For a certain kind of listener, Little White Earbuds was one of the primary resources for underground electronic music for most of the mid-to-late aughts. It has since wound down its publishing schedule, but editor Steve Mizek now runs two Chicago-based record labels and has a burgeoning DJ career. Ahead of his Argot Records showcase with fellow Chicagoans Olin and The Black Madonna for As You Like It, we caught up with Mizek to talk about his record labels, DJ career, and the challenges of running a music publication with integrity.
When did you start Argot?
Argot started officially in May of 2012. I had another label before that which started in July of 2011, Stolen Kisses. Really short-lived. Tasteful Nudes came in 2013, so it's kind of a miracle that I didn't start another label last year.
How do you differentiate between the two or the three?
Stolen Kisses is defunct at this point. It was me dipping my toe in the waters of running a record label. Argot has been the main vehicle since then; Argot is entirely focused on American artists, specifically—not specifically just people I know, but people I admire, people in the scene here, but generally just focusing on North American artists. Tasteful Nudes is pretty much my outpost for everyone else around the world. I didn't really intend to start that label, but I got a string of demos that were really excellent—from Borai, from Bristol, and Sabre, from Lisbon—and I didn't want to let them go. So I did the only thing that a crazy person could do in this case, and pulled out my credit card and started another label.
When I got a big stack of records from you recently, I played through all of them and mixed them together. I was really impressed with how coherent the vibe is across all of the records. They all have kind of a similar feeling in a way that really made sense, and that impressed me. Have you been consciously curating this label to fit a certain vibe?
I appreciate your saying that. I guess all I can say is that my taste is pretty specific. It's never been my intention to represent a certain style, or follow any trends. I like to be as wide-reaching as possible, which is why I've put out classic Chicago style house, to disco, to field recordings, a noise tape. It's basically the core feature here, of course, is that they're all American, but I have a very specific taste that is very driven by melody, and also driven by song-writer instincts. It's really important for me to put stuff out that has some movement to it; you start here, you end up here, and there are things that happen in between. Not to say I don't enjoy stuff that's looping and hypnotic, but generally speaking, those sorts of things are what grabs me in the first place.
Have you been DJing for a long time?
Well, I guess it depends on your definition of 'a long time.' I started DJing in 2007. I started as a digital DJ, mostly correlated with the rise of all the promos I was getting for Little White Earbuds. I did that up until … 2013, early 2013. I was getting really frustrated with having to use a computer to make sense of everything, and I was buying all these records at the same time. What put me over the edge is I was DJing at a club and the booth wasn't very sturdy. There was a can of Red Bull sitting on the edge of the booth, and through the bass, it vibrated off and spilled all over my computer at the beginning of my set. It still worked, these Dell machines are beasts. I had no one to help me, nobody was paying attention, and I was sitting there trying to mix and wipe off my computer at the same time. I was thinking to myself, you know what? If I spill a drink on a record, that record might be screwed up until I can clean it, but I can put another record on. I can't just pull another laptop out of my bag. So I figured it was finally time to plunk down the money to do it right.
What calls out to you as far as vinyl DJing goes? What changed for you when you made the switch?
It's really lame… something that the producer Jacque Green said to me, it hit me in a strange way — we were at Smart Bar, and he said he was moving away from Serato, and he was talking about how it's common for some DJs who do digital, especially with a laptop, to pick tracks based on what's close, on their screen, to what they picked out before. And I realized that I wasn't necessarily just doing that, I was being pretty specific, but at the same time, I was like, well, what's close in BPM? I was looking at things in a narrow way. And as soon as I started playing records, I would pick slow records, and fast records, and find an in-between point. And I felt liberated. And it required more of me, you know. I didn't feel much of a challenge in DJing digitally, especially with Traktor. And now, [with vinyl], it's constantly a challenge. It's never not a challenge. And I enjoy that. Above all, I don't have a ton of records, I know a lot of people who have many more, but it's great to hear the music that I buy, become familiar with my collection, and find stuff I didn't really think about the first time around. It's a constant sense of discovery that I didn't have with digital.
You're right. It's so different when you're picking music from a stack of records rather than tracks on a screen.
Right. With Traktor, and with CDJs as well, you can see the waveform, so you get a sense of where the drop's gonna happen, but with vinyl, you only have those spots where you can tell the kick drum's dropping out … it really requires you to know your music better, and to be more technical with your knowledge of the music. All of those things provide a really interesting challenge, and it seems like people [in the crowd] really appreciate it.
[jump] How long had you been thinking about the record label concept?
