Tea First Records is the brainchild of Artie Fischer, one lone and humble dude living in Portland. As a tiny independent label that doesn’t offer huge returns, or even the promise of breaking even, Tea First is first and foremost a labor of love. Even still, Artie continues to release records he loves by artists he loves, and he does so with real style. As an extremely mellow man, though, Artie has a subtle and quiet flair that’s all his own. The music he favors is almost always instrumental, deeply rooted in electronics, and highly atmospheric. You could even say that Tea First is an exclusively mercurial and floaty label, specializing in dreamy cloud-like music for avid headphone enthusiasts.
Lately, things have been stirring in the Tea First camp. The label recently released a multiple-artist compilation whose lineup spans more than one continent (check out the interview below for more details), and it’s preparing to release what could perhaps be called its ‘biggest’ album, Selbyville‘s sophomore full-length Mansions. Selbyville, for those who don’t know, is Artie’s project alongside local Derek Kimball and Pittsburgh-denizen Michael Kamin. Though the label’s back catalogue has only recently begun to bloom, it’s an impressive and handsomely-packaged collection of sounds that already houses more than a few gems within its ranks.
The majority of the work released via Tea First is located at a truly fascinating impasse between electronic music, avant-garde composition, and a sort of uber-mellow post-rock. It’s not really rock or pop, but it’s also not tried-and-true classical music, and it’s far too melodic and composed to be any sort of ‘out music’ or the like. One really has to take a listen to Graham‘s Grimpen Mire or Selbyville’s Quiet Until the Thaw, the closest things to ‘flagship’ releases that the young label has, to really observe how hard it is to pin down what Tea First specializes in. Fans of all things glacial will rejoice, though, when they realize just how much of a haven the label is to their tastes.
Maine music’s only true precedents for such a highly specialized (but still serious and legitimate) record label are Matthew Lajoie’s L’Animaux Tryst, Nemo Bidstrup’s Time-Lag Records, and noise king Id M Theftable‘s own Mang Disc imprint. Fischer himself is a fan of Lajoie’s work with L’Animaux Tryst, and hints at being inspired at least in some small part by the psych label’s methods of operation, though Tea First has clearly established a world all its own. In keeping with classic do it yourself tradition, many of Tea First’s releases are hand-printed and assembled by the musicians themselves, and they roundly possess a sleek, minimal approach to design that is truly lovely. Like the music itself, Tea First’s visual aesthetic is quiet, soothing, and airtight in conception.
It seems, standing outside of all critical and qualitative tomfoolery, that Tea First is perhaps the Maine label most aligned with and concerned by the sounds of the future. Obviously, this doesn’t make it better than its peers, but it is fascinating to note that there is a distinct lack of anachronism within the confines of the label’s catalogue. It’s a refreshingly singular collection almost entirely void of the heavy-handed referencing and pastiche so prevalent in today’s musical landscape. In addition, the musical fore-fathers & fore-mothers of Tea First’s musicians are predominantly figures from the cutting edge of progressive electronic and ambient music. Tea First is a label born out of the prototypical wakes of Brian Eno and Edgar Froese, or Ralf Hütter and (even) Raymond Scott. This is not to say, though, that all of Tea First’s music is electronic, as anyone who’s seen Selbyville live or listened to Felsenmeer knows. It’s just that he classic sounds that do crop up on the label’s releases always seem informed by something fresh and ‘now’ as opposed to being firmly rooted in any orthodox traditions. For instance, Selbyville’s forthcoming Mansions (which will be reviewed in September’s new print issue of Dispatch) is easily the group’s most acoustic album, and prominently features steel string acoustic guitars on several tracks, but it somehow never feels even remotely like a ‘folk’ record. This elusiveness, this feeling of being on the edge of something new altogether, permeates Tea First Records.
All theorizing aside, Tea First is undoubtedly one of Maine’s most promising independent labels, a fact that is only made more impressive by its relatively short track record. I spent a morning at the Tea First house (Artie’s apartment) chatting with the man himself about the label, his goals, and his tastes. Think of the following interview and photographs as a first-hand look into the workings of a very honest and passionate independent record label, and also as a good demonstration of just how DIY the label’s ethos is. Who knows, maybe you’ll be motivated to start your own label…
JB: Tea First is a very small operation, yet it has already become a sort of miniature hotbed for atmospheric & experimental music in Maine. What are your goals, and your mission, in regards to running this label?
