Human Resources, Zombie Invasions & Mean Librarians: A potted history of RVNG Intl.
The RVNG INTL back catalogue, like the mind of the label’s founder Matt Werth, is swollen with concepts, from the defunct RVNG Of The NRDS edits to the ongoing FRKWYS collaborations and album projects with Pink Skull and Blondes.
The label launched in 2004 with the under-the-radar but artfully presented MX CDs, an infrequent series of, you guessed it, mix CDs from friends such as Pink Skull’s Julian Grefe, Tim Sweeney and Justine D, which essentially laid the template from which RVNG INTL has grown into one of the USA’s most consistently interesting labels – who else would elect to close the series with a mix from Purple Brain accompanied by a seven inch housed in a hand crocheted case? From here the RVNG of the NRDS disco edits series began and ran for four years, carefully riding the edges of the nu-disco zeitgeist thanks to two obvious factors that elevated the series above the the ocean of mediocre edits that continue to plague our inboxes: the calibre of the artists involved (Greg Wilson, Pilooski, Todd Terje and JD Twitch were among those who contributed), and the quality of presentation from Will Work For Good, a design agency that has helped form the visual identity of the label across its many releases.
The NRDS series came to a natural conclusion in 2010, and the basic principles outlined above were carried into the imprint’s next endeavour, FRKWYS. Influenced by the late 1940s label Folkways, the premise behind the series is an ostensibly simple one; pair up a contemporary artist (or artists) with one or more of their musical heroes. It remains a signature of the RVNG INTL charm that the inaugural release in the series is still under wraps, whilst the eight volumes emitted to date have demonstrated how broad in scope the label is willing to go, most notably the latest edition that had Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras decamp to Jamaica to record with The Congos.
Pockmarked in between are ambitious one-off album projects and oddities that further represent the label’s tireless approach. The most overt example of the lengths RVNG will consider when a concept takes form was the 2009 Pink Skull album Endless Bummer. Echoing the album’s title, the label chose to approach the process of pressing up the physical copies in a manner that could only be described as an endless bummer, adorning 1000 record sleeves with 1000 different variations on the phrase. The exhausting 60 hour process is best demonstrated on the below video:
The relentless enthusiasm of Werth is what drives the label above all else; each release is soaked in the kind of hard work and attention to detail that can’t be faked. He was seemingly born with an entrepreneurial streak, and had control of a record label and music fanzine while still in his teens. A childhood in the US Midwest led to a move to Philadelphia, where RVNG was born, and, ultimately, it was onto New York. We sent our NYC correspondent Nik Mercer out to speak to Matt about the label’s origins, the anti-vowel movement and the power of group consciousness.
Where are you from?
I exited my mother in Madison, Wisconsin. So, Midwestern born. At a pretty young age, I moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, which is where I spent my formative years. From there, I went to Philadelphia, where I went to college. That was ‘96 to 2002. In 2002, I moved to New York, so I’ve been here for ten years. I’m a New Yorker.
What brought you to music to begin with?
My dad worked in the radio industry. He certainly enabled my earliest memories of music just by having it on all the time. He was an FM jock turned radio station manager. Music was all around, especially rock music. When I was seven, I was gifted Van Halen’s 1984―that was my first album, and I think it was perfectly normal for my dad to give that to me.
Was your mother into music in any way?
No. She went to school at the University of Wisconsin for a liberal arts degree, so I think there’s a creative gene [from her] that was passed along, but she wasn’t into music.
Is that brought you to Little Rock? The radio stuff?
Yeah, exactly. He was moved from what was, I guess, classic rock radio station to a sort of country music station, so there was immediately something to rebel against after that move. I remember wanting nothing more than to listen to heavy metal and punk rock―country music was just everywhere.
What elicited the move to Philadelphia?
