At the end of the 1990s, John Brien Jr. was finishing his teaching degree when a record shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, hired him as a buyer for the indie section. »I wasn’t qualified for the job and I’m not sure if I was ever very good at it,« he says today. »But when I left the store in 2001 I kept buying from the same distributors and selling online via eBay and the first Important Records website.« That was the name of his mail order business, which quickly became a record label. The first catalogue number was a 7inch by outsider folk legend Daniel Johnston, to whom Brien had written a letter. »I was astonished when one day my phone rang and it was Dan’s dad,« he says. »It was a dream come true.«
The second catalogue number, however, is already a stark contrast to Johnston’s catchy, albeit quirky, folk-rock tunes: »Amlux« is an album by Japanese harsh-noise legend Merzbow. A confusing prelude, as Brien also admits. But also part of the (non-)concept of the early Important days: »My approach in the earliest days of the label was to curate it like a good record shop – with interesting, unique records in every section. I was anti-branding/anti-advertising so I didn’t want to create a brand. What I wanted was to release records and create a label that couldn’t be categorised.« Thus, the goth-pop of the Dresden Dolls more or less peacefully rubbed shoulders with the psych-rock of Acid Mothers Temple & The Melting Paraiso UFO and releases by Andrew McKenzie’s project Hafler Trio. The artwork and design is until today done by Brien himself and the releases on vinyl, CD and cassette, but sometimes also on rare formats, are always adapted to the demands of the music they contain or, as in the case of the tape sub-label Cassauna, sometimes used to release unusual sounds without great financial risk.
These, however, are without question at the centre of Important Records. Over the years though Brien has noticeably abandoned the label’s early links to the pop and rock realm. He refers to his own listening habits that guide him in curating the label. An indicator of how these have concretised over the course of the past two decades is provided by his own output as ELEH: since 2006, Brien has been releasing an astonishing amount of albums under this name, exploring the possibilities of analogue synthesisers with minimalist means. Drones, sound materiality, intensity, slowness: these are not only the cornerstones of his own sound, but also, in different combinations, those of the artists on Important Records. Many of them have become constants in the back catalogue over the course of two decades. Merzbow, for example, released several more albums on Important Records, including a massive 13-piece album cycle about bird species living in Japan.
»I was anti-branding/anti-advertising so I didn’t want to create a brand. What I wanted was to release records and create a label that couldn’t be categorised.«
Two of the most important artists in the label’s cadre, however, are no longer alive. Radical composer, accordionist and »deep listening« theorist Pauline Oliveros, for example, began working with Brien in 2006 as part of a re-release of her album »Accordion & Voice« and followed it up with several more until her death ten years later. »"It’s still difficult to believe that she’s no longer with us in person but her spirit is so profound,« Brien says of the long-time companion. »I’m always re-reading her books, thinking about the advice she offered and just last week I watched every interview I could find with her.« Accordingly, he feels that it is a great honour that he is allowed to take care of her musical legacy in close coordination with her estate.
Important Records also dedicates extensive reissues or even first releases from the archives of the visionary composer to the sound sculptor Harry Bertoia, who died in the late seventies. »Harry’s approach and philosophy, especially with sound, aligns with my own and I think we both hear things in a similar manner. He’s a deep listener, like Pauline,« says the label owner, who, however, will not lose sight of contemporary music over the reappraisal of the works of Oliveros or Bertoia. » I like the idea of balancing the old with the new but it’s not something I do consciously.« Digging into the archives, however, remains his greatest joy. But there are many overlaps and continuities between what the younger generation of Important Records artists like Caterina Barbieri, Jessica Ekomane or Alina Kalancea stand for and the artistic and technical approaches of the greats of New Music and Sound Art, like Éliane Radigue.
This is also reflected in Brien’s release schedule for 2021, which includes reissues by Oliveros, Acid Mothers Temple with the Silver Apples, Tod Dockstader, Wanderwelle, Saint Abdullah, Éliane Radigue and ELEH, as well as tape releases by Rose Bolton, Jeff Burch, Pauline Oliveros, Rama Parwata and Brian Thumler, and a comprehensive compilation to celebrate the label’s 20th anniversary, which also happens to be the 500th catalogue number. The tracks for this were compiled by former skateboarder and drone artist Duane Pitre, and feature Kali Malone and Tashi Wada, among others. It’s a project very much in the tradition of Important Records, which has been dedicated to exploring spaces of possibility in sound since its early days. Whether it’s scratchy analogue electronica, long-form drones, crunchy noise and feaky psych-rock: deep listening forever!