The music industry is changing everyday. Whether it’s how the general public chooses to listen, or which artists are dominating the charts, it’s not shocking to see how the landscape differs from what it was ten or fifteen years ago. Now with tightly wound social media connections, an artist is able to get their music heard without the involvement of a major label. Without that superficial interference, a world of possibility opens for the artist and the listener. One of the more interesting aspects of this evolution, is the rise of independent labels. Instead of guys in suits having a round table discussion on how to manipulate an artist’s talent to push a sales agenda, indie labels can work along side the artist to help deliver a product the listener can actually get excited about.
With vinyl dominating the physical format sales, these indie labels can now cater to the collector and the audiophile as well as the casual listener like never before! Nothing can compare to the excitement of finding a new artist and ordering their album on a one of a kind limited edition color variant, straight from a label itself and receiving something that feels unique and personal to you. This aspect has made purchasing music personal and fun again! Sure it’s easy to download a song for a buck, or build a playlist on a streaming app, but when was the last time you paid for a physical copy of an album? One that encourages you to respect and enjoy what goes into creating it rather than just listening. One of most interesting indie labels in this scene is Fonoflo Records. In just under a year Fonoflo has consistently put out roster of albums that some labels have a hard time doing over the course of decades! I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Nicholas Gagnon, the man behind the label and got to pick his brain a bit on where the label came from, why packaging is important, and glimpse into the future of one of the scene’s most promising labels. Read on!
Aaron Cooper: Who is Nicholas Gagnon?
Nicholas Gagnon: I’m a 26 year old visual artist from Colorado who runs a record label called Fonoflo Records.
AC: What made you want to start a record label? Was there like an epiphany moment? or was it something that just kind of happened? How did Fonoflo Records begin?
NG: Starting a record label had been on my mind in any serious capacity for about a year or so before actually doing it this past February. Around 2008-2009 I was pretty heavily into the White Stripes and anything Third Man Records was releasing, that’s where the first real interest in vinyl came from for me. I got my first turntable (a TMR Crosley) as a birthday present from my father in 2010 and started buying all my favorite music on vinyl instead of iTunes. While in college I had an art studio space and brought a portable turntable in to listen to records on while trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life, not really knowing what was right in front of me. After graduating I was pretty aimless for a bit, didn’t quite like what the ‘art world’ was all about and was actually really turned off by it. Around then there was a TMR record collector forum called The White Swirl that I frequented to talk to other people about music and poster art. One visual artist who worked with TMR that grabbed my attention from the get-go was Rob Jones. He made me think twice about ditching my passion. Rob was doing posters and album covers like nothing I had ever seen before, they were a combination of collage and hand-drawn elements, usually only a few colors. Best way I can describe it is sophisticated simplicity. It was always a pleasure to see everything new he had his hand in paired with the music. I became addicted to collecting gig posters as a result which wasn’t too smart for a recent college graduate with loans to take care of. Somewhere around 2013 I tried my hand at making some music inspired artwork and curated a fun little White Stripes “art show” thread on The White Swirl that invited people to do the same. Not many people joined in so I did around a dozen digital collages, mostly Rob Jones’ Tinman and Dorothy homage imagery to fill up the show. Response was overwhelmingly good and for the first time since college I felt like I was onto something. There were a handful of people on the Swirl that were starting their own record label too; seemed like there was a new one every other month or so. Jett Plastic Recordings, Fat Elvis Records, Grim-Tale Records, Wax-O-Holics, Philthy Phonographic Records and Greenway Records just off the top of my head. It was such a great time to find new music from likeminded people. All of em are still at it today.
NG: Shortly after that WS art show in 2013 I was contacted by (my now good friend) Darren Wesemann from Alberta, Canada who was in a band called The Capones. He saw what I could do and wanted some creepy-themed artwork done for his new album “Troubled Me”. There were only 2 or 3 demos for me to listen to but I really dug deep into the possible lyrical symbolism along with all the Al Capone baggage. I arrived at a connection between the Blues staple of tortured love and the St. Valentines Day Massacre; basically cupids with tommy guns. This is where it all began for my music freelancing stint. We really hit it off and I started churning out graphics for gig posters, shirts, drum heads, and even a hand-sculpted triple faced Capone bust. Label owners and band members began seeing what I could do for band art and it kinda snowballed from there. I started working closely with Jarrett at Jett Plastic Recordings on most of his releases. That gave me a ton of insight into how pressing plants worked and a good look at the business end of things. There were plenty of projects happening all the time. One highlight of working with Jett was I got do the autograph insert and alternate sleeve for Macaulay Culkin’s Pizza Underground band. But before all that happened I was seeking out bands on the side that I liked and offered them graphic work under the moniker Obliquitous Art & Design to start building up my portfolio. Fact is it wasn’t even work to me, it was a joy to say, “I did a poster for Cherry Glazerr” or “That new Tennessee Jet single on iTunes has my cover design”. Of all the bands I worked with, I knew Tennessee Jet would be the perfect one to start a record label. We just finished up doing all the art on his self-titled debut masterpiece but it was only available on CD and digital in late 2014. TJ is someone I can easily bounce ideas around with, he’s way more than just a musician, he’s an all-around out of the box free-thinker. So one day I ran the idea of having his new record be the flagship for Fonoflo and the rest is ongoing history
AC: Looking at what your label has put out so far, Tennessee Jet, The Capones, Brother O’ Brother, and Riverhorse, I see all of these artists from seemingly different styles but they all have a thing in common: they are all kind of ‘do it yourself’ artists. Is that something you look for when putting releasing together?
