Tabs Out | An Interview With Umor Rex

An Interview With Umor Rex
1.18.16 by Mike Haley

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With the exception of a two year hiatus, Daniel Castrejon’s label Umor Rex has been a clearing house for ambitious and outsider music for a decade, more recently making a dazzling dive into the cassette world. I caught up with Daniel, hot on the heels of three new tapes from Umor Rex, to chat about the label’s past, future, and aesthetics.

 

You started Umor Rex ten years ago, mostly with digital releases. When and why did you decide to start issuing physical formats?

Releasing in physical formats was not something that I decided as a matter of wanting to do it. There was always the idea and the desire to do so. It was always the purpose of this, but it just was impossible at that time. I was younger. It’s still difficult, but it was even more so before. It isn’t much easier now, but the label is a little bit more established that allows me to move on with vinyl and cassette releases. Umor Rex has 87 cataloged releases as of January 2016 (plus a dozen other prints that don’t have catalog number). The first era was only digital + CDr stuff, the first 40 releases. Music and design are the most important things for me and are linked. There is undoubtedly tangible object fetishism.

Tell me about your first couple of cassette releases. They were compilations, right?

Yes. “Dezember” and “Sagittarius” both were published in December (in different years). It was a kind of a year celebration, because the winter solstice.

The artwork you design for your releases is stunning and very recognizable. What is appealing to you about that style? Do you have a background in graphic design?

Yes, I work in design, I’m full time in a publishing house in Mexico City. Designing books and publications in general. I also work on external things like design for other labels, museums, festivals etc. I’m always designing something; 95% of my time, whether at work, in Umor Rex or in some other project. I want the visual aesthetics of Umor Rex consistent as a whole, respecting the sound characteristics of each artist and trying to make a visual connection to the sound of them, but always harbored within the aesthetic parameters that have developed in Umor Rex.

umor tapes

Tell me a little bit about your printing process and packaging choices.

I am in Mexico City, but the records are pressed in Europe, the cassettes are pro-dubbed in the USA. So usually I’m away from production processes, although I am always overseeing them. In the case of the vinyl, certain common features are present in my catalog; working mostly with spot inks, not with 4-colour process. For the cassettes, I buy the boxes in the US, then I print here. A part of the process that I enjoy doing in México is serigraphic print. Then I ship the boxes and inserts to Chicago where the final assembly is done.

Lately I’m working closely with a Japanese book that is a collection of color combinations made by Sanzo Wada in 1933. Some releases of this year will have a color treatment inspired by the work of Wada and Haishoku. The new LP by Good Willsmith is based on a typology of oriental color, also it has spectacular photographs of Sam Prekop who kindly shared with us.

I really like cardboard packages in general, especially the brad-pack because of its size. It allows the object to be a little more tangible from my point of view, as part of the publication; as a book and its covers, as a vinyl and the jackets. Last year, one of the cassettes we published, “Interpretations of superstition” by James Place, was a box I designed. The die cutting is different from the brad-pack, I’m trying to explore other materials and colors, I think the next batch will have a different technique regarding the printed process.

Does Thrill Jockey handle all of your mailorder/distribution? How did that come about?

Thrill Jockey handles distribution to stores in North America, as well the pre-sales and mailorder. And I work with Morr Music for our distribution in Europe and UK, and direct mailorder in Europe through their site Anost.

I’ve been working with Morr Music for 6 years and about 4 years with Thrill Jockey. As a matter of logistics, distribution is the starting point, and thanks to them our publications can be found in record shops and online stores around the globe. But mailorder is also very important. The bulk of our sales are in the US and Europe, making our mailorder and distribution from Chicago and Berlin the most sensible way to streamline processes and to maintain fair prices. The relationship with Thrill Jockey and Morr Music goes beyond a working relationship. I admire the work of both, and all the people who work there; they are good friends and are a fundamental part in Umor Rex.

One of my favorite releases on Umor Rex is the Maar “Ceto” tape from 2014. How did you first hear of Maar and solidify that releases?

