In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Since Polyvinyl Records' inception in 1995, co-founder Matt Lunsford has aimed to operate the record label more like a family than a business. As cheesy as that may sound, he’s got the track record to back it up. Many artists on his roster have been devoutly loyal to the Champaign, Illinois-based label, often sticking around for multiple releases. Some artists’ relationships with the label have spanned decades and some for their entire careers. For many indie rock stalwarts, Polyvinyl is home.
Now, more than 20 years in, Polyvinyl boasts a catalog with over 350 releases. So when asked to pick 10 records that stick out as particularly important in the label’s history, Lunsford had a tough time paring it down.
“Every record we put out has a special place," says Lunsford, who started Polyvinyl as a fanzine with his now wife Darcie Knight. "I wanted to pick out records that had interesting stories or represented pivotal moments in the label’s history."
Polyvinyl's roster is diverse, crossing indie rock’s subtle lines between emo, bedroom pop, and garage rock. But every artist who has earned their place with the label shares the commonality of being tirelessly dedicated to their art. It’s a good label for artists who work hard, Lunsford says, because his employees will work just as hard to match those efforts. Polyvinyl's catalog is so impressive that the honorable mentions that didn’t quite make this list would be enough to make any indie label envious: Pedro the Lion, Xiu Xiu, Joan of Arc, Mates of State, and Jeff Rosenstock. The list goes on and on.
Noisey: Polyvinyl released all of Rainer Maria’s albums except for one. How does this album make the list over the rest of their catalog?
Matt Lunsford: I remember hearing "Breakfast of Champions" for the very first time and felt like it was this perfect encapsulation of Rainer Maria. It was everything they were building up to in one song. The flow of the album, I think, is perfect. I remember seeing this band called Ezra Pound, which was Bill [Kuehn] and Kaia [Fischer]'s band before Rainer Maria. I remember seeing them playing a show in Urbana, opening for Less Than Jake in a basement. Darcie and I were snapping pics and stuff for our fanzine.
We watched Ezra Pound and thought, "This band is fantastic." This was probably in 1995, 1996. We exchanged information with the band and I think some of the first emails I ever sent—because email was just becoming a thing—were corresponding with Kaia from my community college email address. I was like, "I love what you’re doing with Ezra Pound, I loved the show." And lo and behold, they were starting Rainer Maria. We ended up releasing one of their very first songs on the Direction compilation along with the final issue of our fanzine, which was where we transitioned into being a record label.
This band also released a record with Polyvinyl when they reunited after over 10 years away. So many of your bands are loyal to you and stick with you for, in some cases, decades. How do you maintain those relationships?
Of everything Polyvinyl does, that’s the thing I’m most proud of. The label is dedicated to being a home and an equal partner to bands. We have a very simple 50/50 profit-split mentality in our artist agreements and everything we do is reflected in that. The idea is to meet halfway and work just as hard as the bands do. We do well with bands that work really hard. We try to uphold our end of the bargain.
How did you get hooked up with Melina Duterte?
She had recorded Turn Into herself. It was a tape that was floating around as a complete record, so it was a cool and somewhat unusual circumstance where we got to hear it as a completed record and then decided we'd love to work with this band. Turns out, it was Melina's project where she had written, played, and recorded everything on that entire record, completely by herself.
Literal bedroom pop.
Right. The thing that stood out so much was the way it was recorded. It's lo-fi and kind of dreamy but as you listen to it, it has such a depth. It continues to reveal itself the more you listen. It's a great example of a band that works well for Polyvinyl: Complete DIY spirit.
I say this not to be rude, but if someone can record their album themselves, what do you think they get out of signing with Polyvinyl, or any label, in 2019?
That's not a rude question at all, and I think the reason we continue to be relevant is that we’re always asking that question of ourselves. At this point there are 23 people that work at Polyvinyl. As a staff, the philosophy is: How can we help these artists that we love? We always go back to that question.
There's distribution-types of things that were much more difficult for artists several years ago but are super easy now. Bands can just upload songs online, on the streaming services. Something we’ve always been great at doing is supporting artists when they go out on tour, making sure they always have records and merch and support for shows, both for publicity and promo. We support everything, from making the record through the cycle of releasing it. But in the case of Jay Som, it's true, that record was done. But then we started working with her for multiple albums. So on the next record, we're working to organize where she wants to record it and what record she wants to make, and how to package the whole thing.
