Steve Mizek runs Tasteful Nudes, its parent label, Argot and also Little White Earbuds. After hearing Argot’s latest on TN, we got in touch with Steve, who found some time for us in his busy schedule for a chat about the label, electronic music in America and some of the country’s most exciting new talents.
Hey Steve. Let’s start with an easy one. Who are you and what d’you do?
Hey. My name’s Steve Mizek. Presently I run the record labels Argot & Tasteful Nudes. I’m also the editor in chief and founder of Little White Earbuds dot com.
What’s the connection between Argot & Tasteful Nudes? Why have 2 separate labels?
Basically, because I strongly believe in sticking to mission statements. I started Argot specifically to showcase American artists, largely because it seemed like a lot of other labels especially from outside the US, were focusing on showcasing up and coming talents, whereas a lot of American labels were falling down on the job, or just being really specific to the group of people that they were working with. I felt as someone who had been involved in the scene for a while, pretty connected to the experience that a lot of American producers have – how difficult it can be to get art out into the world and be treated like artists of a similar profile in Europe are. So that’s how Argot came about.
But then people from overseas kept sending me stuff that was just really, really good and I didn’t want to break away from my stated mission with Argot, so I decided to make it its own thing. Then I could focus on giving a different set of artists with a different set of needs a different sort of product. Something that was maybe curated a little differently – the artwork was done a little differently, it was done a little more cost efficiently too. Argot is definitely not the most cost efficient label with the artwork and the way it’s pressed.
So Argot was for one thing and Tasteful Nudes was for another. And it wouldn’t have been born were it not for the fact that I was getting so many demos that I didn’t want to let anyone else have really! I felt that someone else would be having a field day with these tracks that I just didn’t want to turn down.
In England there’s this widely held perspective of electronic music in the States where it deserves a sort of respect almost out of default, but you really don’t hear much of what’s going on there outside of New York and maybe Detroit, particularly among the younger generation of producers. As someone who has released a lot of American music, can you offer us your perspective on electronic music in America?
What’s strange at the moment is that a lot of the powerhouse labels are based overseas – in Holland, Germany or the UK. A lot of the American labels that were really big at one time have either gone away or they’ve become so specific to what they are that if you’re not looking for that kind of thing, you just won’t notice it. Obviously there are still labels like L.I.E.S. that are pulling in a lot of unknown American talents, but also these days, Ron’s putting out as many releases from artists outside of the States as he is from artists in America. It was once a group of his friends and it’s now a group of people who send him demos. There’s nothing wrong with that, but how he’s going about things is just a bit less American focused.
But there is a lot of talent here, and the hardest part is just getting noticed. Unlike Europe, where you can have 5 or 6 tour dates and you’re only traveling a few hours to each by train or car, the States are so spread out that it’s hard to get the attention of a critical mass of people. Any 1 city only has so many people who are actually interested in underground dance music and we just don’t have the industry and appreciation for it that there is in Europe.
Although the scene is a lot smaller, the dedication here is very strong. There’s a lot of people who are willing to do this sort of stuff just for the love of it. But these are people that should not need to do it purely for the love of it – they’re just as savvy and skilled as anyone else, and I’m hoping that through the label I can at least expose some of these people to the international stage, where they can tour around and do things the way they want to do them.
The situation’s not helped by the fact that there’s very few labels that come to mind at the moment that are focusing on just American talent and not just on one specific sound. Which is why we’ve had techno releases, house releases, disco releases…the remit is pretty wide for us as long as the talent is there. And it really helps for me if I’ve had some sort of personal connection with the music or with the people behind it. There have been people I’ve worked with that I’ve never met, but eventually I’ve come to know everyone at some level. The family aspect is important to me, to be able to know what’s gonna come next from them and where they’re going.
Do you see it getting any easier for American producers in the future?
I think it could. Right now we’re at a period (or at least over the last 12 to 18 months) where a lot more American artists are hitting peoples’ radars. So it could easily get bigger. We’ve seen periods of time where American artists are very popular and playing all over the place and I think it’s certainly possible to return to a time like that. But I think it’s interesting that there are a lot of people in Europe -as well as in America- who are sort of aping the classic American house sound. So it’s hard to move forward. There’s not been a lot of crazy new developments that have seen people scrambling to book American artists overseas, maybe with the exception of footwork/ juke which was probably the newest thing that we’ve had recently unless you count some of the “outsider house” (please put that in big quotation marks!) that came out over the last few years or so.
