Founded in 1989 by Alan Herrick and Jenny Liang, Auricular began as a humble little record retail store in the Lower Haight neighborhood of San Francisco and slowly carved out a small niche for itself by offering in-store performances by Hafler Trio, Merzbow, Zoviet France and Nux Vomica.
“The store became kind of a central location for experimental and noise artists within San Francisco,” assesses Herrick in retrospect.
“It may be due to the fact that we did not carry much major label material and were always willing to consign material from local artists or it may have been part and parcel of my tastes and intrigues.”
Out of all this music and noise grew the offshoot label, Auricular Records, which began with the release of the first Auricular Audio Magazine on cassette, back in the days before DIY artists or labels had access to CD-R.
“The label started as cassette only releases focused on friends and family,” Herrick says. “The first compilation releases was all locals who performed live together regularly. It was just another way to try to get some of the music out there to be heard. Quickly the label evolved from a handful of local artists to include tracks from artists all over the world on our releases. The money was tight then and CD production was expensive. I never had enough money to release anything in large quantities and cassettes were limiting but we did OK and got by.”
In 1992 Auricular Records closed the doors of its retail shop and the label went into long-winded hiatus – until resurfacing two years ago with a fresh approach to experimental electronic music and releasing innovative material by a new array of artists.
“I decided after far too long to get back into it all and resurrect or revive the label and start working with artists and releasing my own material again. This resulted in instantly coming in contact with new people and starting to produce the largest number of releases I ever had to date. It is now 20 years from the dawn of Auricular Records and we have over 100 artists who have appeared on our label and over 70 releases, with many more planned.”
On Discogs it says that “Auricular Records was a small independent music label dedicated to preservation and support, as well as distribution, of the works of world wide experimental music artists.” Is this still the main perimeter – or have things changed?
“This is still the main perimeter. I re-focused efforts on Auricular Records several years ago with the intent of continuing to find new artists and to expose as well as reinstate work with some old friends and projects of my own.
“After a few years of diving back into the music scene I am discovering the things that have changed and what is working and not working so there’s a change in perimeter – or, rather, a shift in focus. I am moving more towards more ‘special edition’ releases such as a CD that is accompanied by a book, boxed sets of art and audio, retrospectives and maybe some audio/video projects.”
Herrick shrugs. “The whole idea of an independent music label has changed drastically in the past 20 years and I am still formulating how Auricular will evolve beyond this and still work within the perimeters we have in the past. In 2009 I started a sister label, Ambit Din, which aims to explore and provide a vehicle for release of a new canvas of sound art focused on field recordings and compositions that use field recordings and their main backbone.”
Inspiration itself comes from some interesting sources in this particular case.
“I come from a very musical family and I can’t recall a time in my life where music hasn’t played a significant role. Musical composition, sound art and audio experimentation is all an extension of my palette of emotions. I’ve used sound to express a lot of things that would have otherwise gone unspoken, or things I do not have words for.
“I have experienced or utilized music in ways most people would use drugs, meditation, or spirituality and shared some very intimate relationships musically that could only occur as part of the creation of music. I wouldn’t say I have been so much inspired to create music as much as compelled or driven by my own inner workings.”
He goes on: “I was born is Middletown, CT, established along the western bank of the Connecticut River – which served as the original home of the Mattabesett Native Americans. It is probably most famous for Wesleyan University. I only lived there until age eight.
“Oddly enough, a major turning point in my musical education came at about age 10, while listening to a radio very late at night. I’ve no idea what the show was or who was broadcasting, however they played a piece of music by a professor from Wesleyan that had been entirely composed from the sounds of different types electrical switches turning on and off. This absolutely amazed me at the time and probably played a very significant role in my thinking towards the potentials of music and sound. I have never been able to to track that recording down since.”
Herrick himself has made music with Big City Orchestra, Sense-Net, Concerto Infernal, Haters, Ultrasound, NU33.3X, Turntable Orchestra, and Amphead.
“Most recently I’ve worked with a close friend and very talented composer, Brent Goodbar, on a project called G:NOME. I’ve also worked recently with Space Gambus Experiment – a project out of Malaysia – along with collaborations with Math Lewis of Noisepsalm and also collaborative efforts between Nux Vomica and Voice Of Eye,” he says.
The man has been producing music and interacting within the music industry for quite a long time now – so what’s most changed in the electronic/experimental music related music industry over that period?
“What hasn’t changed?” He quips.
“Our medium for recordings, our production methods, our distribution models have all changed. Each of these has changed so drastically that it’s difficult to say what has changed the most. Technology is the number one thing that has changed, probably. The advances in computers, access to bandwidth, storage, software, and media have all had profound effects on every single aspect of the music industry from what makes and artist to how and album is created or purchased. It just keeps on going and going doesn’t it? I’m not sure I can foresee anything in particular happening, I just know it sure isn’t going to stop!”
Motivation is another matter that’s connected. “Most likely the constant change and the absolutely huge amount of music I haven’t heard yet keeps me motivated. The other primary motivating factors are the artists themselves, and the friends and family we have built along the way.”
In his own studio productions things have also changed.
“I switch things up a lot depending on mood and project. Logic Pro is my number one studio software environment – after years of frustration and irritation with ProTools, I hung it up, turned to Logic and never looked back. Other apps I utilize fairly extensively for sound creation, at the moment, would be Reason and Gleetchlab 3. The Mac is essential – it keeps the sounds, mixes, produces, rips, communicates, and distributes. It is my most important tool in the studio for productivity as well as during downtime when it’s time to relax and enjoy and explore things.”
