Label Focus: Light in the Attic
Matt Sullivan, the owner of the Seattle-based reissue label Light in the Attic, took some time to speak to TIDAL about the label’s history, the stories at the core of their releases, cooperative working habits in the music industry and the label’s future.
At what point in your life did the label start and what motivated you to start a label?
Well, my business partner, Josh Wright, and I grew up in a suburb outside of Seattle called Bellevue. Our high school had a 10-watt radio station called KASB. It was 1993 for us in high school and we reported CMJs (College Music Journal), but had a very low wattage. I couldn’t hear it from my house 2 miles away. You could hear it in the city center of Bellevue.
I was in the music director because I was the student who wouldn’t steal all the promotional CDs. That was my introduction into the music business. I was into music already, but nothing on the underground level. My wife makes fun of me for it, but at 16 or 17, I decided I wasn’t really good at making music and I enjoyed the curation aspect of a label. Maybe, all record label owners are failed musicians (laughs).
I went to college and was always looking ahead to working in music and with labels. I was interning with places like Loosegroove (started by Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard and Brad drummer Regan Hagar), who put out the first Queens of the Stone Age record, to Sub Pop.
In the 90s, I went to Spain and they had a study abroad program with a label Munster Records, which specialized in reissues, and that was where I was introduced to the reissue/archival end of the label business.
I was at a job, got laid off around 2001 and that’s what kickstarted me to the start working on the label. The first release came out in 2002 and Josh joined soon after.
Light in the Attic also functioned outside of a label capacity, more so in the early days, right?
Yeah, well, when we first started out in Seattle, we would co-promote shows with other promoters for people like The Walkmen, Kid Koala, Interpol, Ladytron, Saul Williams, artists that we really liked. That was 2001 and 2002, the label was starting around that time and I had a great designer named Scott Webber, who came on board at that time with Josh.
The distribution started, which Josh oversees, in about 2003, because we realized we had a really difficult time getting distributors to carry our stuff and we were starting to build on our relationships with independent record stores around the country directly. We ended up distributing for Munster and our first release was a co-release with Vampi Soul for The Last Poets’ The Last Poets/This is Madness. We starting working with more labels after that and beefed up our catalog. It created opportunities with more people. Now, we distribute about 75 labels, primarily archival labels.
Could you talk more about how you support other labels, with distribution and releases? I don’t think it’s a widely known or appreciated practice that labels support each other, in some cases.
To survive is to the get these records out there and in stores, as well as spreading it digitally with streaming. We have a very friendly online website and a great relationship with merchants and there are labels like us that need that distribution system. It’s, of course, a lot of work having direct relationships with over 200 stores and distributors around the globe. Labels will send us a bio or one-sheet and we’ll decide to take it on and find a new home for it, whether it’s a digital or physical presence.
It’s a lot of work for any label to do marketing and A&R and social media, in addition to all the production, audio and design. There are labels out there who partner with labels like us, who distribute them. There are a lot of facets to what we do, like a record store in Seattle and a sync team in Los Angeles, who are four full time people for licensing in film, TV and commercials. It’s not just a record label, but we can be here to provide alternative services for labels that share our values and love of archival music.
How did you set a standard for what to release as a reissue partner in a sea of undiscovered gems?
We do get proposed to release music by a lot of labels these days, but archival and contemporary music, and the last thing we want to do is say “yes” without knowing we can do a solid job with it. You don’t want to let the label down, it’s the nature of the work we do.
We distribute a wide range things, like old Hollywood soundtracks on vinyl, to super esoteric compilations of Thai funk music in the ‘70s. It’s all over the map, so we’re not horribly picky on the archival music we distribute, because we love that world and it’s an endless stream of music.
We think about whether we can bring something unique to the release. Someone like Serge Gainsbourg, who we’ve been re-releasing music from his vast catalog for about 10 years now. When we first released Historie de Melody Nelson, that record had never really been available outside of being an import. He was a giant figure in French music, but had some pop, psychedelic and soundtracks records. He was a really forward looking artist and composer, total visionary.
We ended up adding liner notes in English, which isn’t groundbreaking, I know, but for us, anything that can add context to the music to an American audience is key. We’ve done a lot of Brazilian records. I don’t speak Brazilian, but I am fascinated by the music and getting the lyrics translated is important to us. Interviewing people who made this music, if they are still around, or interviewing their families means a lot to us.
We released a great compilation for this artist Shin Joong Hyun, he was a South Korean psychedelic rocker. I wasn’t familiar with his music at all, but my friend Christie sent me a link to a track called “The Sun” by Kim Jong Yi, which was produced by Shin Joong Hyun. It was one of the first, if not the first, rock and roll musicians in South Korea in the late ‘50s. He was discovered by American soldiers camped out there. He is still around today, he is in his 80s or so.
Shin’s music had never been available really outside of South Korea, so this amazing writer named Kevin Howes, who goes by Sipereano, interviewed Shin via e-mail and talking about each of the songs and the political undertones in some of them. Without that context, the music can stand on its own, but having that information was so valuable and brings a whole new level of respect.
Let’s talk a little about the background on some of your releases, what LITA’s role in it was and any personal feelings towards the music. I want to start with Rodriguez’s Cold Fact.
