Label Watch: Constellation
It's been a few weeks since we last spoke of our favourite Canadians. Can we get away with a piece on Constellation that doesn't go big on Godspeed? Maybe we can, maybe we can't. Read on to see.
We love Constellation so much we basically already did this feature several years ago, under the guise of this 'interview'. They provided one of the most obvious reasons we’ve held them in our hearts all this time: verbose, cranky and complex answers to questions on the state of the music industry and their place in it, the kind that imply a deeper, more thoughtful investment in the music world and how it exists to serve artists, listeners and all others involved.
Of course, we mostly know Constellation as one of the world’s premier experimental labels. Since their inception in 1997, the Montreal imprint has envisioned a kind of rock music that goes above and beyond our designations, markedly distinct from the famous bands emerging from their region. Their releases are inherently political; their approach is inherently boundary pushing. With Godspeed You! Black Emperor as one of the labels flagship bands, the tone was set: oblique social commentary as rallying call, music as one of the important things in a vast ocean of them.
As time has gone on, the portfolio has only diversified: records by Matana Roberts, Colin Stetson, and Carla Bozulich are a far cry from the early avant-rock antics of Fly Pan Am, but they carry the same sense of radical integrity. Electronic music has become something of a recent priority, with a slew of records shadowing techno, kosmische and plunderphonics taking centre stage. And still nothing really feels off limits for their artists: on hearing label mainstay Sandro Perri’s recent record In Another Life, you come to realise how much space and trust Constellation give their artists, how willing they are to let them grow. That’s a label worth having around.
For the most part, Eric Chenaux writes love songs. Except he writes them upside down, peeling off the wall, or falling down a set of Escher’s stairs. His deconstructed folk music has been some of the most leftfield music to grace Constellation’s roster, and yet it is also some of the loveliest, his erratic and beguiling instrumentation countered with a graceful vocal coo that sets the heart at the easiest of eases.
Demonstrating great patience, Chenaux has spent his time on Constellation honing his craft, maneuvering his songs from the self-described sloppiness of their early days into something softer and more concentrated. Once equipped with a psych rock band who could extend his experiments into long-form jams, he’s since offered us the resplendent solo antics of Skullsplitter -- which matched Frank Sinatra with John Fahey, because why not -- and last year’s Slowly Paradise, a warbling mess of improvised tone poems that brings to mind both Robert Wyatt and old school minimalism.
It’s maddening, but it works. Somehow Chenaux’s music is delivered with a serene calm, like nothing is wrong even if all the inanimate objects around us are moving of their own volition. Whether he’s doing soft, folksy strums (as on his best record, Warm Weather) or delving into slapstick guitar virtuosity, Chenaux’s music remains one of the very best ways to spend a Sunday.
Threading together free jazz and American history, Matana Roberts has become one of our generation’s most important musical voices. For Constellation, she’s been crafting an opus out of a work in progress, living within a twelve-part album cycle that encompasses the American civil rights movement alongside her personal family history. After three records, her COIN COIN series has been anything but quantifiable; it’s incorporated improvisation, jazz, gospel, noise, spoken word, metal, drone, and a plethora of historical musical tropes. On her own Bandcamp, she tagged Chapter 2 as “jazz?”, as if upheaving the entire structure on which her music is founded.
Let’s just talk about Chapter 2: Mississippi Moonchile for a second more, as a case study. It is utterly its own: a record structured like no other, Roberts creates fragmented suites of operatic vocals and free jazz, alongside memoir recitals that play over melodic throughlines. It feels thorough and detailed while also being an abstraction, an artistic reinterpretation of American experience. This sort of density continued on the entirely different Chapter 3: River Run Thee, a heavily researched record that saw Roberts collage her research of the Southern states into an ambient text. Weaving unfettered field recordings into an ocean of impressionistic ambient loops, Roberts music took on yet another entity. We’ve got nine records left in this series, and look at where we are.
Roberts is, above all things, a fluent alto saxophonist. She has featured as a guest artist on many of rock music’s modern touchstones, including TV On the Radio’s Dear Science and records by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. She goes where there’s innovation to be had, and she makes it happen.
