mainly to the fact that our relationship has been one restricted to phone calls and emails only. This, in itself, is not unusual in this day and age, but it's not the mode of interaction that allows one to get a true picture of a person, and certainly is not an efficient method of deciphering whether the personality traits of an interview subject will fit into the little box you've built for them in your mind.
Eric has been invaluable in helping us release SA001: The Widow's Joy: Eastern European Immigrant Dances 1925-1930, an LP curated by Ian Nagoski (who has also curated a number of releases for Mississippi). Eric's insights into the business of manufacturing these kind of releases has been the kind you would expect from any grizzled veteran of the business. Still, even in our most pragmatic emails and phone conversations about split shipping costs, weights of cardboard and vinyl, and projected pricing to distributors, there has remained a tone of genuine excitement, just below the surface, at the prospect of releasing a new set of unheard music into the world. It was the passion of someone that was just beginning in the racket; one that I didn't expect to come from someone who had been releasing LPs and cassettes of similar work at an almost unbelievable rate for years.
That sense of exhiliration, combined with my perception that Eric would probably like to just be left alone to make his records in peace without a lot of attention paid to him as a personality, that seemed to fit in with a specific conception I was developing of the custodian of unheard American music. And Mississippi's output fits the bill for sure, by putting out a load of music that has been curated by a small stable of people, like Ian, who have an almost missionary zeal for giving a voice to the forgotten music of the United States and beyond. It was with that in mind, that we began our conversation.
As always, I’m beginning and ending each conversation with the same questions for each of our highlights, in order to show the many directions different people’s passions can take them.
SOUND AMERICAN: First of all, can you give me a little background on you and your history with records? What was your first experience with music and how did it develop into the business of Mississippi Records?
ERIC ISAACSON: I grew up in Los Angeles. As far back as I can remember music loomed large in my psyche. I can't pinpoint my obsession to any one influence or event. When I was young music and art was more affecting to me than any flesh and blood people or real experiences I had. Thank God this isn't the case nowadays. My severe interest in music & art was dismissed as a bit of an Asperger’s kinda defect. I don't ever remember a moment in my young life where I thought I could parlay this interest into a way to make a living.
At first I was a cassette collector; taping things off the radio and occasionally managing to purchase a manufactured tape. Between ages 7 and 10, I managed to create my own homemade copies of the entire Beatles catalogue by taping songs off a weekly show called "Breakfast with the Beatles". I went to the record store and copied the track lists to every Beatles album, then taped the songs off the radio for the next 3 years and dubbed them in the correct order so I could have the albums proper. The only song they never played on the radio was the avant garde tune "Revolution #9" off the White album. After 3 years I wanted to know this song so bad I finally cobbled together enough money to buy the tape so I could at last fill out my Beatles catalogue once and for all. Of course, when I finally heard the song - which is just a piss poor pastiche of nonsense; a poor man’s musique concrete. I cried and cried over the $10.99 I spent on the cassette just for that one tune.
I also would tape R&B, rock and some 1980s "indie pop" off the radio and make compilation tapes. I hated saxophone solos, so I would make sure to edit those out of all the oldies. Sometimes I would replace the sax solos with my own warbling vocals and whistling. I still have a couple of these tapes where the song suddenly cuts out and I get to hear a 9 year old me whistling and singing shoo bee doo bee doo Mel Torme style and then the song cuts right back in! I don't think I even realized this was funny at the time I was doing it. I really thought I was improving the songs. I would make covers for these compilations. My art has improved so little that you can't really see much of a difference between the tape covers I made when 10 and the tape and record covers I make now for Mississippi Records.
I have an older sister, and she and her group of friends were pretty hip. They introduced me to lots of things that are still to this day my favorites. I remember her boyfriend ceremoniously giving me a copy of Captain Beefhearts' Trout Mask Replica when I was 13 and telling me it was the most important record ever made. I still think he's right. I remember another of her friends playing The Stooges’ first album in a car while we drove around LA. We passed by a burning car and street toughs hanging on the corner and a drunk with his pants down. As we drove by everything went into slow motion and the music was so incredibly haunting and powerful in conjunction with the images: ridiculously cinematic and somehow beautiful. I didn't own the album and only heard it that once but it played in my head over and over for the next 3 weeks nonstop...and I mean really nonstop. My first thought when I awoke was the first chords of the song 1969 and my last thoughts when I went to bed where the last chord of the last song on the album. It really fucked me up.
