by Benjamin Parrish (@MP3StoreDay)
Portland, OR based label See My Friends was started in 2016 by Stevie Pohlman (Mope Grooves, L.O.X.) and Vince Skelly (Honey Bucket) and quickly became one of the most exciting labels in the NW with full lengths by Mope Grooves and Honey Bucket, a series of short run compilation cassettes, and tapes by acts like Lithics and Conditioner.
I picked up a copy of the Secret City Vol. 1 comp LP in 2016 for $7 after years of rudely dismissing the Portland music scene as full of 11 piece soft rock groups and tech dudes making quirky ad music. I was pretty surprised by the contents of the LP. I heard a few hints of the Flying Nun catalog, a few nods to classic Rough Trade Records, some songs that sounded like they could be Bee Thousand outtakes, but they were all building blocks of something new instead of some kind of historical reenactment. Since then I’ve been picking up SMF releases when I see them at stores around town (tapes are usually $4 and records are around $10) and have yet to have buyer’s remorse.
I chatted with See My Friends co-founder Stevie Polhman in August 2018 for more info. The discussion has been edited for clarity (Stevie brought up a lot of interesting points that I couldn’t help but follow up on.)
How did See My Friends Records start? Is it just the two of you running the label? Do you have any label influences?
STEVIE: I hashed out the idea for a label while working at Raf Spielman's bagel shop. He had solid practical advice since he had experience with his label Eggy. Vince was helping me do everything and he became officially half the label when we did our first non-comp LP, which was Honey Bucket's first 12". It's not really just us since so many people in our scene help us with our projects, especially Raf and my bandmates.
A label inspiration was Flying Nun, which had an insular geographic bent.
Did either of you ever run a label before starting See My Friends? If so, were there lessons that you learned from it that you’ve applied to the new label?
STEVIE: Nope! Definitely made some expensive mistakes in that first year. Like PR. I remember wanting to do everything we could for the bands we were working with so I felt like a PR campaign was the right thing to do. We busted ass all summer to save money for a campaign and got all this ostensibly great press which was actually useless horse shit. It didn't sell records or connect them with an audience in a meaningful way. In reaction to that, we tried to find the absolute bottom for the next LP's cost and price, which was Mope Grooves’ debut Joy. I don't think we'll sell a record for that cheap again but that actually worked better and was more in keeping with the spirit of the label. Now I'm at a point where I send Mope Grooves' new LPs to literally one or two people and refuse to do interviews with people I don't know and it actually seems to work great.
I'm glad you brought up no longer paying for PR because I've noticed that more and more labels of all sizes are opting to do that stuff in-house these days. I know from personal experience with artists that I've worked with that it can be difficult to convert press from larger websites or magazines to sales or attendance at shows. How do you think people are finding out about the releases on SMF?
Yeah it's wack right? Don't you do PR in-house? Whenever this comes up I ask people when the last time was they discovered a band they love from one of those big sites and it's just not part of anyone's experience. You find out through word of mouth or shows and stores, and if you have a great record that looks cool and ideally isn't clothed in the hack lingo of brand-friendly alleged music journalism, that record will have wings and will find cool people that need it. The context where people find a record can be really important, it can effect what kind of relationship you have with a record. So it makes practical sense that you'd only send your record to people who are real music critics or curators that care about the culture, or to zines/blogs operated without an alienating intermediary. And if you can't reach them without a PR firm, then they aren't worth reaching, right?
When I first heard about SMF I was surprised that you started the label with the Secret City Vol. 1 compilation because the “conventional wisdom” since the iTunes store opened up to indie labels/mp3 blogs started/streaming hit the scene is that people are no longer buying and instead opting to grab their favorite two or three songs. But it seems like you’re committed to them because you had the monthly mixtape series for a while. What is it about compilations that you enjoy? Do you have any favorites?
STEVIE: I chose a comp because I had a US tour in the works and figured it'd be a great way to introduce a segment of our scene to a bunch of people. It definitely isn't a savvy business decision to start with a comp of four unknown bands, but the initial idea was to be hyper-local. The comp had a map on the back with everyone's house on it, all the bands were living and recording within about a square mile of each other. We wanted to present a scene that was independent of then-prevalent nefarious garage rock trends and have the work of that curation lead to something even more insular and uncompromised, which I think it did.
We're going to restart the tape comp series soon, which is mostly Raf's baby. Some fave comps of mine are Wanna Buy A Bridge? by Rough Trade and the Mississippi Records tape comps, which we listen to all the time in the bagel shop I work at. I think the Mississippi comps are actually starting to leak in to all the bands I'm in.
SMF has put out tapes by Lithics, Mini Blinds, Woolen Men, Wave Action, Conditioner… how do you decide what to release? Do you two have to agree on a band or do you both have free reign to do whatever?
STEVIE: I think every time a cool new local band pops up we just show each other and try and do a tape? We have our own duplicator now so we have more control and flexibility with what we can put out. Having really cheap and good sounding tapes can be a really useful resource for new bands, it will be exciting to see how low we can go price-wise and how many more comps we can do.
From what I can tell all the releases on SMF are by Portland artists. Is that intentional or just a coincidence? Do you think of SMF as a “Portland label?”
STEVIE: Yes, for the foreseeable future. I feel like NW in general would be fair game though.
