Interview with Scott McNiece of International Anthem
Scott McNiece is the co-founder of International Anthem, a Chicago-based record label that produces experimental and progressive music. Scott also founded and still runs Uncanned Music, a company that curates music for restaurants in Chicago, and around the world. International Anthem shares the mezzanine with Lumpen at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport, Chicago. Last October, Lumpen’s Marina Resende Santos stepped over to the half-wall that divides our two working spaces last October to talk about the origins of International Anthem, the craft of recording, and the label’s showcase tour in Europe.
Interview by Marina Resende Santos
So you started as a bartender at Gilt Bar? And then went on to work more with Brendan Sodikoff?
Yeah. He was my old boss. I started as a bartender, then I was his personal music curator for like a year.
He was a business owner, and you were in music. How was he your mentor?
I learned a lot about a lot of things through him. When I started working for him, I was a musician who had no money—I played drums—and I bartended there. I didn’t even bartend. I started at the kitchen as a food runner. And then when Brendan heard that I was a musician, he said, maybe you should make me a playlist, I made a playlist, and he really liked it. And he noticed the things that you’re good at, like “You have good taste, and I can really use that. The industry can use that. Let me show you how.” And he showed me how to take my taste and kind of apply it to food and wine, to interior design, all these things. Even though I was a music specialist.
I learned a lot from him about just excellence in general. And the way that you achieve that is…you have to be fucking relentless. It’s not something that’s really much fun, you know, you have to be really committed to perfecting your product and be really committed to doing everything that’s necessary. And probably under his mentorship, learning those things, was one of the reasons I left this situation. Because it’s the same thing he would have done. It’s the same thing he did to his mentor.
I learned so much from Brendan. And I put a lot of it into practice. I still make playlists for restaurants. I still take the same approach, with the same philosophy, the same design tactics that I developed when I was working for him. I developed most of these ideas in a matter of six months working under him. And that’s what it takes, you’ve got to be open to learning from someone. You can’t do everything by yourself, you can’t teach yourself everything. You need guides and teachers and models.
This actually connects to something I was curious about, because your albums are so carefully made and well-designed. It seems that it has to with the care that you learned from the beginning.
That’s it, I don’t believe in cutting corners anywhere. So every part of the operation, every thing you put out is thought of and designed. We’ve developed a way of doing things, that we spend a lot of time upfront, designing the way we wanted things to look, and then we’ve just been stubborn about it, and we stuck to it. We have a couple different designers we work with, a couple different artists, but in the end, my partner David and I are the art directors of all this stuff. We’re the ones saying: this is how things will look. And if it’s not perfect, it doesn’t go out.
I’m curious about the creative process and if there is a relationship between the visual album art and what you feel the music is about, or what it’s doing, or what it is, aesthetically.
Well, for instance, that record [pointing to a nearby LP of Makaya McCraven’s recent release Universal Beings]. I knew what Makaya was working on musically. This is also the fourth release of his that we’ve put out on my label, so I’m fully aware of the narrative of his music, that we’ve been developing. Because I think our drive as a label is that we’re essentially a storyteller, and we’re telling the story of all these artists. So I know where the story stands with Makaya, I know the story that needs to be told, and I thought the artist, Damon [Locks], who did this artwork, I thought he was the perfect fit. And, so I said, Makaya, I would like to consider Damon for this artwork. I sent him some of Damon’s stuff. He said, I think that’s a good idea, and the three of us met up, talked, and then Damon started working on the art. And that’s what he came up with! In this case, that was his first thing he gave us, and we were like, perfect. That’s not always the case. [Laughs]. Like this record, Dos Santos. This album cover, this was probably the fifteenth or twentieth different cover that we saw. So it’s not always perfect in the first try.
Do the artists listen to the music?
For sure. Damon works more intuitively, so he won’t give you a thesis about why he did that drawing. He’s just like, “I just did what felt right.” And for me, it’s spot-on. The whole album concept, it’s about collectivism, it’s anti-nationalist, it’s about highlighting communities of people and how they intersect with each other. There are musicians from all different parts of the world that are playing together on this record. And, specifically, for the most part black musicians, and the kind of music they are making in 2018 transcends nationalistic borders no matter how much people try to contain them. And try to stamp different geographic genre indicators on the kind of music they are making. So Damon’s album cover is just like a throng of people, and clearly mostly black people. And that just feels perfect. It’s like, who are these people, where are they going? It doesn’t really matter. It’s not about the individual, it’s about transcending identity.
Why International Anthem?
Well, for starters, the name sounded cool. That was the first most important thing, but that’s part of our general philosophy, David’s and mine. I made a song years ago with a friend and I don’t know why but I named it “The International Anthem.” And I liked that name, and then I knew that I wanted to save it for something important, ‘cause it resonated with me, conceptually. Just the literal meaning of what that is, it’s music unifying everyone. It’s unity in diversity under music, and I love that concept. I think it’s simple, I think it’s catchy. And also, when I googled “international anthem,” barely anything else came up, so I was like, this is our shit, you know!
How long do you take to complete a record?
Hm! It depends, man. We’re getting to this point, I’d say as a rule of thumb, we take a year, literally from the beginning of the decision to do it. About a year from the starting of the project, the first session, to the actual day that it comes out in stores. Some things we’ve done faster, but it’s not that comfortable.
Do you do multiple projects at once? Otherwise you wouldn’t have put out so many records!
Yeah, we’ve put out some twenty-six or twenty-eight records in four years or something. It’s literally just constant multi-tasking.
How do you get to know musicians? Is this a case-by-case thing?
