NOW FLENSING: THE FLENSER’S DECADE-LONG EVOLUTION PUBLISHING DARK MUSIC

The Flenser’s owner Jonathan Tuite

The general intention is for there to be dark music that’s hopefully not too cynical.

Founded in 2009 by Jonathan Tuite, independent music label The Flenser started out as what Tuite describes as an extension of the Black Metal scene — particularly the one-man bands that deviated from the more conservative, corpse paint-clad acts of the time. That first year, Tuite kicked off the label by releasing albums from Palace of Worms, and Panopticon, both of which fit the initial concept. The next year, releases by acts including Bosse-De-Nage, Ghast, and Necrite would further reinforce the black metal image to the casual observer.


Fast forward to late 2019, and The Flenser has announced the assignment of catalog #FR100 to the album ‘Sea of Worry’ by Have a Nice Life — an act from Connecticut, often described as “experimental rock”, and one of the label’s most popular bands. Digging into the previous dozen releases by The Flenser, you’ll find even more genre deviation and diversity; San Francisco-spawned post-punk act All Your Sisters released ‘Trust Ruins’ to moderate acclaim. Austin-based industrial noise rock act Street Sects’ album ‘The Kicking Mule’ earned the duo features in print magazines and blogs. The Flenser even took a chance on Portland’s shoegaze-y drone-pop act Drowse, releasing their third full-length album, ‘Light Mirror’.


I caught up with label owner Jonathan Tuite to find out more about this evolution of the label’s roster and sound.

The Flenser owner Jonathan Tuite, outside of concert venue Elbo Room Jack London on July 16, 2019. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II.

Geoffrey Smith II: For people who aren’t familiar with The Flenser, tell me about your label.


Jonathan Tuite: I started in 2009 in San Francisco, and at the time it was kind of an extension of the Black Metal that was going on in San Francisco. It was very inspired by a label owned by one of the guys that owned [San Francisco music store] Aquarius Records, and kind of the single-person black metal bands at the time.  And as time has kind of passed, I’d become more interested in working with bands that don’t necessarily fit so nicely in genres but are also on the kind of darker side. 

Planning for Burial performing at DNA Lounge on July 13, 2019. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II

JT: So, from kind of the beginning there was this black metal band I worked with a lot called Panopticon, who had kind of anarchist values, was NOT a Satanist, didn’t really wear the corpse paint; so I really liked that, versus some of the more conservative Black Metal that was coming out at the time. And over the years I’ve kind of expanded out of metal with bands like Wreck and Reference, and later, Have a Nice Life, that also has a similar audience, but kind of found an identity at the label in those titles.

Have a Nice Life performing at DNA Lounge on July 13, 2019. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II


GS: What I’m curious about is you seem to have a fan base that likes ALL The Flenser stuff; they’re a fan of the label, and I’m wondering — I haven’t studied the whole catalog — is there a common thread, a common feel, or theme, or something that kind of ties the majority of the releases together in some way?


JT: I think there is. The general intention is for there to be dark music that’s hopefully not too cynical. And a lot of the bands are kind of like that. Also, a lot of the people I work with, and knowing each other —  usually the best way for me to find bands is through people I know. So, I think that there is kind of scene connections — it’s not all the same stuff — that have connected a lot of these different groups. I would also hope that the general quality of the label makes it so that people can trust the records that are released, as kind of scratching some sort of itch, with the kind of heavier, but not extreme metal thing; or, just darker music. Even if it’s industrial stuff like Street Sects, or Echo Beds, or All Your Sisters, I think there’s kind of a common aesthetic thread through all that stuff.

All Your Sisters, performing at DNA Lounge on July 13, 2019. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II


GS: Have you experienced situations where bigger labels try to poach bands that you’ve built up on your label?


JT: Yeah, I’ve experienced that a lot, and it’s something that I’ve wrestled with; about how to handle that. My primary way of dealing with that is to try and treat people well, and to try and be honest about what I can offer, or can’t offer. So, a lot of people in the music industry in general are very well-meaning, but can’t necessarily deliver on their promises. So, I try and do that. And then, I like to make sure that bands get paid. The best I can. So, all new artists from the past few years are on the same royalty system — where it’s a 50/50 split of net profits, and I think that that is really fair, and that’s the kind of thing that keeps people around. 


