Radio Khartoum is a label with a mission: to break indie pop from its “Anglo-American” bondage and to do it with a flare uncharacteristic of modern independent labels. In fact, the label advertises itself as releasing “indiepop music from bands from foreign lands.” A strange notion to most American pop kids, who are used to buying only music from domestic bands, but one that they will gladly warm up to, with the mystical and romantic atmosphere that is created by this label. With releases from pop bands like Finland•s Cessna and France•s Watoo Watoo on a 3″ CD, Radio Khartoum has created it’s own little niche in the indiepop genre. Alexander Bailey, founder of Radio Khartoum, explains his concept for the label to Ink 19 over e-mail.
Why and when did you decide to start your label?
I dreamed of directing a label ever since I figured out that having an orientation was what made indies different the in mid-’80s. It wasn’t until around ’96, however that I was out of school and realized that it didn’t have to be a dream. As long as I stuck with a bike (two, in fact) instead of a car, I’d have enough disposable income to release two records a year without selling a single copy. And if I sold some records, then I could make more than two a year. I should point out that the fact that I never manage to release more than three things a year has slightly more to do with my slow working habits than with sales, however!
Radio Khartoum is an unusual name for a label, how did you come up with it and why?
Felt’s song “Cartoon Sky.” The “Khartoum” part was a play off “cartoon.” I wanted something that had innocent and ugly sides. Innocent — or cute — in the form of “cartoon” confusion, and also in early- and mid-twentieth century associations of “radio,” with technology’s promise of a brighter future. “Radio” crops up in the names of all sorts of products, which have nothing to do with radio or radio waves. Put together, “Radio Khartoum” can sound like the name for an exotic signal that your grandfather managed to catch on short-wave radio one night way back when. Or it can sound like it’s the propagandist voice of a regime. That’s the flip side — the ugly reality of modern day Khartoum and Sudan, where a brutal civil war has been waged since 1956.
I know you are a big fan of él records and its group of artists. How did their music help you develop your label?
I could name a lot of labels which put the notion in my head that an independent label should work like an auteur. él was definitely one of them. I•d say what él did in particular was show me that bubblegum pop could be subversive, which was a real turn-on for me at the moment when 4AD’s formula (a huge love of mine at one point) suddenly ceased to be interesting for me.
Your label has a very cinematic feel to it, from the press releases for the albums to the bands’ lyrics and on to the cover art. What role does cinema play for you with your label and with the bands on your label?
I’m a huge fan of the movies, and fortunately I can reach five different cinemas showing non-Hollywood films plus a couple of multiplexes within ten minutes by bicycle. I’m pretty good about taking advantage of it. One of the things that led up Radio Khartoum’s conception was that my mix tapes were gradually turning into imaginary soundtracks. At this point, I feel like my music is pretty distinct from my cinema viewing; they’re just two things that really stimulate me. But I do try to make the music on my records project a fantasy world like in film, and I do my best to encourage the musicians I work with to try to create “visual” music, or evoke some kind of dramatic or cinematic flair. There’s been the odd case or two where my having mentioned a filmmaker like Jacques Tati has — perhaps — been a deciding factor for an artist like Quigley to decide to record something for me.
Is this where you draw your same inspiration from to do the ongoing series of compilations called 18 Frames Per Second? Do you try and arrange them as if you were scoring a film?
I got the name for the compilation series from the standard projectors of the silent era that ran at 18 frames per second. The point with the series is to say that you don’t have to compile a “label sampler,” a collection of hits, or even a collection of music in a particular style. You can try to compile in a way that finds new meaning in the music you’re assembling, because of the juxtapositions you choose. To try to make the act of “compilation” its own creative work. Of course, in the end, what I want to have is a record that is its own coherent listening experience, hopefully a world of its own.
All your releases are on three-inch compact disc. What was your reasoning for using this untraditional format, and do you think that your label loses something, respect or credibility, because of this choice?
There were a bunch of great reasons to use three-inch CDs, and one big drawback. First, it’s an identity for the label. Possibly making things collectable, but certainly increasing the likelihood that people will keep all of their Radio Khartoum CDs in one block in their collections. Second, it’s a nice alternative to the seven-inch single, the dominant entry format for the DIY generation. I feel that most songs I get on seven-inches shouldn’t have been released that way. Seven-inches are for things that sound great in isolation, songs which need a moment’s silence afterwards. Hits. Third, having an upper limit of 22 minutes playing time imposes a very healthy discipline, keeping my releases lean and strong. Lastly, the things are divinely postal friendly. The big drawback is that most stores don’t know where to put something on a strange format, so most people never see the CDs.
I noted from your Web site that freeing the indie pop scene from the dominance of the English language was something that you wished to accomplish. How does this play into people’s tendencies to buy your releases here in the States?
Free the scene from the Anglo-American dominance that everyone takes for granted, that’s what I wanted to do. I wasn’t out to abolish the language, but I have encouraged the bands that I work with to sing in their native languages more often. I think that my being based in the States makes it easier for people here to buy my releases. I doubt that it makes them more likely to buy them, because people who are obsessed with the “exotic” are more likely to shun whatever’s produced locally. With Anglo-Americanism so solidly in the foreground here, there’s plenty of room for people to search out alternatives from everywhere else. But go to France, for example, and you’ll find a commercial mainstream that’s French, and a rock “alternative” that’s been completely mainstreamed. Naturally, this alternative is 99% Anglo-American. It leaves very little room for domestic alternatives, let alone for alternatives from Spain or Sweden.
