Sporting a crisp, tucked-in oxford and a neat coif, the fortysomething Tom Abbs is heaping praise on the disheveled, splotchy beardo Adam Downey, his partner in the ascendant New York label Northern Spy Records. Their “brotherly dynamic” (as Abbs calls it) was cultivated while the two worked together—and devised the archetype for their label—at the legendary (but maligned) label ESP-Disk’.
“I was at ESP-Disk’ starting in 2007, and sometime in 2008, Adam was one of my interns. I ended up hiring him. Then we ran out of money, and I had to fire him. Then he just refused to leave,” says Abbs, ESP’s former general manager.
In 2010, they founded their imprint, which operates at the summit of free jazz and indie rock and which this week presents the Spy Music Festival at a host of forward-thinking venues across the city. Abbs leaves the DIY and jazz space-hopping to Downey; his Lefferts Gardens pad might as well be dubbed “Northern Spy House.” Stacks of boxes holding LPs and CDs clutter its halls. N Spy vinyl adorns the walls: R.I.P., the final record by psych-progger maniacs USAISAMONSTER; Age of Energy by electronics-manipulating avant-jazz gurus Chicago Underground Duo; the self-proclaimed “sparkle prog” of Starring’s ABCDEFG-HIJKLMNOP-QRSTUV-WXYZ; and Kenzo Deluxe, the forthcoming LP from art-folk fingerpicking tunesmith Chris Forsyth.
While laying down the blueprint for Northern Spy, Abbs, a jazz bassist (he plays in Andrew Lamb Trio) and downtown avant-garde fixture who put on festivals for his arts nonprofit Jump Arts, was well aware of the pitfalls of a jazz-only label. He and Downey devised a plan to work around them.
“We were really in the middle of executing the vision at ESP of really bringing in the new artists, bringing on the indie element, the kind of bands that have a chance of crossing over—not just jazz,” Abbs says. “I was a free jazz guy going way back—that was my heart, and I knew those people. But I also knew there wasn’t any money in it. Then we had to diversify. So we had this balancing act. We had devised this thing, where we had a 50/50 plan—which is 50 percent indie bands, stuff with lyrics, stuff accessible for radio play, and then 50 percent totally out and experimental stuff.”
That plan has had one clear outcome: Northern Spy is bringing the city’s trailblazers under its ever-expanding umbrella. Experimental sound painters ZS (and their offshoots Hubble and Diamond Terrifier), orchestral avant-pop weirdos Extra Life, free-jazz icon Charles Gayle, and backwoods-psych outfit Colin L. Orchestra have all joined the label.
Some might accuse the label of cornering and dominating its niche while shutting out other outlets, but Abbs disputes that claim. “You can say it’s too eclectic or we’re marginalizing one thing by putting it with another. But we’d be bored out of our minds if we only put out free jazz music. We were sort of born out of ESP in that way: It was way too much, and it got to be a little old. You can’t listen to fire music all day long. I love it, but oh, my god, enough fire-breathing. So it’s a great balance, and it’s this family of artists that really relate to each other.”
Those artists might relate to one another despite seemingly being from disparate genres—though getting audiences to relate those artists to one another is the label’s goal. “We want people to go across that line,” Abbs says. “They’ll listen to one record and then check out Gayle and go the other way. You see some of that, but it’s gonna take a long time. With ESP, that was happening, back in the day. People would check out the Fugs, and they’d check out Ayler, and that would happen. So that’s the dream—that revolutionary music is revolutionary music, and it belongs together, and people will get it.” Downey agrees. “We are more focused on the community, building a community,” he says. “All the genres are blurred already so much anyway. We’re not interested in separating everything into genres.”
That intermingling spirit will be in full effect during the Spy Music Festival, which kicks off Friday. Abbs was tapped to curate two weeks’ worth of gigs at John Zorn’s Avenue C space the Stone, and he parlayed that into a citywide music festival that includes shows at places like Death by Audio, 285 Kent, Union Pool, and Issue Project Room, which have lineups replete with both the label’s artists and like-minded musicians. The old guard will converge with the new as guitar and jazz godheads Thurston Moore, Rhys Chatham, Loren Connors, Arthur Doyle, Matthew Shipp, and Gayle will play on the same bills as Kid Millions’ supernatural percussion army Man Forever, sax titan Darius Jones, and spiritual noisemaking veterans Magik Markers. With the ever-increasing profile of Northern Spy, people might cross the line between the pop and the avant sooner than Abbs and Downey think.
The Spy Music Festival runs from Friday, June 29 through Sunday, July 15 at the Stone, Death by Audio, and other venues across New York City.