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Pangaea Recordings

Pangaea Recordings logoPangaea Recordings started up in 2004 in order to release the first album by main man Jonathan Pfeffer’s band, Capillary Action. Since then the roster has expanded to include Hi Red Center, and whilst this may be a small label in its early days, it has already set itself high standards through its releases so far, and it has garnered all kinds of good press attention spanning tiny webzines to the hallowed pages of The Wire. Simon Minter caught up with Jonathan Pfeffer to find out more.

Could you give the readers a little history of the label? When it started, what you were doing before, etc.

I started Pangaea Recordings in the summer 2004 as a logo and a mailing address to put on the first Capillary Action record. No one else was interested in releasing my album, so I just went ahead and figured out what I needed to do in terms of getting CDs pressed, where and how to effectively promote the record, how distribution works, how to book tours, etc. etc. I ended up enjoying the production and promotion processes almost as much as writing the songs and making the albums that I decided to seriously pursue the label idea.

Have you been inspired by any labels in terms of style/ambition/enthusiasm?

I wasn’t really inspired to start Pangaea because of any specific labels and, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I really paid attention to what label a band was on when I bought records as a younger man. After starting Pangaea, however, I tried to do as much research as I could on labels from all across the map so I could figure out how to follow in their footsteps but also how to avoid making their same mistakes.

I bought a book called Little Labels, Big Sound that was immensely useful in learning from labels like Sun, Riverside, King, Dial, etc. I highly recommend that book to anyone interested in starting a label. I think Monument Records, which was most famous for putting Roy Orbison on the map and I discovered through the book, most strongly reflects the artistic impetus behind Pangaea. Fred Foster put out records from quirky, unique talents and didn’t really pay much mind to whether they’d sell. In doing so, he never had to work a day job again.

I learned a lot from an internship I did at Relapse Records (Dillinger Escape Plan, Mastodon, Dysrhythmia) a year ago about what and what not to do in terms of treating bands, running distro, organizing press and booking work, etc.

I almost always find that the music from labels I admire aesthetic-wise rarely yanks my crank but exceptions to this rule include Stones Throw (Peanut Butter Wolf, Madlib, MF Doom), ESP-Disk (Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, Albert Ayler), Souljazz (known mostly for their compilations), and Smalltown Supersound (Martin from Jaga Jazzist’s label).

Electric Human Project, which my buddy Mike Haley runs, and Shinkoyo are two examples of labels whose music doesn’t do much for me but have unmatched aesthetics. Shinkoyo, in particular, inspired me during the early stages of Pangaea. They’re less a ‘label’ than a collective but at any rate, since the label was made up of folks from Oberlin College – where I go to school – I got a chance to witness their development firsthand, which certainly impacted how I release records.

I admire Dischord and Young God for keeping their release schedules tight and, while I’m not always blown over by the bands they work with, I think much of what both labels put out is quality.

Hydra Head, Robotic Empire, and Southern Lord are the only heavy labels worth paying attention to these days, even though I can’t say I really like any of the bands on their rosters. They’re the only heavy labels releasing anything remotely creative nowadays, I should say. Everyone should check out Capsule, though. They’re putting out a record on Robotic Empire later this year and they will be unstoppable if they can tour more often.

Sublime Frequencies is a fantastic ‘world music’ (for lack of a better term) label that one of the members of the Sun City Girls runs. They release all sorts of intensely obscure recordings from countries like Thailand, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Indonesia.

Family Vineyard is a great label whose catalog I honestly can’t put into a box. ‘Experimental art music,’ perhaps? Great records all around from folks like Cold Bleak Heat, Loren Connors, Darin Gray, Grand Ulena, and the irrepressible Paul Flaherty-Chris Corsano Duo.

My friend Bryant runs a label based out of Athens, Georgia called Hello Sir that releases records from excellent bands like Cinemechanica, Ahleuchatistas, and We Versus the Shark. I’d say Hello Sir specializes in ultra mega guitar fury. Buy records from Bryant.

What kind of a role has the Internet played regarding your label? Some people these days operate exclusively via the ‘net, whilst others are still very much mail order based. What’s your stance?

I’m all about the Internet. The first thing I do when I wake up is turn on my computer and check my e-mail and Myspace accounts. I conduct most of my business online and on top of tha t, it’s allowed me to make friends all across the world. Two thumbs up for the Internet!

Is downloading killing music? Do you harbour any strong feelings sympathetic to or against the RIAA?

