Growing up in a house hold where music was so prominent, it’s no surprise most of my favorite childhood memories are music related. The physical manifestation of those memories would have to be album covers. I remember each week, my Dad would visit various record shops and buy an assortment of cassettes. Sometimes he would look for albums he had when he was a kid, and other times he would check out what was going on in the current mainstream. When I would go with him, my favorite thing to do was to wonder around and look at all the weird album covers from all sorts of different artists. Early on, I would ask him a million questions like “Who’s this Dad?” or “Does this sound good?” while pointing at some random cover, but later on I would venture off on my own and just marvel at the spectacle that was the record store.
I remember being horrified by the heavy metal sleeves like Butchered At Birth by Cannibal Corpse. Blushing at the sight of Heaven Or Hollywood by Uncle Sam. Laughing at Pork Soda by Primus, and scratching my head in confusion when looking at Live It Up by Crosby Stills & Nash. Now A the time I didn’t know what any of these albums sounded like but those images were etched into my memory and despite not being able to remember what I had for breakfast this morning, I could probably score a 90 on an album cover trivia. The visual aspect in music is far more important than what most give it credit for. For example, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would still be a fantastic collection of songs with a blank sleeve, but can you listen to any of those songs without picturing such an iconic album cover? Case in point.
One person who truly understands the correlation between audio and visual, would be Michael Dixon. Probably best known for his vinyl pressing company Lathecuts.com which allows any artist in the world the opportunity to get their music onto an affordable record in runs as low as 20 copies, Dixon also runs a handful of other companies in which the visual and audio formats run parallel, creating some of the most interesting packaging the music industry has ever seen! Whether it’s album pressed onto disposable dinnerware, or an EP pressed on top of a CD-R making it playable in a standard issue CD player in your car as well as on any turntable, this guy along with his various companies, have been delivering unique, beautiful and down right weird releases for over a decade! I had the opportunity to chat with Michael Dixon recently, and hearing his passion for packaging is nothing short of amazing.
Aaron Cooper: Okay, so you’ve had some pretty creative vinyl variants over the years, why such an emphasis on the strange and weird?
Michael Dixon: I’ve always been drawn to the hand-made aspect of DIY music culture. Most of the handmade thing started with punk 7”s, when bands made their own Xeroxed black and white covers. It was largely out of necessity and cost effectiveness. From there, a lot of them started taking it up a notch with silk-screened covers. I got a 7” from a band when I was 15 that was printed on the backside of a Cheerio’s box, and thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. So intentionally and un-apologetically cheap and amateur. I loved that aesthetic. You knew that this was made by a real person. It didn’t roll off of an assembly line, ready for mass consumption. It was personal, had fingerprints, smudges, and was a mediocre print at best. But it was real. Somebody said “I don’t need to spend a bunch of money to make this record” and they just did it themselves.
I want to make impractical things that make the physical object as important as the music. The music is obviously very important, but that is the creation of the band or songwriter. With my labels I want to be as much a collaborator as a curator. I don’t want to just be the money behind the release, I want to put some of my own personality and creativity into it. I’m thrilled when people see one of my releases and say “Wait, what? How does THAT work?”. I’ve been really fortunate to work with artists that (I hope) respect my ideas as much as I respect theirs. I think it adds a whole extra level of value to whoever buys it. Two very distinct creative forces that work together to make something worth owning.
AC: What was the first really weird looking record you made?
MD: I think the first really weird thing was my series of records cut onto plastic picnic plates from Safeway. This was not something I discovered, it was sort of a known trick with the 10-ish people that made lo-fi lathe cut records on vintage machines. But, I did a whole series of them. I probably cut over 2000 plates for 30+ artists. They sound surprisingly good considering the circumstances of their birth.
AC: This is probably a tough question but what would be some of your favorite pieces you’ve made over the years?
MD: That’s like trying to pick your favorite child. I’ve released over 230 records on my three labels (PIAPTK, Soild
(soy-uld) Gold, and The IVL). Every one has it’s own back story and personality/life to me. There is a lot of lightness and humor in not only the music, but in the presentation of them all.