Before he released records with them, Radwan Ghazi Moumneh already had a tangible connection to the Constellation name. He masters records over at Montreal’s Hotel2Tango studio, who have a longstanding relationship with the label, and has handled jobs for artists all over this list. He’s also frequently collaborated with the aforementioned Eric Chenaux, culminating in the release of their record The Sentimental Moves -- a warped, glacial drone record released on the defunct Grapefruit Records. And then there’s the little matter of his time in Land of Kush, Constellation’s very own big band orchestra. You may not know it, but few names mean more to Constellation than Moumneh’s.
All this before we’ve even mentioned Jerusalem In My Heart, his most recent musical endeavour. Initially formed as an audiovisual project incorporating his own electro-acoustic improvisations alongside light installations and film from Charles-André Coderre, it was a specifically live venture, dependent on a variety of sensory materials. Eventually, Moumneh relented to releasing music on its own terms -- the idea being that it would be its own unique iteration of the project, with little of the music that one hears at a performance. Mo7it Al-Mo7it was the result, collating Moumneh’s electronic pieces alongside low-key recordings of him playing the buzuk, shoddily recorded on his iPhone. Two different atmospheres, delivered as a primer in the Jerusalem In My Heart sound.
This approach was developed further on follow-up If He Dies, If If If If If If. Moumneh began to bridge these sonic compartmentalizations into one whole, creating arguably the best work of his career. From there, the project found its strength in broader, more unexpected experiments: he found a fruitful collaborative partnership for his project with avant-rock band Suuns, while his recent record Daqa'iq Tudaiq interpreted the Egyptian classical standard “Ya Garat Al Wadi” by the legendary composer Mohammad Abdel Wahab. Sitting alongside this recording were further improvised recordings for buzuk, vocals and electronics, serving as proof of Jerusalem In My Heart as an ‘outlet’ project, one in which mixer and producer Moumneh can sketch his own stories.
One of Constellation’s many saxophonists, Colin Stetson does things a little differently. Described by our Daoud as “an absolute machine”, there’s a lot of cogs turning in his tummy. To create the avant-garde canvass of sound you hear on his records, he uses a method of playing called circular breathing, whereby a wind instrument can be played without its performer having to pause for air. Utilising this and a collection of adaptive microphones placed in specific positions, he can create melodies, layers and percussive snaps, all from playing his big ol’ sax.
The innovations don’t stop there, though: while Stetson’s practice is in itself a contemporary revelation, he is also a writer of some verve, crafting fantastical and socio-political narratives with poetic force. On his New History Warfare series, he used his saxophone to create a vast natural landscape, inviting artists such as Laurie Anderson and Justin Vernon to popularise it. He’s since tackled Sorrow, the iconic classical hymn composed Henryk Górecki, for an orchestra who made it sound as good as black metal. And then there’s the small matter of Never were the way she was, a record Stetson made with violinist Sarah Neufeld, encompassing the same kind of unwavering tones. Back in 2017, it was our album of the year; it bowled us over, so we had to put her in the list too.
Stetson’s work is never done: like labelmate Matana Roberts, he goes where there’s music to be made, guesting on works as far and wide as Animal Collective and Arcade Fire -- even offering a bari sax part for funtime jazz group BADBADNOTGOOD. He’s also as \m/(etal) as hell, and has fronted the jazz thrash band Ex Eye. If ever “watch this space” applied to an artist, it’s this one.
We’ve talked about Godspeed You! Black Emperor so much in our other genre guides that we thought it’d be pertinent to talk about their other band instead. Take it as given that Godspeed would find a place on this list; we’ll save the time and talk about A Silver Mt Zion, the band Efrim Menuck made in his spare time, instead. Initially conceived as an outlet for Menuck to learn new things -- like writing scored music -- the band eventually became just as vital as its parent project, a towering post-rock band with tints of doom, folk and even emo. Sometimes, I think they’re the better band.
Think Godspeed, but singing: much of this band’s material gains its weight from the sheepish, perpetually distraught vocals of Menuck, though other high points are the singing strings and crunchy guitars underneath that juxtapose earth with sky. Like Godspeed, but more haphazardly structured, their music feels like a vision of end-times, as well as a devastating critique on the institutional powers that be. It’s a post-rock apocalypse by a band that actually rocks.
Most commendable of all is A Silver Mt Zion’s fluidity. As given away by their constant and super-obnoxious name changes, this is a band that likes to metamorphose; the difference in the instrumental desolation of debut He Has Left Us Alone... and their most recent record, the doom-tongued distortion fest F*ck off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything, is profound. And so are this band: it might sound over the top, sometimes, but who can say no to a little musical superlative?
