Indie, Nordic Style: An Interview with Bartleby of
Randall J. Stephens
Norway has sprouted quite a crop of indie-pop. Much of it has come under the aegis of Perfect Pop, an appropriately named label that has featured a whole host of nostalgic-minded indie bands for the last 10 years. The label, manned in part by Bartleby, functions “as an umbrella mostly for Norwegian artists who want to release their own records.” Norwegian groups like Loch Ness Mouse and the Tables (of which Bartleby is a member) bust it up chocolate soup style, raising the psych-pop sails of their Viking ships to full mast. But not only a Norsk venture, Perfect Pop has worked with numerous other bands from the continent to the U.S. Included among them is the critically acclaimed the Bartlebees, a Teutonic answer to Pavement with Beat Happening and Pastels flourishes. Bartleby gives us the lowdown on his low-profile label:
How, when, and why did you start Perfect Pop?
Well, it actually wasn’t me who started Perfect Pop, it was the Time Lodgers, who with their first single made the label come into existence. I met those guys at Last Train in Oslo, a pub where Tom Trobraten, their guitarist, was a kind of scene-maker, playing British indie-pop over the speakers all the time. I started to frequent the place when I heard rumors that they played the Tables there. This was back in 1990, and just after we had released the Tables album Shady Whims & Obstacles on our own label. Since I and my friends in the Tables had some previous experience in doing it ourselves, we took over the whole thing and I began trying to establish a network of contacts all over the world.
There were also several bands with the same outlook and musical tastes around at that time, the Release Party, the Time Lodgers, Astroburger, and the Loch Ness Mouse. So it seemed sensible having these bands on one label, instead of everybody releasing records on their own. We were perhaps inspired by the independent collectives that seemed to exist in the UK, like early Rough Trade, early Creation and 53rd & 3rd, etc. Personally, I thought it was about time that Norway got out of the backwater when it comes to indie-pop. If other people could set up their own label, why couldn’t we?
Were you also interested at all in the burgeoning U.S. indie scene, boosted by labels like Matador, Merge, K, Twee Kitten, Scat, SpinArt…? What about cassette lo-fi pop labels from the UK like Acid Tapes? Seems like you would have found a kindred spirit in Martin Newell’s Cleaners from Venus.
Hah, guess what, I’m a big fan of Martin Newell and Cleaners from Venus. I was trying to get a deal with Humbug Records for releasing Newell’s “The Greatest Living Englishman” on vinyl on Perfect Pop, but a German label called Pink Lemon/Jar beat me to it! But back to your question, yeah, I’ve been in contact with Steve Lines of Acid Tapes because I was a fan of his band Stormclouds, but the U.S. indie scene and the labels you mention haven’t had much of an influence here. It’s just lately that I’ve become aware of all the great music they’ve released. I’m not especially well informed, but somehow all great things trickle into my surroundings via friends of friends and so on.
Let me say that I was in Norway in the summer of 1992, and I don’t think I could have imagined then that anything like Perfect Pop existed there. So it’s really wild to think of you guys keeping it legit with indie during those end-of-metal, beginning-of-grunge years.
I think we had something in common with the grunge youth in Oslo at that time, at least some of us. We had the same anti-establishment attitude and we didn’t care much about what other people thought about us.
When you released the Tables’ Shady Whims & Obstacles in 1990, how was it received? It seems like it’s pretty sophisticated (reminiscent of so much from the mod era, but fresh in an indie pop kinda way). What was your inspiration / influence for the Tables?
The album did pretty well, we sold almost 1000 vinyl copies, doing all the distribution ourselves. We were surprised by the reception and the good reviews. It has now been repressed on CD two times, and it’s still selling! At that time, we were very much influenced by a series of LPs on the Bam Caruso label called Rubble. I couldn’t afford to buy records, but Robert Birdeye bought everything and we listened a lot to all the obscure British bands from the 60’s who only released a single or two, preferably from the year 1967. When we started the Tables we were obviously inspired by the Television Personalities, and it came as a nice revelation to hear that Dan Treacy had also been looking back on 60’s obscurities as a source of inspiration, for instance the Chocolate Soup for Diabetics series. The style we liked then and still like is called popsike, a sort of lightweight psychedelia with quite a lot of humorous lyrics and whimsical ideas. But somehow, the album turned out to sound like the Tables, I think it has a special spirit, and we’ve tried to make our music “sound like the Tables” ever since. In fact, nowadays we’re inspired by our own first album!
Hasn’t Perfect Pop worked with Television Personalities? Pretty cool. That must have been quite an experience for you. Would you mind saying something about how it worked out?
Well, all right, we haven’t actually worked WITH Television Personalities. The story goes like this: It so happened that when the TVPs played in Oslo in 1990 one of the gigs (at Last Train, our regular hangout) was recorded on cassette. This was a very special night, the TVPs had been on tour for weeks and were totally exhausted (at least Dan Treacy was), playing like a ramshackle steamshovel, so we decided to pick out four songs that were really funny and release a 7″ live EP. We didn’t ask anybody for permission, but haven’t had any complaints. I really like that EP, it’s a very great document. You have to be a true fan to enjoy it…
What type of bands and genres pique the interest of Perfect Pop? What sort of bands do you usually like to work with?
