The Sacred Bones Label Finds Shades of Dark
"It's kind of awkward, isn't it?" Caleb Braaten asks, apologetic but with a knowing chuckle. "Usually, we just sit here and drink beers and watch The Big Lebowski." It's a drizzly weeknight, and Braaten needs a quiet spot to discuss his record label, Sacred Bones. But tonight, his post-work watering hole on North 6th Street in Williamsburg is hosting an open-mic night; a couple doors down, Canadian electro blares out, while another bar is letting Exile on Main Street bleat to the point of distortion. We wind up at the Academy Records Annex, where, conveniently, Braaten works as a buyer. He also runs his record imprint out of the shop, giving a locus to a label whose artists sprawl across the globe: from Australia to Michigan, Italy to Bushwick. Despite not even having continents in common, Sacred Bones' aesthetic is of a piece: warped and weird homemade post-punk, but decidedly dark. Yet underneath such muck, a pop catchiness resides.
Van-dyked and towering in cowboy boots, a dark-toned button-down, and dusky slacks—all topped with a glittering silver belt buckle and black vest—Braaten heads for the shop's back office, a relieved hush all around us, as he grabs a clutch of paper towels, patting down his long, straight brown hair. He describes a fairly standard upbringing in Denver, Colorado, teething on Quiet Riot and Primus before manning the counter at a friend's parent's record store, where he soon became obsessed with his product. "I've gotten into pretty much everything," he says. "Like every record that came out on [premiere Miami soul-funk imprint] Cat Records. But I also have every record by the Sisters of Mercy." He lets out a deep, bellowing laugh, and I think of Sacred Bones artist Zola Jesus (a/k/a ethereal songstress Nika Rosa Danilova), who summed up for me the cut of Caleb's figure: "He's like if Wild Bill Hickok listened to the Swans."
Upon landing in the city in 2005, Braaten and a friend began selling horror-movie merch as Monster Squad; soon after, they released a death-rock single by locals the Hunt, whereupon Braaten realized that Monster Squad "was the worst name for a record label ever" and swiftly re-christened it. With an eerie name, the music soon coincided: Releases by Blank Dogs, Hunchback, and Factums touched on gothic punk, synthesizer-infused dark wave, no-fi New Zealand noise-pop, and post-punk mischievousness without being indebted to any one genre.
To call Sacred Bones an underground label is no cliché: Its headquarters sprawl across a couple of rooms in the Annex basement. "Being here is incredibly crucial," Braaten tells me as we descend the shop's creaky steps and navigate the silk-screen drying racks and towers of new releases. He cops to a Greenpoint apartment overstuffed with his own record collection, admitting: "I would not be able to run Sacred Bones out of my house." He's not alone, either, as the shop also houses Academy's own reissue imprint as well as the Captured Tracks label run by Mike Sniper, a friend, co-worker, and noise-punk enthusiast who records as Blank Dogs.
"One night, Mike and I were just hanging out listening to records and drinking whisky," Braaten recalls. "I had this classical record on the Odyssey label, and Mike said, 'We should do [Blank Dogs 12-inch] Diana (The Herald) like that.' Lots of text that tells you everything you need to know up-front—some piece of weird art. And so it's followed."
Upstairs, Sacred Bones' current vinyl releases line a corner of the shop. Inverted octopi tentacles illustrate Canada's aptly named the Pink Noise, who deploy archaic drum machines to create Residents-type weirdness. Every cover is designed by David Correll and hand-screened by Keegan Cooke, who offer disquieting medieval diagrams of men-fish for mysterious band Factums and a sepia-toned picture of convalescing kids from the turn of the 20th century for fellow A-Frames offshoot Children's Hospital. Such mysterious imagery—offset by matter-of-fact printed information—makes each release feel uncanny.
Behind the counter, Braaten actually bought the first LP by the zonked yet catchy Gary War (a/k/a Greg Dalton), a future Sacred Bones artist. "I had just moved to New York, not really having any friends or a new label to work with," Dalton recollects. "So I was extremely grateful to cross paths with Caleb, who kicked me in the ass to get an LP done."
He's not the only one motivated by Braaten's lovingly crafted records (or his entrepreneurial boot). In the past few months, nearly a dozen new singles have oozed out, documenting the Michigan-based four-track-damaged punk of Timmy's Organism; Australia's cacophonic Naked on the Vague; Italian group His Electro Blue Voice; and the aforementioned Zola Jesus. "It has been so exciting to work with someone who is so passionate about every last detail of the record-making process," says Danilova, who goes on to say that Braaten's aesthetic "will carry the label into a completist's wet dream of legendry."
Zealotry aside, in addition to hand-printing every cover, Braaten has cobbled together limited editions of each release. The Rebel's Northern Rocks Bear Weird Vegetable thus also comes draped in letter-pressed black velvet, while the Children's Hospital release is available as a 28-page photo reproduction of a weathered photo album documenting (what else?) children's hospital patients in the late 1920s. Such craftsmanship doesn't go unnoticed: A cloth-bound edition of the Blank Dogs' Diana (The Herald) netted a tidy $170 on eBay. "It's flattering, and I think it's cool," Braaten says. "But I don't want to create expensive records. I want to keep everything in print." Up next is a full-length from Zola Jesus and reissues of forgotten pre–Revolting Cocks band Cultural Decay and U.K. post-punks 13th Chime.
From post-punk to the Blank Dogs' water-damaged synth-pop, from fog-shrouded acts like Factums and Children's Hospital to Zola Jesus's haunting dirges, the label still manages to have its aesthetic infuse it all: "The real common thread is that it's real dark music," says Braaten. These releases suggest the same open field of post-punk synonymous with old labels like Ralph Records and Rough Trade: inscrutable, yet oddly enamoring. Another curious attribute is how, in a world dominated by GarageBand, Ableton, and Pro-Tools, most SB recordings sound, well . . . shitty and lo-fi. "Everyone says that it sounds like that because that's the way they want it to sound," Braaten chuckles, then clarifies: "But I have a love for things that sound no-fi. Not knowing how to record music, but having good songs: It's a winning combination."
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