I actually never intended to start a record label. It was always something that seemed out of my reach—because it's financially irresponsible [laughs]. But what got me into it was, I had a pressing and distribution deal, P&D, and that freed me to only spend money on acquiring the tracks, which is something I didn't realize was even a possibility. And that forced me into the mindframe of running the record label. When I was running it, I was satisfied with the P&D arrangement, it meant I lost some of the logistical freedom of making sure the records turned out how I wanted them to—and I decided to start thinking about what would be the label I wanted to do forever. So I thought about that for a few months, nailing down the concept, name, and design. But honestly, I've kind of been flying by the seat of my pants as far as this goes. One thing that's helped is that through Little White Earbuds, I've been part of the music industry for some time, so I've seen some of the mistakes and successes of my peers, and it's given me a little more of an understanding of what it takes to really do a record label well. Or, at least what I think is doing it well. I could be doing it completely wrong.
When exactly did Little White Earbuds more or less end?
Well, you know, it's still going. It's just going at a much less rapid pace. It was in May of last year that we did Podcast 200, with Prosumer, and that was the period where we flicked the switch and a lot of my contributors headed for the hills, as it were. Their indentured servitude was now released. [laughs] So we've been running on a skeleton crew since then. It's me, Per who does the podcasts, Chris Miller who occasionally contributes things, and Harry Sword. That was May of 2014 when we made that change.
How long had you been running it at that point?
Since the very beginning. I guess it would be … nearly a decade. I started it as a screw-around little blog in 2005. Then I upgraded to a dot-com in 2007. So, in its current incarnation, let's see… seven years, but total about nine. This year will be a decade.
How do you feel about the state of music journalism these days?
Um… [pauses] Well. It's tough to say. I would say that “news” has become more important than criticism. Which is really interesting, and not a surprise given how music has changed, and access to music has changed …
Can you explain what you mean by that? What do you mean by “news”?
Well, reporting on something like so-and-so has a new single out. Whereas people used to be a lot more interested in a record review, because yeah, okay, you get told about a record a month before it comes out, but for a long time, people didn't have a sense of what was actually there until someone reviewed it or they saw it in the store. Now, a news piece comes out, followed by a stream of the first track, followed by a whole record stream, followed by an interview. Just constant updates on every little thing. Criticism has sort of fallen by the wayside. For journalism, I feel like the standards have gotten a little bit different. You don't have as many places doing it full time, or with the backing of a magazine or something like that. A lot of people who do any work for any magazine, as you know well, are freelancers. And their commitment to it only goes so far as their free time, or the fee that they're gonna get, and with most people, you're getting paid 50-100 dollars per feature, and that's enough to put in some time, but it doesn't necessarily add up to a lot of quality journalism. I see a lot of fact checking mistakes. That's something that used to be really important to people, and now it's all but disappeared. These things used to be less common, because it was their job. Now it's their job to write fifteen stories this month to make their rent. So I would like to say that it it's … I wouldn't want to say that it's worse off, it's just in a very different place right now. A lot of the music press used to be the gatekeepers to music, and now we're the enablers—we make sure people have acess to a stream of something before they buy it. And it's led to something of an identity crisis.
I think that's been a really noticeable shift… in terms of, not that long ago, people looked to music publications—especially in electronic music, information has always been at a premium in this world—and I think as, at some point, when this shift that you described happened, people look to music reviews, to criticism, to confirm what they already think about something.
Sure. And they usually stop once they see the score.
But at the same time I feel like increased accessibility, increased information, has to be a good thing in the end.
It certainly seems like it has an opportunity to be better for artists. A culture where access is important and encouraged gives people the wherewithal to make more informed decisions about what they like, and not buy something just because someone did a convincing job writing about it. Obviously there's a vain part of me that likes to think something that's what does it for people, well-reasoned criticism, but at the end of the day, when you drop the needle on it, you decide right then and there whether you're gonna buy it.
What do you think about the state of underground electronic music in the States more generally?
It's really hard to talk about that. I'll use an example from someone else to describe what I'm feeling about it. Earlier this year, Resident Advisor did a feature on what they saw coming up [in terms of musical trends] and what last year was like, and what they said is that there was no prevailing sound. We've entered an era where lots of sounds can happen at the same time, without one trendy sound … I've only been following underground dance music since 2005 or so, but I remember those very specific trends. We had minimal, we had deep house, there was a period where Latin influenced stuff was very big, and now you don't hear those things as much anymore, or they're part of a scene and that exists to itself. There's a chance to connect with all these different scenes, but I feel like all of them keep to themselves much more now. I think we're in a good place, in a lot of ways, and I think that America is in a really strange place, because there is the rise of a larger electronic music culture that has nothing to do with the underground, but is creating an openness for some people to check the [underground] stuff out. It's going to open up a new generation of people to listen to electronic music, and some of them will stick with it and explore something else. Curiosity in music is not in-born in a lot of people, but it provides an opportunity for there to be an influx of new people interested in going to shows.
Let's go local. How's Chicago these days?
