Thursday, December 5, 2013

Interview with Sean Hermann from Skeletal Lightning

I can’t remember exactly when Skeletal Lightning caught my attention, but I remember thinking it was pretty cool. It seemed to have a strong d.i.y. focus, and was putting out an interesting mix of bands from across the sonic spectrum, as well as a mix in terms of bands that I knew already had a little bit of buzz and bands that seemed relatively new and unknown.

While I also vaguely remember that Sean threw a festival last year under the label’s moniker, it was only the other day when I saw the year two announcement chalk full of bands that I am either friends with or who are on labels run by people that I’m friends with that I decided to investigate a little deeper into both the fest and the label, as well as the guy behind the curtain.

I’m super glad I did because I quickly discovered that Sean is incredibly friendly, articulate, and most of all, has a very sincere passion for all things d.i.y.

I’d encourage you to check out his label, and if you’re within a days’ drive, consider heading out to his fest in April.   

I always like to start by asking about people's backgrounds, so talk a little bit about how you got into independent music, what your first records and show experiences were.

I got into underground/independent music in middle school and started attending shows pretty frequently then. A friend of mine ran shows out of a place in the country called The Shed, which was an actual shed that they built a stage and PA in. It could hold around 100 folks, and it was a nice introduction into sort of extreme music, things that most folks wouldn't listen to (hardcore/punk).

After that, in high school, my eventual roommate, co-worker, and best friend starting hosting shows in his basement at a place called Error House in Champaign, IL. Both of these places were safe and sober venues, and music was first, so I felt right at home and found out about so many different bands each weekend. It was there that I was exposed to a band from Michigan called The Reptilian, which was one of my first ventures into the world of d.i.y. music. Four years later, and I wound up releasing a tape for the band, and things seemed to have come full circle since then and I'm now good friends with the guys.

My first record was given to me on my old band's first tour. We played at a college town in Iowa over the summer, and absolutely no one came to the show aside from the two touring bands and the guy running the venue. Despite that, we both played our hearts out and had a very special experience making the best out of what could have been a shitty situation. One of the members of the other touring band, Potential Caskets, ran his own d.i.y. label and after the show, we traded merch and I wound up with two 7"s, which I actually just uncovered and listened to for the first time last month. Since then, I wound up getting a turntable about a year and a half ago and have accumulated a pretty decent sized collection, probably now over 100 records.

Skeletal Lightning has a strong sense of regional pride in that you seem to focus on releasing Midwest bands fairly exclusively, almost like the Dischord of the Midwest, haha. While I always thought Dischord was fairly amazing for being able to continually unearth superb bands from just one city, I always wondered how much more awesome it could have been if they'd branched out more. How do you manage that tension? What do you see as the value of having that regional focus, and would you ever consider working with non-Midwest artists?
In terms of regional pride, Skeletal Lightning Fest definitely aims to celebrate the Midwestern d.i.y. scene. I think we have a really special group of people here and I just wanted to bring all of those people together for a weekend to have some fun. Turns out a lot of people were stoked on the idea and it just keeps growing by the day.

As far as the label goes, while I do take great pride in the Midwestern music scene, my releases aren't exclusively from Midwestern bands. The first two bands I worked with (Tawny Peaks and Aviator) are both from the East Coast. From there, I've tended to gravitate more toward Midwestern based bands, mainly because I'm more familiar with them, and most of the bands I've worked with I've either booked or seen play. Being in the region myself, I think I just naturally have a better appreciation for those bands.

The two recent non-Midwestern bands I'm working with, Elesh Norn (Denton, TX) and Life In Vacuum (Canada) are both close to a lot of folks in the Midwest and have a special bond with the region that some bands from the coasts might not have, be it touring with Midwestern bands, or just having the same mutual friends.

So to answer your question, I wouldn't necessarily say there's a tension, but I try and seek out bands that I think would be a good fit with the label and that I'm stoked on regardless of their whereabouts. Art is art, no matter the location. If it's something I'm interested in and think others might be, too, I'll seek it out further.

