In this multi-part series, NEMMC sits down with Brendan Evans, curator of curios and creator/owner of one of the few independent multimedia shops left in New England, Strange Maine. An unassuming honey hole of obsolete media, found photographs, and punk rock t-shirts, Strange Maine has been a local Portland staple and out-of-towner “must-see” since April 2003.
In Part I, Strange Maine founder, Brendan Evans, sheds light on how a compulsion for collecting and binge watching horror movies on VHS led to the creation of a tiny storefront that has grown into a small mecca for those determined to feed their passions for collecting all things local, independent, and offline.
NEMMC: What was the genesis of Strange Maine? How and when did it first open?
Brendan Evans: When my friend, Shea Mowat, and I were in our early 20s we were diehard movie junkies. We watched videos until 6am almost every night–with heavy a emphasis on horror, low budget, and art films. During the day we would drive all over Maine and New Hampshire visiting mom and pop video stores–which back then could be found in every New England town. Around that time they were all upgrading to DVD and selling off their VHS tapes for $1 each, 2 for $1, even 4 for $1–and these were gems! There were so many obscure 1980s horror videos in particular. We would fill Shea’s trunk with bags and bags of horror tapes. We had shelves, milk crates, stacks of these things. In fact, once a cop pulled us over at 2am for having a tail light out and he noticed all of these suspicious looking bags in the back seat. We told him they were all full of horror videos but he really didn’t understand what we were doing.
At some point we started talking about opening our own video store–even though we really didn’t have much money. I was working as a projectionist at a third-run movie theater in Portland while Shea worked in a group home with schizophrenics and the mentally ill. Between the two of us we only had enough money to buy mountains of tapes that no one else seemed to want. Initially, we thought we would buy an old van and drive around southern Maine like a bookmobile and rent these tapes out to people: drive a circuit and come back to each town at the same time every week to recollect our tapes and rent out more, etc., all the while continuing to scour thrift stores and yard sales for new inventory.
But we never got the van.
It was an idea that we knew was absurd and, though we were sincere, it just never really took off. But the seed was planted and we had acquired all of this stuff and wanted to spread it around to people. Meanwhile, after four years I quit my projectionist job. It had become very routine. After taking a month off (and watching more movies than ever– sometimes ten a day or the same one three times in a row) I realized that I couldn’t get another job. No one wanted to hire a high school drop out with no phone, no car, and dreadlocks down to his butt–just an overall bad looking dude.
But I tried. I applied to be a parking garage attendant, a night watchman–any low impact, menial labor–but the no phone, no email thing was a major stumbling block. So, I started looking at store fronts that were for rent. Even though this was 2002, rent was still pretty pricey: it was looking like $1,200 – $1,500 per month for second story office spaces or out of the way storefronts which I would have had to take a bus to get to. It was all pretty discouraging. But then one fateful day I saw a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window of a place right in the middle of downtown Portland (and only three blocks from my apartment.)
By that time I realized that I would need to sell records, too, in order to make a shop feasible, so Shea and I decided to open a kind of media thrift store with no particular emphasis on any format. Strange Maine was born.
NEMMC: And this was back in the early 2000s?
BE: Right. We signed a lease in February 2003 and had the keys on March 1. We worked seventy hours a week for a month and had our grand opening on April Fool’s Day of that same year. In those days, most of the contents in the store I had hauled over hundreds of separate trips from my overflowing studio apartment–from my place to the shop and back again. Over and over. Pile by stack by crate by sackful. This was all during the US invasion of Iraq and my route went straight through an occupation of anti-war protesters who were camping out in Monument Square. Most days I’d take a minute and add my voice to the chorus of the disaffected–it was an exciting and emotional time for me. I felt like I was joining society for the first time in my life.
NEMMC: So, was the majority of what was sold at Strange Maine originally from your personal collection?
BE: Early on we put a sign on the door stating that we were buying records, tapes, videos, DVDs, books, etc., and that folks should just drop in while we put the shop together. A lot of the early content in the shop came from those drop-ins, most of whom were willing to trade for store credit. Tons of punk rock kids would drop by with their hardcore 7-inch records and zines, which were previously collecting dust in their closets because no one would buy.
