The newest record label on the New York circuit is Butterscotch Records, the brainchild of seasoned engineer and producer Allen Farmelo. For its launch this month, Farmelo (now a label head) combined forces with contemporary artists, a designer, a gallery in Soho and electronic instrument company Moog Music—giving the sense that Butterscotch Records is pretty serious, and pretty unique. CH visited the Judith Charles Gallery to view the collaborative exhibition "Odd Harmonics," which featured custom-made and almost cuddly theremins by François Chambard of UM Project (a familiar CH face and also long-time collaborator of Farmelo's), pieces by visual artists Cassandra C. Jones and Tomory Dodge, and a series of performances throughout the month from musicians.
One of them may look familiar, as Mikael Jorgensen is the pianist and keyboardist for alt rock band Wilco and has co-written songs including "Theologians" and "Side with the Seeds." With a background in electronics and computers, and years of playing in genre-pushing bands, Jorgensen isn't afraid to experiment—and collaborate—as heard in one of the first releases from Butterscotch Records, an album simply titled Mikael Jorgensen & Greg O’Keeffe.
Inside the gallery, CH spoke with Farmelo, Jorgensen and others, fiddling all the while with the charming theremins, which produce an eerie, oscillating electronic sound (heard in classic sci-fi films such as "The Day The Earth Stood Still" and "The Thing From Another World"). Volume and pitch are controlled without requiring any physical contact—so a lot of hand flailing around the two antennas is involved. While there aren't any theremins in Jorgensen and O'Keeffe's new album, it features exclusively vintage analog synthesizers and electronic samples (minus the live drums) and an equally adventurous look, printed on white vinyl with curious album art by Jones.
The lack of electric guitars and bass is quite refreshing, and the album lets the oft-neglected, drifting-in-the-background synthesizer take the spotlight, showing off how diverse it can be in terms of range, texture and timbre. The occasional vocals function more as a supplemental instrument that completes the atmosphere, rather than serve as the focal point. Jorgensen and O'Keeffe are reinterpreting today's alternative music that evokes what Wendy Carlos and Benjamin Folkman did for electronic music in their 1968 album Switched-on Bach, by performing classical Bach pieces on a Moog synthesizer.
"After finishing this record, I couldn't shake this idea that electronic music is part of a 20th century folk music tradition," says Jorgensen. "The aesthetics are enormously different and the history is, by contrast, brief [but] there are parallels, especially within dance music, with its appeal to such a vast cross section of people." For example, he sees MIDI drum patterns, on the computer screen, resembling basket weaving or Nordic sweater designs.
The album artwork is from the "Lightning Drawing" photo collage series by Cassandra C. Jones, an artist who is now married to Jorgensen. Jones gathers photos of storms and groups them based on "if the lightning bolt in each image looked thin, thick, serrated, fractured, fluid, feathered, etc," she says. Jones then painstakingly arranges them to create circles and even outlines of animals that seem impossible, seeming as if she drew them herself with charcoal or ink.
For the cover, Jones says, "I created a line that had a smooth ebb and flow, hence the title 'Mercurial.' It was also a nice analogy for their music; that they took all these sounds that were once analog, turned them digital and pieced them together to make a cohesive expression." The gatefold image inside is "Lightning Drawing 6," and shows a fox chasing a rabbit. Jorgensen points out, "While the acquisition of our source material is fundamentally different—Cassandra legitimately collects images taken by other photographers while Greg and I record acoustic drums [and] analog synths in our studio—the manipulation of these digitizations in the computer to create a personally unique expression is the same."
Farmelo explains the story of how he got everyone together in one room, this month. "I started the record label, Butterscotch Records, and Cassandra Jones' work was on Mikael Jorgensen's record. And then I signed the band New Weather, who has Tomory Dodge, the painter, in it. And François and I had collaborated on my recording console—he designed it and he also designed Mikael's keyboard stand that he uses onstage with Wilco and with his own music," he says. "So we're all part of this little community that were trying to get this record label going and contributing, François also designed our logo. And so when we were trying to figure out how to celebrate the launch of the label, I said, well, all these visual artists should do something because they're so important to the label."
When asked if he had any concerns about starting a record label in a new era of digital music services like iTunes and Spotify, Farmelo is confident. "What vinyl allows you to do, the 12-inch LP format allows you to have big art and a big physical object that actually weighs something. You can't turn it off, you can't scroll it away out of vision, you have to live with it and be with it," he says. "I think that's why it's coming back. Because of our digitized lives, we want objects that we can touch and feel and look at, experience in three dimensions—and get away from our computers and phones. Butterscotch looks to ride this wave of return of vinyl, or any return to tactile experiences in conjunction with recorded music. Not a video or small JPEG on your iPhone—but big, lush, beautiful art that you're meant to spend some time with."
"Odd Harmonics" is on view at the Judith Charles Gallery in Soho until 16 November—all of Francois Chambard's theremins are for sale, and be sure to check out the special duet performance from thereminist Carolina Eyck and pianist Christopher Tarnow on 2 November in the space.
Mikael Jorgensen & Greg O’Keeffe is available in a limited edition, double LP vinyl in white for $28 from Butterscotch Records. Stay tuned for upcoming projects from Jorgensen and other artists.
Photos by Karen Day, album artwork courtesy of Cassandra C. Jones