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Great Circles: Intersecting Spheres

Brendan Arnott speaks to Justin Gibbon, the man behind Great Circles, a label from Philadelphia whose ‘shifty’ take on improvisational electronics is beginning to seep through into the wider consciousness. 

“Start with this: I think that the sound of the label, from the very beginning, has been trying to inform me of the sound of the label, if that makes sense.” Justin Gibbon pauses for a quick second, or maybe it’s the brief lag in our Skype conversation that creates the illusion of dead air. Either way, it’s a fitting reflection on Philadelphia-based record label Great Circles, whose releases have a certain mystique nestled into each of them that’s not so easy to put one’s finger on.

From the reverberating chaos of _moonraker’s improvisational techno psychedelia on their m_type EP, to Tony G’s masterful use of hollowed-out metallic percussive structures amongst echoing handclaps, to Jason Carr’s versatile, twitchy jaw grinding jams, the amorphous deepness of Gibbon’s label goes far beyond its differential geometry-referencing name. Blemishes left intact, each release feels both refreshingly new and all-encompassing, using a visceral techno framework to touch on massive concepts too large to understand. Even the name of Great Circles alumni Tony G’s Tous la Part le Même Sort EP translates into the vaguely foreboding statement “all share the same fate”, suggesting that there’s some unknowable, gigantic sense of cosmic unification behind it all.

As an inevitable consequence of addressing big ideas, Great Circles as a label is hard to pin down stylistically. Official press simply refers to the label as “shifty takes on techno, electro and house”, and this ambiguity seems to work well for Gibbon. “The reason I use the word shifty is partially to avoid using words like ‘experimental’, or ‘outsider’,” he explains. “Experimental is well overused, and I think should only be applied to music that is created by truly using some new approach or methodology. ‘Shifty’ is my way of communicating ‘not what you might be expecting’.”

Despite releasing its first record in 2008, Great Circles is still in the early stages of unfurling – a path built not on seizing opportunity, but possessing something really worth putting out there. However, Gibbon’s musical history supercedes the beginning of the label by many decades. “I’ve been a drummer since I was ten – officially since I was ten, I think I was banging on stuff when I was younger than that” he intones. “I think age isn’t really relevant most of the time, but I think it’s kind of relevant here because it puts me in a place and time.” Growing up a hundred miles outside of Philadelphia in the ’80s, he relied on classmates’ boom boxes and tape collections to usher him into the broader cultural sphere. “I had friends who would bring boom boxes to school on half days, and everyone would go crazy hearing new Gangstarr and Sugar Hill Gang and all that – and instantly I gravitated towards the drumbeats, and loud intense beat driven music – it wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard before.”

MTV also played an essential role in his upbringing. “At that time as well, I saw the video for Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”, and that flipped everything of course – everything was there, from the beats, turntablism, the robots, the whole deal, – I thought, “this is nothing like anything I’d heard before”.  Gibbon’s development for emulating the best drummers and soaking up the then-obscure MTV videos (back when such things existed) gave him an open-minded approach to incorporating different styles within. “You’d end up hearing music through the UK that’s influenced by stuff I didn’t know exists, but being distilled into some kind of European pop music, but also seeing things like Depeche Mode – I probably wouldn’t have run into otherwise.” Gibbon’s youthful penchant for figuring out ways to make his electronic toys make weird or dissonant noises meant that he also grew up in opposition to the widespread sentiment among drummers that mechanical percussion was somehow unacceptable. “Back in the 90’s everyone was like “oh, the evil drum machine” – and I always thought, ‘this is a great thing, it makes beats – why wouldn’t I like that?'”

The shift from rock to dance music happened gradually, when a friend played a Josh Wink cassette tape for Gibbon back in 1992. As his hometown was equidistant from Philly and New York, he’d often travel into the city to soak up whatever culture lay in wait. “I’d go to warehouses in Brooklyn where you’d wait in line for an hour while they were tapping the sound system, and sometimes the doors would open and sound would blare out and you’d be so excited to get in there and submerse yourself in that environment.” He also mentions Adam X’s Brooklyn-based record label Sonic Groove as a huge influence at the time, instilling a renegade feeling that merged elements of street art, DIY ethics and musical compulsion as important elements in a label. Reflecting on it, Gibbon admits those influences were “a model for what was I felt was pure, or driven by the right intentions… that was what they were doing because it was what they had to do.”  Additionally, stores like Hardwax and labels such as Workshop, Ornaments, Mojuba and Wax all set an aesthetic standard for Gibbon’ own taste. “I like that way of disseminating information, that this is as much information as you’re getting on the record itself” Gibbon says, referring to sparse labels that come packaged in a generic white sleeve. “Maybe you read the etching or do some research or whatever, but the stories aren’t being told by a bunch of words and pictures… there’s a little bit more of a secret to it.”

