Bryan Day, along with his recording “creatures” Public Eyesore Records and Eh? Records, have been hanging around Kathodik for several years, since their releases – devoted mainly to noise, electronic and improvisational music – are very interesting (especially the old dear old cassettes) and always promt us to review them. At the end of 2022 I thought it was time have a talk with Bryan, in order to know a bit more about the – musical and daily – activities of his labels. Bryan was happy to talk with us and spoke extensively about it.I take this opportunity to wish, to date 2023, 26 years of activity of Public Eyesore Records.
What are the origins of the Public Eyesore label? How did the idea come about? What were your inspirations? What models, if any, have you referred to?
(photo: Bryan Day Performing with Seeded Plain & Marco Albert in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2019. Photo by Juan Perezz) I started Public Eyesore in late autumn of 1997 in the small town of Decorah, Iowa, in the gap between graduating high school and my first year of college. I discovered the world of experimental music and cassette trading a year or two earlier, through an article in a popular US music magazine that discussed DIY record labels and their releases. That article contained a review of an album by Solmania, a Japanese noise artist who builds his own custom instruments. I was really intrigued by the idea of building my own instruments. At the time, the only instrument inventor I knew of was Reed Ghazala, who’s circuit bending experiments I discovered from a CD that I picked up at a used record shop. I searched for Solmania on the nascent internet, which led me to the Forced Exposure catalog, which carried some of his albums. I ordered a couple of CDs and cassettes, which I purchased with the money I made serving Chinese food at a local supermarket deli.
I also ordered some ‘zines like ND, Freak Animal and Bananafish and discovered that a number of labels offered tapes for sale *or* for trade. I thought that might be a good way of meeting folks outside of small town Iowa, so I started a noise project called Sistrum, after a small Egyptian rattle I had purchased at an African gift shop on a trip sometime in high school. There were a number of instruments and guitar fx pedals at my house I was growing up, so I decided to start experimenting with them to make new sounds, eventually building some mutant instruments of my own. I released my first solo album on cassette as the first release on Public Eyesore in late 1997.
A few months after starting the label, I moved to Ames, Iowa, near the center of the state, for college. I connected with a few other folks running labels in the area. I think I found out about Brian Noring’s music and his label, FDR Tapes, through a tape review in Freak Animal or Worm Gear magazine. He lived only 25 minutes south of Ames in Des Moines and was very active in the cassette scene. For a number of months, I would visit Brian for weekly recording sessions which we released on tape as Prototype Earthborne. The stuff we recorded ran the gamut from harsh noise to awkward outsider folk songs. In fact, half of the first ten releases on the label were co-releases with FDR. Brian introduced me to a lot of folks outside the state and outside the country. It’s through him that I first connected with Phil Todd of Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers, Hal McGee of HalTapes, Zan Hoffman of Zidsick, Emil Hagstrom of Sunship and Kazuya Ishigami of Neus-318, who would later release my first solo album outside of Public Eyesore.
Apart from the artists and labels I encountered through cassette trades, some of the first people I met in the experimental music community were encountered through the music hosting and social networking website MP3.com. There was a public ranking of the week’s most popular experimental and noise track downloads that I would peruse to find new contacts and collaborators. Surprisingly to me, some of my Sistrum recordings also ended up high on that list, and I met a number of the artists whom I worked with in the early days of the label through the conversations about noise and sound art that I had through that site. I met Cornucopia, Jonas Lindgren, Sickness and a number of other folks through that network. I think I met Greh Holger from Chondritic Sound through someone connected to that scene – he hosted the Public Eyesore website for a number of years at his website, sinkhole.net.
Around the same time, I was invited to drive a couple hours north to Minneapolis to see a live performance by Emil Hagstrom’s notorious noise project Cock ESP. I think it was the first experimental music show I ever went to. At that show, I met Paul Akin of the comedic noise and performance group Unconditional Loathing. Over the next couple years, Paul invited me to play his experimental music series, Sound Evolution Control, quite a few times at a gallery in Minneapolis called Gus Lucky’s. Through those shows, I befriended a number of folks like John Vance who performed with Emil as Wrong and Matthew St. Germain of Freedom From, who introduced me to Reynols, No Doctors and a bunch of other weirdo noise folks from the Rust Belt, the East Coast and Overseas.
