International Anthem's Celebratory Approach Is Breaking Boundaries

International Anthem's Celebratory Approach Is Breaking Boundaries

An in-depth look at the powerhouse American label...

“A celebration of the humanity that is inherent in what you hear. A celebration of craft in musicianship. An emphasis on telling the real story of a person, and some things that happened, and how they sound. Focusing on context. How historical, communal, architectural and spatial context affects and informs musical composition and performance. The expanding and evolving nature of community and geography through sound. A celebration of community through collaboration.”

That’s how Scott McNiece defines the ethos behind International Anthem, the Chicago based record label he founded with David Allen in 2012. The label has emerged to become a leading stable for vital, progressive, improvisational music. Despite the pandemic, 2020 was a grandstand year for the label, releasing albums by Makaya Macraven, Angel Bat Dawid, Carlos Nino, Alabaster DePlume and Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker. Originally connecting through the midwest DIY/punk scene in their early 20s - Scott a drummer, David a recording engineer and bassist, both active gig organizers and promoters - they found a common affinity in exploring music beyond that of their scene at the time.

“We ended up booking a joint US tour for our respective bands (mine: Prizzy Prizzy Please, his: Spokesmen). That was where we became very close, and realized that we shared a lot of interests in music that went far beyond the kinds of heavy rock/punk/whatever that originally brought us together. Specifically remember really geeking out with David about Tropicalia, Brazilian music in general, Ethiopian music, and I had a lot of old jazz records from my dad's collection that he hadn't heard. We were kind of both slipping into a sort of jazz obsession around the same time.”

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Following the tour, Scott moved to Chicago and started booking a jazz and improvised music series at the venue where he bartended. When he started to record the performances, David was the obvious choice to engineer and after they captured the first recording (Rob Mazurek's ‘Alternate Moon Cycles’) they decided to start a label. Founded along with Joe Darling, who moved on in 2015, they kicked around names ("Command Dome" and "Provenance Recordings" were close contenders) before settling - with the final vindication coming from Rob Mazurek - on International Anthem, originally a name Scott had used for a song written with his friend Becky Levi a couple years before.

“A lot of people thought that we were crazy because we wanted to start a label that released progressive, experimental and mostly instrumental music at a time when everyone was saying the record business was dying. There was a lot of pessimism in the industry at the time. Piracy and illegal downloading still had a lot of labels complaining. Streaming was just starting to percolate and people were not feeling good about that either. Bandcamp was becoming more of a thing, but folks weren't really taking it that seriously yet. All that said, I really believe all that adversity was kind of inspiring for us. Bad ideas are my favorite ideas!”

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When asked what the label looks for in an artist, Scott explains that authenticity, community and creativity are at the heart of International Anthem’s values.

“First and foremost we want to hear music that sounds genuine, a genuine expression of the artist's humanity. The demeanor, ethics and ethos of the individual are very important as well. We favour artists that are already connected to our existing roster, in an effort to keep our communal foundation very strong. We also tend to prefer projects that we can contribute to on a creative level because we far prefer making records over simply marketing records. The making part is the fun part! I always tell people to prioritize working with your friends and neighbours over working with someone you are not immediately connected to. If you ask me, music is best when it's used to build and strengthen community,.”

A wide team of people are also involved in the label, assisting with everything from engineering to publishing to marketing. Dave Vettraino joined early on as lead engineer, alongside David, on many of the albums they’ve released and last year officially partnered into the label. As well as still doing much of the engineering, he manages the Chicago studio and warehouse. Jocelyn Brown, a well-known, well-loved, longtime Chicago scene vet, joined in 2020 to help run International Anthem’s publishing company. Based in New Orleans, Lisa Giordano manages booking for some of our artists via the in-house booking agency (however COVID has really put a damper on developments there).

Another old friend, Alejandro Ayala (known to many as King Hippo), joined the label officially in 2019 as digital marketing manager, in house photographer and, as Scott describes “an all-around dude who has amazing ideas”. Najee-Zaid Searcy has become a go-to recording engineer, also helping manage tours. Makaya McCraven is also involved in the label, assisting in a variety of creative and administrative aspects. Chet Zenor and Brian Seyler, (“two great musicians and great friends”) run the shipping department from the Chicago warehouse.

