Label Profile: Captured Tracks
File Under: Ragged, guitar-based indie pop; jangle-’n'-reverb forever!
Based In: Brooklyn, New York
When I first meet Mike Sniper, he’s drinking Patron Silver at an Oyster Bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. From any other record executive, the scene would be typical to the point of almost seeming mundane. But Sniper is the founder of the tiny, ragged Brooklyn indie Captured Tracks, a label that prizes shambling and sincere over flash and glamour. If he wasn’t so endearing and self-effacing, it would almost seem ironic.
Since its inception in 2008, Captured Tracks has managed to forge a distinct identity, one based as much on visual aesthetic as the kinds of bands it favors. Sniper is dedicated to the physical form: All of his albums are released as either 12″ or 7″ LPs – Beach Fossils and Wild Nothing also got a limited-edition, clear-vinyl press-up – and he’s recently taken to releasing selected titles on cassette.
He’s also pulled off a neat trick: In both his work with Captured Tracks, as well as his role as frontman of the bizarre, fantastic Blank Dogs, Sniper has restored an air of mystery to a genre particularly prone to internet oversaturation. Photographs of him are scarce, and new Captured Tracks releases tend to appear before the band has assembled any substantial internet following. Sniper is one of the rare people still capable of eliciting head scratching, and each Captured Tracks release – from packaging to content – feels like a whispered missive from some secret society. Though his roster has recently grown to include everything from beaming Florida pop band the Jameses to the dour, doomy Cosmetics, Sniper considers all of them a part of his singular vision. “I want the label to do all kinds of different things,” he says. “It would be nice to be able to look back at it the way people look back at Matador – where they do Unsane and Yo La Tengo and Belle and Sebastian and Pizzicato Five. All of these things that sound completely different from each other, but still also fit within the label identity.”
eMusic’s J. Edward Keyes talked to Sniper about the labels that made an impression on him, and where he’d like to see his own label end up.
On the labels that made an early impression:
The first label I ever really noticed was 4AD. This was back in the early ’90s, and everything that they were doing felt very unified. I was really big into Pale Saints and Mojave 3 and Dead Can Dance, Bauhaus – all of that, so I would just buy anything that was on 4AD. I was just taking chances. And some of it, I didn’t even end up liking. But at the time, you had to make the investment. And back then – especially since I didn’t have a very large record collection – if you bought it, you were shelling out the money, so you had to give it a shot.
I think one horrible thing about music right now is that so many decisions about bands and albums are made based on 30 seconds of one song. The first record I bought on my own – I think I was 10, maybe, and my older sister and her friends had started getting into new wave and English music. I thought, “Oh, this is cool.” So I went to the section of the record store that had that kind of stuff – “college-slash-skate-slash-surf-slash-punk,” it wasn’t even called “alternative” yet – and the band with the most releases in that section was The Cure. So I was like, “OK, well, the Cure must be great if they have 11 albums,” so I just picked a random one, and I ended up buying The Top.
So The Top was the first Cure record I heard – which is not nearly as poppy as their other stuff – and I hit play on my little boombox, and the first song is “Shake Dog Shake,” which is kind of atonal at the beginning, and for a 10-year-old who had been listening to Prince before that, it freaked me out. I didn’t like it. But I literally had nothing else to listen to – that’s what I had bought with my allowance – so I had to listen to it over and over and over again. And thank God, because if I didn’t, who knows. I would have missed out on the Cure.
On the genesis of Captured Tracks:
I had run a couple of labels before – none of which were very successful. I had a power-pop/punk reissue label that was kinda successful, but I wanted to branch out. I wanted to do all kinds of different music. The first two records I did were a Blank Dogs 12″ and the first Dum Dum Girls 12″, and they both sold really well. Dum Dum Girls were actually one reason why I wanted to start the label in the first place. Dee Dee was a fan of Blank Dogs and we talked a bit, and she sent me her songs, and when I heard it I thought, “This is great – if I had a label, I’d put this out.” So I said to her, “Hey, let’s do a 12″ of just these four songs. It will be fun, and maybe we’ll sell, like, 300 or something.” We wound up selling about 3,000. After that, I did a Woods 7″, and they were a band that people had already heard of. And that’s when it kinda started taking off.
On the value of mystery:
At the time the label launched, we were all thinking, “Everybody knows everything about everybody [these days], and people are more than happy to talk about themselves, and to put their face on everything they can.” It’s kind of gross to me. I used to like not knowing what bands looked like until I went to see them play – or having to buy a magazine to see a picture of them. So then it became a kind of obsession – to be precious about your identity – it was almost, like, a vanity in the opposite direction.
On the onslaught of new Captured Tracks releases:
There are people that say to me, “Oh, you’re flooding the market.” And I say, “Well, you don’t have to buy them all.” There’s bands that have a lot of material and want to put it all out , there’s bands that have a lot of material and edit themselves, and there’s bands that don’t have a lot of material and take a long time to put something out, and I think all three are valid. There’s no “right way” to do it.
People are more conscious of it now, but look at Creedence Clearwater Revival: They put out seven records in three years. Literally. From ’68 – ’71. Some people glorify “They only did one album.” Or “They only made one 7″ and then they broke up!” When I was a kid, I thought it was cool when there were a bajillion records that I had to track down.
On the practicality of running a label on 2010:
Record sales are down across the board, right? Take a band like Vivian Girls or Crystal Stilts – they sold really well. And people say to me, “Yeah, but if it was the late ’90s, they would have sold 100,000 instead of 20,000.” But if it was the late ’90s, maybe 20,000 people wouldn’t have even heard it, let alone buy it. I wrestle with it back and forth in my head: Wild Nothing is doing great. Would it have done better back then? I have no idea.
Labels need to be aware of what the potential for a record is – even a hit indie record. There are still labels living in the dinosaur age, where they want to sink $100,000 into a record expecting to sell quantities that are just not going to happen. There’s a huge staff and there’s 12 meetings about it, and then it finally comes out six months later and nobody cares. That’s not the way it works now. A lot of labels are like, “What we did for this record in 1995, we’re gonna do now.” Well, it’s not 1995 anymore.
A few words on some Captured Tracks bands:
I got a demo in this really funny packaging – he’d obviously spent time on it. There was a cartoon of a dog saying something about Captured Tracks. I was like, “who is this weird guy?” I immediately really liked it – it was nostalgic, but really different. It wasn’t too lo-fi, but it had this great feel to it. I met him, and he was a space cadet, but a really sweet kid. I immediately really liked him. He captured Woodsist and us at the same time, but Jeremy eventually didn’t have time to do it. For a while it was going to be, “OK, you do one 7″ and I’ll do one 7″ and we’ll co-release the record” – which, in retrospect, would have been the most confusing thing ever.
They friend requested the label on MySpace, and I heard the songs and was like, “Holy shit! Forget the single, I want to do an album! Let’s do two albums!” Just a good, solid, indie rock record.
I really loved their first LP, Enterprise Reversal which was only released in the U.K. (we’re going to issue it here sometime in the fall…) and was trying to get someone to release it here before I had the label. By the time I had my label, they had “Frauhaus!” ready and now we’re married and all live in a van together.
Why do I love this band? Playful songwriting and kitchen sink production, all kinds of weird kazoos – and I think woodblocks and ukulele?
They’re classic songwriters with the ability to make epic choruses. I really think that time will be very kind to this band – their discography is already impressive, just full of quality.
Funny story about this band: Despite the “dark” tag they get, they’re really super into Mickey Mouse. They even made a T-Shirt with Mickey on it – I think it was pink. They have matching Betsey Johnson bags, and they love staying at the Ace Hotel.