Climate change: 13 years of Environ Records
The Environ label began in an Oberlin dorm room in 1995. Founder Morgan Geist initially intended to concentrate on his first love, Detroit techno, but as time progressed, influences of jazz, disco and Chicago house began to take root.
Regarded primarily as a DJ label during its first six years, perceptions began to change after Daniel Wang’s Idealism LP in 2001. Around this time, Geist and friend Darshan Jesrani’s minimalist dance project Metro Area crossed over into the indiecrati consciousness, due in large part to the infectious single, “Miura.”
“We started Metro Area because we were really frustrated with what was going on in dance music,” says Geist. “There were a few like-minded people, I mean Daniel Wang is the best one to speak of, he was really influential for us and sort of just a fellow traveler on the path to poverty because you know we weren't really doing stuff that was popular. When we started, it was all this filtered house; really hard, kind of French House and filtered disco stuff. I think the biggest disconnect is where people incorporate your music into their own taste and it's completely different from yours. Sort of like dance rock, that's the angle that some people come to Metro Area from, whereas our influences are completely different. They're a lot softer or whatever. Sometimes we'll go and DJ a place where they think we're gonna play all of our own records and DFA or whatever and we don't and we start playing really soft gay disco and it confuses them … and sometimes there's hostility. It's part of doing whatever we want to do. Kelley Polar is dealing with this all the time.”
“Try growing up as a classical violist,” interjects Polar. “A fucking disco DJ would be starting quarterback material.”
“We're in the post-“disco sucks” world,” says Jesrani. “People still want dance music to be rock. That's been our experience pretty much. For the first few years of DJ gigs after Metro Area, people wanted this aggressive electro sound – like dance music for people who want to rock, not disco.”
“The whole “disco sucks” thing wasn't even about disco music,” adds Geist. “It was racism and homophobia. We played up in Toronto, and this girl was like ‘you play fag music,’ and this was a girl hanging around with one of the promoters that brought us up there. People like the idea of disco or having disco in their band name, but it is like Darshan said, it’s still the “disco sucks” era in a lot of fundamental ways.”
“I think that the beginnings of (disco) came from a community in New York and New Jersey that was a really marginalized community, and it's amazing,” Polar says. “The music was really moving and has such immediate sincere joy in it, and I'm talking before it got hyper commercialized, But I think that's really, as somebody trying to make expressive music, an amazing thing to remember. And I think that one of the things I really appreciate at Environ is that the label allows the people on it to make the expressive music, that kind of idiosyncratic expressive music that they want to make, without worrying about things like what the kind of mainstream reception to it would be.”
Perhaps it’s this lack of worry that makes Geist unaware of how Environ fits into what’s currently happening in the music world. He doesn’t pay attention to the nu-disco triumphed by the Italians Do It Better label or really think about Metro Area’s place as a relative elder statesman.
“I don't know where (Environ) fits in,” he says. “It's always felt like sort of an outsider thing. Since I run the label and it's basically a one-man-show with a little bit of help, I'm doing most of the A&R. It's kinda ended up just being friends of mine, so I really do think I'd be getting the order wrong if I said I was friends with people first and then liked their music second, because it really does seem coincidental.
“Darshan and I were friends, but then what we did together with Metro Area was a fruitful collaboration and we accomplished what we wanted to with it. And Kelley Polar, we sort of vaguely knew each other in college. We both went to Oberlin, I was in the college and he was in the conservatory, but I remember even back then he played me some electronic music and I really liked it. And then Daniel Wang … I sort of became friends with him and started buying his records at the same time. It's always felt like a coincidence, like I just happened to really like music that I put out on the label and then luckily I really like the people behind it as well. That's sort of what drives it.
“I don't think of any of the artists on the label as overly concerned with how they fit in with the rest of the music scene, which both works for and against us. It works for us because we're not trying to hunt down a certain populace or appeal to a certain audience, and it works against us because we're doing stuff that's not particularly trendy. At the core of it is just being overly uptight about putting something out that's not our absolute best.”