He was a Detroit singer-songwriter. He made a few records in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the first of which was Cold Fact and the second is Coming From Reality. Cold Fact is really a masterpiece. It’s a little psychedelic and soul and folky. It had these Motown session players, it was produced by Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore.
We heard a compilation put out by David Holmes, a soundtrack producer and who just worked with Noel Gallagher, that featured “Sugar Man” by Rodriguez. It was around 2002 or 2003 and that put me onto him. I went out and got Cold Fact and was obsessed with it.
Finally, through the good graces of a record store owner in South Africa named Stephen Segerman, who ran a fan website of Rodriguez, I was put in touch with Rodriguez’s family, and we released the record in 2008. Flash forward, a few years later, an amazing documentary came out called Searching for Sugar Man. It won Best Documentary at Sundance and the rest is kind of history.
Without giving away too much of the story, he was always said something like “live below your means.” He now knows success with touring and having this captive audience, but he always maintained this appreciation for his newfound success and said a lot about his character.
At the heart of all these reissues is this very human story that needs to be told and explained. This is really integral into a recent release of yours, from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s Los Angeles band Acetone. Tell me a little bit about how that release came together.
We were talking about high school radio earlier and that’s where I was exposed to Acetone. I won free tickets to see The Smashing Pumpkins. More importantly, I feel love with Acetone when they opened up. I liked them and their records, but my friend Sam Sweet, a writer who had written liner notes for us, had been working on a book about them for about nine years on Acetone, in relation to the city of Los Angeles.
They had about four or so records on a number of labels and some EPs, but Sam dug deep in their archives. The two living members, Mark Lightcap and Steve Hadley, had really opened up their musical world to Sam in writing this book. There was just hours and hours of demos and rehearsals, of the band working around. The music got a little more intimate because it wasn’t necessarily made for a record label release, so the compilation we put together is like a companion piece for the book. It had about nine or ten unreleased songs from those demos and rehearsals.
Sam was giving me tours while we were listening to their music, and pointing out landmarks in the band’s history (“Oh, they played here” and “They recorded this song here”), so it resonated with me a deep level. I was getting goosebumps and it was a magical soundtrack and journey through the band’s career.
Sam’s writing was a window into the group and gave it a new dimension to me. Mark and Steve from the group ended up reforming, sadly without Richie, the main vocalist, who is no longer with us. They recently performed at a place called Zebulon and Hope Sandoval, from Mazzy Star, sang with them. It was a truly special night, one of my favorite shows I’ve ever seen.
How do you feel all these years later about the label and your work with it?
Well, you know, it’s a weird time in the world and I feel like there is such an oversaturation in media, so it’s hard to find time to sit down and just listen to a record. I think all the work is a reminder of how important music is. I feel like it’s an important part of the human condition and I feel so lucky to be doing what I am doing.
What is next for the label?
Last year, we did these compilation with this label called Tumbleweed and it was a project we spent six or seven years on. It was this great, little label out of Colorado from ‘71-’73, they did just nine records. They were funded by Gulf and Western and they got about five million dollars. They spent a pretty penny on packaging and design. They were these beautiful die-cut records with a book that came with it. It was really impressive for the time. The music went from country-rock to funk to psychedelia. Most of the artists were fairly unknown. The compilation we put out came with these notes I am really proud of that a writer named Sarah Sweeney wrote it. It’s an overview of the label.
We’re going to be releasing the full-lengths from that label beyond the compilation we put out. The first one is from the artist named Robb Kunkel, an album called Abyss, the last from Tumbleweed. It was produced by Ed Michelle, who did a lot of impulse jazz records with Alice Coltrane. It had a lot of elements of acid-folk. Robb sadly passed away a few years ago, but we all fell in love with him, he was a total eccentric. He always lived life to the fullest.
We’re also working on a 25th anniversary edition of the Digable Planets’ first record, Reachin’
(A New Refutation of Time & Space). A lot of people might known Ishmel Butler from the group, who is now in Shabazz Palaces. We reissued Blowout Comb from Digable Planets not too long ago, so we wanted to celebrate that first record. Larry Mezell Jr. had some great liner notes, interviewing Ishmael.
We have an unreleased and unheard Lee Hazlewood surf record he made with some of The Wrecking Crew session members in ‘63 and ‘64. It’s never been heard. We have a series with Lee Hazlewood, which I think we are up to about 20 releases so far.
We’ve also been working on a big series of Japanese music from the ‘60s through ‘90s, with electronic and ambient music, as well as some rock and pop. We have the first compilation that came out last year called Even a Tree Can Shed Tears. Jake Orrell from Jeff the Brotherhood was instrumental in producing and putting that together. He sent us a CD-R of the songs and blew our minds. I’m so proud of that release. We have more in that series, like ambient and new age Japanese music from the ‘80s, which should be out in the summer.
The last one I’ll mention is this glam rock/power pop group from Memphis called Zuider Zee. They had an album on Columbia in the mid-70s, which was good, but this music we are putting out, the earlier material, is incredible. It has elements of T. Rex and Wings, just wonderful songwriting and performances. It’s all unheard, so I’m excited for it. I’m working with the two main members on that, but that should be out late spring or early summer.
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