Before Dan Deacon was scoring Coppola movies, before Wye Oak was an NPR favorite, before Beach House made Spin and Rolling Stone Best Of lists, Mike Nestor and a loose association of talented local indie rockers laid the foundation. Through lo-fi home-recordings, upstart community-focused labels, unconventional venues and a thoroughly DIY ethos, much of Baltimore's recent Pitchfork-approved success is owed to them. Nestor, now married and in his early-30s, continues to put out albums, play shows and support local music through his own label, The Beechfields. I talked to Nestor via email.
SPLICE TODAY: You recently moved to California, right? How have things been going? Are you still involved with the Beechfields Label now that you're 3000 miles away?
MIKE NESTOR: Whoops! I know my Facebook page says Petaluma, CA, but I haven’t left Baltimore yet and when I do, I am actually going to Philly, not Cali (that fell though) so not too far away. I still plan on coming back for shows and keeping my foot in Baltimore, but it is time for the label to expand and I see the Philadelphia and NYC music scenes as much more attached to what is going on in Baltimore then what is happening in DC. DC is such a black hole; it used to be great, but the music venues down there are kind of killing it.
ST: So much for my keen investigative skills. So it wasn’t The Seldon Plan’s last MD show then?
MN: Yes, it was. The Seldon Plan may continue in some capacity, but it will not be called The Seldon Plan, it will have another name and a different direction. The Seldon Plan as Baltimore has known it for the past seven years is finished. I see it kind of like the J. Robbins situation (not that I'm trying to compare myself to that God of modern music). He rolled Jawbox into a number of sonically similar projects where his style was the centerpiece, like Office of Future Plans—they kind of sound like Jawbox (cause it is JR), but it’s its own thing.
ST: Why do you say that about DC venues? I've always thought DC had better venues than Baltimore, though I can't say there's much of a local scene anymore. After The Dismemberment Plan and Ian MacKaye and the 1990s post-punk stuff, I'm not sure I can think of more than two or three D.C. bands from the last five years or so.
MN: Well, DC used to be interesting and cool. It was a really happening place and actually The Seldon Plan had much better initial success in D.C. than in Baltimore. I used to love to go down there and play. There was an exotic nature about it for a Baltimore band, like you were driving 45 minutes into another world, one associated with all these mystical things like Ian MacKaye and Jawbox and such. There were some cool music festivals/publications, and the obvious hangover from The Dismemberment Plan, what I like to call the "last wave" of Discord bands like Faraquet and bands like that.
DC is so transient that it really relies on the openness and experimental nature of both bands and clubs. I think the clubs are doing DC in now—and of course I am not talking about the bigger clubs, on this you are right, DC still has better bigger venues than Baltimore. But I think people like Steve Lambert have systematically chopped up the city into "purchasable units" and have over monetized the whole thing, similar to what someone like Paul Manna has done with the Recher [Theatre] here in Baltimore, or what that guy who used to make you pre-sell all your tickets at The Brass Monkey used to do.
Even Rams Head: that whole Power Plant Live thing is disgusting to me. I’m sorry if this offends people, but who cares if your crappy bar looks like the inside of a Starbucks mixed with the set from 1980's Saturday Night Live. Does that make people who are passionate about the city and our music go there? No. What it does is drives away good music and replaces it with "entertainers" or bozos who can mobilize their Facebook friends list to plow into a place and down $8 Rolling Rocks all night—for God’s sake, no one really has 1300 friends, right? I don't think I've had real conversations with 1300 people in my adult life!
It makes me angry, actually, because it's all about balance; I used to tell people "Aristotle's Golden Mean." We all know these guys need to make money, no one thinks they should be denied that, but that blatant commercialism should be ethically and creatively balanced: allow acts in the door who are creatively talented, expose them to a wider set of venues. What these guys don't realize is that if you did that, then the whole community (those who are there to drink and don't care, and those who really are passionate about music) would reward you: one with volume of customers, the other with repeat customers. After dealing with Steve Lambert and the Rock and Roll Hotel crap, I have sworn off DC.
