Since 2014, Mike Ramirez has been running Transcending Records out of Chicago’s suburbs. What started as a hobby is slowly becoming one of the Midwest’s most interesting metal labels. Being from Chicago myself, I’m well aware it’s not exactly considered the hub for the genre, at least not in a mainstream sense. But by reissuing classics for the first time on vinyl and a stellar roster of up-and-coming artists, the future Transcending Records looks promising.
I had the opportunity to talk with Ramirez about everything from Transcending Records’ humble beginnings to being oblivious to our city’s music scene.
What is Transcending Records? How would you describe it to a stranger?
Ramirez: Transcending Records is a record label and online shop. Generally, I suppose we’re described as a metal label, but I don’t care for genre-based limitations. So, I prefer to describe it as being an eclectic music label.
How did this whole thing start? Was there a moment where you just decided Hey! I’ll just start my own label! ?
R: It started off as an eBay shop with no intention of becoming a record label. I was a big CD collector back in the day and ran a small underground metal zine in the mid 90’s. So I had a lot of hard to find underground CDs and demo tapes sitting around here collecting dust. I don’t really play or collect either format anymore, just vinyl.
A few years ago I started selling off all the CDs and tapes figuring someone out there might actually still collect them. I had no idea they had any value honestly, especially the tapes. They sold well and I bankrolled the funds into re-issuing an old underground gem that had been released on a defunct label by an old friend of mine. I’d always wanted to run a record label, so when I saw that there was a demand for some of the underground releases from when I was a teenager it kindled this idea of starting a record label as a hobby. It’s gone beyond a hobby at this point and I’ve been doing everything I can to get it to a point where it actually pays for itself.
I’m not what some would call a Metal Aficionado, but I really love the classic metal sound. The Monolith Cult record you put out is killer! It has that classic vibe like something my older brother would have when I was a kid.
R: I’m glad you like the Monolith Cult! I actually stumbled across a YouTube video for the title track Gospel of Despair as a ‘suggested video’ and the album art really grabbed my attention. I loved it at first listen and was stoked to see they were looking for a label to release it.
Do you think that classic Slayer, Iron Maiden vibe is missing in a lot of metal bands these days?
R: There’s a pretty good amount of bands carrying the torch of the classic metal sound, especially in the thrash and doom genres. I think there is a tendency for some of the younger bands to overproduce their albums. That is one thing that really bothers me, but it’s a generational thing. I grew up in the 80’s when metal was raw and in your face. The bands had little to no recording budget. If a band went the DIY route it was a 4-track Tascam portastudio tape recorder. So everything was really rough and very human, it was part of the appeal.
I really miss that vibe. In those days metal fans didn’t argue about the production value of their favorite records.
R: Metal was organic before being organic was cool. That side of metal, the human element, is definitely missing from a lot of these bands. Now you’ve got dime a dozen underground death metal bands with studio tuned precision, processed vocals, and guitars that are recorded without actually being played on guitars and such. That’s progress for ya. It doesn’t really appeal to me, but I get it. When I was a kid in the 80’s the stuff recorded in the 50’s and 60’s sounded like garbage to me, I wanted music that sounded modern. What I called modern is now called classic and my kids ridicule me for listing to “old stuff” like Metallica and Slayer. The cycle continues, it would seem.
One of my favorite releases of 2017 was from Transylvania Stud. I covered Red Queen when it was self-released. I’m happy to see it get a proper release so the masses can hear how good that record really is.
R: Andrew Godfrey (Transylvania Stud) submitted the Red Queen EP for consideration a few months ago and it blew me away. The title track was all I really needed to hear. I knew that I wanted Transylvania Stud on the roster immediately. My only gripe was that it wasn’t long enough. When it was first submitted it was only three tracks. So Andrew got a couple of bonus tracks together for the physical release. It’s still not long enough, and I think the fans will agree once they hear it. Hopefully, it does well and we can get Andrew back in the studio to get the next release ready sooner than later. Anyone reading this, please buy the CD so we can make that happen. I’d really like to put The Red Queen on vinyl as well, but we’re gonna see how the CD does and see if it can be justified.
Transylvania Stud isn’t exactly as heavy as some of the other bands on Transcending Records. Do you plan on exploring other genres in the future?
R: Absolutely! We’ve got a good handful of releases that are pretty far off the beaten path already, and that will definitely continue going forward. There’s some brutally heavy stuff on the label, but most of it isn’t indicative of the direction that I’d like to go. That first year the submissions coming in were all super heavy. You put out a couple of slamming death metal releases and all of sudden you find yourself swimming in it. We ran into a ridiculous string of manufacturing issues and rip-offs at the end of 2016 and a trademark issue right at the beginning of 2017 that nearly ended things before they even really got going. The direction of the label changed after that.
Most indie labels would’ve probably called it quits right then and there.
R: If I was going to crawl through the trenches for this, it would have to be for stuff that I really love and for musicians that are good people too. You don’t want to work in a risk-taking industry like this with people that are going to throw you under the bus at the first sign of trouble. The vetting process here has changed along with music direction. We’ve got some really awesome folks on this roster now. Not just musically speaking, but awesome people too. Going forward genre won’t really define our direction. I’m really open to lots of different sounds.
