Featuring such artists as Ryuichi Sakamoto and Marsen Jules, 12k have released covered wide ground across over 100 records. Yet despite the longevity of the project, 12k never seem to run out of steam. To the contrary, records such as Taylor Deupree and Marcus Fischer’s Twine sound as fresh and challenging as anything from their near 20 year existence. As part of our ‘In Focus’ series, looking at some of our favorite labels, we got the chance to speak to label head Taylor Deupree about the ethos and foundations of 12k.
“There was a fairly decisive point that started the ball rolling”, he begins. “In 1996 I had a contract for an album with Silent Records in California who never fulfilled their end of the deal and didn’t release the album. Taking a look at the landscape of labels at the time I was frustrated at the lack of artist-run labels that really focused on the quality of the whole experience rather than on trends. I was working at a label at the time as well (Instinct Records, as their art director) so I had some knowledge of the basics of how to run, and not to run, a label. So really it all fell into place then and I decided to release the CD that was supposed to come out on Silent by myself.. and 12k was born. I often think of what my career would look like today if Silent had released that album and 12k was never started. Funny how these little moments, circumstances, snap-decisions, can really change the course of your entire life. Fascinating. As frustrated as I was with labels and the whole music business at that time, it was a blessing in disguise. I wanted to do a label right, at least my vision of what was “right.” For better or worse, I wanted to take the whole process into my own hands.”
The 12k studio.
Despite an expansive base of releases, 12k are also known for their precise aesthetic. On their website, the style is described as “a precisely-outlined, yet deeply emotional concoction of the technological and the organic.” This makes sense in the context of the electro-acoustic genre, of which 12k are champions. “12k’s music has always revolved around technology”, Deupree explains. “Whether it was early experiments in post-techno or microsound to current hybrids of electronic and acoustic music. Technology has always been centre stage and many of our artists rely on it to do what they do. I’ve always been attracted to and wanted to be an artist, but am not a very good one unless I have technology to help me along…
“So, because of this, technology always played a role in my life and supporting role in my creative endeavours. Fast forward to more recent years and I begin to feel that technology has taken over our lives too much, thus my desire to start down-playing the technological in my work. Combine this with my life-long love of nature and landscapes and the two become this hybrid of the technologic and organic. The organic provides a humanness, a roughness, and imperfection to the technology, and the technology brings the natural out of context and helps redefine it.”
On their website, you can find a list 12 principles upon which the label was founded. These could be read as an almost Biblical list of commandments, yet the label could never be described as dogmatic. The last of the 12 is “everything will change”, which Deupree describes as the “most important of all”. Deupree clarifies; “while I do feel there is a strong mission behind 12k it’s also important to realise that nothing is sacred, that everything will change, and that there’s no point in trying to guess the future. You have to realise that your ideas are fluid, that just because something is interesting and important to you now it doesn’t mean it will be ten years from now.”
Perhaps most intriguing of the 12 principles is number 8: “Never try to innovate”. It can often seem as if this is the precise opposite of what musicians are regularly told to do. Innovation, we are told, is the foundation of creativity. But Deupree’s sentiments are more expressionist than futurist in this regard. “Innovation is the wrong motivation for musicians. If innovation is your prime motivation, you will be more concerned about public reception (after all, it is the public who will ultimately determine whether you have “innovated” or not) than you will be of self-expression. Self-expression should be an artist’s primary reason for creating art. Be true to yourself and create something personal. Innovation may happen, or it may not. Innovation should be a happy byproduct, not a motivator.”
Although their music is worlds apart, the resistance to innovation is reminiscent of the ethos of Terre Thaemlitz aka DJ Sprinkles. For Thaemlitz, originality is inextricably linked to individuality and privatisation of one’s creative labour. According to Thaemlitz, we should rather be aiming to reference pre-existing historical material, and hence highlight that which is common amongst us. However, Deupree’s thoughts differ in their conclusions about this. “It’s not good to be stuck in the past” he continues. “Certainly these references can’t help but pop up, and for sure paying respect to those who came before us is valid and important, but to do nothing but redo what has already been done isn’t going down the right path either.
