Selim Bulut speaks to Leeor Brown, the man behind innovative LA labels Friends of Friends and Young Adults, about running music start-ups in today's digital landscape.
Since their formation in 2009, LA-based label Friends of Friends have established themselves as one of the closest families of artists and producers around right now. Sometime home to artists like Daedelus, Shlohmo and the dearly departed LOL Boys, the label started out with a novel concept at its core: they would invite an artist to release some tracks on a split release, and the artist would then invite another musician to provide the tracks for the second half of the EP – hence Friends of Friends. They’d then commission a designer to create the EP’s artwork, and the whole thing would be released as a t-shirt, with the actual tracks available via a download card. The limited edition t-shirt was 100% organic, and the download card was printed on seed paper that could grow into a plant.
Whilst Friends of Friends have since moved on from this initial concept, the commitment to doing things outside of a traditional label model has remained. They don’t do anything by halves, and their releases are always the full package, such as the 2010 album from Ernest Gonzales, which came accompanied by a full-colour artbook, an entire remix album and a conceptual website.
The label was started from scratch by one Leeor Brown, AKA Lazy Brow, and nowadays has expanded to act not just as a record label but also a PR firm for spiritually aligned artists. Last year, Leeor also started a new label, Young Adults, which has released dancefloor-primed four-to-the-floor from Suzanne Kraft, Grown Folk and Urulu. When I call Leeor to talk about the label, it’s morning time in LA, and he’s ready to go. “I have a six-month old, so I’m up well early in the morning nowadays.” This might seem surprising given the sort of music Friends of Friends release, with peak-time club monsters from Salva, cutting edge R&B productions from Shlohmo and internet-informed hip hop from Ryan Hemsworth all having found a home there. “I’m not like the WEDIDIT kids!” Leeor laughs, “I know we kind of give off that vibe on occasion, but I’m turning 30 this year, believe it or not. It’s a big year for me.”
Read on for Leeor’s perspective on the experience of starting a label from scratch, the ways in which he’s seen artists like Shlohmo develop and the LA beat scene (and to what extent these “scenes” or genres even exist any more). At the same time, stream this icy Weird Winter Mix that he made especially for us, featuring a slew of frosty, mellow cuts, from Darkstar’s Timeaway to Kendrick Lamar’s Money Trees.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you were doing before you started Friends of Friends?
I was actually working at a company called Terrorbird Media. I started doing radio promotion there and moved on to online marketing and PR. I started the label in 2009 as a side thing – I was working closely with artists, but there was still this separation that exists between the old model PR and frankly, that was what stressed me out. I wasn’t into that idea and I wanted to get a little bit closer, so one way was to start putting out records, putting my money where my mouth was.
In terms of aesthetics and identity, how much of an idea did you have for the label before you actually started it?
“I wanted to get a little bit closer, so one way was to start putting out records, putting my money where my mouth was.” – Leeor Brown
I always had the idea of a “friends of friends” thing, where friends get to invite their friends in on something, so the narrative would be told by what’s really happening in their lives – not a record label fabricating all of these things. I never envisaged it growing bigger than that. At some point we started doing rather well and I signed people like Ernest Gonzales and Shlohmo and we put out their first releases. And not far after that I met Salva, and it just kind of turned into something where I could put more behind this and maybe make it something that isn’t just a side hustle from PR.
At what point did you think it took off?
When the label really got its legs was the Bad Vibes release. That was our most prominent album to date. The stuff prior – Groundislava and Salva’s first records – were compiling songs they’d already done and working it into an album form. But they weren’t written as albums, and Shlohmo’s was. It was the breakout moment, I could finally see that this could be a viable business.
How much is it that you’re involved with the development of an artist? When you first signed Shlohmo, he was still calling himself Henry From Outer Space.
Me meeting Shlohmo is one of the funniest stories to me. It was totally meant to be, in retrospect. When I first met him he was an intern at Dublab. I was doing a radio show and we were chit-chatting. I told him the idea [for the label] and he was like “wow, that’s really cool”. Then about two weeks later there was this one blog that was very beat scene-y, they would post records from kids who were making beats. At the time I was the resident publicist for Low End Theory and was keeping my ears out, so I checked that blog fairly frequently. Then I saw that Shlohmo had posted an EP called Shlomoshun and I thought it was really good. I looked into him and he’d put out this thing called Shlo-Fi through Error Broadcast. I reached out on Myspace, and he responds “dude, Leeor, it’s Henry, Henry From Outer Space. We just met a couple of weeks ago.” He said “of course I’m down to release with you guys, lemme know what you have in mind.” So we took some songs off that release, put some new ones, got some remixes and that was the creation of Shlomoshun Deluxe.
Shlohmo – Spoons
How much were you trying to help get him to that point yourself? Friends of Friends seems a lot more like a family than just an outlet to put out tracks by an artist.
That was something that grew over time. With Shlohmo I was like “let’s do this Shlomoshun thing, then make another record.” One thing that I’d prided myself on was being able to do all this with integrity. You can go after the money right off the bat, but I basically utilised my PR income to help fuel the early releases. That allowed the freedom for artists to not go into huge debt and for us to not have to put a tonne of money into something because we felt we had to blow it all out of the water straight away. It gave us time and freedom to grow over a couple of years which is ultimately the main reason why most of these artists and I started developing such a close bond. They saw that I was willing to do things that weren’t the typical label model to help make sure we were all successful. Or at least that’s what my idea was behind it. I’d like to think that’s what intrigued the guys to keep working on it.
You said in a Resident Advisor feature that when you met Salva, he had all these tracks of totally different styles. Coming out of your involvement with Low End Theory, how did you separate Friends of Friends from the LA beat scene?
