ULYSSA Records Beams Warped Transmissions From the Heart(land)

Wolfgang Mowrey speaks to the founders of ULYSSA Records, John Williamson & EO Deines, about how Miles Davis and Sega Genesis inspired the "toejazz" aesthetic, the power of discovering music without...
By    February 22, 2024

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Wolfgang Mowrey keeps a CD copy of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah in his car and it always shines.

The end of music discovery is far from ever being a reality. Roughly 60,000 new songs are uploaded to streaming services each day, and that doesn’t account for the old projects that are still anonymous and overlooked. Forgotten recordings from total unknowns – made with varying degrees of MIDI polish and engineering competence – remain buried amidst heaps of Spring Break playlists and AI-generated Ambient. “Most of it is garbage,” John Williamson, the co-founder of ULYSSA Records tells me. “But some of it is the most fried and out there stuff you’ll ever hear.”

Founded by Willamson and EO Deines in 2020, ULYSSA Records has been mining unheard classics from the trenches of DSPs and far corners of the internet, finding a cast of often solitary heroes making music at the intersection of familiar and foreign. The label has recently gotten into vinyl, but specializes in releasing cassette mixtapes and playlists documenting what is less so a scene and more a cultural reaction that dates back decades – the intergenerational dialogue between early digital adapters who were exploring new technologies, and listeners with unlimited access to all recorded music made.

The result is something that sounds like what ECM Records would be making if Manfred Eicher started his label today – an obsession over taking conceptually distant sounds and recontextualizing them to the point of only vague familiarity. There’s the label’s inaugural release, a distorted to bliss cassette rip of a John Mellencamp & Lou Reed show from 1987, taken from a YouTube upload of illicit camcorder footage of a secret show, where the audio stretches the audience’s cheers on “Sweet Jane” into ecstatic swells. One thundering jolt of joy after another from a crowd that cannot believe what they are witnessing in a tiny Indiana club.

A deeper perusal into the ULYSSA oeuvre is a jagged line that crosses through the Mississippi Delta, Hawaii, Brazil, Savannah, Georgia, and anywhere else that could house a hidden genius operating outside of the confines of the music industry. On the label’s “ >1,000” series, the duo champion everything from lo-fi dancefloor heaters to bistro-tinged folk jazz, elevating transient bursts of weirdo creativity with under one thousand streams into “Nuggets” status.

There are also the numerous surveys of “toejazz” – an umbrella term coined by the duo for turn of the millennium jazz musicians with varying levels of experience, newly armed with Photoshop and home recording equipment – embracing the sounds of smooth jazz, new age, house, and hip-hop to soundtrack the digital age. The toe jazz sound is amorphous, moreso defined by attitude than an overall aesthetic. Toejazz could be a father of three fiddling with his guitar and adding a drum machine track behind it, and it could also be a self-taught pianist trying to incorporate a preset “techno” beat to keyboard vamps. It’s the awkward optimism that stems from a mutual recognition between artist and audience, as if both parties are exchanging smiles, thinking, “I don’t know how this shit is supposed to work, but it feels good, so here we go!”

The label even put out a Duwap Kaine cassette compilation last year. “I’ve been a fan of Duwap’s output since 2019 or so,” says Deines. “He’s so relentless and outsider-y in his own way. I simply slipped into his DMs and asked if he’d let us make a limited tape of our fave cuts of his. We went all the way back and found a song or two from his YouTube days when he was, like, 13 and sampling SpongeBob. I sent him art ideas and links and such along the way but he only just hearts them and never responds.”

Their latest release, a collaboration between Brazilian house producers Gabriel Guerra and Lucas de Paiva, & Bruce Hornsby (he of “The Way It Is” fame), came about after the label, who had been distributing Guerra and de Paiva’s 40% Foda label and even released a stacked cassette compilation, connected the duo with Hornsby, who Deines became acquainted with several years prior. Hornsby, whose own career could serve as a toejazz manifesto, broke through in the 1980s as a soft rocker before touring as the Grateful Dead’s keyboardist, then spent the 1990s dabbling in smooth jazz and trip hop.

