Arts Desk

Label of the Reconstruction: Sockets Records Was There When D.C. DIY Got Weird

The “yoga room” on the second floor of Sean Peoples’ house hasn’t had space for sun salutations for a while now. “The last people who owned it had been burning incense and whatever else,” Peoples says as he leads me from his own quarters across the hall. These days, the extra room doesn’t scream tranquility: Boxes of unopened records are stacked halfway to the ceiling.

For now, this space serves as the stock room of Sockets Records, the small-batch label Peoples founded in 2004 to document some of D.C.’s woolliest, most ear-scraping sounds. Peoples pulls out a container of reliable sellers from the last few years, when Sockets evolved from an experimental label into an experimental pop one: Here are the bedroom ambient compositions of Macaw’s Celadon; the little-kid hip-hop of Fly Girls Da Brats From Da Ville; the vision quests of Hume’s Penumbra; and Deleted Scenes’ kaleidoscopic mope opus, Young People’s Church of Air. Run your fingers across the patterned cover of the Hume record, and you notice a counterpattern of transparent ink; slide many of the records out of their sleeves, and you see they’re pressed on hypnotically translucent colored vinyl. In just about every case, a Sockets release is a musical artifact that’s been made with care.

Even the misfires look beautiful. Peoples finds a box of 12-inches by Big Gold Belt, a woozy R&B duo that ceased making music before it could push the record. Collaborating with another local label, Sockets pressed 200 of these in 2010, but only sold about 20 copies (including one to me). Later, he’ll find a box of 100 additional Big Gold Belt sleeves he had to print because 300 was the smallest possible order. Since they don’t contain vinyl, he’ll decide to recycle them.

Peoples is doing a lot of housecleaning these days. He wants to get rid of 500 records from his personal collection. He’s got about 2,000 Sockets releases he hopes to sell. Boxes of well-thumbed books are on their way out of the house in Park View. For Peoples, who has poured his personal life and personal funds into manufacturing objects for the last eight years, February will be a month of paring down. He’s turning 33 and contemplating graduate programs. Fatback, the popular funk and soul dance party he’s run with other DJs for five years, will host its final event on Feb. 16. And following a showcase this Saturday at the Black Cat, Sockets is shutting down. Peoples is stoked, he says, but quickly adds that it feels like a month of necessary, bittersweet breakups.

In a few hours, Peoples will be with the Fatback crew at Dahlak in Adams Morgan, pumping booty-moving funk while he gyrates his limbs and mouths along to the music. Before that, he’ll be in Virginia, picking up party supplies for the dance night. (“Anything that will shake or make noise, we’ll buy it.”)

For now, we’re talking about the once-and-future yoga room, and Peoples is thinking about what it means—after so many years devoted to documenting music via so many objects, after seeing his CDR-burning hobby balloon into a five-figure habit—to simply let this stuff go. “All that ephemera, it just takes up space,” Peoples says. “These things used to define me—and at this point it’s all changing.”

* * *

When Peoples was in high school, he and a friend followed Fugazi for a string of tour dates, “the way you would if you were a Grateful Dead fan,” ending with a pilgrimage to D.C. In Tenleytown, he had an epiphany familiar to any kid who’s ever wandered behind Fort Reno’s wooden stage and found his punk idols just standing there: Music doesn’t have to exist behind a barrier. It could be a community.

Peoples grew up in Jacobstown, N.J., and decided to go to American University in 1998 because the bands Rites of Spring and Unrest had hailed from D.C. In Washington, Peoples was drawn to the post-punk acts that populated the Dischord Records roster at the time, like The Make-Up, Black Eyes, and Q and Not U. He also picked up a political science degree, which eventually led to his current job as a program associate and multimedia editor at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

After college, Peoples found another community in Radio CPR, a tiny, volunteer-run station based in Mount Pleasant. After sitting in on other DJs’ experiments with on-air sound-collaging—“It was basically, ‘Bring some weird shit, we’re going to play it all at the same time,’” Peoples says—he began using his own radio program as a performance space, inviting friends to play live in the studio. It wasn’t a stretch to record and share CDRs of the sessions with his friends. “This stuff needs to see the light of day,” Peoples recalls thinking.

It was 2005, and the latest wave of Dischord acts had crested with the disbanding of Black Eyes and Q and Not U. “Everyone’s telling me that D.C. music is dead,” says Peoples. “But I’d rather work with D.C. than work against it. Maybe there’s a way … to try to document the weirder fringes.”

Those fringes were pretty weird, it turned out. From 2004 to 2007, Peoples released nearly 50 CDRs in runs of 20 or more. Much of the music came from noiseniks associated with Radio CPR, D.C. house venue 611 Florida, or the Brooklyn avant-garde world. When Na, a Japanese outfit, came on Peoples’ radio show, they asked if he could release some music. “‘Shit, you’re from Japan?’” Peoples recalls thinking. “‘And you play the weirdest shit ever? Yes. Let’s go. Let’s do this.’”

