Look at the key critically acclaimed and popular indie (or subsidiary) releases of the past few years, and certain label names recur: Captured Tracks, Mexican Summer, Sincerely Yours, True Panther, Slumberland. Most of these names belong to new kids on the block, but Mike Schulman has been at the helm of Slumberland for more than 20 years. If anything, his label, a home for perfect guitar pop, is stronger than ever, with bands such as Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Crystal Stilts on the roster. Slumberland has outlived many of the legendary indie labels — from Postcard to Creation to Rough Trade — that inspired it. Sometimes dedication reaps rewards.
In 1989, when Slumberland began in Washington, D.C., indie rock was a postal affair. The foundation of an international pop underground was being forged through letters and records and zines sent among fans and small record stores. From the beginning, Schulman was uniquely out of step, focusing on melodicism when the D.C. scene was known for punk abrasion. When Slumberland relocated to the Bay Area a few years later, releases by Stereolab, Henry’s Dress, Aisler’s Set, and the unjustly obscure Rocketship had nothing to do with grunge mania. “I felt painted into a corner,” Schulman, who was working at the Berkeley record store Mod Lang, remembers. “It seemed like there weren’t a lot of opportunities to get stuff heard, unless you took bigger deals. It was a craven time.”
Slumberland endured, and Schulman’s deep and abiding love of music is a major reason. One can argue that the label is more refined or restrictive in terms of sound than most — simply put, it offers the true wild heart of what has been more calculatedly and generically marketed as noise pop. But Schulman’s musical taste runs deep and wide. In the mid-1990s he started an electronic label, Drop Beat, and today he DJs at Oakland’s Actual Cafe, spinning rock steady, ’60s hard bop, Blue Note classics, and ’70s soul, funk, and reggae.
Schulman draws from a deep library — he has 30,000 records in his basement. “It’s out of control,” he admits with a smile. “I don’t sell anything. I buy new records every week: dubstep, soul and jazz reissues, and more indie than I have in the recent past. But currently it’s hard for me to listen to new stuff because I’m spending so much time listening to [Slumberland] test pressings.”
For Schulman, the process of assembling an album is one of the greatest pleasures of running a label. “I was really happy when they started sending me mixes,” he says when asked about the newest Slumberland release, Sports by the Bay Area trio Weekend, an album that promises future greatness and mass appeal. “The only reason I do this is to help bands get their music out there. I’ve been doing it long enough that I can give advice to a young band doing their first record. It’s gratifying talking to a band, listening to demos, and hearing an album come to fruition.”
Another gratifying moment for Schulman was Slumberland’s 20th anniversary mini-tour, when new bands and older bands — including his own, Black Tambourine — united for shows on both coasts. “The SF show was crazy,” he says. “There were so many people I hadn’t seen since the Aisler’s Set broke up [in the late ’90s]. So many people came to see Henry’s Dress.” Contrary to what one might assume from Slumberland’s music, Schulman is the opposite of a sentimentalist, but in this instance, he’s unabashedly romantic: “It was magical. It was kind of heartwarming. When I started doing a label I was so into music and supporting labels and I wanted to contribute. There was something about those shows that made me feel like, oh, maybe I did.”
He did — and he’s still contributing, with support and inspiration from his wife Nomi and son Theo. Through well-timed and still-strong acts of fidelity, Slumberland has forged its own community of friends who now have a shared history. The label’s present — 2010 brought powerful debut albums by Weekend and Frankie Rose and the Outs — is vital. Its future looks even livelier. Schulman is excited about upcoming releases by Brown Recluse and Emitt Rhodes-like baroque pop troubadour Devon Williams, and he drops some big name hints regarding the next Pains of Being Young at Heart album. For Slumberland, the pains of being young at heart have matured into the rewards of being true.