Over the past five years, Mexican Summer has introduced (or helped to introduce) bands like Best Coast, Washed Out and Kurt Vile. This weekend, to celebrate their five-year anniversary, they’re throwing a two-day concert at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, with Spiritualized, Ariel Pink, Lansing-Dreiden, and No Joy all scheduled to play.
That’s a pretty heavy list of big-name bands, and it’s been an extremely successful five year run. On the occasion of the label’s five-year anniversary, we talked to bands and label insiders to get a picture of how Mexican Summer got to where it is. We heard tale of fistfights in Sweden, beers in California, and why Ariel Pink only put out one single through the label.
In 2008, Kemado Records decided to launch a small project–a record club. Their plan was to put out limited releases of bands who didn’t fit into the Kemado roster, which was, at that point, mostly hard rock bands like The Sword.
JEFF KAYE (Marketing Director for Kemado, and later Mexican Summer): It was very limiting at Kemado, the types of bands that you could work with. When we started to sign things like Marissa Nadler and Dungen, we started to notice that it didn’t necessarily fit into that mold.
KEITH ABRAHAMSSON (head of A&R for Kemado, later Mexican Summer): We wanted to do a label that would be a lot looser and freewheeling than what we were doing with Kemado, which was more of a traditional way of putting out records.
JESS ROTTER (head of Publicity for Mexican Summer): When we went into it, it was like Kemado was doing its own thing, and we wanted to do something a little bit more intimate. A little bit more tightly curated, that we had a handle on.
JEFF KAYE: The idea was that to create this exclusive club that people who enjoyed music and listened to vinyl could be a part of. You pay a monthly fee and get a vinyl or two every month. It was inspired by the Sub Pop Singles Club. We thought it would be a piece of cake. We’d charge different amounts, we’d give premium items, people will sign up, it will be easy to take care of.
The records that first month were an Ariel Pink 7″, a Dungen 12″, and a Nachtmystium EP. It was pretty all over the map, and I think our tastes were pretty all over the map, as well. To have the opportunity to do that was awesome for us.
ARIEL PINK: They had initially contacted me because they wanted to start the vinyl portion of their label. At the time, they were still Kemado. It was the initial, inaugural release.
[Agreeing to do a release through the label] was sort of a weird situation. It was sort of a misunderstanding between my manager and me and the lawyer that we had at the time. It was brokered .. . with our consent, but just sort of like . . . the goal at the time was to get us signed to a label, and we didn’t see that as really a label. There was too much resting on our heads. We didn’t know whether they would be successful or not.
KEITH ABRAHAMSSON: The Ariel Pink single [I Can’t Hear My Eyes/Evolution’s A Lie], when he did that, he wasn’t what he is now. He’s kind of the godfather of a certain sound. When we did that first single with him, he was not that yet. But that’s one I’m so proud of. I had been a huge fan of his for years.
ARIEL PINK: Keith at the label was very, very encouraging and he was very interested in signing us, and that eventually led to an offer. But we went with 4AD [for subsequent releases]. I’ve always held them in high esteem. They seem to have done well for themselves.
Soon after starting, the concept of a record club becomes difficult to manage.
KEITH ABRAHAMSSON: It was totally a nightmare. We gave up on that pretty quickly. In hindsight, if we had just been putting out a single every month, or every other month, it would have been real easy. But we were putting out like literally three records every month. They were varying formats: LPs, 12″, 7″… just figuring out the price points was a total logistical train wreck.
JEFF KAYE: Who has a six-month subscription? Who has a three-month subscription? Who was getting what bonus item? It just became a pain in the butt.
JESS ROTTER: When the Washed Out EP [2010’s Life of Leisure] came out, it was like everything changed overnight. People really started paying attention, and the subscriptions idea went out of hand a little bit. It got larger than life really fast.
JEFF KAYE: I think Washed Out was the first one where we were like, whoa, this might be more than a single pressing. Last I heard it was at 9 pressings.
KEITH ABRAHAMSSON: I came across his stuff online and reached out to him pretty immediately after I came across it. That’s a lot of what A&R can be. It’s just finding stuff online and connecting with people.
I also had a trip planned to go out to Georgia to visit my sister. So, I tagged a little bit extra onto the trip to go meet him, and I think that kind of sealed it. It happened over the course of like two weeks.
While Washed Out’s EP was taking off, the label was preparing to release another record, by an unknown band called Best Coast.
KEITH ABRAHAMSSON: The Best Coast thing was crazy. That was a really strange way to come to a project. My buddy Jake Hurn was their manager at the time (though he’s not anymore), and I had known him for years. He brought the project to me. They had interest from a lot of other places.