I am a musician, for starters. The place where I was bartending, I was also booking a music series there, and we paid decently, and people thought it was a cool series. My friend and I would make screen-print posters for it that looked really nice, and I would write about all the artists that played, and everybody liked that. So it started with me just booking people who I saw playing and I thought were good, and then, other musicians started kind of coming to me like, “Hey, I like what you’re doing, can I play there too?”
If you’re offering a decent gig, where you can offer them decent pay and a cool spot to play, where they can actually make something creative and they don’t have to play some bullshit music, and on top of that, you’re doing something interesting with art, and you’re going to write about them, it was only a matter of time before most the musicians that are playing this kind of music start going, “Hey, what’s up?”. So I met most the musicians that I still work with today in that one year and a half that I was working there, 2011 and 2012. And then from there it’s kind of just branched out. Today, in general, even really amazing musicians, that are bigger and whatnot, that sometimes reach out to me and ask me about doing a record, if they don’t fit into the constellation of the artists that we’ve worked with, in a sensible way, then I’m like, “Thank you for reaching out, but, no thanks.” For us that’s important. I think it’s necessary, to have that mentality when you’re trying to build a community of artists. You can’t just throw a bunch of random people together. You want always all these artists to be proud of being part of the label and the community.
And you’re there from beginning to the end.
Yeah, those things are important to us, just because—David, my partner, and I—that’s the way we prefer to work. So, in general, those are the jobs we do. ‘Cause, really the label for us, in the end, making records is our art, this is our craft. And producing the entire project, from the moment of the idea to the moment of holding the record in your hand, that’s what we enjoy doing, that’s what we’re good at doing, so, we prioritise working with artists who want to work with us on that level, which is pretty comprehensive, and not all artists want to do that. Some artists want to just show up with a finished product and don’t want to interact with a label or a producer of any kind. That’s totally cool and respectable but we like to work with people. And for us, with what time and money we have, we want to be doing the exact kind of projects we want to be doing with the kind of people we want to be working with.
It’s a relationship.
Almost everyone that we work with, and people that want to work with us, are excited about that. ‘Cause this is not something that you find very often anymore. Especially not in this kind of music which is progressive, creative, instrumental. We’re not talking about club-bangers. This is pretty weird music, and a lot of times weird musicians can’t find facilitators because there’s not much commercial value there. So, in that way, we’re unique, I guess. And then, somehow we’ve been telling the same story long enough now, for four or five years, that we’re starting to kind of create commercial potential for some of that stuff.
Are most people that you work with active in Chicago?
For the most part, yeah. I mean, ‘cause that’s where we are, you know? And in general, we are working with people that we can collaborate with, you know. At a more direct, personal level.
Things… I have a feeling… I just have like this feeling of changing, you know? Things are evolving, expanding out. A lot of things… starting. Especially after this new record, it’s getting a lot of attention. We’ll be looking at a different situation next year.
In what way?
I don’t know. Our community of people that we’re working with has been growing from the beginning, but now, that we’re collaborating with a lot of artists in London– We’re getting ready to do a label showcase next week in Paris. We’ve been working with promoters and different venues and with people there, it’s only a matter of time before French artists fold in. I don’t know. Things are just changing. And I think that even just the way that I’m able to work is changing. Now we have this interesting roster of artists that we work with and facilitate, and it’s not like they go away when you start working with someone new. Back in the day I had plenty of time to just hang out with each individual person forever and just talk about everything and—work on everything. And that’s changing, I don’t have time anymore to be as active in the stuff as I used to, and—I don’t know. I just need to make a conscious decision about how do I want to do things.
Let’s talk about the process. How do you record?
Well, my partner David is a recording engineer. That’s how I met him. He is in a band, I was in a band. He is an engineer. We kind of got along. Our bands, we played punk shows together. But that’s what his skill and trade is, as a recording engineer. And then just the two of us, working together, kind created a production unit. I worked with the artist, and developed a vision, and then I worked with him, and he helped with his technical side.
Do you have a studio?
We have travelling recording equipment. So we pop up recording sessions all over the place. We’ve done them in many different locations.
Do you record live?
We do a lot of live recordings. We also just do a lot of pop up studio recordings. Like Dos Santos’s record was recorded here, in the gallery. We just popped up in the gallery
Would you like to have a studio?
Not necessarily. At least not for recording artists. I mean, for mixing and mastering, it would be nice. But definitely not for recording, I don’t think. It’s nice to record—the way that we record, it’s part of our stable as a label, our sound. You can hear the space. You know, you’re not just hearing like a sterile-ass studio recording. You can hear the space the music was made in, and the space has a sound, and it’s part of the character. And that’s because we don’t record in studios.
Are the spaces ever significant in any way?
The space is always part of the story. For sure. Jamie Branch’s record we recorded in her sister’s apartment. Makaya’s record, the new one here, was recorded in four different spaces and they all are very significant spaces. And that’s part of it, it’s like, choosing the right place that creates the right vibe, that’s conducive to really quality music-making. That’s more important than anything. That increases your chances of getting good music. And when good music is made, and you’re there to capture it with one microphone, it doesn’t matter how it sounds, if the music’s amazing, with the right space, that’s more likely. I can also say that one of the reasons we do that is, it’s like we’re not just making a recording, we’re making a story, you know? And this is the story that we’re going to tell the people, we’re writing it right now. And when you tell a story, context is almost everything! So if you do it in a bland-ass studio, you don’t have a story to tell! You know, when you say like, “This album was recorded in this studio.” No, you’ve got to be talking about where, when, why. And how.