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Record Label Feature #1: Phratry Records

June 26, 2009

Phratry RecordsPhratry Records

At the Lithograph, our aim is to promote musical happenings in and around Cincinnati. As such, we are starting a new feature profiling local record labels imaginatively called: Record Label Feature (so creative! so forward-thinking! I know.). Kicking off this brand new feature is local record label Phratry Records, owned and operated by Jerry Dirr (who is also a member of Phratry band Knife the Symphony). I exchanged some e-mails with Jerry over the last few weeks, finally culminating in this interview which perfectly illustrates the struggles and  joys of running an independent record label.  Enjoy!

1) Tell us a little about yourself. How/when/where did you start Phratry? How has it grown over the years?

Well, I’ve played in four bands since 1992. The most recent is Knife The Symphony and I was in another band called Theraphosa before that. The first two or three bands I was in self-released a few seven inches, two EP’s and a two full-lengths. By the time I had decided to start Phratry, I already had some experience dealing with pressing plants and handling the print production for the cover art and packaging. Looking back, it was a natural progression, really. I enjoy the process of making a record. I like the production of the physical record and packaging and seeing it come to life. Photography, design and print-production are things that I’ve been interested in for a long time. My day job is in the commercial printing industry, so it all definitely overlaps with my responsibilities concerning the label.

I started the label here in Cincinnati but more specifically, in the living room of my old apartment in Price Hill. That was in 2004. In 2005 I went legit and had Phratry set up as an LLC. Coming up this August will be Phratry’s five year anniversary. In that time I’ve put out seventeen records with plans to release five or six more before the end of this year alone. Somewhere around late 2005 or early 2006 I was able to get a distribution deal with a company called Stick Figure out of Atlanta. They deal direct but they also deal with additional distribution companies to deliver the releases. I also obtained a deal with a digital distributor in San Francisco called IODA that delivers the releases to iTunes and every other digital store you can imagine. I have a lot more to offer bands now than I did when I first began. I started out working with bands in Cincinnati but as time has passed, I’ve branched out and started working with some bands in various spots across the country. So, yeah, the label has definitely grown. The name is a little more recognizable than it once was. My mailorder has grown a little bit more and more people seem to be getting excited about the bands.

2)  Discuss the Phratry sound and aesthetic. Is there a specific one? A lot of the bands on your roster seem to lean towards a hard rock, almost punk aesthetic with quick tempos, shouted vocals, etc. (I’m thinking Knife the Symphony, Arms Exploding, Caterpillar Tracks, and others). At the same time, there seems to be a heavy emphasis on melody with a lot of these same bands. A comparison I read about Knife the Symphony, in particular, to lots of Dischord bands is, I think, very accurate and I hear a lot of Minor Threat and Fugazi in the music. Do you think Phratry has developed a characteristic sound? Is this something that you’re going for?

Well, no, it’s not actually something I’m going for. In all honesty, I hope there won’t ever be a recognizable Phratry sound. I don’t know. I guess I never really thought about it. A unified sound or aesthetic might be inevitable but it’s really never anything that I’ve set out to accomplish. I’m a fan a of a lot of different music. The idea behind the label has always been that each band should be unique and just do what they do – regardless of what the other bands on the label sound like. And when I approach bands to work with, I’m never concerned with how their style might fit, or not fit, with the other bands already on the roster. I just try to work with bands that I’m a fan of and put out music that I personally enjoy listening to or seeing live. I also make it point to work with people that I generally enjoy being around and talking to. I definitely wouldn’t want to work with a band without getting to know them a little bit first.

I’ll admit that a fraction of the bands currently on Phratry definitely have some stylistic similarities. I’m not denying that. However, I hope to ultimately represent a fairly diverse roster. I don’t want Phratry to be the type of label whose name is synonymous with a certain style – the way that Fat Wreck Chords is, for instance. I’ve always been a fan of SST and Touch & Go and their diverse rosters. I’ve actually been working with Jesse from [Phratry’s] Sah for quite some time now to put out an album for his side project called The Terminal Orchestra. They’re a stripped-down orchestra with a lot of strings and piano. I’ve also been pushing for Lauren [Phratry’s LKN] to make a piano record. She’s written some really beautiful piano compositions and I would love to have a part in getting those out into the world.

I definitely think that a lot of the Phratry bands subscribe to a punk ethic when it comes to their art. They create music on their terms and they don’t want anybody to fuck with it. Nobody is doing it to become popular or the next big thing. They certainly don’t do it as a career move or anything like that. Everybody holds down a day job.