Which current crop of artists and labels are grabbing his attention?
“I’ve been very heavily into net labels lately – I’ve been following, and really enjoy, Justnotnormal, and/OAR, Wandering Ear, and Feedback Loop to name just a small few. This is just a small list of a large number of labels and artists who are out there creating music for themselves, pushing boundaries, doing unique things with sound and audio production and turning out some truly interesting material that provokes and intrigues.”
Describing your own music is something a lot of artists are loathe to do and Herrick seems bemused by the notion. “This question was so much easier to answer when there were five genres of music,” he suggests, “but now we have 45,000 ways to say the words ‘techno’ or ‘alternative’. My work has always fluctuated between noise, electronic and ambient – I am going to stick with ‘SoundArt’. I’ve always liked the ring of it and it encompasses, to me, a wide range of styles and possibilities.”
How about if we pose the same question for Auricular?
“Auricular has always been a bit more diverse and I keep it that way because I like it to showcase and reflect all the different styles of music I enjoy or my curiosity is piqued by. The idea of Auricular has always been to showcase the unusual or unheard. In the process we have unearthed brilliant pop, grand noise, incredible electronica, and some unclassifiable and indescribable material. There have been several times I’ve said ‘This doesn’t fit in with our imprint’ – then the release is out or a track is on a compilation and sure enough it fits right in.”
Herrick smies. “I’m very happy with what has happened with Auricular. I’ve met some incredible artists and come in contact with wonderful people over the past 20 years and I wouldn’t trade those relationships and experiences for anything. Auricular has constantly evolved over 20 years and I want to keep it evolving. Right now I’m struggling with the direction to take it in from here and repeatedly I see it moving from the audio realm into the multimedia realm. Whether this happens, only time will tell.”
What’s next through Auricular?
“Auricular will be releasing some new artists, most of whom have appeared on recent Auricular Audio Magazine compilations. There are upcoming CD releases planned by Rhedcerulean, Noisepsalm, Nux Vomica, Andrez Bergen and old label veterans Big City Orchestra – which features Phil Knight of The Legendary Pink Dots. I have a retrospective 10-year audio, video and curio boxed set planned for Minmei Decelis’ project, My Boyfriend The Pilot. I’ve been working with the very talented The Amber Tapes, from the UK, to release a CD with an accompanying book of his visual art that correlates to the audio works.
“Recently we released the first in a series of collaborative recordings between Nux Vomica and Voice of Eye as a dual effort between Conundrum Unlimited and Auricular Records. There will be several more recordings coming out in that series. I have been working furiously to remaster all 12 of the early Auricular Audio Magazines to offer as a CD box set, however this project may be put off until the 25th anniversary and be much more involved to include book, video etcetera.”
Any upcoming Alan Herrick productions/collaborations/events we should know about for 2010?
“I am hoping to be able to work with Brent again on a new G:NOME release and I hope to continue collaborations with Math of Noisepsalm. I’m sure we will have some new Nux Vomica material and we are hoping to start working on some soundtrack work to some old silent films very soon – I’m going to be vague so as not to give away too much on that project.”
CDs are a disappearing facet of the music industry, and a fair amount of people in electronic/dance music circles are cutting back on vinyl these days because they say it just doesn’t make back the money invested.
“I don’t think I’ve ever made back money on any release I have ever done on CD. It’s more and more difficult to sell through downloadable distribution and make any money at it. The proliferation of net labels and free distribution of music can certainly keep a music consumer pretty happy – I am a huge audio junkie and can barely keep up with what I can get for free online. I have almost ceased purchasing music and I should be a person who stands up and supports the small labels trying to make a go of it.
“The music industry is in a state of reinvention and all labels, major and small players, are wondering how things will pan out. Not making the money back will certainly curtail or limit what I do with Auricular and my own music projects but, in the meantime, I am not going to stop doing it. I stand behind the audio I find and manufacture and distribute. The Auricular family of artists is a fantastic group of people and I’ll always try to find a way to keep working with them and others moving forward regardless of the bleak finances involved.”
Is vinyl dead?
“I see it making a comeback these days,even if within a small subsection of humanity. I’d love to be able to say it isn’t dead because I truly love vinyl as a medium for audio more than any other out there. I could probably embark upon a lengthy and insane-sounding diatribe on this but will spare you. I do not think vinyl is dead per se, I do think our model for recording mediums and distribution is in great turmoil and almost any medium is close to dead. It is a shame to say the MP3 is our strongest option these days. Technology has finally given people the ability to create pristine multitrack recordings in their own home with next to no cost involved and a very small learning curve yet we distribute these recordings in a format that sounds worse than an ill-tuned FM radio. I am still baffled by this. I am going to keep my room full of vinyl until there’s not a stylus left on the planet.”
Is digital download really the future of music?
“I’m not sure… I could not have even imagined it as a possibility 20 years ago so I am pretty sure I can’t imagine what is to come. It’s a good bet the folks who listened to the first wax cylinders could not have even fathomed an 8-track of Foghat being snapped into the car deck. I think we have a long way to go with downloadable music and it is certainly still in its infancy. We will hopefully see leaps and bounds in quality as technology and bandwidth permit. It may not be the future, but it’s our immediate present and near future.”
Lastly – how does Herrick like his mushrooms cooked?
“Grilled, with shallots and red wine, and a pinch of salt.”