International Anthem’s message of creativity, friendship, community and doing things for the right reasons has been a bright light during a year where such characteristics were severely put to the test. Releasing eleven records in 2020, there seems to be no sign of International Anthem slowing down in 2021.

New albums are planned from Carlos Niño & Friends, Angel Bat Dawid, Makaya McCraven (released in partnership with Nonesuch and XL Recordings), Dos Santos, Jaimie Branch's Anteloper project, Black Monument Ensemble, Frank Rosaly & Ibelisse Guardia Ferragutti, Alabaster DePlume and Ben LaMar Gay.

With a worldwide community ever growing and strengthening in creative, commercial and critical circles; the International Anthem continues to be sung.

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Five significant records from International Anthem’s catalogue, chosen by Scott.

Rob Mazurek - 'Alternate Moon Cycles'

Our very first release is a single note chanted through Rob Mazurek's cornet over a droning bed of organ and bass guitar. I feel that there's an infinity in the minimalism of this piece, and poetically I like to think that the whole past, present and future of our label's work can be summed up in a single expression, much like this music.

"A moon's beauty is in variations of sameness" is the Samuel R Delaney quote that Rob Mazurek chose to have etched into the run out groove of IARC0001 on vinyl.

Jaimie Branch - 'Fly Or Die'

Getting to know Jaimie over our time producing this record together was some of the richest life I lived, personally. She inspired me in so many ways, and challenged me in so many ways. Jaimie is talking about getting Fly Or Die tattooed in the same style of the text she drew for the album cover. And I think I might join her. This album is definitely important enough to me to commemorate with a portion of the skin on my body. 

Makaya McCraven - 'Highly Rare'

This is the only album on our label that I engineered myself.

Usually the much more capable Dave and/or David (and sometimes Najee) are at the controls. However nobody else was available this night, and I knew the air was just right for recording (it was less than a week after Trump won the 2016 US election, hence many of us had burning desires to create something), so I borrowed some ribbon mics from Dave's mic locker, and a Tascam four track recorder from Jim Becker, and made it happen myself.

No doubt this is the shittiest sounding recording on our label. Shitty in a good way, though, I say! The sonics pair nicely with the album cover, which is a photograph of the bathroom ceiling from Danny's Tavern in Chicago, where we recorded the album. 

Angel Bat Dawid - 'The Oracle'

I met Angel through Gira Dahnee, a singer/pianist/songwriter whose backing band we both played in (along with Adam Zanolini). We would have these wonderful late night jam sessions at Hyde Park Records, where Angel worked at the time.

After she closed the shop, we would load in our instruments and wild out for a couple hours. Some of the most fun times I've had in my life! We were really just friends and bandmates back then, it felt kind of separate from what I was doing with the label. Hence, the way we ended up releasing Angel's album was a bit of a surprise.

In Fall 2017, we organized this CHICAGOxLONDON thing at Total Refreshment Centre. I was telling Angel about it, and she was like "I'm definitely coming along for that, it's on my birthday!" So she bought herself a plane ticket for London.

Ben LaMar Gay and Jaimie Branch were the Chicago performers on one of the shows, and once they found out that Angel was coming, they both asked her to play with them. Seeing how well Angel vibed with Ben and Jaimie (and how much she was killing it!) I started thinking “Damn, mebbe we gotta try and do an album with Angel!” I started talking to her about it, and she was like "well I have all these demos of songs I'm working on". 

After David and I spent some time listening to those "demos" and talking with Angel about her intent, we realized we were sitting on a totally incredible, totally complete and totally perfect album.

Junius Paul - 'Ism'

This is the album that took us the longest to produce. Over three years from start to finish and release.

Working alongside Junius (and Makaya, who helped produce) while he discovered himself, his sound, and how he wanted to express himself and present himself was at times very challenging and difficult, but in the end, so triumphant and wonderful.

Junius is a very shy fellow, and to see how incredibly well he's been received since he came out of his shell with this album has been heartwarming and inspiring, to say the least!

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Words: Benjamin Graye
Photo Credit: Carolina Sanchez

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