When we finally opened for business on that Tuesday, April 1 in 2003 there was a line of people waiting to get in–many of whom had credit slips and wanted to scoop up the stuff I had been putting in the window display in order to generate interest in the shop. Most of those things were from the cream of my own collection. I had emptied my apartment in order to jumpstart the shop and many of those records, books, and videos I sold I still miss today. But, of course, it was worth it to have some cool stuff in the shop.
I was 23 years old and only wanted to make enough money to pay my rent and eat three or four 7-11 hot dogs a night.
NEMMC: It seems like, even today, that Strange Maine leans a little more heavily on cult and horror films and music. Was this always the case?
BE: I did notice that some people were really excited about particular records and movies; passionate about books; thrilled to find 80s punk demos on cassette for $1, while other folks had the look of sharks or vultures when they’d find something they could flip for a profit on the Internet. But I think the punks who came to the store really dug the socialist approach I had toward that stuff and they really championed the store. I was there five or six days a week, noon until midnight, sometimes later. It was a great time.
My vision for the space and its contents continued to grow and I became very possessive of the shop–it became my world and Shea, who still had a day job, felt excluded and left about six months after it opened. Occasionally I would close for a day or pay a friend to man the shop so I could have a day off, there were a couple of occasions where I handed over the keys to a regular who’s name I didn’t even know with the hope that they wouldn’t do anything too heinous. I didn’t have a computer still, or a cash register, and I didn’t accept credit cards…but I was proud of the fact that if the power went out the only real affect it would have on the store was that it would be marginally dimmer (though it was already the darkest record store I had ever been in, having just three or four 60 watt track lights for illumination).
Back in those days it was a very simple, funky, rinky-dink place. Some folks still view the shop this way–but now it’s very tidy, organized, efficient, and much more of a capitalist venture now than it was back then.
In Part II, NEMMC and Evans discuss the darker (at times morbid) side of Strange Maine. Coming soon…
While eating lunch with a colleague recently the topic of cardboard cereal box records came up. “Wait, what!?” I said to my colleague (who is roughly fifteen years my senior) as he explained that back in the 1960s-1970s you could find cutout records on the back of certain cereal boxes and play them like you would a typical vinyl record.
After doing some research I learned that, in fact, these wacky novelty treats first appeared as early as the 1950s (the first on the back of a Wheaties box) and continued to be produced until the 1980s.
The Jackson Five, The Monkees, and The Archies were just a few of the different artists you could take home along with your Honeycombs or Raisin Bran.
Music wasn’t the only entertainment you could put into your ears over breakfast. Occasionally you would even find “Scary Stories” or “Spooky Tales” – which I’m sure proved to be an exciting find during the Halloween season.
And like most pop culture novelty items that weren’t necessarily created with longevity in mind, these cereal box records are now sought after by collectors of not just pop culture but also music and even advertising. As Oliver Wang points out in his CuePoint post, The Wacky, Wiggly, Razor-Thin World of the Flexi Disc, “Made using a special laminate that could be secured to cereal cartons, their charm had much to do with their incongruity:
one doesn’t normally expect to be able to cut a playable Monkees record off the back of a Honeycomb box. By design, most flexis were meant to be novelties and true to the term, here was a truly novel creation.”
What sorts of things inspire and propel your creative pursuits? How about neon lights? Swanky hotel lobbies? 1980s or 1990s designer clothing? Elevator soundtracks? Carefree cruising on the boulevard? What about mid-summer rooftop cocktail soirées? Or the hissing of muffled analog? Dead media, the 8-bit era of video game consoles, or TV commercials from your youth? These images, eras, and ideas – somehow simultaneously familiar and yet foreign – are some of the primary themes and creative drivers behind the electronic music genre known as vaporwave.
Since 2012 one musician in particular, Luxury Elite, has been experiencing a steady rise in exposure as well as popularity.
