“Surviving as a microlabel in the age of instant entitlement is an endeavor of sheer obstinacy,” declares Bay Area polymath George Chen in the press release touting the 12th birthday of the label (Zum—originally a zine) he started with his sister, Yvonne, in 1998.
Chen’s Zum has put out records by Abe Vigoda, Mikaela’s Fiend, Child Abuse, Zs, Scary Mansion, Weird Weeds, High Castle, Mincemeat Or Tenspeed, and Chen Santa Maria. Before that he was involved with Modest Mouse, P.E.E., Bunkbed, I Am Spoonbender, Duster, Nuzzle, Australia’s Sea Scouts, !!!, OutHud, Total Shutdown, Boxleitner, The Lowdown, P:ano, Wives (the pre-No Age No Age), Silentist, and Xiu Xiu (his sister was in the band).
Chen seems to always have that “cool band” record ready for release just as the band in question becomes known to the just-above-the-underground scene.
How does George Chen do it?
Clearly this is a man who pays attention. So let’s pay attention to him, shall we?
Besides running a truly cutting-edge and amazing label, Zum, George Chen is the press/ publicity/ ads/ radio/ web/ EVERYTHING guy at Jello Biafra’s long-running Alternative Tentacles record label. Chen also plays stun guitar in KIT (along with Kristy Gesch and Steve and Vice from XBXRX), who have a new album on trend-setting Brit label Upset the Rhythm.
Chen’s celebrating his underground longevity with two shows this weekend—one in Oakland, one in Los Angeles (see details below)—that show off the estimable Zum stable of bands (and their friends), including High Castle, Dunes, Mincemeat or Tenspeed, John Wiese, and, of course, KIT (who will treat us Angelenos to a special preview of their new record). Here’s what George Chen had to say about music and his label at 12…
What is your earliest musical memory?
My parents had like three records. I mostly remember Don McLean American Pie and the Linda Ronstadt one where she’s on roller skates. I remember some Fisher-Price type of simple records with giant fat grooves that were impossible to break, I think they were just playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” And my mom played piano in the living room, so I think that’s probably the real answer.
What was your favorite song at age 10? And 15? And 25? And now?
At 10, it was something from TV, so either the A-Team theme or like the Diff’rent Strokes song. I also liked “Carribean Queen” by Billy Ocean ’cause I played violin. By 15 I was listening to college radio and thought I knew everything. I was between liking the Smiths and ska I think. 25 was an INSANE year for me. The girl that I was in love with made me a mixtape with “Sad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands” and I’d never really gotten into Dylan before or since. I can’t tell if this is a good or bad memory.
Now I feel like I hardly ever listen to “songs.” I am paying attention to the timbre of sounds, not really lyrics heavy. I was in an abortive Wipers cover band so I would say “Tragedy.”
You started Zum with your sister. Do you two still share and talk about music?
I make fun of her for not going out to see music anymore, but she did her time. She was the music director of a station KSCU in the ’90s and if that won’t make you hate music, apparently being in Xiu Xiu will (jk!). But I usually send her the bands I’m interested in and get her opinion.
What record was the biggest challenge to release and why?
One of the first things we did was for this Australian band called Sea Scouts that is pretty legendary in Melbourne. We had worked it out to have the Australian label, Patsy, ship CDs over here without cases and we were going to reassemble them and put a sticker on saying we were the US licensees of the record. The first crate was delivered to my sister’s doorstep in a rain storm and just left there by the idiot Postal Service until she came home. All the print material was totally soaked through and water damaged. I think she actually broke out in hives from the stress. So I would say that entire experience was a huge learning process for us and though it was a financial “eh” I don’t regret doing it, that’s one of the best records of all time IMO.
Who are your guitar heros?