You mentioned there are 23 people working for Polyvinyl. How do you decide what artists to work with? Is it just based on your personal tastes?
It's changed over the years. It used to be a two-person operation and it's kind of evolved. At this point, we do things in a democratic fashion across a few people. We are often fielding inbound suggestions from all different people we work with, from agents to PR people to friends. Even though there are a few people who are setting the release schedule and looking at those opportunities, literally anyone at the label is welcomed and encouraged to present ideas and bands at any time. It's a very open dialogue and open process.
This is such an underrated release and I wonder how many people even know Mark Duplass was in an indie rock band.
[Laughs] Yeah. I would never miss a chance to talk about this record. It's funny because I think even outside of Mark going on to become a successful film guy and Craig [Montoro] playing in Sufjan Stevens’ band, it is such a great, super quirky pop record. We saw the band in Champaign, 15 or 17 years ago, and became super fast friends. The live performances were engaging and interesting and fun, but in a fairly simple way. Anytime someone asks me, I'll say this is the most underrated record.
I do wonder how it sounds to someone hearing it for the first time. To me, it sounds very of its time. When I play it, I think, "Yup, that’s what 2004 sounded like."
Yeah, it's a cool little time capsule for people our age. It’s sort of a blessing and a curse. It’s not something people are discovering now and thinking it sounds fresh. Not that it sounds dated, but it’s a very specific-sounding record. That’s one thing I love about it. It's this captured sound of what these guys did for a very short time.
When I interviewed Mark he said he "wouldn’t be closed" to the idea of reviving the project. If that ever came about, would Polyvinyl put it out?
Cool. I’m trying to make this happen in 2020. Maybe they could open for Jeff Rosenstock or something.
That'd be an awesome pairing!
This is the earliest release you have on your list. At that time, you didn’t have an impressive roster behind you, so how would you convince a band like Braid to work with you?
The way we got them to work with us that we were friends who skateboarded together and they started a band. Frame & Canvas is the third Braid record. They already had two albums out while we were coming up and doing a fanzine. We did a couple of Braid seven-inches. I think we owe a tremendous amount to Braid in letting us put out Frame & Canvas. Polyvinyl was maybe a year and a half old when they asked us to do it. You could definitely tell it was going to be a successful record, just because they had worked so hard. They played hundreds and hundreds of shows. They'd be on anybody's compilation or seven-inch or split. There was so much groundwork laid.
In hindsight, it's a pretty seminal record to have in your catalog.
I agree. It's wild to think the record turned 20 last year. It still continues to be influential. And because they were playing so many shows, I think it helped shaped Polyvinyl's ethos of being a 50/50 partner. We were working just to keep with Braid.
I'm not surprised that you have an of Montreal album on your list but I am surprised at which album you picked. It seemed like the band really hit their groove on the two albums before this. Why this one?
Great lead-up question. [Laughs] We started to work with them in 2004 and released Satanic Panic [in the Attic] which kind of bridged the gap of them being a psychedelic pop band. Kevin [Barnes] was so prolific. We put out Satanic Panic in 2004, we put out Sunlandic Twins in 2005—just a year apart. And Sunlandic Twins was super successful.
Just to contextualize how big it was for readers who might not remember, it was so popular that one of its songs was used in an Outback commercial.
It was! [Laughs] Dude, that was the weirdest thing because Outback's ad agency came to them and said, "We really like the song" and basically kind of ripped it off. The song wasn't just used, it was straight up re-recorded to incorporate didgeridoos and shit—an Outback-ified version of that song.
But the reason I picked Hissing Fauna is that while the prior two records were successful, as soon as we heard Hissing Fauna for the first time it was like, "Oh shit, this is a departure." It's still a pop record, very dance-y, but there were all these personal lyrics. Where the prior records had been sort of whimsical, all of a sudden there’s this whole span of emotions. Kevin had become a parent and was having relationship issues. Everything was on the table in this super cathartic record.
of Montreal’s output has been so bonkers. Thirteen albums over a 14-year period, and that’s not even counting EPs. How does the label keep up?
I feel like there are some artists, when they're making records, there's a certain cyclical nature to them. But I think we've gotten accustomed to it with of Montreal that it's not that the cycle is shorter, it's just always on.
Does Kevin just have an open invite with the label?
Yup. And we’ve worked together for so long that it’s just a foregone conclusion that there will be of Montreal records and we’ll continue to put them out.