My first contact with Maar was through Cleared, the band formed by Steven Hess and Michael Vallera, and their albums released by Immune Recordings are fantastic works. Then I met Michael, and he showed me the first drafts of his project Maar with Joseph Clayton Mills, I was delighted, we decided to publish it in Umor Rex. Michael and I have met a few times in Chicago and shortly after “Ceto,” I published in Umor Rex a small book with his photographic work called “Perfect Fatigue.” All these guys are very talented. Michael has published under the pseudonym of Coin, and more recently “Distance,” with his own name, both on Opal Tapes. Joseph has solo works, and is member of Haptic (with Steven Hess and others) plus other projects. And Steven Hess, Michael’s partner in Cleared is also member of Locrian, Haptic, Pan · American etc. And Steven Hess has a new cassette release on Umor Rex with Ruy Zuldervelt (Machinefabriek), called “re-collecting”, I think all of them are an awesome gang. I can say that there will be a new work by Maar soon.

What would you say is the breakdown of releases that were spawned from demo submissions compared to artist you sought out?

I think it was half and half in recent years, but now things are changing. I’m no longer “officially” open to new demos. I love hearing new things. No doubt, I will publish some things that come to me by as demo. But Umor Rex is a small label, the number of publications that I can make in a year or in a specific time is small. I have a short list of upcoming releases, but enough for my abilities. I have also committed to following up artists who are already Umor Rex family, I’m interested in continuity. Although I am open to new artists. I don’t care about the number of releases or artists, I care about the strength of them.

The first 100 copies of the Charlatan “Local Agent” LP you released came with a bonus cassette called “Dead Drop”. This may be a question for Brad Rose, but is there any musical connection between the two? Any reason the tape was not offered on it’s own?

Yes. The album “Local Agent” emerges from a science fiction novel that Brad wrote before making the album, and is completely influenced by it, one might even consider some kind of soundtrack. It is a fascinating album. For me it’s like a tribute to J. G. Ballard literary works. Local Agent’s music is telling a narrative. There are climax and knots, in an twisted-intense tone reminiscent spy stories of the 60’s. You can see lines on the cover, back cover and inserts, these lines represent an encrypted code. The lines are opened, and in the cassette “Dead Drop” the lines are present on the cover, with different color and the lines are closing, and have the appearance of being an interpretation of the primary code of “Local Agent”. The songs of “Local Agent”and “Dead Drop” were composed in the same period by Brad Rose, they are part of the same session. We thought the whole job could be divided in two different albums, “Local Agent” as formal narrative, and “Dead Drop” as the decoding of the first.

What tape labels, if any, do you keep an eye on?

Regarding just tape labels I enjoy a lot VCO Recordings, Constellation Tatsu, and Sic Sic Tapes among others. My recent favorite cassettes releases are Helena Hauff and German Army, both on Handmade Birds, “RIP Chrysalis” by Eartheater on Hausu Mountain, and “Sketch for Winter II” by Pan·American on Geographic North, although these labels have releases in many formats.

What is the experimental music scene like in Mexico City?

In Mexico almost any artistic endeavor is necessarily independent. And the experimentation is not an exception of course. It is very large, there are artists doing pretty interesting programs of improvisation, many happenings or other artistic performances combined with different disciplines. There’s a lot about electronic music, collectives oriented to minimalism and field recordings and a strong experimental dance floor scene. The most interesting is the way musical life in Mexico is conducted, unlike the plastic and literary arts – in which we have an immense and well-documented tradition, and whose main objective is publication. In music the characters are more ambiguous, and don’t follow a line of work within a label. The experimental and independent life today in Mexico exists generally in live acts, and is spread primarily in digital ways.

What should we expect from Umor Rex in 2016?

The newest batch of tapes includes M. Geddes Gengras, a collaboration between Steven Hess and Ruy Zuydervelt (Machinefabriek), and a split by Shapes (which is half of Phantom Horse) and Melfi. In February we will publish the second LP by Good Willsmith on vinyl and digital (their second from Umor Rex, the first being “The Honeymoon Workbook”), titled “Things Our Bodies Used to Have.” It is ready for pre-order. In April we will have the second LP by Driftmachine (their third publication on Umor Rex after his debut LP “Nocturnes” and the EP “Eis Heauton“). And for the next batch of cassettes, without a release date so far, I can anticipate the line up too. We will publish an album by Alexandre Bazin, a French composer and member of Groupe de Recherches Musicales, the second work by Maar, and the Mexican producer Nicolas Guerrero. It will be his debut under his own name, he is also known as White Visitation.

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