That was musically motivated. I moved there not necessarily to attend college but to join a band. When I was in Arkansas, all throughout high school, I ran a record label, published a ‘zine, and promoted shows for the punk rock/indie scene that existed there. A band from Philadelphia came through that I befriended, and they played me a demo tape of this band that was looking for a bassist. I was just about to graduate high school and was going to University of Missouri―I’d fully enrolled and even gone to orientation―but then came back and heard this demo and was thought, fuck it, I’m going to move to Philadelphia, join this band, and play music. Obviously, I could’ve made a bigger leap to New York or L.A. or San Francisco, but I’d visited Philly before I made that full commitment and felt like the community was welcoming and maybe not too startling like New York or a bigger metropolis.
I didn’t realize you had a ‘zine and a record label when you were in your teens. What’s the story with that?
Well, the record label was kind of this community or constructed collective called File Thirteen. It had been around prior to me taking it over―it was established in 1989―but it had this tradition of being passed along from one micro-generation to the next.
That’s kind of cool. Like a high school club or something.
Precisely. Like a school newspaper transitioning to a different staff. That’s a good analogy. So, the proprietor or temporary keeper of File Thirteen had to go on tour and asked me if I wanted to handle mail order and oversee the operation. I was 16 years old.
What could go wrong?
It wasn’t like it was a small record label: it was up to its 20th release – it had a bit of a catalogue. When he came back from tour, I asked, “are you ready to have this back?” He said, “No, take it”. And thus began the next eight years of my life, basically. I ran it throughout high school and brought it to Philadelphia when I moved there. And, yeah, I published a fanzine, a super self-reflective journal fanzine.
In Philadelphia, I have a hunch that’s where you met Dave Pianka…
It’s certainly where I met Dave P. and where we constructed the idea of RVNG Intl. We started it as an event production company, actually. It was essentially a page out of Dave’s book for party production and promotion. Making Time was in its second or third year, but we thought we could do something that was an umbrella for that.
What was the original concept then?
To partner on different event opportunities. We were working with other record labels to promote their own albums―like Hefty Records and a lot of electroclash stuff that was happening at the time. A bit of a hodge-podge of hired event and promotion work. It was an okay respite for me, having left running a record label, but, ultimately, I felt unfulfilled. I totally admire Dave P. for remaining such a champion of “the party,” but I was more… I don’t know. I mean, I love that scene and all the music it’s produced, I just can’t hang as hard as Dave.
It’s tough, working within the dance music realm. So much of it is really transient, which makes finding a firm footing incredibly difficult.
Absolutely. That’s what, I guess, makes a party. You want to know familiar faces at a party. There’s a community aspect to it, but like you said, there’s a very transient element, too. What I think I was missing from it was that community part of it. Also, with a party, you’re dealing with so much more immediate physicality than you are when putting out a record, which is an inanimate object. You’re not responsible for a record having a good time.
Yeah, with parties and events, it’s everything, all at once; it’s the release, the reception, the response, and the end over the course of four, six, eight hours. The entire audience that will ever bear witness to it, enjoy it or not, is right there. And then it’s gone.
What’s the background behind the name―RVNG Intl.―itself?
I don’t know if I’ve ever divulged the full information of this but our mutual friend, Mike Z, came up with it. He throws a party in Philadelphia called Sorted and he plays Making Time, too―he’s one of the resident DJs. When we were coming up with ideas for this event company, we were sitting around talking about it, and were trying to figure out something that had an impact but wasn’t too obvious. Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR had just come out, and that was sort of the [beginning of] the anti-vowel movement. He suggested “revenge” and we kind of melded [that] with the anti-vowel thing. I mean, at this point, I feel like it’s totally up to interpretation; a lot of people think it’s “raving,” which it can be. That’s actually kind of cool and may have suited the label better in its nascent, dancier years.
I often feel like successful brands are the ones that open themselves up to that sort of interpretation, that don’t force that part of the experience for the audience, fans, and supporters.