I prefer working with local bands, people I know personally, or at least Norwegian bands, cause everything is much easier then, concerning communication and practical things. It’s always nice to work with people who support the label and don’t only think about themselves and what they can get out of being released on Perfect Pop. I don’t like to work with bands who see Perfect Pop as a stepping stone to greater things. But in the end, it’s always up to the bands themselves how far they will go, being on Perfect Pop is certainly no guarantee for success, as we don’t have much means for promotion. I only work with bands that I like according to my own taste, and I don’t care about the commercial possibilities. We could have released several talented bands that have gotten very far since they approached us (BigBang, for instance), but they didn’t fit my taste exactly, and we’re not in this for making money.
How do you finance your releases?
Hrm… well, most of the time we have to kidnap the piggybanks of band members to get a record out. We’ve never had any real money, so it’s mostly up to bands to pay the bills. But we’ve finally got an accountant now, so we hope to get a bank account that isn’t empty all the time. He’s hanging over my shoulders making sure that I don’t spend the money on nights out and tobacco.
I hate to talk about money, so next question, please!
How has the label been received by fans in Norway, Europe, and the U.S.?
Some people have been greatly amazed that “all these good bands” are released by a small label in Norway. We’re not especially famous anywhere, but we have a few fans spread out around the world, and that’s what matters. In Norway, I feel that most people look at us as a “lost cause,” unfortunately. But to me, Norway would have been a musical desert without Perfect Pop. There are actually just one or two bands in Norway that I would like to see on Perfect Pop that aren’t already.
Who are they? And what makes you want to get them on to Perfect Pop?
They are called Dipsomaniacs and American Suitcase. (In fact, I’ve just written liner notes to the LP version of American Suitcase’s new CD, called Bluefoot). But I’m not actually trying to get these bands on Perfect Pop because they seem well taken care of where they are. They have small, quality labels backing them, and there’s not much I can do for them that isn’t being done. I just thought it would be nice to have singles with these bands released by Perfect Pop. If we only had the money…I haven’t asked them yet.
Have you worked with bands from Sweden or Denmark? How do the scenes in those countries compare with yours in Norway?
From abroad it may seem natural that we Scandinavians know what’s going on in our neighboring countries, but for some strange reasons [sic], it’s not like that at all. I don’t know much about what’s going on in Sweden or Denmark, and we rarely get interested people from these countries.
What would you like to see Perfect Pop do in the next few years?
I’d like to have some money so that we could have the freedom to release more records, which could make more money to make more records and so on. There’s a lot of talent here, and I’m committed to help the bands I think deserve to be released on record. We (the Tables) have invested some money in a 24-track analog studio, which we share with 4 other bands/projects. This means that I can act as producer for new and inexperienced talents in this studio, and that makes it much easier to get records out without spending too much money on the recordings. This will probably lead to a more frequent release policy in the years to come. I’d just like to see a steady stream of good records being released on Perfect Pop.
How have the bands recorded the material you’ve put out so far? Homemade, analogue, or in studios?
It differs. Some recordings (like the Time Lodgers and others) have been done in professional studios, some have been done at home, or on 8-track in rehearsal rooms etc. The Loch Ness Mouse album, Flair for Darjeeling, for instance, was recorded on 8-track mostly in Birdeye’s apartment by me and Birdeye and mixed there, too! But luckily, we had expert help from Clancy B. Grass.
Anything particularly exciting that’s up and coming for Perfect Pop?
Lots of things, at least things that are exciting to me: We’re gonna release an LP by a lo-fi home-recording group called the Superman Can Flys, who have released a home-produced CD in 50 copies for friends and family. When I heard this CD, I just had to release it on vinyl, it’s too good to be for private circulation only. (We’re planning 300 copies.) Then I’m producing 7 songs with a band called Ethnobabes, who play girlish innocent guitar-pop. More songs will probably be added later, to make a full-length album. Then there’s a 7 song record by the Loch Ness Mouse, which I’m going to mix for them. I’m also producing a 5-song CD EP with the Jessica Fletchers, another new band. And I guess that sooner or later we’ll have something from Nutrition Facts, the new band of Patrick, the vocalist of the Bartlebees (he’s living in Oslo now). So there are really a lot of new bands on the way into our roster, which pleases me very much. It would be boring to release only stuff by the same three or four bands all the time. And then there’s some new Tables stuff planned, but there is another label interested, so we’re not sure if it will be on Perfect Pop.
Past and Present Perfect Pop Artists:
The Time Lodgers (N)
The Release Party (N)
The Tables (N)
The Bartlebees (G)
Todd Dillingham (UK)
Watch Children (US)
Monsters of Doom (N)
The Silly Pillows (US)
The Loch Ness Mouse (N)
The Orange Alabaster Mushroom (CAN)
Arne Hansen & the Guitarspellers (N)
Robert Birdeye (N)
King Midas (N)
TV Personalities (UK)
The Blind Bats (N)
Soon to come:
The Superman Can Flys
The Jessica Fletchers
For more information, write to Perfect Pop Records, Bogstadvn.30/312, 0355 Oslo, Norway, or visit http://home.sol.no/~perfpop/.