This is why Baltimore is just inherently better now. The Rechers and Brass Monkeys and Rams Heads of this city forced us all into art spaces, basements, warehouses. So I guess as pissed off as those people make me, we all owe our evolution to their greed. I want DC to come back like that because I've always felt that the two cites could build on each other musically.
ST: Tell us about Pupa's Window and some of your pre-Seldon Plan music. Was Pupa's Window strictly a solo project?
MN: When I was in high school, I was a huge admirer of Simple Machines. I met Jenny Toomey once in 1993 and she was really nice and encouraging, even though I really didn’t think I had any musical talent (and truthfully then I didn't). So, I started making my own handmade cassettes when I was in high school, copied off their handmade stuff with my own twist. I used to record everything in my basement with a $20 Radio Shack omni-directional microphone and a used beat up four-track Tascam cassette tape recorder.
I would write songs and try to emulate bands like The Spinannes (who were my biggest inspiration for my own music and for the label—I just loved the home-made feel of their records and songs), Peach, Sunny Day Real Estate, Placebo, and The Smashing Pumpkins. I would create all the art on a copier machine at Kinko's and paint the cassettes, stamp them and add glitter.
I got some of these ideas from a show I saw in 1994 at a ballroom in DC. It was Tuscadero, Archers of Loaf (big fans of both then) opening for Weezer. Anyway I was hanging out with the guys from Archers of Loaf (boy were they regular nice guys) and they invited me to hang back stage (huge honor for a 17-year-old). I asked them how they got noticed and signed and the bass player told me a long story about how they used to glue painted macaroni to their cassettes and CDs and put stickers on the mailing envelopes to stand out from all the other bands sending stuff in. I took this to heart since I was sort of doing that anyway—so I started to add glitter to my painted cassettes.
This was before the Internet exploded and printing in color cost like $50 a page, so me and a couple of friends would all cram into a car and drive to Kinko's on a Friday night and sit there with coffee and make these cassettes to hand out. We really felt like we were making something special, really personal works of art that were better than the mass produced stuff at the time. We were really indignant and snobby about that point. We were young and artsy—the only artsy ones in our grade in high school. I thought to myself, nobody cares about my stuff except for these two kids, so me making music gives us something to do; its an excuse to get out of the house and have a little social life on the weekends.
Because I lived in a small town, there were only four or five other kids who knew about these bands—the ones I listed earlier—and so when I started making tapes as "Pupa's Window," they were traded pretty quickly around my high school. To my surprise, they were really liked (mainly because these kids didn't know the influences, so this was new to them, and this was before "emo" and "indie" and all that stuff).
I was forced to learn all the recording techniques to stretch four tracks into eight and so on. I also listened to a ton of jazz and new age music—I used to listen to a show called "Hearts of Space" on our local NPR station—and I started putting spacey, ambient stuff and samples between the songs. It was a big hit.
Kids from other towns in my county started asking for tapes and when I played shows with a band I had at the time (not Pupa's Window), people would come out and ask for my stuff—this really pissed off my bandmates; they weren't really serious about music anyway, typical high school rock band in it for the chicks. This all really shaped my approach to records, this personal art, not mass-produced but not crap passed off as "lo-fi" just to understate its crappiness.
I remember thinking to myself: I'm not very good at writing songs and I'm going to stop, then I found out that the local record store, Sound Odyssey, kept selling out of my tapes every week. The owners, who never did local music stuff before, were probably my age now when they owned it and they let me put my music on a little display there, and kept encouraging me to make more. That was really important to a 16-year-old. They impressed upon me that it's okay to make quality art that's not mass produced, but also don't understate yourself—you still should get some compensation (if you want it) for what you do; it doesn’t validate it, but it does help you keep doing it.
