As Glasgow’s Night School Records celebrates its second shortlisting for Scottish Album of the Year, Getintothis’ Cath Bore talks to label founder Michael Kasparis.
After six years in existence, Glasgow’s ever-evolving Night School Records has released music from artists from around the globe.
They include, amongst others, Molly Nilsson, Ela Orleans, former Strawberry Switchblade-r Rose McDowall, Happy Meals, Patience aka Veronica Falls’ Roxanne Clifford, and Golden Grrrls, two thirds of whom now comprise Sacred Paws.
Apéro by Happy Meals was shortlisted for the Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) two years ago, and Ela Orleans’ seventh album Circles Of Upper And Lower Hell, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and the poems of Sara Teasdale and Arthur Rimbaud, was shortlisted for the 2017 Prize last week.
We caught up with the man behind the label, its founder Michael Kasparis, to talk about Night School‘s inception, and what the future holds.
Getintothis: Ok. It’s 2011, the UK is in the middle of an economic recession, and you, Michael, decide to start a record label. How, why, what, where?!
Michael Kasparis: Ha ha! Well, it started a precedent for making bad business decisions for sure. For better or for worse, the label has always been a very personal thing, based on my reactions to music and people I love, so taking the wider economic picture into consideration wasn’t really part of the plan.
I sold a portion of my own record collection to finance the first two 7″s. Though I had friends who offered advice, everything was done by trial and error. To save £30 I hand painted the labels, which took two days. I taught myself how to screen print with a friend and we screen printed 700 sleeves… everything was done to try and cut costs and have money for the next release.
Why? I was stuck in a rut. I’d been playing music for 12 years and had no real opportunities to release anything, so I was really stuck. Personally I was at a low ebb, relationships had broken down…maybe it was a kind of late 20s early/30s crisis… but I suppose I reached a low point and thought if I don’t do something, take a risk, I’ll end up working a shit job and hating my life. So when I heard Terror Bird, and also Golden Grrrls, my friends who hadn’t had anything out, I took the decision to go for it and ask to release music by them.
The where was North London, living in a trust fund warehouse without a trust fund. Working / commuting for 12 hours to come home to people doing speed next to my dinner.
Getintothis: Night School has warmly embraced the vinyl revival, releasing 7” and 12” singles as well as albums in that format. How important is the physical format to you as a label?
Michael Kasparis: I see it as a label’s principle role, to realise something into reality that the artist wouldn’t be able to do, and then get it to a wider audience. Artists can and do just release digital music all the time or put their own records out, but labels are becoming more just like networks to distribute that work. It’s a label’s job to spread it beyond the artists’ horizon. I don’t have any major insights into the revival of vinyl you might not have heard before, other than it’s part of the cultural move to the “boutique”.
Many people increasingly now derive their sense of identity from what they consume, and what they consume has to be more personalised, smaller runs, more unique, obscure coffees, tattoos no one else has, madly-made wines, niches within niches.
People like to curate their consumption as a signifier of “who they are”. So when it comes to music, people respond to vinyl as a kind of lifestyle signifier, something to mark them out. Ultimately it’s not for me to judge people on why they buy records, as long as they do ha ha!
Getintothis: School Daze is Night School’s new imprint. It will focus on reissues, the first of which is the Sharon Signs To Cherry Red compilation. Why did you go down the reissue route?
Michael Kasparis: I started Night School specifically with no guiding genre or overarching theme because it would get too boring for me to do that. You know, like just a minimal synth label or whatever. However, the harsh reality is that to make something successful you have to have a USP (unique selling point), which is a depressingly capitalistic idea. So gradually Night School has become more streamlined and has more of an In house aesthetic.
Over time I recognised that reissues often get a better response from the public because it’s not a risk, so I thought it would be best to split the label’s operations: so School Daze is a way of building something that is a safer risk for people, it’s a reissue label and will probably result in my being able to take more risks with Night School. That’s not to say it’s a cynical move though! Just my attempt at a business. People buying Night School releases blind are gonna be challenged. School Daze is my attempt at curating the past in a way that informs what I’m trying to do with Night School…
Getintothis: We’ve noticed Night School has a very strong roster in regards women, and the Sharon Signs To Cherry Red album carries music exclusively from women of the post-punk era. Is it a conscious decision?
Michael Kasparis: Suppose I can answer the women question here. The first interview I did about the label a man asked me why I released so many women. My response was, did he ask why X [ insert literally any and every electronic music record label here] released 90-100% men? I’ve softened my response now I suppose. All I can say is it’s not a conscious decision: I go with my ears. If I met a modern pop songwriter as great as Molly Nilsson who had a different chromosome set I would love to release them, I just haven’t yet.
Perhaps I am just more drawn to the female voice than the male, but it’s nothing I’ve thought about in great detail. This year Night School has released three Molly Nilsson records, one Strawberry Switchblade, one Rose McDowall, one Amor, one The Modern Institute. Five women (counting Molly and Rose just once), and seven men. Go figure! The first release on School Daze had the female fronted theme for sure, but my next planned compilation on the label has a vast majority of male voices. I’m more drawn to voices outside “the mainstream” – the gender or age doesn’t matter to me. It’s telling of the culture we live in that it’s unusual for a label to be perceived as having so many women on it when it’s actually just gender balanced.
