Sharon Cheslow interviewed by Tobi Vail for Kill Rock Stars, February 2002
The fourth in a series of interviews with small/underground/independent labels.
Sharon Cheslow has been a major feminist force in US underground culture for 20 plus years now. She had a pivotal role in the male dominated DC punk scene playing in Chalk Circle DC's first all girl punk band (who formed after she was inspired by seeing bands like Delta 5 and the MoDettes) and she later co-edited Banned in DC with Cynthia Connelly and Leslie Clague which was one of the first books to document any US hardcore scene. In the early 90's she played a big role in starting the riot grrl movement working with members of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile and playing in bands with Kathleen Hanna and Tim Green of Nation of Ulysses/the fucking Champs. She has done a fanzine called Interrobang for over ten years now which you can now check out online and continues to play, push the boundaries, and inspire with her projects. She is currently doing experimental composition and sound installations in SF. She also has a really interesting website (which documents the History of Women in Punk and much more) and label called DECOMPOSITION:
1. Your label is interesting to me because it is so small and seems
to document stuff done by your friends and you seem to make it work,
which I think is a hard thing to do. I was wondering why you started
Decomposition and if part of your label idea was to keep it small or
if that is just the way it's turned out.
A combination of both. My inspiration was small underground presses of the 60s and independent punk labels of the 70s, that were more about quality than quantity. I've also always gravitated towards mass produced, inexpensive or free, aesthetically strong, politically poignant cultural artifacts. So when I started Decomposition I had all that in mind. But on a practical level, I really just started the label as a way to document what had been going on in DC in 1991, by distributing the A Wonderful Treat cassette and releasing the Suture 7", and just kept going from there.
2. You are one of the few label owners that I know of in the history
of the world who is female. Plenty of women work at labels, but
barely any own one! Do you have any theories about this? I know this
is something you are fully aware of...
Really? I wasn't aware of this. Now you've got me interested in doing some research! The only theory I can think of off the top of my head is that most females aren't encouraged to become knowledgeable about music, so they don't develop a love of it like many of their male friends. I think also the technical process of releasing music can be intimidating for many girls brought up in a society that keeps girls technophobic, which is unfortunate. Especially because it's not that difficult to understand. I learned a lot about the technical side of music when I was very young - everything from recording and editing to production. My father had a reel to reel tape recorder which I used, and I liked to read his audio magazines. It was curiosity on my part - asking myself how does sound get from a voice or instrument onto magnetic tape and then onto vinyl in a way that the ear can pick out all the different parts of an arrangement. I was fascinated by the process. I started buying records when I was ten. So I developed a love of music and records early on, and became interested in how a label worked. This lead to volunteering for Skip Groff's label Limp Records, which was one of the first DC punk labels, when I was in high school. He ran the label out of his record store Yesterday & Today, and then he hired me to work there, so I learned a lot about small independent labels from that experience. There have been studies showing that when girls aren't encouraged to excel in math and science as teenagers their self esteem plummets. There are lots of other reasons why girls' esteem plummets around that age, but I think encouraging girls to become interested in the technical side of music and art would be one great way to deal with this.
3. How did being a part of the early DC punk scene effect the work
you are doing now as an artist and label person?
It's had a tremendous effect. I was very influenced by the whole do-it-yourself attitude, so I probably wouldn't do things on my own if it weren't for that. Also, I was inspired by HR of the Bad Brains talking about "positive mental attitude". When I first began hanging out with Henry we talked a lot about PMA. The whole idea was to take control of your own life so that society and other negative experiences don't get you down. So in regards to creativity, it meant doing things on your own terms. I also learned about the positive aspects of being part of a tight-knit group of creative people who supported one another, and this became my model for friendship and community.
4. Can you talk a little about your favorite Decomposition releases?
I really don't have any favorites, because I've enjoyed the process of putting each one out and seeing what happens once it's out of my hands.
5. How do you distribute your stuff?
Mostly through mailorder. I like the direct contact. Early on I had the help of other distributors, such as KRS, Dischord, K, Cargo, Ajax, Simple Machines, Scratch, and Revolver. A lot of people think there's no way to have your music heard without the help of larger distributors, but now people can release mp3s which is great. I'd like to have more digital audio on the Decomposition website. The only thing I don't like about mp3s is that they're purely digital information and I like the artwork that goes along with a music release. I guess one way around this is to have people download digital images to go along with the audio files.
6. How do you keep from losing money?
Let's see, maybe a better question would be "what is more important than making money?" and I'd answer doing what I love, living simply, helping friends get recognition for their work, and trying to pay people when I can...which right now means focusing on distribution. I'm trying to come up with ways to get around the whole monetary system, like by publishing the last issue of Interrobang?!, which is an anthology available online as a free Acrobat pdf. I was able to do it because I relied on voluntary contributions.
7. What underground activity excites you in the year 2002?
The application of the discovery of the human genome sequence into music and art. Street protests & musicians for peace. The use of MIT Media Lab's recently invented audio spotlight. Kinetic sound sculptures. Lady robot performance art. Real time digital video processing. Bands playing on the floor instead of the stage.
8. What are your future plans for Decomposition?
To follow my inspiration. The most recent news is on the website at http://www.mindspring.com/~acheslow/AuntMary/decomp.html.
9. Do you see what you are doing as being political?
Yes. Being political, to me, encompasses different aspects of life, such as personal, social, economic, and ideological. I'm interested in breaking down the boundaries between art and life, so what I do usually deals with at least one of these various political aspects. I'm most interested in the connection among all of them, but that's a very difficult thing to get across. I think anytime someone is able to make choices about how they exist in society in relation to others, it's a political act, and these choices - consciously or not - make up a person's political values. One thing I think is important, especially for women, is to document creativity as a form of cultural resistance.
10. What bands are you listening to these days?
Almost all the bands I've been listening to lately are from San Francisco, which is bursting with creative energy right now! Aside from the bands Decomposition distributes - Deerhoof, Erase Errata, Quails, Concentrick, and the music from the Charm soundtrack - there are tons of great local bands and performers all with their own unique style and sound. Some newer ones include Numbers, Curtains, Crack, Total Shutdown, Gold Chains, Pink & Brown, Coachwhips, Tiny Bird Mouth, and the Pattern. At home I've mostly been listening to the Tigerbeat6 compilation and new releases by Neotropic and Dymaxion. As far as older stuff, I think I've listened to Alice Coltrane's Journey In Satchidananda release from 1970 with Pharoah Sanders at least once a week for the past year! Also I just found a copy of Borbetomagus' first LP and absolutely love it. Other than that, mostly bands from the 60s like the Feminine Complex and Pretty Things, hip-hop like Blackalicious and Dilated Peoples, and very avant garde experimental and electronic music. There's a composer/sound artist Maryanne Amacher whom I like quite a lot. And lots of ESG.