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Captured Tracks Founder Mike Sniper Discusses Label’s 5th Anniversary

Mike Sniper Blank Dogs Captured Tracks
Captured Tracks

Like most good things, Captured Tracks began in a basement. The year was 2008, and Mike Sniper had just hawked his stash of rare power-pop 7-inches. He was done with jangly guitars and Beatlesque hooks — his stock-in-trade while running the reissue imprint Radio Heartbeat — and he used the influx of eBay cash to launch a new label, one devoted to an altogether different strain of infectious underground music.

Based in the space beneath Academy Records in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Captured Tracks debuted in 2009 with the first-ever offering from Dum Dum Girls, whose blown-out girl-group punk was still something of an original sound. Sniper followed that initial EP with one by Blank Dogs, his spooky one-man synth-pop project, and just like that, the label was on its way. In the five years since, Captured Tracks has grown into a genuine indie phenomenon, and its roster of artists includes Beach Fossils, Wild Nothing, DIIV, Mac DeMarco and recently reunited shoegaze heroes Medicine. They’ve even got proper offices and a storefront on the way.

In advance of next weekend’s CT5 festival, a two-day Brooklyn celebration of Captured Track’s fifth anniversary, Sniper gamely fielded a series of Diffuser.fm’s email questions, discussing his initial goals for the label and where he sees it going. Sniper also explained why the diverse CT discography — which now includes reissues by obscure bands like U.K. pop curious Cleaners From Venus and Jersey noise OGs Deardarkhead — can’t be summed up with words like “hazy” and “dreamy.” Oh, and it turns out lyrics matter.

Before starting Captured Tracks, you ran a power-pop label. The thing power-pop fans often say about their favorite bands is that they should be huge, since the music is so catchy and accessible. With Captured Tracks, was there a desire go the other way? Many of your releases are covertly accessible — they’re poppy and infectious, but maybe not on first listen.

Actually funny you should mention this, because Captured Tracks has acquired the rights to ['70s power-pop vets] Milk ‘N’ Cookies, which I had previously done on Radio Heartbeat. I got kinda burned on it. It’s a genre with a lot of people who only listen to that type of music, which always frustrated me, and when you are doing a weekly DJ night and throwing festivals and shows only in that sub-genre, it really starts to grate. I actually started the label’s funding by selling my rare power-pop 45s for a total of around $12-$13,000 on eBay, which allowed me to immediately hire a shipping person/label manager (it was in that order at the time) and press the Dum Dum Girls and Blank Dogs 12-inches. So weirdly, I owe it all to power-pop.

I think that at the time, maybe you’re right in terms of accessibility. But, today, if I heard, say, Hunx [& his Punx] or Busy Signals or any other relatively recent power-pop-influenced stuff, I’d probably want to sign them. If you can tell by recent signings like Naomi Punk and even Mac DeMarco and Chris Cohen, we’re looking to really diversify the label roster. I’m not interested in another Wild Nothing, Beach Fossils or Blouse when I already have, in my opinion, the best bands who work in that idiom. If demo submitters are reading this, keep that in mind!

Captured Tracks doesn’t have a set sound, but there are certain things that tie a lot of the records together. Do you think bands like Wild Nothing, DIIV and Beach Fossils would have happened without Blank Dogs and CT’s earlier stuff? Or does a lot of the music on the label follow from an example you set?

Interesting you asked that, as I didn’t read these questions prior to responding, so we arrived at the same point pretty much at the same time. I think at the beginning, the first people I heard from must have been fans of Blank Dogs, Dum Dum Girls, Woods, Thee Oh Sees, et al, but none sounded exactly like any one of them. I was definitely conscious to not be a sub-genre-specific label. I love a lot of those kinds of labels, but from the start, I was aiming to eventually be a Domino-, Matador-, Sub Pop-type label, where we didn’t have a “sound.” We’re kind of on that trajectory. A lot of people immediately think “Captured Tracks: DIIV, reverb, Wild Nothing, dreamy, etc.” But those bands, in and of themselves, are evolving their sound, and I think people forget that we released every record up this point by bands like Soft Moon, Soft Metals, Widowspeak and Holograms. Now we’re getting fans of Widowspeak and Mac DeMarco, who might not like Blank Dogs at all, which I think is really cool.

I interviewed both Dustin Payseur of Beach Fossils and Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing in 2010, and they said that vocals, for them, were just one more melodic instrument in the mix. Lyrics weren’t super important to them. Was it the same with Blank Dogs?

