Rarely do you find a record label as focused as Acid Test that delivers on its promise. Many times concept labels grow tiring after their first few dispatches, struggling to unearth new material that’s relevant to the cause. The Los Angeles-based Acid Test has avoided this by challenging its artists to find novel new ways of interpreting the acid sound. And thanks to a stellar core group of artists like Tin Man, Recondite, Donato Dozzy, and Achterbahn D’Amour, as well as exceptional guests like Pepe Bradock, they’ve had no problem wringing compelling tunes from this oft-abused sub-genre of dance music. Label owner Oliver Bristow is a steady, assured hand at the wheel, building on his experience running Absurd Recordings in years past and serving as a manager at Amoeba Records, the world’s largest independent record shop (by their count). He’s also launched the Avenue 66 label with a promising 12″ from Joey Anderson. LWE reached out to find out where Bristow is coming from and where he’s aiming to go. Acid Test’s most frequent artist (and LWE fave) Tin Man returned to add a killer exclusive DJ mix, as well — Talking Shopcast 21.
Before you started at Amoeba you were a manager at Rhino Records and worked at Pagan America. I’m curious what you learned from your time there that’s guided your label management since?
Oliver Bristow: Working at Rhino was my first experience working in record stores. I had previously worked for a punk label and mail-order business hand-numbering 7″s and packing up orders, which is where I first learned the DIY ethos of running a small label. Rhino was the first brick and mortar record shop I worked in.
With Pagan America I learned the in’s and outs of record manufacturing and promotion but as the label was owned by a major (Ark 21/Universal) it was much different from the way things are done now in dance music. I loved working with some of the staff and was given the opportunity to work on records from Charles Webster, Maurice Fulton, Terry Francis, and many others.
I remember when I first started working there I was given a promotions book which had every big name DJ with their address and phone number, and I would pack up 12″s and was sending out records to these guys and calling them up on the phone — it’s was all a bit surreal, really. It’s funny because nowadays you service radio/press/DJs with the click of a button and back then I would spend hours on the phone and packing up hundreds of records.
The label sent me on tour with Terry Francis for his Architecture tour in 1997. I hopped on a plane and met up with him on the east cast and we went all over the U.S. I got to experience some of the best clubs the U.S. had going on at the time, met a lot of great people along the way, and learned what putting on a good party was.
What are a few labels past and present that have inspired you and informed how you’ve run your labels?
There have been many labels that I’ve liked and followed over the years but can’t really say that there are any that have informed how I’ve run the labels. I suppose some of the ones that have influenced me along the way would be labels like Nu Groove, Transmat, Peacefrog, Warp, and loads more.
Absurd Recordings was born out of the parties you were throwing in LA. What was your history as an event promoter in LA? What made you decide to branch out into manufacturing vinyl?
One of the first parties I threw here in L.A. was a record release party for an album I released from the Idjut Boys for another label I was doing back then. That was around 1997, that album and a 7″ were the only releases on the label. The party was in a small warehouse in downtown L.A. along with Kevin McKay from Glasgow Underground and Jeno from the Wicked crew in SF. It was the Idjuts’ first L.A. appearance.
But it was through my travels with Pagan that the Absurd parties came about. While on tour with Terry I met up with a guy named Martin O’Brien who was throwing these amazing parties in San Francisco called the Gathering. I ended splitting my time between S.F. and L.A. and learned a lot about throwing parties through the productions they put together. This is where I met Eddie Richards, at an outdoor party that they had put together called Freedom. Him being a close friend of Terry’s and part of the Wiggle crew, I was already familiar with him and had heard him play in L.A. once before. But hearing him open with G-Man, “Qou Vadis” under a bed of trees was one of those magical moments. It was just a few years later that the idea of putting on a warehouse party with him as resident began. The label was just a bit of added fun really, releasing some of Eddie’s tracks, some other friends from London, and some of the guests we hosted at the party over the years.
Tell me a bit about what you do for Amoeba.
I started working at Amoeba in 2001 shortly before the store opened. I began as the dance buyer and a few years later became one of the managers of the store.
Working at Amoeba has likely provided you with some unvarnished truths about the vinyl market and what it takes to run a commercially successful label. What are some of the takeaways you can share with us?
