It’s not a secret that the role of a record label has changed drastically in the age of the internet. Nowhere is this more true than in the underground, where endeavors are driven by genuine passion, where breaking even on the budget is in itself often the best case scenario, where records are made because they feel like they need to exist by those willing to put their dollar and, in the age of branding an even more valuable currency, their name on the line to ensure this art reaches those who seek it.
Today we focus in on Sentient Ruin Laboratories, a label from Oakland, California that specializes in curating a variety of styles from the sonic alchemists they choose to work with. From industrial and noise to black and death metal to death rock and dark ambient, there is only one common denominator throughout the label’s ever-growing catalogue: they are outliers on musical spectrum, experimenting with perverted twists on both the familiar and totally new.
To better understand the motivations of the single mind behind Sentient Ruin and the passions that drive someone to release such works into the world, I had the privilege of getting to ask a few questions with the overmind of the label and its sole curator.
As a musician yourself, you are bound to have influences. What drew you in to extreme music? What other genres do you enjoy or find inspiration in?
My mother is the oldest of six and has—had—five younger brothers, who were all teens or barely out of teen age when I was a kid. They’d always leave their Walkmans and Van Morrison, Neil Young, or The Doors tapes laying around the house, so my brother and I just helped ourselves with those. Our uncles also played in bands and were into music heavy, so they always turned us on to something and always had our attention. I saw AC/DC with one of my uncles during the “Ballbreaker” tour and that was one of the first shows I ever saw—it left long, lasting effects on me as a kid. Everything kinda just snowballed from there. Napalm Death was my gateway to extreme music when I heard Diatribes in the late 90s. I really enjoy Death industrial (like Nordvargr, MZ.412, etc.), dark ambient, death rock, stuff like Killing Joke and Fields of the Nephilim, noise rock, Pink Floyd, and sad score type music like Dead Can Dance, etc.
While Sentient Ruin seems to have a bulk of releases rooted in some way to metal, it certainly transcends genre classifications. Would you consider Sentient Ruin to be a metal label? A noise label? Something more?
It’s a label focused on fringes, and all the various declinations of that. That’s what I would call it. Metal, being extreme by nature, is the obvious sub-container, but the main container is much more vast and encompasses that along with many more genres, so to speak. No genre is exempt from being released on the label, theoretically. Though it would have to match the “fringe” description to make the cut.
Sentient Ruin appears to operate within its own guidelines, for instance not being nearly involved in the distro trading most other labels seem to take part in. Is there a particular reasoning behind this?
That’s an open ended question and a “to be continued” type of thing. I’m not against a distro for any reason, and it might happen eventually, but I haven’t had time to go back there at the moment. I was sharing a flat with roommates when I started the label and so I could not take in trades in respect of our mutual living area as my own vinyl and tapes were already taking up enough common space. So I somewhat had to teach myself to fill that void and focus on making my own releases sustainable, out of the box, without the aid of the latest cool and hip death metal band in the distro to attract orders. This actually made me learn lots of things the hard way on obligatory sustainability for my releases, and how to put extra care into each record. For example, spending time on promotion, which I focus on quite a bit. I made shit work without a distro and still get the regular wholesale orders, as long as I stay focused on quality and promo. Maybe I am missing out, but I can’t learn what I don’t know, so all is fine as is. As far as I know, at least. I might start up a distro and carry other labels stuff if / when I find the time and headspace. So never? Ha.
Would you say the label is more of a reflection of your own taste or a sampling of things you think followers of the label would enjoy discovering?
This label is purely an extension of my brain. Me trying to share with others and help discover and valorize shit I get stoked about. It’s no different than sharing a link on social media after getting stoked on a listen, but it’s the brutal version of that? Like you go overboard and totally insane with it I guess? Ha.
I see several releases on your Bandcamp, such as Deth Crux and Hell, have the prices for digital downloads set at $1,000. What is the motivation behind this? And I have to know, has anyone actually paid this for a download?
Simply means we don’t sell standalone digital downloads so the band can take care of that through their own Bandcamp. It’s also a way to push people to buy physical copies since downloads are offered automatically with the purchase of those and often cost the same as the sole download, like in the case if tapes, for example. Bands remain in charge of their music, and we work with them however it pans out for the benefit of everyone. We offer a service to bands, not the other way around.
No one has bought that price point cause it’s idiot-proofed to prevent that. You actually have to enter 1-0-0-0 in order to get it as it’s “pay what you want—$1000 or more.”
