Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect the position of Spotify.
As an only child, much of my personality and development was shaped by the struggle between how to follow my natural instincts toward autonomy, and guilt over not fitting in or doing what was expected of me. I struggled with being completely certain of who I was on the one hand, and trying to live up to external expectations on the other. I also loved and craved the freedom, safety, and reliability of being alone, but still wanted to be on a team. Eventually, I developed an attitude that at times bordered on near-pointless defiance, never wanting any help, but I also honed an ability to achieve pinpoint focus and intent, with a concurrent and nearly complete inability to follow protocol when it didn’t make innate sense, or feel right to or for me.
At nine years old I fell completely in love with what has so far been the bulk of my life’s purpose: music and art, both created and performed. It was only natural that those interests would eventually fuse with the aforementioned personality traits.
The joy of process, and of pride, love, possession, and accomplishment, that I felt when my best friend and I recorded a cassette demo at 13 years old was unlike anything I had ever felt. Later, I'd pay to have my first tape or CD replicated, and I'd hold it in my hand, and that feeling, again, was like no other.
The next evolutionary step at that point, particularly in that pre-internet time, was a record label. “Getting signed” seemed like the ultimate end-zone that you couldn’t really see too far beyond. With The Dillinger Escape Plan, I couldn’t believe that our records were in stores—that I could go to a store and see our CD on shelves next to my heroes and inspirations, or that we were on a label with some of them; that people in places I had never been to could have access to recorded albums we had written, without us being there. We didn’t know any other way to do that; we didn’t know any better way to connect any required dots on our own. There was no mass convenient digital music distribution, whether downloadable or streaming. Everything seemed shrouded in mystery and completely unattainable without outside help, not to mention unfathomably expensive.
Since then, I’ve had some nearly worthless label experiences, some mediocre label experiences, and I’ve also had some great label experiences. This is not me advocating for going it alone versus a label: different strokes for different folks at different times with different levels of need. Ideally, your label is your partner; not just a bunch of capitalists, but human beings with a strong passion for growing artistic culture and individuality, who believe in you and are working hard to help facilitate your vision. There is a time for them. They can almost act like parents in a lot of ways, nurturing you and supporting you. They aren’t all “evil” and completely corrupted by the bottom line.
But at some point, in the last handful of years, after shuttling around from label to label for various releases, I had a lot of increasingly frequent and powerful awakenings and affirmations, feelings that were similar to the “calling” I felt at nine years old to play music. With The Black Queen in particular, a band that organically took shape with a couple of friends between 2010 and 2012, I felt the growing and familiar childhood feeling of being the completely resilient, defiant, and self-reliant odd duck, both sonically and in terms of our operations — and it felt really good.
That, combined with the relationship that I felt with my pre-existing work, the relationship that I felt with my pre-existing audience, the strong support that I felt from my bandmates, our combined skill sets, and both the tools that exist in current times and the connections that we’ve collectively made along the way, illuminated a path that I hadn’t really fully been able to see before. It seemed to me that we would be giving more than we were gaining in the trade-off with labels, that trade-off being our masters, and our name and individuality, in exchange for their up-front money and services, and possibly some built-in audience.
I didn’t want myself or us to have to ever compromise our instincts, or even so much as argue about them or have to explain them, and I didn’t want to waste any existing aesthetic fingerprint, or the furthering of that fingerprint, by being a trophy in someone else’s case. I began to feel stronger and filled with more and more purpose and activation. When we saw how much we were already doing on our own—and how fast we could move, how unorthodox a lot of our approach was in general, and how positively that was all affecting us—we knew that we would never be able to be penned in or paid off by someone else. I started to really loathe the idea, in fact, and see it as a waste of potential. It just wasn’t the right move for us, and it didn’t have to be. I could no longer separate the release process, the design process, the team-building process, the financial process, even the manufacturing process, from the creative process. It began to all feel like one thought, one organism, one motion. Everything I used to see as help, I suddenly saw as unnecessary at best, and a liability at worst.
So self-releasing Fever Daydream and now Infinite Games became the only option. It became not just a statement of intent, but also of refusal. With another of our great friends helping us on the visual front, we began to assemble the parts, and set out doing everything either on our own or with direct contact to the moving parts: album creation, production, mixing, mastering, design, audience interaction, making videos, pressing records, signing territorial distribution deals, and finding publicists and other key people that felt like the best fit, all while footing the bills ourselves so nobody had any ownership of us whatsoever. It wasn’t just about not signing to a label, it was about doing all of the same things that they would do, or more, or different things, without them. No cutting corners.
We brought in outside individuals to help as needed and found assurance and encouragement from key people that reached out to offer support or acknowledgement. If something made sense to us, and felt right and excited us, we did it; if something did not, we didn’t. It was that simple. We didn’t have to argue with anyone if those approaches were abnormal or against the tried and true—or even totally insane-sounding. On technical and logistical levels, if we didn’t know how to do something, we decided we would learn how, and then we did. If we didn’t know how to connect certain dots, we figured it out, with as few middlemen as possible. With our upcoming album, a lot of the mechanisms are already in place, and we know worlds more than we did at similar points last time, so we’ve had time to either learn new things, or to evolve the things we already knew. It’s not that hard, you just have to want to do it all, to the point of obsession. Just like when you’re a kid.
We’ve found that what we are doing has not only empowered us but greatly resonated with others, and that having an absolute punk-rock approach has nothing to do with a genre. We can say “fuck off” to convention, from sound to approach, and operate completely freely and purely, driven solely by a love of process and a restless eagerness to continue defining a non-compromised identity. There are so many avenues now, so many possibilities, why limit yourself to any rules at all, except for the rule of being true to yourself?