At the end of 2018 Norwegian indie label Smalltown Supersound celebrated 25 years of releasing quirky, experimental and wholly wonderful leftfield music. From the beginning of the label founder Joakim Haugland (pictured above) wasn’t interested in signing music with obvious commercial appeal. Weened on ’80s indie-rock and attracted to its DIY below-the-radar mindset, he knew to trust his ears and gut. He prioritized the creation of a platform intended to nurture artists as opposed to developing a hit-machine bent on chasing ephemeral (but potentially far more financially lucrative) chart success.
Haugland came of age in an era when labels of a certain ilk prided themselves on establishing a sense of trust with the audience at large. Having grown up in the era I can attest that I often bought records on labels like SST, Dischord, Twin Tone, Homestead, etc. on the advice of a fanzine without hearing more than a song or two. (For early ’90s house, I’d scoop up anything on Nu Groove, Strictly Rhythm and R&S without cracking open the plastic wrap.)
Smallltown Superound’s laser-focused musical ethos has never stopped evolving. The label’s essence is captured on The Movement Of The Free Spirit, a sprawling and utterly delightful 80-track mix by Prins Thomas, which marks 25 eventful years in the game.
Over the course of nearly four compelling hours of music, Thomas presents an array of glorious music by Sonic Youth, Todd Rundgren, The Orb, Lindstrøm, Ricardo Villalobos, Neneh Cherry, Jaga Jazzist, Four Tet, Biosphere and Peter Brötzmann.
In December we connected with Haugland via email and asked him to trace Smalltown Supersound’s humble beginnings to the present day for the fourth installment of our Why I Did It series, where we candidly talk to label founders.
When asked about the decision to mark Smalltown Supersound’s 25th anniversary,Haugland mused, “I skipped the 15th and 20th celebration, so I felt I couldn’t skip 25.”
Read on to learn more about how the label got off the ground, and where Haugland is planning to take it in the future.
Happy 25th anniversary, Joakim. Did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that your label would attain silver status? Is the milestone at all surreal or … meh?
Joakim Haugland: Thank you! The label has always been an integral part of my life and it has just been something I have always done since I was in high school, and all of the sudden it’s 25 years… It’s a bit surreal, yes.
It’s not always so pleasant with birthdays, is it? And I skipped the 15th and 20th celebration, so I felt I couldn’t skip 25. And I put pressure on myself because I knew that I would meet myself in the door when the label was 25, so I guess I worked extra hard the last couple years so that I wouldn’t punish myself too much when 2018 came.
I really enjoyed the liner notes for The Movement Of The Free Spirit. You write about your love for SST Records. SST was the first label I ever loved. I remember asking my parents to mail a check to P.O. Box 1, Lawndale CA, so I could get an SST and Hüsker Dü T-shirts. I remember the rush of excitement when the package finally arrived in the mail — with two bumper stickers. How did you discover SST? Why do you think the label make such an impression on you?
I love hearing your story, as I think many people have similar stories about labels, artists and records. These things can change lives. It certainly changed my life.
I discovered SST in my teens through Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Hüsker Dü. I guess it was one of the first labels I knew and through it I got very fascinated with labels and label culture. When you are in your teens you start to get into politics, music, style and art. And like many before me I guess I “found” myself and my identity in the labels and in the culture surrounding the labels. I hope that the young people today also will get inspired the same ways we did. With the politic climate we have today I think it’s more important than ever.
Beto O’Rourke was inspired by Dischord Records and their politics and philosophy. Maybe we one day will have a president in USA that is inspired by Dischord and Ian MacKaye. I would love that!
“I think my big advantage is that I don’t play instruments. I don’t know anything about the technical stuff and the playing. For me, music is just feelings. And running a record label based on feelings is the best way in my opinion.”
You grew up in a small town in Norway. How did you come to launch a record label?
I grew up in a small town called Flekkefjord in the south of Norway with 4,000 inhabitants. In the early 90s it was not easy to find out about records, labels, films, art, literature as we didn’t have the Internet and neither did we have the record stores, venue, etc. that the major cities had. Luckily for me there were four brothers, the Meland brothers, that had lived in U.S. and they brought home a lot of music and culture, especially the oldest one who had lived in New York and through him we heard about Swans, Sonic Youth, Residents, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc. The brothers are still dear friends of mine and I often think about how my life had turned out without their inspiration.
So with these guys and our friends we ran a rock-club and a festival and as part of this community I started to work with the bands there and my brother’s music, booking them gigs, sending tapes to record companies and eventually I started to release music myself. I never had any interest in playing instruments, I wanted to do “all the other things.” I think my big advantage is that I don’t play instruments. I don’t know anything about the technical stuff and the playing. For me, music is just feelings. And running a record label based on feelings is the best way in my opinion.
It’s been said that every entrepreneur needs a mentor. Where did you seek inspiration in the early years of getting a label off the ground?
The first 7-10 years was just me fooling around releasing some tapes and 7”s, so it was kind of me learning by doing. When I came to Oslo I started working for a record company and indie distributor called Voices of Wonder. They distributed everything: Warp, Trojan, Rough Trade, Ninja Tune, Basic Channel and hundreds of more. So the guy who owned this company, Ketil Sveen, he was my mentor. He helped me so that I didn’t make any rookie mistakes. I think that is the reason the label is still around.
What were the early days of running Smalltown Supersound like? Did you ever create a business plan, or was it a more informal start?
No, not at all. It was never the intention to keep running the label, it was just one out of many projects I had when I was in high-school; running a festival, running a small venue, running a film club, a management, a booking company and a label. I just happened to like the label part best and I stuck with that. There has never been a strategy or plan. It’s just been to follow my gut feel[ing].