Those inspirations led Gibbon to collaborate with fellow Philadelphia DJ friends to form the promotional entity called Inciting – an umbrella organization for electronic music events, a consortium of musicians, producers and DJs, and what would become Great Circles. “For almost 7 years, we’ve been doing events under the Inciting name, and we’ve got a cultural niche in Philadelphia with Inciting being the sort of…” Gibbon pauses, trying to accurately describe the project.  “Y’know, people are throwing around the term ‘outsider house’ – we’re definitely like the sort of (I’ve always felt like) risky, on the edge, who-knows-what-they’re-gonna-have-or-who-knows-who’s-gonna-be-playing. It took a while to build trust… but it grows, and you become credible, and people actually now trust that like, “even if I haven’t heard it, I’m going to go in here”, which is one quality of the event that I think makes it really great.”

Great Circles’ first release from Inciting member Jason Carr feels like an accurate snapshot of the excitement swirling around the Philly scene at the time. The Athletic EP showcases a frantic desire to fit as much as possible into each track; the skittering techno pulsations of “On The Toes” are brimming with energy, whilst “Jumping Jacks” combines frantic handclaps with a slowly-growing ambient groan in the background that sounds as if a piece of extremely dangerous machinery has been left running unattended. Gibbon’s proximity to Carr was part of the impetus for the first release, but it was also borne from an opportune moment and a desire to take a chance. “He’s my friend, he’s been helping me for a number of years on projects – I just decided that I have the means and the capabilities to try this, so why not try this?” Gibbon recalls. “It was initially borne out of that mindset of ‘let’s make the opportunity'”.

Noting that the output of Great Circles is largely community-based (Terence Dixon to date is one of the few involved in the label who comes from outside Philadelphia, and Gibbon describes him as practically family from his frequent trips down to Inciting events) and from a D.I.Y. aesthetic, I enquire about the challenges of running a small label.  “Time is definitely an issue” he responds. “I have a full-time job, this is a labour of love, and I think that’s kinda key if you’re going to do a vinyl label. If you’re going to do a digital label, the challenges are different, the finances are different – but running one right now that’s strictly vinyl is absolutely a labour of love, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have to make the time to do it, and I love that. And I have to make the time to think about it, about what’s next, and what I have to do now.” Gibbon’s work ethic is suited to running a small label, he states, explaining “I’ll hand stamp all the records, every one, and I love it… every record gets four different stamps on it and I love the process; it’s cathartic, I just like the notion that I touch every one of these records, I make sure it’s the right side of the sleeve and go through this entire repetitive process.”

Still, the ‘strategy’ behind Great Circles’ releases seems fairly straightforward: To put out what feels right for Gibbon at the right time. “I never committed to saying ‘I’m going to do these ten things that are going to make the label successful,” he states, and then admits that he even has trouble remembering to update his Twitter page with any regularity. “I just forget, and then I go back, and I forget again – and that stuff is important, because that’s how people are learning about things and how you’re connecting with them – but there’s also about four more important things to do on any given day than, y’know, ‘say something online'”.

Despite Gibbon’s self-professed inability to maintain cohesive social media correspondence, one surprisingly nice feature that differentiates Great Circles is how honestly they pay tribute to any small shops stocking their material. Noticing that the _moonraker record has been stocked in an obscure, sweaty basement record shop I used to frequent in the middle of Osaka’s red-light district, I mention this to Gibbon, who seems excited by the connection. “It’s good company to be in,” he says reverently. “Small shops aren’t going to have the budget that a larger entity is going to have; they have less space, they’re buying less, and by virtue of that, the assumption is that it’ll be much more specifically curated. These shops are asking the question ‘what do we really like?’ It’s not just because we’re going to buy it and sell it – it’s a relationship.”

“”The first time I heard a finished product for the first _moonraker, even though I knew that those two guys had been working on something, I was really stunned”

Specificity and quality of curation are certainly important to Gibbon, but supporting smaller venues is of increased importance in a time of narrowing store selection, closures, and concessions. “As a small DIY entity and label, the least I can do is help draw awareness to the same small record stores and outlets that are selling our records. At the same time, I’m so grateful that people have been so willing to carry us and expose us to all of these small shops in the first place.

A three year gap is marked between that Great Circles debut and the next release from minimalist newcomer Tony G, whose EP opens with the sound of children laughing in the distance and pattering footsteps that become locked into a hypnotic whistling tone. It provides some deep, wistfully reflective house that throws a wrench in the works every time you might think it’s getting comfortable, incorporating everything from a flange-distorted incomprehensible monologue twisted far from normal human range, to the more traditionally satisfying house stomp of Andrew Joseph’s remix of “Tous la
Part le Même Sort”. This release marked the point where Gibbon began to become more active in working to promote the label. When a colleague asked him about his distribution plans in the past, Gibbon sheepishly admitted “My answer was ‘nothing – I don’t have distribution… at this point, I have the first record in a bunch of boxes sitting in my house”. Alongside NY DJ and mastering facility runner Dietrich Schoenemann, Great Circles began spreading records more accurately out to Europe and other parts of the world, and momentum quickly followed. Starting with Metasplice-affiliated _moonraker’s excellent m_type release, Rush Hour also picked up the label as a distributor, enabling Gibbon to transition from shipping half of his inventory out, to shipping all of it between the growing distribution entities.

