A Moveable Feast: The Odyssey of Anthem Records

Over the past eight years, one of Portland’s coolest music stores has wandered around the town, from just off of Belmont on the east side to Couch Street downtown then back to the east side on 28th and Flanders to its most recent location on Sandy and 28th (2706). For this last move, I had originally planned a little announcement/tribute to the store that has supplied me with some of the most frequently replayed music in my collection, but when I went down to Anthem’s new location and asked Jon an innocent question about foot traffic, his answer to that, which chronicled his store’s travels as well as its philosophy, sent me back to my house to get my Zoom H1 and do a proper interview.

Anthem: I’d been around record stores a lot, but when I started in 2004, I still didn’t know what I was up to. I had grandiose notions about covering every category, which, given the space and the time, was something that did work out for a little while. But to make rock, say, a function of your store, you’re going to spend a huge amount of time paying attention to emerging rock bands, some of whom will endure and make things that are really powerful. But for a lot of them it’s really just fashion-driven, so it’s not something you can bank on building a culture around. It comes and goes, whatever’s blowing in the wind at that moment.

I did have some good successes with that, though. Goofy bands like The Knife, for instance. I was getting recordings from them direct. Then they became giant, and for awhile (2005), I was the only place in the country you could get them. And that “Clap your hands, say yeah” thing; I was calling them at their house and getting that CD, and then they became a big deal. When that sort of thing happened it was great. But there were other times when things were getting promoted through the roof, and you’d be convinced you had to have a bunch of this thing, and then everyone was saying “Oh, their last record was so terrible, I don’t want this one.”

Asymmetry: And you still had your bunch that you were now stuck with.

Anthem: Haha, yeah! Then what happened was that the artifact of music started to lose the interest of many people, who started just getting their music off of iTunes or watching youtube videos. When we saw that happening, we started working on the kinds of things that we felt most passionate about, which was initially the seven inch series–Menche, Birchville Cat Motel, Tom Carter, all that kind of stuff. And even though at the time it was nerve wracking taking our resources from what seemed to make sense in the Belmont neighborhood, it was also a little bit liberating.

Asymmetry: What was the Belmont crowd like?

Anthem: There were a lot of people buying rock, and there was a whole lot of interest in psychedelic rock and avant garde and that type of thing, but that got kind of fragmented when Exile opened, because they focused so much on psychedelic rock. And even though I have a pretty broad interest in psychedelic stuff, it’s not my first and foremost, so when that happened it was another reason to move in another direction.

It’s really weird what has happened in the last ten years. It went from there being relatively few stores in town, who just did it by the numbers, to there being just a ton of specialty shops.

My background has always been electronic and experimental, so I was always trying to sneak that in. And there’s been a wider interest in it come up over the past five or six years. I would buy collections from friends and just put them in bins for three or four years. Then people would start asking me about it, and now it’s pretty desirable material one way or another. I didn’t really expect it; I just didn’t want to see this stuff go into a landfill. I knew my friends’ collections pretty well, and whenever they would need to unload some stuff, I didn’t want to see it go any place weird, so even though it put me out, I’d buy it and just time capsule it.

It’s a little surprising that that has become something that is conducive for perpetuating the store. But there are some people for each category, and when I make a big find, I can get a hold of them. I can help that stuff find new homes. That’s what I like about it. There are tons of places where you can get heavily promoted stuff. When there’s a vinyl edition of something that’s on MTV, they’ll have it, that kind of thing. And there are places just for collectors, with really obscure, really rare stuff and selling for a lot of money. The way I look at it, I just want to get the music into people’s hands who’ll appreciate it. I get a collection, I call specific people, and they’re the first to go through it; they’re excited to see it.

Asymmetry: I’ve gotten several calls from you, myself.

Anthem: It’s true. And that makes me happy. I can see the lineage of it, connect the dots. I know where it came from, where it’s going. I know it’s not going to be lost in time. That’s my whole thing, really, I just don’t want ideas to be lost. Nowadays, with the proliferation of ideas, the clutter, I’m fighting against that.

I want to keep moving the store into places where it’s off the beaten track. I want to focus on those sort of goals as opposed to worrying if I have a Flaming Lips record if someone asks about that.

Asymmetry: So moving downtown was not part of that.

Anthem: No! Not at all. I’m glad I did it, because it was the right thing at the time. We had to streamline what we were up to, for one, and also it was cheaper. I also thought it would be great, downtown, that people would centralize there. But I’m not sure that would be the case anywhere.

