Obscure to Unavailable

Local electro/ acoustic label Dial Records measures success one sale at a time

As a businessman, Dial Records owner Mike Donovan is a complete failure. "No one gets paid; I never get paid. The bands get paid in records; that's about it," he laughs.

Running his tiny label is difficult, especially since he has to subsist on the slow-trickling capital of a cab driver. To make matters worse, Donovan lost the use of Dial's prime venue, the Peacock Lounge, six months ago. The Lower Haight club -- in which Dial held more than a dozen shows, including a six-hour, eight-band marathon last April -- was forced to close due to the encroachment of new loft condos. "It was something to do with the fire escape not being accessible," says Donovan. "But now, because of the sinking economy, these brand-new lofts are half-empty."

While it may be true that indie labels are a dime a dozen and generally run by flaky hobbyists, Dial is unique. Over the past three years, the tiny imprint has released a large amount of impressive, genre-bending music -- both in unusual musical formats and with striking homemade packaging. Proving once again that great music is worth digging for, Dial is one of San Francisco's hidden treasure-troves.

Erica Murray

Donovan relocated to the Bay Area from the University of Maryland in 1996, following a stint as drummer for Teenbeat/Slumberland indie rock act the Ropers. He launched Dial the following year, issuing a small run of 7-inches by his four-track project, the Del-Velum. Soon afterward, Donovan and his college friend Mike Wiley borrowed money from their parents in order to put out more of the bedroom music they loved.

"It's a pretty hard thing to explain to your parents: "Well, we're not going to make any money; in fact, we'll be throwing money away,'" Donovan says from his Lower Haight apartment. "My mom would just say, "Sounds pretty dicey to me!' These bands had no plans to have careers in music. I thought I should start a label because this stuff is good as hell, and no one is going to do it. [It's] just dirty four-track recordings by artists who are making no attempt to get themselves heard."

Donovan quickly realized he was the only one of his friends with this mad desire. "Del-Velum was a solo four-track project, then it became a band. The rest of the band wasn't as excited about it as I was. Then the bass player was moving to Chicago, so I suggested recording an album for posterity at the very least. Everyone seemed into it, and then someone else said, "We've got to have a Sega tournament,' and I thought, "Nooo! You guys are killing me.'"

The Del-Velum full-length never materialized, but Donovan's interest continued unabated. Realizing his job at Open Mind Music wasn't lucrative enough, he switched to driving a taxi in spring 1999. With the Internet economy in full swing and cabs in large demand, Donovan earned enough money to release a series of 10-inch records cut by hand on a '60s lathe machine in New Zealand. (The company, King Records Worldwide, is known for its small runs of unusually thick vinyl.) The attractive, clear polycarbonate discs had a rough-but-warm, crackling-fireplace sound. One of the most stunning 10-inches was a self-titled release by a band called Rocket Science & the Nigger Loving Faggots; not surprisingly, it was the label's worst seller. ("I think that was because of the name," Donovan deadpans.) Far from being a hateful joke, though, Rocket Science's "Pink Is the New Black" features beautiful improvised noise, created by a now-defunct Mission District guitar/ drums duo.

The other standout 10-inch was a Blectum From Blechdom collaboration with OST, Bad Music and Butt-Prints, which came in homemade sleeves with actual butt prints from the female damaged-sample duo. Ironically, after the release, Blectum From Blechdom became better known and moved on to larger labels -- and a mention in the current issue of Spin.

"With someone like Blectum From Blechdom, they have so much help now from relatively bigger labels," Donovan says. "I wouldn't say, "Come on, you have to do another record for Dial.' The understanding is, "You guys are on your way, and that's great.' The business part is against my nature completely, and that keeps things small. I've been doing this for four years and I finally just got some folders." He points to a small stack of papers. "That's pretty much the whole label right there. I don't have any kind of business plan. Though I did get an invitation to join the Academy -- you know, the one that puts on the Grammies."

Dial business arrangements are all informal. In fact, many of the artists -- including solo electronics mangler Chris Douglas, who records as OST and Rook Valade, and Iran's Aaron Aites -- actually live in Donovan's neighborhood. "Most Dial artists have been friends of mine, which is kind of a questionable criterion. Sometimes I think, "They're all my friends; how good can it be?' But it is good."

The common thread among the artists isn't just their proximity; if there's a Dial theme, it's "man vs. machines ... man wins." Many of the musicians use electronics, but not to craft smooth, contempo computer sounds. In OST, Douglas treats his sampled beats and New Age synth sounds with utter contempt, while Mike Wiley's Marina project uses cheap keyboards and loops to make a synthetic racket that veers from spacey to ugly. The Church Steps, Donovan's own current project, combines muted acoustic songs with Douglas' laptop squiggles and drum machine clang. Even Rocket Science's Kyp Malone doesn't so much play his electric guitar as dismantle it.

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