JEFF KAYE: Even before we put it out, it was obvious that that record was going to be a big record. I don’t necessarily think it defined Mexican Summer, but I do think that they fit very neatly into what we were trying to do: very song-oriented pop music.
KEITH ABRAHAMSSON: Initially, I declined. Not because I wasn’t into the tunes, but it was more that our schedule was so insane that I had no idea how we could make it work. Then we talked more about it, and they had done a lot of work on their own, and the record was done.
We decided that we were going to try to do it, and [Hurn] was like, ‘Well, you’re going to have to talk to Beth.’ It all seemed like it was hinging on this phone call, whether we would click or not.
BETHANY COSENTINO (Best Coast): Our old manager had me taking a million calls before Crazy For You came out, and I remember sitting in my bed talking to all these label people on the phone, and I was just like so bored. They all wanted to talk super industry business stuff with me, and at the time I just had no idea what anything in the music industry consisted of so I was just like waiting to talk to someone who I could have an interesting conversation with.
KEITH ABRAHAMSSON: This is what I do. All day long. I bullshit with artists. I’m a musician, too. That’s second nature to me. I went into that as myself. I’m not a businessman, that’s not what I do. So I just went into it and told her I loved the record and we just talked. Whatever’s casual.
BETHANY COSENTINO: I remember talking to Keith on the phone for like an hour and we just had this rad conversation and he was so nice, and did not have a snotty vibe like some record label executive people can sometimes have. I just remember thinking that I wanted to sign with a label that had an awesome guy like Keith working for them.
KEITH ABRAHAMSSON: After that phone call, I figured I should meet them, if this was really going to happen. And to see them play live, also. So, they were on tour in Europe. We also had Dungen in the studio in Sweden, making their new record, in Stockholm. So I figured that if I went to Stockholm I could get in the studio with Dungen and see Best Coast play this club there. So I went and hung out with them there, and saw them play that night, and it was great.
BETHANY COSENTINO: We were all hanging out backstage, and just getting to know each other, and all the sudden this insane fan like ran at the backstage door, kicked it open and tried to punch me in the face. We were all freaking out and Keith got up and just like told the dude to back the fuck off and took care of business so quickly it was crazy. I was like whoa, this guy rules.
Much of 2010 through 2011 was taken up by Best Coast.
JESS ROTTER: The whole time was insane. It was really insane. I had a real lesson in pop culture.
BETHANY COSENTINO: One time Jess and I were at a dinner at some sushi place in NY and we were sitting next to this couple who were on a disaster date. The girl was crying and the guy was like rubbing her back and telling her that her crying was turning him on. So many weird things happened, but Jess and I were just sitting there laughing out asses off, and I remember I was live tweeting it because it was just so absurd and hilarious.
JESS ROTTER: Betheny was one of the big tweet stars. Her twitter was like a reality show. So many people were like on the edge of their seat every 10 minutes to see what she was going to say. That was before Instagram, so people were like, whatever.
This disgusting couple was at the next table. Bethany was like live-tweeting this terrible sushi date. I think MTV chose it as the best tweet of 2011? You have to check that. In like 10 minutes I had like 500 more followers because everyone is obsessed with Best Coast. [In fact, MTV’s Best Tweet of 2011 went Kanye West, who wrote “I hate when I’m on a flight and I wake up with a water bottle next to me like oh great now I gotta be responsible for this water bottle.”]
At the same time, the staff was also trying to run Kemado.
KEITH ABRAHAMSSON: We really had to make some decisions about what Kemado was going to be. Stylistically, they were kind of crossing streams. It was like, Marissa Nadler and the Soft Pack – those bands would also be at home on Mexican Summer. So it was like, where’s the divide?
JEFF KAYE: At that point, Kemado was 6 people. Everybody worked on Mexican Summer all the time. The hardest part for me was starting to put out so much stuff, to where you lost track of what you were releasing. A little 7″ would pop up on the schedule and surprise you. Or it would come into the office, and you’d be like, ‘Oh, I totally forgot we were putting this out.’
KEITH ABRAHAMSSON: To be totally frank with you, I’m the only one here who’s really into heavy metal. There’s one guy here that’s super into hard rock and riffs. Not only was the staff here not the right staff to be working heavy metal records – I’m the only one who could hold a conversation about that stuff, or is even interested – so it kind of wasn’t fair to the artist or the staff here. There was a disconnect.
And also Mexican Summer had become the thing that was far more successful. We decided to stop signing bands to Kemado, and have it go catalog-only. It was actually a really easy decision. It just took a long time to get there. It was hard in way, because Kemado was how we started. But we just looked at Mexican Summer as an extension of Kemado.