I would like to say that it should be getting bigger and it will be getting bigger, but it’s hard to say. Obviously one of the biggest physical obstacles is the Atlantic ocean because a lot of people just won’t pay to get someone over for just 1 or 2 gigs, a lot of artists just aren’t big enough to justify that for a promoter. Most people just don’t have a huge profile like Theo Parrish or Mike Huckaby and you can’t guarantee they’ll sell tickets. I feel that a lot of people could do it, but it’s difficult to say. There’s a lot of room for it to pick up again in the States and I think that if artists here are smart in the way they work with other artists to set up labels and to promote themselves then it’s only a matter of time. It’s really a roll of the dice at this stage, but I’m hopeful. It’s gonna require a bit of hustling by American artists, but it’s possible.
I can say that as far as success stories go with Argot, the Black Madonna whose single I put out last year has been getting a few bookings in Europe, at Panorama Bar for example and I’m not taking all the credit for that, but it’s great to have contributed to her success in some way. Amir Alexander who put out our first release is getting a lot of praise from a lot of different places, and Gunnar Haslam has just left for a European tour. He’s got a lot of big things on the horizon. We’ve got records coming out from people too who are starting to reach that critical mass and hopefully we can push them over the edge a little bit. I’d really love to be spreading the Argot gospel overseas as it were, as opposed to just in Chicago which is really what I’m doing now.
You seem to take getting bookings in Europe as an indicator of success?
It’s really hard to tell how successful a label is unless you have one of those mega hits, you know like Andres’ New For U, but obviously I’m not Andres and I didn’t put out New For U, so I can’t bracket myself that way. But it’s nice to reach a level of recognition where people overseas are asking for it and people over here are asking me to play outside of Chicago a little bit. With any luck I’ll be playing New York in July and hopefully Detroit in the next couple of months and a few more dates if possible. Hopefully I’ll be coming to Europe soon as well, I’d be looking to do a couple of Argot nights and a few Tasteful Nudes nights too. There’s nothing firm on that yet, nothing I can really announce yet, but I’m pushing for it.
There are some really healthy electronic music communities in the States that are really growing, Pittsburgh for example. But the crossover between places in the States is still very small. For example I brought Pittsburgh Track Authority to Chicago in late 2012 and no one’s brought them back since which isn’t to say they’re not appreciated here. So what’s really needed here is a way of linking up all of these states and all of these musicians in them so we could get some kind of collective bargaining going on here.
I think some kind of crossover from the underground into the mainstream would probably help the process along a bit. You guys have had that in the UK, with Disclosure. I was really surprised to hear them on a pop radio over here. I’m not saying someone has to make a pop single, but I think it’s gonna require someone to make it pretty big before people start booking artists here to play a little more and for that appetite to grow.
I said I wouldn’t touch on EDM, but I guess I kind of have to. There’s a lot of people going to these events at the moment and I think a lot of them are discovering that you can go to an event and hear club music without all the trappings of EDM.
So it’s like a point of entry for some people?
Yeah, I like to think so. I think that a lot of people do end up dead ending down that route, going down the rabbit hole without coming out into something better. But I have seen it transitioning a little bit, at least in Chicago, where some of the audiences are a bit more healthy. It seems like the gay scene which has been segregated for a while, listening to mostly Katy Perry and Lady Gaga has started to understand that there’s good dance music that’s worth checking out in places beyond gay clubs. So artistically we’re in this Renaissance space, but I think the audience has yet to catch up in some ways.
The scene has existed independently of Europe here for such a long time that it’s gonna take a while for it to reach its previous levels, but let’s hope that it does.
It’s all cyclical right?
Yeah I think so, I have no idea how long this cycle will be. I’ve talked with a lot of artists recently who think that Europe is really feeling them at the moment. Just a brief example of how Europe is caring more about American artists. A good friend of mine, Michael Serafini, who owns Gramophone Records in Chicago, which is pretty much one of the places that helped spread house music and has been around since the 70s. He was asked to play Panorama Bar even though he has no international profile, purely because he met Steffi when she played over here a couple of times. I think there’s definitely a hunger for an American perspective in Europe.
What’s happening in Chicago at the moment? I can imagine it’s difficult to avoid parallels with the old Chicago sound?
It can be. I think what’s nice is that a lot of the established people from Chicago: Chicago Skyway, Steven Tang, Hakim Murphy, Innerspace Halflife, Ike Release…a lot of these people take those sounds into consideration and sort of weave them into their aesthetic, but they don’t really feel obligated to represent a certain “Chicago sound.” It’s more part of the melting pot of their aesthetic. Something I said before, is that there’s loads of people making vintage Chicago house and Detroit techno and actually – you don’t even need to be from these places to be making music like that anymore. A lot of people in these places are still making music like that, but they’re not super well known like the people from the past. But a lot of those people aren’t even making music like that anymore. I mean you won’t catch Ron Trent making stuff that sounds like old Prescription or Chez Damier.