There’s a lot of misremembering about this band and this album. It wasn't initially very popular or influential, was it?
Yeah, that’s correct. We put the first record out after the band played something between 10 and 20 shows and broke up. We wanted to release it anyway. At the time, I had a real admiration for Dischord [Records] and the way they chronicled the DC scene. We wanted to chronicle the American Football record and be the steward of it, even though we didn't have high expectations for it.
Just as a document of the time and place.
Yeah, that’s the perfect word. We wanted to be the documentarians of that time and place for American Football, a band that existed for a really short time and made an EP and then made an album.
It’s easy to take credit for it in hindsight, but at the time, how did you know it was important enough to document?
I loved the record. Even listening to it at the time, it was such a unique record. It deserved to be heard by people, even if it's not going to be through the discovery of the band being out playing shows and being an active band. So by the time it came out in 1999, the label was a few years old, and we thought maybe through our own channels, people would pay attention.
If you look at a graph of sales of this record over the years, what does that line look like?
Generally speaking, it's a constant climb upwards. But one of the things that people misremember is that there wasn't ever a huge hockey stick in that graph. That's the thing that's so remarkable and puzzling about the record's trajectory. It just kept organically being discovered by people, and then inspiring people and inspiring bands, and then being rediscovered.
And of course, at the time, you didn't know the band would reunite and have this second life.
Yeah. To be completely candid and clear about it, [guitarist] Steve Holmes found that box of tapes in 2012 or 2013 and was like, "Hey guys, I found this old box of cassettes from the American Football days. Do you guys want them?" He sent them to us and, much like the American Football story, it wasn't with grandiose expectations. We sat on them for a while and finally had them digitized. Then Andy [De Santis] here at Polyvinyl was going through them and said, "There’s some cool material here!" Then we realized the record was about to turn 15 and maybe there was enough material to make a deluxe version of the album.
Of all the bands that have reunited and have ultimately seen diminishing returns, American Football seems to be the one exception that is somehow getting bigger. Why do you think that is?
Not to say that any other band wasn't careful with their reunion plans, but with American Football, the origin story of the whole band and album continues through the reunion and into the current times. It's all because it's been really organic. Even when we put out the reissues, there were absolutely no plans for shows. If anything, it was the deluxe reissue that made Mike [Kinsella] and the Steves [Holmes and Lamos] realize that there was truly a demand and they wouldn't be crushing the legacy of their one record by playing shows. I think when people had asked over the years, they’d been really hesitant because they didn't want to give people a show that was less than what they'd built up in their minds.
I have this email printed up and framed that Mike sent us, and the subject line said "fuck it" and the body of the email just said "let’s play some American Football shows."
What time of day was that sent? I’ve got to imagine that was after midnight."Well, I have it right here. 5:34 PM, totally sober! [Laughs]
Next on the list you have another Chicago area band with Grapetooth. How'd this record make the list?
I really wanted to include this record one, because it just came out last year and two, because I love this record so much. It's everything I love about pop music in one album. We received the record with no context and I fell in love with it, almost in that quirky pop songwriting style that we'd been missing since that Volcano record. Then we go on to find out there's this current scene of Chicago musicians that are so prolific and playing in everyone else's bands, just incredibly supportive of one another in the scene. I was just so impressed with it, not just the record but the whole scene they come from.
It's interesting going through records that span Polyvinyl's whole catalog because you can see the distinct eras of the label in the 90s, the mid-2000s, and now with Grapetooth. Do you have a favorite era of Polyvinyl?
I would say now is my favorite era. The reason I say that is that I tend not to be a very backward-looking dude. It took me a minute to stop and wrap my head around this interview. We want to always be forward-looking and change with the times and stay current, not just with musical styles but with what artists need and how we can best serve artists we work together with. So almost any time you'd ask me what my favorite era is, it's going to be the current era. People accuse me of having a terrible memory because I'm always thinking of the future.
One other thing that pops out to me for Grapetooth, I can't stress enough the level of inclusiveness. The whole Chicago scene, the fans and the current generation of young people who are excited about going to Grapetooth shows or Twin Peaks shows, all those bands, it's such an awesome environment. When Grapetooth played at Lincoln Hall last year around Pitchfork Festival, the show was completely sold out and they’d only played a couple shows prior to that. And by the time their set was over, there were so many people on the stage they had to literally turn the lights on, turn the PA off, and clear the room. Not in a violent, crazy way. Just a joyous dance party that was getting out of control in the best way where they had to settle it down.
