Mirkwood Recordings is a Pittsburgh label that specializes in idiosyncratic music made by eclectic artists, some from our own backyard and others hailing from across the world. Its latest release, Side Stepping The Abyss by ambient/drone artist Düne Kankel, was featured on Bored In Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. Kurt Gainfort, the label head, was kind enough to answer some questions about himself and about Mirkwood. Check them out below:
Who are you? Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m Kurt Gainfort, a 41 year old living in Pitcairn. I head a small, artist run label called Mirkwood Recordings that has been active in Pittsburgh since 2005. I grew up in Latrobe, which at the time had an active, DIY music scene. I’ve been pretty obsessed with “demo-tape-culture” and self recorded works of music ever since. I’ve been in the bands Stands In Lightning, Surrounded By Mice, and most currently I’m a member of the band BLK DCK and occasionally produce records for others. My day job is as a project manager for a real estate company.
What was the impetus for starting Mirkwood Recordings? How did you begin the process of creating a label?
To be honest, it started as a way for me to release my own albums when I was in Stands In Lightning – a veneer of credibility. Soon after, I found myself running into other like-minded musicians who needed an outlet to release their own, off the path works – mostly self-produced. Our original name was “Mirkwood Amateur Recordings”, which was a vain attempt to describe how we were approaching things, that we didn’t want to sound professional. We wanted to be a repository of outsider, self produced music. We dropped the “Amateur” from our name when it became clear that people were not getting that message from that word. Also, we were working with more and more artists who were using better production techniques and that perhaps would not exactly be considered “outsider” or “lo-fi”. We started with a rinky dink website that you couldn’t even buy albums from and eventually got into hard copy releases. For a time between 2013 – 2018 we did only digital releases due to not having a ton of time or money to invest in projects. These days we’re doing a mix of digital only and hard copy releases – where and when spending money makes sense. So, the “veneer of credibility” eventually and inevitably turned into a functioning label for myself and others.
How do you find your artists? Any specific types of sounds or styles that you’re looking for?
When we started, a lot of our bands/artists were coming from people I had known from whatever little music scene I might’ve been attached to at one time or another. The coolest thing that has happened in recent years is that bands have started to reach out to us and ask us about doing projects. So, the early bands we were working with were mostly local to Pittsburgh and places close by like Ohio, but now we have some international bands with more coming on the horizon. An excellent band reached out to me recently from St Petersburg, Russia that wanted to do a record with us, and hopefully we’ll get there.
As far as specific sounds or styles, we’re kind of all over the place. I’m passionate about all types of music, so I bump into lots of different kinds of people doing all kinds of stuff – rock, blues, post-punk, ambient, black metal, folk – etc.
You mentioned to me that you look for “nugget records”; what is a nugget record and how do you know if you’ve found one?
I think a “nugget” record is an album that has some quality that makes people pass it by – whether it’s shitty production, or rough edges to the performances, or whatever – but still totally kicks ass when you look past those surface “imperfections”. They are albums that have an immense amount of intrinsic value which reveals itself slowly to most people. These albums are usually idiosyncratic – meaning it is unique to that particular artist or band alone. Their own unique humanity is what shines through the most, at least to my ears.
Is there a common theme or aesthetic that binds together all of Mirkwood’s releases and/or a certain ethos with which you manage the label?
I believe so. I mean the obvious quality is that we are intensely DIY, from Tit to Toe. Everything is done through volunteers, people working from passion and friendship, borrowed studio time, done for little to no money. People knocking obstacles down to make these records. People making records on iPhones and old tape decks and 4 tracks. Because of the idiosyncratic nature of most of our releases, we’re aware that they’re not gonna sell like thousands of copies, so we gotta keep costs very low – but those records still deserve to see the light of day.
But really, if we had an aesthetic, I’d say it’s artists who work in a vacuum. In a way, I’d compare it to AM Radio. I love listening to AM Radio. Why? Because of the nature of the medium (that air time is affordable) you get all kinds of strange, unpolished shows from all over God knows where, a huge amount of diverse and unusual but compelling content. Because of the cheap and easy accessibility, one doesn’t have to attract a big audience with populist content – and that is where the real fun begins; when someone is doing something regardless of how people are reacting to it, free from the constraints of trying to please an audience, free from financial considerations, free, free, free.
The people on Mirkwood make albums because they are compelled to, and I think most people on Mirkwood are making those albums to please themselves. If that album pleases them and pleases me, I put it out and try not to worry about how people will react to it. I keep costs low enough that I don’t have to give a shit if other people like it or not – though I hope they do!
As far as how I operate the label – everything is based on trust and respect. The people on my label have become like family to me. I do what I can to give them my best – and most times they reciprocate and give me their best. If something can’t be done with respect and integrity, then fuck it.
I’m going to list some of the artists whose music Mirkwood has released; please give a descriptive tagline for each of them.
· Düne Kankel: – One man, heavy, drone, ambient guitarscapes with flourishes of beautiful acoustic passages. Instrumental. From the Pittsburgh area.
· STEVE: – Bright, colorful, imaginative and clever 3 piece rock band that incorporate metal, alternative, punk and underground sounds. Put out one classic album and then broke up. Still the best local band I’ve ever seen live. They were incredible. From rural Western Pennsylvania.
· Patrick Walsh: – from Ontario, Canada. Ragged, harsh and sweet lo-fi blues that is in the lineage of American, post-War, rural acoustic “Delta” blues of the 1930’s and 40’s. By far one of our most popular artists.
· Surrounded By Mice: – Power pop, noise rock 3 piece band from Pittsburgh. Loud and noisy as fuck live, but more subdued and articulate on record. Not unlike Dinosaur Jr.
