We first featured Seattle’s Debacle Records in 2011. Back then it was a CD-R pressing haven for drone, noise, and experimental often incubated in the venue Electric Heavyland. As Debacle stayed in our peripheral, the label evolved to include weirdo pop records like Biosexual’s The Window Wants The Bedroom (among other Zac Nelson manifestations) and the downercore bedroom guitar scuzz of Dan Svizeny’s Cough Cool, but always keeping to its alliance with the ethereal otherness of groups like Hobo Cubes, Garek Jon Druss, and label mainstay, L.A. Lungs.
In 2008 label founder Samuel Melancon was planning a bachelor party. Rather than book a cabin with his best buds or jetset to Las Vegas, Melancon booked a show as his bachelor party. It became the inaugural Debacle Fest. Now in its eighth year, Debacle Fest has expanded, recoiled, and rekindled its original intent while consistently providing a stage for experimental music in the Pacific Northwest. On July 10 and 11 Debacle Fest 2015 will launch in its new home, Columbia City Theatre, with acts like Mamiffer, Pink Void, Alto!, Terrane, and Contact Cult.
Impose caught up with founder Samuel Melancon and Event Coordinator Rachel LeBlanc to discuss the evolution of the festival and the label, launching a sister label built around a hardware dance night called MOTOR, and a look toward future projects. Below is also the premiere of Apartment Fox’s “Specific Gravity” from the Traded Structures EP.
This is Debacle Fest’s eighth year. Besides transitioning from bachelor party into festival, how has your approach to the festival changed over time?
Sam: I think we are of course a more confident festival. I think being eight years in makes you able to take more risks and lean less on big headliner festival acts and put more focus on artists you just want to champion regardless of their place in the scene. So, in that way, the vibe is a little closer to the first few years but with all the knowledge and reach we have amassed through the years. Also, when it started I didn’t have the amazing help of Rachel LeBlanc who has really taken over the main duties of running the festival, and made it grow in a way I never could have alone.
Rachel: The Fest has gradually expanded out in every aspect from where it started eight years ago, while still retaining the “family reunion” vibe its had from the start. In terms of line-up, it’s grown from a showcase of mainly Debacle artists, to include more scenes and realms of the NW experimental world with some further away friends in the mix. We’ve also begun in the past few years to try giving the local artists different — larger and more high tech — venues than where they typically perform. Most of the artists are still very underground, so they’re used to playing in these very gritty underground places to match. We love those types of venues and they are def our bread and butter as well, but many of them here in Seattle are gone or disappearing (RIP the Josephine) and the Fest has grown to work with larger venues, giving these artists the opportunity to play on a bigger stage with a well-equipped sound system.
It’s also transformed from a very personal project of Sam’s out to a two-man production team with me jumping on board in 2012, and last year we realized we needed a team of volunteers to pull off this blooming grassroots event, many of whom we’ll have help again this year. Along with a volunteer crew, we also started incorporating more of the business community at large, with food trucks, fellow record labels for a group sale, and other partners where we can.
So, the approach has definitely changed in a very natural, slow-burn way to include more and more folks — but as mentioned, we still like to retain that fam vibe. Everyone involved from bands to volunteers and venues are people who we have a history with, or have had a mutual respect and interest in working with, using the Fest as a way to actualize it.
Given the lineup, it’s clear the curatorial side is unlike any other festival. For those who’ve never been how would you describe this year’s lineup?
S: Last year was a real breakthrough for us, but it wasn’t a breakthrough because we had big well-known artist, quite the opposite. We were shown that combining smaller regional bands on the verge of tipping with really thought out programming and juxtapositions can make for some very exciting moments. People trust us to bring them bands that are outside of their comfort zone. I have always positioned the fest as a place where anybody can take a weekend vacation from their normal styles of music and try out some stuff they may have not heard before, in a place without judgement or affectation. I think by focusing on regional up-and-comers this makes that feeling of getting out of your comfort zone extend to the scene regulars as much as to people new to this music.
R: As with past years, this year’s line-up is truly a cross-cut of where the Pacific NW is in terms of experimental scenes, further distilled down into who Sam and I are really stoked about right now. Many people mistakenly think we’re still heavily focused on harsher noise genres, which we definitely have a healthy representation of this year, but we have a little bit of everything in there: our two biggest acts Friday night are considered a part of the metal world and Saturday is sprinkled with acoustic guitar folks. The Fest has always been a reflection of Sam’s taste, and now mine as well, so as we’re not one-dimensional, the Fest isn’t either. That’s not to say it’s disjointed and unfocused; this line-up is excruciatingly considered for flow and feel, which is precisely what we like to go for: we love hearing that people not only discovered their new fave band at the Fest, but that they came away having been moved in an emotional sense. Hell, even a physical sense from some acts!
When we last checked in with Debacle Records it was a Labeled feature in 2011. In the feature you’d gone from a CD-R compilation label and were on the verge of offering multiple formats. How have your thoughts on the purpose of a record label and what it means to be one changed?
S: I still basically think a label’s job is curation. I want people to trust me and my taste and follow along while I show them things I like. On the business side the point of a label is more and more to consolidate attention and create marketing muscle for artist. Take on jobs that the artist doesnt want to do or shouldn’t be doing. Yet, in the end the true value to the listener is to curate an interesting perspective on the artform of recorded music.
