The idea for starting Sophomore Lounge came about back in early 2007, maybe even a little before that. My band, State Champion, hadn't really come together yet, at least in the way that it exists today. But I was making solo recordings under that name. I think I had sent them out to a few labels that were way out of my league, not knowing any better. I never really heard anything back, and rightfully so, in retrospect. The recordings weren't any good, but it was kind of a perfectly timed storm in that I had a handful of friends in a similar position back then. Making music that we were all amped on, but no one really knew what to do with it or how to document such a productive time in our lives.
I was interning at Drag City that year (2006-2007, shortly before I started working there full-time after graduating college) and had observed as much as I could cram into my brain about how to run a label. Again, in retrospect, I had no clue what I was actually doing. But after writing “Sophomore Lounge” on the CD-R sleeves for my first batch of demos, I reached out to a few friends about the entirely uncertain idea of starting our own label, and as I imagine is the case with many smaller labels with any level of longevity, it just sort of snowballed over the years from there. We went from writing it on CD-Rs to tapes and zines, and eventually vinyl records. May of 2009, I believe, we released the Giving Up “Gthrowing Up” 12″. The head songwriter in that band, Mikie Poland, is one of my best friends and has helped a lot with the label from day one onward. I met my girlfriend through him, who also plays in Giving Up, and that was the first LP we did, so it was a huge deal for us. A milestone, I guess.
My dad was heading out to Vegas for a gambling trip that Spring. Mikie and I went to the ATM on the evening before he left and pulled out $500 each. The plan was to give it to him to double while out there so that we could fund the pressing with an extra thousand bucks in our favor. My dad decided that taking it to the craps table was the way to go. It was all or nothing, we told him. I remember sitting at my desk at work and texting back and forth with him while he was at the table, telling him how long to let it ride. He got us up $750 and at that point I told him to pull me out. Mikie stayed in, all or nothing, shooting for a thousand. Then my dad went cold and lost it all. That was the first of many losses in our career to come. But we eventually did get the money together, through less exciting measures.
I remember listening to the test pressings at a friend's apartment and feeling this fleeting yet ecstatic sense of legitimacy, like shit had finally gotten “real” with the label. We pressed 250 copies, with self-adhesed photos for the jacket covers and all these crazy inserts containing dirt and grass and C-print photographs, hand-sewn lyric books, all sorts of shit. A lot of love and energy went into those records. It's now a little over four years later and we still haven't sold out of them.
The main thing about Sophomore Lounge that I think has ultimately led to forming an identity for itself is the way it has kind of morphed in response to its geography over the years. For starters, the name actually comes from an athletic closet at our high school that my friends and I deemed the “Sophomore Lounge.” We were a bit of an odd ball troop back then, always looking for and finding trouble in our downtime. But not in the sense of getting in fights or doing drugs or anything so typical of teenage rock 'n' roll goons. Just entertaining ourselves in unconventional ways. Weirding people out. We didn't really relate to the older kids or the younger kids as much at that time, so in 10th grade, we would hang out in this big closet every day — before, after, and during school. We'd pack it in with like 10-15 people and play music and make drawings and trade stories and just kind of hide out when we felt like laying low. We brought a couch in there and had his giant bone that hung from a string which was used as a door knocker. It really became like a little home for us, temporarily. Eventually the faculty found out about it and pulled the plug on us, claiming it was a fire hazard or whatever. But there was a profound spirit to the place that always stuck with me. When the label came about some 7 years later, it all still resonated and I felt the name was as fitting as any.
I was living in Chicago, but I was still going back to Louisville all the time. Playing shows, seeing family, etc. I'd bring friends from the city down to Kentucky, and then turnaround and book bands from back home at house venues around Chicago, especially when places like the Sac House and Ottoman Empire (Logan Square) were in their heyday. You'd get to see bands like Natural Child, Ty Segall, Running, Scalpals, Angel Olsen all playing this half-kitchen/half-living room basement quarters on any given weeknight for a 5 dollar suggested donation. Kids cramming in, sweating their balls off, singing along. It made you feel a part of something pretty special. So we were all playing music together and making fliers for each other and skateboarding and going on weekend trips and drinking beer and making each other laugh and stoking each other out, and it eventually created this really strong regional conversation that I think still informs the label to this day.
After our bands got a little more established and we started touring the country a lot, the circle just kept on growing exponentially. We slowly expanded our focus from being a Chicago/Louisville label to just putting out whatever bands we grew to admire after meeting them in their own respective towns and vibing off their own little pockets of productivity. Especially towns like Allston/Boston (SKIMASK, Fat History Month, Kal Marks, Pile, Guerilla Toss, SaraLee) and Lexington (CROSS, Warmer Milks, Jovontaes, Salad Influence) were really influential on us. Every show I've ever played in Boston has been an experience of overwhelming support, ambition, and local talent. Places like the Problem House and Gay Gardens were breeding grounds for visual art and noise.
[Ryan Davis of SL with Jim of Astro Black]
And not just in Boston, but all over the country, there are these little ant hills boiling over with brilliant, sustainable, creative force. It's that sense of the communal underground that we've strived to figure out in Louisville over the years with things like Sophomore Lounge, Cropped Out (the annual festival/events organization that my friend James Ardery and I started in 2010), Astro Black Records, or any other available means, but it's an incredibly slow and thankless process. Every record we put out is a roll of the dice. Maybe it will sell, maybe it will sit in a pile of boxes in the basement of my parents' house (our “office” since starting in 2007, *see photos) for the next three years. But regardless, I'm proud to have been involved in the design and execution of each and every effort. I do everything in my power to help spread the word about the bands I know and love. The same shit that stresses me to the bone, week after week, is often what gets me up in the morning. And it's nice knowing there are so many others out there like us, laying all their guts on the line for a 7″ that maybe 70 people will ever buy. I'm super excited to have worked with and co-released records with labels like Feeding Tube, Infinity Cat, 100% Breakfast, Exploding in Sound, and so on. The list is ever-growing, as is the inventory of future projects in mind.
To date, we've put out 53 official releases (27 of which are vinyl pressings), with several more already at the plant. Recent releases include Fat History Month's Bad History Month LP, Jovontaes' Paranoia Makes A Crazy Gift LP, Lantern's Rock 'N' Roll Rorschach LP, and a collection of eight zines (ranging from show fliers to comics to poetry and prose) compiled by various long-time friends of the label. Coming up on the near horizon, we have LPs from Guerilla Toss/Sediment Club and The Phantom Family Halo, 7″s from PC Worship, Tropical Trash, and Jaye Jayle (minimal blues-synth solo outing by Evan Patterson of Young Widows), a Giving Up/SaraLee split tour cassette, and more. Too much more, arguably. It's easy to get ahead of myself with friends as prolific as the ones I've been so lucky to find. I never had the pleasure of meeting that guy Ben Todd (of Nashville's Dead) before he passed away earlier this year, but I read this quote where he had said “Nothing is cooler than your friends or your scene or your city” and I've thought about it a lot. I started the label to document the creative output of the people I was staying up all night listening to records with, and it's led me on a six-year journey with no signs of slowing down. I can only hope that what comes next out of all this is as much fun as it's been so far.
You can also follow Sophomore Lounge on its Tumblr.