In Embryonic Capital's inaugural post a glimpse was given into the welcoming and cozy world of D.C. house shows via the cherch. This week we delve into a portrait of maybe one of the hardest workingmen in D.C. (no, not Joe Biden) but Sean Peoples, the founder of local label Sockets Records. Walking around music-centric U Street you can see Sockets' impact on the D.C. scene via street lamps plastered with posters of upcoming shows for bluesy-folk Laughing Man or creatively aggressive post- punk Imperial China.
Bluesy-folk sharing a label with post-punk? Well, let me blow your mind a bit more: Sockets' line up includes (but isn't limited to) ambient pop (Hume), legends of D.C. avant-garde hip-hop (The Cornel West Theory), and a group of rapping schoolgirls from Brooklyn (The Fly Girlz). Chatting recently with Sean over coffee and beer, I learned more about what inspired Sockets' creation, the progression of D.C.'s music this past decade, and the upcoming January 15 Sockets' Showcase at Black Cat.
Sean (originally from New Jersey) moved to D.C. for college and has long held an affinity for the sounds emerging from the nation's capitol (he once spent a summer following revered post-punk Fugazi up and down the east coast). Once in D.C. he soon became a fixture in the late 90s/early 2000's scene. “Yeah, there were so many people just making really odd music. The Cornel West Theory being one of them. This new album (Second Rome) is a bit more hip-hop than you would of thought seeing them five years ago because all they had was a delay pedal, a drum kit, and their voices, and it was very amazing. One of the weirdest shows I'd ever seen. Then there was also a band called The Cutest Puppy in the World which was Layne Garrett [Sockets' artist], he's sorta like a fixture…he makes the guitar sound completely different then what you think it should sound like. I was in a band with a guy named Hugh McElroy, who was in the Black Eyes and I was helping him with his label Ruffian and in helping him, I was just sort of like I want to do my own label.”
Starting small in 2004 as a CD-R only label, Sean realized by 2006 that he had more than a simple side project on his hands. “It took a long time. There was a point where I had released like 45 CD-R's in a span of 2-and-a-half years, which is crazy, don't ever do that. And I just got burned out, I switched jobs. My former job allowed me to do that, I had a lot more spare time. My new job was pretty overwhelming. I took about a year and a half off, but then there was interesting stuff coming out. The Cornel West Theory was one of them, Buildings [also on Sockets] was another. But I decided not to do the CD-R. One of the things you can't do with CD-Rs is get it into stores. People don't trust CD-Rs, because they're not manufactured with any sort of legitimacy. So I was like, all right I’m going to start doing CDs. It was also on the last gasp of CDs. I did like three CD releases, and was like 'Oh My God'. So I thought maybe I'll do vinyl, because I can do less vinyl and digitally people will buy it, if they think its good enough. I'm still trying to figure out, 'What's the model?' [...] It's cool in one way because you are always trying to search out the best medium for music, at the same time it's like how do people listen to music?”
Since moving from CD-Rs to a full-fledged label Sockets has been on an upward trajectory, snatching up some of the most innovative bands emerging from the D.C. scene. “Doing this label now, one of the only reasons I put out a band is because I want to work with them. Before it was just like 'let's document this weird shit, what are you doing through that delay pedal? Okay that's weird'. Now its like 'oh, lets see how many people we can get to listen to this really good music, that you spent a lot of time and energy into.'” Although with any small independent business in corporate America, Sockets isn't out there to turn over a profit but exists as a way to help unique artists get a foot in the door. “Music industry business, even on a small scale is really tough. I'm not making money; they're not making much money. I feel like I am a conduit to the bands that really want to make it. I'm the first step to them getting better labels in terms of resources.”
Although Sean has been in D.C. and part of the music scene for over twelve years, he defiantly notes a positive trend from how things were just a few years ago to D.C.'s current state. “Right now, this might be a time we sort of look back on. House shows, underground venues that's not going to last forever. It's this really weird time in which this is all happening, and it's able to incubate really good music. I've been here a long time and when I left college I was friends with the Q and Not U and Black Eyes guys and there was a lot of young people and they were all really excited and really excited to be in D.C. and then those bands broke up. It seems like every one of those people who was both in the bands and in the audiences at the shows ended up leaving. Now, I feel like I'm five or seven years older then some of the folks, but it's the same thing, a lot of young people who decided this was an okay place to live. A kind of energy. It might be dwindling because the last few years might have been maybe disappointing for some people. But the Obama administration is kinda of a cool thing. It's no longer a town dictated by a weirdo, right wing asshole. It's not any one thing, but maybe an aggregate of some really good stuff. Both in terms of talented bands, some really cool incubating spaces, couple of labels doing really good stuff; Future Times is cultivating some really good things, People's Potential Unlimited. There's like a little community. Also more of good vibe in the city as a whole, maybe it's all just come together, I don't know. It's very delicate though, one of those things could fall through, you never know. But I'm a big believer in enjoying the time.”
As the scene expands, so do the venues many local acts play at. Black Cat in D.C.'s mid-city has always been an integral music space for national indie acts and local bands in terms of a professional/larger scale venue. Sockets' hosted their first showcase at the Black Cat last January and will be continuing the tradition on January 15 as they celebrate a selection of new Sockets' releases, including a CD from Laughing Man, a new 7-inch from Hume that follows up their last release, Penumbra, as well as sets from Buildings and Skeletons.” (More information about the January 15th Sockets' showcase can be found on Sockets' or Black Cat's website).
Walking home through the streets of Petworth after speaking with Sean I felt like my civic pride was renewed tenfold. From basement shows to homegrown record labels, D.C. really is an okay place to live (and hopefully still will be in 2012).