Silver mettle: Raleigh's Silber Records | Music Feature | Indy Week
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"What else am I going to do?" Mitchell quips when asked what keeps Silber, a shoestring enterprise, soldiering on in a bleak industry. "I don't like video games."

Silver mettle: Raleigh's Silber Records 

Improvising a family around ethics, morals and an allegiance to esoteric sounds

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Brian John Mitchell runs Silber Records out of his basement. He started the label, whose credo is "drone love honesty sound," in 1996. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Brian John Mitchell, the 33-year-old proprietor of Raleigh's Silber Records, is a painter, comic book creator and experimental musician. His music, recorded and released under the name Remora, uses guitar effects to build ambient dreamscapes and noisy terrors. On Remora's forthcoming concept album, Mecha, Mitchell—guitar in hand—casts himself as a warrior leading a revolution on a Martian-ruled Earth. He encounters a woman who knew him before the Martians took over, when he was a musician, which he doesn't remember. The hero lays down arms to be with her, but she dies. The revolution fails. Wandering and despondent, he discovers a broken Mecha—one of the giant robots from the popular anime Robotech—and uses it to write the songs that appear on the record.

This might not sound like the stuff of parable, but it is. The story's embattled, messianic stance reflects that of Silber Records, a label whose credo is "drone love honesty sound" and functions through three guiding principles. The first is moral: Mitchell dropped a recent signee from his roster when he learned that the musician was "a real ladies' man, with a bad reputation in his town for knocking up women and leaving them." The second is ethical: Mitchell is devoted to helping his label's artists turn a profit on a release as quickly as possible. The last is aesthetic: Mitchell signs stylistically diverse acts—from Clang Quartet's chiseled distortion to Hotel Hotel's instrumental post-rock to Plumerai's shoegazey pop—but the music is uniformly offbeat. Silber's roster caters to Mitchell's taste for noisy improvisations and experimental collaborations. It is defiantly niche, a sort of personal revolution continually on the brink of dissolution.

"What else am I going to do?" Mitchell quips when asked what keeps Silber, a shoestring enterprise, soldiering on in a bleak industry. "I don't like video games." He's prone to this kind of deadpan indifference when discussing his endeavors, a quality belied by the diligence with which he pursues them. Mitchell believes in self-actualized leadership, not consensus. Leaders should be elected on moral character and trusted to act on it regardless of popular opinion, he says. Just as he does on Mecha, Mitchell creates this role for himself at Silber. He trades higher sales for a world of sound built around his singular vision, the esoteric confines of his passions and his inflexible morals.

"It's about avoiding reality by creating an artificial reality," Mitchell writes of his art in the first issue of Lost Kisses, his self-published mini-comic series. "It's a way of controlling your environment when you don't have the ability to."

In 2002, Mitchell's grandmother, Ethel Bohning, moved in with his parents in Raleigh after losing a kidney to cancer. Mitchell left his airport job and moved into the family home to care for her. Each morning, he wakes at 6:45 to help her with breakfast. He sits with her into the evening, tending to Silber business on his laptop. For a self-described workaholic who frequently took on 16-hour shifts at the airport, this seems particularly altruistic. After all, in another Lost Kisses comic, Mitchell writes, "I just want more of my life to involve working and less to involve sitting still ... I really do love physical labor. It's the only thing not beneath me."

Ironically, in making the very adult decision to care for his grandmother, Mitchell reverted to a lifestyle that resembles adolescence. Nothing about his bedroom suggests a 33-year-old inhabitant. It's naturally cluttered, since it also serves as his recording space and office. Clothes, papers and gear cover most available surfaces. Drawers gape open, overflowing. The guitar on the bed bears a mottled metal finish and two decorative gauges (amperes and kilowatts) set into its body, suggestive of a warplane. "It fits my post-apocalyptic aesthetics," says Mitchell. A small cross guards the door.

Mitchell himself is thin and wiry, with an almost colorless fringe of receding hair around his skull. He has bright, intelligent eyes and a wry smile. His appearance speaks of unpretentious utility, a refusal to put on airs.

Mitchell's bookcases are dominated by pulp-era fantasy, science-fiction and comics. Mitchell is especially devoted to Dave Sim, the creator of Cerebus the Aardvark, and Robert Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, both of whom are known for their anarchism, their disdain for high society and their hard-nosed patriarchal morality.

Like other writers he admires, including Lester Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson, he regards Howard as "an amazing writer who chose to only write crap." This proclivity for the authentic and unassuming artifact extends to his comics and record label. "I don't think any of my bands are pompous," he says.

