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Constellation Records - interview

Approaching nigh on two decades of existence, Constellation Records has released some of contemporary music’s most recognisable experimental works. We’re pretty into that. They’ve also proved that fool of a term, “experimental”, quite impossible to define: as the label has evolved, so has its roster of artists and its strands of sound, proving nothing to be linear and most things complicated.

For many, Constellation’s name will be recognisable for the consuming music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but the label have also given a home to the post-rock workshopping of Do Make Say Think, the discordant narratives of Colin Stetson, the amazing “panoramic sound-quilting” of Matana Roberts, the ambient folk of Sandro Perri and the warped poetics of Carla Buzolich. Recently, they’ve proven that “experimental music” is still an active force that can be felt as much as formalised, and their autumn schedule is as versatile as ever: it includes Jerusalem In My Heart’s modulated folk compositions, the not-so-subtle winking of punks Ought and the chamber rock of Esmerine.

We’ve enjoyed working alongside Constellation for a long while now -- both of us are approaching our twentieth birthdays and feeling daunted by it -- so decided it was a good time to have a chat. Ian Ilavsky was generous enough to offer a plethora of insights into running the label, interacting with local Montreal and honouring artist ethics -- an amazing feat, considering how horribly basic our questions were.

Bonus points go to Graham Latham, who organised two Constellation mixes for our podcast series: the first covers the label’s present output, while the second is just a collection of real good drone. They know us too well.

For many, Constellation will be synonymous with much of post-rock’s canon, but the last few years alone prove it’s much more than that. How do you perceive the label to have shifted, both in music and ideals? Hindsight is hard, but can you see yourselves releasing an Ought record, for instance, back in the day?

We don't perceive a shift really and for sure we could have released an Ought record in our early years. Of course we recognise that a lot of our early titles were "instrumental" music of one sort or another, informed by punk/rock/DIY aesthetics while raiding and recombinating other genres, and thus we earned the "post-rock" tag when the label started out. But our very first release (and a band I played in) was from Sofa, a 4-piece post-punk band with a lead vocalist. Sackville and Frankie Sparo were other early titles on the label that were vocal-led groups. Hrsta, Carla Bozulich, Elizabeth Anka Vajagic, Eric Chenaux, Sandro Perri, Vic Chesnutt, Elfin Saddle, Clues and the evolution of Silver Mt Zion from album to album: these are all vocalist-based artists who I think are all over the map genre-wise and that we were releasing in the 2004-2009 period (currently what we could call the "middle years" for Constellation I suppose).

We obviously appreciate why writers/critics – and maybe music fans themselves – branded Constellation as "post-rock" at the time. While we no doubt benefited from the association and it slotted us into a zeitgeist that brought early attention to the label, it's not a tag we ever wanted or were setting out to help define. We definitely never thought of Constellation as demarcating any sort of genre category. And we called out some of the implications of "post-rock" right from the start – concerned that the term overly aestheticised and/or risked distracting from a deeper engagement with any given band or album's origins and intents (as well as the label's), especially regarding means of production, resistance to certain structural or behavioural assumptions of the music/entertainment industry writ large, etc. We always said back then that we identified with punk first and foremost, and wanted to see that term continue to have real meaning (as opposed to Vans Warped Tour meaning, i.e. punk calcified into genre). Maybe part of the concept of "post-rock" was also supposed to mean "anti-rockist", in the sense of artist and business ethics and social values. But it seemed mostly to be deployed as an aesthetic term, which we mostly found counter-productive. Music and ideals have always gone hand in hand for us, and while technology has hugely transformed production, dissemination and commodification of music over the past 20 years, we've tried to hold fast to our principles throughout – which might reductively be summarised as a non-separation of aesthetic and political/economic values.

It seems to me that a lot of the albums we've been releasing in recent years – Matana Roberts, Colin Stetson, Last Ex, Hiss Tracts, Avec Le Soleil Sortant De Sa Bouche, Esmerine – might've similarly been slotted into the post-rock "category" had they come out during the label's early years. In other words, "post-rock" was a fashionable term at the time, but still very (hopelessly?) broad and fuzzy. We're relieved that the term no longer operates as lazy shorthand or an empty/clichéd signifier these days – we think a lot of music writers pointedly avoid the term now, for precisely those reasons. Calling something "post-rock" in 2015 seems more a term of dismissal or denigration, or an implicit accusation of a sort of plodding derivativeness, doesn't it? (Notwithstanding Pitchfork's recent history/thinkpiece on "The Sound of Bristol Post-Rock" for example; a minor act of journalistic recuperation of the term...)