Asymmetry: Part of that is the internet, isn’t it?

Anthem: A little bit. But even if you spend your whole day searching on the internet for things, the way you go about looking for stuff there has a lot of blind spots. So does this [pointing to the bins], but there’s always that experience of digging into a box and finding something for which you have no idea of its context or background or whatever, but something that can turn out to be curious and interesting.

Good things came out of downtown, for sure. I rode my skateboard to work every day, so I lost a bunch of weight. And then there were all these possibilities for the labels, so I put a lot into just releasing music. So I’m happy it became that kind of situation.

Asymmetry: Are there two labels or three?

Anthem: Three. Anthem, LoDubs, and losonofono, which is this weird Scandinavian synthesizer label. Me and one other guy, John Murphy (aka Lazercrotch) are the only ones in North America doing this genre, which is known as Skweee. Kind of a throwback to the eighties R & B synth type of thing, but done by people mostly in Scandinavia with weird Russian synthesizers. It’s one of the most gear-driven and experimental types of bizarre, rhythmically structured electronic music out there right now. I was excited about it because it’s so experimental and somehow still has a real appeal–it’s kind of like prog rock when it gets it right.

Anyway, I decided I wanted to work on a genre that I knew would never get blown out, that would always stay underground, that L.A. wasn’t gonna decide it was something they could put in the new Lethal Weapon movie. That was the idea, in the sense that it was wildly experimental, and I’m sure that it’s not going to become some sort of garish, goofball thing.

Success for me is making the right sort of record and then never finding it in the used bins. That’s all I care about. I don’t care about making thousands of them; I just care about the people I make them for holding on to them and feeling like it’s right.

The label that’s taken a backseat lately is the Anthem label, just because it’s all a matter of finding the right thing at the right time for that label. It’s been about a year since the last one, and that was this sort of experimental guitar thing by the guy from Agalloch, John Haughm. He was influenced by things like Popul Vuh, transcendent, ambient drone psychedelics. I’m not sure what people’s thoughts are about that label. I know that every single release has done really well and received a lot of accolades, but at the same time, every one is so drastically different. The one before John’s was a hip-hop record, and the one before that was all chants, Joe Preston and Daniel Menche, with a video, and the one before that was a reggae record, and the one before that was a folk record. I figure if the quality is good enough, I can just get away with getting it out there, and then people will look at the discography later and think “Wow that’s crazy.” I like that, too.

With the other stuff, I feel there’s a distinct mission. With the losonofono label, I hope that this mid-tempo, unusual beat thing helps reinvigorate hip-hop in some way. And with LoDubs, my thought is to show the common thread between reggae and dub and garage, which is a UK bass-driven kind of music. That involves movements from the late seventies all the way up to this stuff related to dubstep, but people don’t see it as the same thing. The way it’s promoted and marketed, it’s all completely separate. But there’s a clear, common strain, and that is that it’s all melodic music from low frequencies.

Asymmetry: When you moved back to the east side, you were in a place which geographically was close to a lot of activity but which physically was obscured by all those trees. So you could never really see what was there until you were right up on it. Even people eating and drinking at Spints didn’t know you were there.

Anthem: A lot of people would have done something about that, but….

Asymmetry: You got your wish, though, of being obscure!

Anthem: And the move to Sandy further cements that to some degree. I think that’s a good system. Not if you want to buy a power boat or something. But it’s a great system if you want to keep people interested, because it’s like people think you’re doing something you shouldn’t; it’s crazy!

It’s funny, but the things that have worked out really well recently have been things that were really audacious. I guess I’d feel differently if I hadn’t decided on this direction for the store. And that coincides with the fact that it doesn’t cost me a fortune to keep myself in business. If I had my feet to the fire I’d be a lot more stressed out about it.

At the same time, this street does get a lot of traffic, so I think people will notice it more. So much of our operation is the label, the mail order, the stuff in the back room there (screenprinting and packaging of our releases). I mean, we’ll be able to grow it, little by little. That also appeals to me. I don’t want to have a grand opening! Maybe a little sale for people I know. I like things to just go naturally, just emerge that way. Otherwise it seems like hyped up.

Asymmetry: That just sounds like the whole commercial world, where things are driven by marketing and not by love or passion.

Anthem: The only thing about that, though, is that I really like dancing chickens, so if I ever had a dancing chicken suit, I’d be out there…!

Anthem Records is John Klute and Ryan Organ. You can visit them in person at 2706 E. Sandy in Portland, Oregon or online at http://anthemrecords.bandcamp.com/

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