“I'd love to do some music that's at the top of the charts for six weeks,” says Polar. “But everybody's just making the music they want to make and you hope it resonates with people.”
“It's a dream to have people aligned with what you've been doing all along, at least for a little while,” adds Jesrani.
“The key thing with everyone that I am lucky enough to work with is that it's a ‘let them come to us’ thing,” says Geist. “And I think that works as a detriment sometimes, because yeah, it would be cool to get the Justice remix or Timo Maas remix of the new Kelley polar album, 'cause that would probably sell a lot more, but we still end up getting the Caribou remix. Selling out to us is not success. It's when you start making your music to sell records instead of making it satisfy a thirst for making good art. It's nice to get a combo; for example, we got remixes from Ewan Pearson and Al Usher because they like Kelley's music. It's nice because we can have our cake and eat it, too.”
“In college I had a group for a while that I could do because it was a music school with lots of awesome string and brass players that did symphonic disco music,” says Polar. “And now through Morgan and Darshan, I have a better understanding, especially of the obscure stuff, I would love to have a gazillion dollars to have a 60-piece string section and 30-piece brass section and a harp and then a full disco rhythm section and do a tour. It would be awesome to have a full-on symphonic disco orchestra.”
“Kelley's disco orchestra parties were legendary where they were done. I've seen photos, too. They look insane,” adds Geist.
“It was a huge pain in the ass because you'd have to beg borrow and steal mics and amps for every stand of string, you'd have to comb the entire area for enough mics and things and then all the string players would get stoned and wander off and you'd have to pack everything up yourself. It was miserable but it sounded awesome,” says Polar.
Records from the Environ label have found their way into DJ sets by the likes of the DFA’s James Murphy, helping them reach kids coming to disco music from a rock band perspective – something that Geist remains ambivalent about.
“It can be weird,” says Geist. “We all have slightly non-rock backgrounds, Kelly especially, but I'd say all of us.”
“I hate guitars,” adds Polar.
“Maybe this is why we get along,” continues Geist. “I love how you will come out and say you hate guitars. I remember when 808 State played here in the ’80s for the first time for CMJ or something, I remember someone interviewed them and they said that guitars should just get holes drilled in them and smashed, and I remember thinking that was pretty cool, too. We also all grew up in rock environments where we felt a tiny bit alienated”
“Tiny Bit?” says Polar.
“It's like being grown up and being told you only listen to fag music,” says Geist. “And your music is made by someone pushing a button and they have no talent. Hearing that all your life and seeing these rock bands suddenly co-opting DJ culture, yeah it's kinda fucking annoying.”
“I don't really care if rock kids adopt DJ culture,” says Jesrani. “I don't really care. I want more people to buy our records. I don't give a shit about being accepted in the rock world.”
“There's definitely that taste of ‘Well, I'll take their money,’” says Geist. “Not necessarily, but you grow up defensively when you listen to electronic music your whole life and you're in this sort of rock environment. Now that (electroclash) is gone, I miss it dearly. At least we were selling records then. It's like Catcher in the Rye when he says ‘Even when you leave a place that you don't like, you still have some sadness.’ I think we all hated it, but at the same time, it got us some nice attention. If there was more newer music that moved us, then there'd be a higher percentage of current stuff being filtered through and making its way onto our records. Maybe we don't feel particularly motivated; we're not trying to…”
“We're not trying to revive the (disco) form as a whole,” says Jesrani, finishing Geist’s thought. “It's more like trying to get back to qualities that we thought aren't there anymore. We’re trying to revive certain things that we like about old records that we don't hear. We say all the time that we feel a lot of modern dance stuff doesn't have good songs or strong song writing or it doesn't really move that much or it's lacking in dynamics or have interesting sounds and it's a slave to its kick drum. A lot of the antidote to those things can be found in older records, so we dig for those.”
By Dustin Drase