Downloading and file sharing are saving music, if anything. No one’s really buying music these days – despite what Steve Jobs may tell you – so I think all the folks who became involved in music for the glory and riches are slowly getting weeded out. Good riddance!

The RIAA or the music industry doesn’t care about music. It’s not like I have to deal with them or will ever likely have to deal with them.

Do you feel an affiliation with other bands or labels out there? Is there any kind of community or so-called ‘scene’ – be it local or not – that you feel linked to?

I think to varying degrees all the groups involved with Pangaea are outcasts; either they’re too much or not enough of something to truly fit in somewhere. Basically, I feel a connection to any bands that are either out there really pushing themselves creatively or labels that are interested in releasing creative music.

Do you have opinions on the difference between underground & mainstream music?

I read an interview with Bob Mould from Hüsker Dü who said that the only difference between major and indie labels is that indies will fuck you over behind your back while major labels will explain to your face, in very detailed legalese, how they’re going to fuck you over.

95% of popular music, whether it’s underground or mainstream, is pretty bland if you ask me. So, to answer your question, I think production values are the only real difference I see (or hear) between underground and mainstream music.

This is a semi-related point but I think it’s disgusting how the so-called underground music community is becoming a hollowed out, second-rate version of what I deem the corporate music industry. The underground used to be controlled by musicians – people in bands, label owners, etc. It was a reaction against music being overrun by big business. Nowadays the word ‘indie’ is used to describe bands of 13-year old girls put together by conglomerates.

The state of the underground industry is that of a supermarket before a natural disaster; no-one’s buying records like they used to anymore. Musicians, label-owners, and the like either a) stopped caring, b) were too lazy to adapt to new business models, or c) just plain dropped the ball. The booking agents and publicists (95% of whom are all vultures) realized that extensive touring and press are the only ways musicians can really break out of the Myspace band ghetto and make any noise these days, so they’ve usurped all the power while most of the musicians I know are still scratching their heads wondering why Mp3.com’s not longer around. Bands that haven’t played 15 shows have booking agents now and last I heard, a few of the major indie publicists are charging upwards of $3,000 to service albums that probably will never get written about.

It’s all kind of intense but ultimately just amusing. I try to keep my nose to grindstone and focus on my work instead of getting caught up in the all the industry nonsense, which I’m guilty of doing from time to time.

Has there ever been a time when you felt like calling it a day, that the label was too much trouble?

Absolutely. Just the other week, I seriously considered about throwing in the towel. Now I can’t even remember why but chances are it had something to do with money.

Imagine for a minute that you had never started the whole label. What would you be spending your time doing?

Tough question! Capillary Action and Pangaea are the reasons I get up in the morning, so it’s really hard to imagine them not existing. I suppose if I hadn’t started either project I’d still be creative in some way but I’d probably be sitting in my room on the computer all night, sulking. Funny that it’s not that much different with both the band and the label around.

Where have you found bands you’ve released stuff by so far? Do you get demos etc sent to you? Do you ask the bands or do they ask you?

I found Hi Red Center through a review on the sadly defunct Splendid E-Zine website. I contacted them and then we made magic happen. So far I’ve only gotten three demos, one of which was solid but which I couldn’t accommodate, one was by a white rapper with purple dreadlocks who performs at amateur wrestling competitions, and the other was from a random band we played with on tour. One of the policies I hope to continue is always accepting and checking out demos – you never who’s going to come out of nowhere and blow you away.

Speaking of which, do you have any hot musical tips for us at the moment?

Absolutely! Austin, Texas is going off like no other these days with not one, not two, but three acts hailing from the Live Music Capital of the World that are currently blowing me away:

The Cocker Spaniels is the solo project of Sean Padilla. I’ve talked about him in interviews before but people need to hear this guy. TV On The Radio’s caught on recently and even asked Sean to open up their last Austin show. About damn time! Short story: he’s an eccentric but lovable guy who writes deceptively complex pop songs about his life. Long version: imagine a combination of mid-90s indie rock (although these bands don’t do it for me, Sean’s a huge Guided By Voices and Pavement fan), Stevie Wonder’s pop sensibility skewed by a lifetime of music consumption, a healthy dose of Pinkerton-era Weezer, and a flair for experimental arrangements and recording techniques. He’s a total inspiration and consistently makes me want to step up my game.