I discovered the experimental music scene in Nebraska while browsing through some reviews of tapes on the Freedom From website. There was a cassette label in Lincoln, Nebraska run by Matt Silcock called High Knee Music that featured reviews of other labels’ releases on its website. They covered a number of the Minneapolis labels’ releases, including those run by friends of mine, so I started sending Matt albums from my label for review, which he did. The review section of his website would eventually become the Blastitude webzine after he moved to Chicago. After a while, I started trading music with other colleagues of Silcock’s in the Nebraska scene, including Chris Moon who ran Last Visible Dog and Lonnie Methe who, at the time, was running The Seagull Label and is the guy behind the Omaha noise improv group Naturaliste, which I would join shortly after moving to Nebraska a couple years later in 2002. Public Eyesore would be based in Nebraska until 2011.
I modeled my own label on ideas from the aforementioned labels and others like Carbon, Gameboy, Dualplover and many others who I was trading with at the time. I really never had a clue what I was doing, especially with money when I was starting out. For the first five years or so, I was constantly running out of cash and had to be creative just to survive. I think I ate the same thing nearly every day for a whole year to save on money when I first moved to Omaha. I remember at one point I emailed a number of folks, Bill Kellum of VHF is the one that I remember specifically, to ask how they ran their labels, how to make it sustainable. If they had any advice, I lost it ages ago.
About the name, I was on the fence about Public Eyesore as a label name, especially early on. It was just an angsty, off-the-cuff statement about being stuck in Smalltown, USA. Public Eyesore was primarily a noise label at first, afterall. Ultimately I kept the name, it fit the music, and through the years, it’s grown on me.
What are the origins of the Eh? label? How did the idea come about? What were your inspirations? What models, if any, have you referred to?
Eh? was started in late 2004 as a way to quickly release recordings of my own projects for musical tours, specifically for an early version of my Nebraska free-improv and drone project called Shelf Life. All the covers were black xerox or laser prints on colored card stock, something I could print covertly on the printer near my desk at my 9-5 insurance job in Omaha. Most of the cover art consisted of the ink drawings that I would do on the weekends. Later, I started releasing very limited edition tapes and CD-Rs on the label, 5 or less copies, some which I sold once, at a single show. Because of this, the number of releases on the label quickly jumped over the course of a couple years. This is also why the Eh? catalog on the website starts at Eh? 25. I just don’t have copies of most of those earlier releases.
By 2007, I was releasing many more polished albums on Public Eyesore than projects that resembled my own work, a number of CD and vinyl albums, some being noisy rock compositions, others with a greater influence of jazz or new music. An Omaha artist, Jill Rizzo, designed a new logo for the label at that time, a space monster with robotic crab claws (later this design would be redrawn by the late Dennis Palmer of the Shaking Ray Levi’s). I paid a publicist in New York a couple times to help get the word out about certain albums and, being in Nebraska, much of that music, though exciting, felt pretty distant from what I was doing personally. I decided that Eh? could be a label, not only for my own projects, but for those that fit in closer to my own in sound and aesthetic. Drone projects and grittier free improvisation. Projects by people I performed with on tour and local artists that I had collaborated with in the past.
Currently, the difference between the labels is less musically distinct. The main difference is that Eh? is primarily a cassette or CD-R label and Public Eyesore releases are usually CD, vinyl or the odd DVD. I put everything on the same Bandcamp page, so they are all equally digital. I think the change happened unintentionally when I moved to the San Francisco area in 2012. The distance, sonically or musically, between what I was doing personally and the groups on either label started to diminish when I got the opportunity to perform and collaborate with a wider variety of artists. There isn’t much difference anymore. Oftentimes an artist on Eh? will list the album as being a Public Eyesore release anyway.
Where are the labels based?
