Camera Obscura label
Interview by Dave Lang (April 2003)Camera Obscura is one of Australia's best, most distinctive and yet most underground (certainly in its homeland) labels. It's one that has, over the course of its more than 50+ releases since its inception in the mid-'90's, set a benchmark for releasing the best in psychedelic music in all its guises.
Originally inspired by owner/founder/head honcho the love of Tony Dale (whose younger brother, Adelaide resident Jon Dale, is a regular PSF scribe and fellow label magnate) for the music being covered in the likes of the UK's excellent Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine and the esoteric aesthetic of Bruce Russell's Xpressway/Corpus Hermeticum labels, he set about curating a roster of bands and artists that run a gamut of styles, yet also keep somewhere within the framework of sounds known to the likes of you and me as "psych."
Still, such a simple reference doesn't necessarily do anyone any justice. On Camera Obscura, you'll find the twisted, harmonium-induced sideshow sounds of New Yorker Marianne Nowottney, the dronescapes of Azusa Plane, the bleeding space-rock of Primordial Undermind and Abunai!, the brilliantly maudlin acid-folk of Sharron Kraus, the Morricone-meets-Love soundscapes of Melbourne's highly-praised Sand Pebbles, excellent reissues by the likes of Black Sun Ensemble, the Green Pyjamas and much, much more.
Camera Obscura is now a label with a dedicated cult following amongst its admirers, the kind of following the likes of other indies like SST and Touch & Go once had: a collection of individualistic and disparate performers somehow all fitting comfortably under an umbrella that brings them together as a musical family. It's that feeling of knowing that if it's on Camera Obscura, you're probably going to like it.
I first met Tony Dale about three years ago when he moved down to Melbourne from Canberra and I was pestering him for some fatherly advice on how to go about setting up a label for myself. Since then we've become good friends and I'm constantly inspired by his willingness and ability to walk it like he talks it: to put out a consistent and high-quality selection of releases year in and year out. I figured it was high time to do the man some justice and get the scoop on what makes him and the world of Camera Obscura tick. Delve into their deep catalogue and explore.
See the Camera Obscura website at www.cameraobscura.com.au
PSF: What's your history in music, so to speak? When did you first start listening to it? What stuff did you listen to as a teenager? Do you have a background in "the industry"?
I guess I always remember music being around in the house when I was a kind. We didnít have a TV until I was nine. My folks listened to a lot of skiffle, folk, jazz and blues, which they inherited from their British background, overlaid with the occasional dodgy hit album of the day over here in Australia, like (Neil Diamondís) ďHot August Night.Ē I remember hating that. I remember the folk stuff really embedding itself though. The radio was on, and for a kid in the late 60s/early 70s the radio was pretty good. Lot of classic psych and singer-songwriter stuff, mixed with lot of nifty bubblegum pop hits. The UK psych stuff like Small Faces and early Floyd made a big impression, as well as things like Russell Morrisís ďThe Real Thing.Ē
As a teenager I was into Ď70ís progressive and space rock and metal. Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Hawkwind, as well as the usual stuff like Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis and Australian stuff like Spectrum and Ariel. Pink Floyd was my favourite band no question Ė I head Dark Side of the Moon and then worked my way backwards through the cooler stuff ending up at the Barrett period. Folk-rock, too Ė I had albums by Nick Drake, Fairport, Steeleye Span, many others.
No I donít have a background in the industry, and donít consider myself part or it even now.
PSF: You started the label at a relatively later stage in your life; why was this so? What finally gave you the impetus?
The Internet was the main factor. I had whole worlds of new music open up to me via discussion lists and just the sheer volume of information available. Iíd stayed current with better known music, and especially loved Ď80ís U.S. stuff like early R.E.M., and most strongly the Creation Records material and dream-pop movement started by Cocteau Twin, My Bloody Valentine and others which definitely connected to the psych of my youth. Mailing list discussions lead to writing for magazines like the Ptolemaic Terrascope and led to the idea that I should get involved in releasing the sort of CDís I would actually like to hear myself, blending new and old psychedelic influences.
PSF: Any inspirations for the label, like other labels you admire?
The Ptolemaic Terrascope for its blending of new and old fandom. I admired the early days of Creation, Flying Nun, and Sub Pop Ė before they all got corporate. I especially admired Alan McGeeís deeply unfashionable (at the time) paisley stance. I wanted to do that. And Xpressway Records Ė that sort of cottage industry approach unfettered by the need for large budgets or anything other than the sheer joy of getting something I though to be cool out there. Like record collecting in reverse.
PSF: Is there a particular focus you see the label as having? If I was to nail it as "psychedelic" would I be right?
I guess so, but itís really just a mirror of my own tastes, rather than being specifically designed as a psychedelic label in the retro sense of being a conduit for bands that conformed to a certain set of codes set down in the late Ď60ís psychedelic music movement. Thatís why there are releases on the label that donít really fall into the psychedelia domain directly, like the free noise of the Azusa Plane and Our Glassie Azoth, the free jazz leanings of Rake, the dark folk of Sharron Kraus, or the alien singer-songwriter work of Marianne Nowottny. If it seems like it would be fun to do, or unexpected, I try and fit it in to keep a sense of play going.
PSF: Why so many overseas bands? Could you ever see yourself being more Australian focused?
