Henry Rollins vs Utech Records: An Artist to Artist Interview
Utech Records is a record label based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Curated and art directed by Keith Utech, the label has released more than 100 titles worldwide over the last 11 years, combining inimitable art and design with music from the field of sound experimentation. The label is driven by dedication to hard work and uncompromising spirit. Utech Records serves as less of a label and more of an experiment in creative alliance, working with artists as diverse as Fushitsusha, Locrian, Horseback, Dead Neanderthals and Lasse Marhaug.
Henry Rollins is a singer, actor, writer and motivational speaker. He sang in Black Flag and fronted The Rollins Band.
Rollins and Utech crossed paths in 2011 and Henry continues to purchase Utech Records releases on a regular basis.
Henry Rollins: Utech Records is dependably eclectic to the point of perhaps being quite challenging to the average listener. There is no way you have not had to face that reality. Fans of “UtechRecords music” if you will, are a rare breed. What is your assessment of these people?
Keith Utech: Utech Records releases are challenging and it’s something I pride the label on. I champion music and art that interests me. I think people who truly love music, film, art and literature will always dig below the surface and find deeper meaning in the medium. I guess that’s how I would assess someone who discovers my label and takes the time to listen. That’s how I initially discovered Keiji Haino, Voivod, Black Sabbath and John Coltrane. I love discovering new music and it keeps me going with the label. It’s such a great feeling to hear something new for the first time. That, in turn, inspires me to be creative. I never put constraints on what I would ever consider releasing on Utech Records. I knew the label was not likely to be genre specific. In fact, I believe that approach has made things more difficult for me with marketing and distribution. I think you can connect the dots with my releases. There’s a common intangible element across the releases I do. A common musical language. I always felt like a label could represent a bigger idea. That’s the reality.
What has your relationship been with the artists on Utech Records?
To be honest they are like all relationships. Some are great and some go bad. Most of the artists I work with refer to Utech Records as family. That’s a huge honor.
Besides the music and sounds on Utech Records releases, there is a large amount of attention paid to the layout and design of the packaging. It is as if the content of the records, the uniqueness, must be matched by the artwork and packaging. Is the look of the product done to complement the content of the record? Who comes up with these design ideas?
The visual impact is a crucial part of Utech Records releases. Album art, posters and gatefold jackets from the 1970s instilled in me a love for the visual medium and how impactful it can be. It made me think about packaging and ultimately became a path that lead me to become a graphic designer. The design is done to complement the content of the record. The music comes first. I’ve been involved creatively with all of my releases in varying degrees, mostly from an art direction standpoint, but I do a considerable amount of the layout and manage the overall identity for the label. It’s a big responsibility and I think I’ve got a pretty good track record when you look at my catalog from the last eleven years.
How do you go about finding artists to be on Utech Records?
When I started the label I had a list of people I wanted to work with. From there things snowballed. It would be safe to say that a lot of artists I’ve worked with have approached me. It’s easy to forget a time before social media, but when the label started I would search music magazines and sites looking for an email address for artists. Now anyone can find anyone and connect in a matter of seconds. It truly simplifies some things, but also makes things too convenient. A lot of times the process can be the fun part. I can’t imagine how labels managed even before email.
Before you had any releases, were there any labels that you drew inspiration from?
Absolutely. The labels that had the biggest impact on me would have to be Alternative Tentacles, Earache and in specific, Peter Brotzmann’s design and typography for his releases on FMP. All three taught me about strong visual identity.
As soon as you pander to outside forces or other people’s expectations of what you should be or do then you are doomed – Keith Utech
How well do things go for Utech Records in a world of generic and mediocre music having such dominance?
Mediocrity has always driven people to produce art that is challenging. That will never stop. Running a label in the musical climate we live in today is difficult. It is really hard to put money and time and energy into something you believe in only to have a completely unpredictable result. It’s the whole industry. So much has changed. There are a million labels out there releasing a million albums every week. How do you deal with that.
All these years in, where do you see Utech Records years from now?
I do see an end point. There has to be. I don’t know when it will be but I’ll know when I’ve come full circle.
What kind of letters/response do you get from fans?
I guess the word “fans” kind of wierds me out. I am just a guy who likes to listen to music and now I get to release it. I will say I’ve had some excellent letters from people. People who like the label and are either artists themselves or just want to say that they are inspired by my approach. It’s very humbling. I know people have taken the blueprint for Utech Records and used it as their own. I think the most flattering thing is when someone buys something from the label. It means that person has taken the time to seek out the music and actually spend money on it. It’s a rare thing these days.
What were your expectations at first and have they changed at all with so many releases in the catalog?
I was just excited to do the first couple of releases. Figured that was good enough. Then I did a few more and there was interest. Small movements forward. With so many years in and releases completed I feel like I’ve achieved most of what I had wanted to do at the outset with almost no help from the press or distribution channels. I’ve worked with so many fantastic musicians and visual artists. It’s truly been wonderful. If you follow your heart you will be ok in the end. As soon as you pander to outside forces or other people’s expectations of what you should be or do then you are doomed.
Was there an order in which the interest in music and the interest in design came to you? At what point did you want to put it all together?
I believe the two were in my head for a long time. Sometimes you don’t see the possibilities or connections straight away. When I was a kid my friends and I used to make covers for our cassette tapes. I used to think up creative projects for myself. That’s kind of how it still is. Utech Records brought it all together for me.
In 2016, how would you say Utech Records is doing?
Things are great. My release schedule is booked through 2017. There is a ton of fantastic music on the way including a box set, Utech Records’s 100th release and the possibility of expanding the label further into the analog domain with a cassette duplication/label offshoot.