A fervent devotee of music that defies easy categorization, Julian Schoen is all about generating dialogue. The LA-based PR rep, promoter, record collector and long-time scene activist launched his Outside Insight label to give proper due to the sizable numbers of underground/outsider artists who honorably plug away at their passions regardless of potential fame, fortune or, indeed, general comprehension.
Whether created by under-recognized veteran musicians working with R&B and rock or up-and-coming artists operating at the fringes of hip-hop, electronic music, spoken-word and mystical ambient – and, ideally, digging holes everywhere in between – Schoen insists that such little-hyped art is pushing us all forward, and happily features a disparately representative lot on his label. Outside Insight signees include avant sound/wordscaper SADAF, whose Shell EP finds the Iran-born vocalist and violinist yanking drill & bass, dissonant pop and harrowing drones across sung, moaned and caterwauled spoken-word glossolalia. Elsewhere on the label, John Carroll Kirby’s Travel finds the “third-generation exotica” multi-instrumentalist delivering synth-drenched imagination-prodders that fondly paint excursions to faraway places on the globe.
In celebration of Open Beta: Outside Insight Electric Shadows, a night of “outré experimentations and inward contemplations” taking place as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival Los Angeles, Schoen discussed how his far-sighted curatorial ideals birthed a label that’s such a hydra-headed beast for the senses.
Why is it important to put in enlightened context our world’s more unclichéd sights and sonorities? And how would you describe Outside Insight’s lofty goals?
Outside Insight is a new music experiment focused on diving deeper into oneself by getting out of oneself. It’s gaining wisdom from those close to you – your family, best friends, partner – those outside your head that provide insight into who you are. And it echoes the wisdom one can find on personal journeys, through traveling, hiking, meditation or other modes of individual detachment. Outside Insight is a mereological approach to self-understanding.
[laughs] That’s a fancy way of saying whole-parts-whole. When I was in college I studied literature, and that’s also an important theme in who I am and the label as well. One of the overarching macro-themes I walked away from school with was this “whole parts whole” formula, which is an infinity kind of thing: Everything’s composed of its parts, but the parts come to create the whole. So it’s more than a sum-of-the-parts type thing; each part is its own kind of universe, and even within the part there are parts that make that.
I’ve always been into the more adventurous, more ready-to-mess-things-up approach
So how does viewing things at the atomic level affect your thinking about combining and juxtaposing these already recombinant artists in live performance?
Artists like 1221, for example, are very focused on lyrics and developing allusion and images and feelings through words. They and I are trying to show the interconnectivity of things – how things are more than what they are. For example, a table can be a table, but in the context of a room, well, what if there’s many tables in a building, and it’s one of a couple rooms? It can go on and on and on, and each part plays a role within the whole thing, despite how big or small it is. In terms of literature, it’s like each chapter, each part of a book, is integral to that whole book, and you don’t understand the whole book until you understand all the parts that got you to the end. So it’s like the end gets you to the beginning and back to the end again.
What was your thinking in starting your label and planning the Outside Insight event’s lineup?
Outside Insight Electric Shadows is not a house music night, it’s not a hip-hop night, it’s not a rock night. It’s an avant-garde, weird electronic music night. [laughs] I’ve always been into the more adventurous, more ready-to-mess-things-up approach. I wanted to get artists that are left of center. They’re underground: They’ve either been doing it a long time and have been overlooked by fads or history, or are up and coming but aren’t particularly plugged into a genre or theme – they’re in their own lane. There’s so much more to dig through if it’s got some mystique or grit or charge or experimentation to it.
That’s not to say I don’t like music that’s more pop or mainstream. The Beach Boys are an example of something I’ve always been attracted to. On the surface they have a shiny veneer, and their songs are catchy to the ears, but if you dig a bit, the music is complex and the lyrics, well… Brian Wilson was very troubled, and he had a lot of things he had to work out.
With music, a kind of connectivity breaks up the conventionality of how we listen to it and how we’ve been conditioned to it.
The musicians I work with aren’t flash-in-the-pan people, and we want to be making music that not only lasts forever, but want to ensure that they can continue to make music. Jon Hassell, who I’ve done PR work and live events for, is a patron saint for the label, someone we idolize for his dedication to innovation and creating his own sound, pushing boundaries and experimenting and not giving up on that. And one of my favorite artists, Joni Mitchell, she was dropping some of her best records later in her life, too.
These artists, in a way, are similar to the kind of thing I’m doing with the Outside Insight show, and the concept for the label is based off that, too: It’s about trying to shape whatever perspective you have to get an even deeper perspective on who you are and how you relate to the world… Because we’re all parts within the connection of the world.
Perhaps connectivity is the key word we’re looking at here.
And there are different pathways to that connectivity, music obviously being one of them. Connectivity can be people that are close to you – your best friends or your partner or your mom or dad – people who’ve known you a long time and who remind you of who you are. If you’re in a messed-up head space or have lost track of yourself, maybe you got fired from your job or lost your girlfriend or boyfriend, or you’re battling an addiction or something, your people reground you into the deeper ethos of who you are.
With music, a kind of connectivity breaks up the conventionality of how we listen to it and how we’ve been conditioned to it. At Outside Insight we’ll have SADAF, who was born in Iran and doesn’t mind being called a cross between Diamanda Galás and Nina Hagen. SADAF can be abrasive, and it’s not music you’d necessarily put on when you wake up and are starting your day. But it has such a strong and powerful mood to it, and it’s out there – it’s progressive, sonically. And comfort-wise? It gets you out of that.
Your mereological theme for Outside Insight mentions the high value of travel as a means toward knowing one’s self by displacing one’s self, at least temporarily.
Yes, just getting out of your normal world view, being in a new place. That idea plays into Travel, a record from John Carroll Kirby that we’re putting out on the label. All the songs have to do with different places in the world, like “Socotra,” which is an island in the Arabian Sea; “Poroy Station,” the train station in Machu Picchu; and “Essaouira,” in Morocco. It’s a record about imagination and in some ways escapism, but in a positive way – an exotica record of imagining a world outside of your current situation, again tying back to the label’s theme of getting out of yourself to get back to yourself.
Tell us a little bit about the other artists performing at Open Beta: Outside Insight Electric Shadows.
Eartheater uses language as a powerful tool and instrument. She does this “alpha-blending,” like when she repeats a phrase long enough the original phrase becomes a new phrase: “I’m not mental/I'm just sentimental/I’m just sent to men to lie…” It just sonically transforms. Yves Tumor worked with Mykki Blanco as part of the Gay Dog Food thing Mykki did for a second. I found his tape When Man Fails You in ’15, and then this great new record on PAN, Serpent Music. He’s more on the SADAF side, in his case with very abrasive moments but also strange ambient melodic moments. His live show is either an ambient DJ set or very Death Grips, no-holds-barred, like, wilding out, jumping in the crowd, strobe lights and screaming like crazy. [laughs]
All of these artists are doing something genuinely new, that’s the thing. I hope people who witness Outside Insight Electric Shadows will get in a stupor with it, either totally rock out or even just say, “Oh, this is different.”