Sometimes everything you need to know about a record is laid out for you right on an album’s cover. Since 2007, Brooklyn label Sacred Bones has been releasing some of the most exciting post-punk, hardcore, psych, no wave, and folk releases all under the same high quality standard of it’s founder Caleb Braaten.
When you see their big block album design with the label’s pyramid logo and song titles listed in large white type, it’s a sure-fire way to pull a release when you are digging through the crates.
Not only a music enthusiast, Braaten had always dreamed about working with filmmakers as well. Over the years he was able to fulfill this lifelong goal, working with directors like David Lynch, John Carpenter and Jim Jarmusch.
Announced today, the label will continue their partnership with Jarmusch with the release of the award winning score to his 2014 film The Only Lovers Left Alive by his long running band SQÜRL and musician Jozef Van Wissem. The two LP set is scheduled to be released on May 7 and is available to stream digitally.
We caught up with Braaten to discuss the history of Sacred Bones, the upcoming 10 year anniversary of The Men’s monumental album Leave Home, working with his favorite directors, Molchat Doma becoming international TikTok stars, and how to demand a follow up record from an artist who recorded their first album in the womb.
Take me back to the early days of the label. How did it all start?
The label really started, with the first record that we ever put out was by a band called The Hunt, we put out a 7”. They were just good friends of mine. I had been toying with the idea of wanting to put out records. I didn’t have a big master plan but I had been selling merch and making t-shirts, doing all of this sort of entrepeneurialship on my own, and started thinking that I’d like to grow that into [putting out] records as well. I was working at Academy Records in Williamsburg at the time. I think that’s something that we were all talking about, a bunch of us who were working there. And a bunch of us ended up starting labels — Mike Sniper being one of those people. He started Captured Tracks.
My friends’ band was really good and they recorded a single and were looking for a place to put it out. We were brainstorming ideas and I was like, “I think I could do it. I bet I could put that out!” So we decided to do it and I pressed up 500 copies and figured out how to make a record. I walked to all of the record stores in the city and put it on consignment.
After your experience of receiving so many records on consignment while working at Academy, did you feel like you had a better sense of what the presentation of your records should look like in an aesthetic sense? The Sacred Bones iconography is one of the most instantly recognizable images on a record sleeve.
I really started to think about that specific thing afterwards. In fact, that’s where the Sacred Bones template came from. That came from working in record stores for 10 plus years, seeing what people gravitated to. Even with myself. What catches my eye when I walk into a record store and see records on a wall. That uniformity is something as a record store patron really catches your eye. Like Blue Note or any number of classical labels. Crass Records. These were a lot of the things I looked to when shaping that part of what the label would become.
Luckily, the design is synonymous with “good records” and it doesn’t put people off to the releases.
For sure! I’m sure that is that way for some people. I’m sure some people see it and go, “nope” (laughs). It can’t work on everybody.
How did you first settle on the design template?
The Hunt record I was talking about came out under a label called Monster Squad Records. That’s what I was doing before Sacred Bones, I was making these black and white silent movie horror bootleg shirts under a thing called “Monster Squad.” When I put out that record I put it out under that label, but I thought that that was a really bad name for a record label. It was great if you wanted to buy a Night of The Hunter T-shirt or whatever. But to me it sounded like a psychobilly label or something. Not the vibe I was trying to give off.
So the second record was by a band called Blank Dogs which was Mike Sniper, who would later found Captured Tracks, it was his band. So I changed the name to Sacred Bones and came up with the logo with my designer Dave Correll. Me and Sniper brainstormed on this idea of making it look like a classical record. If you look at it, it’s a little clunky. It’s different from the other ones. We didn’t really fine tune it until the next record …. Dave and I honed it in and it’s been the same ever since.
When did you first notice that the label was beginning to take off?
I guess it would be the Zola Jesus‘ Stridulum EP when a lot of music industry people came into my life. Before, I had been operating on a pretty under the radar level. For what we were doing we were doing really well. We had a growing fan base but it was mostly record forums where we were selling most of our records on.