I recently re-read Simon Reynolds' "Rip It Up And Start Again" which serves as a good reminder that the period 1978-1982 of UK post-punk was arguably the first (and best?) example of post-rock. If Reynolds is ultimately responsible for popularising the term post-rock in the 90s, perhaps it's because the term post-punk had already been used up. But Constellation has always seen itself solidly in that (post)-punk tradition – where genre-experimentation by primarily untrained and mostly non-"careerist-minded", DIY-fuelled musicians often went hand-in-hand with a strong commitment to developing alternative/independent structures and institutions.

Obviously Ought is navigating a very different cultural moment for "indie" or post-punk music, with a different array of opportunities and decision points, doing so with a more recent/"millennial" consciousness as a group of young guys in their early 20s – but we most definitely would have worked with Ought back in the day, on stylistic/artistic grounds and on the basis of the band's own political orientation and common-feeling about behind-the-scenes values.

Is a label style, at this point, something of a redundancy? You’re putting on a label showcase at Utrecht’s Le Guess Who festival this year, which involves a lot of disparate artists on one bill, and nothing in particular stitches them together.

I think a label style – or identity – is best forged through the ears of listeners who consider the assembled works of a label to be inherently interesting. Since we never wanted nor intended that Constellation represent a particular musical style or genre, we welcome the idea that this isn't what would stitch artists on the label together. Mission accomplished perhaps. But maybe Constellation provides other avenues for listeners to construct ideas of label style/identity for themselves, from the artistic disparateness of our catalogue – whether on the level of album artwork/packaging, or certain through-lines in terms of overall production values informing the recordings themselves, or an absence of the label's artists and works surfacing in certain contexts (you'll never hear a Constellation-released song in a commercial, for example). A record label can continue to serve as one among many possible contexts for appreciating individual artists or albums, and for projecting linkages between them. Obviously our catalogue is also rife with a community of players and producers that yields quite an interconnected genealogical tree. But label style or identity, while perhaps not a redundancy, certainly seems to be less important for fans in general these days, especially insofar as the internet as a discovery platform prioritises artistic identity first and foremost, and often explicitly obfuscates or dispenses with the record label at the level of basic information/metadata.

NB: Not to nitpick, but Constellation is not really "presenting" the label night at Le Guess Who?; the fest has ended up billing it this way, but the idea and the line-up was entirely at their initiative (for which we are flattered and grateful) and took shape entirely on the basis of whatever CST-affiliated artists happened to already be in the midst of European tours in November. Also, we have always studiously avoided the term "showcase", with all its connotations of strategic product-display and/or bankrolled exercise in branding! Most definitely not what's going on here – but I doth protest too much....

One of my favourite things about Constellation is the freedom with which artists explore their narratives. Colin Stetson and Matana Roberts have both been telling intriguing and often anachronistic stories through serialised works. Is offering artists that creative mobility important to you? Is it challenging maintaining such projects?

We have an intensely non-interventionist approach to the recordings artists make (perhaps at times to a fault). For us this is a crucial aspect of the label's mandate to preserve and promulgate notions of independence and artistic freedom/integrity. We want artists affiliated with the label to make the work they want to make; it inspires and excites us when artists bring their own extended concepts and narratives to bear on their compositional trajectories. In the cases you mention, these have been more explicitly thematised by the artists as multi-release concepts and right down to the level of album titles. In Matana's case, Coin Coin is the self-declaration of an extended project that I think serves her as a sort of personal challenge and motivation, which is incredibly cool to witness and to be a part of. In Colin's case, the New History Warfare trilogy is now complete, and his recent duo recording with Sarah Neufeld is an expression of ongoing creative mobility.

But ultimately we look at a lot of the long-standing relationships we have with artists in a similar way, whether that's Eric Chenaux, Carla Bozulich, Do Make Say Think or Silver Mt Zion, to name perhaps the most obvious examples of artists who've release a lot of work on the label and (we think) never repeat themselves and embody a tremendously thoughtful and engaged sense of creative mobility.

