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I first met Ben Schurr by chance at the Velvet Lounge. His band Br’er was just starting to find its footing in D.C. after Schurr’s move from Philadelphia, and this was one of its first shows. The band blew me away. It was at once cathartic and sentimental, crushingly heavy and lovingly sweet, beautiful and terrifying.
Now, nearly three years later, Schurr is not only continuing to front Br’er, but is the mind behind Blight Records, one of D.C.’s most interesting and prolific independent record labels. But the phrase “record label” doesn’t seem to do justice as a descriptor for Blight. They’re more of a musical commune; a creative collective where like-minded musicians move fluidly between each other’s projects. Each project absolutely has its own distinct identity, but this atmosphere of collaboration makes for a much more closely knit group of acts than we might see on other labels.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the label’s forthcoming compilation, which comes out today. It features 13 previously unreleased tracks from the full spectrum of Blight’s acts. While a first glance at the track list might indicate a dissociative, schizophrenic listening experience, this is hardly the case. From the sunny indie-pop of Pree to the solemn and deeply introspective minimalism of Sister Grotto, nothing feels out of place. Instead, listeners are treated to a vertical slice of a critical moment in the label’s history.
Recently, WCP sat down with Schurr to talk about the label’s forthcoming Blight Makes Right compilation and the release show that he’s planning for it, as well as the future of the label.
Below are edited excerpts from a much longer conversation.
On what ties the acts on Blight Records together:
I see a lot of the connections between the bands as this general sense of uniqueness. I want to find a better word than that, but everybody is trying to make very honest music for each individual artistic endeavor. It’s a surprisingly rare thing. Our current music climate is very genre-based, which I think is putting the carrot before the horse in a lot of ways.
There’s also this sense of urgency to a lot of music. We have no Plan B, so we’re putting it all into this. So I think there’s a sense of real sense of honesty and urgency, and i think that’s what ties together a lot of bands that are very distinctly different and allowed us to make this compilation that actually makes sense.
On maintaining the individuality of each project:
Most of the projects involved were really just one person’s vision and other people joined to embellish. None of them are really bands, they’re composers with collaborative compositions. So CrushnPain, right now is Austin [Gallas] and Erik [Sleight], but Austin set the template by doing it himself. And Stronger Sex, even though it was Johnny [Fantastic] and I, it started with just demos that Johnny wrote. And Br’er was my thing that I started and had other people collaborate on, and Pree is May [Tabol]’s thing, and then Ben [Usie] and I just get together with it. I think that really holds true with all the bands related to Blight at this point.
I think what it comes to here is that none of us grew up together. We all kind of met in a later stage in musical development. None of these were our first bands, with the exception of CrushnPain––that’s his very first band but he’d been doing it for a while. There’s a lot of, not really boundaries being established, but there’s a lot of respect and communication going on. And I know for because I’ve collaborated with a decent amount of the people on the compilation––I just want to reflect and react to someone else’s work, because if I want to compose or write my own music, I have my own project, Br’er. So if I hear a band that I like, I just want to jam with them. And that’s just kind of the way that we jam, is writing and composing music together.
On the inspiration behind the Blight Compilation:
I don’t want to sound like a music historian, but I’ve wanted to start a record label since I was 17, and I’ve been involved with other labels before this point, and I think there’s an art to running a label.
It originally stemmed from 4AD. A couple of years ago I was just obsessed with This Mortal Coil again, and what’s cool is that Ivo Watts-Russell’s idea is that he—instead of creating a compilation, he picked a bunch of songs that he had loved growing up and had different people on the label sing them and reinterpret them as opposed to making a traditional compilation, which they often did back in the early days of that label. But there was a lot of care put into it. And This Mortal Coil is a very distinct thing. It wasn’t quite a compilation and it wasn’t quite a band, it was just this amorphous collective of people who were just working together at the time making a record together. And that’s how I always see it, as just making this sort of time capsule.
On having Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu mix “Brunch is for Assholes”:
Ben Usie and I were on tour with Pree, and we were paying this festival in Brooklyn which we were really disenfranchised with and we just hated it. It was really industry-based and it didn’t seem like anybody really cared about music and what we were doing. We had been on tour for a while and were just not liking the way people were doing things. And we were playing all these shows and they weren’t well executed and they were poorly attended. The people in charge were just clearly not listening to the music. So we had a pass to go to other parts of the festival, and I realized Xiu Xiu was playing. And I was like, “Yo Ben, we gotta go see Xiu Xiu. They’re unbelievable and we just need to see a really good band after putting up with all this garbage.”
So later I’m waiting in line for the bathroom and Jamie walked up and, having played shows together in the past couple of years, he recognized me. He was like “Ben, hey! Do you live in New York? What are you doing here?” I was just like “No, I’m part of Northside fest, along with you. It just sucks. It’s really fucking lame and corny. And now we just really need to see Xiu Xiu because y’all are awesome and we need it.” And then Xiu Xiu was packed full of kids who really loved the music. There was this amazing super queer band called Bottoms who were just unbelievable and everything about it was why you would want to go to a show. After the show, Jamie asked me if I was still doing Br’er. This was just before Masking was finished and I was like “eh, I don’t know, I guess so.” And he just said “No, you need to keep doing it. It’s important. You make good music.” And he just really helped kick my ass into really taking Br’er seriously again, but also into starting Blight. If I didn’t have that conversation, I don’t know where I would have been after that.
So he asked me to send him our new stuff, and after that I was like “Actually, I wrote these new songs, would you want to mix one of them?” and he ended up mixing “Brunch is for Assholes.” And it was awesome, but it didn’t fit on the new record. It was just too different sonically, even though we all thought it was awesome. So I just thought I’d put it on the compilation because I didn’t know what else to do with it.
On how he chose the tracks for the compilation:
A lot of it was luck and circumstance. I didn’t go in and tell anybody “this is what I want for this compilation.” It was just like letting people react to the compilation, and knowing what they knew about what the label has done and knowing me and the things I’m interested in gave people direction.
On how he sees the compilation functioning:
I’m hoping that this is a major thing to get more press and more interest in the label, because it’s quite literally just documenting what’s actually occurring and is a great way to introduce people to what’s happening in this world, especially because there’s a lot of new stuff on the horizon. We’re working on the new Stronger Sex record, and then CrushnPain is going to finish their new record. Br’er also has a new record, we’re just in the process of organizing it for release. And then Pree is almost finished their next record. So hopefully the compilation is just an introduction, letting people know that we’ve got some cool stuff coming down the way.
On curating the compilation release show featuring Reighnbeau, CrushnPain, Stronger Sex, and Galaxy Electric:
I try to curate everything according to the circumstance, and it was based initially around Reighnbeau [who is on tour from Albuquerque, New Mexico]. I was looking for other bands that would really complement them. As much as I would love to have Br’er or another band, I know it’ll be a higher quality show this way. And it’s really more about the audience anyway, it’s not always about you.