Labels to Watch: PJCE, Dazzleships, Infinite Companion and Fluff & Gravy Records

Vortex Music Magazine

Whether on cassette, vinyl or streaming online, Portland’s best sonic curators provide a diverse snapshot of what our city sounds like—from all sorts of jazz, to authentic singer-songwriters dabbling in folk and Americana, to pop stars breaking down barriers and more!

Don't miss PJCE's 'From Maxville to Vanport' live at this year's PDX Jazz Festival on March 3 at the Mission Theater: Photo by Kimmie FademDon't miss PJCE's 'From Maxville to Vanport' live at this year's PDX Jazz Festival on March 3 at the Mission Theater: Photo by Kimmie Fadem

PJCE Records

ROSTER: Darrell Grant, Barra Brown Quintet, Jessika Smith, George Colligan, Tim Willcox
NEW RELEASES: Other Barry’s Escape Route, Ryan Meagher’s Evil Twin, Andrew Durkin + Quadraphonnes (fall)

One of the core principles of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble is the promotion of new music. The 12-piece band regularly commissions work from fledgling and established composers and lets its members try out fresh material with the support of some of the region’s best players—including saxophonists Mary-Sue Tobin and Nicole Glover, the group’s development director Mieke Bruggeman, and executive director Douglas Detrick. That ethos extends to the music that its in-house label, PJCE Records, has released over the past six years.

“I think there’s only a handful of tunes that are not written by the composers in the entire catalog,” says PJCE Records’ director Ryan Meagher. The fact that the majority of the music is original, and local to boot, “is definitely something that sets us apart from most jazz record labels.”

Co-founded by pianist Andrew Oliver and guitarist Dan Duval to document the ample creativity and variety of Portland’s band leaders and improvisers, Meagher and his team are entirely agnostic about the subgenres of jazz that they’ve helped release through the imprint. Last year alone, they shepherded forward a collection of freeform sounds from Trio Untold, a guitar, keys and drums three-piece, and From Maxville to Vanport, a blues-and-R&B-influenced work composed by pianist Ezra Weiss and inspired by the veiled history of African-American workers who were vital to the growing timber industry and WWII-era shipyards in Oregon. (Do not miss PJCE's performance at this year's PDX Jazz Festival on Sunday, March 3 at the Mission Theater—watch a snippet from the film that accompanies the performance below.) And nearly all PJCE releases bear distinctive, minimalist-futuristic artwork designed by Dylan McConnell of Tiny Little Hammers.

The label, according to Meagher, is pretty particular about what it releases, urging artists to strive for greatness in their composing and recording. Considering the range of work that PJCE has released to date, from the old-school swing of the Jessika Smith Big Band to more abstract sounds by Kin Trio (featuring the late Andre St. James on bass), its ability to hold to that principle is a remarkable achievement.

“People have approached us for some releases and we’ve had to pass,” he says. “A high level of artistry is something that we value.” —Robert Ham

Dazzleships Records

ROSTER: Kulululu, The Secret Sea, GLASYS, The Toads
NEW RELEASES: Logan Hyde’s Watermelon (pictured), Raised By Women (a compilation featuring 11 local female bands and musicians—listen below), Keith Sweaty’s Hypography EP and Remixes

Back in the summer of 2010, Hunter Skowron was a touring musician who was tired of broken promises and dead ends with mid-sized indie labels. His solution? “I decided to form my own label and take matters into my own hands to release my music,” he says. Eight and a half years later, Dazzleships Records is nearing 40 releases on behalf of artists down the street and across the country, due in part to Skowron’s previous residences in both Los Angeles and Brooklyn (where he also had a recording studio).

It seems that Dazzleships has found a more permanent base in Portland, though. “Portland has been an amazing city to put the roots down,” Skowron says. “The music scene is so concentrated here—it really feels like a family.” And in the true spirit of family, Skowron has kept Dazzleships small: It’s just him usually, although he employs an assistant during big production pushes. Keeping lean has allowed him to make some pretty unique vinyl and cassettes, naming “endless colors, glow-in-the-dark releases and even scratch-and-sniff cassettes” as some of the quirks he’s played with.

And yes, you read that correctly: Dazzleships’ primary format is cassettes, but not for the reasons you might think in our sometimes too-twee city. When he founded the label, Skowron explains, “My car at the time only had a cassette player. I was obsessed with finding cassettes of my favorite albums to have a library to listen to [while] driving around in traffic in Los Angeles.” But more importantly, the cassette resurgence hadn’t quite taken hold in 2010, so materials were very affordable for the new record label. “I was able to release my own music on the format for pennies (versus pressing on vinyl).” Though Dazzleships does work with vinyl too, Skowron has embraced his status as “the cassette guy” and cites Dazzleships’ nearly 10,000 cassettes produced in 2018 as proof it’s well deserved. —Katey Trnka

Frankie Simone: Photo by Molly AdamsFrankie Simone: Photo by Molly Adams

Infinite Companion

ROSTER: Frankie Simone, Magic Sword, Pure Bathing Culture
NEW RELEASES: Frankie Simone’s LOVE​/​/​WARRIOR EP, Pure Bathing Culture’s Night Pass (4/26), OMA’s E in Motion (spring)

As music licensing agency Marmoset has evolved from a humble two-person operation run out of a home office in North Portland into a bustling, modern design space in southeast with more than 50 employees, the crew’s ambitions have grown with it. And one of their big dreams was to start a record label.