Up to this point you've released a healthy mix of cassettes and vinyl. For you, how do you determine what format you want to go with for a particular project and do you have a preference, both as someone who releases music and who buys it.
The format of a release is always a difficult choice for me, especially with the cost of vinyl, and the unknowns of the music world (will people like it? will people buy it?). It's always a guessing game, but I just try and go with my heart, while still being realistic with my budget. I'm still a student and don't have a full-time job, so my funds are usually low. Regardless of the format, if I dig the music and the people in the band, I'll release it. If not, even if it may be good or people would really be into buying it, if I don't like it, I'm not going to release something I'm not behind 100% because I don't think that would be fair to the band or the fans, and especially the label as its own entity.

I started out with cassettes because I really love the format and it also helped that they were cheap and easy to produce. I print, cut, and hand-number all of the art of my tape releases, and I think that helps add a special touch to those releases, despite being pro-dubbed for the added sound quality.

Vinyl was something that I always wanted to release, just because of the aesthetics of a release and the special listening experience that goes along with it. Once I had enough money saved up, or had some help along the way, I delved into vinyl and I hope to keep up the pace from here on out.

Overall, tapes tend to be comparatively simpler to release, so if there's a smaller band that can only tour maybe one or two weeks out of the year, I might lean towards a tape release. But if there's a band that has big touring plans and have noticeably put the time and effort into their release, and along with that, have a good potential for a neat layout or design, I'll likely lean towards vinyl, given that my unfortunately slim budget allows for it. Not that I don't put the same effort into tape releases as I do vinyl, there's just bigger components involved overall in the process with production, art, design, and cost.

As a music consumer, nothing beats a great vinyl release. I live for the listening experience. Be it screened jackets, a well put-together layout or design, or just really awesome art in general; I just love emerging myself in it while listening. Not to mention the music aspect, which given the perfect mastering or recording job, I feel as though I can actually feel the music around me. It's a crazy, but very rewarding experience.

When you look at your catalog of releases up to this point, is there any one that jumps out as you as especially significant either in that it means a lot to you personally or in that it may have allowed the label to "take the next step" so to speak.
I think that all of my releases push me forward in a sense and also challenge me as a label, in regards to breaking the mold of what's usually expected from a label. I greatly appreciate the d.i.y. approach, but I also highly value good sound quality. I try and blend the two, as I mentioned earlier with tape releases, by doing as much as I can myself, but splurging on one area of the release to make it something people can appreciate, but still listen to and enjoy. While a vinyl release on its own isn't necessarily d.i.y., there are components that you can do to make it so, such as screening the b-side of a record or screening the jackets, something of which I've definitely been utilizing more with my current and upcoming releases. It also helps that most of the bands I've worked with have taken the extra effort to work with someone who really understands and captures their sound, which I feel is really make or break for a recording.

But overall, I think the opportunity to release the "Old Maid / Coffee With Tom" 7" by Tiny Moving Parts has really gotten me on the map as far as independent/d.i.y. labels go. They've been a band I've supported since I first heard them nearly two years ago, and I've been a big fan ever since. I actually offered to release their latest full length because I could just tell that they were on to big things with a huge US tour and a great release in the works, but Kind Of Like picked it up, and I think that really helped them get where they are today. I don't think I would've been able to give them that extra boost that Lisa did, and so I'm glad it worked out well for them, and in turn helped me out with this release as well. Since I wasn't able to release that album, they ended up asking me to release these two songs as a 7" and I was thrilled at the opportunity. It's funny because one of the songs on the release was actually featured on my very first digital compilation I did for the blog, and then I would up officially releasing it in physical form. I think it also opened the label up to a much wider audience as well, as they're getting incredibly big now and it gave me a chance to showcase my work as well.

Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about the fest. I feel like it’s every punk and hardcore kids fantasy to be like "Yeah man, let’s throw a fest, it'll be awesome", but you actually did it. Based on your experience with year one this past spring, what would you say was the smoothest part about organizing the whole event, and what was the thing that was most challenging or perhaps caught you off guard?