Is it then just in keeping with your stance that you release music from bands mostly outside of the United States? Or do you feel that bands here in America just are not putting out material that suit the aesthetic of your label?
This was something I chose to embrace as a movement. Aside from all that, when I listen to a band, I generally listen to the music first, and the lyrics second. It’s much more typical for me to hate something because of lousy lyrics than for me to actually like something because of the lyrics. But a good voice is like any other well-played instrument. Throw on a foreign accent or a foreign tongue, and the instrument becomes all the more intriguing and exotic. So, yes, I’m still inclined to favor bands with accents. Broadly speaking, I find something romantically escapist in every band’s sound. As far as bands in America, there are plenty of them that I like, but there’s plenty that I write off too. Typically, there’s something going on in the vocals that I just can’t get excited about. It’s too mundane? However, the scene around San Francisco has been very strong these last few years. But generally, I find that locally, my friends at Paris Caramel have usually managed to get to everyone first!
What is your favorite release on your label, and why?
Transmarine is still my favorite release, although the new Hepburns record has given it a strong challenge. I think the five songs work perfectly together — so good, in fact, that quite a bit is lost if you try to play just one song as a sample. I’ve heard of college deejays just playing the whole thing straight through.
What is the one release/band that you wish could be on your label, and why?
Someone like Frenesi would have been perfect for RK. Light yet melancholy – it’s romance. I also would have loved to have released Gilles (Toog) Weinzaepflen’s first album, and I’m still kicking myself for not having pounced on the Gypsophile/Shop album, which ultimately was only self-released on CD-R by Manu of Shop, with a four song excerpt getting a seven-inch release on Blackbean [and Placenta]. I am planning on releasing Shop’s debut album as soon as he finishes it, however.
What role do you feel the Internet has played in helping bring kids together who share similar opinions about music, and how important is that to your label?
Even in my earliest Internet days, I made a remarkable discovery. There actually [were] three other Momus fans in the US. One in New York, one in Georgia, one in, of all places, the same city as me, Oakland. And I had never met anyone else who approved of Momus before that. Radio Khartoum simply couldn’t have started without the Internet. My first contact with 95% of the bands has been through the ether. And I suspect that one Internet site, http://www.tweekitten.com, may selling as many RK discs as all the US shops combined. Or coming close to it, anyway, with a lot less effort.
If you could have one novel to describe your aesthetic, what would it be and why?
Achilles heel, films would have been easier for me. Perhaps Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian. It’s funny, it’s surrealist, it’s mocking, and it’s definitely playful. It managed to push at literary conventions while still being enjoyable to read. And just when you get sick of everything in its fantasy world being too good, it all starts to go bad. And it just keeps getting worse right through to the mischievously bitter end. So it’s fantastically wonderful and yet quite sinister at the same time. I’d like everything I do to have (at least) two contradictory aspects. For me it’s the grit in the oyster.
All right, I will play along. If you could align yourself with a particular genre of film and/or art, what would it be and why?
Surrealism, sort of. Most “surrealist” films got made long after the art movement had disbanded. I want to start making films, or videos. I want to make experimental films, but I want to always make films are actually enjoyable to watch. I’m just an entertainer at heart…
With your label, do you feel that you are contributing to the overall term “art,” or are you doing this for ulterior reasons? If so, what?
Nah, I see myself as more self-indulgent and decadent than as someone who’s truly pushing the boundaries. I try to steer clear of difficult listening as far as the label is concerned. I suppose that’s still the forefront of the avant-garde…or perhaps it’s not. I do see the recycling and remixing of musical styles using current technologies as connected with the whole Photoshop/Streamline and plunder school in contemporary design. But that’s mostly commercial design, isn’t it? I try to make consumerism a little more ambiguous… but “art” with a capital “A,” no.
Lastly, any advice for those who may be starting their own label?
Everyone’s making records today. Try to do more than that. Figure out what you want to do, be critical, try things, take chances, but keep being critical…
Radio Khartoum Discography:
KHZ 197: Cessna – Bordeaux (2 x 3″ CD – 1997)
KHZ 198: Various Artists – The Flight of Everson K (3″ CD – 1998 with Chocolate Barry, Seashells, Instant Life, Christine, Essiar, and Bizarre)
KHZ 298: Gypsophile – Songs of a Thousand Nights (3″ CD – 1998)
KHZ 398: Various Artists – Transmarine (3″ CD – 1998 with Le Mans, Club Foot Orchestra, Louis Philippe, Christine, Quigley)
KHZ 199: Essiar – Summer in Minsk (3″ CD – 1999)
KHZ 299: Watoo Watoo – Picture of a Lost Friend (3″ CD – 1999)
KHZ 100: Cessna – The Loves, Longings and Regrets of Cessna (3″ CD – 2000)
KHZ 200: The Hepburns – Champagne Reception (3″ CD & 10″ vinyl – 2000)
KHZ 300: Various Artists – The Stations of Abandoned Days (3″ CD – 2000 with Chesty Morgan, Cinnamon, Hitoribocchi, Chocolate Barry, and Caramel)