Later on I was encouraged even more when Pupa's Window charted briefly in CMJ in 1997-1998. Pupa's Window was strictly solo until 2003 when Austin and I released Pupa's Window vs. Private Eleanor on a split 7". After that all the records were me doing everything, then asking Austin to play drums. Because a lot of the early records involved electronic drum machines, I never really needed a drummer.
I was a Smashing Pumpkins freak and in my freshman dorm at UMBC, I met the only other kid, Chris Shelley, who listened to the bootlegged crazy stuff I had of them. In my Chinese Philosophy class at UMBC, I met Greg Rago (Yeveto).
Initially, both were fans of my Pupa's Window records, which I started recording on my four-track in my dorm room and in the dorm commons in between classes with help from my longtime college roommate Matt Dahl (Snowmen and Motio). He introduced me to all kinds of cool people I ended up working with, like Gary B. (Gary B and the Notions), Chris Freeland (Oxes)—who was in a band at UMBC called International Soundscape Internationale, which had the guy from Microkingdom in it; he even did some vocals on a Pupa's Window record—and tons of others. I could list half the people in Baltimore! I met a bunch of cool people at the UMBC radio station as well. But Greg and Chris both kept suggesting that we play music together, and finally, reluctant to do the "band thing," I agreed and Lowell was formed.
That band was intense. Everything about it was intense. We were all about 21 and we had all that pent-up, late college ambition + sexual frustration + immaturity + idealism = non-stop train, closer and closer to the edge. It was the only band I've ever been in where there was a fistfight, and that's how it was—that tension and release and all that emotion was part of the creative rush. It was really dizzying when it was good, but when it was bad, it was really bad. The live show was intense: melodramatic and super intellectual and at the time, people loved it. It was the first band I was in that I was actually proud of. We got ourselves on WHFS and WRYR, which back then was a big deal and people actually respected us for our music. We toured, played tons of shows and made records. We were working towards something.
ST: So what happened to Lowell?
MN: Why did we break up? When you're that young, intense, intellectual and sexually frustrated, you tend to make amazing music, but you're horrible people. We were struggling as most early twentysomethings do with both immense self-confidence and pride but also complete doubt and low self-esteem—myself especially. I was the epitome of the Who song "Behind Blue Eyes." I had such a us vs. them mentality—the whole band did. So, I was not really equipped emotionally as the bandleader to handle this stuff. Everything started to deteriorate and going into the studio to make the record turned up the heat even more, and we all cracked.
To this day I regret the way things went down. There was infighting between other members of the band, then I got into it and then—well, the whole thing was ugly and painful. That's why when people say that my current band, The Seldon Plan, is too poppy or when old friends ask me why I stopped playing heavier psychedelic-type stuff, I just ignore it; because I could never go back to that type of music after an experience like that. In a way, it broke my musical heart forever. The irony is that two weeks after we broke up a DC record label called DCide wanted to sign the band and release the record. I even went to a meeting with the label head alone. The drive home from that was one of the most depressing experiences of my life.
After that, I vowed never to be a bandmate like that again, and if I had a band—and it took me two years really to recover from that—I would be more cognizant of relationships and their maintenance within the context of making music. I think that's why Austin and I got so close when we did meet. He was a fan of Lowell, I remember him telling me a story about hearing us on WHFS and that it was like meeting a rock star—I think he would laugh about that now, we've all had that experience before. But we both took music so seriously and had been hurt by it before, and we both had this whole world of lo-fi and bedroom recording, and, at the time, this distrust of the rock scene and people in rock bands.
ST: The Beechfields Label was founded in 2003, right? Was Austin involved from the start? Did you set out to found a record label or was it more a way for you to release your own work?
MN: Yes, 2003, but the idea was around in my head since about 2000. Lowell was the band that really inspired the need for a label—other local bands I had in mind when I started the label were Ida (they moved to NY), Grenadine, The Exploder, Third Harmonic Distortion, and Rainer Maria. Actually, the idea for the label was formed in my mind in 2000 when I saw The Exploder open for Rainer Maria at the UMBC "She Plays Bass" Cafe in the basement of the Patapsco dorm. It was the best show I've ever seen—I mean, right in front of The Exploder, it took my breath away, and I thought, "I want to do that. I want to make nights like these happen on records." And I realized that Baltimore didn't have a place for this sort of music; the world of music was retracting into Napster. I knew I was at the wrong place and the wrong time to look to others to do it, so I started The Beechfields.