“I think it had always been on their pie-in-the-sky list,” Laura Hardin says. “Marmoset was born out of the desire to work with emerging artists and pay artists a living wage for the work that they do, and the label became an extension of that.”

Hence, a year ago, she and Ben Hubbird were tapped to run Infinite Companion, a still-burgeoning imprint with a mind toward shining a light on up-and-coming artists. At the time, Hardin was marketing and publicity director for Pink Martini as well as Live Wire Radio, and Hubbird was handling digital promotion and label relations for CD Baby. Now, their combined talents and Marmoset’s team of licensing and sync experts have helped boost the profile of queer, Puerto Rican pop artist Frankie Simone, whose debut EP LOVE​/​/​WARRIOR has earned accolades from NPR and Billboard.

“We really want to elevate underrepresented artists,” Hardin says. “We want the sound and the look and the feel of the label to be as diverse as the world we live in. Frankie’s music hits all of those boxes for us.”

While Simone’s EP was the only thing the label put out in 2018, Infinite Companion will be cranking up the heat this year. Already on tap is the latest album from dream pop group Pure Bathing Culture (listen to the first single below) as well as the first release from OMA, a minimalist electronic duo from a small French island in the Indian Ocean. —Robert Ham

John Shepski and Juniana and Chad Lanning of Vacilando: Photo by Anne BarrettJohn Shepski and Juniana and Chad Lanning of Vacilando: Photo by Anne Barrett

Fluff & Gravy Records

ROSTER: Richmond Fontaine, Jeffrey Martin, Federale, The Parson Red Heads, Nick Jaina, Mike Coykendall, Jamie Stillway
NEW RELEASES: Luther Russell’s Medium Cool (2/22), Anna Tivel’s The Question (4/19—listen to the title track below), Vacilando’s What if it’s Not Going to be OK (May), Whim’s Abuzz in the Abyss (June), Fernando Viciconte’s Traitor’s Table (summer), Jenny Don’t & The Spurs (summer)

Just down the road from Peninsula Park on a tree-lined street sits a corner house with a big porch, not unlike its neighbors. This family home is the physical embodiment as well as the heart and soul of Fluff & Gravy Records. All at once, it is a label, studio, venue, gathering place, and even a boarding house.

Run by affable friends and bandmates John Shepski and Chad Lanning, this year will see the pair cross the eight-year mark and surpass 60 releases—with an emphasis on singer-songwriters who dabble in folk, Americana and rock and roll—on their homespun, community-first record label.

“We are fans and friends with our artists first before we are business partners. It’s the way that we’ve always worked—that’s the way that the whole thing started,” Shepski tells. It all launched in earnest because Shepski had just wrapped recording with Morgan Geer of Drunken Prayer, who had no idea how he’d actually release the music they’d just finished. Shepski volunteered—and roped Lanning in. And it was Geer who gave the imprint its motto: Trust Your Label. Just like everything with Fluff & Gravy, the maxim is not just branding; it’s truly something they exemplify.

“Chad and I had this philosophy from the beginning: We’re not investing in a record, we’re investing in an artist,” Shepski says. “And it’s a rarity to have artists sign multi-record deals these days.” In the history of the label, there’s only been one artist who released just one album with them—something that clearly speaks to the incredible relationships and creative partnerships everyone involved forms and continues to grow over time.

Fluff  & Gravy’s Juniana Lanning behind the board at the label’s studio: Photo by Chad LanningFluff & Gravy’s Juniana Lanning behind the board at the label’s studio: Photo by Chad LanningAnother dynamic that enables artistic development is the fact that Fluff & Gravy also has a studio at its disposal, located in the basement of the Shepski household. “Old-school record labels, they were always connected to a recording studio—that’s just how it was done,” Shepski says. “It just makes a lot of sense. We’ve got all these resources here.” While not exclusive to the label, the lead engineer is Juniana Lanning (wife of Chad and drummer in Vacilando with Shepski and Lanning), and the open-door atmosphere “is great for the creative process because nobody feels rushed,” Shepski says. “Nobody feels like they’re under a time crunch.”

And “it shows,” Lanning adds. The welcoming feeling of home and the opportunity of flexibility—to try and try again—means magic happens “that couldn’t of happened if you’re on the clock,” he says.

“It’s all connected,” Shepski notes. “It’s the studio, it’s the fire pits in the summer, it’s the garage that we have in the backyard”—an outbuilding he remodeled to house musicians who need a place to crash when they come off the road or while they’re recording. Gatherings around the backyard fire pit—where folks arrive with instruments ready to sing songs together—are frequent in the warmer months, while indoors, house shows go down in the opposite seasons.

The ability to trust Fluff & Gravy extends to the fan. Again feeling nostalgic for something of yesteryear, Shepski hopes listeners see the label’s name as a sign of distinction, “a family under the Fluff & Gravy name,” he says. “I feel like there’s something inherently honest about the artists that we work with and the music that they put out. Even if stylistically they may be different, there’s an integrity and an honesty that tie everything together.”

“The family thing, it’s such a cliché thing to say but it’s definitely true,” Lanning says. “There is a sense of community that I’ve not felt [elsewhere]. I’ve been in other cities, and other bands, and other musical groups, but nothing ever like this.”

No matter what an artist is doing, Lanning emphasizes: “There is a home here.” —Chris Young

Discover more Portland Artists to Watch in our latest issue, #MeToo In #PDXmusic, and don't miss the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble performing 'From Maxville to Vanport' at this year's PDX Jazz Festival on Sunday, March 3 at the Mission Theater—watch another video below!

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