Label Spotlight: FPE Records

Oak Park, Illinois-based FPE Records was born out of humble music blog and has since grown into one of the more interesting indie labels we’ve come across in recent memory. Populated by an eclectic stable of artists from both the U.S. and overseas, FPE does indie pop and Ethiopian, Americana and noise-rock. Label owner Matt Pakulski took some time to tell us about their operation…
Just Off The Radar: Can you give a brief history on how FPE came to be?

Matt Pakulski: It came out of a blog I used to do back in 2008-2010. I was working for a company called Media Unbound that did music recommendation technology. Also I’m a record collector and at the time, my daughter, who’s about to be 8, was just a toddler. She had a habit of pulling my records and CDs out, and every time I would fuss at her, she would just pull more out. I realized that she was pulling some records out that I hadn’t listened to in a while, maybe I should listen to them. Then the idea to write about the records as I listened kind of came to be and turned into a feature on the blog for the company I worked for since what we were doing was music recommendations and our product was a music recommendation engine. So the records that Francis, my daughter, picked for me became my recommendations, and so I called it the “Francis Picks Engine” or FPE. I did the blog for a couple of years and it was really fun. I listened to a lot of music that I had sitting around that I hadn’t listened to in years and wrote about it. When the “the bolt” struck me from the blue, it was probably around 2011 or so that I figured it was time to start a record label because I felt it was what I was born to do and I needed a name for it. So I repurposed the initials FPE to fit and kind of thought what can that stand for? and “For Practically Everyone” just kind of sat as my vision for the label. I wanted to kind of remove a lot the elitism that I think blocks music from moving forward sometimes in ways that are productive or conducive to musicians being able to spread their message to a large number of people.

JOTR: How long has FPE been in operation?

MP: I have a text document from December of 2011 where I realized that it was gonna be called For Practically Everyone. That’s the only contents of the document. I started working on it in the beginning of 2012 and then the first release was in 2013, a cassette release I did for a band called Zigtebra. My first major releases were in 2014. So basically 3 years.

JOTR: One of the things that attracted me to the sampler that you sent last year was the eclectic nature of the label. What drives that aspect for you?

MP: It’s an outgrowth of my personal taste. I always have a problem with preferencing one form of musical expression over another. Its changing now in the last five years, but I think the way stylistic concerns were so bound up with political and social concerns that I feel like I’ve always had a problem with limited myself with one mode of expression musically. Even going back to when I was in high school my whole thing was Guns N Roses, Public Enemy, Butthole Surfers, Beatles, Pink Floyd always trying to be as eclectic as possible because I didn’t see the need for people to segregate their listening habits. So for the label I release what I feel. I don’t try to constrain it in any way. I’m not trying to make everything a different genre, it’s just what it kind of ends up being because it’s just whatever I’m feeling at any particular point.

JOTR: Can you give us your take on what it’s like to be an independent label in the 21st century?

MP: (laughs) Yeah it’s crazy times, right? I mean I guess my feeling is that the music industry has been anything other than the wild frontier of people trying stuff and trying to make it work. New technology has been disruptive at many points, and there wasn’t a music industry, really, before there was recording. Except there was with sheet music, which was disrupted with recordings. There’s always people saying “oh what a terrible time to be a record label” because things are different. Back in the ‘60s there weren’t independent labels, there was Motown and ESP-Disk or whoever that were pioneering in their own way and ceasing the means for production, trying to figure out how to make money off of things. Like what I’m trying to do right now. As far as I can tell, no one has it really figured out. What’s the cash cow? What is the root to “easy” success in the music industry? I think the answer is to figure out what people want and try to produce that and put it in front of people and get as many people hear about it as possible. There are also certain things that are complicated now that maybe weren’t in the past. For an independent label, I don’t think my bottom line is being hurt that much by things like streaming. Operating at the level that FPE operates at, streaming and people accessing music for free is beneficial. The more I can get the music hear, the more I can convince enough people that it’s worth purchasing digitally or on vinyl or CD. It’s a crazy, crazy business and it’s a lot of trying stuff and no one has really figured out what works on a sustainable basis at this point. It’s a lot of work.