I’m especially proud of a lot of my series. The Eulerian Circles series are multiple hole lathe cuts with visually overlapping groove circles. The Homely Singles Blind Date club uses these weirdly shaped pieces of plastic that are basically just waste from when we cut circle discs out of plastic strips. You don’t get to pick which one you receive, hence the blind date part, and they are beautifully ugly, hence the homely, and they are singles, hence the singles. Also, the CD-Record series, which is currently up to 28 releases in both analog and digital format on the same disc. They play on your turntable and in your cd player.
I’m also really proud of the Ariel Pink/R Stevie Moore record that I made on acrylic mirrors. The covers were silks-creened onto strips of holographic drumset wrap scraps that I found next to a dumpster behind a music store. They had apparently recovered a bunch of drum kits and then just thrown away what was left.
AC: Now, you’ve done releases for some top tier acts before, when working with them, were they collaborative or did they just turn you loose and let you do your thing? Also, any favorite artist you liked working with?
MD: Artists like The Flaming Lips, Grandaddy, DOHM (Money Mark from the Beastie Boys and Patrick Keeler from the Raconteurs), Scott McMicken (Dr Dog), Mike Watt, etc, have a ton of tiny labels like mine beating down their doors to work with them, so you have to really bring something to the table to even get their attention, much less get them to follow through with something. So, usually with the higher profile artists, I bring them the concept and they just give me the tracks, and let me run with it. Which is really flattering and gratifying. Especially because these bands are some of my oldest influences and favorites.
But, I also have a LOT of extremely talented friends that I love collaborating with. The vast majority of my releases are by my buddies and their friends that they turn me on to. Total pop geniuses that nobody has ever heard of. Dimitri Manos (Dr Dog, Golden Boots, American Monoxide) and I have collaborated on over 30 releases. Lots of just bouncing weird impractical ideas off each other over some beers. My friend Adam Gross (Amo Joy, SM Wolf) is always bringing me strange ideas that are right up my alley. And there are a lot of amazing bands here in Tucson that bring me bizarre projects.
That being said, I DON’T accept outside ideas from bands I don’t know. I prefer to only work with close friends, and there are at least 100 ideas on my list that will be used at some point, and I REALLY don’t want someone to bring me an idea I’m already working on, and then get upset when I do it for someone else.
AC: At what point did you decide to get into the vinyl manufacturing business? Was it always about making such stranger, conversation invoking pieces?
MD: Not really. I started cutting my own records because I couldn’t afford to press 500+ records that I probably wouldn’t sell. Making my own records meant I could release records by amazing bands that had limited commercial potential because they weren’t going to tour 200 days a year. It made it easier to release records that I wanted without having to worry about how many “units” I could move. It also meant that I could make more labor and material intensive packaging. It’s much easier to make 50 copies of something cool than 500.
The strangeness evolved out of mistakes, coincidence, and as a way to keep myself amused running a money pit record label that was so on the fringe that most people didn’t care about it. I have a somewhat strange, dry, sense of humor, and being able to incorporate it into the physical packaging and format was very rewarding.
I enjoy making records that are require some work or inconvenience from the buyerWe did an LP for Golden Boots that had a tape glued to the front cover so that it was hard to put in your stacks (and stood out like a sore thumb). Same with the Wooden Wand/Golden Boots split 7” which had a sleeve that was 10” tall, so it towered above all the other records in your 7” collection. I also like to poke a little fun at the collector mentality (largely self-deprecatingly, because I AM that person). I did a 10” with a paint by numbers cover and set of watercolors. The release included a lathe cut CD-Record, but you didn’t get it until you sent me a photo of your cover, fully painted. So, buyers had the choice of keeping the record “mint”, but incomplete, or complete the package and mark up the cover in order to do it. There are other ideas coming soon that play on that concept.
AC: Even with streaming sites being so popular these days, vinyl seems to be back in a big way (arguably it never left?) but why do you think people are getting drawn into it again?
MD: I think it’s a reaction to the trend of having everything you own, music or otherwise, in a completely digital realm. People still want to express their interests, passions, and taste in art, and showing someone a Spotify playlist is not nearly as interesting as showing them your record collection. Your interests are a way of defining who you are as a unique individual.
A lot of people also want that tangible interaction with music. Looking at the huge cover and/or insert, pulling the disc out of the sleeve, putting it on the turntable and getting only 3 to 20 minutes of music before you have to deal with it again. By requiring time and effort, records give the music more value. There is an old sales trick where the salesman almost forces you to touch and feel whatever it is that he is trying to get you to buy. Something about the sense of touch really creates a subconscious emotional connection with the object. I think that is a large part of the appeal of records. You can connect with the music in a way that you don’t on your phone.