We had pretty minimal distribution. We would sell a lot of records through Academy in Williamsburg and Other Music in the city. Those were the two main places you could get our stuff. Some records were going through Revolver and Forced Exposure, but it was still a pretty underground thing for record people and for music people. But once the Zola Jesus thing started to happen and she started to break through, that’s when we needed to hire a publicist. Music industry people started to appear and were interested in what we were doing.
There is a darkness that runs through all of your releases — whether it’s no wave, synth wave, black metal, punk or gothic folk. Is there a main throughline that you search out when looking for a new artist?
Yeah, for sure. That may be a little too precise, but there is a throughline for sure. I’ve always imagined the label as a mixtape or something where you can put an Isaac Hayes song next to a Van Morrison song next to a Dead Boys song and it somehow works. That’s kind of how I’ve always considered the label. A lot of our releases have a darker element to them, but not necessarily all of them. We’ve got some posi records out there.
The Men’s Leave Home will be celebrating it’s 10-year anniversary in May. I feel like that was a huge record with a lot of lasting influence. Do you have any thoughts on it looking back?
Yeah. That was pretty soon after the Zola Jesus thing. I remember it came out the same day as Human Eye, man I love that record too. The Men were such an exciting band. They made this record that was kind of perfect for my tastes. It incorporated all of my favorite things. It was like a krautrock, shoegaze, hardcore record somehow. That was one of these things where they kind of exploded and Pitchfork started to follow them. It was a surprise because to me, they were this local punk band that became this indie rock sensation. They crossed over in a way that was totally unexpected.
Not many labels can say that not only have a roster of exciting artists but also have Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and John Carpenter releasing albums. Do you have any stories about working with any of them?
I think David Lynch was probably my main influence in life. He was the first one of these guys that I got to work with. The story was that my goal was one day to work with Davd Lynch. That was one of my life goals. When I started the label, I had a box that I put a copy of all of the records we had put out — in every edition— labeled “David Lynch.” The goal was that one day, when I amassed enough, I was going to send it to him with the intention of maybe one day being able to work on something. Knowing that was certainly not going to happen, but if I sent a big enough box, he’d at least have to see it and at least acknowledge that it existed. That would be good enough (laughs).
As I am doing this, I’m like “okay, it’s time. I am going to find an address and I’m going to send it to him.” I found an address that I figured it would get to him in some way and was getting ready to send it to him. I was chatting with a friend of mine who is an L.A. resident and I was telling him that this was happening. He said, “You know what, hold that thought. I’m newly friends with David Lynch’s attorney. Let me talk to her and get her thoughts on this.” So he did and put me in touch.
She was like, “First of all let’s tone it down and send five records and not look like a psychopath.” I was like “okay, that’s a good note” (laughs). She said, “Send it to me and the next time I go over there I’ll give it to him and let him know about you.” I was like “this is incredible.”
So she does that and he gets the records, with his then musical partner and studio boss Dean Hurley. They apparently think it’s cool and interesting! David said it seems very “avant garde”. What an honor. So I’m put in touch with Dean and Dean and I get along very well.
I said, “I’d love to do something with you,” and he said “Yeah, let us know. Put together a proposal.” Then I said, “You know what would be cool? A reissue of the Eraserhead soundtrack. Because that hasn’t come out since the 80s on vinyl.” And David was into it. That’s how it all started.
In a way, all three of those directors encapsulate the overall feel of the label. What was it like working with Carpenter?
John came from the same person. The attorney who worked with David started working with John. She said, “I just started working with John Carpenter, if you have any ideas that would involve him let me know and I’ll run them by him.” I didn’t really know what that would be. At that time Death Waltz had been releasing his soundtracks on vinyl and had been doing a great job at it. So it didn’t seem like there was another need for anyone to do that. My only idea was I said, “Can you ask John if he has any demos or any music that never made the cut from any of these films? Anything that has been laying around.”
