Rad rhizomes: an introduction to Not Not Fun Records

Sunday,16 Oct 11 18:03
Not Not Fun Records

Not Not Fun Records

Nevertheless, everything important that has happened or is happening takes the route of the American rhizome: the beatniks, the underground, bands and gangs, successive lateral offshoots in immediate connection with an outside. […] And directions in America are different: the search for arborescence and the return to the Old World occur in the East. But there is the rhizomatic West, with its Indians without ancestry, its ever-receding limit, its shifting and displaced frontiers. There is a whole American “map” in the West, where even the trees form rhizomes.

(Gilles Deleuze / Félix Guattari: A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London / New York 2004), 21.)

These days, the artistic praxis of psychedelic, noise and other (usually indefinable) undergrounds is spreading, morphing and multiplying, not least due to the Internet’s hardly graspable effects on our daily activities and social relations. It is not just the American West that harbours DIY labels of varying profile and success. Nonetheless, it is very tempting to identify the aesthetics of Not Not Fun Records (NNF), sun-drenched and enthusiastically weird as they often are, as “very LA” or at least very Californian. Sun Araw’s glistening Beach Head fantasies, Amanda Brown’s warm cover collages, the ocean-informed generosity of Inca Ore’s Silver Sea Surfer School… and yet such a reduction of these and other NNF releases would do a disservice to anyone trying to make sense of the sheer breadth of the label’s output. The label’s “rhizomatic”, and thus mostly heterogeneous and dynamic roster and character can’t be grasped through the use of genre signifiers.

If anything, its lack of adherence to imposed categories makes me think of Baudrillard’s contrasting of flat, long, horizontal Los Angeles to towering, vertical New York City (and even more so to European cities): a city- / recordscape of aesthetics, desert-like in its lack of stratification, not determined by overarching categories and not focused on representation. This may sound terribly serious, but here’s the next point: this lack of determination through concepts and the nonchalance encountered, for example, in Pocahaunted interviews and the label name certainly do not keep the music from being interesting and unique. Here we have varied musics manifesting from a reservoir of knowledge and a range of creative impulses that do not require a particular concept-based artistic ethos but can result from friendship, from everyday musical activities: a new “folk” music (also see the social aspects of Matt Valentine and David Keenan’s respective takes on “free folk”), happy to experiment and improvise, effortlessly generating hyperconnective yet personal sound / artwork.


But even here, I am generalizing. Who is NNF, how and where can NNF be situated? The label is run by partners Amanda and Britt Brown and has been active since 2004, based in Los Angeles, inspired not least by the city’s thriving DIY noise / punk field catalyzed by venues like The Smell and involving bands like Foot Village. Underground label / artist moves from Sonic Youth to Riot Grrrl provided examples of how to handle aesthetics, artistic approach and label work. During the following years, the Browns’ respective projects – most famously Pocahaunted and Robedoor, dealing in different shades of evocative psychedelic drone exploration – grew in profile; so did other artists whose initial home was NNF, like Sun Araw (Cameron Stallones of Magic Lantern), whose immediately identifiable sound developed in ways not dissimilar to Pocahaunted’s, increasingly interweaving a blurred drone aesthetic with decidedly rhythmic, dubby elements. These artists were presented and discussed on websites like that of Glasgow-based store Volcanic Tongue and message board Fangs & Arrows and found growing exposure in magazines like British monthly The Wire. Relations with fellow labels like Oklahoma’s Digitalis, Michigan’s Excite Bike, Iowa’s Night People or New York’s Arbor and Woodsist / Fuck It Tapes were formed. Together with international connections to the likes of France’s Ruralfaune or the UK’s Blackest Rainbow and Volcanic Tongue, they give a potent impression both of how NNF itself quickly was involved in what Andy Bennett and Richard A. Peterson would call “trans-local” and “virtual” scenes. These labels tend to share aesthetics and exchange personnel, and their DIY ethos is furthered and co-enabled by the availability of formats such as CD-R and cassette tapes, usually released in smaller editions, while vinyl and actual CDs are the formats of choice for releases by already established artists on the NNF roster. As Simon Reynolds suggests, there appears to be a certain tension – not necessarily a contradiction! – between NNF’s love for and support of the haptic, the artwork, the physical medium on the one hand and the importance of digital communication for its development.

Over the years, NNF has been working with acts that have been active in the US underground for many years such as Charalambides or GHQ, artists who are associated with slightly earlier generations of experimental, psychedelic labels like Eclipse or Siltbreeze; former Charalambides member and now Volcanic Tongue co-owner Heather Leigh Murray has released solo albums on NNF; NNF affiliates Jed and Nick Bindeman (of Eternal Tapestry), Natalie Mering (Weyes Blood), Honey Owens (Valet) and Eva Saelens (Inca Ore), distinctive artists in their own right, have all been members of sprawling Portland, Oregon-based free-form group Jackie-O Motherfucker at one point or another. What seems like ceaseless namedropping on my part is meant to emphasize NNF’s connections to other, manifold trajectories of exploratory, usually DIY-driven music emerging over (not just) the last two decades. NNF is not a single “scene” that exploded onto the map, can instead be situated historically – if that very history is conceived of as nonlinear.

