This interview originally appeared at North Country Primitive on 5th May 2015
Scissor Tail Editions of Tulsa Oklahoma is one of the most consistently interesting record labels around at the moment, with a series of excellent releases from amongst others, Sarah Louise, Scott Tuma, Nick Castell and, of course, the label’s founder and head honcho, Dylan Golden Aycock. His tune, Red Bud Valley, is featured on Tompkins Square’s recently released seventh volume of the ever-dependable Imaginational Anthems series and he continues to release new work in his various guises at an almost unreasonably prolific rate. North Country Primitive caught up with Dylan as he puts the finishing touches on the forthcoming solo follow up to Rise & Shine and as Scissor Tail gears up to put out new albums by Dibson T. Hoffweiler and Chuck Johnson.
Can you tell me a bit about your musical journey? What has brought you to a place where playing solo acoustic guitar seemed like a good idea?
Living in Oklahoma as a kid in the pre-internet 90s, the only access to music I had was the radio and skate videos. I got really into hip hop through skate videos and also discovered groups like Tortoise, which I probably never would have encountered any other way. My dad and brother both play folk music and I guess hip hop was an involuntary rebellion on my part. My first instrument I saved up for was a turntable set up - I got way into turntablism and this competitive turntable stuff called beat juggling. It’s still probably the instrument I’m most comfortable on, but I haven’t turned them on in years. I picked up the guitar pretty late in the game, about the age of 24. Five years ago I bought my first guitar, a 12-string Alvarez. I got really obsessed with it, just as I did with turntablism and electronic music in my teens and early 20s. At that time I was just yearning for something simple and satisfying that I could play if the power grid ever went out. I also didn’t like the mental image of a 60-plus year old me behind a set of turntables. Hip hop and beat music is a young man’s game, and I didn’t really like keeping up with all the new shit coming out. If you want to be a professional DJ you have to be up on all the new stuff and I just really didn’t care about all that. I also quit around the time that CD turntables became the new standard and vinyl DJing was on its way out.
What would you say are your main influences, musically or otherwise? Do you see yourself as part of the American Primitive tradition of solo guitar?
I was really influenced by my older brother Jesse and some of the music he was listening to in his room when we lived together after high school. He turned me onto Bill Frisell and Daniel Lanois, which was a big influence on my interest in pedal steel guitar. My dad introduced me to some of my other favorite artists - Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, The Innocence Mission… I can’t downplay the role that discovering Peter Walker, Suni McGrath and Robbie Basho played in me taking the guitar seriously. At that time in my life it really spoke to me and was an acceptable way for a white kid from Oklahoma to sort of lean into Eastern Raga music.
As far as the American Primitive thing goes, everyone wants to shun the title, because no one wants to be pigeonholed and I understand that, but there’s no avoiding it if you play instrumental acoustic guitar in open tunings, unless you’re Michael Hedges. You can’t be upset if listeners are drawing comparisons to Fahey, Basho and so on. I say just accept it and further the genre: it’s not like there’s a ton of people carrying the torch anyways. Norberto Lobo is one of my favorite guys playing acoustic guitar, and he’s one of the hardest to label. Same with Blackshaw, They’d both be a stretch to label as American Primitive. I think some of the stuff I record could definitely fit in that genre, but I also get pretty bored hearing just acoustic guitar compositions - a lot of it starts to blend together. Most of my recordings employ some kind of accompanying instrumentation, whether it be pedal steel, synth or some kind of bowed classical instruments. I’ll even take cues from my days making electronic music or hip hop and add samples to some of the guitar stuff.
You seem to have been involved in about half-a-dozen different groups and collaborations, including Talk West who appear to have released about four albums in the past year or so! Do you see yourself as a collaborator who also makes solo recordings, vice-versa or neither of the above? Do the different approaches satisfy different musical urges for you or are they all part of a continuum?