JOTR: From a small label’s perspective with some of the international acts that you work with, is that particularly difficult?

MP: It’s got its own set of challenges, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly difficult. Every artist I work with has their own set of issues that need to be figured out. There’s only one artist that isn’t from the US on my label. There are two that make Ethiopian music, but one of those is a Boston-based band called Debo Band. QWANQWA is from Ethiopia. One of the things I’m doing that’s challenging is getting them to come here for a tour. There’s definitely a world-music circuit, interest in getting the band over but it just costs a lot of money and activation energy. Then you’ve got things like visas. And the layer of intellectual property like mechanical licenses and copyright laws that have to be navigated because they’re different over there than they are here. I wouldn’t say it’s any more challenging than figuring out how to break a promising but new indie pop band. It’s just a new set of challenges.

JOTR: Since you mentioned QWANQWA, let’s talk about “Sewatche”, which is probably my favorite. Tell us about that.

MP: Ugh! That song is awesome! I know very little about it. Kaethe is a friend of mine from the US that moved to Addis about 4 years ago and started QWANQWA while there. That’s my connection to the band and how I know them. I’ve released two records for them, one of them is cassette only, Volume 1, and the second, Volume 2. Regarding that track, Kaethe sent it to me a few weeks ago out of the blue and just asked what I thought about it. I said it’s great and I loved it. Turned out that they had recorded it in a studio that she built in her home in Addis. The last two albums were recorded in Langano studio in Addis Ababa, which is one of the few studios there. Now instead of recording at Langano, they have a home space where they can record, which I’m really excited about. Another thing that’s cool about that song is that it’s the second appearance on record of Mesele’s vocals. I think he’s an amazing vocalist and he only appears in one track on Volume 2 and doesn’t appear in anything on Volume 1 since its all instrumental.

JOTR: What about the song “You Don’t Think” by Miss Lana Rebel?

MP: Lana is, again, another friend of mine from back in another universe called the ‘90s when she was in bands and I was in bands, both of us were in noise-rock underground bands. Lana started her country career about 10 years ago and I had been following her because I love her voice and her songwriting. I had reached out to her to ask if she would do a record for FPE and she was excited to do it. The reason that track is on the sampler and not from an FPE record is because she hadn’t recorded the album yet and I wanted to represent her on the FPE sampler. That track is actually on her 2008 album “All I Need” that was released by Wantage Records in Montana. I asked her to send me one of her old tracks and selected this one because she liked it. And I agree! It’s a beautiful song and I was excited to put it on the sampler.

JOTR: The next song is one that I like a lot called “Bay Bay” by Zigtebra.

MP: I love them. I found them on the internet when I was starting the label. Was open and looking for bands to work with and they had the right feel, the right vibe of being so earnest and emotionally pure, but still have this weird, gritty side to them. They’re just great. The first release I put out on FPE was their cassette called “The Pink Line” and then “Bay Bay” is off of the second record I put out for them called “The Brave” that came out in 2014. The song is huge. They effortlessly write songs that are just hooks, and I think this one is the hookiest song that they have. There’s a really good video for this song, too. It’s about catcalling or unwanted male attention. It deals with it in a playful and not overly divisive way, which I think is a great message for the world today. The type of message that I want to be sending.

JOTR: Next one is Kemekem by QWANQWA.