NG: Well, I’m a firm believer in doing things yourself. That attitude is something I’ve tried to cultivate over the years working as a visual artist. You pick up all kinds of things and are ready for any project that you can think of or comes across your path. It’s definitely a key factor in selecting bands for Fonoflo. It shows they’re driven, they want it bad enough to spend their own finances and time mastering a craft that we all can benefit from. All the bands you mentioned (and ones to come) exemplify that attitude. These guys work their butts off with day jobs and still manage to do everything it takes to make a release happen. I know it’s only a matter of time before these bands hit it big.
AC: When I think of the records you have put out, style always comes to mind. You seem to go above and beyond when it comes to design. Don’t get me wrong, multiple color variants of vinyl are super cool, but you seem to up the ante and make each release feel special. Why so much emphasis on how the record looks?
NG: Presentation is everything. A lot of indie bands and labels forget how important it is to look good as it is sound good. Now the idea of what is “good” is certainly subjective, perhaps the right word is “appropriate”, meaning the look ought to enhance the sonic experience rather than detract from it. The market is flooded with new and old music and you got to stand out in every way possible if you want to succeed. For instance, we wanted to kick things off with a bang for the TN Jet vinyl release, so we included is an 11X22” foldout insert and the B-Side labels were designed to have a 3D anamorphic effect. In other words, the poster will appear three dimensional at certain points of view and so will the label with the help of a cylindrical mirror. The vinyl colors were chosen based on lyrics from the album. Our “Falling Stars” variant for example got its inspiration from a couple references in “Dead Belles & Bones” where it says “…stars and stones falling on my floor” and in the song “Soul” where it mentions “…the rock star is dead”. All that extra effort contributed to the album concept rather than took away from it. I guess what I’m trying to say is, who knows how many life-changing records we’ve all passed up because the look turned us off before we even heard it. Sometimes it’s the other way around where you hear something you like and go to pick up the copy and it negatively changes the way you thought about it because of the artwork. Sure it can take some time to acquire some taste or better understanding of how the music and artwork go together but the point is: Visuals and sound go hand in hand. I’m incredibly grateful to have found a pressing plant that will work with my strange vinyl requests. Fonoflo primarily uses Gotta Groove Records in Ohio; that choice came after comparing the handful of plants in the world with things like prices and capabilities. They have a pair of ladies there who call themselves The Wax Mages and I always have them do our special variants. They do the best looking hand-pour records on the planet, I’m serious, go find their Instagram and Facebook pages, their work is jaw-dropping.
AC: How do you come up with the designs? Do you work with the artists or is the music itself sort of like a canvas?
NG: What I’ll usually do is sit with the music for days or weeks on end really trying to pick up on themes. A lot of the time the music will present flashes of imagery, colors, symbols in my mind. Those abstractions are then developed into more solid associations. Take the idea of freedom as transportation for example: depending on the sound of the music you can end up with anything from a vintage motorcycle to a hot air balloon. I’ll start fleshing out the ideas on paper or photoshop to see what actually sticks. Some are easier than others but they always get revised to the point of being the strongest end product. There’s plenty of unused imagery sometimes. The vinyl colors get this kind of treatment too. Those are heavily influenced by lyrics and established band aesthetics (as mentioned previously). That’s why everything I do with Fonoflo is given the absolute best packaging possible at a reasonable price. I spend countless hours making sure every little detail is the best it can be and so does the band. They really help guide everything too. It’s a very collaborative process. A vinyl record is an experience unlike any other, and in a sea of records to choose from, my job is to help make ours as visually memorable as possible.
AC: Every single one of the releases look amazing! I’ve even considered buying a backup copy so I can keep one of the special variants safe, or at least on display! How did it feel to hold in your hands, the very first record YOU designed!?