Of course, The Beechfields looks common now in Baltimore with all these labels springing up around us, using our type of model, but you have to remember that back in 2000, this was kind of a radical idea: an artist-centered community approach, no one wanted to do that. This was before iTunes got big, even before the label side of the music industry imploded.
Now, I'm sure my label seems commonplace, and even less "successful" than some of the other local labels—Friends Records, Environmental Aesthetics, even Loveasaurus. But in Baltimore, in those days, there weren't the support mechanisms available—no real art spaces, no Station North Arts District, no Copycat building, etc. These kids now have it easy, the whole network is set up for them, all they have to do is enjoy it. We had to build that network, and though I don't think of myself or my label as that important in the grand scheme of things, I look back and I'm proud, knowing that many of the things people love about our local scene, and many of the bands they like, are there because of the hard work of myself, my friends, and other like-minded people. I hope people see our contributions, even if we don't get mentioned a lot. For example, the first label Monrach (Wye Oak) talked to here in town when they were really early starting out, and working on their first record, was The Beechfields—damn, could you imagine what would have happened if that worked out?
Also no, Austin was not really involved in the beginning. In fact, he had his own label called OTPRecords, which released the first Seldon Plan full-length. But then Austin (Private Eleanor) was really the first artist I "signed" other than myself and another band of friends from UM School of Medicine. In the beginning, no one really cared or wanted to be involved, so it took Austin and me releasing quality records and talking about it and pouring passion into the label—he joined me as a partner after closing up shop on OTP in 2004—to convince people. Then, when we got some exposure with our own bands, bands started pouring in.
ST: What was Simple Machines doing that you admired so much?
MN: It wasn’t just the music. I wore out my copy of Nopalitos by Grenadine (still one of the most overlooked and underrated bands of that era); I mean, Tsunami, Ida, the list goes on. These bands were really creating something special musically, and more than that, there was an overarching "tone" and "sound" to the label. All the bands seemed to fit together sonically as if they were all one musical movement, with distinct identities. They sounded like DC to me. I could hear the city in their music. For example, Grenadine feels like Arlington to me, Ida feels like NW DC, Massachusetts Ave. by American University. All of that takes love, patience, and vision, and Jenny Toomey has that.
The handcrafted records really mesmerized me. In some ways, they’re very different from some of the art projects people pass off today as "handcrafted" CDs. Why? Because they were mostly vinyl and cassettes. For me, there's something that doesn't match up when a band hands me something very modern, industrial, and digital—a CD—encapsulated by something analog, and folksy and ancient (the handcrafted artwork). Those things just seem to be a contradiction to me. If you're going to give me analog, give me analog all the way through; do it on cassette or vinyl and handcraft it. Simple Machines did that—and it just triggered some deep dopamine release in my 17-year-old brain. That’s what I admire about what Austin just did on his solo release, recording it on a four-track and releasing it on cassette. I felt like it was a secret encoded message to me saying, "Hey, we all need to go back to that!"
ST: Beechfields is now roughly as old as Simple Machines was when it folded. Has the business side of things worn you down at all over the years?
MN: Sometimes. I'd be lying if I didn't get really upset about the business side of things once in a while. My label knows that; I complain to them in back-room conversations and over emails, but even if they don't agree, we talk about it and that's why we work so well. I just want to help people put out great records and craft adventures and stories without all the pesky business stuff getting in the way.
My label has gone through what most grassroots movements go through: sort of a version of "the revolution will eat itself." It is especially difficult given our philosophy, which is less connected to any smart and functional economic model and more connected to the ideals of artist communes of the late 60s. Things start out idealistic and small and easily manageable and then as your movement grows, the demands increase and you run into two major problems: money, and misinterpretation/warping of your philosophy. Money does not bother me so much, because I knew getting into this that it would be difficult to put out records this way. I'm not under any illusions that we'll all become rich and famous.
