In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.
Back in December, the UK music critic David Keenan published an editorial in the year-in-review edition of The Wire that upset a lot of people I know. "It's 2014 and the underground is finally dead," his retrospective began, "a corpse where every nth generation inanity has its champion, where every artist is his or her own PR machine." He continued: "In 2014, underground music has become a mere fetish, something to throw in the mix for credentials while never allowing the approach to fully deform the music or take it anywhere else. Even industrial, one of the most consistent bulwarks against the commodification of revolt […] has become nothing more than ambient, beat driven wallpaper."
It was a pretty heavy thing to read—especially in the pages of The Wire, long the experimental underground's de facto publication of record, and especially coming from a guy like Keenan, whose impassioned championing (and christening) of fringe musical movements like "new weird America" and "hypnagogic pop" was probably one of the things that inspired me to become a critic. Keenan's contention was that underground music as he knew it—presumably, a music of "revolt" against the cultural, political, and economic status quo—had effectively veered off course in these post-internet times, forgoing that disruptive, utopian urge in the interests of participating in the marketplace.
Understandably, his words incited a lot of angry comments from musicians and label owners on my Facebook feed— How can you say that we sold out when we don't even make enough money off of this to feed ourselves?, they'd say—but I can't say it isn't a thought that crosses my mind every morning, when I wake up to an inbox full of press releases. There's an unmistakable irony to the work that we writers and other "advocates" of underground music do: we spend our days trying to convince more and more people to appreciate the music we find meaningful, only to get sad the moment we discover those artists getting swallowed up (and sometimes chewed up) by the marketplace. Maybe it's natural to feel like the underground is "dead" when you've witnessed too many scenes you've loved come and go.
Hippos In Tanks' records had the commonality of being generally technology-obsessed, sounding consistently strange, and always seeming a year ahead of what everyone would be talking about.
Last week, with the news of Barron Machat's tragic passing in a car crash at the age of 27, I experienced the heartbreak of what felt like another chapter in music coming to a close. I wasn't a close personal friend of Barron's, but Hippos In Tanks, his label, probably put out more releases I cared about than any other label I grew up alongside as a writer. It's hard to generalize about the 47 releases that came out within the Los Angeles-based label's four years of activity, though they had the commonality of being generally technology-obsessed, sounding consistently strange, and always seeming a year or so ahead of what everyone in music—from the underground community to the pop world—would be talking about.
There were early records from Grimes (with Montreal musician d'Eon) and Laurel Halo and Sleep ∞ Over and Autre Ne Veut and Oneohtrix Point Never's side project Games; a career-catapulting mixtape from FADER cover star Arca called &&&&&; and a game-changing ode to laptop love called Far Side Virtual from James Ferraro, seemingly goading his noise scene contemporaries to wake up and embrace the technological possibilities of the present. On the more niche end of the spectrum, there was a 2012 album from Gatekeeper that doubled as a multi-level video game by digital artist Tabor Robak; a SoundCloud-only series of MIDI keyboard experiments from d'Eon that included an exploration of Québecois nationalism and a series of covers of Blink-182's "What's My Age Again?"; and a record by one casino-obsessed, London-based MC named Triad God, who rapped over seasick Palmistry beats in Cantonese. Although many of the artists on the roster had come from other labels—or would end up going elsewhere as time went on—you'd often hear about a beguilingly weird new release that Barron was cooking up, and it would seem like the kind of thing that could only find a home on Hippos in Tanks.
