Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Carl Craig. Three names with instant name recognition for fans of Detroit Techno. But what about Matthew Dear, Midwest Product, Charles Manier and Tadd Mullinix? They may not convey the same familiarity, but Sam Valenti IV, co-founder of Ann Arbor’s Ghostly International, hopes to garner increased local interest in the artists of the burgeoning record label.
As of late, Ghostly has attracted considerable attention in the national media, specifically with their Disco Nouveau compilation and in write-ups by GQ Magazine of the “electroclash” revival currently sweeping clubs nationwide. Electroclash is an electronic music genre that emphasizes the “retro” feel of previous producers and eras, taking the type of synthesizer sounds used in early’80s hip-hop and new wave. It is characterized by its very heavily synthesized sound, as well as the influences of ’70s funk. Sam will admit electro is a sound he enjoys for distinctly separate reasons. He noted he likes “the old/new sound of electro – it’s retro, it’s campy, it’s kitsch but it’s also still very much the music of the future.”
Despite Valenti characterization of Ghostly’s work as having a retro flavor, he also sees the Ghostly sound in different light, describing the label’s output as “post Detroit” with influences in IDM, Detroit Techno and also electro. The artists of Ghostly have been influenced by Detroit, but have been able to cultivate a stylistic offshoot of the Motor City that is unique to Ann Arbor.
“Detroit music is notoriously modern in its own strange way,” said Valenti when describing Detroit’s forward thinking sound.
Yet for him, Ann Arbor is “slightly removed, and there’s also not a huge scene here, it’s not a trendy place.” Instead, “it’s an outsider culture in that it’s removed, but also in tune enough to take in influence and make it your own,” said Valenti. Ghostly is also a label that wants to use the geography of Ann Arbor to distinguish itself as a unique idea and concept – something that became successful locally separate from the cultural meccas of Chicago, Detroit and New York. Therefore, Valenti’s strategy remains focused on selecting only those artists that best reflect the unique offerings of electronic musicians in the Ann Arbor area.
Currently, the label is represented artistically by Ghostly co-founder Matthew Dear, Tadd Mullinix, Charles Manier and electro-acoustic rock band Midwest Product. Valenti met Dear during Welcome Week his freshman year. In 1999, they formed the Ghostly label. Dear acknowledges his affinities in influences as diverse as folk music along with his current interest in “minimal floor-heavy techno” on his Stealing Moves release. Soon after Dear, classically trained musician Mullinix was added to the roster. Mullinix records under his own name as well as abstract hip-hop under the pseudonym of “Dabrye” and grungy electro as “James Cotton.”
Sam likes to think of Ghostly’s current artist roster as a well-balanced team. “I think all our guys balance each other out. I don’t want all our guys to overlap in the same genre, which is cool. It makes it more challenging to get a message across, but at the same time I feel like no one steps on each other’s toes.”
Each artist also has a unique role to play in Ghostly’s overall scheme, almost like a cast of superheroes. “They all have a certain amount of Ghostly-ness to their approach – artistry and intrigue. Everyone has a different attribute like superheroes. It’s like the Justice League in that it’s a really strong team.”
Yet the truly unique sounds, concepts and artists that Ghostly presents today partially obscures the hard work it took to get it up and running. The label has been able to distinguish its work and gain international renown for its individual, highbrow sound. But it was hard to convince the music industry of these merits when the label first got started. One main problem is the label’s geography.
“When you have new artists and a new label and you’re in the middle of nowhere more or less there’s some communication that you need to establish,” explains Valenti.
As a newer label it also remains difficult for Ghostly to get access to the traditional music industry institutions such as national music press and distributors. Valenti continues to find it hard to get distributors to accept his product and initially found that some did not care for his new label and the music it was releasing.
“The first thing you try doesn’t always work. (The) entertainment (industry) is notorious because you expect things to happen, and then they don’t. It’s frustrating because you don’t know what’s real anymore.” Valenti encountered several instances where artists wanted to license the label’s songs or to work with Ghostly artists on material before later backing out. But there seem to be some signs of the fruits of labor. Sam described a recent experience at a record label office in New York City.
“They had our (Ghostly’s) stuff on the wall. When I told them who I was, everyone treated me with a surprising amount of awe, which is cool. But it was something that came with time, with trying to change people’s minds and get them into what we’re doing.”
Ghostly showcases its artists on a regular basis in Ann Arbor at the Club Above, located at 215 N. Main St. above the Heidelberg Restaurant. Tonight will feature Matthew Dear and Tadd Mullinix. Midwest Product will perform in Detroit at the Magic Stick with Interpol on Friday. Their website, www.ghostly.com has more information about the artists and label.