But it's the warping of the philosophy, brought on by the business side of things, that really makes me lose a lot of sleep. We have a constant identity crisis—which I think makes us what we are and special, but other people have trouble with it. Are we a collective, or does Mike Nestor run it like a traditional label? Is he "the boss," or do we all make decisions? And in the creative process we all vacillate between that. Sometimes I am the boss, someone has to take charge and give the vehicle direction, but sometimes I'm in the background, just being a fan or suggesting things to help.
That's one aspect of it. The other is more complicated. Some people in Baltimore are now surrounding themselves with this whole "community" approach as a way to soften their image and make their underlying desire to make money more palatable. I have a really hard time with that, and I see it more and more on the business side of things. We just don't do that, and never have. When we say community, we mean it. My job is more like a facilitator than anything else. I bring people together to try to make creative things happen, to spark relationships, so that those things happen between people. The label is the vehicle for that. It's the collective identity for people who believe in this kind of approach. It's not for everybody, and we announce our mission statement clearly on our website, but I still get a lot of people who think that the label is a launching pad for their own devices.
I want everyone to succeed, and to be honest it puts a really high demand on the artists; they sometimes struggle with it too, which makes my job that much more difficult. They have to balance their own competitive self-interest with the growth of the group as a whole, and making sure this happens is what saps me the most. We're all human and some people do a better job of this than others, but all of them have the desire to be a part of this, and to support each other. That's the starting point. The rest is a learning and growing process for all of us, and it can get hairy at times, but I think that it's a lot like a family, and we're all figuring it out as we go along.
ST: From what you've told me and from what I've read in the '04 City Paper interview, it sounds like you and Austin shared a truly lo-fi aesthetic in your early recordings: was that the kind of music The Beechfields originally wanted to put out? DIY home-recordings, etc.?
MN: Well, that's where our heart was and that's what we knew, so that's where we started. We wanted to create a vehicle to release bedroom recordings and lo-fi stuff done at a higher quality. We were both basement/bedroom four-track tape artists—Private Eleanor and PW—so we asked ourselves why we couldn't have what more legit labels have for artists who record in big studios and tour. So yes, and that will always be our core identity. Some people don't like it, and they hold it against us—trust me, I've read some Baltimore music message boards—but then again, some people don't like puppies and ice cream, so whatever. In the beginning, Austin and I were each other’s audience, because no once else cared. We pushed and pulled each other and when that wasn't enough we started to push and pull others too. Why be ashamed of your basement record? Because some rocker guy at the club you went to last night intimidated you into not believing in yourself, or some "critic" on a message board didn't like that your songs were "just pop songs"? Screw that.
That's kind of where we started with the lo-fi thing. I think that was all we wanted to do really, but it started to grow organically, and Austin and I just decided to let it. We used to go to shows together and stand in the audience and watch bands, and turn to each other and say, "This is a Beechfields band." You just knew. It's hard to put into words. But most of these bands have a very DIY/home-recording aesthetic and more desire to do something real and good than the average band. So that's really never going to change.
ST: For someone like myself who doesn't know all that much about it, can you take us through the album release process, what part the label plays: let's say, for example, with this upcoming Among Wolves album, where does The Beechfields come in?
MN: The label really acts like your nagging mother. We remind you that although you think you're an artist, you still have to get up in the morning, brush your teeth and clean your room. What I mean by that is that we don't operate like a traditional label. Artists have a ton of say, and we help them shape and funnel that so they can maximize creative output.