Bands like Deerhoof, Xiu Xiu, and Smog have been singing the praises of the Weird Weeds for some time but I imagine the hipster sheep that flock to those bands’ shows only get confused and uncomfortable during a Weird Weeds performance. Songs start and stop in awkward places, one guitarist makes crazy noises with pieces of chalk, the other guitarist often plays riffs on a purposely out-of-tune guitar, and the drummer plays in and out of time like he keeps getting distracted by a squirrel. Although I’m highlighting the Weird Weeds’ ‘weirder’ elements, they’re at heart very much a song-oriented band. Their new record absolutely destroys, so make sure you pick it up when it comes out in August.

Peter and the Wolf is the solo project of singer/songwriter Red Hunter – Nick from the Weird Weeds turned me on to him, actually. Red specializes in gorgeous, stripped down songs that could have been written in any century, and he’s toured in a sailboat, for chrissakes! Red’s one of very few people who I feel a kinship toward as he’s a completely and utterly independent artist who runs every aspect of his business. Check out his label, Whiskey and Apples. He’s going on a 3-month US tour this summer so any Americans reading this site seriously need to check him out.

This interview’s getting long but be sure check out… The Dirty Projectors (their new EP is the first great record of 2006), Tyondai Braxton (also of the band Battles, new record on Warp this fall), Pattern Is Movement, Bad Dudes (best band on the West Coast), Make Believe (best band in the Midwest), Make A Rising, and any Kevin Shea-related project (People, Talibam, Coptic Light).

Who decides on artwork for your releases? Do you have a particular design policy or format you like to adhere to?

Artists are responsible for their own artwork but often we help one another out by reviewing and critiquing each other’s artwork – in addition to music and other sorts of things, of course. There’s no particular design policy but in my own work, I try to make the artwork reflect the music in some way.

Vinyl vs CD in one final grudgematch (after knocking out tapes & eight tracks in the semi-finals). Who wins?

I like this question. Pangaea will be a primarily CD label since vinyl is far too expensive and even fewer people buy vinyl than CDs. I’m definitely open to releasing music through all kinds of media so with the way things are going, who knows how long I’ll even be in the CD business?

It seems like most of the people who are into vinyl are more concerned with packaging than music but portability has always been an issue for me, personally. Portability aside, vinyl is better than CDs in every way, shape, and form. The tactile experience of putting the needle on the record and watching it revolve is matchless. Vinyl looks, feels, and smells so unique that it’s much more of an experience than CDs (don’t even get me started on the history of the compact disc). So, I’d have to say vinyl knocks CDs the fuck out in the grudge match, even though I’ll probably never dabble in it.

Who do you use to make and print your records? Would you recommend them to others?

I went through Cravedog for one release and I’d definitely recommend them – great service and very reasonable prices. I went through Icon for the Hi Red Center record and I’m probably going to use them for future releases since the turnaround time was solid and their prices can’t be beat.

Do you have any kind of distribution? Tell us about your experiences!

Right now, the demand for Pangaea releases is so low it doesn’t really make sense to have a distributor to take my records into stores. I’ve dealt primarily with online distributors like Interpunk, Stickfigure, Audio Lunchbox, Insound, Ramen Factory, and Relapse and I’d say my experiences have been uniformly positive. Although the sales haven’t been spectacular, most of them actually do pay me for records they’ve sold, which was and still is a concern of mine since these labels usually take my records on consignment. I’ve noticed that people feel more comfortable purchasing Pangaea releases through these types of distributors than from my website. Despite the fact that these distributors often take between a 30% and 40% cut of whatever meagre profits I might earn. C’est la vie…

What’s your opinion on the importance of press and media coverage? Do you have any particular policies on how to get it?

I can’t stress the importance of press enough. Bottom line: get it any way you can! Step over your own grandmother, sell your worldly possessions – sell some vital organs if you have to! If you take anything from this incredibly longwinded interview, press and constant touring are the keys to success. As far as policies on getting press… I can’t reveal *all* my secrets.

Do you have any Grand World Domination plans for the label, or is it a case of natural evolvement?

Total world domination. I want offices in Philadelphia, London, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, and Sydney. I’m actually dead serious…

Got any advice for the prospective new label mogul?

Follow your instincts, release music you care about deeply, second-guess every little decision you make, and work as hard as you can… then work harder. Please release interesting music.

Finally, what would be your dream release – which band, which format, and how would it be packaged?

I don’t think I have a dream release in the terms outlined in this question but I would love to put out splits between bands I love and admire, music-related DVDs, CDs with elaborate or unusual packaging, and so on. The ultimate dream is having the label pay for itself, though.

Pangaea Recordings website