I think there are only a couple of things that I care about with regard to a Phratry aesthetic. First, I want there to be a real sense of honesty in the music as well as a sense of community within the confines of the roster that will hopefully spread and energize others – whether it’s other bands, people that come out to shows or buy the records. The second is something I don’t really talk about because it seems like such a distant reality. My ultimate goal is for Phratry Records to become a non-profit organization. I love music and I really do think it has the power to inspire people and change people in unique ways. In fact, outside of my family, everyone that’s close to me in my personal life is the result of relationships built from playing music or skateboarding in one way or another. I don’t want the label to be just another business or just another label. It pains me to see music cheapened by shows like American Idol or the so called talent shows. And the manufactured boy-bands and that sort of thing is another sad story. Anyway, I’m not saying that music and labels aren’t important if they’re not charitable organizations. Art in its many forms is necessary in our society. I’m not trying to be snob about this. It’s just that for me, and for my label, I would like it to ultimately be something special. Something where I could actually do music and help people at the same time would be amazing. First, though, it’d just be nice to break even on the releases more often…

3)   How would you characterize the music you and the bands on your label make as it fits into today’s popular/independent music? Is this something you think about?

I can’t speak for any of the bands but my personal feeling is that a lot of what the Phratry bands are doing is just as good, if not better, than a lot of the popular or sought after independent music these days. I personally don’t worry about the music fitting in with what’s popular but I do worry about it getting the recognition it deserves. I see first hand how some of these bands work their asses off and how much their music means to them. I try to do as much as I can for them but I continually struggle with the promotional aspects of the releases. I wonder if I’m pushing it enough or pushing it too much. I don’t want it to become a meaningless product – like a McDonald’s hamburger. But I also don’t want it to go unnoticed.

This music is art first and foremost. It can be characterized as a lot of different genres, I suppose. I do think that some of the bands could appeal to wide range of audiences outside of the punk or indie realm. Anyway, I don’t think any of the bands concern themselves with fitting neatly into specific genre or category.
4)   Are the majority of Phratry’s bands from Cincinnati? How do you feel Cincinnati has contributed to and helped foster bands on your label? Or, on the contrary, has it been hard to gain an audience and a strong support system here?

Right now, yes, the majority of the Phratry bands are from the greater Cincinnati area but there are a few who are not. LKN is out of Portland, Sah is from Michigan and Blue Velvet was out of NYC. I’m currently working on a new release with a band out of Chicago called Quatre Tete and I’m also working with Ampline [Cincinnati] to put out a split-release with a band from France called Atomic Garden. Those two bands will be touring together in the U.S. this Summer and then hopefully in Europe later in the year or next year. And, again, I’m trying to get something with The Terminal Orchestra who is also out of Michigan. I’ve also extended an invitation to National Suicide Day out of Cleveland to join the Phratry family. They’re a cool, rock / soul / metal band with crossover members from This Moment In Black History.

Cincinnati is the area that I’ve had the most exposure to and, quite frankly, there are a lot of great bands in this area. Whether they’re affiliated with Phratry or not, there are a lot of musicians doing really exciting things around here. In all honesty, Cincinnati is not a bad place to live in if you’re an artist of any medium. It’s true that it’s a conservative town with a city government completely inept at pulling people together to harbor new ideas or innovative thinking. However, what the majority of the mainstream population and media doesn’t realize is that Cincinnati is home to a modest-sized, progressive and productive arts community. There are a lot of independent business owners and publishers and a few independent radio and television stations. Galleries, museums, the symphony and the ballet are all thriving. Skate culture, zine culture, tattoo culture, gay culture, bike culture is all thriving here as well. It’s pretty wild. There isn’t much support from the community as a whole – be it the city government or the mainstream media – to push these sorts of things into people’s collective consciousness the way that say, New York or Chicago might. But then again it’s probably for the better that most people around here don’t understand these various movements. I think that giving up too much of a counter culture or giving up too much of yourself as an artist, to people who otherwise wouldn’t give a shit, can be harmful.

To get back to your question, there have been some systems both here in Cincinnati and outside of the city that have been extremely supportive of Phratry Records since the start. Their support has been immeasurable. I’m gaining at least the attention, if not the support, of new systems – be it bands, promoters, media or filmmakers – everyday. There are some media outlets across the country where I still, even after five years, cannot seem to get their attention. But for the most part, people are supportive.

For as much positive attention as the label has received, especially just within the last year or so, it really says a lot about Cincinnati. It proves that people can get excited and are excited about what’s going on here. A lot of people get down on the music scene here. The thing about Cincinnati is that you have to work hard to get the word out about what you’re doing. Unless you’re just the luckiest son of bitch in the world, you can’t just expect anybody to find out about what you’re doing here without touring or pushing yourself beyond the I-275 loop.

