In 2021, forging a career in the music business is very much a DIY endeavor, and wearing multiple hats is the name of the game. Jordan Deherrera and Chris Sanders know this well. They wear all the hats for their shared alternative dance project, Manics, as well as at their San Francisco-born record label, Popgang Records, which recently celebrated 150 releases with Manics’ debut full-length album Pastel Palace.
Again, devising a music project and a record label in a DIY fashion is far from rare these days. Countless touring artists learned everything they know on their own from watching YouTube videos, and many of those same artists have their own label to release music without restraint.
Yet very few musical entities created in this spirit have reached the same level of success and relevance as Popgang.
Sanders and Deherrera started the label in 2013 to release their music as Manics in addition to music from their close friends’ projects, like Witowmaker and Morning Hands.
Now, Popgang has grown into a full service creative agency offering “Consultation, Event Coordination, Artist MGMT, Graphic Design, Branding Development, Photography, Video Production, Audio Production and Digital Marketing Coordination,” according to the label’s website.
This comes on top of sharing weekly releases and producing consistent live events, first in San Francisco and now in Los Angeles where the label is currently based.
At this point, Sanders and Deherrera helm all of those activities by themselves, but they don’t do it for themselves alone. They do it so other people don’t have to do it. They do it for their artists and the community at large. That’s what drives them to learn and grow, and that drive has always been there.
“All of these pieces were things we had to develop for ourselves as artists. We wanted all those things and we were able to build them out and then offer them to other people,” Sanders tells SF Weekly. “Whether it’s helping produce and direct a music video or making sure [our artists] have different marketing assets created, to running ads, it started with us having to figure that out on our own.”
Together they even built out their own studio, turning a decrepit garage into a furnished home base for all their business and creative operations.
With this mindset of service and hard work, Popgang has been able to expand their roster greatly. For an artist, signing to a label means giving up certain rights to the music into which they’ve poured their heart and soul. Sanders and Deherrera have created a space where artists gain far more than they lose from that sacrifice.
“When we moved down to L.A. we were able to find a new batch of artists who could see the value in what we were doing and recognized that we could actually help push the needle on certain things,” Sanders says. “What we bring to the table is filling in all those infrastructure gaps. We try to make it as painless as possible to get their music out and hopefully have it heard by a wider audience.”
Sanders and Deherrera acquired many of the skills to fill in those infrastructure gaps as seasoned members of the San Francisco music scene. For a time, Sanders served as the marketing director at Mezzanine before its closure while Deherrera was a graphic designer at the famed SoMa venue, 1015 Folsom.
This immersion in the culture of San Francisco affected far more than their professional skill sets, though.
“The sounds that are popular [in San Francisco] are ever changing,” says Sanders, and this constant variance aligns with the unending desire to learn and grow that’s carried Popgang from the beginning.
Popgang originally existed as a moniker for punk shows Deherrera was producing in the Gold Rush town of Sonora, California, before he moved to San Francisco. Deherrera met Sanders at Dolores Park, and the two very quickly formed Manics and started throwing events together, which included Commune Wednesdays, an evening centered on rock and indie bands, and Cyber Rodeo, a dance driven monthly that continues in L.A.
Delving into the Popgang catalog, all of these sonic influences have a distinct presence. From Deherrera’s roots in punk to Sanders’ watching house and techno stalwarts like Green Velvet play when he worked at Temple nightclub.
White Cloud, the Oakland based shoegaze outfit that includes Shiv Mehra of Deafheaven released its Seven Heads EP on Popgang back in 2015, honoring San Francisco’s unending connection to psychedelic styles.
L.A. based rapper Alexander Spit provided a hyphy-drenched remix on a shared EP with the soul crossover act Twin Steps.
Alton Allen’s latest album, Bad Magick, which came out on Popgang back in May, is an indie rock offering that is vastly different compared to his nu-disco work as Niteppl (the music of which Allen also released on Popgang).
Manics’ album Pastel Palace, pays homage to San Francisco’s history with dance music while retaining the polychromic aurals tied to every phase of the city’s musical evolution.
“House and techno has always had a really strong existence [in San Francisco.] You go back to Ohm Records and Dirtybird — house and techno was happening in all the clubs there before it really caught on in the rest of the country,” Sanders says. “[With Manics] we were always making music we wanted to hear, but it had to work within that market.”
Throughout the eight tracks of Pastel Palace, Sanders and Deherrera explore house, nu-disco, synth-pop, and more. Just as they wear all the hats in running Popgang, they wear all the hats as producers, with each hat representing a different niche of dance music.
“MIND CNTRL” is a peak-time dancefloor stinger that fits perfectly in the Bay Area’s library of quirky four-on-the-floor. The cheerful vocals on the album’s title track harness the uplifting energy commonly heard from a singer in a jam-band, and that momentum leads right into “Life on Mars,” where the voice work makes lyrics surrounding quarantine somehow feel comforting. (Save for a collaboration with Honeyluv, Deherrera did all the vocals himself in the DIY spirit once again.)
As varied as the album is, however, the core drive of the Manics sound is the rhythm section: bass and percussion.
“One way we try to make most of our tracks is that if you removed everything from the entire track it could still be just as good with just the drums and bass,” says Deherrera. “That is the core of a good dance track.”