Hornsby’s latest releases include collaborations with the LA-based jazz guitarist Blake Mills, who could be considered a toejazz acolyte, taking bits of influence from jam bands, new age, indie rock and smooth jazz and mashing them together like play-doh. On Contrahouse, Guerra, de Paiva, & Hornsby find a nexus point between sophisti-pop and balearic club music, where Hornsby’s distant calls and echoes rub against dubbed-out percussion and sanitized keyboards, creating something simultaneously familiar and alien.

For so many, it becomes deceptively easy to inadvertently mistake “professionally made” for “interesting,” neatly organized and properly tagged. But that doesn’t account for the friction that occurs when artists bear no mind to any boundaries or rules and simply hit “record,” blotting out any descriptor for what something should sound like and rewriting it themselves. ULYSSA is a testament to that friction, making art that speaks to something more truthful than taste, or being featured on a New Music Friday. For Deines and Williamson, digging for and sharing these iconoclasts, intentional or not, is what keeps them returning to the trenches.

How did you guys meet and what led you to starting a record label together?

EO Deines: We’re based in the midwest, in Bloomington, Indiana. Before that, I lived in North Carolina, like 16-17 years ago, and I would have DIY house shows, but not like hardcore shows, very esoteric stuff. John had just moved to Charlotte and came to one of those shows, and came up to me in the hallways like, “hey, is this your house? What’s the ambient scene like here in town?” And we just stayed in touch. He’s moved all over the place in the meantime, and I took a job. My day job is doing A&R for the record label Jagjaguwar. So while I am part of the Big Indie scene, ULYSSA started during COVID as more of a artistic endeavor between the two of us.

John Williamson: We were getting together just to hang out, drink some beers, paint or draw, listen to music, talk about stuff. And I think with his job, you can’t really sign some of the smaller weird things, because it is a big financial risk. So I was encouraging him and being like “well, we should just do it ourselves, that would be fun, you know?”

Prior to starting the label, did you have releases in mind that you really wanted to get out?

EO Deines: So there’s this jazz artist from LA, Sam Gendel, and he had this record “Rio Nilo 66” – strictly on vinyl, only 33 copies made, and I loved it. He had sent it to me a long time ago, but it wasn’t out digitally anywhere so I was like, “Can this be our first tape?” I had been a champion of his for several years, but he ended up getting signed to Nonesuch, and had two albums coming out, so we had to press pause on that. But in the meantime, I happened upon this video on YouTube of John Mellencamp playing a local club in Bloomington, where Lou Reed gets on stage halfway through and it turns into John Mellencamp’s band backing Lou Reed. Someone just filmed it with a camcorder they smuggled in. I do a quick shitty mastering job of it and then put it out on cassette as a bootleg. For all the records I’ve helped put out in my entire life, I’d never put in a production order before then.

John Williamson: Eric was making the Jagjaguwar Fridays playlist. He did that for years and years, and we would always listen to them when we were making art, and I’d be like, “these are really thoughtful, beautiful playlists, you’re really putting everything you have into it.” On Spotify, do they even bother to listen to it? So, I thought we should just make our own playlists. We always said from the beginning that our goal with ULYSSA was not to become another record label, it’s just about keeping it fun and saying yes to the weird ideas.

EO Deines: There is just an endless, endless hole of music that no one has ever heard before. Someone may have uploaded it on CDbaby in 1997. But when Spotify came around, CDbaby just crossed over and digitized it. That person from 1997 may have no f*cking idea, and it just sits in the void of streaming services- no monthly listeners, zero plays. It’s hyper local, sometimes outsider artists. John figured out how to really circumvent what you’re being fed by an algorithm to actually go straight to the bottom of this void. So then we became obsessed with finding these artists. That’s how we found Gabriel Guerra and Lucas de Paiva from Rio, because none of their shit had crested a thousand plays, right? So we have this series, we call it <1,000, because on Spotify, when something hasn't achieved over a thousand streams, your viewability is impacted. And within that, we find these things, like this guy David Michael Moore who’s from the Mississippi Delta and makes his own instruments, like this band A Certain Frank from Dusseldorf, Germany that we released a compilation of. Like Double Gee, a South African trap artist. We find something that we love and just become super obsessed.