Sadly, few artists in Australia ever sent me anything that wasnít derivative of somebody elseís work, and on the few occasions I did get good stuff I couldnít fit it into the schedule. This derivative side seems characteristic of Australian music, though with some great exceptions, or in some cases with Australians just doing it better than anyone else (the garage-scuzz of the Do the Pop compilation be one example). But underground psychedelia has never been an Australian thing, and certainly acid-folk has been virtually non-existent here, and that is one of my major interests. I do have the Sand Pebbles though, and hope to convince them to get more weird and less rock. The other aspect was that until recently we had no Australian distribution, and thus had nothing to offer an Australian band locally. But I donít see the overseas focus changing, as I now have a ďstableĒ of overseas act that I like to keep continuity with and still, most of the good stuff I get sent is from the USA and Europe.
PSF: Did/do you find it difficult being taken seriously as a label because you are from Australia?
No, not ever. The label got U.S. distribution immediately, and we got a lot of good press coverage from the outset. We had early material reviewed in Rolling Stone, Option (now defunct), Magnet and Alternative Press. In the UK, The Wire has always supported us, especially the more avant-garde releases, and fanzines have never treated us differently. In fact, one common reaction in reviews is to lambast local labels (especially in the U.S.) for not releasing the US bands we were. Many times the question has been asked as to why a band of the class of the Green Pajamas never had major U.S. label interest.
PSF: Any fave magazines covering the music you like?
Obviously the Ptolemaic Terrascope. Other favourite outlets for my kinda thing are Crohinga Well, The Broken Face and Dream Magazine. And The Wire, Mojo and Magnet are usually a cool read, they donít have an underground focus but give a balancing, more general perspective on the music scene.
PSF: What do you do outside of the label? Plans to make it a fulltime gig?
It is a full-time gig at the moment, as Iím taking a sabbatical from work in my profession (Mechanical Engineering). Iím looking for a part-time gig to fill in. Meantime, I look after most of the housework and cooking. I wind down with TV like everyone else, though usually DVDís these days, unless there is an interesting cricket or football game on. Eating works for me too, Melbourne being one of the food capitals in the world and also having some of the best Asian food in the world. If you have to do it to stay alive, why not make a sub-culture of it?
PSF: Any real faves on the label?
Nah, thatís a bit like asking a parent if they have a favourite child. I probably get a kick out of large and complex manufacture challenges like the Salamander double 220g vinyl release Birds of Appetite and the Bardo Pond/SubArachnoid Space split LP Tigris and Euphrates the most because they are much more hands on than CD manufacture, and there is mystical cachet to doing vinyl I think. Itís cool to help keep it alive. Hopefully, the latter will keep popping up on Gulf War searches to befuddle people. What ends up being your favourites with CDís are ones where they turn out exactly how you wanted them to, like the just-released recent Lazily Spun CD.
PSF: What the financial set-up of the label? How do you pay bands?
Thatís between me and the bands and my accountant Dave! All I can say is we do try and pay our royalties, which is apparently rare for small labels. Poor but honest, thatís us. Or more accurately, being honest keeps us unprofitable.
PSF: Any dream plans for Camera Obscura?
The biggest dream is to do it full time and for it to be self-supporting financially. I donít even know if this will ever be possible but it is out there as a goal. Iíd like to have a proper e-commerce set-up, but were a little small so itís easier just to offer a third party on-line payment service like Paypal to folks. Iíd like a more current and dynamic web site but Iíd have to pay for it so there isnít anyway itís going to happen anytime soon.
PSF: What's the deal w/Camera Lucida?
Camera Lucida is a side-label that we can use to do really low-key projects really quickly without having to constantly rearrange the schedule for Camera Obscura, which is planned pretty far ahead, with catalogue number allocated and so forth. Sometimes the bands even fund these themselves, like Abunai! did with their recent 12Ē EP.
PSF: Any kindred labels overseas or locally?
Of course not, we are unique! Well, maybe a fewÖ I like the individualistic and commercially suicidal path followed by the VHF label. September Gurls operate in similar territory to us and get to do a lot more vinyl perhaps by virtue of being in Europe where it is feasible to do so. Nick (Bevis Frond) Salomanís Woronzow label has dome some fine things. No one is doing the same stuff as us locally. Lexicon Devil seems like a cool label thoughÖ
PSF: Do you ever feel like just packing it all in? Is it stressful?
Hey, getting up in the morning is stressful. Nothing is usually quite as hard as that, so no, as long as I can get out bed in the mornings I will always need something meaningful to do, so I will never feel like packing it in. That is unless I have to go back to full-time work again. That may be a deathblow!
PSF: Future plans for the label?
The plan in general is to concentrate on things I know that folks want from us, and that is typically space-rock, psych-pop and acid-folk. The label will be working more with Salamander, Black Sun Ensemble and the Primordial Undermind. Weíll be doing as much stuff in the Green Pajamas, Dipsomaniacs and Lazily Spun vein as can be fit in. The acid-folk side will continue with more from Stone Breath, Sharron Kraus and the addition of the Iditarod. The long-term work on a five CD set archiving The Mike Gunn goes on. A few surprises on the horizon too, to avoid pigeonholing. Watch the skies.
PSF: Last comments?
Only in as much as I need to thank my partner Carol without whom I probably wouldnít be doing this at all. Itís her patience and forbearance that is presently allowing me to work full-time on the label and try and bootstrap it to the next level, wherever that is. These people in our lives should never be taken for granted, for without them things can collapse like a house of cards.
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