Photo by Geoffry Smith

San Francisco-based record label The Flenser celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2020, continuing to release a steady stream of musically boundary-breaking records. Ranging from the fierce black metal of the Minnesota-based project Panopticon to the shimmering post-punk of Connecticut’s Have A Nice Life, these records of the label’s variety-rich catalog have outlined a unique perspective for The Flenser, which seems to specialize in finding releases that share a certain contemplative mood, no matter the precise style. That contemplative yet forward-pushing spirit runs through the mood and the content of the music itself.

“I think it’s important to challenge people, and especially when it comes to music,” the label’s founder Jonathan Tuite explains. “I mean, the last thing I want to do is release a lot of kind of nostalgic projects, because I don’t want to look backwards.”

Fitting in with these aims, some of the more recent releases from The Flenser include 2020’s Forever by the Denver-based artist Midwife, who crafts what’s been described as “heaven metal” and Tuite believes is “huge” and “going to be remembered.” The music features richly immersive, shoegazey yet intense melodies that set a memorable scene alongside other recent albums from The Flenser, like the industrial punk of the Texas duo Street Sects and the expansive, intensely shifting post-metal of the San Francisco-area group Mamaleek.

“When I started the label I was intending it to be very much focused on black metal,” Tuite explains. “There was sort of a black metal scene that was happening in the U.S. at that time. That was kind of what I was interested in, that was kind of what I was collecting — and that was sort of done by the time the label got going. I mean it had changed forms and kind of diversified a little bit.”

So, Tuite expanded his label’s sonic horizons and began exploring other styles. “I have sort of gone with what intuitively feels like it relates to the label. So something like the Midwife record feels like it’s part of the Flenser catalogue. It doesn’t feel like an outsider, and so part of that is like intuition for me and just kind of different sets of judgment. It’s all kind of mixed together.”

The label is definitely founded on a very DIY ethos. All the way back at the start, The Flenser started as what Tuite describes as a “creative outlet” for him amidst his own appreciation for the music that he ended up putting out.

“When I started the label it was a time when I was really into vinyl then, and there were kind of a lot of large, vinyl-based labels like Southern Lord that I was following, and I was also really into underground music,” Tuite explains. “So I really wanted to kind of take part in that. I mean, I’d been a musician and I had struggled with problems playing guitar because of arthritis that really took me out of being a musician, and I wanted to have a kind of creative outlet and a hobby.”

Tuite observes that starting out as a metal label actually seems to have helped The Flenser get going. Some circles of metal fans are both pretty dedicated and pretty interconnected, after all.

“It’s a lot easier to start a metal label than it is something else, I think. At least for me it was, because when you start a record label that’s creating physical product, the first thing that you want to do is get it out of your space and sell it. And if you’re a brand new label, the only way to do that is either the help of a distributor or by selling it yourself, and with a metal label you can do that without a distributor. You can do that by trading records with people or being a part of that underground world, so I think that let me kind of get my feet wet with the music.”

Over the years, of course, the specific tools that DIY labels use have changed. Mail networks have faded, in place of more consolidated but vaster music marketplaces like Bandcamp, for example.

“It’s hard to break through the kind of the chatter right now, because there are so many bands that all have the same tools to get out there,” Tuite notes. That turmoil has been exacerbated by so many artists having to temporarily give up touring because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, Tuite remains “optimistic” that some of the best music will still find a way.

“I tend to be pretty optimistic when it comes to stuff like this,” he explains, discussing the pandemic’s impact on the music community. “I mean, I started the label at a really bad time for the music industry, before streaming really kind of kicked in, and after Napster and also just after the financial crisis. So it wasn’t like a good time for people to be spending the money on records. Distributors didn’t want to really take anyone on, and it felt like everything was a loss. So now there’s a lot more digital income coming in for a label like mine then there was a few years ago. I think that’s pretty true across the board.”

The Flenser has definitely found its own measure of success amidst the shifting tides. A selection of artists from the label were set to perform at the 2020 edition of Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands before the high-profile event joined the ranks of COVID-19-induced postponements.

“One thing that I really like to look at is when people go back and revisit particular releases and rediscover them, or discover them for the first time,” Tuite explains. “I mean, it’s constant with Have A Nice Life’s Deathconsciousness. It feels like it’s almost like a stepping stone, a coming of age in music fandom is that you discover that record and it’s like – wow.”

Deathconsciousness, which was originally released in early 2008, has certainly earned many fans, as reflected by accomplishments like the special performance that Have A Nice Life put on at Roadburn 2019, where they performed the album in full.

“There’s nothing like that experience of when you listen to a record like one of these kind of classic releases and it finally hits you and it just feels like everything changes,” Tuite notes, and that’s the kind of experience that he is attempting to capture via The Flenser. 

“I want to kind of be viewed as a unique voice in the world of music that can be trusted – at least for some weirdos that like some kind of stranger music,” he quips.

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