Carla Bozulich exacts bluesy beat poetry as song. Much like other clientele in the avant-ballroom of life, including Tom Waits and Nick Cave, her music has an incisive swagger about it, twisting her words with ire. This sound is never one of satisfaction; Bozulich wants to say it plainly, and then she wants to wreck all that’s plain, creating minor conflicts for each of her melodies. In a review of 2014’s Boy, Tiny Mix Tapes remarked that her songs were “never satisfied with themselves -- it is in this existential crisis that they become essential.
Bozulich’s music frequently confronts anomalies: the ways our bodies break down, the ambiguities of our sexualities, and the reconstruction inherent in destruction. She is known to commit: she once covered Willie Nelson’s country opus The Red-Haired Stranger in its entirety, completely obliterating its context and building it up anew. In 2018, on Quieter, she contemplated temporarily going deaf in one ear by recasting her songs as sparsely hushed lullabies. As for In Animal Tongue (released as Evangelista), one of her most surreal achievements -- she was trying to write what Constellation refers to as “site-specific” music, shifting the tone and atmosphere of her music with the ecosystem it was wrapped up in.
Ideas are just a framing device, though. What Bozulich has racked up in her long career is more like a chunk of something: it has a weightiness, a blunt reality, and it does its best work when it’s shaking around you. In a better world, Bozulich would be a household name; as it is, she’s a legendary icon of the noise underground.
Back in 2014 I honestly did not think guitar music would get more exciting than this. Ought turned up with a frontman rehearsing David Byrne and a band full of enigmatic Slint-isms; it goes without saying that they blew my mind. Scrappy but disciplined, aloof but incensed, the Montreal post-punks offered us More Than Any Other Day, blowing up their first moment with a treasure trove of caffeine and calcium. We swooned.
With Ought, it’s hard to know which way you’re leaning: is it towards the bombastic oration of singer and/or chief TED talker Tim Darcy, or the band’s irresistible schematic of chiming guitars and keyboards? It’s somewhere in the middle, maybe: on their quickly turned-around second LP Sun Coming Down, these two approaches felt symbiotic, the triumphant “Beautiful Blue Skies” a rhythmic and narrative tour-de-force like nothing indie rock has ever heard before. Yes: nothing.
Even at their most downbeat, Ought’s songs are breathless and rollercoasting, holding on to the listener before splicing them open with one of Darcy’s trademark proclamations: for lack of better word, “Yes!”. Their stay on Constellation was short lived, but it’s hard to imagine them surpassing the work they produced there. Since breaking with the imprint, their sound has mutated into a more on-trend post-punk sound, with Room Inside a World toying with a softer, more synth-oriented sound. Still good, but it’s Constellation’s Ought that makes us feel.
Most post-rock bands bring you up and up and up only to break you the eff down. Not so with Do Make Say Think, the Montreal group who flutter their instruments like butterflies, crafting some of the homeliest, most pastoral iterations of the genre you’ll ever hear. Do Make Say Think are the kind of band who sound telepathically in tune with one another, in both improvisation and recital -- and unlike other post-rockers, their music moves across the horizon, as well as up the mountain. It is, in a word, plentiful.
You, You’re A History In Rust is perhaps their best-known moment. After a series of records that toyed with barren textures and cold guitar tones (Goodbye Enemy Airship the Landlord is Dead) and math rock noodling (& Yet & Yet), they created this ode to joy, playing noise rock as if it were a wind-up toy on the giddily abrasive “The Universe!” and making their own folk music on “A Tender History of Rust”. With their trademark brass band fanfare, Do Make Say Think feel like the post-rock band you’d be most likely to encounter in a homecoming street parade. And that’s lovely.
Do Make Say Think’s music just feels natural. Like the happy shrug of an aphorism they chose for their band name, the immense riffs that make up Other Truths sound utterly intuitive; the high-concept songs that describe our relationships with dreams on Stubborn Persistent Illusions sound simple and effortless, just gliding through the air, meandering because they can.
The beautiful, heartbreaking music of Vic Chesnutt didn’t belong to anyone but Vic Chesnutt -- he sprawled across labels, gracing the world with his spartan folk plucks and macabre lyrical imagery. Active in music since the early ‘90s, he was initially supported generously by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who went on to produce his first two LPs, Little and West of Rome. It was Chestnutt’s last two records that would prove the most striking significant sonic departures. They were, of course, his Constellation albums, and in more than just name: contributions came from A Silver Mt Zion and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, beefing up the doomier inclinations of his songwriting considerably.
