Interview: Fraser Austin (Crystal Magic Records)

I've been listening to the digital discography of New Zealand label Crystal Magic quite a bit lately. Wanting to learn more about the label's backstory, I emailed a few questions to its founder, Fraser Austin. He also happens to be the mastermind behind solo projects Secrets and Feelings as well as a former member of electronic duo Frase + Bri. Read on for the full Q and A.

Me: What was the force that drove you to start your own label? What sort of challenges does one face in a record label's incubation phase?

Fraser: Crystal Magic was an idea sort of developed over excited conversations with friends sometime in 2006, initially I was really excited about the idea of me and my friends (who were in bands as well) pooling resources and operating under a cooperative banner, and have all our CM branded CDs available at all our shows and I sort of came up with the rules of a record-label/co-op. It was an exciting time, lots of cool bands starting up and plenty of touring between the north and south islands thanks to Blink who ran A Low Hum, he was touring bands non-stop for several years before winding down to do the annual event that is Camp A Low Hum.
The name Crystal Magic is kinda an empty sentiment, but conceptually I guess I liked that it was something to have an "irrational faith in", like, I am not sure I believe in the magical properties of crystals, but it's a nice idea. To believe in something immaterial, which I guess digital music is. 

But then things sort of faded out, Christchurch started to become sleepy again, less tours, I was playing less personally, other bands broke up. So from early lofty ambitions it sort fell apart. It was sort of a very important lesson, I mean there was good interest and it could have worked, but relying on the energies of other musicians was clearly a gamble, I mean I can't even be held to function on that same standard: one isn't always ON. 

But I kept talking about it, lots of conceptualizing especially with my friends Chris and Daif from the band Golden Axe. Despite continuing to put out my own CD-rs under the CMR banner it wasn't until they said they wanted to put out their album Fantasy Footwork on CMR (http://crystalmagic.bandcamp.com/album/fantasy-footwork) that I started to adjust the model a bit. Same principle, we'd be in it together but I'd def play more of a curatorial role, I mean it kinda doesn't make sense to start a label NOW, there is no money in it unless you are willing to take profits away from the artists for something they could essentially passively do themselves. But because I have my own musical projects on the label we all sort of benefit from a collective buzz. So we don't run on a trad 50/50 after costs model. But yeah, so Fantasy Footwork comes out as a co-release with Golden Axes' own imprint JFBS, and that's 2010. That same year I start a new band Secrets, which I think is the real start of the label as it is now. A realisation that spending too long recording something isn't a guarantee anyone will care, so I speed up production. All cool ideas are valid, activity over ambition. Low expectation of the audience, but to expect more of myself.

The next step was putting out another friends release which was the Thought Creature "Total Recall" EP (http://crystalmagic.bandcamp.com/album/total-recall), I learnt a lot with that release, it was such a great collection of songs, I felt so responsible for doing a really pro job of getting it out there. So it was the first time I decide to go for pro, press release, promo cd mail outs etc. Turns out if you mail attractive looking CDs to radio they will take notice. I mean it's the music that is really what gets it play, 'cause it's GREAT! But who would have thought OLD WORLDE radio was worth sending stuff to? So it's that balance I think, being essentially a web label but trying to manifest again IRL. 

Having whittled down what's required of a web label, and more importantly figured out what we don't want to be. For me personally it needs to be a COSTS label, which I think is why the internet has become so exciting, I can jack big business ideas and apply them to a dynamic business practice, I consider the label as BUSINESS ROLE PLAY, reducing it to simple gaming mechanics. With essentially free-tools, social networks, minimal fee services I can put out my friends records from New Zealand and have them heard across the world. I mean that's always been the case, New Zealand has a strong legacy of DIY musicians being global operators, but now I can do it with next to no money. Which comes back to why CMR has to be a costs label, I run it completely from my bedroom. I need to be able to. I have no interest in outsourcing manufacture when I can handle it all IN-HOUSE. I have a flash A3 printer that does a great job of the sleeves that I hand craft, I can print on the CD surface, manifest these IRL artifacts.