With 16 digital releases available (via their Bandcamp webpage) in addition to several physical releases on cassette, Luxury Elite has been pumping out dreamy, nostalgia-drenched grooves and, as a result, witnessed a healthy growth in followers which has only helped further cement vaporwave’s place in an ever-growing sea of electronic music sub-genres.
Excluding their own music-making, Luxury Elite also spent time running the now defunct Fortune 500 – a music label with heavy leanings toward vaporwave artists as well as a kind of, LE stated in a 2014 interview with Hong Kong Express, “last resort label” for artists unsure of where to take their music (but who also wanted to make a larger splash than most self-releasing efforts can achieve.)
We recently sat down with Luxury Elite to talk about everything from their creative inspirations in and process for music-making to the nuts and bolts of the vaporwave genre including some of the elements LE feels define it. We also touched on how they source some of the found sounds, “muzak“, and other samples that can be heard in their music, as well as some of the legal issues they worry about encountering along the way.
New England Media & Memory Coalition: Can you give readers a basic primer on what vaporwave is?
Luxury Elite: [Vaporwave] is sample-heavy music, usually sourced from jazz/funk/disco songs from the 70s, 80s, even some 90s material. It’s sort of like when you were a kid playing with your sister’s boombox and you had fun speeding up and slowing down her cassettes you were listening to. It sounds silly when written, but there’s just something about the genre that really makes a person feel nostalgic about your childhood, about the 80s; it’s like a rose-colored glasses sort of vibe. It really romanticizes the 80s especially.
NEMMC: Can you talk a little about what your compositional style and whether or not you’re performing on any of your albums, or if at the moment LE’s music is 100% sampled?
LE: 100% sampled for now. I cut and chop these songs myself via a WAVpad editor and then add effects from there. I used to use Audacity but now I am playing around with Audition. I’ve almost included original composition on Crystal, because I felt like it felt empty, but I felt like my composition was really bad so I didn’t include it. I would like to include them one of these days, I just need to stop being so down on myself in regards to it. It took me months to actually do Luxury Elite because of insecurities but I did it, and look what happened.
NEMMC: Since the birth of this sub-genre has it evolved in any way or has the genetic makeup of it stayed relatively unchanged?
LE: It has evolved quite a bit. In the beginning, the genre was a bit more simple. Lots of looping, very simplistic stuff going on. As it gained popularity, new artists came along and then sort of went into their own directions. It’s been going into a more ambient direction, sort of a strange cryogenic ‘chamber-y’ feel, and I think Dream Catalogue [a vaporwave/dream music label] has a lot to do with that. I’ve also been noticing the new trend of trying to make vaporwave without samples, too, which I think is really neat when pulled off effectively. With all of these new directions, though, I feel like everybody still has a parallel path to the vaporwave sound and feel.
NEMMC: You’ve said in past interviews that the music you create transports you to a different time – a different life. Can you talk more about the transformative outlet vaporwave music provides you?
LE: You know how certain shows can suck you in, where you feel like you’re in that show? Twin Peaks was like that for me, I felt like I got lost in that world as I watched it, and I didn’t want to leave. That’s how vaporwave has felt for me since day one. It’s like I’m stuck in this world of aerial skyscraper videos and 1980s commercials. When I work on Lux, I imagine this world where Lux is a real person, living a life of grandeur. Never runs out of money, always with a wine glass in hand and the nicest pair of earrings. I’ve noticed when I am feeling down is when I make the best Lux music, because I run away into that world and use that as my escape from the real world. Sometimes the real world is too much to take, sometimes it’s good to escape. But sometimes is key, you can’t let yourself escape from the real world forever.
NEMMC: Can you talk a bit about the found sound / samples you use in your music, and how you they’re sourced?
LE: I usually find my music through hours of searching for tracks on YouTube. Music searching puts me in a trance, but there have been many times I have gone through and have found nothing. I am extremely picky with my samples.
NEMMC: On an aesthetic level what kinds of sounds are you attracted to? Would you say Luxury Elite has a “signature sound” or characteristic — even if buried underneath a sea of other sounds?
