Sockets Records: The Early Years
On Friday night, Sockets Records will celebrate its fifth anniversary on the mainstage at Black Cat with a five-band bill featuring Hume, Imperial China, Big Gold Belt, Buildings, and the Cornel West Theory. It will be quite the local-music blowout.
But getting to this point took a lot of work. No, really, it took a lot of work. For years Sockets founder Sean Peoples subsisted on a steady diet of minor encouragements, modest successes, and outright bummers. There were boxes of unsold CDs and gray hairs, not to mention hairs that were lost outright. But Peoples hung in there. Over the years he's evolved Sockets from a humble limited-run CD-R operation to a real-life record label that sometimes gets repped by Chuck D. Here's a look back at those early years.
DJ DLX Mixtapes: In late 2004, Peoples started compiling CD-R mixtapes under the name DJ DLX and handing them out among his friends. These were the first official Sockets releases. “I was trying to emulate what DJ/rupture was doing. I heard Minesweeper Suite and thought ‘Oh shit! That was awesome,'" says Peoples. “The label was an extension of that. My girlfriend dumped me and I thought, ‘Maybe I should do a label instead of sulking.'”
Audiozine1 & 2 : In late 2005, Peoples decided to released the first Sockets Audiozine. A 16-track compilation of songs, jams, and weirdness, the disc defined what was then the core of the Sockets community. It was a small community at the time, though. A few contributors who had promised material flaked-out at the last minute. As a result, the tracklist wound up being a little heavy on Peoples' side-projects like FFFs and Big Cats.
Peoples looks back a little more fondly on the second compilation. “That one was a big deal, mostly because I had managed to do it again. Also, I got more people to contribute, so it wasn’t just a bunch of my side projects,” he says. “We had an even bigger release show—it was a 7 or 8 act thing. I felt like that was one of the biggest milestones in Sockets history. A lot of people came out, people that I hadn’t met before." Progress was, however, illusory. "After that, things took another turn and slowed down," laments Peoples.
Caution Curves: A Little Hungry
In 2005 Sockets pressed its first official CD, A Little Hungry, by D.C.-based all-female improv/noise trio Caution Curves. It was a pretty weird record. Vocalist Tristana Fiscella shrieked and wailed over Rebecca Mills' laptop improvisations and Amanda Huron’s drumming. “They were my jam,” recalls Peoples. “Everybody was doing noise at the time. Everybody wanted to fart into a mic with the delay pedal. Luckily, there were three women doing it in a way that was more interesting.” The disc got a nice write up in UK music mag The Wire, some of the first Sockets-related ink. The buzz was short-lived, however. Soon after the disc’s release, the Fiscella/Mills/Huron lineup of Caution Curves imploded. Peoples wound with more than a few copies lingering in his apartment. “That was a big learning experience,” says Peoples. “I took some time off after that.”
Japanese noise-duo NA was Sockets’ first non-local release. “They were on tour, they came on the radio show I was working and did this freaky improv jam,” remembers Peoples, who dug the band's Boredoms-style recklessness. Later on the band approached Peoples about releasing a compilation of material that didn’t make the cut for their record. Critical acclaim poured forth—the CD-R got a nice writeup in the music magazine Signal to Noise and wound up in the racks at NYC-based record store Other Music. “Those were pretty popular,” says Peoples. “It got me out of realm of just DC music.”
Kohoutek: Hair On the Sidewalk
Hits were pretty hard to come by during Sockets’ CD-R years. Product moved modestly, if at all. So at the time Hair On The Sidewalk, by D.C.-based psych-improv collective Kohoutek, seemed like a Thriller-level success. The CD-R/DVD comp, released in ’06, moved more than 200 copies. “A lot of it had to do with Scott Verrastro and his contacts,” says Peoples. “That was helpful. It went to Japan, it went everywhere.”
Local love was slightly more reserved. “The music burbles or throbs during the vocal parts, but the group—especially guitarist Luke Wyatt—periodically asserts itself,” wrote Mark Jenkins in The Washington Post.
Fly Girlz: Da’ Brats From Da’Ville
After the considerable stress of producing, assembling, and distributing some 45 CD-R releases in just over two years, Peoples decided that Sockets needed a re-boot. “There was a time I was like, ‘This is stupid, nobody’s paying attention,'” says Peoples. “I took a year to pick people’s brains, figure out what I wanted to do, and charge in fresh with a new start.” He decided to ditch CD-Rs in favor of CDs and vinyl LPs. He started a blog. Through friends based in New York, he wound up collaborating on the release of Fly Girls’ Da’ Brats From Da’ Ville—the product of a Brooklyn-based program that paired local musicians with teenage rappers. It was a noble project and also one that was highly restorative to Peoples' sagging spirits. More importantly, it was a success. Fly Girlz even made it onto Morning Edition.
Cornel West Theory: Second Rome
D.C.-based hip-hop group Cornel West Theory’s debut record, Second Rome, came out just a few months ago, but the band has been with Sockets from the get-go. If one group can knit the various eras of Sockets–CD-R to CD, and onward—it's this one. “They were on one of the first audiozines. I went to school with Tim and his brother Tony. We were in the same dorm,” recalls Peoples.
“The lineup and the sound in ’06 when they were doing this stuff, it was just a clash of things that were ridiculous [in a good way]. It was definitely hip-hop in some ways, but it was also noise and jazz and rock and reggae.”
Around that time CWT worked with Peoples and engineer Hugh McElroy on what was supposed to be the group's Sockets debut. For reasons now lost to time, it never came together. The group vanished into the ether for a few years. When they finally re-booted, Peoples was still interested. “They got a manager and they got help in the studio. They’ve become more of a band than they were before. It finally all came together,” says Peoples.