Artie: I started the label with the intention of providing a more legitimate forum for my friends to release music on a larger scale than just making copies and giving them to friends. For just over a decade I have been involved in a Northeast music scene that makes wonderful music and I want to share the vibes. The mission is simple: keep going forward with beautifully designed and sounding releases as far as resources and time will allow.
Artie: Sales have been slow and steady. I almost always fall short of my aim in terms of distribution but the process of trying out different avenues for Tea First’s music has been a fun learning experience. Sales of the compilation will be able to fund a couple more projects in the near future and the new Selbyville album is funded through money from playing shows (Go see live music!).
Artie: Thanks. It was an obvious choice for a first release and came out amazing on LP. There are copies still available for sale at Moody Lords and through me at teafirstrecords.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you live in the Portland area. We do also have a few copies of the double disc release of Quiet Until the Thaw.
JB: What’s the story behind the new Tea First Compilation that’s hit the streets recently? How many artists are represented, and where do they hail from?
Artie: I’m really proud of the compilation and I’m grateful to all of the artists on there. The compilation brings together the core tea first roster of Northeast artists along with some of my favorite artists from around the world. Several artists are from France and Germany and one from Iceland. The great thing about the compilation is that Ive been able to provide the international artists with a little bit of exposure here among the Tea First audience while being able to also expose fans of the more well known artists to the core group of Tea First musicians. Building contacts is an important part of getting the label going, for me, and the compilation has been a great vehicle for that. Plus, my sister Katy did some really great design work for the cover…I cant wait to start right in on another one.
JB: Is the compilation free?
Artie: It isn’t free. The compilation is available through me, via e-mail, and also at Moody Lords.
JB: Is Tea First currently looking to expand its roster, or will the operation remain relatively limited?
Artie: I have been talking with a few Portland and Boston based musicians about future projects, and I would love to expand the roster. There are upcoming releases from Selbyville and Graham in the near future (September) and Mind Wheel will be recording a new album soon. So hopefully this fall there will be fresh releases from the core musicians and from some new artists. Oh, and Mind Wheel will be playing live on WMPG’s Local Motives August 26th.
Artie: The aesthetic is focused on instrumental & electronic composition right now because that is the type of music my friends and I play and are interested in. In that sense it’s inherent in my interests, but I am open to releasing music in any style. My own personal tastes are very far ranging and there is nothing that says the label can’t be as well. Maybe even some contemporary country in the near future, and most certainly some straight-up dance tracks…stay tuned!
Maine, and the northeast in general, has a great experimental and improvisation based music scene and I think that, in this regard, Tea First has a unique platform among the other awesome labels (Lanimaux, Time Lag, Autumn Records) to focus on more electronic sounds. The artists Graham and Mind Wheel exemplify this aesthetic to the fullest.
I like thinking of Tea First as a forum for experimental music and I hope that this concept extends to all aspects of the design for the label. As I mentioned before, my sister Katy Fischer has been an important part of the overall Tea First look, and of course Derek Kimball (Selbyville, Felsenmeer, Mind Wheel) is a major player in web and packaging design.
JB: I know that you are a practicing Buddhist, and a huge proponent of pacifism (meditation as well?.) How tied up is Tea First & its identity in these facets of your life?
Artie: I think a more appropriate term would be ‘Ahimsa‘. I would love to use the label as a vehicle to share the aspects of Buddhist practice that I find beautiful and meaningful, but the opportunity to bring these two things together hasn’t directly manifested yet. Would a chanting cassette fly in the tape culture world? Maybe… I think that ‘peaceful’ and ‘meditative’ are good descriptors for much of Tea First’s music and I hope this continues. As far as Buddhist practice is concerned, the most important thing in life is to use this amazing opportunity to learn and explore and, for a lot of people, music is a big part of this.