Ian Russell takes pride in the community of artists he has surrounded himself with. As the founder of the Calgary-based independent label Flemish Eye, he has helped document the unique racket going on in his corner of the world as everyone else slowly catches up.
The label got its start back in the early 2000s when Russell reconnected with artist and musician Chad VanGaalen while they were both attending art school. Blown away by his running-faucet creativity and overflowing musical talent, Russell helped compile VanGaalen’s first recordings and released his first full-length album, Infiniheart. As that album gained popularity and the label grew, Russell formed partnerships with big indie labels Sub Pop and Jagjaguwar to distribute records stateside.
This year, the label released the new album by Canadian legends The Besnard Lakes, The Besnard Lakes are the Last of The Great Thunderstorm Warnings.
In this conversation Russell discusses the start of Flemish Eye, Chad VanGaalen’s inspiring work ethic, a partnership with Sup Pop and the lasting legacy of Women.
Starting out, when did your relationship with music change from being a fan to wanting to release it?
For me that would hinge upon the first release the label put out. Yeah, I was in a bunch of touring bands for quite a long time before that, and participated in releasing quite a few records, kind of self released. These were smaller labels that were cooperatively run; people putting out records together. And, you know, working on radio campaigns to put that all together.
Then when I first started working with Chad VanGaalen, and sort of collected a bunch of his first CDRs into a release. That ended up kind of turning into something much bigger than I’d expected and it really took off. That’s definitely a pretty significant point where it went from being something which would only take up you know, as much time as I’d want to put into early evenings or weekends to suddenly like, “Oh, yeah, this is all in potentially an all encompassing thing.” It took a couple of years for that to really turn into something where it was the job. It was kind of lucky in that respect where the first release was the really the kickstart.
How did you first meet Chad VanGaalen?
I met Chad in art school. Oh, actually, that’s not true. I knew him before that from playing in bands. We played some shows at the same time and did some shows together. But he was very young. He’s like, 15-years-old. And then we met again at art school and became friends. At that point, he was making these CDRs. He would, I don’t know if you remember these, but there used to be this collector card set of animals. One side would be a photograph and it would say “tarantula” and then the backside would show you where the tarantula lived, give you all the data on its little map and stuff. He had a box of those, and he would tape them together exactly, like for 4.75 inches or something like that to form a square, so he could put a CD into them. They made those little CD cases. So everybody at our school had a few of those floating around. I still have a shoe box full of them.
He has such a unique perspective on the world and always seems to be creating; whether it’s music or his animation. Was his artistic drive apparent to you when you first met him?
Yeah, I think so. Maybe not in the first couple of years I knew him. It was clear he was very talented. But certainly by the time you’re in art school together, like that constant creative drive. Even even more so afterwards, once he was no longer in that kind of environment. You can see how that can kind of be constructive to some people as well, too. And, the thing about Chad is everything becomes an opportunity for creative output. Whether it’s just taking care of landscaping or like menial chores. It becomes “how can I do this differently? This is a stupid way of doing this. Why do people do this? I’m gonna do this in a totally different way.” So it’s always inspiring.
So those first CDRs you mentioned eventually became his first release Infiniheart?
Yeah, that’s right.
So, that was the first Flemish Eye release and it eventually led to you partnering with Sub Pop in the states. That’s pretty great for a first release.
That’s right. Yeah, that record actually had a few different incarnations. So Chad hadn’t actually ever put together a record at all, having them all been CDRs. But you never knew you were gonna get [with the CDRs], if it had the same songs last one had or a totally different batch. There’s no way to distinguish any sort of continuity from disk to disk, because one was “tarantula” and one was “monarch butterfly.” So that was the first time that he wanted to actually collect the whole thing together, and it was a bit longer. There’s about 400 CDs in the world somewhere that have that extended version of Infiniheart.
I wanted to make them in the cheapest possible way because I’m cheap, generally, and had the CDs pressed and then had the sleeves pressed separately. Then we had to hand make them all. The first three or 400 of them whenever we needed them, we’d be at my kitchen table making them. It wasn’t until we were into the second or third pressing where I was like, “We can’t do this at my house anymore.” I really liked the idea of it being this handmade artifact. But, we eventually had them mass produced. At some point, Sub Pop got wind of it as well, and agreed to start licensing it outside of Canada. And then it had a proper kind of rerelease after we put it out here.
How has Flemish Eye’s relationship with Sub Pop evolved over time?
Yeah, it’s been really interesting. They’re wonderful to work with. They get really emotionally invested into projects and really are into the various creative ideas that might come out of working a record. I think working on one of Chad’s records is one of the things that gets them really excited because often we do things a little bit differently. And there’s a lot of different resources there that people might not necessarily have. There’s so much material to work with and it is so much fun. Chad’s got great videos and so much creative material, promotional material to go along with it. So they really enjoy it. They’re great to work with.