“The internet is changing it – you don’t have to pander to genres anymore, you can just do what you think is cool.” – Leeor Brown
I’m not gonna lie, I love the beat scene. Working with people like Nosaj Thing, Baths and Gaslamp Killer, it was literally heaven working with guys doing this really influential music. It was awesome. But all that time, I was spinning music from Kompakt and Get Physical, and other incarnations of electronic music. I was never just a beathead, I was always big into house and techno, which is what led to the creation of Young Adults last year. Paul [Salva] had sent me all these tracks, and we originally started putting together this Low End-style EP. But then he sent me ‘Keys Open Doors’ and his ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’ cover, and I was like “dude, you’ve been holding out on me, why haven’t you sent me these demos sooner?” And he said “I didn’t think we’d want to put them on something like this.” I’m like, man, I think we need to get over the idea that we need to target fans of a genre and just start doing what you think is awesome and putting it in a package: this is you. The internet is changing it – you don’t have to pander to genres anymore, you can just do what you think is cool.
Those labels you mentioned – Kompakt, Get Physical – are often associated with a certain sound, whereas nowadays everyone’s into all sorts of music.
I watched labels like Warp and Ninja Tune and Domino go from labels like that into the wide reaching, amazing entities that they are now. That always inspired me way more than most of the labels I loved on a niche level, which essentially would go away because they sign everybody in a certain sound and they’re not able to get themselves out of that. Once we put out a few records I was like – what’s next? I was talking to talking to Thomas Barfod at the time and I was like, I’ve gotta get this dude on the label and make that move to show we’re bigger than a beat scene entity. That’s not to discredit it – we wouldn’t exist without what’s happening in LA – but I think the term “beat scene” can be a bit restrictive.
Can you tell me a bit about the formation of Young Adults?
Young Adults is me and my buddy Dave Fisher, who goes by Deepbody. He’s one of my oldest friends – we went to high school together, we’ve known each other…damn, I wanna say over 15 years now, that’s so crazy. He’s always been one of my main DJ partners. For the longest time we’ve talked about doing something like this. I was like, “let me get Friends of Friends more established, I think once we’ve got this established we can do this thing realistically.” I’ve got the infrastructure now to handle manufacturing vinyl and promoting it. So we started curating stuff and, when the time was right, we launched. We’ve got our biggest release to date in April, it’s called the House Slippers and it’s an eight track compilation of original tunes with Mark E on it, Permanent Vacation remixed Suzanne Kraft, we’ve got NYCPARTYINFO and these guys Grown Folk. We’re doing it DJ-KiCKS style – it’s gonna come in mixed form. I’m really proud because Friends of Friends has always been about showcasing other people, and Young Adults is the first time I’ve really stepped into the forefront and put the DJ collective up front.
“I had an intern interview, he was asking me about a song I was playing and he said: ‘is this house music?’ I looked at him and thought ‘…That’s the toughest question I’ve ever heard.’ I’d say if it sounds like house music to you, it’s house music.” – Leeor Brown
Coming from the UK, I had this all in reverse. A few years ago I was heavily into house music from the Permanent Vacation crew, and only got into beat-based music more recently.
I just hate the idea of genres. I went through periods where I was into a given genre, but I’ve been through so many of those now I can just tell it’s fleeting. As much as I think about myself, I try to think about the younger generation when doing this. Kids have the internet, they can listen to something for two seconds and never care about it again. I know it’s harder to get people’s attention, and we should just do us and let people come to us for being good sources of music, not cater to any BS or pander to a scene that’s already existing.
I get that myself with writing. The idea of having one speciality doesn’t really exist anymore.
When people ask me what we do, it’s one of those questions that I’ll answer to help give them framework, but it doesn’t do anything. Those kinds of conversations, at the end of the day, don’t mean anything. I had an intern interview, he was asking me about a song I was playing and he said: “is this house music?” I looked at him and thought “damn, you blew my mind. That’s the toughest question I’ve ever heard.” I’d say if it sounds like house music to you, it’s house music. What is my judging it and telling you gonna change? I decided at Friends of Friends and Young Adults, you can just like Friends of Friends and Young Adults. That’s a genre and a vibe and scene in itself. We’re just gonna put our friends on and if you think it’s cool, follow us and we’ll present you with more things we think are cool. Because that’s all we wanna do anyways.
You started Friends of Friends from scratch. What would your advice be to the young ones?
The one thing that can be discouraging is how to go from being a fan to being in the industry. The difference used to be your job and your knowledge – now everyone has the knowledge, the internet has allowed for way more information to be passed around. Be aware of what other people are doing – take notes from them, don’t copy them. Always be moving, don’t sit there and wait for things to happen to you. The way I like to put it to my artists is that we’re tying to send a message to the public that they want to relate to and tell their friends about, so you better have a clear vision of what you’re trying to accomplish before you do that. If all you’re gonna do is make a cool tune, then there are 12 year olds who do that now. You may be a cool beatmaker and you may end up producing for really awesome pop stars…and even that I don’t think is true. I don’t think anyone can just pick up producing for pop stars. It’s just about figuring out who you are and picking out what you’re trying to say in reflection of how you perceive culture. It’s a matter of taking that, digesting it and making something you want, and people will hopefully come to it.
Jeremih’s come to Shlohmo after all.
That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Henry wanted that to happen and he put something into the world. It’s about having a vision and going after it. One of Henry’s dream collaborations was Jeremih and we tried to make that happen, and thankfully for us, his team were fucking rad. But again, be patient, don’t just sit there and make a song or EP and think “why am I not getting the same attention as Shlohmo?” We’ve been working on Shlohmo’s stuff for almost four years. It’s about having some foresight and vision and to really go after something that is yours that’s you, not what other people are doing.