The way you guys talk about mining the algorithm to find this music that has been lost to time reminds me how a lot of people go out and dig for ultra rare records that are worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. Do you feel like there’s some kind of similar methodology?

John Williamson: I feel like discovering this world was kind of like showing up to a flea market with nothing but private press records that no one’s ever heard before. But in the record world, there’s already a whole network within a community, whereas I’m almost positive we’re the only people in this community, so it’s our little digital crate.

EO Deines: I’ll find something, and It’ll have two monthly listeners, and both of them will be from Bloomington, Indiana.

John Williamson: I wouldn’t even know how to make money off these things if I tried. Everything we find is already on streaming services, so we’re essentially finding private press DSP releases. The algorithm doesn’t boost your plays when you release something that’s ever been released in the past. We have had a couple things take off and broken a thousand or ten thousand plays, but what we’re doing is strictly for the heads.

I’m curious about how you landed on toejazz as an aesthetic.

EO Deines: I realized that there was this very particular aesthetic prevalent where it’s synth based, kind of digital, sort of reminiscent of the Miles Davis album Tutu, which I was turned on to by Ruban from Unknown Mortal Orchestra. I also grew up loving the soundtracks to the “ToeJam & Earl” games on the Sega Genesis. And song after song after song all sounded like this, so eventually we said “let’s just call it toejazz.”

So John used to live in Hawaii and picked up a record in a dollar bin by a guy named Craig Peyton, and just loved it. And when we were just thinking about what records we should be putting out, John was just like “Craig Peyton’s a hero of mine.” And so I emailed Craig two days later and listened to a bunch of his stuff, because a lot of it was already on streaming services but no one cared. He was down, and we have become great friends with this dude who John found in the dollar section in a record store in Hawaii. He’s a pilot, so he’s flown to see us twice in this little f*cking college town. In the early 80s, he started strapping 35 millimeter cameras to his airplane and recording himself flying over landscapes, then putting it to his music and releasing it on VHS tapes.

We were doing one of our little toejazz compilations, and John sent me an artist named Inga McDaniel. She’s making this homemade house-jazz that is fried. We just immediately started sending each other songs we were finding back and forth. John was over at my place in August and we were poking around, trying to figure out how to find her. Turns out, she lives nine blocks away. We just called her and took her out to eat. She loved us. She’s a sixty-something year old grandma with a cane and a total badass, super sweet, funny, style for days. She’s a cool lady and makes all this music herself.

I want to ask you about this Contrahouse record, how did that collaboration come about? And what informed the music that was being made on that record?

EO Deines: So we had become friends with Gab and Lucas of 40% Foda and had helped them distribute their records, but we wanted to do something that was a proper ULYSSA release, a record that they make for us that we get to put out, not just help them distribute. Five years ago, Bruce Hornsby made a record that I loved, that I really wanted to put out on Jagjaguwar, but that idea sadly did not make it through the gauntlet. As a consolation prize, I became friends with Bruce, and we stayed in contact over email and send each other books we were reading and talked about basketball. We were thinking about ideas for Gab and Lucas, and I thought “let’s have them make some beats, we’ll send them to Hornsby and let him riff.”

John Williamson: We wanted to make a record that felt a little bit like this era of ECM records from the mid 80s that we really, really love and are highly influential in what we do, and I also had this idea of doing something that paid homage to this Larry Heard record, “Sceneries Not Songs.” It sounds like an ECM record. If you put a different cover on that album, it would fit perfectly.

EO Deines: Gab and Lucas would send us their beats, we would send them to Hornsby, he would record something and send it back, and then we would send that back to Gab and Lucas. It was like a game of telephone, because nobody was ever on the same email with each other.

