Incredibly Strange Music: The Untold Story of Asphodel Records

In Greek mythology, ordinary souls went to live after death in the Asphodel Meadows, a field of flowers located, according to Homer’s Odyssey, at the gateway to the underworld, where the sun never shines.

Since Homer’s first description of the meadows, the asphodel’s connection to the afterlife has captured the imagination of authors through the ages. In the early 1990s, San Francisco-based musician Mitzi Johnson had recorded a debut for her band, the self-titled Blue Rubies, but she needed a name for a label. Taking inspiration from the flower’s mythological roots, she named it Asphodel. Blue Rubies came out in 1992, but Asphodel the label wouldn’t fully come into being until 1995. Its logo depicted a flame rising from five petals, reflecting the flower’s symbolic juxtaposition of life and death.

Over little more than a decade, Asphodel became a mythological place of its own, remembered fondly by artists and fans. Yet its place and significance has been lost in the sands of a pre-internet time. The story of Asphodel is the story of what was possible before the world changed, before planes crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center, and before Napster pushed the music industry kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

“There was no conscious decision to start a label, it grew out of our experiences and encounters.”Naut Humon

When I call Naut Humon, the A&R and one of driving forces of Asphodel throughout its 12-year run, he’s in between California and the North West. Since 2008, Humon has lived a nomadic life. Today, he helms the Recombinant Media Labs (RML), an offshoot of Asphodel, and its roving theatre project the Cinechamber, going wherever the work takes him — from Moscow to the MUTEK festival in Montreal. Humon has been involved in performance since his childhood in Seattle, where he became an actor at the age of seven and began directing in his teens. In the early 1970s, he relocated to San Francisco and, alongside like minded friends, searched for ways to transform performing arts. The result involved moving audiences through various sites, treating them to destabilising montages, and, eventually, using music and early video technology.

A photo of Humon, likely taken in the 1970s, shows him dressed entirely in black with long, pitch-black hair against a bank of modular synthesisers. It’s a look he’d keep throughout his career, somewhere between distinguished and eccentric. Gregor Asch, who performed as DJ Olive and was part of Brooklyn’s WeTM, one of Asphodel’s earliest acts, remembers Humon as something of a mad scientist: “He had an overall charred charcoal look and I wondered briefly where he parked his broom […] He was 100% about the music and not at all an industry type.”

In 1976, Humon co-founded Rhythm & Noise, an industrial band and multimedia ensemble that released two albums and set up The Compound, a warehouse-cum-studio on the outskirts of San Francisco that would become central to his work. Humon left Rhythm & Noise in 1985 and set up Sound Traffic Control to explore the same ideas outside of the constraints of a band format. He met Mitzi Johnson in the late 1980s and the two got married in 1994. Their union would lead to the birth of Asphodel as a label proper.

The impetus for Asphodel’s existence was a favour to the couple’s friend V. Vale, the Japanese-American writer and publisher responsible for the counterculture zine RE/Search. In 1993, RE/Search had released Incredibly Strange Music Vol.1 through Caroline Records, a compilation of leftfield rock and early electronic music from Vale’s collection. Asphodel released the compilation’s second volume in 1995, featuring music from Ken Nordine, Jean-Jacques Perrey, and Les Baxter among others. “The release got some notice and after a period of time we were getting better exposure for it than the previous volume,” Humon explains over the phone in a soft yet energetic West Coast accent. “That’s what got us on the tracks and inspired us to keep things going.”

The title that launched Asphodel would also come to define it: this was to be a home for incredibly strange music. “There was no conscious decision to start a label, it grew out of our experiences and encounters,” Humon remembers. “Mitzi brought ideas and handled the support system and I was the primary curator throughout its zones. Our philosophy was driven by a desire to put out a range of music and not be stuck in any genre.”