North Star Deserter was in two minds. At times it was intense and bracing, a quite hopeless record of end-times sonics; at others, it gave us Chesnutt’s winkingly encouraging take on a singalong, with “You Are Never Alone” featuring an echoed mantra that felt almost hopeful, Chesnutt assuring us that our coping mechanisms were, well, okay. It was a pattern that seemed to repeat on At The Cut, a record that sparkled with country affectations, dissonant noise rock and the solo acoustic guitar strums of his earlier work. Amidst all this, we got “It Is What It Is”, a sort of sibling to “You Are Never Alone” that burst into flames, his backing band giving way to his gleeful assertion that he was unsure about, well, everything.
In moments like this, Chesnutt made some of the most affirming music I’ve ever heard, providing a crack of light to the often devastating and claustrophobic music that shared space with it. In both cases he was quite brilliant, detailing his experience with a clarity that made his songs, above all things, vivid.
With his folk music only threadbare, Sandro Perri has channelled Americana, psychedelia and post-rock, filling the corners of his sound with blusterous noises trinkets. On Impossible Spaces, he does what legendary songwriters such as Bill Callahan and Sufjan Stevens are capable of doing: he centers his wandering songs with a firm voice, stopping them from meandering off the end of the cliff with a coo so soft and certain that it becomes the record’s protagonist. The octave-racing solos time-lapsing jams suddenly make sense; in his care, they will be fine.
Perri is a Constellation mainstay, and it’s easy to see why: humbly and without affectation, he is able to delve deeply into untried musical concepts. He’s proved himself a versatile experimenter and songwriter on In Another Life, a recent triumph in which he attempted to write ‘infinite’ pop music, stretching our understandings of song structure out into an endless calender of verses. Not only did it succeed in offering us a version of pop music that could be twenty minutes long, it highlighted Perri’s alchemical understanding of how sound comes together: in melody, fracture and the spaces in between.
I’m just about observant enough to remember to shoe-horn in Perri’s recent side-project Off World. A new band of keeno future archeologists, Off World is constructed out of a rotating membership of players who come together to create improvised electronic music, focusing on -- or rather, giving themselves up to -- the insect details of synthesizer music. It sounds like a brave new world, but the project dares to harken back to Sandro Perri’s older days of making music under the moniker of Polmo Polpo and crafting ambient music for the Alien8 label -- where drone legend Tim Hecker also got his start.
The brilliant and newly enlisted Jason Sharp deserves a nod on this list: after previous collaborations with fellow saxophonist Matana Roberts, he gave Constellation a whole new lease of life, blowing hot air right through the heart and into a classic record called A Boat Upon Its Blood. Combining drone, electro-acoustic and techno, alongside the kind of spirited sax workouts Colin Stetson is noted for, Sharp created a record of constant, nerve-wracking transition, centring it around an instrument that made sound by monitoring his heart. There is such a thing as holding music too tight to your chest.
Constellation’s answer to horror movies, Last Ex used their self-titled record to make good on the premise of John Carpenter’s scores, taking influence from his hyper-corny b-movies and converting their hallmarks into a hypno-rock masterpiece. Their only release under this name, Timber Timbre’s Simon Trottier and Oliver Fairfield became moonlighting sleuths on this record, each flicker of guitar and wayward synth melody sounding like the soundtrack for a detective agency on halloween. In actual fact, this is one of the best abandoned soundtrack albums of all time: it works perfectly well on its own, conjuring its own eerie imagery and noxious dusk.
Having little else left on their bucket list, Constellation used 2018 to dip into the world of reissue culture. For years, Alanis Obomsawin’s Bush Lady has been criminally underrated and irritatingly out of print, a lost relic of an artist who was instrumental in actioning the civil rights of Canada’s First Nations people. Constellation’s restoration of it sheds light on a vital artist waiting to be heard. Principally a filmmaker, Obomsawin’s Bush Lady carried over her imaginative and politically centred style, marrying traditional folk music with newer, more experimental structures. Contained in it are poems, hymns and compositions essential to anyone interested in the history of folk and avant-garde.