I still believe that how much you appreciate a piece of music is based 90% on the context you experience it in and maybe 10% on the content of the actual music. A lot of the aesthetics I apply to Mississippi Records is based around these early "mystical" experiences I had around music; not just the music itself but how I got to hear it. Records and tapes still feel like totemic power objects to me. They're like magic portals to another world. I realize this probably seems silly to most folks to retain such a childish attachment to things like this but I'm glad to be regressive in this one way. This regressiveness has worked out to be how I make a living and how I meet and greet the world at large.
SA: I am completely on board with you as far as the totemic quality to lps, tapes, even cds for me can have that sheen. Do you feel, now, like you have a certain desire or maybe responsibility to make those totemic objects and get them to the (albeit somewhat limited) masses? When I was talking to Ian [Nagoski] there were moments where you almost got a feeling of pilgrimage or missionary zeal, and I certainly have that feeling when telling someone about a recording I particularly love. Do you have that feeling now with Mississippi and does that have something to do with you opening the store or starting the label?
EI: The store and label have definitely been an outgrowth of a missionary zeal to push certain music, art, D.I.Y business models and alternative ways of distribution on anyone who may be interested. At the time I opened my store and started the label I had a lot more piss and vinegar in me. I felt a real responsibility to get certain things out into the world on vinyl and a responsibility to run an ethical store that the local community could gather in. These days that get up and go has gone up and went a bit. Back 10 years ago not too many people were covering the ground I was with my label and store. Nowadays you can't throw a rock without hitting a great reissue label that’s putting out top tier records on vinyl, and my small neighborhood in Portland alone has 5 new high quality all vinyl record stores. I've become a bit less relevant in the face of this. I'm not sour about this at all, and I still get very excited about doing projects and running my store, but I just gotta admit that a lot of my religious missionary madness has calmed. I'm shaking my fist at the fates and cursing the world for ignoring its greatest cultural resources less and less. If we were talking ten years ago on the same subjects I'd sound like a total zealot.....maybe I was more entertaining in that way back then.
One big problem for me is a cultural shift. Back when I started dealing in records, they were a more powerful symbol in some ways. They were the cheapest and most irrelevant [items] to the mainstream way of distributing music and thus the most attractive to me. Record stores were considered hot beds of weirdos who refuse to change as fast as society and industry wanted them to. A gradual shift happened over the last 10 years wherein records have become the most expensive way to get music rather than the cheapest. Records stores have been forced to become boutique novelty businesses instead of points of resistance for alternative thinkers. Nowadays records symbolize nothing. The mainstream culture industry has embraced them. Whenever they want to give a character in a Hollywood movie soul or a quirky vibe, they just have that character pull out a record. It’s a cheap trick. Records have been defanged just like rock n' roll got defanged and punk got defanged and hip hop got defanged. They are treated by many as just another "lifestyle accessory" instead of as the totem power objects they should be treated as. This atmosphere has made it a little less fun to deal in records than it was. I'm still stubborn though and my love for them is very intact. I'm fortunate enough to still get to see people have real powerful experiences with records everyday at my shop.
SA: This is the hackeneyed question of course, but I think it's relevant. Do you think that the masses of information that are available on the internet have "defanged" the power of records as an object? Do you think that the LP has become boutique because, either the information that used to be only found on LP is now possibly available on any number of blogs for download, or that the object has become a secondary or luxury item to a culture that is now looking at their base of cultural goods coming from the internet and the physical product (LPs, CDs, cassettes) as a fetish home decoration? I see the same thing happening with publishing in a way.
EI: I think that the massive amount of information on the internet has managed to make records a lot more dismissable. If I were a kid today, I would think it was totally absurd to buy a new record for $12 - $20 when I could get the music for free online. Back in the 1980s I had the same relationship with cassettes - why buy the record when I can tape shit off the radio? Of course, just taping music off the radio greatly limited my horizons, just as downloading music from a swarm of information floating online with no context limits kids horizons these days in ways they can't see. Still, I'm not a total doomsayer about the internet. In the end, people will always find a way to have genuine spiritual and social experiences around music no matter what technology is prevalent in storing it. I'm sure people are having very authentic experiences with music on the internet. It’s just not my bag. I myself argue for [buying] records with the following:
* There are already billions of records out there to listen to and redistribute. To ignore them is an insult to our ancestors who bothered to make them.
* Why upgrade your sound system to an inferior sounding & looking technology?
* A lot of the music I love is not available digitally. Only around 5% of music recorded before 1980 is available online.
