By Frey Lindsay
Based in Frankfurt-Am-Main, Germany; Unbreak My Heart is an independent record label, with ties to various FFM institutions, including the Museum For Modern Arts, Goethe University and the curiously named IVI – Institute for Comparative Irrelevance, a long-standing community forum/squat.
With four artists on the label, UMH could either be described as ‘Not quite there yet’ or ‘A label on the rise’. Given that I am about to go meet Sabine Schmidt, co-founder and manager of this label, I imagine it would be prudent to go with the latter description. A label on the rise, then. And with several releases in the works and collaborations with Young Hare, shows for High Places and a split record for Former Ghosts & Whitman, Sabine seems to have her hands full. Meeting in her spacious fifth-floor apartment in Gutleut, a central-Frankfurt suburb, über coffee and then lemon tea with rum, Sabine talks about her taste for cassettes and coloured vinyl, Weezer, and a potential riot on Frankfurt’s hands.
Frey: Tonnes of labels still specialize in vinyl, but you don’t really hear about cassettes very much these days. Why them? Is it maybe a personal thing maybe, from when you were a kid?
Sabine: You know, it started with that mixtape culture. You do mix-tapes for friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, whatever. I was always collecting tapes and was even looking for something with silk-screen covers and like the collectable ones. We did one tape for a German punk band, with a small booklet that we sewed all the pages together; with illustrations from the singer of the band. That was the first thing we had but that wasn’t under Unbreak My Heart, that was a tape edition we released, just as friends. I think it was 75 (copies)
You hand-sewed 75 booklets?
Yeah. Also, one time we had a show where we traded mixtapes. It was 2eu cheaper when you came with a mixtape and you put it in a big box and someone could come and put one in and take one out. A mixtape changing club, so there would be Wu-Tang and then you’d get Justin Timberlake. I was always really fond of mixtapes and I also think the cassette is a nice medium, so compact.
And even to design it that small, that small form, I really liked it. And there are people with the prejudice that mixtapes are only for Polish punk bands with the DIY, copied, black and white kind of stuff but you can design it pretty well and there are tapes with just for example 7 minutes, 3.5 on each side. I really like the idea to have just one song on A and one song on B, or maybe a cover of the A-side on the B. For BDYBLDNG – they are two members of the former band we did the first tape release for – it was for them just before we decided on a vinyl, just a short quick idea to do the tape. It has a nice cover, with a pigeon on it. The tapes always show a really strong animal, it’s a pigeon puffing out its chest; the winner of the Grand National Pigeon Show of 2010.
The Grand National Pigeon Show? That exists?
Yeah (laughs) That was Floyd’s (guitarist of BDYBLDING) idea. And also, the Bandcamp page and their Facebook, all have different pigeons as their avatar. I think (cassette tapes) are just a really fast and democratic medium in a way; you can just do it yourself and copy them quickly, if I want to have ten new tapes, I don’t have to send it to a pressing plant or whatever, and I can just do it at home.
Mixtapes now just make me think of super-expensive Hip-Hop classics on eBay.
Well yeah, but it reminds me actually of getting mixtapes when I lived in Russia, you got The Cure tapes with an extra song, which have never actually been on that album (laughs) and you can buy them at the metro station.
I remember buying a 5ive tape in Guatemala when I was 8 or 9, and it was just a piece of newspaper with ‘FIVE’ written in marker as a cover. [Editors Note: from what we know about when Frey lived in Guatemala, he must have been at least 11].
With cassettes though, is that not a little bit too outdated now? People still hold on to their records because there is a certain veneration for it, but with tapes it’s not so highly regarded, and how many people have a cassette player nowadays?
I don’t know where it goes to, but normally we always do, for the tapes and vinyl, download codes so you can go to the website and download the record if you bought it and I think that’s just a clever idea because sometimes people just collect the tapes because it’s cheaper than the vinyl.
How much do you sell the tapes for?
5eu. With the download codes it makes sense, I think. Also, we don’t really like doing CDs. They’re just waste now, you see them on every trash corner.
Also, CDs never look that great.
Yeah, even when you print them nice and have nice packages, it’s still just a piece of plastic. Okay, so a tape is a piece of plastic too (laughs) but it just has a nicer shape and it’s something really nostalgic; you had your walkman and so on.
And also, with tapes and vinyl you get the sense of the physical movement of it, whereas with CDs it just kind of goes in and that’s it, without that background movement.
And as for the coloured vinyl?
