Centagonalism: A Conversation with PJ Anderson

Image via Centagon Records.

The following interview was held on August 15, 2017, in the early evening, where QMT day-poet Greg Bem shared an hour with previous collaborator and friend PJ Anderson. They traded the clock to cybervocalize and discuss new music projects, USA music and the Seattle scene, and the ever-morphing very-much-galactic evolution of music technology. PJ’s Seattle-based label is called is Centagon Records. His band Air Jackson, on the label, released their first album, Terror Wave, in July, 2016.

Greg: I am sitting here in Seattle. The sun is basically set. Drinking a Full Sale Blood Ale. It’s described as “ridiculously tasty,” but I’d say it’s mediocre. But it does the job. I’m here talking with you, PJ Anderson. Where are you right now, as we’re talking on Skype?

PJ: I’m in Corvallis, Oregon, at my parents’ house.

G: What are you up to down there?

P: A lot of loafing. What started out as a short weekend trip has turned into a two week visit down here.

G: We’re here to talk about Centagon Records. What I’m interested in learning about today is the label in general, but also a little information regarding your band, yourself as an artist, and how you envision the relationship between the label and the art itself, and your art as well, and going into where the record label is heading, and what you envision the future of the label to be, and how that plays into Seattle and Western music in general. So if that sounds good, let’s start with the label and where it came from and how it exists now.

P: It started with the Air Jackson record, where I planned to self release it, and decided to do it under the umbrella of a label that could lend itself some legitimacy and two, in some ways, out of a stubborn determination to do it exactly the way I wanted, instead of going to the trouble of pitching it to another label and be tied to however they wanted to do it in terms of production. One key feature being that I wanted this vinyl record to be an all-analog production. The recording and mixing had been all under my control, and I wanted the mastering for the vinyl to be analog too, done more or less under my supervision. And that’s how it started. I did that with the intention of not just having [the label] be for my own project, but to release other artists in a similar way also.

PJ Anderson. Image by Greg Bem.

G: Speaking of your own work and other artists. I’m taking a look at your website. So we’ve got Air Jackson, your main project, described as “psychedelic post punk synthgasms” and then another outfit, Coke Nails, described as “grimy scumbag rock and roll.” I’m curious about how those peculiar descriptions overlap with or intersect with the album and vinyl culture, and this degree of independence you’re describing and the artistic control you were talking about briefly.

P: I think trying to come up with a description for my own band and other artists on the table (and there’s another artist I signed recently that we can talk about) . . . I think some of those descriptions come from, for better or for worse, my hesitation to just classify my own work and my friends’ work under a genre, “rock and roll,” or “electronic” or whatever. My ex-girlfriend gave me a lot of shit for this, for being unable or unwilling to describe my band as being of a particular genre. I think that relates to the label in that some labels build their identity around a particular genre of music, or artists that have a similar sound or have a lot in common, but with Centagon that was never my intention. With Centagon I wanted it to be a truly multi-genre label, and to be more focused around physical media, and high-quality digital media instead of being built around a genre.

G: That’s really interesting. I think it draws out an often talked about nostalgia for a subculture that’s never really gone away surrounding not only vinyl but tapes or other physical media. It ends up responding to digital formats we often encounter that are less than or lower quality. There’s the status quo with YouTube rips and lower quality sound. Are you conscientious of that, and does that inform your desire to go back to high quality sound or continue high quality sound, or is it an anger with how people listen to music nowadays? Where is that really rooted?

P: I think it’s somewhat rooted around culture . . . around music and the way technology informs culture and the way technology affects culture, which I think is really fascinating, the trend of how vinyl and tape have made a comeback in the decline of CDs (even though CDs are a perfectly fine physical format). That I’m trying to appeal to people who want listening to be a more intimate experience. And I think that’s one reason why despite the incredible convenience (and frankly very high quality) that’s available with digital audio—and there is an audio element to why I like analog also—but culturally just to celebrate and promote and keep alive the experience of taking a physical object that you can hold in your hand and put in your tape player or on your turntable and sitting down and listening to it, and how that changes the experience of that piece of art that you’re experiencing in your own home.