Machat founded Hippos around 2010 with former co-owner Travis Woolsey, as an outgrowth of a late-night radio show they used to DJ together on Los Angeles' KXLU. Machat came from a long line of powerful music people; his father, Steven Machat, is an entertainment attorney whose past clients include Leonard Cohen, Ozzy Osbourne, Phil Spector, Peter Gabriel, and Snoop Dog; his grandfather, Martin, was also a music lawyer to the stars, and even acted as James Brown's manager for a time. Perhaps owing to these deep industry roots—and as former FADER editor Sam Hockley-Smith has already pointed out—Hippos arrived on the electronic music scene of the early '10s with the peculiar, at-times menacing aura of a purveyor of fringe sounds that operated like a major. By contrast with James Ferraro and Autre Ne Veut's former musical home, Olde English Spelling Bee, the similarly scene-defining, Brooklyn label to which it has frequently been compared (and a former employer of mine), Hippos had a distribution deal with SONY RED, and later with RedEye; it hired publicists to promote its releases back when that just wasn't something that underground labels did, and for the first few years at least, seemed to have enough money behind it to accommodate just about any elaborate project or hair-brain scheme that any of the artists on its roster could dream up.
"I remember asking Barron, half-joking, how feasible it would be to have one of our records distributed in 'Christian' markets, and wouldn't you know it, he spent a good month or two speaking back and forth with Sony's Christian division," d'Eon told The FADER via email. "He got us distribution, publication, PR deals, and had our music sent to major publications, for many of us at points of our career when all we really expected was maybe a shout-out on someone's blogspot, or a retweet. Every single Hippos In Tanks record is printed on 180-gram vinyl. I still can't believe that he had a double-LP, gatefold, heavy-vinyl album manufactured just for me." Gatekeeper's Aaron David Ross, who also put out a record on the label under the solo moniker ADR, remembers the similarly magical cast that life inside the Hippos family could take on (Gatekeeper was also managed by Machat for three years). "Once, in 2011, I made a joke about a concept I had for a dubstep magic show as a Las Vegas hotel attraction. The next day, we were driving to Vegas, and [Barron] and his father Steven had somehow managed to get me a front row comp ticket to an already sold-out David Copperfield show."
To hear these larger-than-life stories, it can be easy to forget that Hippos was mostly a one-man operation (Woolsey left the operation in the summer of 2011) peddling confusing, and at times crazy-sounding, records in an independent music industry where there was never that much money to be made to begin with. For most of its life-span, Machat ran the label out of the pool house behind his mother's home in Los Angeles, and was known to act as his artists' personal driver and roadie whenever they went on tour, frequently stealing away during sound check to track down the odd smoke machine or piece of music equipment. In my years interacting with him in the capacity of a journalist, it wasn't uncommon for him to hit me up at odd hours about some new track that James Ferraro had mysteriously upped to SoundCloud in the middle of the night—usually via Gchat, in invisible mode, and usually from some far-flung destination like Rio or Berlin. Or so he would tell me: sometimes I couldn't tell whether he was being straight with me or simply steering the label like it was an art project unto itself, punking the music industry much in the same way that his artists could seem like they were punking music.
"Barron Machat was the most high-minded, cosmic person anyone ever met."—d'Eon
"He was the most high-minded, cosmic person anyone ever met," d'Eon remembers of Machat. "The most memorable thing about his personality was his wide-eyed falsetto giggle. He constantly spoke enthusiastically about how culture was at a tipping point—that we can do whatever we want musically and in business, because we were living in the cultural Wild West." In many ways, Machat was right: when he entered the record game at the turn of the last decade, the internet was opening up a whole new world of opportunities for independent artists, allowing them to release music, connect with fans, and even attract cosigns from pop's most powerful personalities (think: Kanye enlisting Arca as a production consultant on Yeezus)—without the need of major label support. A cottage industry of enterprising grassroots labels had started springing up—many of them, like Hippos and Olde English Spelling Bee, Tri Angle, and RVNG Intl., also spanned an ambiguous middle-ground between pop, club music, and experimental sounds—along with a parallel cottage industry of publicists, booking agents, and taste-making blogs. For a certain community of underground musicians, there was a spirit of possibility in the air, and with its incongruent combination of wayward aesthetics and out-sized ambitions, Hippos In Tanks probably seemed most emblematic of that possibility. Last Thursday, as news of Machat's death spread across the internet, there was one tweet from Berlin-based producer and Hippos family member Physical Therapy that summed up the spirit of the label best: "Barron once told me he was sure @arca1000000 [Arca] and @LIL_ICEBUNNY [James Ferraro] would have platinum records in his lifetime. He had a different kind of faith."
