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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 11/13/2009

Slumberland celebrates its 20th

By David Malitz

"I don't think any of us had any great ambitions or imagined putting out more than one or two singles each. We really just wanted documents of what we were doing, and putting out singles seemed to make the most sense."

That's Michael Schulman of Slumberland Records, talking about the modest beginnings of his record label, which he founded in Silver Spring 20 years ago and now runs from San Francisco. Countless other labels have started in the same low-key manner, and the story usually ends shortly after that. Hardly any make it through two decades, and even fewer boast a catalogue that helps define a genre.

But Slumberland did achieve those milestones; for the past 20 years, the label has released some true indie-pop cornerstones. It's currently experiencing some of its greatest success to date, thanks the popularity of new bands such as the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Crystal Stilts, who introduced the label's classic sounds to a new generation. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Slumberland takes over the Black Cat Friday with a seven-band bill featuring bands from all eras of the label.

(Indie-pop old and new, plus lots of videos, after the jump.)

The label got its start during a time when punk rock owned the city, which meant that the indie-pop community was very tightly knit.

"Dischord and punk rock in general was certainly a big flavor at the time. I was a big fan of that scene a bit earlier, but I wasn't following it very closely by the time we started our bands and the label," Schulman says. "We were into a pretty broad range of stuff -- [New Zealand label] Flying Nun, the Birthday Party, Creation [Records], Rough Trade -- which is an admittedly odd mix of stuff. I wouldn't say that any of our bands sounded like those influences, exactly, but there weren't many bands like ours around town that we knew of, so we did feel a little out on our own."

"It was really way too small to be a scene," says Archie Moore, who played with Schulman in Black Tambourine and later played in Velocity Girl, among other groups. "Pretty much everybody in the early Slumberland bands lived in one of two College Park group houses, except for Brian Nelson (Black Tambourine), who had to drive down from Frostburg, and Rob Goldrick (Nord Express), who lived in Baltimore. It seems funny to me now, but I would go over to the house where Mike & Kelly [Riles] (of Velocity Girl) lived pretty much every day, and just hang out. Mike had an insane record collection, and there were guitars, amps and a three-piece drum kit in the basement."

Black Tambourine was the label's flagship band, even though the band released only one official seven-inch on Slumberland during its existence. But listen to the songs compiled on 2002's "Complete Recordings," and it's easy to see why the label's revered despite its short lifespan and limited output.

"Black Tambourine was pretty special for me, partly because we found our sound immediately, and we all had the same idea of what we wanted the band to be," says Moore, who was in the band along with Schulman, Nelson and Pam Berry. "The band was formed in Mike's head, down to the name -- one day he told me, 'We're going to start a noisy pop band called Black Tambourine. You, me, and Brian are going to play guitar and drums, and Pam's going to sing.' Of course, this was coming from the same guy who had also told me that he and Kelly were going to start a James Brown-style combo. But we were more than happy to give it a shot, and indie-pop is a lot easier to play than funky soul music."

"Noisy pop" is the simplest way to describe the label's aesthetic, although there are certainly different varieties. U.K. group Boyracer favored bratty, hyperspeed bursts best captured on 1994's "More Songs About Frustration and Self-Hate." San Francisco's Aislers Set also leaned heavy on the fuzz and distortion, but the band's songs were highlighted by singer Amy Linton's angelic vocals. Rocketship played dreamy, romantic tunes with lots of droning keyboard. Local group the Ropers -- reuniting on Friday for the first time in 10 years -- played swirling, shoegazey songs that later kicked into overdrive.

Albums by those bands -- along with releases by the Lilys, Henry's Dress and Stereolab -- were highlights in the label's discography, but its stream of releases began to peter out at the beginning of this decade because many of the bands broke up. There were still a handful of releases (including the vital retrospectives of Black Tambourine and U.K. C-86 originals 14 Iced Bears), but things slowed down considerably until the middle of the decade.

"Around 2005, I started hearing a lot of new bands that I really liked, that seemed to have a fresh take on guitar-pop that was informed by all the music I loved in the '80s, but wasn't genre-bound," Schulman said. "It wasn't indie-pop, or twee or whatever, just good. I had a few singles to put out that I'd been sitting on for a little while, and during the interim, blogs and MySpace had really blown up. So when I put these singles out, I made a MySpace page and a new Web site and found out that some of these bands I was into were inspired at least in part by what Slumberland had done in the '90s. So it just kind of made sense to contact some of these folks and see if they'd want to do a record. The Lodger said yes, and that just got the ball rolling."

That U.K. band's 2007 album "Grown-Ups" featured some of the best, crisp guitar-pop in ages, but it was the emergence of two Brooklyn bands, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Crystal Stilts, that highlighted the label's resurgence. Crystal Stilts, the headliners for Friday's show, has a classic indie-shoegaze sound that sounds right at home on the label.

"We initially thought of Slumberland as being a decent fit aesthetically, but we really weren't in the know as to whether or not Mike was still in the disc game in the mid-2000s," says Stilts guitarist JB Townsend. "Then he wrote us about his 'Searching for the Now' series a few years later, and we eventually did an LP." That album, "Alight of Night," became a blog favorite, along with the self-titled album by Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and those two releases gave the label more attention that it had ever received.

"There was plenty of media attention on indie music in the '80s and '90s, but in America, it was all focused on 'proper' indie rock, stuff on Homestead, SST, Touch & Go," Schulman said. "Now, bands that are influenced by groups like Television Personalities, the Pastels and Orange Juice are just much more accepted over here. When the hippest U.S. indie organ of opinion can take seriously and appreciate a band like the Pains of Being Pure At Heart, things have definitely changed."

The Stilts kind of shrug at the praise they receive when being compared to older bands that served as such big influences. Bassist Andy Adler uses an NBA analogy to make his point.

"In the same way that it is a shame that a young basketball fan today may not be aware of just how good Bernard King was, it makes you scratch your head a little and feel a bit sheepish when [people] lavish praise upon Gilbert Arenas. Gilbert is a great scorer himself, but still. One can hope that their interest will spur them on to discover Knicks No. 30."

Schulman says he's excited about the new bands he's working with. He has no plans to expand beyond a one-man operation, which keeps things low-key and easier to maintain for the long haul.

"I can put out records anytime I have some extra money in my pocket, so I could go to 25 years," he says. "Or 30!"

By David Malitz  | November 13, 2009; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Music  
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