G: I’m curious about that. I’ve seen you perform live and I’ve listened to your album numerous times, usually in full, usually in one stretch. I do agree that you reach a degree of intimacy with your music and that probably extends to the physical media too, though I’ve only encountered it in the digital method. I’m curious how it relates back to the album’s name, Terror Wave, which is a kind of intimacy in itself, and evocative of intimacy, and how you approach the creation of the music itself, the writing of the music, and the production of the music. Can you talk a little bit about of that?

P: I’m not sure I’d say that—I don’t draw a direct relationship between that ethos around physical media and the name of the album, and I’m curious how that might evoke it, but what I will say about the name is that I think it’s just a phrase that came to my head thinking about the George W. Bush years and that idea, even though it might not be very apparent in the content of the songs, but I think I built it around a theme of anxieties that we experience as a culture and the way the cultural identities sweep through like a wave, and that’s the concept behind the name.

G: I definitely feel those themes, that resonance, in listening to the music, especially in the second track, “Prelude to Everything Being Okay.” I hate to use the words, but there is a certain “heaviness” and “darkness” to it, but blended with a degree of brightness that you’re getting through your instrumentation. I think there’s tension there, but it feels very much like an inundation, like waves hitting you over and over again, enveloping you over and over again. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about the emotional qualities to the music itself. You mention it comes out of a certain era and evokes certain themes, but as you’re sitting there and coming up with the actual music, what’s that process like for you? How do you make that effect happen?

P: I wish there was a method to it aside from persistence and also listening to my own inspiration as it comes. Sometimes a melody will just pop into my head. I usually start with a little hook that comes into my head and maybe there’s a few words that come around it and form the conceptual seed of the song, or a kernel would be a good way to describe it. There’s a lot more of those than what fleshes out to full-on songs. The second part of that is the harder part. Developing it. A trial and error process, building a song structure about it. This was a few years ago that this started for this album, and there’s a lot of reflections on my own experiences with severe anxiety at that time and a lot of it is built around moving to a new city . . . when I moved to Seattle and how that affected my relationships and how that affected how I looked at myself, and sometimes feeling really alienated and alone in that process, and then realizing maybe I was onto something and just knowing that it’s an experience that a lot of people have in our generation and it’s something that I could express that people could relate to and it wasn’t just my anxiety but a collective anxiety.

Air Jackson
Air Jackson. Image via Centagon Records.

G: Yeah, I definitely feel that personally as well, even to this day, as I have doubts of living in Seattle because of that lingering anxiety that continues to be here. I’m curious about whether or not since then you have found resolution or have you evolved to a new space, or are those questions and conversations still going on?

P: I think it’s changed. I wouldn’t say that I don’t experience anxieties anymore, and it wasn’t like there was a moment where everything became easy again. It was gradual, life goes on, new problems arise. But I think that for me there was a healing process in creating art around what I was experiencing, and that’s sort of part of what led me toward finding a home where I live, finding friends, and finding myself in a new place. I’ve been Seattle 8 years now. When I started this album, I didn’t feel as much at home here in Seattle, but now it’s different.

G: Thanks for sharing that part of the story. [Pause] I’m looking at the Air Jackson inspirations that you alluded to. Cocteau Twins, Sonic Youth, Bjork, Underworld, Jesus and Mary Chain. I’m thinking about Gothic and Gothic Rock stuff from the early to late 80s. The Cure, Bauhaus, artists like the more obscure Nick Cave kind of stuff. I’m curious more about your direct influences and also “old school” synth, the Moog-y stuff that’s making a comeback, obviously what we saw with Stranger Things, and it’s almost embedded in pop culture again. Can you talk a little about the relationship you have with your influences and how they interact with you as you’re going through all of these emotional circumstances you were talking about earlier?