Both Public Eyesore and Eh? are based in my house and studio in San Pablo, California, just north of San Francisco. A friend in outhern Germany, who performs as Ypsmael, has been helping with European distribution along with a bit of writing and marketing over the last couple years.
How do you choose the releases?
Early on, most releases on the label were by artist friends that I approached about releasing an album, a tape. These were usually people that I had been in conversation with online about music or just friends in the scene that I had traded tapes with. I don’t think I ever emailed anyone out of the blue who I wasn’t in contact with previously, about doing a release. For a few years I was helping organize tours for US and European projects in Japan, bands like Monotract and Half-Japanese, so I released a number of experimental music albums from both the touring bands and the folks in Japan they performed with as a means of reinforcing connections between artists on the label. I also organized collaborations between artists who hadn’t yet worked together and referred people to other labels if I was too busy. I thought I was helping build some sort of community, but honestly, that was probably all in my head.
These days it’s a mix of me asking colleagues in the free improv or electroacoustic community if they would be interested in doing a tape, and a few random artists emailing me to see if I would be interested in doing a CD or vinyl. I almost never get asked about releasing a tape. It’s been 5 or 6 years since I’ve released a CD-R. It’s just too much work to do them properly. I think the best CD-Rs are done in slip sleeves with an ink stamped CD-R. Maybe a stenciled CD-R, if it isn’t overdone. Stickers on CD-Rs look ugly to me, and there is just something about laser printed color art in jewel cases that looks cheaper to me than the same art folded in half and put into a sleeve. But — a lot of folks don’t have CD players anymore anyway.
It’s a pretty interesting and unique mix of artists, overall. Back in 2012, during the US tour for the Dutch drum, guitar and sax trio Cactus Truck, a show at Zebulon in New York ended up being a pretty representative Public Eyesore showcase for the time. The no-wavey free-jazz of Cactus Truck, the noisy angular electrified sounds of Normal Love and an acoustic guitar free improv duo of Nels Cline and Elliott Sharp. Bunny Brains, who also has an album on the label, were also originally on the bill but had to cancel. Regardless, it was an amazing lineup.
Why is it mostly cassette releases?
I think with most of the music world going digital, and CDs being the pretty much the same version of the same data as a digital download, releasing analog versions of albums with digital download codes is the way to go. You get the novelty and perceived ruggedness of a tape with a copy on your computer or phone for when you want to conveniently listen. I know there is talk of a CD comeback — I have a friend who sells used CDs online and there has been a big jump in sales over the last few years. But the label isn’t really much of a commercial enterprise. I never expected or tried to make any money back. Tapes are just easier for me to handle.
I can also do smaller editions of tapes than CDs. With CDs, most manufacturers limit you to 200 or 300 copies, and anything lower than that they duplicate as CD-Rs. With a large majority or listeners downloading or playing audio online, it’s not really worth having the extra copies. For a cassette on Eh?, 150 copies is usually more than enough.
I usually sell a lot of cassettes when I go on tour, more than CDs. Plus, there is something satisfying about returning to the format I started with. I used to dub all the tapes on the label myself, one at a time, 25 years ago. Now, I lay out the artwork and send everything off online and get a nicely manufactured version in a few weeks, something I could only dream of back then. In fact, paying other folks to do the time consuming stuff was always like a little fantasy for my friends and me back in the early days. I remember many late night conversations with Charles LaReau of Naturaliste in Omaha about doing just that, but not as a way to make the process more convenient, but rather as an art happening: somehow capturing the endlessness of the dubbing process on a home cassette recorder by hiring a personal cassette duplicator.
Do you plan for future vinyl releases?
I’ve released a number of vinyl albums over the years. 10 or 15 of them. I’m currently collaborating with a number of labels on a new release by the late Z’ev and Illusion of Safety, and have been mailing them out for review over the last few weeks. It’s been a number of years since I’ve released a vinyl album solely on Public Eyesore, although I am planning on releasing a couple 7”s in 2023. One by John Krausbauer & David Maranha and the other being a long distance collaboration with the other members of my old Nebraska project Shelf Life, which hasn’t had a release in 13 years.