· Stands In Lightning: – one man, 4 track, living room rock with touches of punk, metal and emo.
· Ruined By Worlds: – one man Post-rock band from Columbus Ohio. Put out like 6 albums in the span of 2 years – all of them are littered with killer, moody tunes.
· Dunlap Broadsides: – electronic house/pop project. Beat-centric, with swirling, colorful noises. From Philadelphia originally, now based in L.A.
· Hurricane Charlie: Rocking, stomping, RAW, 2 piece garage band from Canada. Lots of grit and soul.
· K.M. Gainfort – utterly depressing, acoustic American folk.
BLK DCK – Psychedelic, vampire, black-synth. Like Burzum crossed with Depeche Mode. Very dark, but also beautiful. From Pittsburgh.
How have you been able to integrate your label into the larger Pittsburgh music community?
I’m extremely busy with my career and family at this point, so my interaction with the rest of the Pittsburgh community has been challenging due to the time constraints I work with. There’s no substitute for actually going to local live shows. Best way to hear new stuff, meet people and make new friends is by making the time to get there. To me that’s the heart of any music community, not what’s going happening on social media – but what is happening in real life at these shows. Social media is helpful for people like me who have limited time – but it’s no substitute. So I guess in some ways, the label itself is currently operating a bit like it’s artists – in a vacuum. I’m looking forward to more real life interactions, more real life hard copy projects. Mirkwood also has a bunch of ideas and projects in the works to benefit local Pittsburgh based charities too – like “benefit albums” and such. I’m hopeful these will come to pass.
Do you see Mirkwood expanding or branching out in the future? If so, how?
Yeah definitely. It’s funny, about 3 years ago the Pittsburgh City Paper did a piece on myself and Mirkwood. At the time, it looked like we were getting ready to “retire” the label because I just didn’t have the time to devote to it anymore. The wonderful thing that happened was that after that piece was published, we came up with the idea of doing digital only releases and letting go of hardcopy for awhile. We started putting little albums out in digital versions only, and most times priced them at “free”. This kept us afloat for awhile, and we ended up gaining momentum from that. The digital only releases were getting great press and feedback so we kept doing them and more and more artists started reaching out, and now here we are, back to putting out hardcopy releases with more bands than ever interested in working with us. We recently did a Cassette release for the Canadian lo-fi bluesman Dirty Pat Walsh. It was a real smash. It sold out in like 2 months, which is the first time we ever sold out of anything in close to 15 years. I’m also really excited about an album that will be coming out sometime in Winter of 2019/20-ish. It’s the debut album from Pittsburgh’s BLK DCK (full disclosure – I’m in that band). We’ve been recording and producing that album for close to two years now, so a lot has gone into it and I think it sounds pretty awesome. That might be a bigger release for us with Cassette, CD and Vinyl versions available. There’s also a few local, younger Pittsburgh bands that I wanna work with on perhaps doing 7” releases – to get them on their feet and because I think they’re great and their stuff deserves to be heard. I’ve also been bugging the shit out of certain bands who were active around the Pittsburgh area back in the 80’s and 90’s punk and hardcore scenes about putting out digital discographies for them. So yeah – we got lots of projects and lots of passion – just a matter of finding the time.
Any other local artists or labels that you’d recommend checking out?
Graveside – great hardcore, D-beat type band from Polish Hill (I think). I got their 2018 demo tape from Cruel Noise Record shop in Polish Hill. I love that tape.
Sleeping Witch & Saturn – young guys I recently saw live. They were very tight, very focused. It’s fair to say they’re really, really big fans of Joy Division – but added other elements to distinguish themselves too. Very 80’s sounding in a good way, their singer is great.
Sorry, I’m Dead – another younger band that I really love in Pittsburgh. Got an early Talking Heads thing going on – but also way different. Reminds me a lot of the great punk made before punk went hardcore in the early 80’s – stuff like Television and The Wipers – intellectual but rocking punk. They also have a really fun side to them as well.
Silence – I like Silence, if for no other reason than they seem to be trying to bridge the gap between stuff like Anarcho-punk and goth and more romantic type music. That in of itself is pretty cool and good for our local scene.
Anything else that I forgot to ask or that you’d like people to know about yourself?
Yes there is actually, 2 things. Lol. Firstly I wanted to mention a Facebook group that I’m a part of called Warehouse of Strangers Radio. It’s a closed group that anyone is welcome to join that focuses on marginalized music of all genres. It’s a great, active little enclave of folks from all over the world, but it also has a ton of members local to Pittsburgh. Very supportive, very active members. Great place to promote art/music, and DEF a good place to find out about music that is off the beaten path. I’ve found so much good new unheard music there it’s not even funny. We also do stuff like interviews with people, album reviews – whatever. It’s an open ended forum for our member’s creativity. We recently held a two day music festival for the group at The Funhouse at Mr Smalls. All the bands that played the show came from among the members of The Warehouse group. Very fun, very personable place to be that focuses on great music. Highly recommend anyone reading this to check us out and join us.
The other thing is that people always ask me where the name Mirkwood comes from. Back in 2005 I was living in a small house in Penn Hills, and that’s when the label stuff started. My friend was asking what I was going to name the label, and he recommended “Spiderland Studios” because that house I lived in had spiders everywhere man, inside and out lol. I liked that idea, but the band Slint has an album called ‘Spiderland’ so I wanted to stay away from that. I’m a huge Tolkien fan, and in ‘The Hobbit’ there is a section of woods that is infested with giant spiders called Mirkwood. So that’s why it’s Mirkwood- because of all the damn spiders.