Rolling Stone named Asphodel one of the top 10 independent labels in the world in 1998. The accolade reflected the label’s risk-taking and its bewildering roster of artists: turntablism from Bay Area godfathers the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and their New York counterpart the X-Ecutioners; contemporary classical by avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis; Chinese folk from Min Xiao-Fen; downtempo easy listening courtesy of San Francisco’s Tipsy; and the elastic beats and dubbed out vibes emanating from Brooklyn and Manhattan that came to be known as illbient, courtesy of DJ Spooky, WeTM, Sub Dub, and Byzar.

Humon and Johnson began making regular trips to New York at the same time as Asphodel began its journey into strange music. Attending shows around town, Humon found himself in the midst of both illbient’s happenings — a heady mix of philosophy, art, and music spread around reclaimed spaces in a chaotic urban centre — and DJ battles and showcases where scratching was evolving into turntablism, and where he also met a young DJ Craze from Miami whose crew, The Allies, debuted on the label in 1999. “Both scenes had mutual respect for each other, especially from illbient to the turntablists,” he recalls.

“I felt like the flavour, character, and personality of the music coming out of New York really had its own slant.”Naut Humon

Asphodel’s early focus on and support of micro scenes like turntablism and illbient brought it to the attention of a growing underground of hip-hop and electronic outcasts, yet the label remained impossible to pin down, unlike European counterparts like Ninja Tune or Mo’ Wax. “We were about the music,” Humon enthuses when I ask what drove him to sign such varied acts. “It was a sincerity with liking the material and also with new things happening, but on a personal level. We didn’t want to go towards a genre-ification of the music. I felt like the flavour, character, and personality of the music coming out of New York really had its own slant.”

Within a few years Asphodel became bi-coastal, with its roots in San Francisco and a growing outpost in New York spearheaded by Erik Gilbert, the label manager. Gilbert was introduced to the couple by American Music Club’s Wally Brill, who suggested he’d be perfect to handle the day-to-day business of running such an operation. At the same time, Gilbert had been preparing a move to the East Coast. “The fact that Erik went to New York and forged an office there allowed us to grow this genuine musical chemistry with the city,” Humon remembers. Speaking by email, Gilbert, who continues to work in the music business, explained how his initial role was “to arrange a recording agreement with The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who had recorded their second album at Naut’s studio, The Compound.” After that, he settled into New York and “set up distribution, PR, radio, and slowly begun to build the label’s infrastructure while Naut and Mitzi focused on A&R.”

Within a few years Asphodel’s New York outpost had moved from a “roach-infested apartment” on West 14th Street to a fully functioning office further up on West 27th. Around the same time, a young producer who had moved from Georgia to New York by the name of Guillermo Scott Herren, yet to become Prefuse 73, interned briefly at the office. Asphodel was becoming a well-oiled machine, with New York handling the business side — product management, sales, distribution — and San Francisco acting as its heart and soul. “The challenges were in building a label brand that was not entirely focused on one style of music,” says Gilbert. “This actually turned out to be what set us apart from many other labels at the time — we released great music by great artists and were known for our curation. We were more like art curators than a label.”

In a pre-digital world, the idea of curation was still rooted in the tradition of cultural institutions interpreting historical heritage. Thus if Humon and Johnson were curators, Asphodel was a temporary sonic museum. Its collections included “incubated projects” — illbient, turntablism, but also musique concrete and dub — alongside license and distribution of hand-picked artists: the experimental folk of Japan’s World Standard; the dub techno of Rhythm & Sound from Berlin; or the electronic cut-ups of Atlanta’s Richard Devine. “We were interested in all those things,” Humon tells me, “but the content was always the most important.”

The Compound, Asphodel’s studio in the Bay Area, was central to Asphodel’s artistic nervous system throughout its life. Outfitted with both old and new technology — Pro Tools alongside vintage synthesisers and outboard effects — it was used for recordings, experiments, and artist residencies. Gregor Asch remembers it as “a wild laboratory out on some abandoned airbase.”