P: Yeah! I’m glad you mentioned those Goth-rock bands, like The Cure’s Gothic stuff, Bauhaus, and Sisters of Mercy. It’s kind of funny because I was writing the songs on Terror Wave during this period of time right before I moved from Eugene to Seattle, and sonically at that time I had a certain distant fascination with that Goth-rock kind of stuff. At that time I wasn’t that well versed in it, or those artists and their catalog. It had this sort of mysterious coolness where you’d walk into a gothy bar and this cool music would be on and I didn’t even know what it was but I wanted to make music like that. I would say that there is an influence there and it’s interesting too how certain sounds and certain themes in music or pop culture in general are kind of cyclical where suddenly synth-wave music is all the rage now and it’s funny how that is, and I worry about how I missed the peak of it and might have to move onto something else. I don’t know why it works that way but it’s an interesting observation that these things tend to recur over ten to twenty years.

G: So will you move into a new direction with Air Jackson, or do you feel like the level of engagement with that style of music is something that’s consistent with this project?

P: I think it will start to change. Lately I find myself playing acoustic piano a lot more. Some songs I’ve written since then are more acoustic-piano-centric. At the same time, I think that electronic music doesn’t have to be, it’s such a flexible and really widely varied sounds you can get with synthesizers. You don’t have to be constrained to a particular genre. There’s not a lot of limit. The things you can do with those instruments are, the sky’s the limit, the imagination’s the limit. I think, I do hope to record another album, and play out live more, and as I write new songs that sound evolves. I think it would be boring if it stayed the same. I’m really interested in exploring new sonic territory.

G: You mentioned in a message to me that Centagon has three new releases in the works. I imagine that one of those is for Coke Nails. If that’s true what are the others? What’s the release for Coke Nails going to be like? Can you talk about what’s to come?

P: Coke Nails is a band that two of my room mates are in. We recorded that, I was the lead engineer and mixer, main recording and mixing engineer. I used fully analog techniques for recording it and really, we’re working on a release for that soon. No date yet. We’re releasing an EP on a vinyl 10 inch and a digital download and I’m really excited about it and it was really fun. It’s a lot easier and more fun in some ways to put my efforts in the label to producing and promoting the work of an artist that isn’t my own, where I’m more detached to it, where I can be the suit, be the business guy, where I can work to promote music where my own ego doesn’t have as much of a stake.

G: And the other two releases are other bands or artists?

P: One of them I don’t want to give the name out until it’s official, but no contract signed. Another one is an artist down in California who goes by the stage name Kip Nelson. I haven’t made the announcement yet, but I’m working on it. Basically, he just sent me his own recordings on a totally cold—and I just got an email from him. One thing that excites me is that I’m starting to get some random submissions from people. You hear these stories. That’s one thing you get with labels, there’s people who send music and want to be on the label. The first one I got was almost comically terrible. The first submission I got completely out of the blue was just well-meaning, but not all music is created equal, and it’s not something I was going to put out by a long-shot. But my expectations having been set really low, the following week I got another email and I sat down and listened to it a bit, and not only was it really good, but it has some elements in its production that give it a sound that give it some vague similarities to some of the other music, including Coke Nails and Air Jackson, that we’re releasing on the label. I made the decision to work with him on signing and doing the release on Centagon with him.

G: Do you see the collection of relationships and connections is turning into something that might become a community or something bigger than just the production of music, or is the production of music what you’re looking for?

P: I hope to build more community. My hope is that the label will be recognized for putting out really good music, and that developing a strong reputation for the label will really help the artists I sign to it succeed. Beyond that, it’s a business. It’s not something I do for money, as I have a good amount of money sunk into it so that the releases we do here meet the high standard in terms of production value and in terms of the overall quality of the media we release. But beyond that I kind of hope I break even at some point. If I make money, great, but it’s not my purpose in doing this, and I think not necessarily having that expectation at least frees a small label like this to take some risks on artists that are not going to be a commercial slam dunk necessarily.

G: Can you comment on how the Seattle music culture and the scenes here may or may not have contributed to that? A lot of bands exist in Seattle and there’s a history of successful bands coming out of Seattle. I’m curious to see if that culture and all those mainstream successes and highly public success contributes to where you are now, which is not geared towards commercial success.