We’ll absolutely continue to add extremely heavy artists, but I’m not at all interested in limiting what we do to one microcosm of music. There’s just too much good music out there to do that.
We’re both out of Chicago and it’s safe to say we have a pretty diverse scene here. What are your thoughts on Chicago’s rock scene?
R: It died with the Thirsty Whale, didn’t it? Haha. Kidding…sorta. I’m a bit out of touch on the Chicago music scene, to be honest. I used to live at the Thirsty Whale, Malo’s/Rileys Rockhouse in the 90’s. For me, the rock and metal scene in Chicago has never been the same since those venues closed. I’m sure there’s some new go-to venue where everyone still gets together but I’m not familiar with it. We’ve got some big bands that have come from this city, but the unsigned and underground bands, I’m not sure who they are anymore.
Right. It’s such a diverse city music-wise but sometimes it’s difficult to get a good read on what makes it distinctive. If it’s distinctive at all!
R: I’m not intentionally ignoring Chicago, but these days I think the internet leads many of us to look at music scenes on a more global level and as such, I’ve only got one band from the area that I’m working with (Cardiac Arrest). I would love to find more bands to work with locally but I just haven’t been approached by any, nor have any appeared on my radar while seeking out potential new artists. Now that I have kids, I don’t get out much. I’m going to use that as a defense for my inability to intelligently discuss our local music scene.
I imagine you get a lot of band submissions. What do you look for when it comes to artists to work with?
R: Well, I’m spending more time these days accessing the sort of people that I’d be working with. Almost above the music itself. Which goes back to the previous stuff I discussed. I’m looking for bands that understand the partnership that needs to exist when working with a small label. We don’t have money lined pockets here, so it has to be a team effort. If half the team won’t lift a finger, there’s little chance for success. We had a lot of failures in our first year. So a major part of what I’m looking for is how hard a band works or is willing to work. I can’t tell you how many times we get submissions that are nothing more than a YouTube or Bandcamp link without any kind of message or bio or anything else in which to base a first impression off of. So the first impression is “lazy” and the submission gets discarded. I’ll consider any artist that puts some effort into it. If the music is good and the band seems willing to pull their weight, that’s when I’ll reach out.
Speaking of reaching out, you are releasing Polygondwanaland, one of the many new albums King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard recorded in 2017. How did that happen?
R: A friend of mine tipped me off to the idea. Of course, we’re one of however many hundred other labels and groups of folks putting out Polygondwanaland. I suggest everyone look it up and read up on what the band did with that release. It’s definitely a unique idea. If any other band has ever done similar, I’m not familiar with them. But yeah, that album should be available by the time everyone is reading this. It’s a limited edition digipak CD of only 100. So, it could very well be gone by the time everyone is reading this! If it flies out quickly, maybe we’ll put it on wax too.
What are you currently listening to outside your label?
R: Too much to list it all. I’m a huge Stereophonics fan, so I’ve been spending lots of time lately spinning their new album. Slowdive had a new album out that only marginally grabbed me, so I’ve gone back to listening to Souvlaki a LOT! I really love Thirteen Senses, even though their most recent album came out well over 3 years ago, I haven’t stopped playing it over and over. I’ve spent some time with the new Metallica album as well. Radiohead and Faith No More are long-time favs. Other than that my playlists are all over the place, from Tears For Fears to Death to Rufus Wainwright to Empire Of The Sun. I mix it up, no guilty pleasures. A lot of people say there isn’t any good music since X year or they only listen to X genre, I really don’t understand that. So much great music, so little time!
Why do you feel indie or local labels are still important to the music industry?
R: I think indie labels will always have their place. Major labels these days have all been consolidated into just a couple of major corporations that own all those familiar names of labels from the past. We all know that with corporations come bottom lines and keeping shareholders happy. That’s really a counterproductive thing when it comes to art. Popular music has never been more homogenized than it is now. On top of that, the mainstream spotlight is only so big. Indie labels generally operate outside the corporate world so it makes for a much more artistic friendly atmosphere for bands. While it’s certainly way easier to be a DIY band these days, it’s also way harder to get heard because of it. So I think indie labels present that middle ground that most bands would prefer to reside within. The band gets the assistance of a label working on their behalf, yet they get to retain creative control.
What’s next for Transcending Records?
R: Bigger and better things hopefully. We’ll continue growing and continue seeking out interesting music. We’ve got about a half dozen releases planned for 2018 thus far and a handful of fests we’ll be vending and networking at. I’ll be continuing to look for old gems that need re-issuing. So, send me your ideas on what needs a return to a physical format.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us here at B.G.M., any parting words for artists looking to get on the scene?
Thank you, Aaron! Appreciate your time. For the artists, just get out there and do it! A lot of folks wait for things to happen but in this industry, nothing will if you don’t make it happen.
Be proactive and things can happen.
For more information on Transcending Records, please visit www.transcendingrecords.com
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.