City Paper is not for tourists
Few independent record labels make it to 20 years, and even fewer can claim the influence of Slumberland. Founded in 1989 by members of Black Tambourine, Velocity Girl, Whorl, and Powderburns, the label blended noise rock and shoegaze with melodic, underground guitar pop, laying the brickwork for what’s proved to be an enduring indie-pop aesthetic. Slumberland was initially based out of a house and record store in Silver Spring, and although the label’s head, Mike Schulman, moved to California in 1992, he continued to provide a showcase for great D.C. bands—like Lilys, the Ropers, and Lorelei—and, well, great bands, like the Aislers Set, Boyracer, Small Factory, Rocketship and many others. The current roster includes popular acts like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Crystal Stilts.
The label celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend with shows at the Black Cat and in New York, which is as good an occasion for nostalgia as any. City Paper asked some of the people involved with Slumberland over the years to share their favorite memories. Today and tomorrow, read what they had to say.
On the first Slumberland release, 1989’s “What Kind of Heaven Do You Want?” compilation: “We had recorded the songs … on four-track cassette in the basement [of the Slumberland house], and we needed to send a DAT to the pressing plant. We had no real concept of mixdown; we just thought we needed to get the songs from four-track to cassette. So we found this classified ad for a guy with a home studio in Rockville who called himself ‘Bebop.’ We took the four-track machine (with marks on the faders for each song), and played them for Bebop. He was listening to our poorly recorded, noisy, murky psychedelic songs, and had absolutely no idea what to make of any of it. He kinda scrunched up his face and said that the Black Tambourine and Velocity Girl tracks were ‘kinda like’ Pink Floyd. We had him add a little bit of reverb, and he suggested a bit of chorus on the guitar for the Black Tambourine song, to give it more of that taste of Floyd.”—Archie Moore (Black Tambourine/Velocity Girl/The Saturday People).
On recording the 1989 Powderburns seven-inch: “Mike [Schulman] and I lived in the same house and had both dropped out of [University of] Maryland. One weekend we decided we were gonna make a record, and called a recording engineer. We just got it in our head that this guy Wharton Tiers had recorded all these noise bands we liked. So we went up [to New York], brought a case of beer to the studio, and ripped through the songs.”—Kelly Young (Velocity Girl).
On making the first Black Tambourine single even louder: “I have fond memories of recording Black Tambourine’s first seven-inch at Barret Jones’ studio, somewhere in Virginia at the time. We were playing back one song which was already wrapped up in two or three tracks of Mike’s trademark feedback/fuzz guitar. Mike’s analysis: ‘It sounds pretty good, but I think it could use some more guitar.’ Barrett just rolled his eyes and head back, but squeezed in another guitar track we did.”—Brian Nelson (Black Tambourine/Whorl/Velocity Girl), currently a network administrator at City Paper.
On stuffing record sleeves at Vinyl Ink in Silver Spring: “The Black Tambourine seven-inch had two sleeves. I always liked the limited circus tiger sleeve, with glow-in-the-dark ink added by hand. I recall Pam Berry not liking the circus tiger, called it depressing (the drizzling fountain/rain drops on the other sleeve were more her cup of cheer), but she was outvoted.” —Brian Nelson.
On Black Tambourine gigs at Abi’s Restaurant in College Park: “Why did we play there? It was fun, but why? More importantly, why did I think it would be a good idea to invite my parents to experience the squall when they were such fans of my brother’s WHFS-hits cover band? ‘We couldn’t hear the words!’ ‘I know, that’s the way we like it.’ ‘But we couldn’t make out anything you were singing!’—Pam Berry (Black Tambourine).
