Label Focus: Sacred Bones
New York indie label Sacred Bones was formed by Caleb Braaten in 2007 with a focus on dark, esoteric music.
Most of the early signings – The Hunt, Blank Dogs, and Gary War among them – were New York-based dark punk bands who were in Braaten’s close social circle. Additionally, he dug up and reissued some long forgotten post-punk bands of the ’80s, such as 13th Chime and The Cultural Decay.
In 2008, Braaten signed Zola Jesus, and in 2009 she released her first full-length album, The Spoils, to widespread critical acclaim. Recorded in the singer’s bedroom when she was only 19, the album was a goth/lo-fi masterpiece that put dark music back on the cultural map and would serve as the template upon which countless up and coming bands would base their sound. 2009 was also a crucial turning point for the label as Managing Director Taylor Brode came on board from Touch and Go to set up international distribution and recruit press people and various booking agents. For the first four years of its existence the label was operated out of the dark basement of Academy Records in Brooklyn, which had neither Internet nor cell phone service.
The label began working with director David Lynch in 2011 to reissue his Eraserhead OST. Lynch is still a roster artist, and in 2014, Sacred Bones signed another legendary director, John Carpenter, to release Lost Themes, an album of all-original, non-soundtrack work he recorded with his son and godson.
celebrate its ten-year anniversary in 2017, Sacred Bones has to date released over 170 albums, two books, and two films since 2007. Its international roster spans multiple genres, including psych, folk, punk, rock, experimental, noise, and electronic. Visionaries such as Jenny Hval, Marching Church, Lust For Youth, Pharmakon, Psychic Ills, Moon Duo, Föllakzoid, Blanck Mass, Marissa Nadler, Destruction Unit, The Men, Jim Jarmusch, and Zola Jesus, amongst many talented others all call the label home.
We talked at length with Sacred Bones founder Caleb Braaten about the short but rich history of his indie institution.
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How did you get into the music business? What motivated you?
My introduction to the music business was working at a record store. The record store was a very important place for me as a child. My friends and I would take our allowance and whatever lunch money we could save us and ride our bikes to the local record store to buy whatever cool looking used tapes we could get our hands on. Then we’d ride back to our house and listen so attentively, reading the lyrics, looking at the art. I remember buying Metallica’s Kill em’ All and being genuinely frightened, thinking it would summon the devil or something. It was a real magical experience.
When I was in my late teens/early 20s, I got a job as a clerk in a record store. I did that for years at a number of stores in both Denver and New York City. It was when I was working there that I decided to try putting out a friend’s 7-inch. It all spiraled from there.
What, if any, labels where your own role models or guiding stars, when you started up?
Factory Records (Joy Division, New Order) was far and away the biggest role model for a label for me. It was the first label that made me think of what the role of the label is. They had such a strong musical voice and Peter Saville’s design aesthetic is truly second to none. For our aesthetic we were also really inspired by labels like Crass, Blue Note, but mostly old classical records. I love the simplicity of those records.
What does Sacred Bones represent or stand for as an institution?
I hope that Sacred Bones stands for artistic freedom, a place where artists can truly have a voice.
What is in your opinion the greatest achievement in the history of Sacred Bones? What are you most proud of during your nearly decade-long run so far?
Our 10 year anniversary is in 2017. I think just being able to operate for 10 years is the ultimate achievement. Watching John Carpenter play live to 40,000 screaming fans at Primavera Sound this summer wasn’t bad either!
Did you have an initial idea back then on what the label should be and how it could evolve in the future?
No. There were absolutely no preconceived notions of what the label would or could be. There was no large scale plan. I just wanted to see where we could take it.
What are you looking for when signing artists? What makes you decide to release an album or not?
The music needs to have it’s own voice, even if it relies on genre it needs to sound singular. When it comes to signing a band we rely heavily on intuition. Above all else it needs to feel right.
Where do you see Sacred Bones another 10 years down the line?
Being involved in interesting music, movies, books, art and whatever else we can get away with.
The music industry goes through rapid changes these days. How have those challenges affected your work, and what is different running a label today compared to when you began?
I think the biggest difference for us is the “resurgence” in the interest in vinyl. Which is to say that so many people are making records now that it’s very difficult to get them made in a timely fashion. When we started most labels weren’t doing vinyl and certainly not major labels.
Any regrets? Anything you would do differently if you had a second chance?
No regrets, ever. Everything happens the way it’s supposed to, for better or for worse.
What’s the next great thing we should expect to hear from Sacred Bones?
The new Jenny Hval will change your life. We signed three new bands this year too — Exploded View, Uniform and Cheena — who are all incredible and could not be more different from one another from a genre perspective.
Most of your releases have a recognizable album art format, with a standardized typeface and your recognizable logo. What was the idea behind that?
I was thinking about the record label form a record store clerk’s point of view. I wanted something that stood out on a wall of records.
Along with your strong roster of indie artists, you’ve released album for film legends like David Lynch and John Carpenter. How did those projects come to fruition and how does working with those artists differ from straight-up musicians?
I think working with John and David is pretty much the same as working with any of our other artists except that maybe they have slightly larger teams and a more inter-disciplinary fan base outside of music.
Working with David was always a dream and something that was a focus of ours from the very beginning. We had amassed a collection of Sacred Bones records and a pitch that we were going to send as a cold call to David. As we were preparing this for him, a series of serendipitous events put us directly in touch with his team which opened up a more direct line of communication. We were able to get a box of hand made records directly to him. He seemed to understand the label’s aesthetic so we were able to pitch the idea of a Eraserhead soundtrack reissue to him. That album campaign went very well and from there we’ve been able to grow a strong relationship with David and his team.
Working with John came about because John hired a new music attorney, who happens to be David’s attorney as well. She approached us to let us know that she was working with him in case we wanted to pitch anything to him. We had no idea that he was making new music so we asked if there was any old music, maybe unused music from his films. He came back with a CDR full of new music he had been making with his son and godson, and it (Lost Themes) was really good! Working with John and his family has been incredible and watching him play live shows for the first time in his life is a joy to behold.
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