Interview with Yann Novak
Hey Yann, hope you’re doing well. So where are you living these days?
Right now I am living in downtown Los Angeles, and I really love it here.
And here’s a fun question I like to ask now and then: What did you do this past weekend?
Last weekend I performed at a really amazing event at the Torrance Art Museum called Presence. It was a 5-hour event involving a lot of great sound artists mixed with performance artists doing durational performances. It was one of the most interesting events I have been involved in.
Let’s talk about your music. When was the first time that you wrote your own piece of music?
I guess it would have been around 99, I DJed a lot throughout the 90s and that was around the time I started buying gear and creating my own sounds. It was not until 2003 that I made anything seriously with the intention of others hearing it.
And how did you get into experimental and ambient sound?
I had always been into the mellower side of whatever music I listened to, but I really got into this stuff in the late 90s. I got a bit disillusioned by the rave and dance music scene, and I started to look to the outskirts and softer side of that world.
How was Dragon’s Eye formed?
My father started the label in 1989 to publish a soundsheet by George Winston to accompany a book he had written, designed and published. He is a huge record collector and had always wanted to create, design and give a catalog number to a release. Dragon’s Eye Recordings was a way for him to do that.
And what does the name mean?
The name comes from the logo. It’s an old Germanic symbol referred to as a dragon’s eye. It was a symbol my father liked and it complimented the logo of the publishing company he created to publish the book.
At what point did you decide to run the label?
I had just finished my first full-length release and wanted to release it. Having been really inspired by my father doing it when I was young, I wanted to continue the tradition. At the same I also didn’t know anyone in the music community and thought it would be a good way to meet like-minded people.
And what was the very first release – was it your own, Up Close?
The release that marked the re-launch was my first full length Fade Dis/Appearances, which was the score to a modern dance piece by the Crispin Spaeth Dance Group. Up Close was the second release by myself, but the 4th release on the label.
How would you describe the sound of Dragon’s Eye output?
I avoid that at all costs–I want to keep the label very free and open to change and evolve with each new release.
Is there a main vision behind the label’s releases?
My intention is to make a kind of narrative with the releases. I want each release to be in dialog with the previous and next releases. I want every new release to give new insight to the last. I also try and make the same true with each year of releases. I see each year as a kind of assemblage that informs the last year.
How has the label evolved since you relocated from Seattle to Los Angeles?
I have been exposed to a whole new group of local artists that I have started to work with and have been able to see a lot of great performance and video work that was not available to me in Seattle. Most of the fans and interest in the label come from outside the US, so location within the US didn’t seem to change that much, but it might be too gradual a process for me to have noticed.
Tell us a little about the concept behind the physical packaging and the limited release volume?
There were a few reasons for starting this way, first being I wanted to make something from hand. I used to do a lot of visual art and was really missing something tactile and visually oriented. Second when I started, I was pretty unknown outside the Pacific Northwest and so were the artists I was working with. That leads into the third reason, which is funding. I started the label using my tips from a coffee shop job, so I just didn’t have the money to do big large productions. I feel really comfortable doing the slightly larger editions the label has grown into (100 per release at the start has grown into the current editions of 250).
What about the scheduling of the releases? How many albums a year do you usually put out, and why?
I try to schedule 6 per year. If I can afford it and the right work comes in, I will try and squeeze in one or two more in. The reasoning behind it is time and money. On that schedule it’s about every other month per release and since I put everything together by hand, burn all the CDs and print on each one all in house, each release adds up to a lot of time and strain on the body. Then each release also has to sell enough to fund the next, I am fine with not turning a profit, but in this economy I just don’t have any extra cash to invest in it anymore.
Who does the artwork for the releases? And what is the aesthetic behind the visual presentation?
I have done all the templates and each individual artist supplies the image, or images for me to choose from. I wanted a clean template that would be recognizable as Dragon’s Eye Recordings, but left a lot of room for each artist’s art selection to be showcased and take center stage.
How and where do you meet the artists that you sign?
I have met artists in every way imaginable it seems. I have met them in person, met through friends, met through other artists, made them coffee, heard their work on Myspace, received demos, etc.
What is the story behind the catalog numbers? Why are some prefixed with de27, while others de50, and even der?
My father started it with de1201 using 12 because it was a soundsheet that is similar to a 12”. A lot of labels differentiate series with catalog numbers. So I did de27 for odd sizes and formats, de50 for 5” CD-Rs, der0 for CDs, and de60 for digital releases. Sometimes there was logic behind the number, other times I just liked the number.
Dragon’s Eye releases works by artists who also work with visual art. Tell us about the interconnection of sound and sight, from the perspective of your label.
I have always been interested in visual arts. When I started the label I was living in a subsidized artist live/work building, so from the label’s re-launch visual arts and artists have always surrounded it. I think because I have always been more interested in sound’s relation to other things, whether it’s functioning within the visual art world (sound art) or scores for dance etc, the label then attracted artists with similar interests.
Tell us about your own sound installations and exhibitions…
My installation work is the main focus in my career and it really informs everything else I do. My installation work is about creating environments that double as recreations of my own experiences and are open ended enough that the audience can be transported to their own memory of similar experiences.
And what about the very first sound installation – do you remember how that happened?
The first piece I did was a collaboration with Alex Schweder. We had admired each other’s work and were looking for a way to work together and it just fell into place.
What is the difference between a recorded album and an archived material of a live performance or an installation work?
