This weekend, the Brooklyn-based record label Mexican Summer will celebrate five years in business with a two-day, indoor-outdoor festival featuring label artists, alumni, and friends at Pioneer Works Center for Art and Innovation in Red Hook. With a lineup that spans from living legends (Spiritualized, Ariel Pink) to underground mainstays (No Joy, the Fresh & Onlys) to promising up-and-comers (Happy Jawbone Family Band, Co La), it’s going to be sick.
We’d expect nothing less from Mexican Summer, which has established itself as one of America’s premier indie labels since beginning as a vinyl-only subscription service spun off from Kemado Records in fall 2008. Since then, over the course of almost 200 releases — a mammoth 40 records per year on average — Mexican Summer morphed into a full-fledged label, dropped the vinyl-only policy and released records from some of the most visionary and respected names in underground music, developing a hard-to-define but easy-to-appreciate aesthetic along the way.
They put out pivotal early releases by Washed Out, Real Estate, Kurt Vile, and the Tallest Man On Earth. They’ve done buzzing garage pop with the Soft Pack, droning psych with Peaking Lights and dark synth-pop with Light Asylum. Software, their experimental electronic imprint directed by Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin, has showcased Autre Ne Veut’s blistering art-damaged R&B, Tim Hecker’s masterful ambient freewheeling and the galactic synthscapes of Fuck Buttons side project Blanck Mass. In Best Coast, they helped to launch a legitimate rock star.
It’s all pretty impressive for a company that began as, in co-founder and A&R man Keith Abrahamsson’s own words, a side project. Mexican Summer has surpassed its parent label in terms of cultural cachet and sales figures. It’s the primary focus of business at Kemado and Mexican Summer’s Greenpoint office, which also houses the label’s in-house recording studio, Gary’s Electric, and sits adjacent to the label-run record store Co-Op 87. The intention was never to relegate Kemado to a catalog label and bring Mexican Summer to the forefront, but by following their instincts, Mexican Summer’s founders ended up hitting a lot of other people’s sweet spots along with their own.
“The records that we were putting out just picked up momentum, and you could just feel that it was what people wanted to talk to us about,” Abrahamsson says. “More and more it became the focus, not just internally but from the outside. That’s what we were in touch with press about more. That’s what the sales were better on. You could feel the shift from all directions. It was pretty undeniable. We all knew it just was what was happening. We didn’t want to fight it.”
Mexican Summer was born during a Brooklyn label renaissance that also included brands such as Woodsist, Captured Tracks, and Sacred Bones. Rather than compete, the companies fed off each other’s creative energy, working with some of the same musicians and even sharing office space at times.
“The neighborhood is full pretty much with the majority of our peers, and each of us seems to be putting out records that have some significance,” Abrahamsson said. “We all work together in some capacity, or we have throughout the years. It’s a good thing.”
The magnetic camaraderie attracted locals and out-of-towners alike. Fresh & Onlys guitarist Wymond Miles should know; despite deep roots in San Francisco’s garage rock scene, his band released records on Woodsist, Captured Tracks, and Sacred Bones before linking up with Mexican Summer for 2012’s Long Slow Dance LP.
“I think everyone was at that time just like looking for each other,” Miles explains. “I mean that more in how our band got working with all these East Coast labels. There was just a certain moment in time riding a certain wave that you get lucky to catch, and we just happened to make friends, and they were all aware of our band before really anyone even knew who we were in many ways. And we basically released stuff on all those labels.”
They still think fondly of those other companies, but at this point the Fresh & Onlys seem ready to end their record label roulette and settle down with Mexican Summer. Miles credits Abrahamsson’s fervent enthusiasm and big thinking for helping the Onlys to reach new heights on Long Slow Dance. Specifically, he encouraged the band to leave behind lo-fi to pursue a richer sound more akin to their live show, a leap Miles compared to switching from 8mm to 70mm film stock for the way it unlocked new dimensions of color and detail in their music.
“He saw something in us that we didn’t even quite know or never took on as a band before,” Miles says. “He just brought a whole other depth to our band in terms of the depth of feedback he was giving and how excited he was about every aspect of it, you know? Yeah, I guess some people would be pretty hands-off with the labels, but Keith was just so full of ideas and great feedback that it just got our fire churning even more as we went along with them.”
That’s the approach Abrahamsson had in mind when he and Andres Santo-Domingo spun off Mexican Summer from Kemado five years ago. Since its inception in 2002, Kemado had operated under a traditional model that involved signing bands to multi-record deals and rolling out heavily structured long-lead press campaigns. Abrahamsson was starting to feel constricted by that business model and was looking for a way to merge his omnivorous music geek tendencies with his work.