"Naïvety" is a word that people seem to be throwing around a lot while speaking of that faith, but I think "bravery" might be a bit more apt. Confounding art music is a much harder sell in the pop music marketplace than it is in the gallery context, the leaky basement show context, or even the academy —you're no longer just "preaching to the crowd," and if you do succeed in crossing over, you might actually stand a chance of changing the way people listen, even the way people think. Indeed, when I think back on all the artists whose careers Hippos helped nurture, it's their engagement with the present that stands out the most—their embrace of the technology's cutting edge, even its ugliest and most dystopian (see Adam Harper's excellent 2012 essay on accelerationism in so-called "vaporwave music" for more information); their tendency to transform even the act of marketing their own music into a disruptive, performative act (remember when Dean Blunt surprise-released his The Redeemer follow-up, Stone Island, on a Russian language website? Or the many times Hype Williams "opened" up about their music to the press, only to end up confusing most of us even more?).
In the aforementioned The Wire article, Keenan posits a solution for the underground's "selling out problem" in a complete retreat from the marketplace and from visibility, in the avant-garde's categorical withdrawal unto itself: "At this point we need to shut down dialogue, halt conversation, put down the iPhone. We need a ruthlessly stratified, exclusionary, hermetic, refusenick art." To that seemingly defeatist stance, I hope Hippos will be remembered for laying the groundwork to an alternative template for the avant-garde: dive headfirst into the world you hate. Wrestle with it. Make art about it. Become a vigilante.
Of course, like too many good things, Hippos didn't end up sticking around for very long. Though there was never any formal statement announcing its demise, the label put out its last physical record—James Ferraro's NYC, HELL, 3:00 AM LP—in November of 2013, then sputtered to a stop with a couple of final digital releases. Independent labels are notoriously near-impossible to sustain financially, and while Machat may have held out in the hope of getting a return on his investments at some point, it's hard to believe that turning a profit was ever really the aim. Aaron David Ross tells me that in three year of working with him, Machat never took a single dollar from Gatekeeper: "Whenever we'd inquire about his cut, he said he would take one once we were all making 'real money," he told me.
Now that he is no longer with us, we can't ask Machat for the specifics of why the label fell apart, though something his former partner Woolsey told me via email reminded me of the inevitable impermanence of a project like Hippos. "I think that after I left, it was only a matter of time before Barron moved on to other things and explored other avenues, because the whole thing was a community snap shot and people move on," he wrote. "The label itself as a concept was not the most practical thing, and he realized that labels per se were not necessarily the arbiters they once were and didn't represent the future. We all were on this sort of Kurzweil-Phillip K Dick vision and it was time to transcend the 20th century record label concept."
In the year or so before he died, Machat had begun transitioning into another side of the industry, traveling the globe as part of the management team for Swedish rapper Yung Lean and his Sad Boys and Gravity Boys homies, in addition to using his industry connects to help Lean set up his very own label, Sky Team. One of the last times I saw him, he waltzed into The FADER office with the entire crew for an interview, dressed in head-to-toe white, pulling large plumes of smoke from a rocket-sized e-cigarette, and generally looking as chipper and debonair as ever. He seemed to be in a good place, and when I ran into him at the first of two sold-out Yung Lean performances at Webster Hall later that day, I couldn't help thinking that maybe he'd he'd found what he'd always been looking for: a fundamentally weird, hard-to-read, polarizing new scene of artists to support that actually stood a chance at crossing over into the wider consciousness (read my essay on them for this column here). The line to get into the show stretched all the way down the block and around the corner, and the room was already full to bursting with kids wearing bucket hats and sipping on free promotional tallboys of Arizona Iced Tea. It seemed like the perfect moment to sit back and soak up the results of his hard work, but in true Machat fashion, my last memory is of him frantically trouble-shooting with the disc drive of a laptop, trying to make sure that the DVD housing the projections for the night's performance would play.