It was early September, and resting in my mail cubby atop a typical bumper crop of promotional items was an unidentified box covered in brown butcher's paper. And after I trekked upstairs from our mailroom, I unwrapped it — to find a box of Ritz Crackers.
And I figured that was the end, that I had been sent a light-weight, cracker-based bomb. Or at the very least, that I was staring at a box full of human excrement. The creepiest possibility? That someone had actually sent me a box of crackers.
Inside, I found a cornucopia of offbeat releases. A repurposed eight-track from which the tape and interior guts had been removed and replaced with a 3-inch single and liner notes. A "gospel cassingle" by Eddy Price with a barbed cross on its cover. A CD coated in cinnamon, part of an "experiment in digital scent distribution."
At the bottom of the box, a parchment scroll closed with a wax seal explained the package's origins. "Auris Apothecary is a not-for-profit micro-label hailing from Bloomington, Ind. which embraces obscure formats, handmade packaging and do-it-yourself ethics," the missive read.
Mystery solved, sort of. A guy named Dante had contacted me a few weeks earlier asking if we might be interested in hearing more from his label. And the press kit had arrived, long after I had forgotten about the message.
But as you'll learn from the interview following, some things remain unresolved, like the mystery of Dante's real name. Here's how that first exchange, conducted via e-mail, went.
Scott: Do you want to use your given name for this piece?
Dante: I am Dante Augustus Scarlatti. Any other name is irrelevant, as is any personal information about myself or the other label-owners. We prefer a shroud of ambiguity, as it prevents any preconceived notions one might have about the label and it helps to prevent the overall message/vision from being diluted by specific imagery or genre classification.
Hence, we're illustrating this piece with photos of Auris Apothecary products, instead of a head shot of Dante and his collaborators, two persons named Pendra Gon and Ancient Pine.
Dante was more forthcoming about other aspects of his label. A brief history: Auris Apothecary issued its first release on March 3, 2009, a numerologically-significant date according to the founders. Dante and friends have been extraordinarily busy since then, putting out 24 products on various formats (cassette, reel-to-reel tape, CD, floppy discs, a record made of glue, a micro-cassette inside an aromatherapy candle) across a variety of genres (metal, noise, ambient, low-fi folk, experimental classical).
The label has worked with a number of Indiana artists, including folk-pop band Fair Fjola, rockabilly singer-songwriter Eddy Price and U.K.-based experimental act Black Mountain Transmitter. At least one high-profile release is due next year — an "anti-cassette" by Eyehategod lead singer Mike IX Williams. And Dante adds that "old, never-before-heard" albums by Eyehategod drummer Joe LaCaze are also in the pipeline.
Certainly, artists and labels have been releasing music on cassette and vinyl throughout the digital era. But Auris Apothecary is remarkable for its ingenuity with respect to packaging and artwork. While others are releasing records made of vinyl, Auris Apothecary releases a record made of glue. Like the CD covered in cinnamon, playing the glue record (Brahms Destroys Haydn) will almost certainly damage your stereo in some way. But there's creativity in destruction, and no one mp3 will have as significant an impact, physically at least, as the one CD that leaves your house smelling like rosemary, even if your CD player is left completely inoperable.
Dante answered the following questions via e-mail in October. The transcript has been edited for space.
NUVO: There's a medieval feel to your work — the use of scrolls and wax seals, the web site's structure as a sort of apothecary's shop, your name as a performer.
Dante Augustus Scarlatti: Medieval iconography and techniques are a huge influence on our own personal artworks, literary compositions and musical creations. Starting at the most basic level, our name is composed of elements dating hundreds of years back, from a combination of Latin (auris: of the ear) and an archaic term for someone/somewhere who/that dispensed early medicines and herbs (though we like to think of them as drug-dealers). The wax seals were implemented from the beginning as a physical representation of the personal experience between listener and music. On most of our releases that contain a wax seal, it must be broken in order to even access the music to listen – an homage to the "for king's eyes only" mentality of the medieval message system. Once it's broken, there's no putting it back together; a sense of permanence is instilled immediately. The physical layout of illuminated manuscripts has always been a reference point for my own designs, and scrolls provide a way to have large amounts of information stored in a small space without folding and ruining the artwork. Ironic how efficient ancient systems are...
NUVO: How can a sort of formal experimentation provoke listeners?
Scarlatti: Modern music listeners prefer convenience over experience, therefore we create some releases with the intention of the least amount of convenience possible. Take for example Unholy Triforce's anti-cassette "Sandin' Yr Vagina" — a cassette tape filled with sand, wrapped in coarse black emery cloth, essentially ultra-rough sandpaper. The packaging goes hand-in-hand with the title and the physical feeling — minimal to almost nothingness, but the music couldn't be farther out of grasp if it was buried 10 feet. Forcing experimentation on the listener's end makes them have to decide just how important the music truly is to them. One might see futility in crafting music/sounds only to purposefully prevent playback, but we have a belief that conscious destruction leads to the creation of experience. Only the individuals who desire to hear the recording so much that they physically invest time and effort to figure out how to play the tape will be rewarded. The worthy who now have an irreversible connection with the release; who gave sweat and blood to hear the audible message...that is the experience an anti-cassette yields. Notably more melodramatic than just pushing play on your computer, but that's the point: it's more than just listening, it's interacting.