If there's a challenge, it's primarily budgetary – we operate under certain economic constraints as the flipside of really paying no heed to "commercial prospects", alongside the stark fiscal realities for the label in that we do not assert (nor wish to assert) any other financial interest in an artist's career. Constellation just makes, releases and sells records – this is literally our only source of revenue (though admittedly supplanted by government arts grants when we are fortunate enough to receive them). Even licensing revenue from film/TV (we have a no-ads policy) is passed through 100% to the artists; we don't take a cut. We've resisted reinventing or extending ourselves into "artist management" in any contractual or monetised sense (even though we often provide that service in an ad hoc and pro bono way simply out of a desire to assist our artists, who for the most part are entirely self-managed). By the same token, artists that work with Constellation have pretty much internalised the idea of working efficiently in relatively low-cost studios (when a studio is necessary) or have taken the initiative to equip themselves with home studios to continue making work on their own terms without breaking the bank. The DIY ethos of the artists themselves has always been a horizon that makes them a good fit with Constellation – insofar as we continue to release vital work by these artists (both old and new to the label), it's a testament to their own DIY ethics, resourcefulness, and realism.

You’ve largely worked with Montreal artists, so I’m intrigued as to how you connected with Matana Roberts. Did you start working together with the COIN COIN project in mind?

Matana spent two years in Montreal in the late 2000s and she was actively workshopping various iterations of COIN COIN at that time, playing with all sorts of experimental and improv musicians from the local scene here. That's how we really connected with her, though she'd had a prior minor association with Godspeed You! Black Emperor as a guest horn player on Yanqui U.X.O. back in 2002 (which I think was arranged through Josh Abrams and which went down in Chicago when Matana still lived there at the time and GYBE was tracking at Electrical Audio). I was a fan of her Sticks & Stones ensemble from back then as well.

Yes, COIN COIN was a project that was blowing us away as we saw it performed in various guises in Montreal around 2008-2010 and we proposed a live "in-studio" recording session to Matana for Chapter One, to at least document the amazing work she'd done on stuff here, with all these Montreal-based players she'd been collaborating with, before she moved back to NYC. I think we were hopeful this recording would turn out well enough to be release-quality and we were thrilled when everyone felt that it had; all credit to Radwan Moumneh (whose band Jerusalem In My Heart we also release these days) who did an incredible job with a sprawling ensemble set-up on an insanely tight time-schedule. (And who has recorded/engineered many CST albums over the years, including Ought, Eric Chenaux, and of course Matana's subsequent two COIN COIN chapters to date.)

The Matana-Montréal connection is not unlike how and why Constellation also first started working with other non-local artists like Carla Bozulich and Vic Chesnutt. Both Carla and Vic had made prior links with CST-affiliated artists in one way or another and both ended up coming to the Hotel2Tango recording studio in Montreal (co-founded by Efrim Menuck and Thierry Amar from GYBE/SMZ and also partly owned-operated by Radwan Moumneh in more recent years) to make albums with local guest players connected to CST.

In terms of representing your region, how does Constellation connect with the wider Montreal music and arts community? Beyond that, is there anything we should be checking out from your neck of the woods?

The Montreal music community had already expanded exponentially by the early 2000s, about five years after CST started. That whole "second wave" of bigger and more conventionally ambitious rock bands, led by Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade I guess, became the new narrative in the city, for outsiders and for increasing numbers of musicians moving here. We've felt pretty isolated from that snowballing effect, by choice, design and temperament. So we're probably perceived within the wider scene as being somewhat self-enclosed or old-guard or something. The main point for us was never to position Constellation as the local label that would swallow up every local act showing some sort of momentum. The fact that the city has gone on to birth a wide range of record labels is quite genuinely what we always wanted to see happen, even if we don't always feel aligned with their business, industry or careerist values on various fronts. We just keep our heads down for the most part.

Norman and Constellation are pretty much the exact same age. We’re both turning twenty soon -- do you have any birthday plans we can steal?

We are just starting to become vaguely aware that 20th anniversary celebrations are something we might need to think about.  Haven't a clue what yet.  Let's do something together!