Influenced by the small-scale CDR labels then common among regional noise scenes, Sockets CDR was conceived as boutique—artisan, even. Rather than use small-format CD cases, Peoples packaged each release in plastic DVD cases with large, often intricate art made by him or a collaborator. He’d hand them out to friends, peddle them at Sockets showcases at the Warehouse Theatre, and sell them on the label’s LiveJournal page. Peoples isn’t a Luddite—he makes electronic music and uses a Serato box to DJ—but he’s interested in objects listeners will want to hold. “I respect the work that goes into binding a book, I respect the work that goes into making a vinyl cover,” he says. “Having a physical representation of that makes it so much more real to me than listening to it on my iPod.” The results were rough around the edges—and the music often free-form and abrasive—but it was all part of the experiment. “It was me learning,” Peoples says.

Hoping to get American distribution for the label and press larger orders, Peoples recast Sockets CDR as Sockets Records in 2007. The first release was by The Caution Curves, an avant-noise trio that Peoples saw as a statement about the label’s approach to normally regimented—and predominantly male—genres. But the breakout release was Fly Girls, a rap project pairing middle-school-aged participants in a Brooklyn after-school program with experimental beatmakers. “That was a culmination of everything I wanted the label to be: a community project, but also something that on first listen could be catchy.” Sockets handled CDs, while New York’s True Panther Sounds did the vinyl. Peoples says he ended up unloading most of his 3,000 copies.

Over time, the out-there sounds on Sockets largely gave way to artists with a sideways take on indie rock, pop, and hip-hop. “He was able to put together a collection of like-minded bands that were like-minded people, but not necessarily similar-sounding,” says Patrick Wixted, a friend of Peoples who helped out with the label over the last few years.

If Sockets CDR was an expensive hobby, the scaled-up Sockets Records increased the stakes. Though bands sometimes helped fund the releases, a typical vinyl run of 300 copies—about the smallest LP order Peoples found he could make affordably—could set the label back around $3,000, and plenty of releases left Peoples in the red, especially when bands weren’t able to sell records by touring. When one particularly elaborate release cost Peoples and another label around $6,000 in 2010, he had his come-to-Jesus moment: He asked Ian MacKaye, the notoriously economical co-owner of Dischord Records, for a sit-down. “He was like, ‘Yeah, you made a mistake,’” Peoples says. “‘You can’t do that.’”

That wasn’t the first time Peoples had wrestled with the spiritual satisfaction of running a vinyl label versus its economic realities. “Since 2009 I’ve been like, I don’t want to do this. Fuck this,” says Peoples. “But then people would bring me great shit. I’m like, ‘Well, no one else is going to do it. I might as well do this. Awesome, let’s do this!’ I would get really excited about each new thing.”

* * *

It’s not a coincidence that Sockets CDR launched around the time Peoples saw the end of a serious relationship. “It just seemed to make sense to throw whatever sorrow or depression I had into doing something that distracted me,” he says. “And that’s honestly been a coping mechanism. Any break-up’s been, ‘Well, I got my record label!’ Which sucks in some ways, but it’s also been like the most stable thing I’ve had. It got me through a bunch of shitty situations.”

It’s no stretch to say that to a certain breed of music lover, vinyl is romantic—maybe even narcotic. For a while, Peoples supported the label through his more populist DJ gigs. It will take years of digital sales for some records to break even. Peoples says it was worth it. (One reason: He got to release music by several of his idols, including Eddie Janney and Guy Picciotto of Rites of Spring and Mark Robinson of Unrest.)

For Sockets—and for the community of musicians and DIY spaces his label tapped into—the model came close to full realization in 2011. The label’s lineup swelled with bands that shared shows and fanbases. New DIY spaces like Subterranean A and Paper Sun became linchpins of the local DIY circuit. For the kind of eclectic, high-minded indie rock the label championed, there was a full-fledged, if still intimate, scene. “It was just a new breed which was really exciting,” says Britton Powell of Hume. “Sean was really good at finding new talent. He was always telling me about new groups in D.C. before I even heard about them.”

2011 saw the release of the two records Peoples says he’s most proud of: ambitious, financially successful albums by Skeletons and Deleted Scenes, both of which had what Peoples calls a damaged, McCartneyesque shading. “If I knew those things would exist and I didn’t have a part in it, I would be sad,” says Peoples. “But knowing that they’re out there and also they came out on Sockets, for me it was validity and also legitimacy in terms of shutting down. I feel like those are great statements. It’s nice to be able to know, emotionally and mentally, I put out some cool shit.”

As a labor of love, Sockets Records was nevertheless a massive financial drain for Peoples, one that he estimates made a nearly $20,000 dent over eight years, through many incarnations and dead ends. “That sobering number is now the reservoir of, ‘I can never do that again,’” he says. If he does another label in the future, he’ll stick to a narrower, easily identifiable aesthetic, not Sockets’ eccentric catholicity. For now he plans to focus on smaller, personal projects, like a recent video and sound collaboration with D.C.’s digital Panda Head magazine and his Body Jam dance night at Looking Glass Lounge.

As for Sockets’ legacy, Powell ventures that it could one day rank among legendary, highly collectible local labels like Takoma or Shrine as a document of a city, at a certain time, for a certain kind of person: in this case, the weird years of D.C. DIY. “I think it will be a really interesting ethnomusicological study of Washington in 50 years,” Powell says.

The Sockets Records Showcase—featuring Deleted Scenes, Hume, Imperial China, and Buildings—takes place at 9 p.m. Saturday at the Black Cat. $12 in advance; $15 at the door.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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