I really like the idea to only produce coloured vinyl, as a label standard. Let’s see how far I come with my budget. There are many new possible styles the pressing-plant can do, like to put glitter inside, and marbled, and swirled mixed colours. For the Young Hare record we chose “transparent” as the basis colour and then 4% red and 1% white. The white gave it a “smoky” nuance – I like smoky. It’s like collecting minerals when you were a child; colourful things you can hold in the sunlight.
So, what bands do you have on the list right now?
BDBYLDING, Young Hare, Andorra and Skirt. With Andorra we only have demos right now but we very soon will put out a record and maybe a tape as well, with twenty minutes, a complete jam.
Skirt is a girl from Berlin, her name is Ursel Maurer. She plays loop-arrangements with her guitar and electronica; it sometimes goes into distorted Bjorkish kind of stuff. We have a 7inch planned right now, we are going to send it off to the pressing plant next week, we are just right now looking for a cover for it, and to decide the colour of the vinyl and so on.
How do you get bands on your label?
Friendship. I would not take a band that I don’t know or have no connection to, just because I could sell some records. I have to know the people, I have to believe in them and trust. It has to be my taste in music to a degree, as well. I really want to help out my friends, that was the first step when I started the label. There were problems to find other labels, there’s no money at the moment, for labels to sign new bands or anything so I wanted to help out and to do records for them and push them.
How many other indie labels are there in Frankfurt?
More or less they are all house labels, electronic labels, like all the last 15-20 years Frankfurt has developed as a city for electronic music. There is another, Hazelwood, they had to close their studios last week because of some contract stuff, etc., and they haven’t moved anywhere else yet so we have to see where it goes to, but Hazelwood were also pretty big. But for that small universe of the independent, self-publishing scene, ours is the only one in Frankfurt that isn’t just electronic or house.
Young Hare seem to be the stand-out band on your roster, how did you start with them?
I had an art studio I rented, then I went to Moscow and they took it over when I went away. After two weeks I had gotten so much complaints from the neighbours about the noise they were making, that’s how I found out they were doing music there. They were sending me really lo-fi covers they were doing, like of Woods and Bob Dylan. That’s how it got started, really.
Then Mark (Krause, drummer of Young Hare) went on tour with Freddy Rupert, Former Ghosts and Xiu Xiu, and was taking portraits of Zola Jesus, so that’s how those connections were made and now it turns out we do a Former Ghosts record. I’ve set up shows for about 5 years, and it started when were hanging out in a squat in Hanau, and putting on shows there. And by the time I was in Frankfurt I decided to put on my own things, formed the name Nichts Fur Ungut (loosely translates to ‘it’s not so bad’) for the first show. I set up shows at the IVI (Institut für Vergleichende Irrelevanz – Institute of Comparative Irrelevance), which is a squat in the former auditorium of the university here in Frankfurt. The university still allows people to stay there, working in a cultural way. They have a self-organised institution for politics and literature, and do workshops there, lectures, speeches, etc. The stage room is really nice, you walk down the stairs, now there’s a bar there, but you can still see the movement of knowledge, in a way, that happened there for years. It still smells like a university but it has turned into a party room, which is a nice mixture.
We had shows with DD/MM/YYYY, Railcars, Lucky Dragons, Karl Blau, Forgetters, Jawbreaker, Polite Sleeper, Dead Western, Little Gold, Weasel Walter, Hhapiness; just namedropping now, whatever (laughs).
I worked a lot there to give the students of the university a place to go after their fucking studies, to have a beer and see good music from around the world, all in a pretty underground way, friends were doing the bar and putting on the sound, the entrance. And we kept it always very cheap, never took more than 6eu, so everybody would have access. We did some festivals, inviting illustrators and people doing little tinkering things, handcrafters, selling tapes, records, etc. It worked pretty well.
We did a lot of live recordings there as well, making tapes of the nights and then putting them out, for a Swedish band, Happiness Again and Tarfeathers. And always at the next show we gave away the tapes for 1 or 2eu, pretty limited mostly, and then put flyers in for the next shows, so it keeps rolling over. There is an independent radio station here, Radio X, that play the live sets as well.
We did a show with Dead Western in a bar here called Plank (named after Conny Plank, legendary engineer for Can, Neu), and the Young Hare release party at Azita, a fashion store connected to the Museum For Modern Arts (MMK), and also it was the official launch party for the label, Unbreak My Heart. We decorated the store with Persian carpets, plants, and palm-trees that we had gotten, Caribbean-style. Whitman from Los Angeles, who we are also doing a release for, opened (the show) and then Young Hare. We even put ‘golden tickets’ in some of the records we were selling, that you could win one of the palm trees we had brought, so you had a whole lot of drunk people leaving carrying massive palm trees. That was mostly a way to get rid of them, because they were bought only for decorations.