Living in Tulsa, there’s a limited number of collaborators that I can record with live who are into the same stuff as me. I’m definitely really happy with the recordings I’ve made here with friends, but I find myself recording alone way more often than in group setting. The Talk West project is a solo project, and I have a hard time calling those recorded moments songs, since such little thought goes into each one. It’s a real thoughtless and meditative project for me. It’s also nice to hide behind an alias where anything goes. Everything I’ve released as Talk West have been improvised, usually recorded to tape as one track, one take. I’ll sometimes edit or add sounds in post if I really like the initial recording, but the base is always improvisation. It’s definitely the most enjoyable project for me. Anything involving improvisation is going to be really satisfying. I did a couple of albums with Brad Rose that were really fun (Angel Food, Mohawk Park) - sort of drone projects - and I’ve contributed pedal steel to a handful of projects over the years (Mar, Robin Allender, M. Mucci). There’s some plans to collaborate on an album with James Toth of Wooden Wand and I’m doing a split with Tashi Dorji later this year that I’m really excited about.
You released Rise & Shine on Scissor Tail, but your subsequent solo albums have been released by different labels. Is this part of a conscious effort to separate yourself as a musician from yourself as a label owner? Or are you more prolific than you can afford to be? Or do you just like spreading it around a bit?
I like to spread it around. It’s validating to release on other labels with artists you respect and helps build connections and sense of community. Rise & Shine was a really personal album, recorded over a couple of weeks while my dad was in the hospital for a heart attack he had on Valentines Day 2011.The initial release was lathe cut on the 14 chest X-Rays from the surgery. The personal aspect of that album was my reasoning for self releasing. I never wanted Scissor Tail to become a vanity label, though I don’t judge anyone who self-releases on their own imprint, since in a lot of circumstances it’s the only way to make any money on an album unless you tour a lot or release on larger labels like Drag City or Thrill Jockey, who press in larger quantities and split the the profits generously with the artists. One of my favorite artists is a guy named Zach Hay, who has self released three LPs, each one under a different name. He turned me down on releasing his stuff and I also tried to see if he had any interest in being on that Imaginational Anthems compilation this year and he turned that down as well. I highly recommend checking out his albums: Bronze Horse, The Dove Azima, and Green Glass, which came out last year and I got to do the album artwork for the release. I really respect his artistic integrity and vision for each release, which is apparent on each album.
What made you decide to start your own label? Was it originally simply as a vehicle for your own releases or had you always intended to release stuff by other artists?
The label started as a way to release various recordings my friends were making that they were sitting on or didn’t think were good enough to share. In Tulsa, I feel like a lot of the musicians in town hold themselves up to really high standards. Most the musicians around here take influence from the rock gods like Clapton and JJ Cale and overlook or just don’t know about all the folks who are making careers doing more original or experimental music. It’s a consequence of growing up cut off from any kind of underground scene and living in the radio bubble. My brother and some of our friends growing up would mess around with instruments and electronics for fun and the recordings would just end up buried on a hard drive somewhere. I felt they were really good and wanted to share them with people, so that was the initial motivation for starting the label. I have to give credit to Brad Rose, who runs Digitalis Recordings, for letting me hang out at his apartment and bug him with questions.
Is there any particular label ethos or principle you work to?
Not really, I just think labels should be transparent with where their funds go. The cost of production and so on. When it comes to tapes, I run Scissor Tail the same as every other tape label, where 20% of the stock goes to the artist. With vinyl, I’ve been doing 60/40 split with the artist - 60 to the artist, 40 to the label. I think the indie-industry standard is 50/50 profit split, which is what I’ve done with a couple of the more recent artists, who were kind enough to suggest that to me. Immune Records has a great ethos - as well as the labels I mentioned earlier, Drag City and Thrill Jockey.
Am I right in thinking you proactively seek out the music you want to put out rather than responding to demos?
It’s about half and half. Most of the tapes I put out came to me as demos, but a few of them were open invitations. The LPs on the label were mostly sought out. The only one that came in as a demo was this new album by Chuck Johnson that should be out in June.
What are you looking for in an artist when you’re deciding what release? You’re building up an impressive body of work. Are there any releases you are particularly proud of?
I’m interested in music that has a timeless feel, which is why a lot of the releases on Scissor Tail are guitar or drone related. Solo acoustic guitar, in my opinion, stands outside of time to a certain degree. If you were unfamiliar with Fahey, you could hear one of his albums and not know what decade within the last 60 years it was recorded. The same parameters don’t necessarily apply to drone music, because it’s generally electronic and that sort of limits the time frame when it could have been recorded, but it still has the same effect on the listener because of how minimal drone music tends to be. Gavin Bryars’ Sinking of the Titanic sounds as amazing today as it did in 1970 and will sound amazing when the sun burns out.