* I consider record covers bona-fide art.
* I don't trust digital storage as a way to preserve information.
* I don't like the tech industry pushing us all around and making us change up technology at their schedule when there is nothing wrong with the current technology we have, which was built to last instead of upgraded every year. They are needlessly filling landfills with toxic garbage, and I want no part of it.
I don't expect that the world will ever acknowledge the limits of the internet until its surpassed by some new wackadoo technology. I think records will be treated as a quirky boutique item for a long time, and the arguments for records will continue to fall on deaf ears. The internet will fall to this fate too. As long as people are acculturated to throw out the old with no care and adapt to whatever new technology is advertised strongest we are seriously fucked. The common man will continue to be buried in debt and garbage heaps.
SA: Another question is if you think that feeling of subversiveness, the little personal revolutions that one goes through in discovery of LPs or punk or hip hop or free jazz or electronic music, etc. (just to name musical forms) is necessary, and if so, where do you think our culture is going to find that in the next say 20 years as all of these "revolutionary" art forms are being bowdlerized.
EI: I think people will always find new ways to keep revolutionary art forms alive. I'm not qualified to sound off about strategies for this in the internet era besides just keeping the old ways available for the few who chose to live by them. I just have to believe that underground culture will persist and survive. It’s always necessary to have traditions like punk, hip hop, free jazz, and so on, inform new revolutions. It'll all mutate in ways I may not understand. No matter how commercialized these forms become or how flippantly and poorly and shitty sounding they are distributed and archived digitally, they are too powerful to just disappear from the landscape and only live on in a debased form. I will not give the internet so much credit as to think it can kill the spirit of revolutionary art.
SA: There were two of your arguments that stood out to me and so I want to ask you to elaborate a little if possible.
First, the argument that to ignore the artifact of a recording is to do disservice to the people that made it. This is something that came up when talking to Ian as well and it's been on my mind recently as I'm talking to people that have dedicated a certain portion of their lives to making this music available, what I'm calling a "custodianship" feeling. Where did that come from for you? Is it possible for you to articulate the connection you have to the people that made this music in the past?
EI: I'm not sure how I got myself thrown into being a minor league preservationist and presenter of this stuff. Really, I just saw some gaps not being filled in my record store and decided to make some small press records myself to fill these gaps. People responded well to our initial releases so I just started cranking them out. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be any kind of "custodian" of this music. I just did it because, at the time, it felt like no one else was.
In the end, loving and preserving music, art and film is a desperate act. It's the act of people who are desperate to believe that human endeavors of culture have meaning and importance somehow. When you hear an old song from a culture and time far removed from yours that speaks very clearly of an emotion or situation that you are in, it serves to make you feel less alone and more part of a greater human family. In the end, life is only as satisfying as the connections you make with other people. Sometimes the people you connect with are all dead and gone but left some messages on a record for you to discover. It was very nice of them to do so.
SA: Second, I know your cover art work, especially the cover to Widow's Joy which I love! Is that just as important to you when releasing recordings on Mississippi? I wonder sometimes what creative outlet someone that runs a label connects with and it seems like the cover art and presentation is very important to you.
EI: Very glad you liked the Widow’s Joy cover. Making covers is by far the most fun part of my job. It's definitely where my personality comes into play in the whole thing; that and the initial choice of the material and who to collaborate with. The artwork I do for Mississippi is not always very well received. I've gotten hate letters and endless applications from professional artists offering to make "real" covers for me. I think the art rankles some folks because it looks like anyone could do it – and they could! Pretty much all of the records we put out are home recordings or recorded on simple equipment - nothing fancy. Lots of the performances themselves are fancy, but the recordings are fairly austere and real to life. The musicians are inspired and original and full of strong personality and faith but they don't bullshit around with frilly illusions and professionalism. In my small way, I've tried to create a graphic style that fits with this kind of musical presentation. Really, I just always wanted to be an artist but have very little skill, so I came up with a design style that makes sense for who I am and my limited capabilities. I feel like its working out great, and I feel like the luckiest man alive!
SA: Do you consider the work you do with Mississippi a business, a passion, or a moral imperative?
EI: A passion more than anything. On my darker days it's a business too - alas alack.
Eric Isaacson...Photo by Jill Samish
Eric Isaacson is one of the three founders of the Mississippi Records label. He has designed, edited & conceptualized the majority of the releases on the label & also owns & operates the Mississippi Record retail shop in Portland, Oregon.
Find out more about Mississippi Records here.