I initially found out about ULYSSA through another release that just came out, 100% PROD BY I.V. How did that happen?

EO Deines: Cooper B. Handy used to be part of this collective in Western Massachusetts called Dark World that took off about nine or so years ago. It was outsider hip hop and indie music and jazz, the whole scene was just fascinating to me. Fast forward to Summer 2023, I just sat back and looked at his discography and saw that he’s been making shit all the time, and by then we had started ULYSSA, so I reach out and he’s like, “I have this weird record with this producer, I.V. from Minneapolis. We’ve never met in person, she just shared these beats with me. We worked on it over the past couple years, maybe you could put this out?” I was thinking, “f*ck yeah dude, this is perfect.” I made this playlist called “The Annals of Cooper B Handy.” If 100% PROD BY I.V. is your introduction, just go listen to that playlist.

What do you see in the future for ULYSSA? Are there any aspirations or personal goals that you have?

EO Deines: The big current thing is that Contrahouse is our first ever piece of vinyl we’ve ever made. We approved test pressings like two weeks ago. Very terrifying, a lot more money compared to making a tape. We’ve got a few more that we’re kind of kicking around for the next year, if we can find the funding.

John Williamson: We have a few ideas for art books, one of them being “The Art of Toejazz.” All those fried covers are part of the story of the personal computer in the 90s and the 2000s, where anybody can do graphic design for the first time right from your computer. Imagine seeing a painting from someone with no formal training and saying, “wow, that’s a really interesting way you hold your brush.” That’s what a lot of it is. There’s another comment from the production standpoint as well, when you take production and engineering out of the hands of professionals and put it into the hands of people with no training at all, you start to wonder why they record things the way they do. It’s a story about home recording, production taste and aesthetics.

What are some of your favorite covers you’ve designed?

John Williamson: I like the toejazz compilation covers, especially this one called “Toejazz For Debbie.” Bill Evans made “Waltz For Debbie” referring to his daughter Debbie Evans. So I googled Debbie Evans, and it turns out that there’s another Debbie Evans who’s a stunt woman. She was Trinity in “The Matrix.” That picture on the cover is of stuntwoman Debbie Evans, which is a great sort of encapsulation of what is often happening on ULYSSA in general.

Is there anything in the backlogs of your searches that would be a dream release?

EO Deines: Yeah, it’s coming this year, we finally got the go-ahead. So the toejazz and <1,000 compilations are bootlegs, we can't reach out to people and ink a one-sheet deal. There’s 20 people that you can't even find, half of them might not be alive. But we found this guy from Mississippi, who died in 2014 in Southern Florida. He was a blues guitarist, but in his last stretch of life did these home recordings that are almost like zamrock. His name's Hank Donahue. John has been on a couple calls with his nephew, because his wife has died and they didn't really have children, but there was an ex-wife's child, it was a twisted route. We could have bootlegged it and nobody would ever know, but this is one very special. He was accidentally making timeless f*cking music. One fell through our fingers, which I have to mention. We were talking about reissuing full albums from the toejazz canon, like the actual albums that are cover-to-cover incredible records. So the very first song on “Toejazz For Debbie" is from this record called “Voices Told Me,” and that record is a toejazz masterpiece. It is absolutely wonderful, we listen to it all the time. It would be hard to pick a favorite song off that record. One of those dudes, Bobby Richman, was like the main guy, and had success in the music industry as a producer and was involved in some hip hop shit somewhere in his career. We reached out, but the band got together and they just kind of said, “Sorry guys, I can't get our partner Bobby with this project."

John Williamson: People have told us that our artist roster, if you want to call it that, is kind of like a “Tim and Eric” cast member compilation. But I don’t really see it that way. I think that you just get so deeply involved that they’re not funny or ironic to you, you actually just are interested because they sound new and different. We really do love these people and are obsessed with all these little heroes in the toejazz universe or the under a thousand universe. We’ve been listening to music obsessively since we were little kids. So we hear something and we’re like, “how can we share and talk about this?”

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