The History Of Silver Current

June 20, 2013

This is the meandering, on again, off again, highly personally rewarding journey of a handmade bootleg style record label.
Since I was old enough to talk and hold a pen, I began writing and illustrating books that my mother would bind with sewing thread and construction paper covers and help me give as gifts or sell to our family and friends. My love and experiences in handmade art and product go back as far as my earliest memories permit me to recall.
As a pre-adolescent I continued to write and draw in more of a comics type medium/infatuation.
By mid high school I had already done a lot of travelling on my parents’ coat tails far beyond the Redwood Curtain of our rural Humboldt County town of Eureka, California. At 16 I had lived abroad twice and travelled extensively in the UK and Europe. One huge component of these travels was following a trail, led by my mother, of fine art across Europe through some of the great museums of the western world from the Louvre in Paris, to the old Tate Gallery in London where mesmerizing Dali masterpieces hung a few yards from massive Turner ocean Armageddons, the grand baroque halls of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the stunning train station full of art; The Musee d’Orsay in Paris on the banks of the Seine and on and on (For two small town public school teachers my folks made a lot of trails). Furthermore, being residents of England and not just tourists, we practically set up sleeping quarters in the Tate, National Gallery and other great art and history haunts of London.
In high school back in Eureka, before and after the aforementioned travels, I came into contact with and quickly was immersed in the Humboldt County DIY/ Punk/ Music scene where I basked in the Xeroxed fliers, the handmade cassette demos, the photocopy hit and run style punk and weirdo art zines, the hand screened band t-shirts, the stencils laid on the back of an army jacket and given a quick spray-paint layer of black to bootleg a favorite band’s logo and sometimes even a private press vinyl 7” with some kind of cheap folded paper cover and bold collage or stoner-art-hand drawn design gracing the sleeve.
To me, the gritty DIY street style art of the local and regional west coast punk scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s made perfect sense in the closing of a great natural circle of art method and product that began with cave paintings at the dawn of man and worked its way through the history of humanity via classical art, underground political pamphlets, chap books, modern art, post-modern art and finally back to something more akin to cave paintings than Rembrandt oils, but fully endowed with the entire history of human art locked somewhere deep in its genetic code.
To me the value and excitement of this kind of art was heightened to ecstatic levels by its breakneck immediacy, and unlike cave paintings or classical art, it has total mobility. When these musicians needed a flyer for a show or a cassette demo made, it could be designed, manufactured/printed and distributed in a single day. By nightfall the artwork could be stapled to telephone poles and taped to concrete building walls all across the county and more importantly, into the hands of avid fans or curious first timers to own, feel and explore its content. You could slide that cassette demo into a player, sit in front of the stereo and unfold and pore through the tiny black and white “liner” notes or collage artwork or zine stories that comprised the product. Even in the cheapest zines you can run your hand over the page and feel the swell of printed black photocopy ink creating its own geography on the cheap white document paper. Texture, however slight, is the final remnant of the distant genetic link to classical art hanging on some gallery wall, protected and untouched for the ages to admire from a distance while these works remain in the hands of people, breaking down quickly as they are used and passed along or perhaps hung on the street until the rain and elements break them back down to pulp that clots into piles on the grates of the gutters beneath the sidewalk.
Because “cheap/fast” reproduction coupled with hand assembly by the artist is the name of the game, each replicated product is an original, and that is at the heart of this type of art’s power.
In the early to late 90s I spent my fair share of time at Kinko’s along with the other local musicians creating flyers and demo covers as well as zines and other little pieces of cheap music art.
By 1999 I was living in Santa Cruz, California, and my wife was majoring at the University in printmaking. During her years completing her degree my understanding of handmade art was once again cross-pollinated, this time with fine printmaking skills. I was exposed to many historic methods of creating something immediate. In most cases these pieces were replicable in small numbers but were beautiful, superior and in almost all instances the final product was “fine” art. Other than just the incredible aesthetic beauty of multi-layered screen prints, lithography, woodcuts, etchings, etc there was also a great unspoken power in the energy of work done by these classical methods because it took so many steps, so much time, so much attention to detail to create a very small number of replicated works. The results could take your breath away and each piece seemed to vibrate with a natural, illuminated defiance to a cheap, fast, disposable modern world. Here was the original antiquated method of print reproduction, but the paradox was that in light of the modern methods available, the time, energy, resources, money and skill it took to reproduce something through these methods was almost insane. And that is what resonates in this kind of product: a fanaticism for aesthetic.
      Santa Cruz has an incredible printmaking studio up on campus and my wife practically lived up there. I hung around when I could and crashed a few of the late night studio sessions, Friday nights, 6 hours after class has ended, middle of the night these ladies are up there hammering out lithographs and 22 layer silk screen prints with the stereo cranked and cans of cheap beer getting dusted as fast as they could open them.
      The method that appealed to me the most and was most obtainable from her printmaking world was silk screening. She set up a table in the downstairs entryway of our Victorian apartment on the east bank of the San Lorenzo river levy at 819 Riverside ave. She taught me some of the ropes of creating, printing with and cleaning screens and I mostly made gig posters in small runs for local shows I was involved with.
      About this time Ben Chasny moved to Santa Cruz and between him, Tim Daly that runs Yik Yak records and Noel Harmonson with whom I would shortly be forming Comets on Fire, I had just been turned on to the wonders of PSF records out of Japan and the incredible and incredibly fucked up rock music of the 80s and 90s Japanese Underground. PSF and a few other Japanese labels from the 90s were often releasing gorgeous LPs and the most beautiful CDs ever made in editions of 500, 250, sometimes even 100. Products where the Japanese paper, the incredible quality of metallic inks, letter pressing of the Japanese characters, black gloss ink over black matte ink on hand made black rice paper could literally mesmerize you and the whole package was ultra rare, often ultra expensive and of course fanatically aesthetic.