At this point, RVNG has evolved outside of the party parameter and is basically an instrument of releasing music and putting on a different sort of “event,” you know? So, yeah, it has to be kind of undefined at this point.
How did it transform from the event thing into an actual label? The first releases you put out were the mixes, right?
Exactly. We wanted to produce a mix to send to potential event clients so we could prove to them that we knew what we were doing and could select good DJs or whatever. So Julian Grefe put together the first RVNG mix―RVNG PRSNTS MX1, which was basically a spray-painted CD in a spray-painted case.
Which one was Tim (Sweeney’s)? I have that one. Was it a similar sort of thing?
Yeah, similar. That one was [by a different designer] and played with the transparent/opaque thing.
So Julian did the first one…
And the second one. And then Tim’s was the third. We sold a reasonable number of those CDs and that’s when I totally got the itch back to run a record label. I think that was right around the time that I put out a NRDS 12”, which was also Tim―two edits by him. At that point, it was all still 12” edits and CD mixes, so it wasn’t like I could go above board really. But it definitely made me want to start putting out original music again. If you’re putting the time into putting out a 12”, I guess.
It’s a very similar sort of process, regardless of whether or not it’s original music or an edit. So you were in New York at this point?
Well, yeah, so, by the time Tim’s mix came out… that was released after I’d been here for a while, in 2005.
You just met him through the usual circles?
Yeah, probably through Dave.
What brought you from Philly to New York?
I think I just kept bumping my head on the glass ceiling [in Philly]. I started to feel a little constricted and I’d been there for six years. It was just time. I was offered a job at Flyer magazine, which is where JDH [Josh Houtkin] worked. That enabled me to get up here―and live beyond the poverty line for a couple of years. Like, way below the poverty line. But, [eventually], I started to gather my bearings and New York became home through a series of trials and tribulations, which I’m so glad I got to go through. Those were some of the most memorable years for me. It was a blast, going from one party to the next, getting free drinks and food where you could. And that’s how I began to meet my new family, you know? All the people from that era I still surround myself with, even though my social life and listening experiences have diversified a bit. And I think everyone’s has, too.
How did Rvng become yours alone?
I think that just kind of happened as I started actually running the business operation of Rvng. By virtue of time and time invested, the label aspect became my focus. Dave has always been an incredible source of inspiration and remains to be. It just felt like I could carry on the spirit and also move into some weirder territories I wanted to explore.
For the most part you’re not even doing dancey stuff, and if it is, it’s sort of leftfield, fringe music with crossover potential. And you also treat it like a bona fide label, where it’s not just a 12” a month―you actually have a roster and albums and EPs and singles, which is what labels traditionally put out.
It’s weird. I came from knowing those label cycles, having run the high school/college label to that point, where it [revolved] around strict releases schedules and contracts and advances and royalties and all that stuff. I didn’t necessarily think I would get back to those business principles, but if you’re going to run a record label and treat an artist with total respect and transparency, you have to have those in place. Otherwise, you’re disservicing their art and life’s work. So I had to walk away from the idea of it being freeform. I wanted to turn it into a proper business, and that’s why it resembles a business.
I like that: it resembles a business.
Well, maybe it’s the opposite: maybe it is a business but resembles that freeform idea or concept. That is, the conceptual interface is a little more abstract.
So how do you go about picking up artists? I assume some of them―like the Pink Skull stuff―is birthed from knowing the musicians personally. But, like, with Blondes… I imagine you acted more as an A&R agent with them…
Yeah, I guess you could consider me being very present in their early days of playing out live and controlling the basements and galleries they were playing. Stalking them a little bit. There’s certainly an A&R aspect to it. I love their music, though. I distinctly remember hearing [it] via MySpace via a friend of mine who introduced them to me. He and I were talking about starting a tape label, with which we wanted to focus on underground electronic music. I remember going to their MySpace page and being blown away by the tracks, and then just pursuing it. And going to them to get a feel for what they wanted to pursue with their music and trying to realize that as much as possible. I think they’re just starting; I think our partnership over the past two years is nowhere near its [full] potential.