Could you tell us a bit more about the Bruce Langhorne reissue?
That release certainly put the label on the map. I just got lucky and wrote to him at the right time and offered him a really good deal. He’d been approached by a few labels to release it over the years, but I think it was just a timing thing or possibly the previous offers weren’t to his liking.
The attention to packaging and presentation is consistently high, which for me at least, is an important aspect to running a label that puts out physical releases. Could you tell us a bit about your approach to this?
Packaging and designing is my favourite part of running a label. If all I was doing were financially backing albums, I would have quit a long time ago. I really enjoy playing a creative role in each release, whether it be designing the artwork, doing the letterpress printing in my garage or seeking out other visual artists that fit the music. It’s really satisfying when it all clicks. There’s a lot of creative decision making that comes with running a label that keeps me constantly inspired.
What’s the deal with cassettes? Do you just like the format or is it about cost and convenience for short-run releases? Is there anything consciously retro about using them?
I love tapes! Everything about them. I love the nostalgia, the size, the sound, the fact that they make ripping music a pain in the ass. If you don’t offer downloads, someone has to spend a lot of time recording a tape to digital, separating the tracks, then bouncing them down and uploading them to the internet. It’s a whole process, and I just like the idea of manufacturing rarity, which I know is a bit controversial among the music community, but I’m all about it. Tapes are definitely also about cost: there are so many tapes I would have loved to put out on vinyl, but just didn’t have the funds. Also If you’ve ever been to a festival or music convention, people hand out CDs like business cards. In my opinion, it completely devalues the listening experience, where with tapes and vinyl, you have to sit down and take time to listen to.
Can you tell us what you’re listening to at the moment? Any hot tips or recommendations?
I’m listening to Kurt Vile a lot. I think he’s one of the best songwriters around. I also really love this album by Stephen Steinbrink that came out in 2013 called Arranged Waves. I’ve really been trying to seek out happier, less melancholy music lately. It seems to be hard to find outside of gospel, reggae, and traditional African music. I do listen to a lot of celtic music - Nic Jones, Andy M. Stewart, Dick Gaughan, Andy Irvine, Kevin Burke… I’m also pretty obsessed with anything Madlib puts out and another hip hop producer on Stones Throw, by the name of Knxwledge.
Can I be a guitar nerd and ask you what you play and what you like about them?
I lucked out three times via Craigslist and was able to acquire a 1949 Gibson LG2 in damn near mint condition for $350. I also play a 1921 Weissenborn Style 1 that I found on Craigslist in Florida. The guy who had it bought a storage unit on auction and there was a guitar inside that he knew very little about and so I snagged it from him for pretty much dirt cheap. My electric is a low end Mexican Tele. My pedal steel was a steal - haha - got it for $800 off a meth head in Tulsa who played in a cover band called Whisky Stills and Mash. It’s a 60s double neck Sho-Bud. I’m also fond of those lawsuit Suzuki guitars.
What’s in store for you next - both in terms of your own music and Scissor Tail?
I’m finishing a follow up to my first LP, Rise & Shine. It’s been in the works for the last two or three years. I also have those collaborations I mentioned earlier with Wooden Wand and Tashi Dorji. And then a lathe release with a bunch of other guitarists, Daniel Bachman, Tash and some other folks. That’ll be out on a really great label called Cabin Floor Esoterica probably later this year. A Talk West tape with Sic Sic out of Berlin in a couple weeks. As far as Scissor Tail goes, there’s quite a few things coming out this year. Chuck Johnson’s new LP called Blood Moon Boulder, which I’ve been busy letter pressing all the jackets for this last month. An album by another Oakland based guitarist and friend of Chuck - Dibson T Hoffweiler - that will be out May 7th. There’s a handful of tapes about to drop and an LP by Willamette that should be out in the Fall or Winter depending on how quickly we figure out the album art. Lotsa stuff brewing.
Anything I should have asked you but didn’t?
Nope, all bases covered. Thanks!
You can find the Scissor Tail Bandcamp page here.