But you’re right – there is definitely a legacy that is like a shadow looming over a lot of Chicago people. But I guess a lot of people are trying not to play into that – they’re trying to show what else is out there. A lot of people I’m working with are just not really interested in doing something that sounds just like Chicago. But we all have that rooted in our heads.
Here’s a bit of a random example. There’s this place called Smart Bar – it’s where I spend most of my time as far as clubbing goes in Chicago. And in the booth we have pictures of these really great influential figures like Ron Hardy, Armando, Frankie Knuckles etc. So the history is like right in front of us all the time. And I think that’s what also allows us to not have to recreate it – it’s so present to us and it’s still such an inspiration to us that we know we don’t necessarily have to keep doing that sound. Cause these people when they started doing that, there was no Chicago sound. The Chicago sound before that was whatever was coming out of the remnants of disco. And that created a whole new sound. I think people are eager to do that, and not be beholden to the past.
One thing I’ve never felt obligated to do was to represent the Chicago house sound. I’d much rather represent Chicago artists, producers who are up and coming. I’m hoping that together we can move away from some of the more stereotypical representations of Chicago dance music and show the world all the other things that we have to offer here, that are new and exciting or at least different. New is a very difficult thing to touch.
Who are your current artists to watch at the moment from the US that maybe we wouldn’t have heard of?
A duo who I’m really excited about at the moment is John Barera and Will Martin. They’re actually about to put out an album in September on Dolly. They’re exceptionally talented, they work really fast and there’s a really good chance that we’ll be working with them next year. There’s a young guy out of Detroit who produces as Community Corporation. He released a tape album a couple of months ago. His stuff is very influenced by Detroit but it’s not just a new slate of soundalikes from Detroit. He also will likely be working with Argot in the near future.
I’m always a big fan of Alex Israel, from Detroit. Really rather lowkey as an artist, he’s not trying to push himself into the world, but his stuff is always really interesting and really musical. In dance music you get lots of functional stuff, and he’s a bit different. There’s also a guy from Madison in Wisconsin, who produces as Golden Donna. He released a tape album on 100% silk maybe 2 months ago now which was a really nice hybrid of different stuff. It was pulling in a little from the UK, a few more classic tropes, there’s a bit of Aphex Twin in there…the stuff he’s made in the past spans everything from UK Garage to ambient to noise and Italodisco, so he’s really versatile and I imagine we’ll be hearing more from him in the future.
Someone who we’ve worked with and I’d really like to tip just because I’ve only seen him do good stuff is Chase Smith from Pittsburgh. He put out Argot 008, which was disco on one side and sort of 90s house on the other. He’s recently put out a release on R-zone. He is incredibly talented. He puts out so much stuff that’s different to the other stuff he’s done before, but it’s still aesthetically part of the same thought process. It’s just astounding. That’s something I see in a lot of these producers – they’re not just mining the same hole over and over again they’re making a lot of different stuff but it’s all still part of the same vision.
What are your plans for Tasteful Nudes & Argot in the near future?
I’ve been really happy with the reaction to the Royer release. He’s a great young producer and I’m hoping we can work with him again. The next Argot is Eamon Harkin from Mister Saturday Night. We’ll take a break for the summer cause it’s a real crap time to be putting out records. September, we’re doing a record with Community Corporation. That’s not quite finished yet, but it’s getting there. I can also announce Anaxander, a French guy who’s had some really great releases on Love What You Feel from Pittsburgh and also Quintessentials -that’s a great one- he’s gonna do one for us which is a little harder I guess. Influenced by Chicago house but not really Chicago house. It’s also a bit more DJ friendly than most of what we’ve put out. A lot of it has been quite songwritey I guess. I really appreciate tracks that build and evolve and these tracks do that as well but they’re slightly more playable. I’m stealing a bit of inspiration here from Running Back and releasing some DJ tools, having a little bone that I can throw to the DJ.
You need a balance between a completely functional record and something that you can listen to at home.
Exactly. That’s something I’m trying to strive for a little bit more. While I’m still in love with everything that we’ve done, some of it is purely musical and I’m trying to take the dancefloor into consideration a bit more, while still holding true to the idea that when someone sends me really good music that’s what should matter first and foremost.
That’s probably it as far as releases go for now…that’s probably as much as my wallet can handle! Of course it does depend – if one record does really well we’ll put that back into the pot. Already for 2015 I’ve got sort of 4 or 5 releases in the can. I think the total for this year will be 8 records for this year across the 2 labels, which I think is a good number. Anymore than that as a small label I think is excessive. If you want to be putting out more than that you’ve gotta be doing it full time or you just don’t do it at all! If you’re running like a Ron Morelli production schedule with 16 releases a year it takes a lot more than most of us have in us. But we’re trying to stay in peoples’ minds and put something out every other month.