Actually, no. When I go back and listen to those songs (which is rare), they’re all quite personal and mostly thought out. I did it stream of consciousness and thought, “I’m sure this will make sense later,” and it always did. That was a really crazy point in my life. I had just had a really traumatic break up with a girl I thought I was going to marry, had to move out, was broke as hell. I sometimes regret that the lyrics are indecipherable, but that was just the project itself; it wasn’t really meant to go beyond a couple EPs and singles. Cool labels like Troubleman, Woodsist and In The Red wanted me to do records, so there I was! I think I kind of helped this whole label-hopping business where you have someone like Ty Segall (who I love as a fan/respect/am friends with) working with loads of labels. It’s weird, because now, when I look back at it, if I had really just settled on one label and worked with them long term, we’d all be invested in the future of the project as opposed to no one knowing where I’d be next. Ty’s obviously doing amazingly well, so there’s exceptions to the rule where the label doesn’t mean as much. But back to the lyrics thing, I bet Dustin and Jack have changed their minds when you listen to their newest material. They’re really maturing as lyricists, and Dustin actually comes from a poetry background.

Should people read anything into the de-emphasis of lyrics and the “hazy” sound found on many of the CT records? Is this a generation that floats away on blissed-out guitar sounds to escape from reality, as those prone to crazy over-analyzation might suggest, or do these bands just like to mess around with guitar pedals and make awesome noises? Sometimes, the simplest explanation is the best…

I think if you listen to Mac DeMarco ’2,’ it’s obvious that we’re not a hazy/”what’s he saying?” label. Those lyrics are super direct and from the heart, and you can hear everything. I don’t want to be one or the other, I guess? I’m a huge jazz fan, so sometimes the music can trump it all for me.

Is there something quintessentially “Brooklyn” about Captured Tracks? You’ve lived all over — could this have thrived elsewhere?

I think about it a lot. I actually was considering opening up an SF location, but it didn’t really make sense. We’re in the process of setting up Captured Tracks U.K./E.U. within the next year or two, which will be great. I think the only reason we’re in Brooklyn is because I’ve lived here since college and was born half an hour into N.J. And it just has loads of people moving here. People think there’s a Brooklyn “thing,” but really it’s just the three weirdest kids from each high school move to either SF/LA, Seattle/Portland, Montreal, Austin, Chicago or here. There’s just more of everything of interest here, so we happen to get the most people interested in different stuff. Most Brooklynites are from places like Va., Fla., Calif., Australia, Sweden, etc. It’s actually weird for me to meet people from the tri-state area originally. I think they all want to move to the West Coast.

Were there any bands you wanted to book for the CT5 Festival that couldn’t make it? What would your dream lineup be?

Ideally, the whole roster could play, but Naomi Punk and Craft Spells are out of album cycle and it doesn’t make sense for them to come all the way out here for one gig. We found out recently that Soft Moon had a lineup shake-up, and Luis moved to Berlin, so they can’t perform. (We’re arranging something cool to make up for that.) Originally, the interior was going to be another show, was thinking Flying Nun bands like the Clean could play that, post-show, but the inner venue wasn’t going to be prepped, so we can’t.

When you founded the label, did you envision one day doing reissues, or was it primarily going to be new releases?

Always wanted to do reissues. We were considering starting a ‘Captured Tracks Archives’ sub-label or calling it something else, but than I was like, “Why?” I think about how Soft Boys and Mission of Burma are on regular Matador as reissues and Domino doing Orange Juice and Robert Wyatt. It all fits together, and really, all records become reissues a few years down the line. Then it’s weird to have them on a different label. We will always primarily be focused on our current roster, though.

Have you been a longtime fan of all the bands you’ve reissued, or have there been any you discovered and decided you had to re-release their stuff?

Mostly: Always a big fan. We’ve been doing these new imprints where other people are finding stuff (like Body Double and the soon-to-be Imprint called Fantasy Memory). I’d never know of Blissed Out Fatalists or Tom Diabo had Body Double not brought it to my ears. Really cool.

What’s more thrilling: Discovering an amazing new band or digging out some obscurity from 1988 you never knew existed?

New band. I love taking a band no one outside of their hometown has heard of and elevating them to headlining huge venues and selling them out. There’s no feeling quite like that.

What does the label look like in 2018? You’ve done such amazing things with design and physical products — are there new places you might take that?

Absolutely. We’re looking to expand in the merchandising and really making a very detailed destination-point website (already working on it). Incorporating the shop, doing more events, a lot more of our own hosted press stuff and performances. I’m creating a station within the office for artists to come in and do video editing, listen to a gajillion curated MP3s on a massive hard drive. Lots of plans of incorporating all those things into the shop and definitely expanding worldwide.

There have been a few of these retrospective stories, so coming up with new questions was hard. What’s the one thing people tend to get wrong about the label? Is there some misconception that comes through in all of the stories?

I think you touched on a lot. People tend to pigeonhole our sound by mentioning five bands and not mentioning the eight that sound different from that. The lo-fi tag is mostly going away. There’s nothing like reading a review for an LP you spent $25,000 for in studio time for and having someone call it “lo-fi.” Haha.

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