Liner Notes is a close up look at a great new album you may have missed. This week, Montreal art punks The Famines describe how releasing their new album Too Cool & Other Songs as a "paper album" may have saved their band
"After a solid run, we are shutting down Mammoth Cave Recording Co."
That was the beginning of a letter from Paul Lawton and Evan Van Reekum this past February, announcing the end of the Canadian label many had looked to as a model. "The truth is that we tried, but we cannot stand in the face of the massive cultural shifts taking place that are completely out of our control."
Number one on their list: everyone wants to release on vinyl, and fewer and fewer can.
"Pressing records: records take 120% longer to press than when we started. The 'vinyl comeback' and 'record store day,'" the message said, "disproportionately favour Beatles reissues... vinyl production industry can be almost impossible for labels of our size."
The Famines would have had one of the final releases on Mammoth Cave if the label had survived another few months. Instead, the death of the label meant Too Cool & Other Songs, the Montreal art-punks' first full-length record since 2011, would live in limbo forever. Though that depends on your definition of the word "record."
"We recorded this album in summer 2014 and we had visions of the thing coming out in August or in early fall," recounts singer/guitarist Raymond Biesinger. "So we got some answers out of Paul [Lawton] about how long it would take, and at one point he broke it down that for it to be guaranteed pressing the vinyl would take about 25-30 weeks."
I get it, vinyl is sexy. But so many bands way bigger than us with way deeper pockets want to press records. The reality is the economics of putting out a record will forever be tilted in their favour rather than ours.
A bummed-out Mammoth Cave offered The Famines all their contacts and documents to press the record themselves, but they were already frustrated by the tough realities of vinyl: the expense, the wait, the logistics, the, in drummer Drew Demers' words, "blah blah blah." The demand was too high for what is, in essence, a boutique product. A band The Famines' size just couldn't spend with artists like Jack White. They were being priced out.
"I get it, vinyl is sexy. It's a really cool thing to be on vinyl right now," says the ever-insightful Biesinger. "But there are something like 50 vinyl pressing machines in the world and no one is making new ones. So many bands way bigger than us with way deeper pockets want to press records. The reality is they're going to be the priority of the pressing plants. The economics of putting out a record will forever be tilted in their favour rather than ours."
Biesinger and Demers came up with a term to describe the phenomenon: "format gentrification."
"The neighbourhood of vinyl is just too pricey for us to be in," he summarizes. "So we found a new neighbourhood. And it's really cozy."
That neighbourhood? Newsprint.
The Famines' Too Cool & Other Songsis a 20x30 newsprint poster coupled with a nine-song digital download. They call it a "paper LP."
After testing the format with their single "Stay Home Club" b/w "Who Wants Disarmament," The Famines realized it's their perfect vessel.
The band's visual identity has always been as strong and fleshed out as its musical identity, an analogue to Biesinger's non-abstract, well-ordered work in his main gig as an illustrator. They've released everything from an informational pamphlet (How To Book A Maybe Successful Tour For A Band That Hasn't Received Hype On Pitchfork, Etc.) to a cassette (with a 268 page booklet of liner notes, naturally) to a four-volume collection of art (A Visual History Of The Famines). Throughout they've been committed to a stark minimalist aesthetic: black and white, guitar and drums, minimal production, direct lyrics that mean what they say, a raw live show. It's no-bullshit as an artistic choice rather than an ethical one, a punk band almost by accident.
Too Cool adds a bit of colour to their intentionally monochromatic palette, which squares with their slightly (but only slightly) less intense sound, "the threat of violence more than actual violence" as they've taken to describing it. The images on the cover of the newpaper function as a rebus for the title track. Each corresponds to a lyric, literally visualizing the song's indictment of the fashion industry (in which his wife works) and "the co-option of cool by the mainstream." The parallel to music is not lost on him.
A newspaper is anything but "too cool." Vinyl has become the status symbol for old-school rockist "authenticity," while even cassettes have become a hip fad for some artists seeking a shortcut to DIY cred.
But newsprint? It's practically a graveyard for physical media, a format that seems more and more old-fashioned as newspapers and magazines make the switch to digital. It might seem like a strange medium for a band - you can't hear the music on the paper unless you type in your download code - but given the way music consumption is evolving, it's not that different from other physical formats. Even cassettes are mainly used as a vector for a download code or a calling card for a certain type of band.
"You know, listeners don't really have to worry about format anymore," theorizes Biesinger. "They're just playing it on phones, playing it on their laptops. Aside from romantic myths of people having vinyl listening parties, I think that most music these days is being listened to through just whatever someone can wedge a digital file into."
Considering Biesinger's day job (you've likely seen his pieces everwhere from The Walrus and The New Yorker to Canadaland), it's tempting to think The Famines' format exploration as an artistic statement. But lest you think it's purely conceptual, the duo says, it's as much of a practical choice.
For a band whose sound is practically tailor-made for fast-and-dirty recording, they have a surprisingly sparse catalogue. That's been mostly circumstantial. First, there was the fact that Biesinger and his former bandmate lived in a different city, which meant they could only move forward in short spurts ("it'd literally be three practices every time we'd get together: two practices to get tight again, one practice to explore new things"). Then when they did get the means to produce more, they were handcuffed by their means.
"The prices are fantastic, the customer service is fantastic, they make this print that looks friggin' dynamite, it's marvelous," effuses Biesinger. "The presses that we're working with they turn around 100, 200 copies, and it turns around in a week."
Beyond all the talk of aesthetics and economics, it allows The Famines to do what bands do: write music, release records and play shows.
"We're just trying to set up a situation where the economics of being in a band is not going to destroy us or make us quit," says Biesinger. "And if that works, that's actually going to set us up so we can make more art."