NUVO: Can you tell me the story behind a few releases?
Pusdrainer, Worms Beneath Thy Cold Flesh, released on a cassette tape "sealed in a tin filled with soil and animal bones" (promo copy):
Scarlatti: Pusdrainer, as a potential artist to work with, first caught my attention when I saw (on his web site) a time-lapse video of a decaying pig corpse synced up to harsh-noise music, an earlier project of his. The putrid content of the video, coupled with the abrasiveness of the soundtrack and the wretchedness of his name inspired me to contact him, as I saw aesthetics in his work that I felt were very in-line with our visions.
Fast forward a bit and he had a piece titled "Worms Beneath thy Cold Flesh" that he wanted to do something more experimental and disgusting with the packaging, so he contacted us. We proposed the tin with soil and bones to further the connection between the musical/lyrical content and the packaging, and it materialized into precisely what it needed to be. The use of organic materials never entered our mind as being out-of-box thinking, as it was the only concept for packaging that felt right. We never fret about bizarre materials going into packaging...we research heavily and find the exact products in the quantity we need and buy it at whatever the price. The cohesion of the release in its final form is worth any cost. Ironically, in time the bones have grown mold and the condensation of the soil has slowly deteriorated the artwork – in our minds a perfect natural progression and something we couldn't have planned if we tried.
Pendra Gon, Mu Blaksids Nogard Nep, an album issued on 16 3.5-inch floppy disks:
Scarlatti: Pendra Gon's Mu Blaksid Nogard Nep album was entirely conceived and built around the idea of floppy disks. Due to their extremely small storage capacity (1.44mb), the song lengths had to be no longer than 1:44 minutes and mp3 quality had to be deteriorated to what we refer to as "floppy fidelity," which is 79 kbps (in reference to 79 nominal sectors on a floppy disk). This created a wide palette of song ideas that were quick and to the point, but uniquely distinct from each other in the scope of the sounds they were emulating. The final product became an extremely cohesive album of 8-bit & NES-inspired grooves and instilled a nostalgic feel from both the music and the format...
Deep Magic, Illuminated Offerings, released on a micro-cassette encased in an aromatherapy candle:
Scarlatti: Deep Magic is the solo moniker of Alex Gray from California, who branched off of a larger psychedelic ensemble named Dreamcolour. When I came across his music for the first time, it immediately struck me as the perfect "balance" (coincidentally the title of his first release) between meditative drone and blissful ambient. Deep Magic seemed nearly spiritual in his focused gaze, and it stuck with me for quite some time. We kept in contact and traded tapes for a few months, until we presented him with the idea of the microcassette (for its low fidelity and long length) inside the aromatherapy candle. The idea that you must first burn the candle and be stimulated aromatically before you can ever listen to the music is precisely the kind of experience we wanted a listener to enjoy. Even though it seems so simple in theory, it attempts to guarantee a meditative, relaxing environment.
A funny afterthought: the candle is literally the packaging, so if one burns the candle to hear the music, the package is effectively destroyed. However, if somebody has the unburned candle which they've managed to keep in perfect condition, it means they've never heard the music. Kind of ruins the allure of "mint" condition pretty quickly.
NUVO: Could I say that one of the virtues of your releases is that they're not necessarily easy? — some of the music is difficult, some of the releases have to be played on an appropriate stereo, others literally force you to wait until an organic process has completed.
Scarlatti: Auris Apothecary has a motto that we frequently find necessary to reference throughout our creative process: we exist because fuck you. As brash a phrase as it might be, it sums up in five words an idea that could take five days to explain fully.
With the increasing sales of devices like iPods and the prevalence of digital downloads, people listen to music anywhere and everywhere, regardless of the environment or attention that they can actually give it. It has become little more than subconscious audible stimulation, a fulfillment of the need to be controlling what you hear. What our releases intentionally force, is the experience of sitting down and physically, mentally (and perhaps spiritually) interacting with the medium or format to procure what is believed to be the main focus: the music. Even that, however, is sometimes a deception.
In the age of the internet, anybody with an audio recording program and a MySpace can claim to be a musician. Therefore, everyone does. There is exponentially more music being created and exhibited every day, yet as the quantity goes up, the quality goes down. Listeners act like music is their right; that it should be given to them to enjoy. If one artist won't offer it for free, another will. Artists place no monetary worth on their own creations in the hopes that more people hear it, yet the sacrifice is that it then holds no value. If they think it's worth nothing, then I should assume the same. Therefore, part of our vision is to construct releases that have little to no redeeming musical value; it is solely the experience of the physical format that is the destination.
All of these and more are some of the reasons we don't put download cards in our releases. In the case of Deep Magic, the microcassette inside the candle, we had people message us asking if we'd give them a digital transfer if they purchased it. Quite frankly, that's a little absurd to assume that after all our work to guarantee a unique environment for playback, somebody wants to get to hear the music without a) burning the candle or b) playing it back on a microcassette recorder, where the fidelity is a huge part of the sound. Effectively, they missed the entire point of the release by taking part in neither of the immensely appropriate factors that made Illuminated Offerings what it was. As with all of our releases, the music is merely part of the equation, not the sole reason for existence.