Basking in the Warmth of Mexican Summer
On October 11th and 12th, Greenpoint record label Mexican Summer celebrated its five-year anniversary with a weekend-long festival at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. We were lucky enough to be there to celebrate with them and sample seventeen (yes, count ’em, seventeen!) astounding acts from their roster. A review of the first day follows. And as a special bonus, before we set foot at the festival we asked co-founder/label manager Keith Abrahamsson to share the label’s history and some favorite things about being located in Greenpoint. Here’s what Keith had to say:
GP: What is the origin story of Mexican Summer? After founding Kemado Records first, what was the inspiration to create this imprint?
Keith: Mexican Summer was started simply because we wanted to release records in a looser, less structured way. We felt that having the freedom to release one-off singles or EPs would be a great way to develop bands and we didn’t have that luxury with Kemado.
GP: Looking back on five years of success in a very challenging business – congratulations and happy birthday! – what are you most proud of? What have you learned and loved most about doing this work?
Keith: Thanks so much! It’s pretty difficult to pick a singular moment that I’m most proud of. I don’t think ONE exists. I’m proud and very lucky to make a living doing this. It’s a dream to go to work everyday and work with artists I love. What have I learned? Work with artists you love as musicians AND people. Very important.
GP: How and when did Greenpoint come into the picture for Mexican Summer? What propelled your arrival? Which general slice of the neighborhood is the office located?
Keith: Kemado was located in Manhattan for six or seven years, and when our lease was up we knew it was time for a change. We were pretty much priced out of Manhattan and also knew we wanted to up the ante a bit with our studio. That required a bigger space. The building we found in Greenpoint had it all, plus we felt a little more in our element being in Brooklyn. We were in the company of many of our peers. The building is on Guernsey between Norman and Nassau. We love being there.
GP: For our readers who may have shopped at Co-Op 87, tell us about getting involved in that, and deciding to locate the store in Greenpoint as well. When did it open? Which other labels are part of the co-op?
Keith: Co-Op is on the ground floor of our building. The space was a garage when we moved in, and we always knew we wanted to do something down there. We originally had a soft opening for the shop about three or so years ago and mostly carried local labels, some clothes, books, etc. We had no real ambition to bring in used product – or experience, to be honest. The idea to create a more expansive Co-Op came out of conversations with Mike Sniper (Captured Tracks). Our warehouse, also in the building at the time, was handling shipping/receiving for Mexican Summer, Captured Tracks and Sacred Bones. So that was really the core group of labels behind the ‘Co-Op’ idea. We brought on Mike Catalano and Ben Steidel, both of whom had a ton of record store experience – running Academy records, among others – and you could say it became a real operation around then. Those guys are total pros and have definitely established Co-Op as a diggers’ destination in Greenpoint. It’s their shop, and we’re lucky to be partnered with them.
GP: We’re also curious about the decision to locate Gary’s Electric Studio here in Greenpoint, too. Was it always part of your plan to keep the multiple layers of your business close together or perhaps more of a happy accident that you found space for everything in the same area? Let us know about some of the bands who have made use of the studio!
Keith: That was part of the plan. We’ve always had a studio in our office, even when we were in Manhattan. It’s a good vibe for everyone. We all get to bond, and I think everyone feels closer to the record as a result. We’ve had a ton of bands – both on and off label – make records at Gary’s: Peaking Lights, Oneohtrix Point Never, Yeasayer, Crystal Stilts, Endless Boogie, No Joy, Wild Nothing, and a ton of others.
GP: With the addition of Dan Lopatin’s Software Recordings imprint into the Mexican Summer family, what other expansions or new directions might we be seeing in future years? Do any of your dreams involve more physical spaces or local events tied to Greenpoint?