She brought that idea to him and he did not have anything like that. But lo and behold, he and his son had been goofing around making music in between video game sessions and she asked if I wanted to hear it. I was like, “Yeah!”
So John sent me a CDR of demos in the mail. It was a little nerve wrecking. “What is new John Carpenter music going to sound like?” It was awesome. That’s what eventually became the first Lost Themes record.
It’s been a true joy to highlight that aspect of him. To highlight that part of his career. It’s always been appreciated and in certain circles he already was referred to as a legend and an innovator with scores and synth music in general. But to actually get him to make new music and to focus on that has been quite a dream.
And what about working with Jarmusch? How did that relationship start?
Jarmusch I actually met through Jozef Van Wissem. Jozef approached me when I was working at a record fair in Brooklyn. He came up and he bought the Zola Jesus 7” that David Lynch did a remix on. He was talking to me about how he was excited that David Lynch did a remix that it was really cool that we worked with David and he asked if he could send me a record he had been working on with Jim Jarmusch. I just thought he was some kook. I was like, “Sure man, whatever” (laughs). For some reason I didn’t really believe he actually did a record with Jim Jarmusch.
I knew Jim was a musician in his no-wave days and still did that stuff with SQÜRL. But I was just being very skeptical. But then Jozef sent me the record and, man, it was so good. Jozef in his own right is such an amazing and prolific musician and the combo of him and Jim was something really special.
We got to do that record and I got to know Jim that way and Carter Logan, who is Jim’s musical partner. They also make films together. Carter has been a part of Jim’s team for a long time. We fostered a really good relationship that way and we’ve got a bunch of cool projects we’re working on. We’re releasing The Only Lovers Left Alive soundtrack. We’re reissuing that, which is so cool.
Over the last year the Belarusian post-punk band Molchat Doma have become TikTok sensations. You must have been blown away by their sudden international stardom.
100%. It was so cool. The whole thing was just very surreal to sit back and watch. You’ve got to remember this is all under the umbrella of COVID-19. This is around the same time that all of this COVID-19 stuff is happening, all of the lockdowns are happening. These guys are absolutely exploding and gaining actual fans. It’s not just a viral thing that happened for a week and people moved on to the next thing. This thing really made an actual mark and now they have millions of fans.
Did you see it driving huge sales of their records?
Astronomical. The amount of streaming fans that they have now from when we first started working with them is very different (laughs). And record sales! We’ve sold so many more records than we would have … we’ve probably had to press that particular record Etazhi like 10 times. It’s truly insane.
I feel like I need to ask you about your newest signee, Luca Yupanqui. What was the decision to put out the first album by an artist in utero?
Liz (Hart) is a longtime Sacred Bones alum. She was in Effi Briest, that record came out 11 years ago. Then after Effi Briest she was in Psychic Ills up until Tres passed. Psychic Ills put out a 7” last year and were planning on putting out a full length last year as well but were sadly unable to.
Liz and her husband (Iván Diaz Mathé) are big music experimentalists and they had these mini devices that they had been making plant music with. So they started experimenting with those when Liz was pregnant by putting those on her stomach. They discovered that with Luca inside there, there were some amazing sounds that were coming through. So they cut this amazing record and we’re excited to put it out.
So as a strict label boss, are you going to demand a quick follow up from Luca? This is the first artist that is literally born trying to avoid the “sophomore slump”
It’s really up to Luca with what she wants to do now (laughs).
What are some of the biggest challenges facing the label right now?
I think the biggest challenge is really the personal connection. I miss seeing a band playing their album release show. Those things are really lacking. You work really hard on a record and there’s just not the same kind of release that happens when you really get to celebrate with an artist. That to me has been the biggest hurdle. Seeing bands live. Working with someone in the same room, that personal connection has been really hard, but otherwise we’ve been able to really make it work. Everyone who works at the label has given it 110% working from home. Our fans have been so supportive over the last year and they came through for us. We’ll make it through.
This interview has been edited for clarity.