One reason I really wanted to initially move forward with the fest and the label is because I fortunately carry a great organizational skill set. I started planning for the fest in August, nearly 9 months before it happened. That allowed me enough time to really think about what I wanted to do as far as bands, venue, timing, etc. Because I was able to plan so far in advance, everything was laid out for myself, and I just had to wait for that weekend to come, because everything else was already taken care of. Many of the bands also mentioned how smoothly things ran and complimented me on the organization of everything, but I really have to give credit to the bands for being flexible and staying on schedule. Fortunately, my friends and fiancée really stepped it up and took care of all of the volunteer work, so I was able to take five minutes here and there to actually watch the bands at times. I think the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how many people would show and what they expected from the fest, since this was actually the first show in general I had ever booked. I'm still amazed that everything went off without a hitch.

I must say I really appreciate the fact that on the website you specifically say you won't work with booking agents. Why is it so important to have that direct relationship with bands, and if and when the fest continues to grow over time, will that be something you foresee yourself becoming more flexible with should opportunities to attract bigger artists present themselves?
It's important for me to maintain direct contact with the bands because the whole reason I wanted to start the fest was to celebrate all the rad bands we have in the scene. If you have an agent or a manager making all of the decisions, it makes it feel as if the band or artist is just along for the ride. I did end up working with a few agents last year, and it was definitely an added stress, both financially and in terms of mutual understanding. This fest isn't a money maker. I ended up losing $200 overall (which I am thrilled about, and would gladly "pay" $200 to make it happen again), but a lot of the context of my interactions with these agents were based of things like expected profit, merch rates, and other things I've never even heard of or knew existed. Skeletal Lightning fest isn’t about money or fame. I’m actually uncomfortable with all of the attention I've been receiving this year. It's not about me; it's all about the bands and the scene that brought us all together in the first place. By keeping it agent free, the funds go straight to the bands and we go into the fest together as a team, and as friends.

When I started planning for the fest, I brainstormed a ton of bigger bands that I thought would be great to have play (Braid especially), but in the end, I know the weekend would be better as a community centered fest, focusing on all of the smaller bands and staying away from huge names that might distract from these great smaller bands.

I don't foresee the fest ever becoming a huge thing. First, I am a broke college graduate and am operating on a small budget. Second, what makes Skeletal Lightning Fest special is its intimacy. Most bands skipped the stage and played on the floor right in the middle of the crowd. That made it special. There's no green room, either, so you often saw many band members right there in the crowd, too. Everyone supported each other. Everyone was there for each other. That's what makes it special, and that's the way I'd like to keep it as long as I can. If I have an opportunity to book a bigger band, I'll move forward with it, but only if they still have an appreciation of d.i.y. music and can understand what I'm trying to do with the fest. While it would be cool to have huge names playing the fest, it would change the dynamic of the fest and that's not something I want to change.

What would you say was the highlight of the fest last year? I know the full lineup hasn't been divulged just yet, but what would you say you're most excited for this year?

The highlight was the whole thing. Everything ran flawlessly and each band seriously played a killer set.

I'm excited to showcase some new bands that I wasn't able to snag last year. The fest will also be a little more varied as far as genres go, as well. I'm interested to see how people react to that aspect.

Obligatory record label/show booker dude questions.....What's your dream band to release a record for?

My dream bands I'd want to release a record for have happened multiple times. I'm excited about every release, but I was especially excited to work with The Reptilian, NORTHLESS, and Tiny Moving Parts, as they've all been a big influence in my musical tastes over the past few years and it blows my mind that I've been able to work with them in this fashion. I will say that every single band I've worked with has been such a treat to work with, and it's great to see people get stoked over their music.

Your dream band to get to play the fest?

As far as the fest goes, I'd still like to see Braid break down and play a d.i.y. show again. An American Football reunion would be the ultimate score all around. I'm sure people would fly to see that, Haha. However, as a Polyvinyl employee, I am sad to say that's likely never going to happen.

Where do you envision both the label and the fest a year from now?

I never really have an outlined plan of where I'd like things to be. I just tend to go with the flow. I hope I can keep doing things my way, and make sure I'm still doing what I love for as long as I can. As long as that's happening, and I'm at least helping bands spread their art in a physical form, while helping them not quite lose as much money as they would otherwise (or better), I feel as though I've done my part.

All things Skeletal Lightning:
Official fest Website:
Jam Sesh:

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