“I don’t believe that early pioneers of electronic music, or any form of music, sat down to their instrument and said “OK, today I am going to innovate!” More realistically they came across a new tool that may or may not have been intended for music and set out to explore its possibilities. They were driven by exploration not innovation. “Innovation” to me sounds like you are looking for some reward, trying to impress an audience. It’s not genuine. Explore and you may end up innovating and it comes as an accidental bonus and certainly your explorations would deserve some form of praise, but don’t let that praise be your primary motivating factor.”
12k furthermore describe themselves as “anti-design”, another term which designates the label as an antithesis to much of the prevailing music industry norms. “When I talk about “anti-design” I’m talking about a graphic representation in as pure a form as possible”, Deupree writes. “Graphic design is about communication, and I feel the most successful design gets its point across the most directly, while retaining a sense of aesthetics and taste. I don’t think anyone can claim that 12k’s design is full of drama, decoration or excess fluff. So many design trends have come and gone that utilise certain flares that pin it to a particular style or time. While this can often be impossible to avoid, I try to avoid these types of traps with 12k (whether I’m successful or not is another story). Simple typography over unadorned backgrounds and photography/images that conveys a message to the buyer and listener… this is as pure as I’ve been able to boil down the design aesthetic to convey what needs to be conveyed. I don’t feel that any of these beliefs hinder me from making this “symbiotic” connection between the music and the artwork. In fact, I feel it strengthens it. There is no excess decoration or distraction to get in the way.”
View from the 12k studio.
The latest release on the label was Twine, a collaboration LP between Deupree himself and Marcus Fischer. The album uses magnetic tape loops as its primary focus, creating an eery and solitary sound. “After doing some initial experiments and recordings we decided that we wanted to push ourselves somewhere differently, not to just settle on the previous methods” Deupree says. “We started exploring recordings on Marcus’ reel-to-reel tape machines and during a tired late night, a loop on one was just playing in the background as we hung out and talked. The sound of this lone, mono loop really intrigued us and we knew we had something to go on. One strong characteristic of Twine is that it all came together very quickly, we had the album recorded in two or three days. This has happened in the past in some of my projects, and I always feel like the best work is sometimes the work that gets completed very quickly, almost in a stream of inspiration. Work that is laboured over for months can often be refined very nicely but also risks being stressed over too much, or over-refined. There is a spontaneous and natural quality to Twine that draws on the energy of not being over-thought. These times when the music just flows, without too much thought or stress can be when the most magic happens.”
The experiments with format do not seem to ending anytime soon either. “I’ve been working on a new solo album for about a year, the follow up to my last, Faint” Deupree tells me. “It’s being created using a very specific means of production with a pretty limited palette of instruments. Mostly electric piano and glockenspiel, with a little DX-7 and some other synths thrown in.”
This is what makes 12k a success. It’s a label that has coupled a continued openness to exploration with years of establishing its structural and ideological foundations. As a result, an album of such scope as Twine can be written in just a few days. At it’s core, 12k seem to make a minimalist expression that is ultimately at odds with the hyperactive bustle and information-saturation afforded by the modern world. Deupree expands; “my interest in minimalism definitely spawned from living in New York City and desiring a more calmed and focused lifestyle. It played out (and still does) in my music, design, home life and general aesthetics of living. It’s so easy to get caught up in the over-saturation. Personally, I feel minimalism is more important than ever, but I’m not sure many share the same belief as the desire for more and louder constantly prevails. It can be difficult to try to sell quiet, beatless music. It certainly doesn’t get the attention that loud music does. Volume sells.” Yet Deupree remains resilient: “but, what can I do? Hopefully open the ears of a few listeners and offer them a bit of respite from our overloaded society.”
All photos by Taylor Deupree.