AC: What inspires you to make these records? Do you just have ideas floating around or is it like a think tank scenario?
MD: Many of my favorite designs begin as mistakes and screw-ups. The Homely Singles Blind Date Club and Eulerian Circles series are the best examples of that. The HSBDC began because I had these strange shaped discs piling up that were a by-product of cutting circular discs. The Eulerian Circle idea happened because I accidentally drilled out some oversized center holes in blank discs, which made them useless. But, I realized that if I drilled a hole right next to the oversized hole, I could at least use them as test discs. When I cut the grooves, they had this crazy overlapping circle effect in the clear plastic.
I’m also inspired by trash and junk. A lot of my releases stem from random crap I find at garage sales or thrift stores. Snakeskin gift boxes, strange paper, weird containers. I love the idea of taking something that is about to be thrown away and making it into something that somebody loves.
I’ve still got at least a hundred ideas (some of which might not ever come to fruition or will evolve into something else) for weird things that I want to do when I find the time or the right project. I’ve average over 25 releases a year for the last 9 years, and I don’t have any intention of slowing down.
AC: You also have a company that can cut records on the spot, live at festivals or shows. How does that work?
MD: Yes, Mobile Vinyl Recorders is a business I own with my friend Kris Dorr. We go out to festivals and events and cut records live on site. We’ve done Coachella, Sundance Film Festival, Mardi Gras, Pitchfork Chicago, Pitchfork Paris, Record Store Day Paris, etc. We’ve been over to Europe 5 times with it, which has been amazing. We’ve done events for The XX, Cut Copy, The Flaming Lips, Of Montreal, The Isley Brothers, and a lot of other smaller artists. We show people at the events how records are cut and give them a really quick history and science lesson on the process. It’s super fun. I also do a smaller version of it at schools and libraries called The Science Of Sound I give a one hour presentation about the history and science of recorded sound for kids who have mostly never experienced physical media.
MD: Having records at all is about collecting. There is zero reason anyone HAS to have records in 2016. That’s why they call it Record Collecting. I don’t intentionally make my releases hard to obtain. And most of my releases (even the 50-100 run releases) don’t sell out for months. I really WANT these things that I have worked so hard on to be available to people who want them for a reasonable price.
I limit them for a few reasons: 1) They won’t be all that in demand because nobody knows the band, so there is no point in spending the money making a bunch of copies I won’t sell. 2) The concept or packaging is too expensive or labor intensive to make many of 3) the band is big enough to “move units”, but doesn’t want it to be a big release with thousands available. Larger bands like what I do because it is so weird, limited, and something they don’t have to think much about. If I complicated it by being mass producible and actually profitable, they would have very little interest, and whatever label they were on would see it as a threat or lost revenue. With the way I do it now, everybody just sees it as some fun, weird thing that will be a blip on the radar and disappear into the collections of their obsessive fans.
There is definitely a weird eBay flipper mentality going on in the obsessive record collecting community. On one hand it’s cool that people care enough about these things to pay big bucks on the second hand market, but on the other hand it sucks that there are people that buy a record they don’t want, just speculating that they can quadruple their money in a few months. In an ideal world, the guy who wanted it so badly he would play quadruple for it would have gotten it at the original price. I think Record Store Day has become exactly this type of scenario. People buying hundreds of dollars worth of records, not because they care, or want to support record stores, but because they think they can flip them. But, you know, that’s capitalism, buy low/sell high, and it’s only an issue for a very small number of record buyers. Most people just want that Beatles reissue they can buy at Urban Outfitters or whatever. It’s only the weirdo obsessive collector guys that HAVE to have the limited color or special edition. So, it is both a blessing and a curse. It builds excitement but also forces people to overpay occasionally.
There are several of my releases that regularly sell for $200+ on ebay, but those are a tiny percentage of my releases. I feel like I have the best of both worlds. On one hand, people understand the urgency of limited edition stuff and know that if they wait too long, it might be gone, but I’m still small and weird enough that a lot of really cool, limited things hang around in print for a while waiting for someone to dig in and discover them.
