In an ideal world, a record label should be a place for like minds to meet, to spark off new ideas and break through barriers.
Erased Tapes certainly does that. Splitting its time between London and Berlin, the label has assembled a roster which stretches around the globe yet retains a community feel.
Perhaps best associated with avant classical soundscapes – think Olafur Arnalds – the imprint has also released bass productions, left field electronics and straight up indie rock. Nils Frahm has long called Erased Tapes home, and he recently said of life on the imprint: “I couldn’t be happier in this family. And it is a family. There’s a great sense of freedom on this label.”
We couldn’t agree more. With Erased Tapes looking to celebrate their fifth anniversary, ClashMusic sat down with label founder Robert Raths to chat about their birth, evolution and future plans.
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What prompted you to start your own label?
There was no real prompt. It was more of a subconscious development driven by this unstoppable curiosity inside of me of how far I could carry the music I had discovered.
Did you have any industry experience?
Not really. My creative roots are in fine art and architecture. In 1999 however, fresh out of school, I got sidetracked by a major music television company who had hired me to design their studio sets. I would show Radiohead the way to the toilet or have Bootsy Collins sit on the star-shaped couch I designed, asking me if he could take it home with him, if that’s what you mean by industry experiences? (laughs).
Did you start out with a specific sound / ethos in mind?
Well, I’ve always been most interested in a dialogue between two opposite poles, between traditional and contemporary, between digital and analogue. That cliff between electronic and acoustic, the pop and the classical world. In bringing these worlds together or at least start a conversation in how to utilise the best of both sides and make it into something exciting, something current and something that is of our time. In the beginning people might have found it hard to connect these dots between each of our artists, but throughout the years I think it has become more and more evident where the label is heading.
You’ve got an incredibly broad roster, what do you look for in new acts?
Well, I would hope that most people’s musical taste palette is equally broad, if not broader than the mix of musical styles we have on the label. I guess it’s the excitement I look out for the most, this excitement I get when I discover something special that doesn’t let me rest. I somehow trust my instincts there. This trust can have many shapes and forms. Sometimes it’s the restraint an artist brings to the table in comparison to their arsenal of talents. Other times it’s their carefully crafted and thought-through arrangements, their keen ear for unusual production or lyrical explorations. But most of the time it’s their unstoppable and sheer unwarped musicality, and a certain courage they show in leaving space for your own interpretations to unfold.
You make great use of the web, what effect has this had on the label’s growth?
The label was born the same year as SoundCloud, the year when MySpace had its peak and Facebook and Twitter were about to take over millions of people’s lives. It was also the year when Radiohead let their fans decide how much their music is worth… Basically, on one hand forming a label that year with a focus on physical releases was a crazy idea in many people’s eyes, on the other hand I don’t think we would be where we are without the powers of web 2.0. But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t exist if we had started back in the 90s. Sure, it would’ve taking a lot longer to reach people all around the world, but I somehow like to think that good things reach good people one way or another.
Do you have a particular love of the physical format?
I grew up with my parents’ vinyl collection and a Walkman around my neck. I loved making mix tapes for friends and for holiday trips. There’s something quite magical about owning records – the smell of them, the feel of them, their age, their story, the memories you share with them. Call me crazy or old-school (or both), but there’s also something really natural about A side and B side and the length of a vinyl record. Maybe it’s just that I’m used to it, but I love the concept of intermissions. The idea of having to get up and flip the record around after about 20 minutes. It’s like a new beginning, the flipside to a coin. Some of the greatest records have amazing B Sides, where thing get real deep. When I listen to a new recording I always think about what song the B Side might start with. Ahhh. I’m a hopeless case, I know. But I also like my music to be flexible. So the iPod replaced the Walkman for when I’m travelling. But no matter how you consume your music and no matter how great the sound, the difference between a great sounding record and an unforgettable record is that the latter is somehow able to put you in a certain mood, because it has this atmosphere. That’s the records you remember most.
Those initial releases must have been a huge voyage of discovery, what were the early days of the label like?