So you basically just tricked people into thinking they had won something so you didn’t have to clean up.
Yeah, exactly (laughs).
It sounds like there are a lot of connections you’ve made here in Frankfurt.
It’s all like a big pool of designers, visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, I try to support everyone and the best skills come together on the label. There are collaborations in the works.
We are going to do a show at the Robert Johnson club (legendary Frankfurt techno club) with High Places, Efdemin and Oliver Hafenbauer. I’m really looking forward to it because it’s the first time I do it in a club that is more famous for house and electro music, and High Places they play more electronic as well, so it will be different for us. Money-wise I’m freaking out though.
So why the name Unbreak my Heart, are you just a fan of Toni Braxton?
It just popped up in my mind one day, when I was trying to come up with a good name. That song of course, it’s a hit. That was probably her only good hit.
I can’t think of anything else
We look it up later. Yesterday, I found a cover of ‘Unbreak my heart’ by Weezer. It’s so good. I love it.
I am apparently the only person on the planet that doesn’t like Weezer.
Ah, really? Weezer Always.
I think it might be because I used to get Weezer and Wheatus confused, remember Wheatus?
(Sings the chorus of Wheatus – ‘Teenage Dirtbag’)
Oh yeah. So it’s that connection?
Yeah, from like 2000, when that song came out, and it was fucking everywhere, I thought they were called Weezer.
A lot of people said Unbreak My Heart is too emo.
It does sound that a bit, now that I think of it. But that’s not what I thought the first time I heard it.
What did you think?
To be honest, nothing at all. I thought, “Okay, it’s called Unbreak My Heart.”
It’s just a brand; it doesn’t have to mean anything.
Isn’t there that sort of rule: it’s meant to sound clever the first time you hear it, and then you notice it less and less every time after? Like the Be Sharps in the Simpsons.
The name Unbreak My Heart does remind me a little bit of those ‘Unfuck The World’ rubber bracelets, did you have those here?
No, that must have been a US thing.
Right, well never mind. What’s the worst name you came up for when trying to find a name for the label?
Nobody Banana (laughs). We also thought of Content, but spelled CNTNT.
That’s been done a lot though, these days. MGMT, MSTRKRFT …
BDYBLDNG (laughs). We do have it a little different for Twitter, it is called Unbreak My Records, and you can always do it like Unbreak My Face, or Unbreak My Obama (laughs), this is a nice joke.
You could have a 99 Percenters poster that says ‘Unbreak My Economy’.
Un-brave My Heart.
There is a growing industry in Ghana for custom-designed coffins; if you could have one what would the shape be?
A huge joint (laughs). Or maybe a bong.
That would be more comfortable, would it be an upright one?
An upright Crystal Bong, proper done. No, I would take … a record.
I knew you were going to say that.
What would you have?
I don’t know. Myself, I’d have a statue version of myself, slightly bigger than I am, that I could get into and … well, actually, I guess that’s what the Pharaohs used to do, so maybe not. So, you mentioned that the IVI is going to be closed down soon?
It’s kind of a public fight, because Frankfurter Rundschau and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (two major Frankfurt newspapers), are supporting that cultural work we did there. Even though it was a squat, it was at least one of the best places in Frankfurt to work culturally, especially for young people in Uni politics. We have a show planned for there in a week, for Des Arks, and if they shut it down I have to have an emergency plan, which is play again at Azita. But then I have to carry a big PA across the city.
There is an emergency chain mail to everyone going around right now and even if they do it, there will be huge demonstrations because the IVI has the support of nearly the whole city, and we are standing behind that. And that adds to so much trouble with the culture politics here in Frankfurt, if they just turn off the water and electricity. If they shut it down there will be riots, no question about it. Because the IVI got sold to a real estate company, and when they go to that office to sign that the new company has the building (and not the University), then they’re totally in charge to switch off electricity and water. The University president sent an open letter saying that the day they will sign the property to the new company will be tomorrow.
There was already a big thing (a riot several months ago on the university campus) when they raised the money you pay at Uni.
I went on Monday there for an IVI meeting. There’s a library room and I came in and there were large bottles of something like petrol and I picked one of the bottles up and one of the IVI guys said “Ha Ha, your fingerprints are on it now”.
So I don’t really know what is going to happen, they are kind of crazy. There will be a nice riot, I think. This weekend.