People that I love but I don’t think I sounds like them at all—Sonny Sharrock, Derek Bailey, John Fahey, dude from Melt-Banana (Agata—is he still my hero if I had to google him mid-sentence?), Mick Barr. I could say Rob Fisk but I do literally just imitate him for the bands we were in (7 Year Rabbit Cycle, Common Eider King Eider), but then there’s all the early Deerhoof jams he did. There’s some new shredders like Ava Mendoza who plays in Evangelista some times, she does so many different styles though that it’s hard to pin down a native one. Steve from KIT/XBXRX has a totally distinct sound also. Oh man I almost left out Bill Orcutt.
What new music can we expect from you personally and also from Zum over the next 6 months?
There’s a new super limited Common Eider King Eider 12″ we’re trying to get done in time for On Land Festival, all I do is play drums on it which is a change. I’m also doing a tentative Vholtz reunion with an undetermined line up, that’s a band that I call “Gang Wizard North” for how many people have been in it. Hoping to nail down a gig later in August where I play with Randy Lee from Vholtz and Nick Lesley from Necking. Zum is eventually putting out an Urxed record, details to-be-determined. Eventually a Chen Santa Maria full-length has to happen but I’m hoping to pawn it onto another label.
What new groups do you have your eyes (and ears) on?
I am pretty in love with this Canadian husband-wife drone metal folk group Menace Ruine. They change pretty drastically between records, which is a great thing. I am interested to see Rene Hell (aka Jeff Witscher), I have been following the Witscher trajectory for a while now and hung out with him in Europe, I haven’t gotten that album yet but I’m sure it’ll slay. I haven’t seen the latest incarnation of XBXRX and have heard nothing but great things about it. Me and Steve Santa Maria’s tape label is supposed to put something out by this Chicago fellow Heavy Times that is great and poppy, I think we agreed it was like Wavves but done better. I’m also doing publicity freelance for Ô PAON but I would mention Genevieve’s music/art in any case.
Kyle Mabson tells me you have a stand-up career?
This has been a long time in the making. I have been into comedy much longer than I’ve been into music. For years I had the idea that I should do it but it was something that I couldn’t figure out, like what the format was. For awhile I would just start talking on the mic at these poorly attended warehouse shows with 5 people cause I was bored and needed attention. The ’00s comedy scene seemed to be more chill about just telling stories and not necessarily having to be like rolled-up-sleeve style. I started two years ago just going off on my disappointment about the Indiana Jones movies and then people just ask me to do it every few months so I do. It’s a really intense thing for someone who requires as much constant affirmation as I do.
What’s it like working with Jello Biafra? Do you ever catch him singing along to recordings of himself? Do interns have to know the words to Dead Kennedys songs?
Dude, I don’t even know the words to most Dead Kennedys songs. There’s a lot of bummers about jobs everywhere, but I was just thinking the other day about the crazy full circle my life has become from hearing Jello’s spoken word about the Frankenchrist trial sort of clandestinely on college radio and getting fired up about censorship and the first amendment to then working here. I also have been doing a Jello impression for over half my life so I could answer the phone here AS Jello if I never wanted my phone to stop ringing.
Serious question now—no one ever wants to talk about this. But it’s no secret you’ve been on the scene for awhile, so I’m hoping you will set the record straight: What’s it like to be 29 in a scene full of 20 year olds? What’s the best part? And the worst?
Thank you for low-balling me to 29. The real talk is too real for interwebs.
No, it does get weird but mostly cause I don’t drink, I don’t really like to go to bars, and I like weird music so it’s mostly either 22 year olds around or really dark bitter dudes that are slightly older than me and kind of lurk. I am happy being neither of those, but guess which extreme I’m veering towards?
The best part is that you’re around people that are enthusiastic about music and art and life. That is also the worst part. Some times I want to just crush their dreams just a tiny bit, but then I remember that I’m supposed to be posi. And life will do that for them, I don’t need to help it along.
George Chen was kind enough to share two Zum tracks with us. The first is by High Castle (which includes Child Pornography and Sisterfucker‘s Erin Allen) as well as one from Chen’s collaboration with Steve Santa Maria. Enjoy!