      It should be said that Ben Chasny was already touring, or at least gigging as Six Organs and making his own handmade product to release. He had made and released his own S/T first album and other smaller cdr type products, hand made and hand painted in most cases.
      As a result of exposure to Chasny’s methods that had worked for him for Six Organs thus far, a recent obsession with pasty cover bootleg albums from the 70s and the influence of the PSF aesthetic, I started Silver Currant in my downstairs entryway. In its inception and up until it’s present revamping, it was Silver Currant with an “A” in Currant. The name came from a song title by a great PSF band called White Heaven, though their song title was originally with an ‘e’ so I’m not sure why I changed it.
      I wanted a place to create super limited edition musical product, mostly free, that had a bootleg feel (and often bootleg style content) but honored “a fanaticism for aesthetic.”
      The first 7 releases were all super limited and free, given as gifts to friends or fans. Somewhere in there we released the first Comets On Fire album applying the manifesto to the grander more permanent medium of vinyl. By release 8 both Comets On Fire and Howlin Rain were on the road and Silver Currant began providing a little extra last minute merchandise for tour that extended at times into cassettes and even a hand bound book that housed a 5 cd box set for Comets, an edition of 10 that my wife put together after completing a course in bookmaking. There are detailed write-ups of each of the releases in the archives/history section for further perusal.
      Beginning in 2009 I began to do a Silver Currant blog where I have been posting live gigs and unreleased material from my own and related bands archives for free on line in the mp3 format. The blog era of Silver Currant has been interesting and in some ways it’s been highly rewarding to be part of a running and immediate dialog about my own and other music of common interest to me and friends and fans on the internet.      
      Sometimes there are items of news or music or memorabilia that aren’t quite “important” enough to warrant a mass release but still hold a fairly intense level of interest and resonance for die hard fans and collectors to experience the music with a little write up and a life out there floating around in the world wide web. BUT there are a few prickly thorns that have stuck in my thumb philosophically over the time I’ve been doing the blog. One of them is of course that mp3 is bullshit. It’s aluminum wrapped excrement that serves convenience and that’s about it. It is not “art” product. It’s a greasy fast food wrapper that’s been thrown away and recycled endlessly into cheap filth that holds something most people will hardly digest. It has served communication and transfer of information in my case fairly well on the blog, but on a wider scale it is at the core of a great dismantling of art and aesthetic appreciation in music, and I find myself personally torn between an everyday engagement with its too-easy-convenience and a bitter disdain for its function as a cheap caustic agent to the longevity and dignity of musical product and archive.      
      I am now certain that we don’t need more information in the world; we need a greater appreciation for the information we have, especially as consumers. In fact, perhaps the lesson that the UC Santa Cruz print studio was trying to teach boils down that notion even further to ‘take one piece of information that is worthwhile, put all else aside and understand it with your soul until that thing can become you and define you (or so that 5 methods of antiquated printmaking can become you and define you)’.
      Now it’s 2013. I’m 35 years old. My musical art and products over the last 12 years have moved through all levels of distribution from handmade free gifts, to mass produced major label distribution to online blogging to itunes, Amazon, indie mail-order, sold as high priced collector’s items on ebay, on Walmart racks next to top 10 country and commercial Hip Hop cds, on webstores and physical product at great indie record stores, word of mouth, hand to hand, taper trading and just about every other way that music can move in our current world, legal, illegal, by old fashioned method and the latest avenue that the artists hadn’t even heard of yet and the labels barely understood when they began to experiment with moving product by these means. Most of these methods have been out of my hands and though sometimes it’s a thrill to have the music out of your hands and find out it’s selling well or quickly and not really know how or why, the most rewarding way has probably been the handmade “art” commerce. For one thing, it demystifies distribution and money, (because ‘handmade’ means ‘time consuming,’ no one ever worked a long time on something to make a little bit of money and was mystified by how they earned it) and you make a deeper connection with those who receive, own and use the product. When product goes from the artist’s hand to the buyer’s you have a better sense that someone has a thing that they will want to keep and engage with, a better notion at the potential for respect, appreciation and enjoyment or the work you’ve done.
So begins a new phase of Silver Current Records, now with an “e” in ‘Current’ to honor the original White Heaven spelling. The new phase of the label is an attempt to find balance between all the elements I’ve found most valuable, resonant and rewarding about making and distributing musical product over the last 12 years. This is not a place for the mass release of my own or anyone else’s music; it’s a specialty closet for cult items, icons, fetish and near secret fanaticisms.
      It will continue to live online as a website/store/archives/musical location but will be based around physical limited edition handmade products priced as reasonably as I can afford to sell them for which customers will get something beautiful for their money, not to mention, of course, “real music.” I continue to search for the perfect balance between the DIY punk factor and the PSF/Printmaking studio art that I found so beautiful in the early 2000s as well as those UCSC print-ladies’ obsession with a lot of time and energy to create only a few replicas. There will continue to be writings on the music and other tales as there have been with the blog over the past 4 years. Silver Current will continue to pillage the archives both live and otherwise of my own and music related to me and will expand to release similar “lost jams/gems” “bootleg style live” and “archival material” from other bands and artists that I love.
As always, it’s a work in progress, a meandering thing trying to follow the muse, honor music as the most ecstatic art form and exploit it as a fetish so that its essential value, both spiritual and physical, remains intact at the core of the product. Thanks for taking the ride and hopefully you’ll stick around a while, have some fun here, have a look, a listen and take home a few pieces of music.
My very best,
Ethan Miller
Oakland, Ca
May 2013.