Since the opening of Amoeba in 2001 the market has changed so much. In the early days we could bring in big quantities of a lot of releases. When the digital market took off vinyl sales in the dance world dropped significantly. As a buyer I’ve watched the trends change and vinyl sales for a label or sound that was big a few years ago plummet. Now there’s really a pretty big divide between a vinyl and digital DJ. Meaning there are labels that have a big profile and still release vinyl, but I consider their fanbase to be more of a digital consumer so I don’t bring in a lot of stock for labels like that.
As for commercially successful labels, I would say the ones that have a large fan base and are continuing to grow are ones that are not only release records but are focused on building a brand. They are involved in all types of music and art related ventures, such as a label like Ghostly International.
The Acid Test records all still bear Absurd Recordings catalog numbers. Does this leave open the chance that there will be more Absurd releases? Why or why not?
The reason they have the Absurd cat #s really comes down to the distribution company I was working with at the time encouraged me to keep Acid Test a sub label of Absurd. There is no plan for Absurd releases in the future and all the albums have Acid Test catalog #s.
Stylistically, Acid Test and Avenue 66 records are very different from the kind of music released on Absurd, which had records from Tigerskin, Pablo Bolivar, and Eddie Richards. What accounts for this shift?
Because of my large interest in acid house, I wanted to come up with something new. I have always had an affiinity for the acid sound. At early nineties warehouse parties like Unlock the House and Wicked I would hear these tracks that were just out of this world. Doc Martin and Jeno both liked a bit of acid in their sets and Jeno had put out this mixtape called Inside The Mind in 1991 which I was completely obsessed with, this was when I first discovered Bobby Konders’ “Nervous Acid.” All those guys were playing these early acid tracks and I was hooked.
You’ve managed to recruit an all-star cast for Acid Test. I’m curious who you’re still dying to work with?
There are a few producers I’d love to work with, and who knows, if our paths cross and it’s meant to be it will happen. Everything happens organically.
I’m sure many producers feel like they can fit into the Acid Test aesthetic. Obviously the ones you choose tend to be creative with the acid sound, but I’m still curious what separates an artist who makes the cut versus one who doesn’t?
At the end of the day it’s just a connection with the music. There are no real “rules” per se. But I suppose I look out for stuff that tends to offer something new or fresh to a sound that has been around for over 20 years now. Some people might say that there’s nothing new to offer and hey, they might be right, but I really don’t care.
I’ve had to turn down music from some artists who I really respect. That’s one of the hardest things to do, but if it doesn’t fit it doesn’t fit.
As a conceit, the Acid Test series could, in theory, go on forever. Is there an end in sight?
Not in the near future. It’s been really nice to develop artists like Achterbahn D’Amour and see artists like Tin Man and Recondite getting much more recognition after releasing their records. I like working with a small group of artists but always open to work with new people. As long as I’m given music I like, then I don’t see a reason not to. I’m definitely up for hearing new music, especially if it’s offering something up that is an interesting take on what we’re doing.
Last year you started the Avenue 66 label with Joey Anderson’s help. Because that’s been the only release to date, I was hoping you could tell me a little more about what you have in mind for this label.
Avenue 66 is named after the street I live on and is an avenue for exploring all types of sounds. Working with Joey has been amazing both with this imprint and Acid Test. There are some new records in the works for the label but nothing to announce yet.
What advice would you give anyone considering starting their own label?
I’m probably the last person to be giving advice, but remember it’s a labor of love. You should just aim to make back enough money to fund the next release. And the mastering process is extremely important!
What’s coming up from your labels this year?
There is a remix 12″ from Achterbahn D’Amour’s Odd Movements album, more music from Recondite, and another album from Tin Man.
Photo by Seze Devres
Download Talking Shopcast 21: Tin Man (57:26)
01. Lawrence, “Kurama” [Pampa Records]
02. Tin Man, “Finger Paint” [Acid Test / Absurd Recordings]
03. Lawrence, “Rabbit Tube” [Mule Electronic]
04. Tin Man & Donato Dozzy, “Test 7” [Acid Test / Absurd Recordings]
05. Baby Ford, “Crashing” [Rhythm King]
06. Tin Man, “Nonneo” (Donato Dozzy Remix) [Acid Test / Absurd Recordings]
07. Tin Man, “What A Shame” [Acid Test / Absurd Recordings*]
08. Carsten Jost, “Makrame / 1972” [Dial]
09. Tin Man, “Depleted Serotonin” [Acid Test / Absurd Recordings*]
10. Tin Man, “The Muses” [Acid Test / Absurd Recordings]
* denotes tracks that, at the time of publishing, are unreleased