A Decade of Brilliance and Darkness From Sacred Bones Records
Besides The Big Bang Theory, the Resident Evil movies, Sublime With Rome and a few other examples, 10 years of anything is a mark of staying power, quality and singular devotion to craft. A decade of releases from any label is an impressive feat — all the more so when almost every one of them is buzzed about, interesting and boundary-pushing. Sacred Bones sits squarely in this corner.
Formed in 2007 on the strength of a release by founder Caleb Braaten's friends in the Hunt, Sacred Bones has steadily grown from an afterthought of a horror merch company into one of the most influential labels in music, releasing key records from names like Zola Jesus, Jenny Hval, the Men, Blanck Mass and Pharmakon, among many, many esteemed others. This Saturday, the label will celebrate their 10th anniversary with a mega-blowout bash (tickets available here) featuring several names from the label, past and present. In anticipation of the gig — and in celebration of Sacred Bones' catalog — we sat down with Braaten to discuss his humble beginnings and the future of the label.
Did you ever in a million years think that Sacred Bones would last this long, let alone have the success that it has?
Hell no. Never. Never in my wildest dreams. I don’t even know that I wanted that. It was just something to do. I just loved records and music. I was never interested in doing interviews about my record label. [Smiles and laughs] That was never anything that I thought would ever happen. It’s incredible.
Just one foot in front of the other …
Opportunities kept presenting themselves, so I kept taking them. It was also a time and a place, too. Brooklyn in the 2006-2009 era, the Todd P [Todd Patrick, event organizer] years, that was a really cool time in NYC. It was a true DIY movement. I feel like a lot of it was like a backlash [against] what happened previously, which was the Yeah Yeah Yeahs / Strokes / Interpol / TV on the Radio — that sort of thing, where it was pretty mainstream. That was what everybody thought was going on in N.Y., but that was Top 40, basically. Don’t get me wrong — I love every single one of those bands, but it was big and somewhat out of reach for most. So, there was a real desire to create a scene that was more accessible. It was also the explosion of home recording. The ability to bang out a couple songs on your laptop. That was a big part of the DIY scene.
To be fair, you’d see a lot of those guys from bands you mentioned playing these shows as well. I know I’ve seen Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe solo a bunch of times; Brian Chase was a staple with his weird free jazz trio …
Absolutely. Nick Zinner has always been — and still is — a guy that is around and at the shows, supporting the local scene. Without a doubt. Sacred Bones was part of that N.Y. scene … Captured Tracks and Woodsist, all the Todd P stuff. So, we definitely benefited from that lo-fi scene.
Did the Hunt come before Sacred Bones or did Sacred Bones come because of the Hunt?
Sacred Bones came because of the Hunt. I was doing a merch company — T-shirts, posters, patches, shit like that. It was all horror-themed stuff. It was called Monster Squad. I wanted to do this record, so we did it as part of this company on Monster Squad Records, which was a terrible name for a record company. I hated the name, so I changed it. Sounds like a psychobilly record label or something.
Or the name of a really sick movie from when I was a kid.
“Wolfman’s got nards.” I still love all that stuff … I mean, obviously. I did John Carpenter’s records. But yeah, the Hunt were just buddies of mine — still are. The record did fine; we had a record release show in Los Angeles. I lugged them to every record store and tried to put them on consignment. Tried to sell them on the internet. I got it reviewed on Terminal Boredom. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Viva La Vinyl and Terminal Boredom were the main ways that I would sell records. I sold so many from just those two places and posting on MySpace. The good old days. Blank Dogs were next, and those sold out really fast. Blank Dogs were when a lot of people started to take notice. Between them and — as a metal fan — Zola Jesus. Zola’s original release was a split with Burial Hex that caught the eyes of a lot of metal fans, being that it was on Aurora Borealis. Our first releases with her were basically some of the first recordings of her when she was like 16. I stumbled onto that on MySpace. Top 8s … that Top 8 “A&R” strategy.
She is obviously your first real success story — like, through the roof almost immediately. What was that like? Must have been totally exciting, but also terrifying.
It was really weird. It just changed everything. Ultimately, it’s what made Sacred Bones become a sustainable business instead of a project. That led us to opportunities like booking agents and press people and distributors, which [let us] build an infrastructure, which we didn’t think was possible before that. It made it more real, I guess.
I’m always interested in the moment when a hobby becomes unsustainable and must evolve into a business.