R: Obviously I can’t chime in too much on how the label is different now compared to 2011, since I’ve only been Sam’s right-hand woman for the label side of things since 2012! I will say, though, that even in this day and age when the old ideas and constructs of what a “record label” means in general are shifting, it’s still a really validating thing to “have” as a fledgling artist like those we represent. Having someone say, “Yes, I want to throw time and money toward this project you have and give you a beautiful vinyl record as documentation out to the world” is really encouraging and often gives people a push to take their art further. We’ve seen this with many artists we’ve had on the label, Black Hat and Hayden Pedigo being two who immediately come to mind. Times are changing, and those changes for what it means to be a record label have been discussed to death, yet on our level it’s fun because we’re not only releasing this stuff but also kind of coaching people on a sort of artist manager level too. Sure artists can “DIY,” however it’s *super* helpful to have a team behind you doing promotional stuff, handling the record pressing plant contact, being another voice to share your work, etc. etc.
As the label has grown, I believe it’s also become a valid display of Sam’s curatorial skills and tastes, with opportunities arising not only to give smaller artists a home but to also put stuff out for artists who he’s admired for years. This is really reflected in this current wave of releases, from the Kenosis CD by relative unknown Dågur out of Minnesota to who we have coming out on the horizon…
What’s on the horizon for Debacle in releases?
S: Really excited for the future. We are about to reissue the Golden Retriever albums “2” on vinyl, which is just amazing. Following that up with a release from XUA who is a member of the Portland band Swahili. It is a record based around his time traveling around Thailand. A meeting of Eno-like synth tones and field recordings. It’s a trully stunning record. After that, we are about to announce a couple records from a new project featuring a big inspiration of mine. Also just released an overlooked masterpiece by John Krausbauer of Tecumseh called “Blues for the Grave”. We might be doing a spiritual successor to that in the Fall as well.
R: We just put out a CD from John Krausbauer which is INCREDIBLE. I’m bugged people have seemingly slept on it, as it’s an excellent drone and just a massive 30ish minute piece that washes over you, which is why we had to put it out on CD because vinyl would have cut it in half. We’re gearing up to do a vinyl re-issue of Golden Retriever’s 2 album, who we are both just crazy over. Everyone is crazy over Golden Retriever! I still have people gushing to me about their Debacle Fest 2014 set (definitely one of those “emotionally moving” performances I mentioned earlier.) As aforementioned, we have a few more “what? no way!” dream releases planned for this year, but we don’t want to give too much away… I will say though we are also looking to release a fourth Debacle album of label darlings LA Lungs, who neither of us will ever get sick of, later this autumn.
You’ve launched the sister label of MOTOR, for techno 12″ releases, birthed from the MOTOR COLLECTIVE nights. How did the idea for that happen and why was it necessary in your mind to create a separate entity rather than put these out through Debacle?
S: I always think the best and worst thing about Debacle is the diversity of sounds. Noise records and american primitive finger picking guitar. Weirdo Pop and long form drone. I always would look at labels that have a very narrow athestic with jealously. So when the idea of diving more and more into these psychedelic dance forms, it was a chance to draw a line and put those ideas under a different umbrella and make things a little more predictable for the listener. Problem is, what I think is a MOTOR release is pretty broad for the world of “Dance Music” fans. So I still confuse people by doing a house record after an industrial record followed by a dub techno record. So I can’t win.
R: *Cue hazy memory reel* One morning in winter 2012, Sam started discussing his semi-closeted love for dance music. Not that he was keeping it a huge secret, Sam is pretty open about his tastes, but I’d never heard him gush about dance music the way he was this particular day. He started daydreaming about a party night and label to string together the fledgling (there we go again with Debacle looking out for the “fledgling” artists) hardware dance artists that were cropping up here in Seattle, similar in vein to what was happening on the East Coast. I sign-off our chat to go to lunch, only to come back and find he’s got the whole business model and roll-out game plan developed! We had our first MOTOR party later that year, June 2012, at the old Comet Tavern here in Seattle and it just sort of shot out from there.
MOTOR is a much different beast than Debacle Records, in terms of sound, release style and cycles, aesthetic, event curation, pretty much all of it. It definitely made sense for us to make it its own thing, even though most people still consider us all one thing, hahaha.
We’ve got this track by Apartment Fox, who is a resident of the collective. How did you meet him and come to put his record out?
S: I met Alex Neerman when he was a part of the crucial Portland weirdo techno band Operative. Operative was a huge influence on the creation of MOTOR. Once they broke up I chased down the individual members and was so happy to see Alex was creating his own hazy, dubby and bubbly take on techno. This release is a long time coming and something I am super proud of. Alex has really become an important member of what we do with MOTOR. We should have a really fun remix EP out this Summer as a companion piece.
Should we expect a MOTOR Fest someday?
S: Thing is, every MOTOR is a sort of mini-event. I hope all our parties feel as important and powerful as a festival. Unlike Debacle Fest I do feel like it is MOTOR’s job to bring out big headliners that fit the aesthetic; bands that don’t normally make it to Seattle. Most cost effective way to do that is to tailor each night around a touring band and fill the rest of the line up with our amazing set of up-and-coming locals.