Getintothis: How do you source new music for the label? And what makes you decide to use older music for School Daze? A big question, we know.
Michael Kasparis: It’s really simple actually. I just have to hear something that I love and that needs to be in the world and shared. That applies to old and new music. The Space Lady, for example, was about taking something that had a small cult following and bringing it to a wider audience. That’s the MO.
Getintothis: How do you feel you fit in alongside the “mainstream hegemony”, as you’ve described it? Or maybe you feel you don’t? Is this a good or bad thing?
Michael Kasparis: That’s a difficult, nuanced question I think. I’ve personally always felt outside every hegemony there is in this business, primarily because the label didn’t have a game plan, a coherent theme or “USP”. I thought I could circumnavigate that by being “horizontal” in curation: constantly probing the limits of what people will take, not having a dominating authoritarian voice, introducing people to new things they might not have previously considered. I abhor power and really try not to yield any, ha ha.
So maybe in my own way I wanted to create a sort of community that was disparate and open to new things. However, the success of that is measured in small increments: if someone buys a Rose McDowall LP and a Modern Institute LP I consider that a minor victory! Whereas on the bigger scale I sometimes find it hard to fund the label to the level it deserves.
In terms of being part of the mainstream or whatever, the label is and it isn’t. I’d like to be able to not to have to play any of the games it takes to get this music heard by people but until I can completely overthrow the grip business and big labels have on the discourse I’m going to have to relent every now and then. But then if you’re a person releasing their first cassettes on their tape label you might read that last sentence and think “what’s this guy on about, that label has had two records shortlisted for a national award”. So it’s about perspective and relativity. Perhaps going by the definition of hegemony I’m part of it and don’t even realise it. That’s a depressing thought...
Getintothis: We’re very excited Ela Orleans’ Circles of Upper and Lower Hell is shortlisted for SAY. It’s a record of true beauty. Can you tell me a bit more about how the record came to be released and what the shortlisting means for you?
Michael Kasparis: Me too! Actually, in some ways I see the nomination as a mainstream recognition of Ela‘s long, brilliant career as an underground musician, as well as a realisation that it’s an important, beautiful and very personal album. I’ve been friends with Ela for a long time and always admired her music and she had a brief, disillusioning encounter with the “mainstream hegemony” you’re talking about with the record before this one. I don’t want to talk about the background too much as it’s very much her story, but suffice to say when she said she had this record she wanted to release I was very interested. After hearing it I just knew I had to be involved.
Getintothis: What role do such competitions like SAY play for smaller labels, how do they help redress any imbalance?
Michael Kasparis: SAY is a force for good. The people behind it are good people, very well meaning and open. Like any other institutional attempt at curation or comment, it receives its criticisms, some of which are valid. While I think it’s a valid criticism to question the inclusion of artists on big labels who already have access to a promotion budget, already have their “foot in the door,” we have to be realistic as to where we are with publicly funded arts in this country and where artists sit in this neo-liberal system.
Basically, it (SAY) provides publicity and funds to artists who suffer for not having access to “the system.” It presents something like Ela Orleans on an even footing with something on a big label, like Frightened Rabbit, even for a few months. Some people criticise it for being too mainstream and having not enough “outsiders” on the list, some people consider it too “snobby” and that it doesn’t have enough popular music people know already.
SAY’s job I suppose is to try and find that balance and while I don’t like everything on the list I’d say they do pretty good at finding that balance. Ultimately if people like Belle and Sebastian aren’t on the list then Joe and Jane Bloggs are gonna be like “it’s not for me…” and If SAY can convince some people that something as moving as Ela‘s music maybe is for them then that’s a good first step at redressing the advantage that big labels and business have over the industry.
Getintothis: What are your future plans for Night School, both short and long term?
Michael Kasparis: Future plans: keep going. That’s the short and the long term plan. We’re thinking about a very ambitious Molly Nilsson Greatest Hits project which will be the first time I’ve really planned like, a year ahead.
Getintothis: How much of a role do you think labels like Night School will have in the future?
Michael Kasparis: It’s hard to tell. Big labels, indie and otherwise, have a stranglehold on many aspects of the industry and they feed off smaller, nimbler operations like Night School. That’s just a fact, even if it sounds conceited. Because they have investors and wages to pay they are risk averse: so they wait, a lot of the time, for an artist to reach a level when they are no longer as risky, and then a bigger label will swoop in.
I’m not criticising the artists here of course, I get it. I’d like to think that the way the internet makes people more interconnected will erode the power that big industry has on all aspects of our lives. Of course I’m not just talking about record labels here.
Getintothis: Have you made any mistakes you wish you could reverse, or made a genius move?
Michael Kasparis: Ha, I don’t know. I’ve lost money on things I’ve really believed in, which means there’s less money to invest in the label. But would the label be worth it for me if I just played safe? I don’t know. Probably not. I wouldn’t say I’ve pulled any Tony Wilson-esque genius moves, but when something I’ve released that has confounded people initially and then won them over, like The Space Lady, happens, it feels good. And at the end of the day we just want to feel good, right?