Features Designer Labels: Slumberland

DIY delves into the tricks of the trade from label founder Michael Schulman.

Seeing a band is signed to Slumberland Records means two things. Firstly, that they're Very Good, and secondly, that they're likely to possess the punk-pop tinged sound that the label has become famed for during its time.

Now into its twenty fourth year of existence, it's older than many of its newly devoted fans that adore the label's current crop of bands, such as Veronica Falls, Allo Darlin', The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, and Girls Names. So how has it stood the test of time so well? Simple: It's avoided trends. Speaking to the owner Michael Schulman it takes little time to discover the youthful enthusiasm that's been the driving force behind Slumberland's success. We also learn where his love affair with British bands began and how running the label has evolved over time. Hey Mike, How are you?
I am super busy at the moment. My wife and son are on holiday in Los Angeles this week, so I am taking advantage of that and working like twenty four hours a day. It is the kind of thing I would never be able to get away with otherwise.

How did the label begin?
We started in 1989 that was when we did our first release. A bunch of us had met at university, some at the college radio station and some through the other folks, there was about eight of us who used to sit around and listen to records together. At some point, a few of us got revved up and decided to pick up guitars, so we started playing music. None of us had any experience. It was extremely primitive stuff; we were into New York noise stuff at the time like Unsane, Sonic Youth and Swans, basically it was just racket but it was super fun. There wasn’t that much stuff going on in DC, I am not saying what we were doing was special, but it was notable. I worked in a record store and a couple of the other guys did too, so we thought the next step was to document what we were doing.

The first record was a three song compilation, a seven inch. You don’t see many of those around anymore, but it was a real big time for singles then. The singles market was crazy everyone was putting out seven inches, so we did.

How has running the label changed over time with the evolution of technology?
It has changed a lot! In 1989, I didn’t know anyone that had a computer. It was so analogue. You had to do a paper catalogue that you would send out to your customers, you had to send hard copy records out to fanzines and radio stations just thinking about it is crazy. Obviously, it has changed a lot, to do something with a piece of music and potentially reach 100,000 people in a week was simply impossible for a small label back then, and now it is not impossible at all. You might not be able to get any of those people to buy something, but that’s a different story. It is miraculous really, I can’t imagine 1980’s me looking at today’s landscape and making any sense of it. It is good and bad. Obviously, it has had a big impact on selling music that is the unavoidable part of the conversation, vinyl sales are still hanging on but ultimately those numbers are going to keep trending towards.

What is an aim to create a trademark sound like Slumberland possesses?
Not really. Originally, when we started the label it was more of a collective, but a bunch of those guys were in this band called Velocity Girl who went on to some amount of fame and repute, they were on tour all the time so the label devolved to me doing everything. If there is some kind of aesthetic consistency it’s just because that is the stuff I like. Within that idea, there is a quite a lot of variation, a band like Hood doesn’t sound anything like Go Sailor, there are people playing guitar and drums but the similarities stop there. I like the idea that people pick up on the consistency even if it isn’t necessarily a sonic consistency - quality, outlook or whatever. For me it is a credit that we’ve been able to put out two hundred records that cover a lot of ground, but there is a through line that you can follow.

Why did the label go on a hiatus between 2001-2003?
There was some personal stuff that I can’t really go into, but there wasn’t a lot of new stuff that I wanted to put out. I have never put out stuff just for the sake of putting it out; it has to be something that I really like and tells part of the Slumberland story so to speak. There was just a couple of years there, where I wasn’t hearing anything that was thrilling me and rather than force it, I just didn’t do anything for a few years. You've released quite a few British bands over the years - when did your personal interest in them start?
It was something that I've always been tuned into over the years; when I first started choosing my own music - as opposed to what my parents listened to, which was all great stuff by the way. It was around 1978, so I got into rock music through the tail end of punk and post-punk. I happened upon a radio station that was playing The Buzzcocks or something from a different kind of tension, and it was super exciting. I hadn’t really heard that kind of stuff before. This one radio station was notable, because it was fairly high powered and had a pretty good reach, but they played amazing stuff. I got this vast knowledge of stuff and a lot of it was English, so that was what I always listened to.

Do you feel like you've helped some UK bands get attention over in the States that they might not have received it?
I would like to think so, sure. Tou always like to feel like you're helping someone. I definitely feel when we started doing the label, there wasn’t necessarily a prejudice against UK bands, but there was an undercurrent where UK pop bands didn’t get taken very seriously in America. It's never been a big part of indie music’s fabric here. Generally, I felt when we released the Jane Pow album (modish power-pop band from Brighton) that I couldn’t really see any other US label putting that out. I felt like we were definitely helping bands reach an US audience, because I don’t think there were many labels tuned into that. It's changed now, as there are so many labels and people seem open minded - so some of that bias against stuff that isn’t American has faded a little.

What do you look for in bands that you're interested in signing?
I have to like the music obviously. It also really helps if the people aren’t assholes, it may seem like an obvious thing to say, but it is surprising how many people that want to be in music are idiots. I just can’t deal with that. What we do is on a small enough level that I would never deal with people that I don’t like just to sell records. It just isn’t worth it. I know labels the same size as Slumberland that are a bit more business savvy, they may look for a band that has a tour manager or has some more professional pieces in place. Perhaps I should, because sometimes it is difficult for a super hobby band to make an impact as there are so many bands. What I look for is: the music, people I can really deal with and people whose ethics are in line with mine. Realistically, I'm not going to make a band an hundred thousand seller; they’re not going to get a gold record on Slumberland. I need bands that understand our limitations. It is just one guy in an office who really likes their music who is trying to help them out - it seems there are plenty of people that get that.With Joanna Gruesome’s album ‘Weird Sister’ out soon could you tell us how releasing them came about?
I found out about Joanna Gruesome through their singer Lan (Alanna McArdle) who was in Evans The Death whose album I did in America too. I went over for IndieTracks not this summer but the summer before and helped put together one of the stages, which was great because I got to book all my UK bands that I hadn’t seen live before. Joanna Gruesome were also playing so I was able to see some of their songs and hang out with them - they're real funny kids and super enthusiastic. I like everything about them. To me they seem like a perfect Slumberland Band - it was such a no brainer really.

'Weird Sister' is really exciting. I just got LP’s, usually when a project gets to this point where you are getting finished LP’s and CD’s I can’t stand listening to the record anymore, because I've listened to it a million times. I put it on the turnstile yesterday, turned it up really loud and couldn’t get any work done because I was jumping around the office.

Slumberland has been going for twenty four years - could it keep going for another 24 years?
Ha. I'd be 71 years old by that point. I dunno it is hard, because what I like is youth music and it is hard to picture myself doing it in 24 years, but maybe my son will take over the reins. Honestly, when I started I couldn’t imagine it going for 24 years, our plan was to put out three records and that would be it.

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