Kind of related… what percentage of your fans/customers are in the Portland area? I know I’ve seen stores like Monorail Records in Scotland post about your releases and have seen some coverage on sites like Raven Sings the Blues (for Mope Grooves) and Spin (for Honey Bucket).
STEVIE: Mostly Portland and a pretty disproportionate amount from the U.K. There was a weird blip after Mississippi started selling some of our stuff there where we got played on BBC 6 and a bunch of U.K. people started liking us, which is cool, there's definitely a lot of old U.K. punk and DIY bands/labels that have left an obvious mark on us and our bands. Overall Portland and Washington are still where we sell most of our stuff for sure.
I remember when we met back in 2016 you told me that Mope Grooves and Honey Bucket were about to go on a five week tour (maybe I’m remembering this wrong) in support of the Secret City comp. I know that since then Mope Grooves has gone on a 45 day tour in support of Joy and it seems like Honey Bucket is constantly doing mini tours. Is it hard to juggle both of you being in active bands with running a label, having day jobs, and having lives? Do you both have specific tasks at SMF or do you both take turns doing everything?
STEVIE: Yeah that was a Mope Grooves tour, Honey Bucket did 5 or 6 weeks later that year for their first LP, and then Mope Grooves did 45 days in North America for Joy. It's been pretty much constant work for me since I started making all the Mope Grooves jackets by hand, which is how we sell them for so cheap. I took a break from touring after Joy but we have two Mopes LPs coming out this year and one by my other band L.O.X., so recording and the day-to-day label operation take up most of my non-work life. There's lot of other people in my life that are working round the clock on music so it feels ok. Everyone I know is just making a lot of stuff all at once so it doesn't feel like a good time to relax.
One thing that is unique about SMF compared to other labels is the variety in price points. For example, some of the records on your site are $6, some are $10 and others are $15. How do you make these decisions?
STEVIE: Basically all those LPs had way different per-unit costs. With the Mope Grooves LPs we cut every possible corner to make it as accessible as we could, but that wasn't a priority for all of them. The cheap records thing has been an experiment contingent on a commitment to doing a bunch of tedious labor that would otherwise cost the label money. Jon from Honey Bucket screen printed Joy for us gratis, just because he's a comrade like that. I do a 3-step process for every Vanished LP, most of which are unique. Raf hand-draws a lot of cassettes for us. And people buy them, probably because they're cheap, and they're cheap because we don't pay for things like PR or printing. I like having affordable options and I also like people to feel like the record or tape they're getting is somewhat improvised and open-ended. It can be finished in a lot of different ways, including by the listener. This could become physically impossible to maintain if the next Mopes record sells well.
How long does it take to do the 3-step process assembly process for each copy of Vanished? At what pressing size do you think you'd have to give up on assembling things by hand?
STEVIE: I was just at the IPRC (Portland community press) working on the jackets and explaining to someone the process and the look on their face made me remember that I am mental. I'd say all the time I spent letter pressing the name and title in the corner took around 15 hours. Then the process of cutting out the image on the front, the short play on the back, and then spray gluing each of them in my room takes about 2 hours to do 30. So a conservative estimate would be about 50 hours for the whole run. Its not really the size of the run that would make it impossible to continue but managing it alongside a 500 run of a completely different jacket, like say for our 3rd LP which is imminent. I think I just have to stop doing it by myself. It's a fun zone to be in but my comrades have offered to help and I should say yes.
One thing that's always impressed me about the label is your commitment to all-ages shows. Did you two grow up attending all-ages gigs? Is accessibility important to the two of you?
STEVIE: The first thing the label did was throw a huge all-ages show at the American Legion Post 134 on Alberta for the comp release. There was like 7 bands doing 20 min sets and there were a ton of younger people there. And it wasn't just about being all-ages, there were a lot of SA survivors organizing for safer spaces at the time that we linked up with immediately. I just wanted to do whatever we could to foster a scene that wasn't the apolitical and predatory rock scene I found here when I was 18, and that meant being useful and responsible to a community, which meant throwing shows where new bands and artists can develop in safe environments. I've since found a bunch of other people here with the same attitude. There's a lot of great bands here and I think it's no coincidence that so many of them chose to give a shit about their community when mediocre artists chose not to.
Do you think that Portland is getting better about being welcoming and having safe spaces at shows? Do you have any tips for people putting on shows on how to make sure that they're creating a safe environment for everybody involved?
I only really have perspective on my little pocket of the scene but from where I'm sitting it's better than before. At the same time you have to remember that these structures of oppression will ceaselessly recombine, and will probe the vulnerabilities of whatever safe measures your community devises until they can weaponize those words and tactics against you. You can make a successful and safer model for a DIY environment, only to see it replicated months later with only a vague commitment to equity intact by a menagerie of cis garage rock dudes. The most practical advice I have would be to make sure you talk to all performers and people in the space about what you expect in situations of harassment and predatory behavior and that you do that for every show. Also have a plan for a fire.
Are there any non See My Friends acts that you’re excited about right now?
STEVIE: Table Sugar from OLY is definitely the best. Also Old Maybe and Ada Babar from Philly. And Warm Bodies from KC.
Are there any SMF releases that Post-Trash readers should be on the lookout for?
Honey Bucket's new LP Furniture Days is out now, as is the first L.O.X. LP and the next Mope Grooves LP, both released in October.