Was Sub Pop a label that you looked up to growing up?
Absolutely. Sub Pop was definitely on that list of labels I would look at any record of theirs that had their logo on for sure. And then yeah, I mean Touch & Go and Thrill Jockey were two huge influences on me for sure. Before starting a label, I had a distribution catalog for Touch & Go that had all their distribution labels in it. And I would just pour over that. Yeah, this goes way back, but I would go into record stores with a list of things to buy that I’d seen just based on this blurb written with no other information on them. Because I trusted everything that Thrill Jockey or certainly Touch & Go had put out at that point, for sure.
Coming from art school, how hands on are you with an album’s artwork and packaging?
That’s usually important to me. Coming out of art school and having obviously strong visual opinions and a lot of interest in design and typography, I always have some pretty strong opinions about things. I like to think that there’s a bit of a visual aesthetic across at least some of the styles of albums we put out. And then maybe across some of the video work as well. There’s hopefully a bit of an aesthetic that goes along through some of those. And hopefully, it seems to suit the album cover, and the album itself. We’ve been lucky to work with some great designers. There’s a local designer named Mark River, who’s designed maybe six of the album covers of the albums we’ve put out. He does a phenomenal job. I can just turn to him, if he has time, and just know that he’s going to come up with something which is incredible. It’s a great relationship.
With Chad gaining popularity with Infiniheart, Skelliconnection and Soft Airplane, he started producing records by the band Women. How did Flemish Eye get involved with them? Have you known them for a long time?
For quite a long time. The core roster or the label was really based around artists that we knew from our network. And knowing those, those first few records which were a Chad record and then the band called the Cape May. Chad was always his own thing. He didn’t really have his own network or other people to really play with because he’s very much kind of solo machine. But the band Cape May actually ended up spawning other artists who we ended up working with. Those kinds of relationships grew into the first Women self-titled record. So I just knew those people from playing shows with them.
I remember the first show I saw was by the pre-women band called Veritas. And then when they formed, their first show was actually opening for Chad. That was before they’d even recorded their record and before they even toured. Before that first record came out, I think they only played a handful of shows. For the most part, almost all our early records were from artists that came out of this environment.
Do you feel as though there is a certain “Calgary Sound”? You can definitely hear the influence that both Chad VanGaalen and Women have had on guitar-driven indie rock over the last 10 years or so.
That’s pretty difficult [to define]. I mean, there was a huge amount of complementary give and take that would happen with Chad and Women over time as they got to know each other. They grew up very influenced by him, I think. And then as he worked with them, he grew to respect them and had this kind of mutual admiration. I think they kind of reflect each other in a lot of ways. But they started out from very different places. You know, Chad’s early couple records are very much the product of isolation and there’s almost no influence. He quickly sprouted out with this weird sound that didn’t really sound like anything else, but quickly, everything else sounded like it. So it is interesting, both of them had a huge impact on the musical culture here, which still lasts to this day. There’s a lot of people who grew up seeing all ages shows from those bands, you know, 10 years ago that now are great artists in their own right.
With the tragic passing of Chris Reimer, the remaining members of Women went on to form Preoccupations. Were you surprised to see them go on to have such a rich second life as a band?
Yeah, it was interesting. I think Chris’s passing was a huge shock to everybody around him, because he was such a wonderful individual. That’s someone who we were all very close with. I think it reminded everybody of their mortality in different ways. Yeah. And for Matt and Mike, I think it gives you a bit of a shot so like, you guys go stop screwing around and put together a band to keep going. I think that’s what really helped to fire that up for them. Women had been broken up for going on a year when that happened. So they’d all been kind of disciplined in doing their own thing and trying to find their own identities after the band broke up, because it was so sudden. It was so jarring when that band kind of imploded. Everyone was kind of left wondering what the hell they were doing their lives. And I think Chris’ passing was definitely a galvanizing moment for all three of the remaining members to go and do their own things.
How was it working with them to release the Rarities 2007-2010 collection?
That was a pretty difficult project in a lot of ways. But it was immensely gratifying at the same time. It was emotionally very difficult, but also very satisfying. So it had its ups and downs. I was going through a lot of material and spending a lot of time in a time that didn’t exist anymore, with people we loved that are no longer around.
Circumstances have changed, and revisiting those times can be nostalgic and difficult when it involves that kind of pain. So I had to revisit a lot of that for sure. But I also get to celebrate a lot and find some releases that we had to realize that no one had ever heard before. It was pretty exciting in that respect. And I think it’s exciting for his family as well to see people talking about the band and a lot of people who’d never heard of the band before realizing how much influence that they had.
Coming out of that project was just a way to draw a little bit more attention to the fact that they were a musician’s band. It’s like that saying with the Velvet Underground. Everyone who saw them went and started a band. With Women, everybody who saw Women went and started a Bandcamp.
This interview has been edited for clarity.