“That place still makes me drool,” he says. “I used to have dreams of Naut’s old classic LXP42’s.” Based on Humon’s experience with the Compound, Asphodel decided to also outfit a studio in New York. “The idea was to give artists resources, that was one of Asphodel’s main things: to give technical power over to the artist.”

The Excursions In Illbient compilation, released in 1996 and partly responsible for cementing the fateful naming of New York’s experimental scene, was recorded at this new studio. Raz Mesinai, one half of Sub Dub, remembers jumping at the chance to work in a professional studio after years of home recording. “For me the greatest records of the so-called illbient era are the first wave by WeTM, Byzar, and Spooky. And that’s all due to Asphodel,” he told me last year. Humon’s philosophy of empowering artists with knowledge and equipment paid off. Recalling the recording debuts of his band, Asch remembers how “WeTM had made do for so long with so little, entering the Compound was like walking out of a post-apocalyptic junkyard onto the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Our first album, As Is, was born in that experience.”

Beyond giving artists the necessary tools, Humon was also hands-on in engaging them to upgrade their music making skills. When he first began frequenting turntablist and illbient circles, he was surprised to find that most of the artists weren’t releasing music beyond homemade cassettes. He brings up the example of ISP member Mixmaster Mike, who debuted on the label as a solo artist with 1998’s Anti-Theft Device and joined the Beastie Boys as their official tour DJ soon after. “I would go and visit Mike at his place in Vallejo and listen to all these cassettes he’d made,” Humon explains. For Mike’s debut, Naut got the idea to reflect this history in the recordings, by weaving elements throughout. Humon became the album’s producer, in the traditional sense — guiding Mike’s creativity while teaching him how to work with new technology. “Asphodel was trying to enable artists to learn the skills needed to be on their own,” says Humon of his hands-on approach. “I had a customised way that I would be a behind-the-scenes producer.”

Speaking to Passion Of The Weiss in 2010, Mike explained just how much Humon taught him: “[Naut] approached me and said ‘I want to help you make a record.’ […] He showed me my first steps in using the Tascam DA–38 digital recorder. […] He took me from dirty to the nice sounding world, you know? […] He showed me how to use technology to my advantage, and I give all the glory to that guy.” Discussing the process of putting Anti-Theft Device together, Humon recalled the story behind the album’s track ‘Surprize Packidge’: “I gave him a bunch of records he’d never heard before, and the track came from that. It really was a surprise, he hadn’t heard any of it before and we used it to make segments that became the final track.” Mike’s debut would go on to sell over 100,000 copies worldwide.

“I would go and visit Mike at his place in Vallejo and listen to all these cassettes he’d made.”Naut Humon

One final component of the Asphodel machine was its performance aspect, which fell under the umbrella of the Recombinant shows. Starting in 1996, the Recombinant shows were a direct extension of Humon’s performance background and of his Sound Traffic Control outfit, which debuted in Japan in 1991 with a performance involving 800 speakers and a physical metaphor for a sonic airport with audience members as passengers idling on an imaginary runway while sonic cargos moved around them. For the new shows, “the idea was to recombine different strains of music and visual art over the course of a presentation to give the audience a broad range and diverse takes.”

Having spent time in a group in his early years, with Rhythm & Noise, Humon wanted to go beyond the band. “The idea became to get into orchestration, what the orchestra of the future might become,” he remembers. “I always felt my role wasn’t just that of a musician, someone who played in a band, but of a sound traffic controller, who conducts and conveys sound traffic as it moves through various spaces.” The January 1997 edition of The Wire magazine summarised Recombinant’s first San Francisco show: “An open-ended work in progress, a Petri dish of sonic emergences and unexpected comminglings, the event was a breath of fresh air in an often insular town.”