The act (or art) or discovery seems to carry a lot of power with purveyors of underground music. Why do you suppose this is? How important is the discovery process to you? Do you actively seek bands to sign or let them come to you? What is your process like for discovering new music, both for the label and for personal enjoyment?
Discovery is everything. New music makes people’s days better and elevates their mood and being to a higher level. Entities like labels can be the key to people’s happiness and mood, literally. I know this because I love music and also know the effects the discovery has had on me. I learned it and got it from the labels I loved and followed as a kid. Labels that inspired me and that I still follow passionately to this day. There are many: Cold Spring, Cold Meat Industries, Earache, HydraHead, Ajna, NWN!P, Osmose, NOEVDIA, Profane Existence, Crucial Blast, Prank, and Aurora Borealis were some of the labels that inspired me to bring the same level of quality and “packaged happiness” to others as they did to me.
How I find my bands is an ever changing thing and often a long process determined also by chance and luck, but normally it is just resilience, patience, and endless work. Getting into details of how I find bands is futile and counter-productive, but, long story short, I listen to loads of music daily, often it is all I do in a single day. But it is what I have always done since being a kid, so now I just found another use for this compulsive passion and need of mine. But it never goes by without lots of work on my end. If luck happened, cause it does, it just means that I also created fertile conditions for it. You need to open that funnel, and then open it wider each day that passes. All I can do is keep slugging away at making the label the best it can be so it it will become a top choice for bands seeking a home, which is exactly what I strive for every day.
In our increasingly frantic world, coupled by the sheer quantity of material being released every day, how do you budget your listening time, both as a fan and a label operator? Are there people you trust for recommendations or do you find discovery to be a more personal process?
At this point, anything I listen to, for me, is just also another potential release. Okay, if I am listening to the last Judas Priest album, obviously I am doing so as mere fan and music lover, but my attention is much more focused to the underground these days, so I am very conveniently able to listen to what I like and use all those hours also to checkout potential bands to release—the proverbial two birds with one stone. I have some commutes in my day which allow me to listen to music peacefully and with no interruptions. I also pack a lot of records, write press releases, spend lots of time alone with myself and my label, and the music is always on, and my ears are always listening. I discover through multiple channels and sources, too many and diverse to list and explain—definitely blogs I like, people I follow, labels I like. The list is endless. As I said, that top of the funnel must be huge to capture as much content falling nearby as possible. Having a label is much like being a shark: if you stop swimming, you sink and die. So I am always moving.
When signing new acts, how much research do you put into the artists you are signing? It’s no secret that Sentient Ruin demands a certain ethos and standard of quality from its artists, what do you look for that makes you say “this is an appropriate fit for the label?”
I don’t look at touring plans, social media presence or any of that jazz. That’s bullshit for people who are out to profit or leverage bands’ time and sacrifices for their own gain. I don’t demand bands to even post shit on social media. Some bands are not “posters” and don’t feel it natural to post or feel like they have to “pull their load,” and that’s fine for me. I don’t care, bands can be how they want. For me, all the “demands” and expectations are nonexistent. I’ve even released bands who had just broken up seeking posthumous releases for their unreleased stuff. All that matters for me is if I like the music they make and how it speaks to my soul. The rest is just accessory stuff. I’ve turned down bands who sent me iPhone recordings of their music… OK, I guess a minimum standard exists in that sense, but other than that, there are no rules or expectations. The only thing that matters is how the music that someone makes touches my soul, and that is all.
Let’s talk formats for a minute. Cassettes have been the bread and butter for the label, and have had a resurgence as a format in more recent years. Do you think this is a passing fad or a more permanent resurgence such as the one vinyl has been inching towards? Obviously, the label deals fairly heavily in digital releases, what are your thoughts on the digital market? Do you consume media digitally yourself or prefer analog formats? Will Sentient Ruin ever release CD’s?