NG: The first record I ever designed was actually completely unexpected. Back when I was first working with The Capones, they wanted a variation on the album cover for the single “Old Tree” with a then-unmentioned label. I was sworn to secrecy for months until it was revealed early last year to be on Grimtale Records, an indie label that caters to collectors run by Mark Walker who was also on the White Swirl. I think the dead wax message on that 7” references all of our connection to the forum. Grim always does some limited crazy cool vinyl with his releases and for that Capones single to be the first with my cover design on vinyl, man that was a heck of a start. They actually pressed one variant on black with blood spill vinyl and Mark physically hung up the covers and shot ‘em up like the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. There’s only 40-50 like that made. So when those records landed in my mailbox, I was floored. It really lit a fire under me to do more. The vinyl bug bit me hard then.
AC: The vinyl format technically didn’t really ‘go away’ but in recent years, it’s become popular once again. Stores are carrying them, and it seems like 1 out of every 5 people, has a vinyl collection they are working on. What do you think is so special about this format? Why is it popular once again?
NG: There’s really nothing like having a physical copy of an album, especially a vinyl record (even better if it’s made by The Wax Mages). The thing is a work of art. I think more people are starting to appreciate the whole experience. There’s something for collectors, there’s something for audiophiles, there’s something for everyone. It’s culture on a fragile grooved hunk of petroleum byproduct. I grew up with cassettes and CDs which are great but they’re still pretty detached and robotic. Then digital became popular which is even more detached. Sure every format has it’s pros and cons but coming from digital to vinyl was like stepping into maturity. For me, it turned music from something common into something precious. Sometimes you gotta be the first to grab a limited copy otherwise you’ll probably pay inflated prices on the aftermarket. You gotta handle the record properly and go to a specific place to play it. You gotta flip sides and drop the needle gently. All that invested time equates to value in one way or another and I think that’s what people are connecting with these days.
AC: When I saw my copy of “Opal” from Riverhorse, I felt like I was holding a piece of art! I almost didn’t want to put it on my turntable! It has to be hard seeing each every one of these special variants and not being able to keep them for yourself! Do you have a particular favorite variant?
NG: I tell you what, getting boxes of gorgeous colored vinyl on your doorstep after months of preparation is one of the best feelings in the world; might even rival Christmas morning to a kid. That release in particular was one of my absolute favorites. I was going through possible vinyl colors but the obvious album title was a no brainer for the special variants. Opal stones were always some of my favorite gemstones. My father works in the jewelry business and he’d have all kind of stones around but opals were the most attractive to me. Initially the records were going to be black opal inspired but seeing all the different kinds in the world, I ended up just showing the incredibly talented Wax Mages duo a photo reference of “opals of the world” to go off of. I think Heather Gmucs in particular hand poured that edition of 50. They were without a doubt some of the best looking records I have ever seen and I HAD THEM ALL! The crazy collector in me wanted to keep them all but the businessman in me had to put them up for sale. Those sold out the fastest of any variant so far, though the edition was very low. Of the ones I kept for the archive, there’s on in particular that was my favorite. It was the only one with a golden yellow over blobs of white and translucent rainbow colors. It matches the cover perfectly and shines like a jewel in the light
AC: Style aside, every single one of your releases have been top notch! The tortured artistry of Tennessee Jet, the raw bluesy swagger of The Capones, the face melting rock n roll of Brother O’ Brother, all the way to the sincere optimism of Riverhorse. Pretty eclectic stuff for sure. What can we expect in the future of Fonoflo?
NG: I’ve got a number of definite projects in the works and some dream projects too. The dream ones are going take some major financing and a bit of luck to come true. Our next LP is planned to be started very soon. There will be a 7” flexi series that Jett Plastic Recordings and myself are putting together right now and there will also be Fonoflo’s first regular 7” split records from Brother O’ Brother sometime next year. Be on the lookout for another special LP from a familiar face which will get the community involved from the get go. From time to time I will go looking online to find new talent. Some of the best finds come from YouTube suggested video binges or even Instagram 15 second sound clips using certain hashtags. Other times they come from friends of friends who have amazing music never released in any format. Whatever the future holds, you can expect more new music from brand new bands on stunning vinyl from Fonoflo.
AC: What is the Fonoflo Records mission statement?
NG: Fonoflo Records seeks to give lesser known hardworking independent artists of any genre a chance at gaining more deserved attention by having their music pressed onto the best looking and best sounding medium around.
AC: I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview, as well as putting out so many amazing records this year. It’s wicked cool to have a record label where I have adored every single release in the way I have for Fonoflo. I seriously can’t wait to hear (and see) what’s next!!
NG: Thank you so much for the kind words and taking an interest in the label! I really appreciate everything man!
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