Chicago is okay. The tides are shifting here. For a long time, there were official clubs, a bunch of them, and a bunch of underground parties. And now there's only a small handful of underground parties—and they're doing … artists that would not be considered super underground anymore, you know? It used to be that you'd see someone at an underground that you'd never see at a club. Now, for instance, Matthew Dear plays these undergrounds that are well funded and well produced. There's pretty much only two clubs that have real pull, Smart Bar and Spybar. They cater to different audiences, generally speaking. Spybar draws in a crowd that is not necessarily a crowd of music lovers, just a crowd that wants to go out and go to a nightclub… the bottle service crowd. That doesn't always translate to the best experience for people who want to go out and hear good new music. That being said, there's a lot of new [musical] talent coming out of Chicago. A lot of people have been part of the scene for awhile but are finally starting to get their due. Hakim Murphy and Ike Velez release separately, but together as Innerspace Halflife… Marea, The Black Madonna, is really having a moment right now. There are some more local guys like Garrett David, who works at Gramaphone, who's an excellent producer and DJ. Shaun J. Wright, and his producing and DJing partner Alinka. There's a ton of talent. We're never gonna be quite as big as New York, but there's always [talent] bubbling up. There's two more—Olin and Savile, two amazing DJs in Chicago, and exceptional producers both on their own and together. We're about to put a new record of theirs out next week provided that the pressing plant gets their shit together in time. So it's a healthy scene as far as creativity goes. It's not the healthiest scene as far as clubbing goes, but Smart Bar is holding it down, and at least we have one really great place that we can see good music.
Have you and the Argot gang ever done a showcase like this before?
We've had one so far in New York, last year. That was at Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn. This will be the first one where I get to play with Marea, and where I get to play with Jason [Olin]. And it's the first one we're playing as part of a larger party, which is nice, because it gives us an opportunity to show off. We're starting to take it a little more on the road… on February 21, Savile and Community Corporation and myself will be playing in Cleveland, and we're looking at doing a Columbus, Ohio date in April, and another showcase in New York in March. We're trying to export it a little bit more. We're fighting the battle of getting known enough that we can do those sorts of things because we don't have people banging down our doors … just yet.
As a group, do you have a dynamic? Do you work off of each other?
I think we've all sort of influenced each other, especially with the Chicago crew… I end up buying a lot of records because Savile or Olin or Marea will end up playing them, and that's circular—it's not just me sponging off of my friends. Savile and I also DJ quite frequently, we really like playing back to back. We have a very specific dynamic in that we both like similar music, but we both like being able to provide the contrasts for each other that creates a good vibe. We're not limited to one sound, and he pushes me, and I push him. It creates a nice tension.
That's kind of the real magic of a back to back DJ set. It can have a real different energy from either DJ playing solo.
Yeah. What's nice about our dynamic is we all represent slightly different sounds, so if you were to have an Argot showcase in your town, you're going to get a bunch of different things, but it will be about quality, and you'll have a quality night regardless of the style.
How do those different styles manifest?
I really like deep house. It's always been my thing. I've always enjoyed being the opener—I love headlining too, but I really like being able to open up and set the mood. Gianpaolo [Dieli] who produces as Savile, he's all over the map—he's really good at taking really strange or unexpected things and creating a real party from it. Olin is quite good at doing a techno sound that's really hypnotic. And Marea, she is … she's a mixed bag, but she brings the party like no one else. All of us, we can all have our party moments, but she is 100% energy made manifest. And that always raises the mood and brings the best out of people as far as dancing goes.
What's next for you guys? What does 2015 have in store?
A couple things—well, a lot of things. Provided that everything goes according to plan, which it won't, it will be the most productive year we've had across both labels. I'm looking at putting out 11 records across both labels. We have a record coming out next week from Olin and Savile, followed by a record on Tasteful Nudes by an artist from Frankfurt called Janis. He helps run a label called House Is OK, out there, and puts out unusual and exceptional house music with a great sense of melody. Following that I have a four-track EP by John Barera and Will Martin—they're really exceptional both as DJs as live performers and just as dudes. I'm thrilled to be working with them. I have an EP from a Swedish producer called This Other Space… which I think may well be his debut release, I'm not sure. We also have a record coming up by Contakt from Brooklyn backed with a remix by Terrence Parker. All of this should be hitting by between now and May, and a couple other things that are really close to being done, and I'm going to keep those as surprises to keep things everything for everyone. One more thing is we're trying to find more ways to connect people with the label, so we're starting this vinyl subscription service… I feel like directly engaging with your audience is the way to stay viable [in this environment]. I hope other people start doing that, too. Not that I want to cut out record stores or distributors—but back in the day, it was normal to have mailorder as an important part of the label business, and it's not something that's done as much these days.