When I refer to Recombinant as a party, Humon is quick to try and differentiate it from the homogenised standard the word conjures. “It was more about design, we’d design the shows so that different things would happen. Putting on a spectacle but in an organised way.” The shows would sometimes stretch over multiple nights and spaces and involve Asphodel and related artists. Both Humon’s description of the work, heavy on metaphors, and reviews from the time hint at the shows as a meeting point between a standardised musical performance — at the time still a fairly new concept for DJs and electronic musicians — and something closer to an art installation, one that is living rather than calcified inside an institution. Recombinant shows took place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City and Miami with guests including The Beat Junkies, DJ Craze and A-Trak, as well as the Austrian media art group Granular Synthesis. The Recombinant shows would ultimately give way to the RML and Cinechamber that occupies Humon today. When I tell him how the description of Recombinant brings to mind Soundlab’s Beth Coleman’s use of “experiential events” to describe New York’s illbient happenings, he agrees: “Today I say that Recombinant Media Labs are experiential engineers.”

Nothing lasts forever, especially not in the fickle world of the music industry. Gilbert left Asphodel in 1999 to set up his own label, 75 Ark. Early artists, such as the X-Ecutioners and Mixmaster Mike, moved on to bigger labels or projects. In 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center forever altered the mood of New York (and the country at large) and ended the short-lived illbient movement. After 9/11 the focus shifted back towards Asphodel’s home in San Francisco and the idea of the label as a laboratory that could incubate not just music but also live shows, visual technology, and new digital practices. Between 2002 and 2007 the label released less than half of what it had in the previous five years. There were licenses — including Berlin’s Ellen Allien and the Raster Noton label — and obscure works from Marclay, Antimatter, and Mesinai’s Badawi project.

Asphodel had always enjoyed healthy sales across physical formats, like many independent labels of the time. Compounding the change of mood in the country, the arrival of file-sharing programs such as Napster heralded the demise of the music industry’s established modes of distribution, which would trickle down to independent institutions. In 2003, Apple announced the iTunes music store and within a few years many of the distributors that had been vital to labels like Asphodel folded. “We stayed independent but once the distributors were gone it became about defining what was really important to go forward,” Humon reminisces with a slightly wistful tone. “The idea became to keep the lab, and focus on that.” Discussing society’s wider shift towards digital creation and consumption, Humon, who has witnessed four decades of creativity, is realistic. “To me, most people who buy music aren’t into music, they’re into it for social reasons,” he states. “It’s a different sort of emphasis. It was more culturally integral in the previous decades. There are still great indie labels doing work but really the context has shifted.”

In the late 2000s, Johnson and Humon divorced and with their separation came the decision to also separate the children. Humon took the lab with him, which would become RML, while the label would be ended but its catalogue kept alive. “That’s the deal we made,” he tells me. “I wanted the catalogue to survive and the rights to revert back to the artists.” Due to the circumstances of the split, Humon had no real control over the agreement, and while the Asphodel catalogue existed for a short while on iTunes it has since disappeared, with only a handful of releases available today via artists who have exercised the rights to their catalogue.

Speaking on the legacy of Asphodel, Gilbert underlined its uncompromising stance and approach: “Incredible artists, incredible albums. I am honoured and proud to have been involved with them. Nothing has since come close.” For Asch, without Naut there would be no DJ Olive as we knew him and perhaps no illbient. “The label is Naut’s legacy really,” he admits. “Quality sampling from emerging sounds on the meridian between the underground and the popular. A world class grasp of production and mastering while always pushing the boundaries of a surround performance experience.”

Humon continues to explore the future with the Recombinant Media Labs, focusing on audio/visual while remaining connected to artists like Mixmaster Mike and Richard Devine. There is a sense that he will always be there, somewhere, thinking about what could be done to take things further, to shift the comfort zones. There’s an element of selfishness in wishing for Asphodel’s recorded legacy to be available in today’s digital landscape, if only to show younger generations what was possible. At the same time it’s perhaps for the better, and truer to the label’s roots in that mythological flower that grows in the underworld where the sun never shines and souls are left to wander for eternity.

Read next: The 50 best trip-hop albums of all time.



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