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Paint By Numbers - A profile of the Numero Group

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Dusted's Dan Ruccia sums up the Numero Group - a new face among today's top reissue labels.

Paint By Numbers - A profile of the Numero Group

Compilations and their creators fall into a number of different categories: the simple, haphazard mixtape a friend hands you, the general “this is the music that was going on at this point in time” compilation meant to attempt to define a moment in history, the tribute/cover album, the infinitely researched tome that tries to document a particular label, scene, or locale, and the curated compilation in which a person, generally of some note, tries to give us an insight into the music they like. Each of these has their own distinct character, and tells us a good deal about the personality of the person or people who assemble them. The labels who put these things out run the gamut from bootleggers to indies to giant corporations, each of whom have their own unique way of culling and arranging songs. Chicago’s Numero Group is a relative newcomer to the field, but in their three years of existence they have already established themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Their goal is nothing short of changing the way reissues and compilations are conceived, perceived, and executed.

The label was founded in 2003 by Ken Shipley, Rob Sevier, and Tom Lunt, three die-hard crate diggers who can’t even go on vacation without hunting for indigenous sounds from whatever locale they find themselves in (more on that in a moment). From past experience in the record industry (Shipley worked A&R for Ryko, Sevier ran Wobblyhead records and worked at Groove Distribution with Shipley, and Lunt was with Streetside Distribution as well as working in advertising), they all came to very firm conclusions about the nature of the record business and sought to more or less demolish the so-called industry standard and establish a new, better way of being a record label and a reissue label. While the Numero Group has put out releases that span genres and (justifiably) claim not to have a specific sound, their biggest splash has been in the funk/soul/r&b realm.

The world of funk/soul compilations is littered with bootleggers putting out titles like 25 Northern Soul Greats or 19 Ultra-Rarities from Atlanta that offer little more than a bunch of songs put together with no artist clearance, no information, and nothing more to offer than the promise of a handful of tracks at a low price on the one side and over-researched, dryly specific compilations on the other, and haphazard individually curated sets of songs in between. The guys of the Numero Group “keep their ear to the ground” and “look at every soul/funk CD that comes around” according to Ken Shipley (who I spoke to over falafel a few weeks back), and in response, they make a concerted effort to transcend that by finding “the points where story and music meet.” Shipley continues, “There have been plenty of opportunities for us to go and do this rare soul label out of New York or Virginia, people saying ‘You should do this label.’ We look it and ask ‘What about this is interesting?’ We want to find things that are both interesting to read about and interesting listen to; it can’t just be 15 Funk Jammers. And that to me is where the idea of labels comes to play. When I see a label, that to me is a clear cut idea that someone had, a whole way of doing business, a way of listening to music, an individual’s perception of sound.” Four of their eight releases have been of individual labels - their flagship Eccentric Soul compilations are most overt about this, but the Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up also represents a single label’s output.

All of their releases, however, are characterized by being remarkably similar to music that is well-known, but twisting it in an unexpected or offbeat direction. Or, in Shipley’s terms, they “go deeper,” existing in a realm ancillary to their better-documented counterparts. The Eccentric Soul series speaks for itself, compiling the almost-Motown sound of Bill Moss’s Capsoul label of Columbus, Ohio, the completely outlandish tale of Arrow Brown’s Bandit Label from Chicago, and the earliest incarnations of the Miami sound with Willie Clark and Johnny Pearsall’s Deep City label, with the unifying theme being labels who shouldn’t have existed and went nowhere. At the same time, the Cult Cargo series looks at the way that American sounds have been exported abroad, particularly in poorer countries. Currently, the series only covers Belize, but a disc of Bahaman music is in the works, and Shipley is quick to point out that there is “cult cargo to be found just about everywhere (the case could probably be made that much of Sublime Frequencies’ output is “cult cargo”). The other Numero albums look at rock, power pop, folk, and country that vanished, was listened to by no one, whose artists no longer make music, and whose releases are mostly very difficult to find. And their goal is to make all this obscure music matter. According to Shipley, the failure of so many compilations is that they’re “disconnected from the whole idea [of a scene], and those records quickly go out of print because they’re not important enough. People didn’t latch onto them and think ‘this is an important record and I’m gonna share this with somebody.’ Instead, it’s just “this is a cool record, and I’m gonna put it on my shelf.’” The rhetoric is bold and a bit revolutionary, but their output doesn’t have any holier-than-thou obscurist hubris; they are more like the cool older siblings who know everything about music that everyone wishes they had. Their cathexes are genuine.