"I don't really consider myself a social person in general," he goes on. Mitchell's social surface is complex, friendly but somehow brooding. As he speaks, one gets the sense that he's traversing vast networks of interior catacombs. "I feel like I'm more successful communicating with my art than with words."

The Silber storage space resembles a catacomb, too, spilling through several undecorated rooms where cardboard boxes line shelves, interspersed here and there with familial artifacts: a lamp with a fringed shade, a brightly colored wooden nutcracker, a roll of contact paper, a variety of wicker baskets. Mitchell seems comfortable moving through such humble, cloistered spaces. He plucks comics, albums and promotional materials like guitar picks and stickers from the wreck, as if the unruly stacks of boxes obeyed some very secret, personal system of organization.

Silber Records began in 1996, when Mitchell was 20, but he laid the groundwork in 1993, during his final year at Raleigh's Sanderson High School. At the time, Mitchell was interested in shoegaze and darkwave (in the old-school, Bauhaus sense), stuff with lots of heavily effected guitar. He wanted to know more about the bands he loved, so he started an interview zine, QRD. The first issue included a talk with Lycia, a major coup, as Mitchell revered the influential darkwave band. After high school, he began touring with Lycia, doing roadie and merchandise table work.

Forming a relationship with Lycia co-founder Mike VanPortfleet opened Mitchell's eyes. He discovered that bands he idolized were working crap jobs to get by, just like he was. He determined that bands were poor because they were swindled and mismanaged by feckless record labels. A new purpose resolved from the experience: He would form his own label structured to allow bands to earn more profits. He named the label Silber for Demain, Monsieur Silber, a book by Kay Sage, an American surrealist artist and poet. Silber is German for silver.

Mitchell's first release was a compilation called Alleviation, filled out by side projects of many of the bands he'd included in QRD, like VanPortfleet's Dust. Alleviation was the start of a master plan to prove he was capable of running a label and recruiting the bands to do it. Mitchell believed he could sell the comps via the era's primitive Internet newsgroup system, but he quickly encountered unexpected difficulties. At this point, the Web was still mostly text, without flashy sites to attract people. There was no secure online payment system. He sold very few of the 1,000 copies.

Mitchell acknowledges he was naïve at the outset. He'd worked at the radio station during his time in college in Boone, N.C., where he studied philosophy and religion. Though he knew a little about the back end of the music business, he certainly didn't know enough to manage the perils of distribution. He just knew that it cost him $14 to buy a CD, of which the band saw a buck or two. Still, he soldiered on with the label, releasing a string of early, self-recorded Remora cassettes.

Mitchell, a self-described "rudimentary" guitarist, discovered he could make the kind of droning, shimmering music he liked by electronically filtering his guitar. He pored over tiny lines of type in the Daddy's Junky Music catalog, snatching up any used gear he could find for less than $30. Remora, aptly, is Latin for "delay," and—like a label name that stands for silver and not gold—it contains a self-skewering connotation.

"The joke is that a remora is a fish that hooks itself to the bottom of a shark," he explains. That's how he regarded himself as a musician—riding on the coattails of the Alleviation comp's more established artists. Again, he sold very few copies of each tape.

Through persistence and a growing catalog, by 1999 Silber began to attain the credibility and solvency that had been so elusive. Mitchell released Cemented in Stone, a collaboration between himself and Clang Quartet, a Triad one-man noise act that has since regularly released albums on Silber. Along with Clang Quartet, Origami Aarktika and Lycia became lightning-rod acts for Silber. Other coups included the acquisition of Lycia's back catalog—Silber's biggest money-maker to date—and the 2006 release of Low's Alan Sparhawk's solo guitar album.

Mitchell learned on the job. Silber now has proper distribution, and the advent of PayPal finally made online transactions much easier. Mitchell tries to place records in sensible formats, from free digital-only downloads to CDs pressed in small batches. Mitchell made thousands of copies of Sparhawk's album, but it didn't perform as well as he'd hoped. A focused but minimal ad campaign follows each release, with Mitchell searching for the break-even point without saddling artists with big recoup expenses.

He has had to keep more money from each release than he initially hoped; the label takes about half. But to put this into perspective, Silber is now up to 72 catalog numbers, around seven of which have made money and three broken even.

"I also give the artists a hundred copies off the bat," says Mitchell, "and if they sell them at their shows for ten dollars apiece, that's a thousand dollars into the black. Meanwhile, I'm still in the red."