P: There’s this paradox with art and where art meets commerce it’s not always the prettiest thing. It’s reasonable for any artist to attain a level of success where the artist can live off their art. That would be my definition of mainstream success, or something like that which I think has changed a lot today in the age of the internet because audiences are more fragmented and an artist can be successful within a particular subculture and do well without necessarily being a top 40 hit. It’s hard to make money at this. The Hard Times did a headline that not even Soundcloud, a tech startup, can even make their money in music. It’s healthy to have realistic expectations, and you do the best you can, and to pull all the levers to help get the music played and get it out there and give its best chance of success.

G: I’m reminded of visiting different countries and seeing this spectrum of musicians that are very much in the public. Musicians playing in restaurants, buskers on street corners. This idea that that’s okay, that at some point it’s not about capitalism, it’s not about celebrities and mainstream success, and I wonder if our country and the cultures in our country are going to reach that point via this odd trek through the Internet, wild distributions, and the fragmentations that exist with listening and audience. I’m curious if we’ll evolve into a new space for art that isn’t fully capitalized and commodified.

P: I have mixed feelings about that because I worry that whether somebody is able to make their living in a particular art form, is that indicative of how much the culture values their art form. For years, capitalism has had this odd relationship with music where maybe the artist makes money at it, but there’s also a corporation that makes money out of it, and for that corporation it’s strictly a matter of business and not art. It’s cool when it works in the sense that people make art and can make that their vocation. You have more time to make art and work on your craft and do it in a professional way when you don’t have a full-time job. I’d like to see more people able to do that, even though as an artist it’s not like you’re entitled to success, or that the culture necessarily owes you something just for making music, but it’s a little worrisome. I wish I could say that the trend would be positive. A lot of artists have found a way to make money in spite of the way technology has changed, changed the way we listen to music, changed how money moves through music. It’s always been hard and it’s probably harder today than it’s ever been.

G: How do you find the distribution of your music, both physically through hard media and digitally? I will mention your Terror Wave album is on Amazon MP3, Apple Music, iTunes, Google Play, I Heart Radio, Napster, Slacker Radio, Spotify, Tidal, and then Soundcloud and Bandcamp, and it says, “Soon to be on Amazon Prime, Pandora, and more.” There are so many platforms, and it seems like it’s not only easy to put music on these platforms (and I may be misstating that) but also necessary. What does it do to you as a producer, thinking about having to distribute that widely?

P: It’s good and bad. I wouldn’t fault any artist for not wanting to participate in that game because some of those companies really do take advantage of you. It’s hard to make any money at it. The splits that are made especially on outlets like Spotify are very unfair to artists. Some of these companies are going on the trope that “Oh well, all the work you do is for exposure and not for money, and meanwhile we’re making money on your work.” At the same time, I’ve also come to accept that you have to play the game. We do need the exposure and we do need the distribution. I want to get the music on this label into as many ears as we can, and so my hope is to use these tools to help get the music out there and give people an opportunity to listen to it, and my hope is long term, that that builds the culture around the label, build interest in the label, and to help bring it back toward supporting the artists in any way people can, especially going to their shows, buying physical media when you can, and if you really like an artist, when they have an album, you should buy it in a format that puts money in their pocket and helps support work that they do.

G: Thank you very much. We have five minutes. In terms of staying in touch and keeping an eye on your efforts and the evolution of not only the label but your own art through events and social media and other avenues, where should people go? Should people just follow you and subscribe to your blog or what?

P: All of the above. I would love to get more followers on Soundcloud. I’m working on my Twitter and Facebook presence. This label is really a fledgling label, and we’re just getting started and if people want to support what the label is doing and help see through its potential, the easiest free step would be to follow us on our social media outlets.

G: Any last words or talking points we didn’t get to tonight?

P: I think I would just try to share my vision that for Centagon that recording is art and one big inspiration of mine is Brian Eno, who talks a lot about the recording studio as an instrument and the whole recording process is art and not just utility, and that’s the big idea that Centagon is built around. And that’s what I’m taking the chance on, that physical media still matters. The role that the label can play in the digital age is to get physical objects into peoples’ hands and cherish.

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