On a recent Monday night, Fitz Hartwig packed his tiny Korg synthesizer into his backpack, got onto his bike and pedaled in the January cold from his Tower Grove South home to the Carondolet venue the Sinkhole. After performing an instrumental ambient set as Oxherding, he didn't even walk away with a cut of the door proceeds; since he had booked the show, he passed the money along to the other bands and back to the venue itself. After that, he got back on his bike and headed home in the ten-degree evening.
Perhaps that's all in a day's work for an experimental musician, but it speaks to Hartwig's vision both as an artist and as the head of local label Distant Bloom. His imprint focuses on largely amorphous, electronically generated compositions; the physical releases are limited to between 50 and 100 copies of cassette tapes, and all releases live online at the label's Bandcamp site.
"Cassettes are really big in a lot of underground music these days," Hartwig says. "A lot of people see it as bullshit retro hipster kitsch, and that's a valid point of view. But tapes are cheap, they're analog, and for the kind of music I put out, the slightly muffled, washed-out sound you get from a cassette tape works perfectly; it gives it this dreaminess."
Hartwig notes that the genre his label specializes in is notoriously hard to classify: "'Experimental' is a loaded term in that it can connote such a broad spectrum of things," he says. "So far, the label focuses on spacious experimental music. It's a little hard to pin down what it is, exactly, that I'm looking for. A lot of what we've put out so far could be called ambient, though that's another loaded term."
If words fail him, Hartwig goes for a feeling — something almost spiritual, he says, that speaks to him in the music. That guidepost has led Distant Bloom to issue algorithmic sequences by local programmer Bret Schneider and delicate, slowly blossoming modular synth excursions from Denver-based artist Ann Annie. Hartwig's own Oxherding project has just released a new tape, comprising two "sides" of music between ten and fifteen minutes each, and he has a slate of new releases for 2020, both from St. Louis and abroad.
"This [experimental music] community can feel overwhelmingly homogenous with bearded white dudes, and it's a goal of mine to expand that," Hartwig says. To that end, forthcoming releases from the label will highlight works of acts like the U.K.-based soundtrack artist Norah Lorway and a collaboration between St. Louis artists JoAnn McNeil and Michael Williams. "There are a ton of really talented people in this field who are not white and not male and are doing really great work, and I want to be part of supporting that," Hartwig says.
Distant Bloom is not a local label, purely speaking — about half of Hartwig's current roster is composed of Missouri residents — but he proudly reps the talents and work ethic of his fellow St. Louisans. "It might sound weird to say, but I'm super influenced by anyone who is doing music here in St. Louis and hasn't taken off for the coasts," Hartwig says. "It's super inspiring to see people who have stayed here, grinding away at a super small scene when they might be talented enough to go somewhere else and do their thing."
- VIA THE ARTIST
- St. Louis' Frankie Valet will see its latest released by the St. Louis arm of It Takes Time.
To that end, Hartwig can recognize the grit it takes Mickey Yacyshyn to hold down the St. Louis arm of It Takes Time records. Founded by Jordan Weinstock, who now resides in Brooklyn and is still involved with the imprint, It Takes Times specializes in hazy, lo-fi bedroom pop. Local acts Ronnie Rogers and Jaques Limon have released albums through the label; like Distant Bloom, cassettes and digital-only releases are the norm. But, in a first for It Takes Time, local quartet Frankie Valet is releasing its next album, Waterfowl, on vinyl this month.
"It's a very expensive hobby," Yacyshyn, who uses they/them pronouns, says with a laugh. Still, they recognize the ability of the label to elevate smaller, scene-less acts. "I think in terms of the conversation about accessibility in the music community, some people don't know where to start. Doing super limited presses helps bands that wouldn't have merch in any way."
Any label-head working and releasing physical products in 2020 must have the zeal of a true believer, and in conversation Yacyshyn doesn't try to contain their enthusiasm for the music the label releases.
"I think for us, we just put stuff out that we're really, really passionate about," Yacyshyn says. "That passion, no matter what the art is, is important to help art be heard. We're really emphatic people and we've had luck making connections in and out of St. Louis."
Like Distant Bloom, a good number of It Takes Time's roster comes from outside the area, including the U.K.-based Trust Fund and Boston's Squirrel Flower, which recently released an album on respected indie label Polyvinyl Records.
The forthcoming Frankie Valet release marks the 24th project that It Takes Time has issued, and the vinyl edition, coupled with the band's forthcoming tour, marks a new level of visibility for the label. "We've seen them put in insane amounts of work," Yacyshyn says of the band. "They just are exactly what I see and love about this community. They've really pushed themselves and grown as musicians — it's really been emotional to watch."