With its contribution to the contemporary experimental electronic scape, Berlin-bred / NY-based imprint PAN has been responsible for a slew of forward-thinking and innovative soundscapes since its inception in 2008. The label’s community of artists and ideas is impactful and diverse yet represents a template of sorts for how a DIY ecosystem label of artists, designers and producers can thrive both creatively and critically. Having been dubbed the “Best Record Label of the Year” in 2012 by FACT and stormed through 2013 with hearty and noteworthy releases like Heatsick’s homespun and hypnotic Re-Engineering and the experimental drone of Jar Moff, the label’s 2014 agenda promises new and exciting releases from HELM, Beneath, M.E.S.H. and Valerio Tricoli.
We asked label head Bill Kouligas some questions over email and to compile for us a playlist of ‘Essential PAN’ releases; Read on for Kouligas’ thoughts about likeminded collectives being dubbed “outsider,” the work of German experimenter Florian Hecker, growing up with punk and Pet Shop Boys and how genres don’t really matter anymore.
Describe the sound you are attempting to capture with PAN?
Rather than capturing any one sound I would say that PAN is more a community of artists who are trying to present new ideas and forms. Many of our artists also work with visuals, text and performance that is not related to sound. We are proud to represent that work too. Actually it is harder, I think, to build this community and body of work without falling into stagnation and classification.
I take it there's a lot of introspection and variance with your catalog and the sorts of artists you sign.
I am proud of the variety, and it reflects my own interests and those of my friends. I’m not sure we can be considered introspective—many PAN artists are very social and spend a lot of time performing works—whereas there are a lot of people in experimental music who remain very private. I would say that the artists represented through PAN are all very considered in their work though, which is one aspect of introspection.
I saw someone describe one your releases as “functional avant-garde.” Thoughts?
I’m not sure. ‘Functional’ makes me think of ‘utility’, and in many ways we are the opposite of that. Much music exists to fulfill a function, to make people drink more beer in a club, to make people forget their work week, or whatever. PAN artists do not fall into that category, as many have experienced when they are placed in traditional, ‘functional' live contexts. I do think there is some function to the fact that we are not afraid to take our music to the public—we do not play it safe and stay in our private corners—for this reason it is perhaps a practical avant garde as we are finding ways to bring this music to new audiences rather than staying comfortable in our niche. Avant Garde music should be bold like that.
PAN had a great 2013. You wrapped up the year with a handful of releases with records from Jar Moff, NHK'Koyxen and Heatsick. I quite like the music on these and wanted to ask about the differences here. Firstly, there's a song like “Financial Glam” by Jar Moff that exists on a handful of planes—experimental, static noise, drone—while a tune like “762” from NHK'Koyxen takes a more traditional, darker woozy sound or art-club workout vibe and then there's the tropical feeling of Heatsick's “Clear Channel”. It almost shimmers in comparison to these other two songs. Can you discuss the differences here and well, if genres matter in the PAN realm?
Genres don’t matter. Every PAN artist has a great understanding of music and context, and will be different because they make music with purpose and clarity. I’ve known each of these artists for a very long time and despite their music having changed considerably over the years, they have never been easy to classify, which is perhaps special to the people we work with.
Let's talk deeper about Heatsick's record Re-Engineering. That set evokes a lovely texture that comes off so hypnotic yet so, erm, homemade and childlike in this, endearing way.
Steve is a special artist who is not afraid to approach big concepts but is always human and approachable somehow. His music reflects him as a person, of most of the artists I know he has some of the greatest understanding of art theory, however it is so naturally a part of his lifestyle that he is comfortable to embody it in his work without pretension. His art has changed over the years, and will continue to change, however Steve will always keep this quality.
Do you have any thoughts on some of the content coming out of some of these other fellow labels like Blackest Ever Black, Hospital, Stroboscopic Artefacts, L.I.E.S., etc.
There have been some amazing records released on these labels. One danger is that all of these labels get put together as ‘outsider’, or some reductive term, when actually there are huge historical and artistic differences to each of them. I would find it hard to find one thing to describe such a diverse group of people, however I do think it is encouraging that they are each finding success in their own right—these labels represent an important part of musical culture that needs everyone’s support and attention. Hospital Productions is over 15 years old, which is an incredible achievement, and it was incredibly influential in the noise and experimental community that PAN was made from—that must be respected.
Talk a little about the sleeve design and creative process that goes into each PAN release.
Each release is very different. I have worked a lot with visual artist Kathryn Politis, and often the designs will come from long sessions spent listening to the record—I think I, and we, have been very successful in this process. I spend a lot of time viewing and researching visual art and design, and so hopefully the results maintain a freshness. Once I get the feeling this is not the case I will stop designing them.
In an interview I read with you, you mentioned how a Mego's Florian Hecker release was not just important for you, but “for history.” Have you ever felt the same way about what you put into one of your own releases?
Yes, regularly. Florian’s work is very special, however I have been fortunate to work with so many artists who will prove to be important, historically. If we continue to support experimentation and challenging work then this is an inevitability. Occasionally you look back a few years and become aware of just how influential an artist has been. Sadly it is rare that the experimental musicians that often start these shifts are credited for them. There are so many tiers to public perception, but it is important for us to give artists the best platform possible to have their work appreciated and acknowledged.
Did you have a love for electronic music growing up?
I loved the Pet Shop Boys growing up, however was mostly into post punk and hardcore, metal. I grew up in Athens, and was a very active drummer, and there was a big appreciation for hard music there. Learning to appreciate these harsher tones was a great platform to get involved in experimental music, my mind was always open.
What has been the most rewarding part of the PAN existence?
The community. I very much consider PAN to be a community and spirit, and I have been very lucky to meet so many special artists and people through this process. It is often easy to miss this component when so much of the culture is reduced to text, images and releases—special music is formed in special communities, online and offline, and we continue to try and cultivate that.