It may not be Eric Chenaux’s most spangled and mangled, but Warm Weather is his best. Chenaux was so taken by the contributions of his collaborator Ryan Driver that he decided not just to put his name in the artist header, but rather to keep his name in the album title itself. It’s just a little thing, and I’m definitely reading into it, but I think about how special it is all the time. Beyond the niceties there’s a record of bona fide central heating in here, with strums and coos cozy enough to keep you on an eternal return. I listen to it weekly: its charming, lovelorn songs are company, and they’re touched with just that tiny bit of Chenaux eccentricity, warping country music slightly beyond its simple means.
The indie rock noir brigade graced Constellation with arguably their best record in The Something Rain, in which Stuart A Staples hides away from a night of torrential downpour. Dark and beguiling, the record takes their already high standards for maudlin atmosphere and raises them. The rhythm section sounds caught in one seamless groove, subtly gracing whatever incident Staples has found himself spiralling down into. It’s amazing that a band could come back so strong after twenty years, and it’s mostly in the details: the empty spaces the band carve out our filled with minute flourishes, like modest wall decorations apologising for a creepy little house.
Vic Chesnutt’s 2009 record was the penultimate entry into his music career and by god was it ever perfect. On this record, his off-kilter folk rock became scorched earth, its devastating lyrics bolstered by a backing band that counted many members of Constellation’s A Silver Mt Zion in its ranks, along with Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto on production. That’ll do it for ya; that’ll give you crunch. Amongst the brilliant “China Berry Tree” and “Coward”, songs that swirled around heaviness and vulnerability, Chesnutt also detailed some of his most stark metaphors, including the long, death-obsessed analogies in “Flirted With You All My Life”. As always, his attention wandered, gleaming country twang and spoken word treatises, meditating on hopelessness and unbridled joy. At The Cut is so much more than you think it is.
The Two Towers of Colin Stetson’s Lord of the Rings, this record marks the saxophonist’s most towering achievement, the moment he managed to weave together narrative and discipline. After a while, you stop thinking about the physical feat that makes New History Warfare 2: Judges possible, his pulverising reed-work developing a fully-realised world of desolate crags and lonely lakes. There’s so much about this record that plays at a visceral level, whether it’s Sharon Worden’s (of My Brightest Diamond) vocals cracking over Stetson’s intentionally pithy tone on of “Lord I Just Can’t Help Myself From Crying Sometimes”, or Laurie Anderson calmly reciting the events of a cataclysm over his aggressively rippling saxophone lines. On New HIstory Warfare 2, Stetson became a storyteller.
We could just put the whole of Matana Roberts’ COIN COIN project on this list as one album, but we’re yet to hear nine of them. And you’d probably yell at us. Fair’s fair. Chapter 2: Mississippi Moonchile just happens to be my favourite of the three yet -- structurally, I’ve heard nothing like it, its handful of stylistic approaches forming little families of song for a longer, more detailed whole. Roberts proved on her first Coin Coin record that her music could be thunderous, and this record implements that intensity alongside homely hums, absent-minded spoken word and gorgeously melodic saxophone lines. The record continues to intertwine family lineage with America’s civil rights struggle to devastating effect.
Sarah Neufeld generally serves as the violinist heightening Arcade Fire’s stakes, but her solo work reveals an accomplished and playful composer, one who absorbs the minimalism of artists such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass -- while also following in the footsteps of contemporary music’s avant-garde string players. Hero Brother is both delicate and feral; produced by Nils Frahm, Neufeld plays her work with grace before tearing through with an almost guttural vocalisation of her instrument. Much like Colin Stetson, with whom she made the brilliant Never were the way she was, Neufeld finds new ways for her violin to be played, giving it a phantom pulse.
Literally what is even the point anymore. I feel like I’ve described this album from literally every angle possible, but leaving it off of a list about Constellation would be a music nerd’s sacrilege. Efrim Menuck and his big band (do not read any Jools Hollandisms into this) struck gold with this post-rock blueprint. In reality, it feels more like post-rock wallpaper than anything, a mood board with ideas for compositions proper scattered around a barren desert. But it has a contextual significance too; born out of a house-share between Menuck and band co-founder Mauro Pezzente, it was instrumental in the establishment of Hotel2Tango Studio, one of the first records recorded in what would become one of Montreal’s most important musical stomping grounds.
For those who haven't read it before here's our interview with Constellation from 2017.
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.
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!
And for those who haven't heard them before here are the two podcasts we did at the same time as the interview.
Bonus points go to Graham Latham, who organised two Constellation mixes for our (sadly defunct) 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.