As for full length LPs, with all the moving parts to the process, it’s a bit more stress than I can handle at the moment. Issues with mastering, packages getting damaged, the crazy shipping costs. I’d rather spend the time and money on my biggest label-related hurdle at the moment, which is getting a new website built, so probably not much other vinyl for a while.
These days, I spend much more money on my own art and travel than I do on the label, much of my own art not being something that can be released as an album. Sound sculptures and installation pieces. Plus there’s the mortgage and everything else that goes along with that.
What do you think about co-productions between record labels? Do you think it is a viable option for your labels?
I used to do co-releases with other labels much more frequently, but the Illusion of Safety + Z’ev LP is the only one that I have in the works right now. The last two were the Naturaliste LP, which we recorded partly in Shanghai in early 2019, with Unread, Almost Halloween Time and Gertrude Tapes in 2021 and before that I collaborated with UgExplode on an LP by Normal Love about 10 years ago. It does make it more affordable for the individual labels involved, especially when there is a deadline for a big project, such as a music tour or some special event like a festival. But for me, the less complex the project, the better.
How do you see the national and international improvisational music scene?
There are scenes nearly everywhere and those scenes can be multifaceted and can take some time to understand. In some cities or countries it feels like improvised music sits nicely among other art and music communities. In other places there are rifts between certain perceived subgroups and in these places folks don’t generally work together. In some bigger cities, the scene can be so large that members might not realize that similar parallel collectives of artists exist within the same city.
Generally, I’m thankful there is so much interesting art happening all over the world. It makes it easy to travel. I always bring my instruments with me on every trip I take. I’ve designed three variations on a travel instrument setup to make it easier for me to bring a full setup of electroacoustic instruments wherever I go. I performed at a museum in Mexico City a few years ago and the museum director offered to buy my instruments outright, so I think the designs are improving. Over the last 3 months I’ve performed in India and in Brazil, two places with their own unique scenes that I’m just beginning to wrap my head around.
Could you tell us something about some of your future projects?
I have a few more Public Eyesore and Eh? albums scheduled over the next few months and then I’ll be taking some time off to work on my own projects for a while. The next couple releases on Eh? are a cassette album by Charles LaReau, one of the original members of Omaha’s Naturaliste, who is now based in China, an album by Colombian balloon and rubber band improvisor Ricardo Arias with cellist Violeta García, and a tape by John Collins McCormick, who used to perform as Sky Thing based out of Indiana. Other than Violeta, I’ve worked with all of these artists on the label previously.
On Public Eyesore, I’m putting out a CD by Norway’s Guro Moe and France’s Philippe Petit this winter and a CD by Evan Lipson in early 2023. The Krausbauer & Maranha 7” mentioned earlier should be out in spring. A good mix of noise, free improvisation and electroacoustic music is coming up over the next few months.
As for my own work, I went on a little workshop and performance tour of India with my pal and fellow instrument inventor Jay Kreimer in October. We’ve been recording together for the last 15 years as Seeded Plain. We plan on releasing a new album sometime in the next year featuring recordings we made on the trip along with artwork based on collages by Kreimer as painted by a street sign painter in Baroda, India. I may release it on Public Eyesore, or might try to find another label to put it out.
I’m also working on some new music with an improviser and instrument inventor in Brasília, Brazil named Renato Matos. He was a popular reggae musician in Brazil in the 1980s and has been building instruments and sound installations in the capital city since the mid-1990s. I also just released a new album with my project Euphotic on the Finnish label Ikuisuus and we are playing some shows to support that. And I’m working on my first solo album in seven years, as Eloine, a combination of homemade instruments, field recordings and electronic drones. And finally, I’m working on a number of large electromagnetic instruments for a new exhibition in San Francisco in 2023.
It’s been a long road getting to the point where running the label feels like more of a hobby and my own artwork and my day job (I’m an exhibit developer at a big science museum) are now at the forefront. Oftentimes it feels like I just woke up one day and I was here in the Bay Area. In reality, I worked my ass off, but…sometimes I feel like I just wandered in the wrong room.