ARIEL PINK: Our fees have gone up considerably. It means that they’ve done well for themselves, if they can afford us [to play the reunion festival].
By all accounts, Mexican Summer’s success is down to the musical taste and tenacity of Abrahamsson, and the familial atmosphere the label fosters in its artists and staff.
TAMARYN: I think when you’re a musician in the music business, you really don’t expect people who work in the industry to do anything but turn you off from music. There’s not really the best reputation for A&R people at labels. It unfortunately the case that a lot of time, even though you’re supposed to be working together, ends up being an enemy of sorts.
What’s so great about Keith, and all the guys at the label – Andres [Santo Domingo, the co-founder], and Tom [Clapp, co-founder] — they’re all just really big music fans. They love music. In a way, the business side of it, I know they have it covered, but it’s never been the main objective of the label. The label is almost like, they’re curators or patrons of the arts. They’re trying to bring what they consider to be high art, and the music that they love to people, and that is just something you don’t see very often in the bigger indie labels.
BETHANY COSENTINO: I just always felt like Mexican Summer was more like a big group of my friends and less like my label. I mean obviously they did all the things a label does and should do- but when I would hang out with them at shows or SXSW or go to dinners or something, it always just felt like a big family and less like some business thing.
TAMARYN: When they signed us, we had met, but they’d never actually seen us play. They booked us for their Mexican Summer showcase at SXSW. They put us up in a hotel, and were super accommodating of us. Andreas got up at six in the morning to rent us a smoke machine, because at the time I was really into this kind of Sisters of Mercy, smoke machines on stage, white lights kind of thing. At SXSW you don’t really get to ask for those extras, but they went out of their way to do it. I did not know who Andreas was, because I’d only met Keith. I knew he was affiliated, but I didn’t know what he did. I thought it was an intern for the longest time. I was like, ‘Oh, he’s so sweet! He’s helping carry my gear, and he went to get me a smoke machine!’ We had brunch, and I was like, so what exactly do you do at the label? And he was like, well, when I was such-and-such age, I started Kemado… And I was like ‘Oh.’ That’s a perfect example of what the energy of the label is like. The owner is so humble and so cool, you could think he’s just some young kid working at the label.
JESS ROTTER: Keith and I have known each other for about five years. He’s been one of the most important record heads in my life. He taught me about so many things. He has a really important eye and ear. He’s a really great curator, and he’s one of those people who really sticks to what he believes, and doesn’t bend from that. Mexican Summer was Keith’s eyes. And he did a really good job with that.
KEITH ABRAHAMSSON: I didn’t have any idea what we’d be doing at first. The first three records could not have been more different. I was just kind of like, I want to put these records out! I love these bands. Fuck it, whatever. It doesn’t matter.
We don’t have an easy identity to articulate. I feel like a lot of the artists who work with us feel kind of cut from the same cloth. It may be something a little off, a little left-of-center, a little bit skewed and strange. We also do records that can be straighter – folk records, dreamy pop records. I hate the term ‘psychodelic.’ It’s so broad and generic. I guess there is a common thread of that element that flows through a lot of the records we put out. We don’t have one guiding thing like a lot of labels do. We’ve always tried to sidestep that a little bit.
JESS ROTTER: One of my favorite moments was party in the Pines in Big Sur. It felt like a moment when everything we’d dreamt of for the label, all of our hopes for the label were live and in color. The lineup was very Mexican Summer, the aesthetic was very Mexican Summer, the huge red pines around us looked like the vintage images we’d cull for fliers, the people there were just enough – only like 200. It started with an acoustic Kurt Vile show and ended with a metal Saviours show. Dungen was there, Ariel Pink was there. To me, it was perfect. When I look at the lineup for the two five year shows, I smile to myself, because he did a great job. The lineups are so great, and they’re all so Mexican Summer. You can see Keith’s heavy curating hand.
TAMARYN: I’ve always been of the school that whatever label you’re on, of whatever size, you should always be a priority. If you sign to your favorite label of all time, but you’re last on the totem poll, then what are you really getting out of that other than having a stamp on the back of your record? The real goal is to find a place that’s like your home.
KEITH ABRAHAMSSON: Making it five years as a record label in this day and age is significant. When we started this thing, we had very low expectations. I hate saying that because we’re not slackers. But we were like, we just want to put some records out that we love, and see what happens.
I feel totally blessed by all this. I know that’s a weird thing to say, I’m not religious at all. But I just feel really lucky to have this job and be in this position. This is my dream job. I wanted to play music, and this is the next best thing.
Mexican Summer’s five year anniversary festival, featuring Spiritualized, Ariel Pink, No Joy, and more, happens October 11 and 12 in Red Hook.