LE: I’ve noticed a lot of my songs have claps in them, I think I have a thing for songs with claps. They really have to pack a punch for me to fully enjoy them, or be one of those types of songs that gets stuck in your head, an “earworm”. I really like songs that ignite the imagery I like to use for Lux: skylines, beautiful people, lots and lots of gold. I like the songs to sound rich.
NEMMC: Would you say that your musical inspirations and creativity is at all fueled by nostalgia? Please talk about how nostalgia and longing have impacted you personally and musically. LE: Nostalgia has been a huge motivation throughout my life. As a kid, I was obsessed with watching television with my parents and my sister. I’d be obsessed with watching MTV (fun fact, Sinead O’Connor made me cry at four years old, I guess her tears affected me that hard) and Mary Tyler Moore and Jenny Jones. I lived in front of the television when I wasn’t playing outside, and I know people usually frown upon that kind of thing but I sort of thank my parents for it because it really shaped how I am today. I am obsessed with pop culture and nostalgia and I am so thrilled that the 90s came back into style especially; it brings back all of those old memories for me.
Another fun fact for you: I used to really hate the 80s…I thought the fashion was cheesy, the music was awful, and it was just a bad time. My feelings on that started to change in 2011, which happened thanks to Tobacco, one of my all-time favorite artists and biggest inspirations. He released two DVDs called Fucked Up Friends that were filled with ridiculous commercials/porn/exercise tapes and the Fantasy VHS thing I did a few years ago totally ripped from that. But anyways, Turntable.fm came along and my girl Liz (from SPF420) got me into hypnagogic pop, especially James Ferraro’s, Night Dolls With Hairspray, album and LA Vampires’ release with Matrix Metals. It sucked me into a vortex. Around the same time I got way into Midnight Television. I knew of vaporwave because of Vektroid, who led the way into getting me into vaporwave. I would have never heard of it had it not been for her, Laserdisc Visions, release. I didn’t really get that release at the time, nor did I fully grasp the vaporwave concept until I got into Midnight Television the same week I fell in love with LA Vampires. I lost internet [access] shortly after that; Mr. Elite and I were too broke to pay the bill. The rest of the summer was spent going to the library, getting albums to fill my fix of the lo-fi, tape hiss, 80s sort of vibe. I could not quench it, it became my life. (I’ve sort of gone off subject with this.)
Following getting my internet back and getting active on Tumblr again, I started a blog called ‘familyshowcase.’ I’ve told the story tons of times before, but I’ll quickly summarize: I was inspired by my peers who were posting tons of screencaps from various 80s commercials and I decided to do a blog of my own. I am on a torrent site that hosts hours and hours of old VHS rips and I downloaded lots of those as well as a ton of commercial blocks from YouTube and went to town with capping. I got totally lost in those hours and hours of blocks, to the point that it affected my real life. I was unhappy at that point in time; I was frustrated with my job and my financial situation was awful and other personal stuff was happening and I sort of blocked all of that out and lived life through these actors in these old damn commercial blocks. I was full-on in love with the 1980s and I was all for whatever these commercials were selling to me. I felt like a kid again, channel surfing and eating up all of the commercials. I loved it, but it became sort of a strange addiction. I ended up taking a break from the internet because of depression and other personal stuff; that’s actually right around when Lux started.
Nostalgia is good and bad for me. I’m one of those people who focuses more on the past or looks to it when the present is not satisfactory and the future seems daunting. But nostalgia is so fucking inspiring. When I stumbled upon a commercial in the ‘familyshowcase’ days of perfume, jewelry, electronics, and saw these beautiful ladies sporting business suits and looking absolutely elegant, I would cap them like crazy. Those would be my favorite commercials, and those commercials really shaped how I wanted Lux to be. High class, rich, no cares in the world (well, outside of superficial, materialistic things of course). I work on Lux with that in mind and I pick what I sample carefully. Like I said, I’m extremely picky. I felt like vaporwave was sort of made for me, it’s why I am so passionate about it. A genre that plays around with old songs and rehashes them into something fresh, with heavy use of screencaps to accompany the sound/provide the visuals of what your song is going for…I didn’t live in the 80s, I was only 2 by the time 1990 hit, but vaporwave made me feel like I was a kid in the 80s and seeing all of the commercials, watching television with my parents and my sister. It just felt right.