The label’s sound is often described as diverse (cosmic disco, electronic, rock, electronic, etc.). That’s a good thing, if you ask me. How have you navigated the A&R process? Are there styles of music that you enjoy but wouldn’t sign because it’s off-brand?
When I see the label from a distance, like I do now with this Prins Thomas mix, I can see the red thread. I feel Prins Thomas has found the label’s spiritual unity with this mix. I only sign things if I feel that there is a red thread. But this can be quite wide. There is quite a distance between say Deathprod and Neneh Cherry. But I can see and feel the red thread.
Have you ever signed a record that you didn’t like because you knew that it would have commercial success?
No, I have been pretty good at sticking to my own taste in music actually. I can’t create any energy if I don’t like the music. I understood that very early. So I understood that it was no point of trying to fool myself. I sometimes want to, but my gut always beats the head.
Is there a specific moment when you knew the label had made a connection with the world — be it artistic or commercial — and that it would have staying power?
There are a few records that I felt took the label further: First Kim Hiorthøy’s Hei, then Jaga Jazzist’s A Livingroom Hush and then maybe the most important one; Lindstrøm’s Where You Go I Go Too. Last year’s Kelly Lee Owens album is also on this list, I guess.
Lindstrøm’s Where You Go I Go Too is one of my favorite albums on Smalltown Supersound. How did you come to work with Hans-Peter? How do you look back on this album?
I actually worked on the Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas album here in Norway (through the Norwegian distributor). During this work I met with Hans-Peter and we started talking, and I guess we never stopped talking. I love working with him. He is a very inspiring person.
How did you come to sign Neneh Cherry? What has the experience been like for both parties?
I had a free-jazz band on the label called The Thing; they started out as a Don Cherry (Neneh’s stepfather) cover band. They ended up doing an album of covers with Neneh. I didn’t feel the idea in the beginning so I didn’t even listen to the tracks that was sent. In the end I thought, I will listen shortly so that I can tell them I won’t release this album. I pressed play and bang! What the hell is the problem with me?? Why have I been ignorant about this music. It’s fantastic! Neneh’s voice were sensational. Feeling like a complete idiot, I immediately called to say, sorry and I wanna release this album! And luckily for me it wasn’t too late.
Since then we have worked together, and we have done two Four Tet produced albums after this. Neneh and Cameron (her husband/producer) have become good friends of mine; they are really inspiring people. It’s almost like family.
Back to The Movement of the Free Spirit. It’s three discs, 80 tracks and amazing. When did you begin thinking about putting the compilation, and how did Prins Thomas come to mix it?
Actually, we talked about it for many years. And as it was a lot of work we kept talking. And postponing. In the end I guess we got painted into the 25th anniversary corner and there were no longer any escape. I wanted him to do it as I am a big fan of his Cosmic Galactic Prism and Paradise Goulash mixes. He mixes the unmixable, and I felt he was the only one who could mix the Smalltown catalogue. He is also the one with most knowledge of the label and who has followed it longest. There were no other alternatives. I am so happy with what he did.
So much has changed in the music industry over the past 25 years. Are you nostalgic for days gone by?
No, not at all. I like the changes. Most importantly the vinyl is back. As a label this makes me feel complete again
How do you define success now, and does it differ from at the start?
If you ask how I define success as a label I would say that if you enjoy what you are doing, it’s a success.
If you ask what a success is for an artist and a record. It’s kind of impossible these days. In the past we always talked about sales numbers. With the streaming et al there is not so much talk about sales numbers any longer. I like that, I never liked to measure success based on sales numbers. That is a capitalist tool and shouldn’t be (independent) music’s. So for me it’s a success when all involved feels good about what we have accomplished.
Is there an artist who got away, one who either you tried to sign or slept on?
No, I don’t have any that I feel I slept on. But being a small label in Norway we are never part of what I call the London A&R rat race where many are running after the same acts. We are not in London, and we are not powerful enough to be in that race. That means that we just need to sign the stuff that we like and that we have a chance of signing.
Are there any particular releases on the label that you’re proud of?
Yes, there are many:
- Wildest Dreams as I got to release my big hero DJ Harvey.
- Todd Rundgren as I am a massive fan of Todd’s music.
- The Sonic Youth and Mats Gustaffson collaboration album, Hidros 3, as Sonic Youth had an enormous impact on me as a teen.
- Dungen. They were one of my favorite bands and all of a sudden they were on my label. That was surreal.
- Biosphere. To get to release an album by Biosphere was a dream. His second album, Patashnik was one of the first electronic albums I heard and it meant a lot to me when I was a kid.
- Steve Reid. I am very proud to have been part of Steve Reid’s discography (with the album Steve Reid, Kieran Hebden, Mats Gustafsson Live at the South Bank).
- Deathprod. His debut album, Treetop Drive, was of big importance for me in my teens. That he is now part of the label feels like full circle.
I could keep on …. but these are some that came to mind.
What’s next for you and Smalltown Supersound?
More records. Always more records. But I am excited about new signing Bendik Giske whose debut album, Surrender, comes out in January. Then there is an album of unreleased music by Norwegian electronic music pioneer Erik Wøllo, music that was recorded from 1986-1992. Later in the year there will be new music by Lindstrøm, Bjørn Torske, Carmen Villain, Andre Bratten and Prins Thomas. This is what I know so far.
We will also make a book that is part of the 25th anniversary with artwork, art, ads, sketches, some texts et al. This one will be made by Kim Hiorthøy and me.
And I have a new label/imprint/series called AFJ-Series which will be dedicated to free-jazz. A continuation of the now defunct Superjazzz label.
And we have just moved offices in Oslo that is also a record store (in the weekends) so we’re excited to develop this further.
Thanks for your time, Joakim. Let’s talk again for the 30th anniversary. 😊
Thank you!! Great questions! I enjoyed this and thank you for kind words and support.