“I think the whole idea of Mexican Summer really just came because I wanted to try to develop artists in a different way,” Abrahamsson says. “I think there are a lot of records that I was buying or records that were being released maybe out of a bedroom, you know? People that were just putting records out, whether it be a single or a 12-inch or whatever kind of format, and it just felt a little bit less — I don’t know, like maybe less structure and less pressure? And it felt like a good way to develop bands.”
Running the label on personal taste went hand in hand with basing it on personal relationships. Jasamine White-Gluz of Montreal shoegazers No Joy noted Mexican Summer’s “family environment,” while Tamaryn and Ariel Pink collaborator Jorge Elbrecht, who lives right down the street, says he was drawn to the label by his friendship with the staff and respect for their taste. (Elbrecht’s former project, Lansing-Dreiden, recorded for Kemado.) Mexican Summer’s experimental Software imprint run by Oneohtrix’s Daniel Lopatin started for similar reasons in 2011: While Mexican Summer was courting Lopatin’s project with Joel Ford, they got to talking and the concept sprung up naturally among kindred spirits. There’s somewhat of a shared headspace; even though no one seems capable of defining Mexican Summer’s aesthetic, both Abrahamsson and the bands know it when they hear it. In 2010, he contacted No Joy to inquire about working together the same day they had unsuccessfully attempted to send him some songs using an incorrect email address. As usual, the stars just kind of aligned.
“It’s a boring answer, but the criteria really is only that we’re passionate about the music — and also the people behind the music, Abrahamsson offers. “Those two things, they have to click for us to feel really behind the project… There is a sound or an aesthetic that exists, but I leave that to people’s imagination a little bit more.”
The result is a record label whose artists feel supported but not smothered by a staff that’s hands-on in the best way. Miles said Abrahamsson requests to hear every Fresh & Onlys demo because he’s so stoked on the band, yet the band is more likely to turn to him for advice than he is to issue imperatives about taking the music a certain direction. It all sounds less like subjection to helicopter parenting than recording for the president of your fan club.
“They’re the best,” No Joy’s White-Gluz says. “We’ve never worked with a label before, but in your head, you think labels are these people that tell you what to do or kind of like the bad cop to give you deadlines or whatever… For this latest record we got to record at Gary’s Electric, which is the studio in their building, and it was like the best creative experience we’ve ever had. They were just so nice to us and so nurturing of whatever we wanted to do, even if it sounded stupid at times, they were very supportive to make it happen.”
Having Gary’s Electric available in-house to record projects increases the sense of connection between artist and label; it allows the entire process of creating and selling a record to happen under one roof. (It also doesn’t hurt as an income stream when non-label artists rent it out.) Abrahamsson, Elbrecht, and White-Gluz all rave about the low-pressure, creativity-inducing environment.
Elbrecht in particular was enthused about the results when he and Ariel Pink recorded their well-received 2013 single “Hang On To Life” at Gary’s Electric: “That thing was a pretty magical experience because it was written, recorded and mixed within a weekend, and I just love the way it sounds. We didn’t fuck over it too much, and I just think it was a good lesson for me because of the ease of execution and how happy everyone is with it. So many people have stopped me and said they love that song. So it’s just nice that that can happen there. It’s kind of how I want every song I’m involved with to go down now.”
If this all sounds like the platonic ideal of an independent record label, well, yeah. It is. It’s exactly how this whole “indie” thing is supposed to work, and in the case of Mexican Summer, it absolutely has worked. And more arms of the empire are on the way: A relaunch of Abrahamsson and Santo Domingo’s digital reissue imprint Anthology Recordings is pending, and a new joint publishing venture with Round Hill Recordings will allow Mexican Summer to more readily license its music (the label pulled in $75,000 for a Best Coast song in a Microsoft commercial) and expand its repertoire.
In the meantime, it’s time to celebrate what’s transpired so far. In addition to this weekend’s festivities at Red Hook — the comp embedded below functions as a fine primer — there’s also a commemorative hardcover book coming this December, a limited edition of 1,000 that will retail for $80 at Co-Op 87 and online. Mexican Summer: Five Years reflects the kind of enthusiasm and creative care that the label has become known for: 250 pages, bound with an embossed cloth cover, with screen-printed craft paper wrap and three interior paper stocks. Most characteristically, the book includes a 10-inch record full of music that won’t be available digitally, including collaborations from Bay Of Pigs (Spiritualized, Soldiers Of Fortune, and Neil Hagerty), Jorge Elbrose (Jorge Elbrecht and Ariel Pink), Autre Ne Veut and Fennesz, Bobb Trimble and Quilt, and the Lonely Sailor and Renée Mendoza Haran (members of Total Control, Lace Curtain, and Ashrae Fax). It’s an ideal artifact for a company that continues to thrive on carefully curated quality, personal interaction and boundless enthusiasm for music.
[Photos via UO.]