In recent years, NNF has been associated with what David Keenan has termed “hypnagogic pop”, artists from the “post-Noise underground” accessing and harnessing materials, particularly pop and New Age modes from the 1980s, to create personal alternate universes. At the same time, the label, while certainly retaining former connections, found itself in interesting and possibly unexpected company in a colourful new online world that may be represented and co-enabled by but not reduced to websites like online store Boomkat, FACT Magazine or the Pitchfork founded blog collaboration Altered Zones. These sites tend to discuss musics emerging from the (more socially than aesthetically graspable) psychedelic / drone / “free folk” underground in the same breath as musics coming from a more decidedly dance-oriented / electronic background, not least because these distinctions are difficult to uphold on aesthetic as well as musical terms. That Viennese label Editions Mego, once best-known for its pioneering laptop-based releases by artists like Fennesz or Pita, now (also) puts out albums by synth-oriented artists with a drone / noise background like Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never as well as by acoustic guitarist Bill Orcutt, formerly of Harry Pussy, is a very telling example. Once (seemingly) separate trans-local and virtual scenes are increasingly indivisible and the proliferation of niches and microgenres does not necessarily imply actual artistic-social divisions. NNF is not alone here, but has – through its unceasingly prolific output – generated a name and profile of its own. Boomkat, FACT, Altered Zones and The Wire all have run NNF profiles and / or mixes, the latter even producing an NNF cover story by Simon Reynolds. NNF has also launched 100% Silk, an offshoot dedicated to more obviously dance-oriented material. The label doesn’t cease spreading internationally: one interesting and in this context particularly obvious example to be noted here would be Vienna-based “neo-rave laser-rider” (as NNF fittingly call him) Stefan Kushima (Cruise Family). Meanwhile, some NNF-affiliated artists’ career trajectories are remarkably successful: former Pocahaunted member Bethany Cosentino’s band Best Coast is probably the most familiar name to be mentioned here; Sun Araw released his most recent album in collaboration with Drag City (Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Joanna Newsom); and a few weeks ago, another of the label’s friends, Zola Jesus, was one of the Waves Vienna festival’s main acts.

Zola Jesus is one of numerous artists to have collaborated with Amanda Brown’s LA Vampires project, and she has appeared on My Estrogeneration, a compilation dedicated solely to contributions by female artists who make up a sizeable part of the NNF roster, a tendency the Browns are actively invested in. Referring to her own work as LA Vampires in the recent Wire cover story, Brown claimed she continuously asks herself: “How can I be more like Björk?” Her own pluralist pop worlds are supported by collaborators like label mates Matrix Metals, Ital or Maria Minerva. Minerva is one of three NNF acts, alongside Dylan Ettinger and High Wolf, to play this year’s Elevate; an Estonian artist now based in the UK and soon in Portugal, her music is an exciting conglomerate of subverted and decidedly DIY synthetic pop modes and a digital native’s sampling trips, theoretically informed but taking pop’s capacities of expression seriously. Whereas Minerva has been releasing some of the label’s most song-based material, French artist High Wolf howls drones that are neither old nor new and neither organic nor synthetic. They are particularly colourful manifestations of a classic yet personal psychedelic sound that you can imagine pyramids and jaguars to but only should if you really want to: there’s enough potential imagery at hand.


Dylan Ettinger is the one artist out of these three to actually live in the USA – Bloomington, Indiana, to be precise – and his elusive ambient / drone / jazz / psych genre hybrids have been described by Boomkat as “muddl[ing] the timeline”. This phrase seems to succeed at emphasizing certain aspects of the aesthetics found throughout the NNF discography: many different musical modes and strategies are accessible to and employed by these musicians, but there is always something ungraspable, irreducible about these musics.

In his recent Wire review (332 / October 2011) of Sun Araw’s Ancient Romans, Nick Southgate writes of this particular release, which he considers inspired by “the concept of the concept album”, and its creator as “creating the idea of a musical career” and points out the “strategy of becoming an eclectic sound factory [that] has been adopted by labels like Not Not Fun”. Maybe NNF and its artists are “minor” in the Deleuzian sense: not of lesser quality, but irreducible to “major” categories through static genre signifiers, tending rather to subvert their categorization, feeding parasitically off established (and often simultaneously supposedly uncool, long neglected) musical strategies (also see Branden W. Joseph's work on Tony Conrad, as informed by Mike Kelley). This manifests as a decidedly inviting, generous and friendly field of aesthetic alternatives and options whose production and social relations need to be understood as complex in all their everyday-ness and that indulges joyously (and daily) in making use of the artistic potentials at hand.


Maximilian Spiegel studies history and political science in Vienna and is currently working on his diploma thesis for the latter, “Gender construction and American ‘Free Folk’ music(s)”.