Yeah, like with the album that just came out―that was a pretty substantial statement. And then there were the 12”s. There were three of them that sort of comprised a series, right?
Three, yeah. They’ll say this, too: we didn’t really know we were getting into that. The idea was to record a 12”― “Lover/Hater”―and as that started to formulate, there was this duality or dichotomy we found to the tracks, so we decided to push it into a serial endeavor.
And they sort of gave the album precedence, too. There’s a lot of stuff you do with the label that’s serial, from the NRDS stuff to FRKWYS.
NRDS is done. I did 10 of them, and seven of the MX CDs. The last of the 12”s was a Pilooski edit. I think I started FRKWYS while NRDS was still happening. The serial endeavors… it’s nothing totally new, but it creates a little bit of a sense of anticipation for people who are actually paying attention―they’re always expecting the next one.
Yeah. And while the serial thing might be all that novel in and of itself, what you’re doing with the FRKWYS stuff sort of is. How do you get those projects to happen? Are you maestroing everything?
There’s a bit of maestroing. That series was kind of born after I’d heard what happened with Excepter and their collaborations with Chris [Carter] and Cosey [Fanni Tutti, both of Throbbing Gristle] and JG Thirwell [of Foetus]. I felt like the concept unveiled itself, for the serial form, for the inter-generational pairings. From there, it’s been a lot of engineering of collaborations, with artists from either end of the generation spectrum participating. I’ll go to an artist with the idea of being a part of FRKWYS and finding a collaborator and then pursuing some sort of in-studio or file-trading scenario. Mostly, it’s in the studio now. Sometimes I get a list [of potential collaborators] from them, but sometimes I suggest them for them―it’s been really case-by-case. At the basis of it, though, is collaboration.
Now that I think about it, it’s pretty apparent to me that you’ve always benefited from collaboration; it seems to be something you’re constantly drawn to.
I mean, no one man can move mountains and it takes a village to raise a record. [Laughs] I love collaboration―I love the power of group consciousness. And I think that, with an artist, there’s enough ego, in the best sense of the word, that to project anything further on top of that [is a disservice]; they’re already a strong enough force. When it’s a collaborative project to begin with, there are already so many forces at play that all you can do is mediate.
How did you and Tim come together to make the Beats In Space label? You’ve got a couple of releases out already.
Yeah. There’s several being worked on now. I think Tim had talked about starting a record label for quite a while. We had started talking about it at that point. To Tim’s credit, he’s a very meticulous listener, and it took him that long to find which artists he wanted to represent his really established, well known [radio program].
I don’t want to parallel him to someone like John Peel―he’s got a few more years to go―but I can imagine how difficult it was to select a couple of songs to put out on vinyl when you share so many with your listeners on a weekly basis.
And there’s a lot of pressure. I hate to use “tastemaker,” but he’s always very naturally championed music. Whenever you hear a track on Beats In Space, it feels like such an extension of him. That’s already a stamp of approval―and the record label is beyond that.
How many releases do you have scheduled?
Well, next up is another Paradis 12”, which Tim’s debuted on the radio show. Then there’s another 12” in production that I can’t really speak about. There’s actually two more. So, by July, we’ll have the first five 12”s out.
Not to belittle it, but it’s surprisingly easy to get into the groove of putting our records. It gets sort of addictive and you become obsessed with sticking to whatever schedule you come up with.
I’m sure you appreciate interacting with the artist and being a part of that process. Records are essentially for fetishists. If you ask any [teenager] how they listen to music, it’s either free on the internet or they go out and experience it in a live setting. Since I’m a fetishist, I keep putting out [physical] records and will continue to, but it’s exciting to see how the real connection to music is happening in an event capacity. It has become more important.
Interview by Nik Mercer
Label artwork courtesy of Will Work For Good