So yeah, it's a CHALLENGE re-configuring a label to function again in a NOW-WEB climate, lower expectations I think is important. There are no guarantees, no sustainable money trees for musicians, no cash-advances for risk takers. Just taking your art serious enough  and valuing it enough by proudly putting it out there. And being able to adapt with every change or exciting development, being prepared for a bandcamp-apocalypse when we have to restructure and find another method of getting ourselves heard/seen/felt.

I had to get this question out of the way early. What's the deal with the CGI guy with sunglasses who appears on most of your solo projects' album covers? 

It's an attempt to render myself on the other-side of the screen, Secrets is a very personal project, it's kinda ME incarnate. I sing about all the things I struggle with, so essentially I am being IRONIC with the name, no secrets here. But I am aware of the idea of role-play as a musician, I am IRL an awkward excitable dude, my avatar seems cool and contemplative. Always rendered in static pathos which I like, he renders so slow it's like meditation. But yeah, it's essentially just classic narcissism. My desktop monitor may as well be a mirror. Especially when i am seeing myself as reflections on the facebook wall, a cooler well lit version of myself, moderated though peer-review. I am working to make the 3D avatar more representative of me, fooling around with real-time rigging so I can broadcast a show of me performing with my avatar as a mask. Maybe it also has to do with an attempt at immortality, evade death by perfecting an online version of myself. It would be great if my dude on the other side could start having his own problems, bandwidth bummers. I could slowly transition out. 

I enjoy the retro/minimalist sleeve art on Crystal Magic's tapes, and especially the CD-R's. Do you do the design yourself?

I did a diploma in Multimedia Design at the beginning of the century, the death rattle of the idea anyone would ever need a Interactive CD-Rom again. I kinda gave up on design as a career after that. But it wasn't until I had to come up with CD sleeves to sell at shows that it all seemed to cosmically makes sense. I think the minimalism comes from being resource poor, materially. Photocopied sleeves look better with bold fonts and simple images. Which I think came first. I worked in record stores for a long time, first at Radiant Records in Timaru, then at Galaxy Records in Christchurch (http://galaxyrecords.co.nz/), I was exposed to a lot of great stuff during that time. Late exposure to krautrock synth albums, finding hundreds of 50c italo disco 12"s and library music stuff. Somewhere in there I figured out some cheats I think, the faux business aesthetic of synth dudes in suits posed next to keyboards. I think right now we are vibing hard on Innovative Communications and Windham Hill visual language cues, especially post the Eyeliner release, Luke Rowell designed the sleeve for that, utilizing a stock photo eyeliner hi-res eye surrounded in white and black borders. I think there is something very interesting happening with music and visual art at the moment, a lot of culture jacking of luxury processes, especially now that we as musicians are destitute, well those without hard-to-find-lush-jobs. I think BUSINESS FETISHISM is at an all time high, for me anyways, I have idealistic fantasies about OFFICES, corporate handshakes, owning stocks and understanding shares, all these seemingly OLD WORLDE machinations that seem totally unobtainable now. The aesthetics of JOBS as prole drift. 

A lot of the artwork is done by the artists themselves, but I provide additional design help or finishing. Doing banners or helping with the design of the cds. I'd say it's 50/50. It's all very collaborative, which is another exciting reason for the internet as being an art-enabler, being able to cooperate on work over email or just uploads and downloads.

I think it's important to have a strong unifying visual style/language when it comes to being a web-label. It helps spread interest across the whole catalog.

Here's a question that I like to ask often. There are quite a few tapes in the CMR catalogue. What are your feelings toward the cassette? Do you think it should make a comeback as a music storage format?

I have a love/hate relationship with tape. I like the sound of it, it's amazing at FINISHING a release or song. Also stops me from fiddling in a digital mix, like endlessly adjusting eqs, bounce to tape and it's DONE, you can't mess with it anymore. JOB DONE! But at the same time, it's a mechanical process, prone to breaking or being unpredictable. While that might be fun and adventurous for some musicians, making dubs for a release is a nightmare, I can't afford to take my found on the street cassette decks in for servicing so that which I can't repair myself becomes a HEADACHE. I have three decks at the moment and each of them has a frustrating nuance that makes me want to give up doing anything on tape ever. Also I much prefer CD-Rs, they are by far WAY cheaper to work with, and have a larger surface area for artwork. I have a ton of respect for labels that are cassette labels, especially those that home dub vs pro dub. It's a science and takes a huge physical investment. And I think the skills are being re-learnt, how to get a tape to sound GOOD enough that you can justify charging some one $5 for it. 