He's beginning to investigate alternative, more modern means of monetizing his releases, like placing songs in indie films and video games. He's also compiling a DVD of the first 10 issues of Lost Kisses with money from an N.C. Arts Council Regional Artist grant. He records public domain tunes for commercial use with Nic Slaton, who's released several albums with Silber as Slicnaton, a project for upright bass and electronics.

"He gets the records out and gives the artist a fair deal. It's normal for him to finish jobs early and under budget. The label doesn't make money until the band is making money," says Slaton. "I've been telling him that he needs to raise his rates, and he says he's just trying to be reasonable. Who wouldn't like that?"

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Mitchell wants to release music that he likes: "You can't put a price on working for 500 hours to promote someone else's crap." - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

The key question for Mitchell involves taking Silber to the next level without breaking his bank or loosening the label's highly specific aesthetic. "I would love to be at a higher level, sales-wise," he says, "but not necessarily profile-wise. I feel like Silber has a good brand, and that there are people who buy basically everything we put out. The break-even point for me is selling around 500 units, and if I could get to the point where I'm confident every record I release will sell 500, I could put out every record I want to put it out."

But there are numerous hurdles to overcome: For one, the next level of distribution this sales boost would require remains prohibitively expensive because Silber would have to press his entire catalog in quantities he can't afford. The strength of the Silber brand is actually a problem for profits, too. While the label has evolved slightly over time—Mitchell notes that it's become even more guitar-oriented, "a little ambient, a little post-rocky, a little noisy," as last year's releases by Northern Valentine and Hotel Hotel will attest—the constancy of Mitchell's taste for the unusual means that Silber fans have come to expect such a sensibility from the label.

Mitchell, after all, wants to release only music he truly likes. "You can't put a price on working for 500 hours to promote someone else's crap," he says. That view, however aesthetically valuable, limits Silber's ability to broaden its financial horizons.

"This is not a true story," announces the first issue of Lost Kisses. Nevertheless, it has often been mistaken for memoir. When Mitchell published the second issue, about the death of a fictional childhood friend, he was surprised to receive e-mails of consolation. "It's nice when people think it's real," he says. "I guess that means you did it right."

And while some events are invented, they mingle freely with references to Mitchell's life: his past struggles with drugs and alcohol, his dead-end manual labor jobs, and his recent diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder with symptoms including social awkwardness, regimented behavior patterns and obsessive interests. Lost Kisses, says Mitchell, is "emotionally true, if not factually accurate."

Like Mitchell, Lost Kisses' stick-figure proxy is self-deprecating without being melodramatic, depressive without being self-pitying. Mitchell himself is friendly and funny with moments of bracing bluntness. He has a sense of thwarted greatness, but treats it with an ironic distance. He couches his existential pain in language that is deceptively banal. He calls Asperger's syndrome "mostly bogus." Regarding his status as a loner, he is accepting but questioning: "Do I not like the company of others or do others not like the company of me?"

He also has a particularly troubled relationship with women: The sixth issue of Lost Kisses is presented as a flip-book, with the first half, "Reasons to stay by her side," extolling the virtues of a generalized female, and the second, "Reasons to run and hide," tallying her failures. The latter category includes entries such as "She killed her own child in the womb," the former, "I want to help her get to heaven."

"My faith plays into my morality," says Mitchell, a Christian, "as well as my label's principles of fairness." Mitchell claims that he doesn't push his religion on anyone, which appears to be true. Like Mitchell, Clang Quartet's Scotty Irving is a rare Christian in the experimental/ noise music scene. He says that his show is "a reflection of my life without, and then with, Christ," and believes that God put Mitchell into his life to get him out of a musical rut. Yet he seems unaware of the faith he and Mitchell share.

"Brian has always known that music is a form of worship for me," he says, "and never seemed to have a problem with it."

"This is not a true story." But a true story seems to be what Mitchell is looking for in his faith, in his comics, in his music and with his label. They are all different ways of broadcasting who he really is to the world, a concept that, especially in his comics, he seems at once unsure of and desperate to clear up. With Silber, he can build an hermetic space that makes sense to him, one esoteric release at a time. It seems less a vessel for promulgating his morality than embodying it for himself.

"Everything's united," he explains, "me doing Silber and me taking care of my Grandma. It's all one person; I don't separate anything. Everyone has the faces that they show, and I only have one face any more. I guess that's unusual, but the only face I have is almost artificially constructed anyway. I kind of freak out sometimes in romantic relationships because I start to wonder if this person is interested in this entity, Brian John Mitchell, or interested in me. And I don't even know where the line is."

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