“A lot of connections happened sort of simultaneously… there was enough of a buzz that things all of a sudden popped. It really happened all at once. The moral of the story for me is that I really had no expectations, and this was all me sort of just doing what I wanted to do – and so all this stuff that’s happened in the last 6-8 months has all come by surprise, and so it’s incredibly gratifying.” As a result of the buzz that Gibbon’s improved distribution and the _moonraker release garnered for the label, there’s a renewed interest Gibbon’s older records. “Part of a labour of love is that you’ve got to be willing to take a risk and be willing to say ‘I may lose a lot of money on this record’ – but I’ve never looked at it as losing money. Now, looking back, the old inventory I had, it’s out there, people are interested in it, and they’re re-upping on the older records because there’s enough momentum behind it. I had really hoped that that maybe would happen, that the music that preceded whatever eventually caught on is still relevant – electronic music is different that way because it’s not really time-stamped.”

_moonraker might be responsible for a lot of the recent excitement around Great Circles, with the unparalleled sounds of 2012’s intellectual yet raw m_type EP and 2013’s Remota Instruere 12″; both take elements of psychedelic noise and techno and swirl them around tense, continually adapting rhythmic patterns. Describing his first experiences listening to _moonraker tracks, Gibbon’s enthusiasm is undeniable. “The first time I heard a finished product for the first _moonraker, even though I knew that those two guys had been working on something, I was really stunned. I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do, how do I deal with this’, and immediately after, lying down and listening to it a second time, I got completely lost in it in a way where I’d be like “I don’t even remember how long that track was”. So in the span of those first two listens, I decided this has to happen, this record has to come out.”

Curious about whether _moonraker’s success is reflective of an increased openness to improvised structures in dance music, Gibbon is sceptical. “I don’t wanna make the assumption that it’s a reaction to anything. I think some are a little too quick to say “people are tired of sterile Ableton productions”. I think some people have always been in a spot where they want to hear music that’s surprising.”

Still, speaking with Gibbon, I notice that there’s a perpetual sense of gratitude at work when he speaks about the label, and how warmly he’s felt received by a global dance community of sorts. “The timing for live-produced, machine-produced, edgy, whether they call it ‘outsider’, people have different words for it – it’s just the right time for that, and I don’t take that for granted in the sense that I understand that window could close at some point.” he admits. “And if it just stops there for some reason, I’d still be like ‘that was really successful'”.

It’s quite unlikely that Great Circles will be crashing and burning anytime soon though, perhaps a by-product of the label’s “shifty” qualities. As the label grows, new curatorial challenges arise for Gibbon. “It’s been a difficult thing, because I realize I’ll continue to have to make decisions where someone brings something that they want to put out on the label, and I may have to make a decision where I say ‘this is really, really good but it doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit the label right now.’ There’s definitely some abstract quality to what I would hear in things, and part of what works I think is narrative or storytelling of some kind in the music, in some very strange or abstract way. But also certainly, you talk about the shifty piece of it, when I say shifty I’m thinking of a number of a things.. just sort of unexpected, and also flexible, or how can I say this… a different perspective on sounds, that isn’t forced – so all these different things come into the formula.”

The next Great Circles release will be a hand-stamped white label of Gibbon’s own material under his Westov Temple alias that he states has “been sort of a long time coming”, but following another release with Gibbon’s friend, gallery partner and event co-runner Dan Trevitt, the aesthetic of Great Circles will undergo a transformation of sorts. “I don’t know to what yet, I’ve got ideas – but I’m shifting the look and the aesthetics, and the packaging will change in some ways. I’ll definitely move away from hand-stamping, as much as I love it, I made a decision after m_type was released, ‘let’s do six and then change it’. I think it’s good because it puts a bit of a reset button in there. Maybe with a change of aesthetics, who knows what else might change.”

Whatever permutations Great Circles goes through, Gibbon’s dedication to challenging, rewarding, cerebral dance music remains firmly in place. It’s comforting that uncertainty isn’t any sort of deterrent for the label. “Taking risks when it comes to art and music, that’s what creates, that’s what makes change or gets me interested, so getting behind something and then seeing it catch on feels so good, like… I’m so glad we believed in this”.

Interview by Brendan Arnott
_moonraker locked groove shot by Dietrich Schoenemann
Westov Temple live photos by Ryan Gallagher
Record stamping photo taken by Justin Gibbon