Of all the albums on this list, I'd say this one sticks out the most, sonically, from the traditional Polyvinyl sound.
You feel like this is the black sheep?
A little bit! It definitely breaks from the traditional indie rock mold.
[Laughs] I think that's a fair assessment. Hopefully, that's a solid testament to us—never wanting our label to be pigeonholed to a certain sound. We want to put out records by artists who are of a similar ilk, but not put out the same record over and over. I think STRFKR is a good example of that.
But probably the one thing that, outside of musically, sticks out for STRFKR is that they’re the most unpretentious group of guys. They have this whole vibe about the band is that… on the one hand it's electro pop, but if you really listen there's this philosophical undercurrent where there's Alan Watts samples. And even just the philosophical idea of being no one, going nowhere, being very present in this moment. Similar to Grapetooth, there’s such a joyousness to their live shows and I think they bring a lot of people in through their live shows, almost the polar opposite of American Football.
Did you discover them at South By Southwest?
Well, at the very least, we'd seen that video for "Adult Diversion." They'd made that and put it out themselves, and then I think they played South By just a few weeks later. Musically, this record is phenomenal. Similar to Jay Som, this record was done and they were looking for someone to put it out. Everything they'd done was a great indicator of what they’d do for the future.
So how did this make it all the way up to number two?
Visually, aesthetically, they're so committed to perfection and will take as long as they need to have something be exactly the way they want. One of the reasons I picked it was because that aligns with Polyvinyl's goal to support our artists' vision and help them make the record they want to make.
I just want to say, Matt, you're a lovely man, but I absolutely would've fought you to the death had you not picked this as your number one.
[Laughs] So that must mean that thematically you probably see Polyvinyl in a pretty similar way to me, which is cool. I did a lot of thinking about this. Even though this was a pretty successful record for us, it's not one that people ask me about a lot. The American Football records, and Braid, and Rainer Maria, and the bands around long enough to have a legacy, I often get asked about.
I feel like it has the whole package. Sonically, it's undeniably a great record, start to finish. There's not a bad song on the record. From its very beginning with the fireworks to the way it ends with the thunder, it's this perfectly put together record.
Outside of that, we started working with Japandroids in 2009. Post-Nothing had been released in Canada and some people were really excited about it. They needed a label to release it in the US and the rest of the world. Before we started working with them, I remember talking with Dave [Prowse] and Brian [King] on the phone for literally hours. It was what I would describe as them quizzing and grilling me. Not in a confrontational way, but in a way that showed they cared so much about their band. It was almost like, "Are you sure wanna be involved with us?" and "are you sure you're willing to support our very DIY vision and ethos for our band?" That, to me, was such an indicator that Japandroids was a Polyvinyl band. It was so in line with our spirit. They wanted Japandroids to be exactly the vision they had in mind. They didn't want to make music videos, they wanted to make sure every song was perfectly presented the way they wanted it, and then they just wanted to tour. They would play hundreds of shows. They wanted every show to be perfect too.
That was the genesis of working with them for the first three years. They toured non-stop and after that they kind of imploded. I don't know that they were sure they'd make another record. It felt like whatever happened after Post-Nothing had the possibility of being super special, but it also had the possibility of not happening at all.
When they finally made the record, it took a while to get it made and recorded. I think even at the time it was completed, it was somewhat tenuous as to whether they'd even put the record out, or just maybe not even play shows, American Football-style.
It seems like an important record in the canon of rock over the last decade.
I totally agree. I think that it's so anthemic and there’s an energy about every song on it, both on the record and in the live performance, that absolutely has… Man, I don’t even know how to describe it. It's cathartic and joyous at the same time. I feel like rock, in that way, was not as fashionable before Celebration Rock came out, if that’s not too much of an egotistical thing to say.
At the same time, I would hesitate to say that it was influential. I don't think it sparked any new trends. It exists on its own. It was just a flag in the sand that made a very proud statement.
That's the thing I think makes it hard to point to. Many of our records have had obvious influence. But it almost sounds like an understatement to say this record was not influential. It kind of existed in a weird vacuum, but I'm saying that in the most positive way. It was like, here’s this thing this two-piece band from Vancouver does, and does better than anyone, and it’s not going to go on and influence the masses. It's done in the way only Japandroids was able to do it. Take it or leave it, it's exactly the way it is.