Zum: An Oakland Avant-Rock Label That Isn't Going to Give Up
Many local labels are offering obscure reissues and innovative new releases on all conceivable formats. Label Sampler is a new column that will profile a different Bay Area record company each week.
Sean Garrison Zum co-founder George Chen, with kitty cat.
Name: Zum Record Company
Owner: George Chen
Creation story: Similar to independent labels like Sub Pop and Touch & Go, Zum began as a fanzine. In 1997, George Chen and his sister, Yvonne, released a compilation as a companion disc to an issue of their zine, and their label was born. The musical climate of the late '90s was naturally much different than it is now, and Chen reminisces fondly over his memories as a wide-eyed, young label founder. "We never thought that we should split the magazine and the label into two things, because we thought that we would do all of these things forever. At that time, the distribution model was very different. You would see these lemonade-stand distros at shows where people were selling their friends' records or things that they had picked up maybe five copies of. It was very entrepreneurial in that sense, but that world has shrunk a lot.
Musical focus: "I've described Zum to people as an avant-rock label." Chen offers this descriptor reluctantly, since the Zum catalog is so eclectic. While many modern labels specialize rigidly in particular genres of micro-genres, Zum offers experimental and electronic music from groups like Mincemeat or Tenspeed and Core of The Coalman, along with fringe garage and punk bands like Abe Vigoda, High Castle, Zs, and more.
Thoughts on the effects of Zum's stylistic eclecticism: "I think it [the eclecticism] does hurt the label for the average consumer who doesn't have any conception of what we do in the first place. I think someone who likes High Castle and checks out something else on the label might be thrown for a loop, but I don't ever want to be at a point where I'm adding something just to appeal to a certain demographic."
Motto: "By Dint of Obstinacy." With characteristic charm, Chen says that he was seeking a phrase which conveys that "we're too dumb too give up," only in a more literate way. He likes the seemingly lofty tone of the phrase, and visualizes it as a coat of arms for the headstrong. As he explains, "I was trying to explore whether there is something noble about doing something that makes so little sense financially."
Most recent release: Spirit of the West, by High Castle. While recalling skittish post-hardcore of the 1990s and straight-ahead garage rock, High Castle inserts enough discordant, maladjusted zaniness to carve out a niche that's distinctly its own. The genre-shirking eccentricities of the group seem to epitomize what Chen refers to as "avant-rock."
Chen's gentle self-deprecation: With experience in stand-up comedy, it's not surprising that Chen's wit and humor were on display throughout our interview, but the most frequently recurring joke was on him. Phrases like "I guess it doesn't matter because no one in Europe knows anything about us," "... although the average consumer probably has no conception of what I do in the first place," and "I hope I'm relevant!" popped up throughout our conversation. With more than a decade of consistent and relevant releases, along with his thorough involvement with independent music in other capacities, Chen is definitely understating his own notoriety.
Label disasters: "For my band, Chen Santa Maria, right before we went on our first European tour, I left my car on the street with a dead battery and full of gear. I walked home with one case of equipment that contained the CD master for our 7-inch. When I came back, someone had broken in and stolen everything." Saving the master CD was a stroke of luck -- but those 7-inches didn't arrive until a day before the band returned from Europe.
"Another time, we imported a bunch of CDs from Australia by this band called the Sea Scouts," Chen remembers. "Everything was delivered to my sister's house, and UPS left the package on the porch in the rain, so we got all the discs on a spindle and all of the packaging was completely water-damaged."
Origin of label name: Initially lifted from the lyrics to "Eardrum Buzz" by Wire, Chen has grappled with the ambiguity of "Zum" as a banner for his zine and label, but says it's better than "stinky." As he explains, "I was really young and I wanted to have a name that no one else would use. It didn't occur to me that the reason no one else might use it is because it doesn't make any sense and it doesn't particularly sound good. I've thought about changing it, but there is a sort of aggregated history that comes with it, which I like. With other labels, the word behind the label ceases to mean anything after a while and you just begin to associate it with good music. It's a little bit better than being 15 and getting stuck with a nickname like 'stinky,' 'smelly,' or 'pukey.' It's a name people don't understand, but at least it doesn't have a negative connotation."
Attitude towards Internet downloading: With the strong connections the Chen siblings forged with other independent record labels, bands, and venues, they excelled at self-promotion. But their initial publicity model has become outdated. George explains his adaptation to the world of digital media with a characteristically odd analogy. "The Internet was there when we started, but the blog culture hadn't developed. Now, I'm putting things on SoundCloud. And two years ago I wouldn't have understood why I would give it away, but it's like at Costco, when someone is handing out Doritos samples. You've got to give people a taste before they're willing to invest."