Unearthing America's Treasure Trove of Obscure Private Press Vinyl
In the current era of digital music and laptop bedroom musician-dipshits, anyone can make music and distribute it to the masses for little or no money. You basically fart and you have "released" an "album" online. Entire music genres have grown up around this concept and the ease that comes with it. But years ago, before computers and the internet, recording and disseminating your music was much less democratic. Buying physical instruments, recording music, creating sleeve artwork, and creating vinyl albums was a serious undertaking and not for the casual hobbiest. Yet, many unknown and obscure musicians did just that, without major record label help, going DIY and privately pressing their work themselves. Today, a new book from Sinecure Books, titled Enjoy the Experience, hits shelves. It stands as the most extensive look into this culture. Plumbing the depths of many obsessed collectors' archives (including their own), editors Michael P. Daley and Johan Kugelberg pulled the best of the very best records. The book includes albums by lesbian folk singers, pizza parlor organists, religious cult leaders, and singing Werewolves, to name a few examples. You can check out some our favorites in the gallery above. We spoke to Michael and Johan about this massive project and the joys of getting weird with wax.
VICE: This book seems like it must have been a massive undertaking. How long did it take you guys?
Michael P. Daley: It took over three years to make the actual book. However, the collectors who’s archives we dug into have been amassing the contents for several decades.
What gave you the inspiration to take on such a labor of love? How did this all start?
Johan Kugelberg: I started receiving Paul Major’s record catalogues in 1986 or 1987. He’d describe records that made me want to move to the USA. Whenever some of them arrived in my mailbox in the old country, they were instant game changers. Records described in the mainstream as "psychedelic" just weren’t compared to the strange private press vinyl Paul conjured up.
When I moved to NYC from Sweden in 1988, my first exposure to buying these kinds of records in actual shops was that summer, in a junk shop with Tim Warren of Crypt Records. He’d show me some of the wildest homemade covers and crazy lounge records. It was off to the races. We’d stop in thrift stores driving around New England, bringing back piles of crazy records. In the early 90s, I hung out with Brandan Kearney and Gregg Turkington (aka Neil Hamburger), who were the best mentors a young lad could have as far as next-level vanity pressing sounds go. There was a bit of a network of private press fan-boys motivated ultimately by those holy moments of pure human expression that are much more common on privately released records than on mainstream releases.
How did you go about finding all these records? Once you found them, how did you find the information and back story about the artists?
Michael: These records came from a whole host of private collections, however the foundation of the whole book was from Johan’s coffers.
The backstories came about differently for each author. For myself, I went through files of old newspapers finding advertisements for gigs, ebay-ed old periodicals, googled like a madman, in an attempt to construct a chronology from existing sources. In some cases we located the performers and they were very kind, like the great Sherry Emata. In other cases, the performer was located, but they weren’t so vocal.
Johan: Michael and myself have been working together for over three years and share a lot of enthusiasms. A number of collectors that I was already pals with provided all access to their collections and to the artists that they’d tracked down. Paul Major is an unbelievable source of insight, information, and enthusiasm. We are now working on a book reprinting all of his record catalogues from the 80s and 90s, which I think is some of the best music writing ever by anybody. I love Bangs and Meltzer, but I love Paul’s writing more.
Did you have physical copies of all the records? Did you listen to a lot of them? Did you find any hidden gems we should know about?
Michael: All the record reproductions are from physical copies. We’ve been trying to listen to every single one. The problem is that while there are about 1100 LP covers in the book, there’s actually double that in the office, so we have our work cut out for us. However, I’d say most have at least been needle-dropped at this point.
As for hidden gems, all of them are stupendous in one way or another. Even the ones that might be considered “technically bad,” are still really interesting, and not just in that superficial “so bad it's good” kind of way. All of these records are artifacts that represent a living person’s dreams and aspirations at a point in time. For me, I relate the beauty of these objects to the famous last shot of The Shining, when you stare into the old photograph and the echoey big band music starts playing, except in this case, you are hearing echoey music and an old movie comes into your mind instead.
There’s a whole plethora of backstories behind each one of these, too. Some of these records are attempts at being famous, some are actually money laundering devices, some are just for friends, and some are souvenirs for live shows at a lounge. So even when they are bad, or silly, or downright baffling, their greatness is realized when it strikes you that this is all very real, that the LP is the crystallization of a time and place in the past.
Johan: The more of these records I hear, and the more album jackets I look at, brings about a notion of an American cultural vernacular. It makes me think that things like rock and roll, hip-hop, jazz, and hamburgers, could not happen anywhere else. And that there is a singular and sublime artistic narrative in here. As a first generation immigrant, I have no problem with readily admitting that it reminds me of how much I love the USA and its people.
Enjoy the Experience comes out today on Sinecure Books. If you purchase it through their website, you can get the deluxe version with a slipcase, fold-out poster, and clear vinyl Century Records on how to make your own record (for the same price as in stores!). That's really cool.
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