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Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013

Utech Records Festival Spotlights Milwaukee’s Experimental Music Clearinghouse

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Whatever you think about experimental music—what it is, where it is, whether or not the guy in the Motorhead T-shirt is listening to more of it than you are—you’re probably wrong. Nestled comfortably in the unlikely city of Milwaukee, Utech Records has built a reputation for experimental music, from avant jazz to drone to extreme noise and more with international acclaim. Just look at the roster for the second Utech Records festival: luminaries like Jon Mueller, musicians from as far away as Japan, Switzerland and Norway, both signees and friends of the label. It’s a festival worthy of the man at the center of the label.

Keith Utech has a boundless enthusiasm for boundary-pushing music and a work ethic that baffles even the musicians he signs. It ropes in everyone he comes across. “Some people are very loyal for what I do,” he said. “I’m very grateful.”

“He has a limitless energy for pursuing something so marginal,” Trevor de Brauw said of Utech. “It speaks to having a lot of faith and a lot of belief in this kind of music.” A friend of Utech’s but not a signee, De Brauw made his name with the post-metal band Pelican, and Chord, a true-to-its-name group providing album-long, ambient expositions of single chords. He met Utech at the merchandise table at the last Utech Records Festival in 2011.

“It was really awesome. It was a good turnout given how out there the music was and felt really convivial,” De Brauw said. “It felt less like attending a show and more like being in a community. There aren’t as many people interested in this kind of music, so it was nice to be able to see a community and get that feeling.” This year De Brauw will perform in a duo with Steven Hess.

De Brauw first came in contact with Utech Records as a follower of Justin Broadrick, the ambient and industrial metal musician, whose side projects were released on the label. But Utech spans all the way to the other end of the experimental music spectrum, to free-form, improvisational jazz. The word “experimental” is really more a shorthand than a real descriptor. “I use the word ‘experimental,’” Utech said. “It helps people understand. And I guess that’s fair, but there’s electronic music, there’s what people call drone, there’s more vocal stuff. It’s a little bit of everything in a certain realm.”

On the one hand, there’s a tremendous gap between, say, metal and jazz. On the other, there’s more overlap than you might think. Musicians frequently play in both genres. “Metal, like experimental music, is about pushing limits,” De Brauw said. “Fringe metal has a total respect of fringe jazz and vise versa. At the point that things get experimental or weird, those are people who respect the further-out elements of the genre.”

Utech has been releasing the experimental, weird and further out for nearly a decade. A graphic designer by trade, in 2004 Utech was looking to do something with music. He went door to door to record labels to no avail.

“I was doing a lot of bootleg trading,” said Utech, “so I was in touch with musicians to get their music. So I put everything together and released a series of limited-edition CDRs.” In the next year and a half, he released between 50 and 60 of them.

But his work output is impressive for more reasons than quantity.  “Everything about a Utech Records release has this standard of quality that is unmatched anywhere else,” said André Foisy. His band, Locrian released its seminal drone-metal album The Crystal World with Utech before heading to Relapse Records. “Keith puts a lot of work into the design and a lot of work into searching out the artists, and he makes sure the music on the release is to the quality that the musician wants to release.”

For The Crystal World, that meant paying for high-end mastering, a rarity in the modern music industry. Label heads are more likely to take the “cheapest guy with a laptop approach,” a Foisy pet peeve. It also meant including the album in a uniquely Utech trademark. Drawing on his experience as a graphic designer, Utech’s records are physically beautiful. He brings in well-known artists to do the packaging. Foisy suggests buying the latest record by Norwegian free-jazz band Burning Tree for its Arik Roper cover art alone.

“I think of Utech as a real community,” said Foisy. “The record label I’m on now is a bigger label and, while I like a lot of the stuff on the label, it’s so big that there’s some releases I can’t get behind at all. I just don’t like them. And that’s okay. But if I met them in person, I wouldn’t feel any solidarity with them like I do with the Utech stuff.”

Milwaukee might be a surprising place to find one of the country’s better experimental music festivals and one of its best labels—it certainly surprises many of the musicians. But Utech has successfully made the Cream City the center of a community.

“I picture it as sort of a family,” he said. “People have started to call it that.”

The Utech Records Music Festival begins Friday, Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Cactus Club, 2496 S Wentworth Ave.

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