On Kurt Heasley, and hearing Lilys for the first time: “There was this kid we knew as Wally who worked at a D.C. club called the BBQ Iguana. He was kind of strange and goofy, speaking in short monologues that followed his own internal logic. … During a cookout at the house where I lived with Pam Berry, Dan Searing, and a few other college friends, Mike Schulman pulled out a cassette that he told me had been given to him by Wally, with ‘Lilys’ on the label. I asked him if it was any good. ‘Nah, it’s terrible,’ Mike replied with a smile. ‘But you have to hear it anyway.’ So he played the cassette, and the whole time it played I thought, ‘Um, this sounds pretty fucking amazing to me. Mike’s tastes are impossible to predict.’ It reminded me a lot of Dinosaur Jr. and Ride, but with an interesting circular guitar figure throughout. Finally, I told Mike, ‘I don’t think that sounded too bad at all. I kinda liked it actually.’ Mike laughed at me and practically yelled something along the lines of ‘It’s pretty fantastic, isn’t it?! Can you believe it?'”—Archie Moore
On drinking after a game of golf, and discussing the first Ropers single: “[Kelly Young and Jim Spellman and I] were sitting around having a drink up in Friendship Heights somewhere, and I remember talking about that first Ropers single and how much I liked it, except that the production on it “wasn’t particularly good.” Jim piped up immediately and said “I know, I did that.” It was his first effort at engineering. I would’ve felt worse about it had he not so readily agreed with me.”—Mark Williams, an old friend of the label, who runs the Soundclash dance night.
On creating art for a Swirlies seven-inch: “We did a limited edition sleeve for the mail orders, and I had this idea: ‘Oh Swirlies, I’ll do spin art, like that carnival kind of thing. And I bought a spin-art kit which was 7 1/2 by 7 1/2, and I was like, ‘Oh, records are 7 by 7 inches, I’ll be fine,’ not thinking that if you spin a square in a circle, the circumference of the circle is bigger than the square. It wouldn’t spin, so I took a knife and cut the edges off, thinking I was being really clever, and not thinking that the edges are what keep the paint from flying all over the place. And I did it at this place I was renting, this pretty nice house in Adams Morgan. So I got it all set up and Kelly from Velocity Girl came over, we drank a bunch of beers and then we were like, ‘let’s do it.’ So we put one down in the spin-art thing and threw a bunch of paint on it and that shit flied everywhere. Just everywhere.”—Mike Schulman (Black Tambourine, label head).
On the unusual origins of Chickfactor‘s name: “I did an interview while I was in Lorelei about the Slumberland scene, and I was unaware of what the process of interviews are like. And I ended up just reciting lots of unfortunate things which a 16-year-old kid might say. One was talking about this name that had developed in the band for bands that were popular, obviously for their music but notably for an attractive singer or band member. We had called it, depending on the female or male variant, ‘chick factor’ or ‘dick factor.’ And so I talked about how Velocity Girl, who at the time were basically the stars of Slumberland, were benefiting from this fact, and that there were a lot of other great Slumberland bands that were not getting attention. … It was sort of an unfortunate thing, but lo and behold, everyone sorta laughed about it, and they [Black Tambourine’s Pam Berry and others] started this zine called Chickfactor.”—Stephen Gardner (Lorelei/Chessie).
On the early recording “Ode to Lenny Bias”: “This would have been in the summer of 1986 and, at least in my opinion, gave birth to what would become Slumberland Records. Slumberland was certainly born of the mid-to-late ’80s scene at the University of Maryland-College Park campus, where Mike [Schulman] and I shared a dorm, and where Len Bias was king of basketball.
“Len Bias was significant to us because he seemed to be everything we were not: a star athlete—indeed the Boston Celtics had just announced him as their No. 2 pick—and a larger-than-life personality on campus. Shockingly, Len Bias, who seemed to have everything going for him, lost his life to a cocaine overdose just days after being selected by the champion Celtics.
“Mike and I had a shared taste in music. Actually, he introduced me to many great bands and I adopted his taste. It didn’t take long for us to make a go at our own brand of noise. The night we recorded ‘Ode…’ I stole my mother’s cheap classical acoustic guitar and we rendezvoused at Mike’s parent’s house to try our hand at recording. We were armed with Dr. Peppers, Utz Crab Chips and inspired by Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising. We didn’t really have any other instruments, cords, or skills but Mike had figured out that if you plug headphones into the recording jack on a stereo tape deck, the headphones turned into a microphone! We set the guitar on the living room floor, tapped it with the headphones, and proceeded to beat on the strings, sometimes violently sometimes softly, for about 10 minutes. The result was dark, noisy, and complete with unintentional feedback; what with the recent tragic passing of Len Bias on our minds, it seemed a fitting homage.”—Robert Goldrick (Whorl).