Keith: We’re relaunching my old label Anthology Recordings next year, which will serve as Mexican Summer’s reissue arm. Lots of stuff being worked on for that label now. Software has some really incredible music to share in 2014. We also just launched our publishing company, Mexican Summer Music. There’s a couple of other things up our sleeve, but they’re not ready to be announced yet…
GP: Wild card: what are some of your favorite spots in Greenpoint?
Keith: We’re creatures of habit and usually frequent Calexico and Five Leaves. I also love Awakenings for juice, and Cookie Road has a good sandwich. I’m also a sucker for Baker’s Dozen and, of course, gotta shout out Peter Pan.
Thanks to Keith for sharing his reflections with us; we caught him in the crowd during Friday night of the festival with co-founder Andrés Santo Domingo, and they looked the picture of proud as they watched Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti‘s late-night encore. Congratulations, Mexican Summer!
Now onto Friday (10/11/13) night’s half of the festival.
Located at the spectacular, spacious Pioneer Works in Red Hook, this festival was not kidding around. Mexican Summer thought of everything: a separate bar and food kiosk outside in the massive yet cozy courtyard; a pop-up record shop; a complimentary phone charging station with cords provided for every type of device imaginable. We arrived around 8pm on the Friday night kick-off, just in time for Home Blitz, who impressed with a fun, mellow guitar-driven start to the night.
After a quick dash outside for a delicious burger with lettuce slaw from Prime Meats, Bobb Trimble’s Flying Spiders were next. Trimble was every bit the unsung hero that both Ariel Pink and Thurston Moore have praised. Dressed in a military jacket, stonewashed jeans, and a baseball hat, he was magnetic onstage. Singer Karina DaCosta shared the spotlight while juggling tambourine and shakers, and their floating duet on “One Mile From Heaven” was filled with soothing harmonies. The band was joined by Quilt (who would play their own set at the festival Saturday) for a rendition of “Starry-Eyed Dreamer,” that rollicked with high energy and movement.
Mike Wexler subsequently provided a nice break from my earplugs. Armed with acoustic guitar and a spartan style, his set took me by surprise with its moments of meditation and reflection. Wexler would be right at home on Windham Hill; his guitar picking and driving, relentless strumming was reminiscent of the best of that label’s output in the late ’70s and ’80s. I could also easily hear his music as film score. The sound is very emotive, deep, and spookily beautiful. Wexler was dressed head to toe in the colors of the earth, from a forest green shirt to brown cords and brown loafers. He was like a human tree placing a trance on the whole room. It was a moment of marvel to look around and realize that one solitary figure sitting humbly on a stool could bring the house down and captivate so many attention-span-challenged fans. I noticed the least amount of iPhone screen glow during Wexler’s set because people were too busy watching him. He deserved it.
The Fresh & Onlys jumped onstage around 10:30pm, announcing, “We’re The Fresh & Onlys – can someone turn off that CD!” (Someone quickly did). Huddled in a close formation onstage, their presence was immediately endearing. Singer Tim Cohen was decked out in an American flag t-shirt and put forth a compelling jangle in his guitar work while also entertaining the crowd with a theatrical deadpan, motioning to slit his own throat as he sang the words to “I’m A Thief.” It all sounded like a slow dance at Laura Palmer’s prom – a very good thing.
Electric guitarist Wymond Miles, himself a solo artist on fellow Greenpoint label Sacred Bones, had all the swagger and distinctly awesome hair of a young Christopher Walken. Shortly after realizing this, I looked up and saw that I was standing right next to Dee Dee Penny from Dum Dum Girls and her husband, The Crocodiles’ Brandon Welchez. They proudly watched, danced, and Instagrammed the show just like the rest of us. Well-known jam “Waterfall” ended the set with propulsive energy and a modern-day lyrical spin on “Video Killed The Radio Star”: “The radio said that the TV’s dead…the TV said that you can’t believe every little thing that you hear.” I certainly walked away from The Fresh & Onlys’ set believing in their talent.