While tapes are hard to kill off, I still think they are far from fully back, and won’t be. Maybe they came back with a whimper, dug out their own little niche and will exist there as a nostalgic / novelty thing for a handful of nerds, but that is all. I personally like tapes. I like how they sound, and I like their visual potential. You can really go overboard in designing a tape, and they are still affordable to make, even in their more fancy forms. I think the key to tapes maybe coming back with a vengeance all depends on who believes in them and how much. And I think that today, still not many do. Most people still see them as annoyance to rewind, with a dumb sound, and as a pointless blast from the past of which they don’t see the value. If labels make them a regular thing, people will welcome them back into their homes as a regular thing again. But that hasn’t been happening. Leaders of the pack with authority are needed here, but they have not stepped forth as of yet. Vinyl has its own sound, charm, and appeal. Vinyl’s quality is hard to dispute, so it is immortal at this point. CDs only offer the visual surface to fill, because as far as audio, if you rip a CD to a WAV file, the CD is gone, but the sound is till there. So I somewhat respect the history and legacy of CDs, but don’t see the point anymore. That format is, in essence, no longer needed. I seriously think that whoever buys them at this point is just collecting, or wants to hold the artwork in their hands, and then listens to the albums online in the end anyway. All valid points, and we’re probably missing out on sales by not doing CDs (never say never on releasing one), but this label was born with analog sounds in mind, and the digital being there as a convenience thing on the side to cover bases, so to speak. I buy tapes all the time, buy records, and love to listen to them on my tape deck and turntable whenever I can. I have a “beginner” audiophile set up, which has been revealing to explore. And the more I mess with it, the more a rabbit hole opens up before me showing how truly marvelous analog sound is and can be. I think anyone who doesn’t appreciate it has simply never heard it on the right equipment. I have about 3000 CDs at my parents’ house from years of buying music in the 90s/00s, but I no longer buy those. And I have a Spotify Premium account.
One of Sentient Ruin’s more eclectic death metal releases of 2017, Cryptae’s eponymous demo, garnered a considerable buzz amongst fans of the more experimental forms of the genre. Recent activity on the band’s social media has implied a forthcoming full-length, does Sentient Ruin have plans to work with this particular project again?
Cryptae are a unique entity who do not work by the rules and defy (and often insult and defile) all trends and established notions on what death metal is and or should be, regularly. While death metal seems to have conveniently uniformed and cookie-cuttered itself into an endless stream of mostly sterile and forgettable Autopsy / Incantation imitators, Cryptae stick out like the proverbial sore thumb… or middle finger… to all trends and cool kids. I would like to say, as far as I believe Sentient Ruin is open-minded, Cryptae showed me how really closed I am for many things and pushed me to see things differently, and I appreciate and respect the fuck outta them for that. I would say they are the coolest uncool death metal band out there. And yes, we’re releasing their new “work” soon—on vinyl only—and it’s a complete mess of malformed death metal dementia that will challenge the way people even perceive the genre. It wasn’t easy for the label to metabolize and “accept” what they had done next, and it took some time to digest, but now their design seems crazier and more lucid than ever, and it’s scary. Very happy to work with them again—they have challenged the label’s brain to vast extents and put us out of our comfort zone. They are a treasure to behold, so we’ll do our best to promote and valorize what they do.
What have been a few of your favorite releases on your label in the last few years? Also, favorite music not on your own label?
It’s always hard and devastating to pick favorite children. But also, when something is underrated, let’s talk about it. And interestingly enough, my favorite SR release are also some of the most overlooked, so here goes it…
Assumption’s Absconditus is beyond anything that has ever been done in death-doom. It is just jaw-dropping stuff only for a small elite to fully comprehend. And it definitely thins the heard. Not many people got it, and it’s obvious why. Give yourself a second chance. Also, Cruz’s Culto Abismal, Rotting Sky’s Sedation, Unyielding Love’s The Sweat of Augury, and Clavicvla’s Sermons are all, in their own right, absolute visionary masterpieces in their respective fields of death metal / crust punk, black industrial, blackened grindcore, and dark ambient, respectively. Each one a release that has literally shaped this label to make it what it is. Pillars of the catalog.
If you could work with one artist or band to release their music, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
One artist I would work with if it was totally up to me: Corrupted.
What does the future hold for Sentient Ruin? Is there an endgame in mind? What do we have to look forward to from the label for the rest of 2019?
More brutal and out-there stuff, un-end: new Verwoed and Suspiral LPs in the next few weeks, Miscarriage and Negativa vinyl edition, Nightfucker debut LP, debut CTHONICA LP, Cryptae TBA new EP, Golgothan Remains LP reissue, Depressor 12” comp, new follow-up efforts from Black Earth and Clavicvla, and more….
Before we close things out, I have to ask the vital question here: satanic Running Wild or pirate Running Wild?
Pirates. More credible than satanists. These days, at least. 😉
Be sure to come back tomorrow as we examine a sampling of the label’s more recent offerings in PART TWO.