MP: Amharic is the language that is primarily spoken in Ethiopia, even though there is no official language because there is something like 80 languages spoken there total. QWANQWA is the Amharic word for “language” and they chose the name because music is a form of language and a way of communicating. Not sure what the name of the song means, but like all of the songs released on Volume 2, it is a traditional Ethiopian song. Their arrangements are very unusual for the current music scenes in Ethiopia. They have a very jazzy feel and don’t use any synths, which is very uncommon there currently. It’s not slick in the way that a lot of modern Ethiopian pop music is. The songs that they’re doing, at least up to this point, are all traditional Ethiopian melodies. So if you see them play and you’re Ethiopian, you know all the songs. That’s one thing that I love about Ethiopian music. In the US, baby boomers like The Rolling Stones, gen x likes Nirvana, and millennials like The White Stripes. There’s this sharp generational divide that isn’t there in Ethiopia where people of all ages know the songs and there’s no stigma of being young or old. This is a song that anyone in Ethiopia would be able to sing along with. It’s been done by many artists. It’s similar to how we have this analogy in the West in the ‘60s that it was standard to fill records with cover songs. The style that QWANQWA brings is very unique to them, the super groovy sound.

JOTR: Last track that I was really taken with is by a band that I assume has been the cause of many cease and desist orders on your part, the Miami Dolphins. Can you talk a little bit about their track “Pucker Upper”?

MP: Yeah I love Miami Dolphins! No cease and desist orders, only speculation that there might be some. When I tried to distribute it digitally, I got a letter telling me to confirm that I was the owner of the content. I had to send a letter back saying that the Miami Dolphins were a punk band from Minneapolis and that they aren’t associated with any other entities that you might have heard of. They’re great. The reason I put the song on the sampler is because I think it’s the hit off of their album “Becky”, the one that I think has got the most hook. I’ve kept a log of everything I’ve listened to in an excel spreadsheet since 2011, and this Miami Dolphins album was number 1 by far. I’ve listened to it more than any other record in the last 5 years. I love that album! It’s about how every song has those hooks, but they’re so buried under unconventional ways of expression. There’s something about how they put music together that’s just unlike anything I’ve heard. It’s sweet, but it’s got sharpness to it, like a mint sundae or something. They’ve recorded new stuff that they have shared with me and it’s not in the world yet that I just heard yesterday for the first time. We were talking about what the next record is gonna sound like, and it’s gonna sound great. I guess I didn’t say much that was substantive about that track other than “it’s awesome!” because it is awesome and there’s a really good video for that one too.

JOTR: Yeah I saw it a little while ago, it’s really fun. Last question, can you talk really briefly about the idea of cassette releases? I know a lot of my friends that do releases like to do cassettes because it’s quicker to get them done and it’s hard to get vinyl done these days. How have cassettes impacted FPE?

MP: Personally, the main value of doing cassettes as a record label is to have a very cheap way to add a catalog number and have a more diverse selection of stuff on the label. It’s nice to have a lot of stuff, but I can’t necessarily but I can’t release everything I want because of financial restraints. I think cassettes are now kind of what 7 inches were back in the ‘90s in the underground rock world. You want to have a physical release, but you don’t have a lot of investment to put in and you want to have something to sell on tour. A lot of the reason is because it’s cheap. For the consumer, I really like cassettes. I do a lot of my listening on newly released cassettes. The barrier is a lot lower, but it’s still enough of a barrier. I have a really hard time trolling Bandcamp for stuff, I need something that limits my ability to consume. I can’t even do Spotify because it’s just too much. So I think physicality of release is a helpful way for me to limit my consumption. The other thing that’s beautiful about cassettes is kind of that they’re little secrets. You can’t pick up the needle and put it somewhere, you have to fast-forward or rewind to whatever song you want, if you want to skip around. The layer of difficulty that’s built into the format that is appealing and I think makes them more mysterious for the consumer. There are intrinsic things that are beautiful about the format. Also, the hits, it sounds great. Cassettes have a lot of distractors and sometimes it mystifies me, the level of hate that’s spewed towards cassettes from people who think they know what’s up. For some reason, people thinking that they can control how others listen to music seems to manifest itself in discussions over physical format. But yeah, they’re cheap and a good way for a band or a label to get music out in a physical format. They’re cool, they’re beautiful and unlike anything else.