JT: There’s always gonna be bands that want to be on a really big label, and that’s okay. People want to move on. And I’ve even helped bands find other labels in some cases. So, yeah, it’s a difficult thing to deal with, but I think I’m doing pretty good. I’m pretty happy with what’s coming up right now. There was a few years ago where I lost a couple of bands all at once, and that was a little rough. But now, I feel like I have a really good core group of artists and releases planned, and everyone seems pretty happy from my perspective.

Mamaleek, performing at Elbo Room Jack London on July 16, 2019. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II


GS: Are there any bands that you’ve signed where you feel like they didn’t get quite as much attention or acceptance by fans as you would have liked?

JT: Oh, absolutely. There’s lots of releases. I mean, the one that comes to mind — one of my favorite records that I released is by this band called Braveyoung. A record called ‘Misery and Pride’, and it’s an ambient project, and the record is just gorgeous. But, it did not really pick up steam, and it’s hard with instrumental music in general. You know, some labels can really pull it off, like I’ve noticed especially Kranky does a really, really good job with that kind of thing. 

Elizabeth Colour Wheel, performing at Elbo Room Jack London on July 16, 2019. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II


JT: But yeah, so the other more recent example would be like Echo Beds, I think, that that record [‘Buried Language’] is absolutely great and kind of underappreciated at this time. All Your Sisters is getting there; I think the first record with [The Flenser] people didn’t really latch onto it as quickly as they should have. But what I’m seeing with that band is that streams are going up and there’s more of an interest in them, so it’s really paying off.GS: Is there a project that you brought onto the label that was an unexpected success?


JT: Oh, absolutely. The biggest would be Street Sects. When we first brought them on, I just wasn’t sure. I mean, I love them. And they created this record that was completely unique to anything I’d put out, and it was very very abrasive — That’s End Position — and I didn’t know people were going to “get it”, and it just sold out. 


JT: And the other one would be Drowse. I only did a few hundred copies of the first record — I was very nervous about going in that direction with the label, and then one of the big cult bands that I’ve put out — cult releases, I should say, is this band called Mastery. It’s the guy that’s in Pandiscordian Necrogenesis, Ulthar, and a couple other projects, and it’s this pretty much improvised black metal record. And I only made a few hundred copies. And I just thought it was bizarre, it was like free jazz, but it was like black metal. And it sold out instantly. And I was like, okay, trust the audience, I guess.

Street Sects performing at Great American Music Hall, April 25, 2018. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II

GS: If you’d have known all the things you learned running the label, what would you have told yourself starting out?

JT: Yeah, well honestly, the first five or six years was really really hard. And, it was not fun in a lot of ways. I lost money on every single release, and I had no idea what I was doing. So, if I were to go back and talk to myself I would probably say, “Hey, go work for another label first, and figure this out.” At the same time, I think that the past couple years we’ve really started to see success, and what that can look like. And that I just tell myself to keep going. And that’s the big thing I see — a lot of people starting out, and they have a lot of ambition, and then they suddenly have lost money on five releases and they give up. And so, you really gotta just keep going. Some of the stuff that I’ve done has paid off, like trying to create a fan base for the label, not just particular bands, trying to have a unique aesthetic, and trying to have a little bit of a sense of humor with the social media.

Drowse performing at Elbo Room Jack London on July 16, 2019. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II

GS: So, what are some big things you have planned, going forward.

JT: Well, there’s going to be a new Have a Nice Life record at the end of the year. There’s going to be a record by Consumer coming out at the same time, which I haven’t announced yet. But has been kind of long rumored.

Vale performing at Elbo Room Jack London on July 27, 2019. Photo by Geoffrey Smith II

GS: Does it make sense to release those at the same time, given the overlap in band members, and potentially, draw?”

JT: Yeah, I think so, I think that usually, that would make no sense, but in this particular case, it’s kinda like two sides of the same coin in a lot of ways.

GS: Save on shipping — order both at the same time!

JT: Yeah, it’s going to be the same fans. I think that the Consumer record, since it’s a new band, is only going to benefit. If it was two big bands that were not related, then there’s no way I would do anything like that. And then this year we did this whole membership program that went really well, and I’m kind of working on that for next year. There’s a band called Midwife we’re going to be working with next year that’s one of my favorite artists, and I’m very, very, very excited about.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

 

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Geoffrey Smith

Geoffrey Smith

San Francisco Bay Area-based photojournalist and event photographer.

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