AC: I just recently starting collecting vinyl myself. At first I was buying all the albums I loved growing up but then I started getting into the indie releases. With limited numbered variants and quantities, it just seems more special or something. Holding a record that’s 1 of like 200 makes me feel like I’m part of something that’s bigger than just dropping a needle and listening to a 45. I get a similar vibe when I see the limited stuff you do. Is that something you are going for?
MD: The great thing is that there are SO many amazing bands out there releasing records, that it allows curious and adventurous people the opportunity to really hunt for these hidden gems. But you have to really dig through the thousands of awful bands to find them. At least you no longer have to be force fed your music by the big corporate major labels. You get to find these tiny pressings of unknown bands that sometimes become your new favorite record and it feels personal because you DIDN’T read about it on a blog or in a magazine. You just ran across them at a show or a friend turned you onto them. I want to be that to some people. I want a wider audience to get turned onto my weirdo genius friends through my labels and releases. I want to be more about inclusion of the listener, as many listeners as possible. I want them to know who I am, who my artists are, and realize we are just people doing fun things we are passionate about, just like they are. I want them to be inspired to create. Really, I think the exclusive club vibe you are talking about is really more about finding an ever-growing group of like-minded folks, rather than being exclusionary.
AC: What’s some of your favorite album covers or packaging that you haven’t made?
MD: Hands down my favorite label, and the centerpiece of my personal collection is from an LP and Cassette label called Almost Halloween Time in Italy. Luigi, who runs it, hand paints 100 covers for each release. And these are not thrown together quickly made doodles. Each one is a beautiful and unique oil painting. He makes variations on themes, but they are all different. The time involved in them is unbelievable. And his taste in music is right on. Right up my alley. Great, slightly skewed indie pop music. I probably have 40 of his releases.
Outside of that, there are plenty of other labels doing cool and innovative things. There is somewhat of an arms race for strangest record happening now. And each time something new comes out that I haven’t seen, it pushes me to try to one-up them.
AC: How do you feel about the trend aspect of collecting vinyl? Is it a thorn in the side of the dying industry or a shot in the arm?
MD: Well, obviously, any time a music fan is willing to pay money for music, it’s a win. At least from my perspective and experience, the “digital revolution” has seriously devalued music. You have almost every album imaginable available at the click of a button. No waiting, no work, no real cost. You start playing an album on Spotify and it just becomes background music. You have no investment. If it doesn’t catch you in the first 30 seconds of the first three songs, you never listen to it again. But, if you spend $20 on an LP and it doesn’t catch you, you listen to it again, because that was hard earned cash that you spent on it. And eventually, you (hopefully) grow to love it. So, that certainly seems to be a good thing to me.
AC: Any big projects coming up you want to talk about?
MD: I’ve got a ton of stuff in the pipeline, but going back to the vinyl arms race I mentioned, I have to keep everything under pretty tight wraps. I’ve had several ideas pilfered over the years, so I stopped talking about it in advance. But, really, after 225+ releases, I’m only getting started, and I’m only getting weirder.
AC: What do you listen to? any particular bands/artists out there you’d recommend?
MD: I’m personally a huge 1970s outlaw country fan; Merle, Kristofferson, Tom T Hall, Roger Miller, etc. That’s my go-to most of the time. I’m a huge fan of songwriters. I am much more about song substance than style or swagger. If a modern, fully produced song couldn’t stand on it’s own with one person and an acoustic guitar, it’s probably not my jam. I love anything with some twang and a psychedelic vibe. Golden Boots are one of my oldest artists, and definitely high up on my list of favorites. Jeffrey Lewis is an incredible writer and certainly taps into the existential crisis that I’ve been clouded by over the past year. Little Wings is a truly unique songwriting voice with a tiny cult following that deserves so much more. Wooden Wand, though supposedly somewhat retired (a casualty of the current industry climate that prevents smaller artists from making even a modest living from music) is still probably recording the best songs you’ll never hear, and hundreds of them. I’m really excited about the upcoming release I have for Forest Fallows, who live next door to me in Tucson. And Graves, which is the project of Greg Olin, a Portland Special Education teacher, has been blowing my mind for over a decade with his beautiful stoner lounge pop.
I’ve been really fortunate to work with a ton of artists I really respect. And there are not a whole lot of bands on my bucket list to work with. I think that is probably the best payout I’ve received for all the hard work of my label, to be able to collaborate with artists I really respect.