So, about that moment is when Taylor Brode joined on from Touch and Go. She had been looking for work, and we had known each other from the Touch and Go days because I was the buyer at Academy Records. We were friends already, and she wanted to move to New York. She set up a lot of that infrastructure because she was familiar with a lot of the music industry. I was not familiar with the industry at all; I was a record store guy and a record collector. I didn’t know about press, I didn’t know about any of that. Press for me was Terminal Boredom. [Laughs] But it was scary… and I worked at the record store and at a bar on top of all of this.
How long were you located on North 6th Street in Brooklyn? Underneath the Williamsburg location of Academy Records.
We were in the basement there for four or five years. Assembly, emails — when the internet would work — fulfillment, all of it. We still make all of our handmade editions on-site, but in the early days, we screen-printed every single record, because that was the cheapest way to do it.
When you were coming up with that, that’s sort of when the standard Sacred Bones cover came into play?
It comes from Blue Note Records, Crass, Impulse, etc. These recognizable things … you can walk into a record store and see it and know what it is about.
You’ve done several interviews about working with John Carpenter and David Lynch over the years. Do you have any interesting anecdotes about working with either of these guys?
So, Lynch is like my biggest inspiration, aesthetically. And since the formation of the label, I knew I wanted to work with him in some capacity. So, I set aside a copy of every version of every record, and stored it in this box labeled "David Lynch." So, about three or four years into the label, I had this massive box of stuff with the intention of sending it to him, hoping to grab his attention. So, I was planning this and I finally got this address, so I thought, “This is a huge box, so at the very least he’ll open it and know it exists. And that’s pretty cool.” [Laughs] So, as I was preparing this, I just happened to be chatting with one of my oldest friends who lives in L.A. He was friends with David’s music attorney. She took a look at the pile, weeded out a bunch of items and [I was told] maybe she can actually just put you in touch. It was the serendipitous moment where I met the right people, he saw the package and loved it, and we’ve been working together ever since.
You have an aesthetic, but it’s pretty wide. When you started the label, was it much more narrow in scope?
I really just wanted to do reissues. I never wanted to be a genre label. We have an aesthetic, but not a style.
Were the Deathrock reissues from that original charge toward reissues?
Yes, that was one of the original ideas, to put those records out.
One of the most interesting things about the Red Bull Music Academy gig is the return of the Men in the original incarnation. What does that formation mean for you?
Well, it was the first version that I knew. So, it’s nostalgic for me at this point. But I love all their records, and I love how they will do whatever the fuck they want. They literally don’t care what people think. I respect that so much. Those first two records with [Christopher] Hansell, Open Your Heart and Leave Home, they really encompass the aesthetic of the label, which is not one thing. It’s all these different influences combining together.
So, this Sacred Bones 10th Anniversary show: When you look at a whole lineup like that, you and I have talked about your past about growing up in Colorado — did you ever think you’d be working with Genesis P-Orridge? Where not only are they playing a show for you, they’re playing a show celebrating your label?
Yeah, it’s too much to even think about. [Laughs] It’s very stressful. I don’t like to think about it.
What’s in the cards for the label? Do you have any goals?
Goals for the label? Probably to keep doing it, to be able to run it still. [Laughs] I want to expand it, I want it to grow. We’re doing this [Thee Temple of Psychick Youth] documentary, we’re doing film and book stuff, continuing to do music.
How’s the documentary coming along?
That’s coming along well; it’s a very big project. Every interview it becomes bigger, you learn more and it’s like, “Oh my god, how are we going to tell this intricate, complicated story in 90 minutes?” Because there’s just too much.
It’s a good problem to have.
It’s an amazing story.
How is that? Balancing the Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth doc and the label?
Ah, it’s gonna be tough. It’s stressful to have all these projects in a year, but we’ve got a team; there’s four of us, so we don’t have to all be present all the time. We’re all very busy, everyone has their own shit. Ryan [Martin]’s got his own label, Jaqueline [Castel]’s got her own movie.
How many people work for you?
Three full-time people, I guess — two full-time project managers, warehouse person and then one other assistant part-time. A lot. Too many; not enough, though.
What is the record you’re most proud of?
I’m pretty proud of that John Carpenter record. It’s pretty cool to be able to introduce John as a musician. It’s pretty fucking cool. Everyone knew it, but he really got to prove he could make music that wasn’t attached to films and it can be awesome. To be part of his story, that’s cool.
What do you think was the turning point record for Sacred Bones?
The Zola Jesus record for sure.
What’s the most out-there record on the label?
Oh, the Carl Simmons reissue. It’s so weird, but so good — by far the weirdest record we put out. It’s a very early reissue of a cassette that came out, and there were only 20 copies. It’s this guy from Maine, total weirdo — you gotta check it out.