Hehe. Yeah. It was exciting times and somehow that has never changed. And that’s when I realised that I finally found something I can picture myself doing for the rest of my life. Every day I would crawl out of bed with a big smile on my face, the feeling that I had discovered something I can’t wait to tell the whole world about, that I was working on something in my little subterranean flat on the outskirts of London whilst 7 million people are fast at sleep.
Can you point to a particular release as the moment the label found its identity?
It’s not like there is one big album, which changed everything. Every release seems to have a bit of that moment in it. It’s more about the artist and to express their identity. And through that the label got its own identity. And of course our fans and what they are identifying with it. When compiling our label compilations I am basically connecting these dots, the pieces of one big puzzle. The collaborations seem to be the glue that holds the whole thing together. Like when Justin from The B.E.F. added subtle electronics to Ólafur’s sound. Or when Nils creating a whole album as the perfect environment for Anne to unfold her cello skills. Not to mention Ryan’s remix work. He has this gift of taking one element and bringing it into a completely different context with a brand new center and identity.
Nils Frahm has pointed to a real sense of community, is that something you foster? How do you do this?
Erased Tapes has indeed become a home, a family for those who are part of it. We look out for each other, so we don’t get lost. We bounce ideas back and forth, help each other find a new approach whenever we get stuck. I would always encourage them to collaborate, to see how other people work, rather than shutting themselves away and try and force a creative process to happen. Sometimes all you need is a friend. Then, seeing them play together, sometimes with eight hands on the same piano, is worth more than anything else to me.
You are often associated with modern classical music via Ólafur Arnalds and A Winged Victory For The Sullen… is that an area you have a particular fondness for?
I have been fascinated by the sound of the piano and strings from a very young age for sure. But also by the sounds that Stockhausen and Kraftwerk created. Or Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix… But seriously, it’s not like I sat down and thought to myself ‘hm, let’s start a label with lots and lots of contemporary classical composers on it’… That’s just not me. This isn’t a calculated business model. I wouldn’t even try and put it in a box. If anything, it’s about the artists I choose to invest my time and energy in. It’s my way of doing something useful with the time I got. Something meaningful. And if it makes a lot of other people happy, then what more could I ask for?
The acts on Erased Tapes often have quite striking videos, is the label’s visual output something you view as being integral to the music?
Definitely. Cover art, packaging, videos and websites are the artist’s chance of giving their musical work a visual identity, a visual counterpart. This is something I am heavily and happily involved with, mainly due to my background in design. I also think it’s important for the label to have an artistic through-line, so it makes sense. The best video contributions so far came from people simply inspired by the music. Like when Esteban Diacono from Argentina submitted a video for Óli’s song ‘Ljósið’ and it received over a million views in just a few weeks. Or recently, Ho Tak Lam from Hong Kong who won an Adobe award with the video animation he created inspired by Codes In The Clouds’ ‘Don’t Go Awash In This Digital Landscape’. These are the film makers of tomorrow.
Did you ever think you would reach your fifth anniversary?
It wasn’t really something I would think about to be honest. If someone had told me back when I studied architecture, that I would one day run my own record company, I would’ve just laughed. Even though the two actually have a lot more in common than meets the eye. Anyhow, a journalist in Beijing once asked me about how it all began and how I got here. That’s when I realised that I had never even once found the time to think about these things. I actually had to force myself to remember how I had gotten myself into running a label (laughs). Quite sad actually. But also very funny.
What events do you have planned to celebrate?
I’m glad you ask. I’m very excited about this. May will see our very first Erased Tapes 5th Anniversary Night at this year’s Great Escape Festival with A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Nils Frahm and The B.E.F. on the bill, followed by a label night at the AB in Brussels on May 31st and many more events planned for the rest of the year.
Actually, the best event out of all of them wasn’t planned at all – at least not by myself. It was a surprise party on the actual birthday, February 5th, arranged by Sofia, with Nils, Peter and Martyn playing a spontaneous house concert for me and I had NO idea. They totally got me by surprise. These things only happen once in a lifetime. And I will carry that moment in my heart forever.
Looking ahead, do you have any ambitions / acts you would love to work with?
I would have loved to work with Stanley Kubrick if he was still around. I somehow think he would have liked what we do. But if everything we dreamed of came true, there would be nothing left for us to look forward to.
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