- Q & A with Alexander Leonard Donat from Blackjack Illuminist Records
Please give us a brief bio of the label. How did it start, til today….
It was some time in early 2007 in Greifswald, Germany, when I had finished the first two CDs of my indie rock/alternative/shoegaze solo project, Leonard Las Vegas, and then decided to put them out on an own label. It didn’t take me very long until I figured that “Blackjack Illuminist” would be a nice name, it was the most mysterious Leonard Las Vegas track title and much better than calling it “LLV Records” which was my initial idea, it sounds so obvious and lame, though. Whatever, the sleeves and inlays were handmade (mostly hand glued, stamped, cut) and I burned the CD-Rs myself. There was no proper distribution nor did I sell them in any stores, it was all about selling them at shows of my first real band, the noise rock/hardcore three-piece Jet Pilot – and, well, I sold them on MySpace. When my bandmates and I decided to release our debut album on my label, too, things slowly felt like a real label, or at least what I thought a “professional” label must feel like. That album was the first release with a proper catalogue number, BIR003, and we had it distributed in the UK via Lockjaw Records. The Jet Pilot debut received cool reviews from around the globe which felt like a drug you want to do again. Shortly after that, Leonard Las Vegas’ second album was released on a new label in Berlin, Record 1fourFIVE which invested a lot of money in the project, including a huge 10-day tour in a big nightliner, I managed to have a limited run of 100 copies released on my own label with handmade sleeves instead of the standard jewel cases 1fourFIVE sold. The label went broke a couple of years later and I it took me some time to realize that it would be best not to rely on anyone else but me when it comes to releasing music. My oriental krautrock project Feverdreamt was probably the turning point when I decided to channel all the ideas in my head into different aliases instead of just Leonard Las Vegas. Between 2010 and 2014 there were only five releases but starting with Feverdreamt in 2015 resulted in 22 releases in not even three years. With the dream punk of Fir Cone Children, the darkwave/dark kraut/dark gaze of Vlimmer the label became more versatile and gained a lot more listeners worldwide as it, accidentally, opened up for new genres. Now, Blackjack Illuminist Records releases works of artists which weren’t projects of me, the Californian drone/dark ambient of Sana Obruent and the Japanese underwater piano post-rock/ambient of Oceaneer. Today Blackjack Illuminist stands for a variety of atmospherical genres and projects. For people who like shoegaze, dream pop, dark atmospheric music, kraut, indie, ambient, drone, noise, fuzz it might be worth a listen.
Which labels inspired you most to make your own?
Morning Records by The Cooper Temple Clause was definitely a huge inspiration. The band had, like Nine Inch Nails, their own catalogue numbers which looked really cool to me, Morning1, Morning2 etc. They were my favourite band in, like, 2003-2007. With Leonard Las Vegas I used a catalogue number starting with “LLV#001”. It looks like a world in its own if a band uses its own system of counting instead of being a project among others on a label. Still, I’m happy that Leonard Las Vegas wouldn’t be the only band.
Which is the motto for Blackjack Illuminist Records?
“The sheer decision of indecision might be the reason why our times go faster and we grow thinner, ultimately turning into dust” – this lyric of Leonard Las Vegas’ song “Blackjack Illuminist” includes lots of what the label stands for. It expresses that it does not focus on just one genre even though the basic idea is atmospheric music. Just compare Sana Obruent to Fir Cone Children. They have one foot in the shoegaze genre and the other one in dark ambient respectively punk, it’s a totally different feeling. That we will all be turning into dust eventually is a melancholic thought, maybe a nihilistic one to some, it shows that life is not all about today, it will necessarily end; it’s a reflective thought, yet it’s headed towards the future.
Which are the advantages and disadvantages of running a music label today?
If you start a label and do it for the money, it will certainly disappoint you pretty soon. If you do it because you feel the urge to do it, go on! A label, however, gives you a home for your music. It unites different artists and listeners under one roof, gives you an own identity. I love the challenge of satisfying your returning customers who expect specific sounds, and, at the same time, attracting new listeners with new projects and different styles. Nothing beats the feeling that I have when one customer puts several releases from very different projects into their virtual shopping bag. Hopefully, for the listeners Blackjack Illuminist stands for a certain concept, a concept which involves the element of surprise as well something you can rely on.
What about disadvantages? Well, I can’t think of any real ones. Maybe it’s sleep deprivation or the glue fumes I inhale while putting the sleeves together. Blackjack Illuminist is a one-man operation, sometimes I wish I had someone who’d help me, at the same time it’s incredibly satisfying to know that each CD and cassette which is out there was in my hands before it left my house. Why is that? I don’t know, maybe it’s the thought of leaving something behind when you’re gone. To a certain degree making music, making arts in general, is an egoistic affair, isn’t it?
Which are your future plans for the label?
What I’m most excited about is that this year will see new releases by new artists. Working with different people, supporting their music and spreading their ideas just feels great.
- Three distinctive Blackjack Illuminist Records releases
Feverdreamt – ‘Terban Te Ban‘
An occidental trip far from every-day life. The mix of krautrock with Oriental melodies under a haze of psychedelic guitars was the turning point in the 10-year history of Blackjack Illuminist as it gained the attention of international listeners and reviewers.
Vlimmer – ‘II‘
Somewhere situated in genres like darkwave, shoegaze, dark krautrock, lo-fi and ambient this project turned out becoming the label’s most popular and successful, even though the lyrics are sung in German, or maybe that even adds to the mystery. In two years Vlimmer will have finished an 18 EP series, so far seven parts have been released. Personally, the double EP release of ‘I‘ and ‘II‘ felt like the breakthrough of the label.
Sana Obruent – ‘Dyatlov‘
The terrifying darkness of this drone/dark ambient album continues to amaze me. It’s based on a true story which is equally tragic and mysterious. Believe me, the subtle way Paul Lopez manages to create this icy cold, hostile atmosphere is unparalleled, it might take some time to discover that, though. Try it, it’s worth it!
Curated by: Christos Doukakis