The tape releases we have done are due to JBHIFI here selling d10s for 50c for a box of ten blanks. I have looked at the cost of pro dubbing and I have no interest in exploring the idea further. We will do more tape releases in future, as long as the project fits across two sides not extending 5 minutes a side. 

I think the resurgence is based mostly in nostalgia coupled with an artists desire to try to create tangible artifacts out of their work. There is a tradition of DIY that harks back to mailorder tape labels, business model echoes from an authentic underground. But I suspect they did it because it was an economical way of doing small run releases of their esoteric work. So I am skeptical of it as a contemporary practice of enabling NOW-gen artists to release work and have SOMETHING to sell.

I personally feel CD-R is way more affordable as a physical product, it has it's own sound and a much better cost point. 16-bit audio dithering as tape hiss.

Tape has shifted from being a ubiquitous and disposable-cheap medium to being a bourgeois-y  
object of desire. To mechanically produce tapes yourself outside of having the technical skills to repair failing electronics and to sourcing quality blanks… is expensive. Most tape labels rely on manufacturers to create the tapes themselves, which is totally fine. But I prefer in-house methods. So tapes remain frustratingly fun, but I consider CMR to be a digital/CD-r label. 

What sort of bands inspired the lo-fi, synth-pop style of Secrets? What about Feelings? It has a really unique sound that I've yet to see matched.

In seventh-form I was given a copy of Belle and Sebastian's Tigermilk album, there is a song on there called Electronic Renaissance. I think that song was my call-to-arms, I still played guitar for years after, but once I realised I could only rely on myself for band members I started playing keyboards more. So Stuart Murdock went his way, and I said yup I'll take disco. Maybe not as literal as that, but he recorded the song himself, when the band was away from the studio. I think I took a lesson from that.

I had a casio which was a misdirected christmas present for my younger brother, and eventually having fooled around with midi since forever, started playing around making more synth-pop based music, around 2004-2005. I didn't have any flash gear at the time and was living with my parents after a reckless go-for-broke adventure across America. What I did have was a pile of commodore 64s that I had brought and reconditioned from garage sales and from the dump, so I started using them as keyboards. I was performing under my name as Frase, and asked my friend Bri to eventually help play the bass lines and other parts I couldn't play LIVE. So we toured a heap as FRASE+BRI, and went through dozens of commodores on the road, more than once I was playing whilst soldering on stage. I think the ability to look after and repair my own equipment has had a sonic affect on how I compose music, DIY pragmatism defining sonic/compositional limits or structure. But as Bri had more University commitments we played less, and eventually I went back to just writing/performing solo. After spending WAY too long trying to work on our debut album I came to the realisation that speed and being prolific was more important for me vs pursuing singular GREAT WORK. The songs changed from observational melodramas to introspective slacker maladies(sic).
So I started performing under the name SECRETS.

I'm sick, which I think conditions my manic output, I don't want to romanticize the concept of the mentally ill artist. Because it's far from ideal, I have bi-polar and have other misc immune problems. So I am tired, and weird most of time. I don't want to write off my music as THERAPY, because I don't believe it's as trivial as that, though I don't think someone could commit the time I do to being in all these different projects and running a diy-record label if they had to commit to a 9 to 5. I'd love to, and I have, but I eventually disappoint whoever has put up with me in their workplace and then eventually can no longer function at a financially maintainable level. Secrets I guess is a synth-pop meditation on that struggle, that manic/bummer duality. Up beat sad music. I really feel uncomfortable saying how much it informs my music, but I think it's important to talk about. Especially in light of how it's becoming a buzz-entertainment illness, what with that dreadful exploitation movie Silver Lining Playbook etc. It sucks and I am lucky to have found a outlet that gives me reason to get up in the morning and continue struggling.