5)   What are some bands on Phratry that we should be on the lookout for in the months to come? Anything else you would like to add?

Well, like I mentioned before, I’m working with this band out of Chicago called Quatre Tete who are one of my favorites. My band, Knife The Symphony has gotten to do some dates with them in both Chicago and Kentucky over the last couple of years. They self-released a great new full-length called “Art Of The State,” about a year ago on the bass player’s, Bec-Rec label. It was later picked up by Chicago’s Sick Room Records. I’m pretty excited to put out something new by those guys. I’ve also got a full-length release in the works for Cincinnati’s Swear Jar. They are easily one of the most underrated and under-appreciated bands in this area. They don’t sound like anyone else around here. They self-recorded their album and it honestly gives Steve Albini a run for his money. Anybody that’s a fan of Albini and the bands he’s worked with should take note. I’ve also been talking to the guys in a band called State Song about putting out their debut full length. Those guys blew me away from the start. I got a chance to hear some rough mixes at New Fidelity Studios this past Winter when they were working on a demo. I went to their first show shortly after that and I was hooked. They remind me a lot of Sunny Day Real Estate and honestly I think they’re just as good. I’ve got more on my plate right now than I can realistically handle as a one-man operation but I’m excited about everything that’s coming up. I hope people will give it all a chance.

LKN – Stratagem

Humans Bow Down – The White Sun


Get In Touch With Your Roots!

June 2, 2009


Get in touch with your roots by attending the RiverTown Breakdown June 13 th at the Southgate House. This one night festival focuses on giving patrons of the Greater Cincinnati area access to some of the best American Roots music around. Vist our UPCOMING SHOWS section for the set list and more information.

Album Review – St. Vincent – Actor

June 2, 2009


“Tell my sister that I miss her/Tell my brother that it gets much easier,” sings Annie Clark on “Laughing With A Mouth of Blood”, one of many tracks on her new album, Actor, that is drenched with this kind of melancholic desperation. Recently, I read a web posting about St. Vincent, comparing Clark’s musical stylings to a twisted version of a Disney musical – a comparison that more often than not rings true. Songs like “Black Rainbow” (the title alone confirms this notion), with it’s gently played assortment of strings and woodwinds progresses merrily along until Clark sardonically urges her domestic partner to “shout even louder” if he wants the neighbors to awaken. A distorted guitar bursts into the mix as the strings begin to build to an eerie, doom-filled crescendo until the song abruptly cuts out.

In a recent interview, Clark remarked “I think desperation is a big part of the record and of the life of any actor. That image (an actor’s work), to me, is like a metaphor for the whole artistic mindset.” And throughout all of Actor (and Marry Me, her debut) we see her touch on this thematic note time and time again. First single “Actor Out of Work” (You’re an actor out of work/You’re a liar and that’s the truth) emphasizes Clark’s fascination with this duality of theatrics – at once inherently false and emotionally true. Each song on the album finds her inhabiting different characters from a desperate struggling thespian (“Laughing With A Mouth of Blood”) to a chronically discontent ex-girlfriend (“The Strangers” with perhaps my favorite line: “What do I share?/What do I keep/from all of the strangers who sleep where I sleep?).

Sonically, each song is so different from the other that, unlike Marry Me whose last half which, though good, was bogged down by its plethora of moderate tempos and general sameyness, Actor shows St. Vincent coming into her own as a solo artist, creating the kind of memorable, fully realized songs that should be especially thrilling in a live setting.

St. Vincent plays at the Southgate House in Newport, KY on June 9th  

St. Vincent – The Strangers

New National Tunezz

June 1, 2009



Hey y’all. First post. Cincinnati homeboys/Brooklyn-based band, The National, have been making the rounds with a few delightful new songs, some of which were recently recorded live in Boston. The first of these tracks, the epic and propulsive “Blood Buzz Ohio”, is a standard Boxer-era builder with some nice orchestration to compliment Berninger’s baritone. The second, “The Runaway”, seems to be a reworking of an earlier version of the track (previously “Karamazov” which I think is a vastly superior title). It’s a slow-paced, more ballady track, but like most of the National catalog, grows after a few listens and is equally enjoyable. The new album, which will probably be announced imminently, sounds pretty promising if these songs are any indication.

Also, it’s Matt birthday today. Happy birthday Matt!

The National – Blood Buzz Ohio (Live In Boston)

The Runaway (Live In Boston)

Right-click mp3’s to download

(via stereogum)