So let's take Among Wolves, for example. They've been working on this record for a long time. Now that it's soon to be released they have all these ideas, and they want to go in every direction possible. So I called them up and we scheduled a meeting. In this meeting: 1) I will be helping them decide upon an appropriate release date, to give the press enough time to listen to the record and review it pre-release and after it's out; 2) We'll be coming up with a release strategy—Where do we want to announce it? What is the timeline? Will there be a CD release and when and where? Videos before the release? What radio stations will actually play the song, when should they know? etc; 3) I'll be dividing up all the administrative tasks that go into a release between the band and the label; 4) We'll talk about how much and where the label will spend its money/resources on the record; 5) I'll talk to them about tours, record art... You get the idea. Like I said we facilitate and organize and create a cohesive strategy, as well as contribute some small financial resources. They do their part and I do mine and if it works, it should go like a graceful dance; one with me stuffing CD mailers at two a.m. (while my family wonders why I'm not sleeping). This is where the real work of the label is done, in the planning and contacts, and in the vision.
ST: I talked to Jake Brown (the founder of Glorious Noise) back in July, and he said the following: "I think that we'll see more established artists ditching labels entirely, but I think people generally undervalue the role of labels as a filter. MySpace, Tunecore, et al, is great for democratization, but the fact of the matter is that most of that stuff is absolute shit, and most of the stuff that isn't shit is completely mediocre. The amount of self-released stuff is overwhelming. We need a filter. Not just fans, but people who review music need a filter, too. Labels provide at least one level of a filter. But I think the major labels' percentage of total music sales is going to continue to get smaller and smaller. Independent labels will continue to cultivate trust, so people can feel confident that if something is coming out on Merge, for example, it’ll probably at least be worthy of streaming once to see if you like it." How much do you agree with that? Do you think we'll still have labels, even local labels like The Beechfields, in 10 or 20 years? What role do they play now with iTunes and Bandcamp, etc.?
MN: I agree with Jake 100 percent. This almost sounds like something I've said to people verbatim. It's a really important question for us as a label right now. We've had some recent defections because of this very idea, and that upset me a lot, because in the midst of some heated conversations with my artists, with me making the point that Jake did, there are people out there who, in my opinion, have been propagandized by the DIY scene into thinking no label is better than any other label. There are people in this town telling bands that if you join a label, bigger labels will overlook you—that's total bunk, and I can't believe there are some pretty established people filling that bunk into the heads of young bands. In fact, most of the bigger label people I have talked to say the opposite. Showing that you can release a few records on a small label and then tour, makes it look like you are a responsible adult and can handle deadlines and work. I say that shunning the opportunity to put your work in the context of others is just wrong. By shunning a label when you have the opportunity to use one, you're allowing other people to tell you to marginalize your own stuff, to throw it in the Bandcamp stew and let it to become anonymous.
That's why The Beechfields has been working so hard for these past seven years: we want to build relationships and trust and that filter Jake so eloquently described; so you know that a Beechfields record is worth a listen because it's a Beechfields. You're not going to agree with or love every record, but who does and who would? But you trust us to work hard, to give you stuff that you won't waste time on, even if you don't like it.
I think the people who do the no label thing, or Bandcamp, or the iTunes-only thing are well meaning, but misguided about what's happening to our culture now. And sometimes I have to get in people's faces to remind them that iTunes and Bandcamp is made to work for us, to supplement what we do. When you shed a label and go Bandcamp- or iTunes-only, you now work for them, because your purpose at that point is to drive traffic to their site under the auspices that someone might listen to your music for 30 seconds. I think it's a hollow way to go about things; anyone can have a Bandcamp page. Big deal.
Labels like ours will always exist in some form because it's human nature to have the us/them paradigm. There's always going to be some group of people who aren't included and feel they should be, or who want to be part of something bigger then themselves to find meaning, or who love to relish in the success of others as well as themselves, or who have their own unique vision of the world and want to band together and share that with others. That energy has always and always will be with us. The secret, the trick, is how to take that powerful force you feel when you're on the outside looking in, and then channel that into making something special, constructive and beautiful instead of cynical and destructive. We were never part of "the industry" in the first place, so all that can come and go as far as we're concerned. We'll still be here creating our own adventures.