As for FEELINGS, woah, after all that HEAVY talk… It's just my fun INDIE ROCK sounding band where I try get back teenage calluses on my fingers and sing about whatever. I think the LO-FI aspect is in process more than medium. I get it done up to a level that sounds COOL. And move on, I spend less than an afternoon on songs mostly, sometimes recording a lot at a stretch. I like a lot of dumb-idea twee and indie stuff, so I guess there is that there. Also I grew up being informed by whatever music was on skateboard videos, so pop-punk will always have a place in my <3>

For both I will play a chord and press play on my drum machine and just sing what is on my mind, then will over dub it a few times 'til the lyrics make slightly more sense. Bounce and upload.

What are some other labels out there that you'd recommend?

Well, AMDISCs are inspirational as to their output, they picked up GOLDEN AXE and then took them on tour through Europe which is cool, man I love GOLDEN AXE, when I saw them play for the first time in 2004 and it change my life forever. It's no secret that they are my band-crush. http://www.amdiscs.com/

My friend James' label VINYL ONLY TAPES puts out some really cool out there stuff from other friends of mine. We played in a band called LOOM together. http://vinylonlytapes.blogspot.com.au/

My dear friend Shannon who I miss heaps, I should email him, runs the tape-label DUNGEONTAXIS, and releases really really great stuff. We played in a band called LUXURY together. Really wish we lived in the same timezone. http://dungeontaxis.blogspot.com.au/

I really dug the last couple of discs that CMR put out, (Mensa Group Intl. and Splash Club 7) are there any releases coming soon?

I am so blessed to be entrusted with my friends amazing AMAZING projects. Next up we have  DISASTERADIO's ELECTRIC BLANKET, Luke is my dearest friend and we are constantly riffing high concept stuff over facebook chat, so I am totally humbled that he is putting his EP out on CMR. It's more experimental-synth work outs than his normal synth-pop. Really fun ideas as proven concepts. https://soundcloud.com/crystalmagic/disasteradio-electric-blanket

I am not sure what comes next I am still waiting on finalized masters before I can set dates but I have the debut album from Auckland's LTTLE PHNX. The most blissfully haunted bummer synth pop. Here is a video of her playing live in a food courthttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lp9em_LQSvA

Then we have the PUKER EP from PERFECT HAIR FOREVER. He is a huge talent, so lucky to have as a part of the CMR family. I never leave the house without his albums playing on my ipod, albums as supermarket survival strategies. Here is his last album MALL-O-CAUST http://crystalmagic.bandcamp.com/album/mall-o-caust

Also an EP from SPELUNX (James from VINYL ONLY TAPES), creeping humanized techno as life affirming guided meditation. Sort of life lessons as bedroom dance music.  

This year we will be working with more international friends, a mixtape from DAYTIME TELEVISION is in the works as well as lots of other internet collaborations, 2013 is super exciting! 

What's the best song of the 80s? What about the current decade?

I always struggle with these questions mostly because my memory is terrible, so I think somewhere in my head a have thousands of rediscovered NUMBER 1 SONGS EVER. But I really really love the concept album THE LEGEND by italo disco artist Valerie Dore, it's all about Arthurian legend and is that perfect expression of bittersweet uplifting escapism that I live for in music. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9TpUOJ8WPk

Currently I'd just have to say I am just jazzed by everything my friends are doing. "Freetime" by Golden Axe will be played at my funeral. But there is a world of exciting stuff evolving by the second on-line now. I think to drop a google-map pin in now would be impossible.

Let's say that one of your songs can appear in a commercial for any product/company. What song would you choose, and for what brand?

I like to think that we are perpetuating our own BRAND, especially considering that we are in the business of making immaterial products that can be freely distributed. All we have is our names and attribution, so brand loyalty is all we have to hold on to as artists. In the hope that people want to pay tribute to our efforts. 

But the reality is we need to function in the world, I joke to my girlfriend that one day I'll have a song on a car ad and we can go out and buy posh dinners and I can buy new jeans and some shoes. 

So let's put any of my songs on a car ad for a company that has the best environmental impact policy and go get takeout. 

What is the first word to pop into your head? 1..2...3 go!

COFFEE. Always.

Thanks to Fraser Austin for the cool interview. Check out my favorite Secrets track, "SLACKER".