NEMMC: It isn’t news to musicians/music lovers that vinyl has come back in a big way. We’re now even seeing a resurgence (albeit in limited markets) in cassettes. Can you talk a little about your views on how music is released – with regards to the medium? Have you released any of your music in a format other than digitally? What drove your motivations? LE: Originally I had no desire to release anything on cassette, mainly due to copyright fears. But when the opportunity came along with the Late Night Delight cassette, I was too starstruck by the idea of it to say no. Cassettes are cute and tiny and fairly cheap to make (compared to vinyl) and much cheaper for a vaporwave fan to buy, and with vaporwave, I feel like vinyl doesn’t work as well. I mean, it does since releases in the 80s were either on vinyl or cassette, but vaporwave and cassettes go hand in hand. They’re more personal. The labels releasing them are doing them all themselves, and you have more say in the matter on album art, how the j-card will look, the color and design of the tape shell, all of it. It’s so worth it when you are holding your physical release in your hand. I prefer cassette to vinyl anyways, I think tapes are more fun to collect and cooler than vinyl.
NEMMC: How has the copyright and ownership of the content your sampling been addressed? Have there been any logistical challenges with reincorporating other music and sounds into your LE compositions? LE: Copyright issues are terrifying to me. I am so afraid that somebody will find that I sampled their song and get absolutely pissed off and try to sue me. I try to not focus on it really, and just comfort myself by saying that I am not big enough for people to notice such a thing but it’s always something that stays in the back of my mind. There was a close call once with one of my tapes but the label was a total lifesaver and was ready to defend me to the death. Nothing ever came of it thankfully. The fact that my music is on Spotify and other digital distributors isn’t very comforting to me but like I said, I try not to focus on it. I’ve heard of bigger artists slipping through the cracks and never getting into trouble with their samples, but I’ve also heard of smaller artists getting C&Ds [cease and desists] for their samples. I can only hope that I never get detected and targeted…
NEMMC: Finally, I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on the recent news coverage of the Aurora man who digitized a few years worth of Kmart store music from cassette to the Internet. Does this kind of preservation of the seemingly ephemeral fascinate you? Might the KMart music be fodder for future Luxury Elite tracks? LE: I had so many people link me to the Kmart rips! It’s hilarious because my mom used to work at Kmart, so it’s sort of this full circle thing for me. Props to that guy for never throwing away those tapes and holding onto them for so long. My favorite part is that all of the rips are tagged as vaporwave. He knows his target audience! I am messing around with some of those songs, but I may use them for another project. We’ll see. 😉
It’s clear to me after speaking with them that for Luxury Elite – and perhaps other vaporwave artists? – the vaporwave genre is as much an escape as it is a creative outlet. I’m fascinated by these feelings of nostalgia that one can possess for an era or lifestyle in which they’ve never actually experienced before. For Luxury Elite, seemingly forgotten or overlooked visual media (perhaps seen by some to be ephemeral or even unworthy of preserving) provide creative inspiration that so often drives everything from their sound to album artwork. Indeed, YouTube is a rabbit hole that seem to offer endless material to those waxing nostalgic for aesthetics signature of a different time and place.
Of course the very issue of repurposing content of which you are not the owner is a complicated and highly debated one – fraught with legal and ethical considerations – it is one I will not seek to unpack here. That said, I do feel it’s important to note that artists of any medium would be wise to address more directly the issue of copyright and, at the very least, possess a familiarity of the challenges that borrowing and recycling other individuals’ work can present.
Ultimately, I’m fascinated by the drivers behind what vaporwave artists create. I think there’s something to learn in this exploration into the nostalgic mind, the loss of original context, and the creation of a new context in which new realities and meanings are created, shared, and sometimes recycled all over again.