Tamaryn, the night’s penultimate act and named after its vibrant singer, came out just before midnight in front of beautiful videography. The first song, which was too wonderfully washed out to identify, had such a powerful drumbeat that the floor was absolutely thumping. Tamaryn’s voice and presence were exceptionally commanding. She was also deft with her tambourine, the perfect prop for traipsing across a stage lit by moody, constantly shifting colors.
I stood several rows back from the stage, and the unstoppable oncoming rush of drums and the complete brute force of the band’s wall of sound reminded me of tumbling down a snowy hill by accident and having cold ice fill my warm ears – thrilling and unignorable. “Haze Interior” was the first song I could confidently ID, a slower, quieter moment with all the lyrical enchantment of Elizabeth Fraser’s made-up Cocteau Twins languages. This tender, aching ballad was performed with a fittingly hazy pink cast in the air. Other very pretty and atmospheric highlights included “Love Fade,” “No Exits,” and “Prizma.” All were completely arresting and scene-setting in tone and vibe.
Close to 1am, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti ascended the stage and took a cue from The Fresh & Onlys, asking for someone to “Turn off the DJ!,” which provoked roaring cheers from the crowd. It’s safe to say that nearly everyone there had been waiting all night for this. Ariel thanked us for coming by graciously stating, “We are very happy to be here!” With impressive and super fun Halloween-themed video graphics behind them, the band kicked off with what I think was “Bloody! (Bagonias),” a quick but ferocious taster that warmed us all up. They rushed right into a banger rendition of crowd favorite “Only In My Dreams,” lighting the room on fire with buzzing, keyed-up instrumentation complemented by weird, nostalgic MS-DOS style graphics that asked “What are the keys to the kingdom of Satan’s magic?”
The band’s sense of humor was unmistakably woven throughout everything it presented to us, from the wild grab bag of the video collage (which included a Tom Cruise montage that looped footage of his famous couch-jumping Oprah interview and the underwear dance from Risky Business), to the certifiably singular musical output, to the overall vibe of how the members carried themselves, dressed (Ariel’s sweatshirt had some nicely plumed feathers on it), and interacted with each other. It all made me giggle and feel so happy to be there.
We were treated to some whimsical tweaking of the synths/keys during “Want Me,” which led into “Kinski Assassin,” sung in a totally theatrical voice, delightfully over-exaggerated to the point that it conjured up thoughts of embarrassing dads trying to be cool around their teenagers, actually believing that every bizarre thing they’re doing and saying resonates with their kids. I turned my brain over to absorbing all the ways that Ariel Pink played around with such a hilarious, convincing faux stab at seriousness – it is such a fun kind of performance to behold. Probably (exactly) the same reason I love Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. The middle of the set was like being on Double Dare and having the green slime fall all over me in perfect slow-mo – a cream pie to the face of a joke that everyone’s in on. At one point, Ariel embodied such a beguiling brattiness that I thought of the actor Chris Lilley’s brilliant brat schoolgirl character Ja’mie King; there’s this just-so cocking of the head that each adopt that makes them two birds of a feather in my book.
By the time “Round and Round” got its moment to shine, I had nearly lost my mind in the head trip of thinking about having to translate this experience to words! “Baby” provided a delicate cool-down, filled with authentically-delivered (or not?!) shoo-bops and doo-wops, which gave me pause for my final reflection: that Ariel Pink is not only one of music’s greatest living weirdos, he’s also a master of mimicry, executing peerless genre send-ups and making everyone in his path so glad to feast their heads on him. For the encore I moved to the back of the crowd, overwhelmed but not ready to tear myself away, and enjoyed the more distant experience of cosmic synths, sax samples, and Ariel’s wafting cigarette smoke.
Stay tuned for more words and photos from the second night of the Mexican Summer festival, featuring Ariel Pink’s brother-in-arms via New Zealand, Connan Mockasin, whose new album Fader just called “the next great Ariel Pink album that Ariel Pink never made.”