Each Numero album essentially has two stories, that of the artists compiled on the CD, and that of the process of compiling and researching the artists. Often times, the meta-story could be just as interesting as the story of the album itself. In the case of Belize City Boil Up, Sevier was about to take a vacation to Belize and was fretting about not being able to find out anything about Belizean music (says Shipley “It’s a really disposable country. Most people don’t have record players down there; the idea of records to them is old, so there was no way to really search. There are no Belizean record stores. There are CD stores, but no record stores, because the culture isn’t there. It’s a poor country and it isn’t built for keeping things around.”) before being turned on to the Soul Creations at the last minute. Upon arriving in Belize, he wandered to a security system store that had the same name as the label, randomly came across Gerard Rhaburn who was behind the recording and hundreds more, and thus the compilation was born. And as it stands, Numero is currently putting together a full archive of all the records they found for the national museum in Belmopan. For their most recent offering, Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies from the Canyon, they contacted every Becky Severson in Minnesota, then every Severson in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in order to track down the one-minute long track “A Spectral Path.” Each compilation is littered with stories like this, since they see their task as building trust and forming relationships with all the artists they release since, as Shipley put it, “We’re trying to take everything they’ve done and build a legacy for it, as opposed to letting it rot in the garage.”

For a label that focuses almost exclusively on the entire conception of the compilation, trying to reassess how it works and reconfigure how it is perceived, it seems to be a bit of an aberration that Numero would put out two single-artist albums, Fern Jones’ The Glory Road and Antena’s Camino Del Sol. When asked about that, Shipley says “A Numero record for us is the cream, this is the best. With the Antena record we wanted to make the best Antena record, a kind of focused overview. With Fern Jones, we had access to a lot more tracks that we cut off because we thought they weren’t very good. It’s a delicate balance between finding a really perfect album, because most of the really perfect albums have already been issued, or they’re on major labels. There’s a dearth of albums.” The Numero packaging is, for them, a mark of quality, and they wouldn’t want to put it on a disc that is anything short of perfection; if there’s a track on an album that they see as sub-par, they don’t want to reissue it. They still see the value in reissuing hard to find albums - they have plans to issue three full albums as replicas of the original issue - but they are setting them off from the Numero packaging scheme, giving us the caveat that these may be good records, but they’re not “perfect” records.

On the most fundamental level, the Numero Group sees itself as a means of documentation and preservation for the future. They’re not interested in the myths behind the music they release because often times the idea that these are rare and hard to find records is perceived as a barrier to appreciation. What they want to do is tell us what happened, who did what, and how these sounds link in to other things we may or may not have heard. And in that regard, their mission is often a race against time. Since the music they’re putting out is old, the people behind it are old as well, and when these people die, they take their stories with them. Arrow Brown of the Bandit label is the perfect example of this. He was a very secretive person, so when he died, he took the entire story of his label with him, and they were left to reconstruct what they could from other people who were there, but that story is ultimately incomplete. For the case of Belize City Boil Up, all of the music and the stories that went with it would have been lost at the death of Gerard Rhaburn. And they were lucky enough to contact Bill Moss a year and a half before his death to get the full story behind Capsoul, making it that much more fulfilling, both for us and for him. In the end, Numero’s goal is “to up the game, because then everyone follows suit.” A task at which, in my humble opinion, they are succeeding.

By Dan Ruccia

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