I guess it would be easier to explain the similarity; anything I release on CD for home consumption is mastered, edited and intended for home consumption. So whether it was intended as a CD release or if it originated as a performance or installation, the final step will be to modify it so it make sense as a stand alone sound piece.
And is there a difference in how the listener should consume these works?
No, because if it originated as an installation or performance, a CD release could never replicate that experience. Therefore, I modify it just enough that it will give as much of the original experience as it can, but can function on its own as well. When I release something on CD I have to let go of any expectation of how the listener will experience it. That is what I find the most interesting about working with CD releases.
You also do some graphic design. How does your visual artistic side enhance your musical creativity?
Well partially it’s just a day job, but I do enjoy doing it. But it’s a tricky balance because when I do it as a day job I have to completely divorce it from my artistic practice because I am working for a client and their needs or criticism can’t have anything to do or reflect at all on my artistic decisions. On the other hand, I do know the language of design so I do enjoy creating a visual identity for my own work.
You’ve done quiet a few collaborations. As an artist, what are your thoughts on releasing an album with another musician?
For me, collaborations are a great break from my own process and practice and are a great way to experiment with new ideas and understand other artist’s practices.
What was your most memorable collaboration?
That’s a hard one. I don’t really know. They have all been such different and rewarding experiences.
Is there anyone who you would love to partner with for a release in the future?
For me, choosing collaborators is a really personal experience. It’s obviously about their work and how it might relate to mine. But it’s also about how the personal interaction will work. So right now I have not met anyone or gotten to know anyone well enough to want to start a new collaboration.
Dragon’s Eye released some of my favorite albums from the past few years. Do you have a favorite?
For the most part, every new release is my favorite because the process of working on it and with the artist makes me the really focused and excited about that release. I will admit that the last few releases with Shinkei involved (de5025, de5028 and de2711) have been keeping my attention. The more minimal work is a new direction for the label and I think some of the most interesting interactions between releases and artists have happened there.
Is there a specific artist that you would love to see on Dragon’s Eye?
Because I am most interested in emerging and mid-career artists, the artists I am most interested in either have not contacted me or I have not heard of yet.
What advice would you give to new artist in order to get a record deal?
I feel pretty divorced from the “record industry” so I don’t know how qualified I am to answer that. But if someone is sending me a demo, it’s really great if they know something about the artists I have worked with or have some idea of the general sound of the label. The dubstep demo I got this morning or that metal CD from a few moths back was just a waste of time for everyone involved.
Can you reveal some of the economics behind running a label? How do you maintain profitability?
Prof•it•a•bil•i•ty, I have heard of this concept, but I have never experienced it. The label is a labor of love, when I started we never made enough money back so I was sinking a few grand a year into the label, 2009 was the first time we broke even. I hope to do the same this year, but it’s not looking that way. I have reached a point now though where I hope to stay. The label is at leastmaintaining itself. So, at lease I don’t have to keep investing funds from elsewhere to fund it.
What are some of the most difficult aspects of running your own label?
Since it’s a labor of love with no fiscal payback, finding the time and money to keep it going is the hardest part.
And what are the rewarding ones?
Getting to be some small part of a really talented artist getting the recognition he or she deserves. That is a true honor that I am always thankful to the artists to allowing me to share in.
How do you get your albums distributed?
We have a few distributors (Experimedia, Norman Records and Drone Records) that buy stock and get the releases out there. Other then that it’s the DER website and me with a pile of envelopes. Because we mainly do CD-Rs most formal distributors will not touch us, so it’s a constant struggle.
Do you package and ship any of the orders yourself? And how much time does that take?
Yes, it’s all me. I have had a few interns throughout the years, who have been a big help, or my partner filled that role during my last residency, but for the most part it’s just me. It takes just enough time each day and week that getting a normal 9 – 5 job is out of the question for me… not that I am complaining about that.
You’ve been consistent in sending out promos with every new release. What are your thoughts on proper promotion of the albums?
For a label like Dragon’s Eye with minimal distribution, promotion like that is essential to getting the word out about new releases. Because I am working with not-so-established artists I think the press they get from their releases on DER is one of the big payoffs for them.
What is Infrequency Editions and what is its relationship to Dragon’s Eye?
Infrequency Editions is a similar sized label launched in 2001 by Jamie Drouin and Lance Austen Olsen. Infrequency became pretty close to Dragon’s Eye when Jamie and I met at the 2006 Decibel Festival. Last year I agreed to incorporate Infrequency into Dragon’s Eye after the Canadian postal service was hit really hard by the economy and it became increasingly costly for Jamie and Lance to run the label out of Canada. So I took over the business end and do all the shipping and management while Jamie and Lance control all creative and curatorial decisions.
Any special advice to someone who wants to start off their own label?
Stay true to your core ideas and never let it stop being fun and rewarding because at the end of that day that’s what you are going to get out of it.
What’s in the queue for Dragon’s Eye?
Next up is our first CD release since 2007, a really amazing piece by Celer. Then we have new works by i8u and Robert Crouch later this year. Then Blake Carrington, Justin Varis and Chubby Wolf will start off next year. We will also have our annual free download compilation at the start of 2011 with tracks from all the 2011 artists.
Thank you for your time. Any last words for the readers of Headphone Commute?
Last words… just a big, huge thank you to our fans for all their interest and support of our artists, releases and the label over the years.