The last of my New Age interviews (finally) and one of the most insightful. Douglas Mcgowan is the force behind Yoga Records and a spate of reissues that have appeared through Drag City and Important Records, to name but a few. You shouldn't miss albums he's brought back into the world, such as Matthew Young's Traveler's Advisory, the self-titled Ted Lucas album, or the supremely twisted soundworld of Dwarr. Yoga also just reissued the stellar third Bobb Trimble album and I've recently learned that the first Dwarr album is due soon as well. But Douglas's forte remains New Age music and beyond just appreciating the music, Douglas grasps its wider socioeconomic implications as well, tying its rise to the re-election of Reagan in 1984 and understanding its current renaissance as part of cassette culture.
I was trading records and one collector broke out a record by Jon Bernoff and Marcus Allen called Breathe. It has the cheesiest cover I’ve ever seen and I thought they were putting me on. The idea of putting a frame around this music and saying it had validity as a genre was as weird to me as it is for just about any person on the street. Seeing someone else excited about it, who I respected, put it in a different light. It brought my attention to the fact that there’s all this sort of music that is psychedelic if only you are willing to look past the label.
For myself, New Age comes with some much baggage on it.
New Age is a thoroughly discredited term. Part of why I like the term is because of how much it bothers people. It’s reclaiming it. for me, calling it ambient or downtempo or all these other things that you hear people try to call it is sort of disingenuous. It’s repackaging something. I like it in its original state. It was at its zenith when it was called New Age and there wasn’t anything else that anyone called it in the years between 1975 and 1985.
Is the fact that this stuff was for the most part outside of major labels and doing private pressings of their music part of what appealed to you?
Absolutely. It’s one of the very first completely amateur-driven genres. It’s one of the first modern private pressing phenomenas in music. It was almost entirely a private-press phenomenon. That makes it really interesting from a sociological perspective and from looking at the history of the business of it. It was a genre founded by entrepreneurs and guys who were looking at Stephen Halpern’s success and trying to emulate it. It was never a creation of major labels. The major labels came in and ruined it. It’s not as simple as that, but by the time the majors arrived on the scene the best work had already been done.
What was the tipping point of it?
I think Steven Halpern founded the business of New Age music and Windham Hill perfected it. it basically became commercialized and digitized around the same time and it flowed perfectly into Reagan’s remaking of America, where something that started as a counter-cultural hippie movement was completely co-opted. Why it all happened at the same time, you can’t point to one particular thing. But people were looking at the massive sales that Windham Hill was doing and how easy it was to do and wanting to have a piece of that action.
It’s not dissimilar to people calling themselves “screenwriters.” It’s people chasing after an easy and massive payday. It’s a thing for amateurs that amateurs convince themselves that they can do. Sometimes they’re right. It also just attracts an element of people going: “I’d like to make music and I’d like to make money doing it. I can put a fishing weight on a synthesizer and modulate the pitch for twenty minutes and I’ve got Side A.” That was incredibly attractive to a lot of guys who were coming at this with less than pure musical motives. It was a genre that attracted amateurs.
Which is its best and worst quality.
It was definitely a double-edged sword. The amateur element is what makes all the best releases so charming because they are often handmade and have the beginner’s touch in a good way. Then you have subsequent waves of imitators. Each wave was less concentrated and powerful. The earliest people like Paul Horn and Steven Halpern were true originals and it’s easy to forget that because when you look back at it now, it seems like such simple music. they did invent the ideas of what they were doing. JD Emmanuel is a good example of a second wave of people refining it. after that, it’s just diminishing returns.
What was the impetus behind Yoga Records?
I chose the name Yoga because I wanted something simple to the point of absurdity, like Apple Computers. You wouldn’t be able to forget it. I wanted it to have a meaningless quality. A lot of people hear that word and feel a sense of revulsion. Just this year is the year where it’s reaching critical mass and convince myself that there is a market and that it won’t be out of context like the way the Dwarr project would be. It was met with indifference. It was too far out of context. I’ve been waiting five years for people to get more into it.
What do you think is responsible for this shift back to respectability?
I think the reason it’s booming in popularity is because it’s good (laughs). The good stuff is good. All things being equal, I think it’s more fun to enjoy something that is frowned upon. There’s a rebelliousness to embracing something that has been discarded and deemed worthless by the culture at large. You could see the same thing happening in the mid-90s with lounge music. everybody knew lounge music was stupid save for well, Martin Denny and Esquivel, these guys were great artists, they were timeless. The act of sifting through that stuff and figuring out what’s valuable about it helps the people who are really engaged as listeners become a part of the story of the music. They get to say: “We were early adopters” and that’s always fun.
The other part of it is we are in such deep need of chilling out these days. Popular culture doesn’t leave you with any room for meditation or space. There’s nothing slow about popular culture. There’s nothing reflective or even humble about popular culture. There’s no pause in anything. Especially for people who are 16 years old, who literally have never known the world before cell phones or internet, it’s something entirely new. That revolutionary thought that something so simple that runs counter to the speed and intensity of popular culture can have value and utility in their lives. It’s something that actually helps you come down and ground yourself. It’s like an antidote. Sitting and quietly listening to a New Age record is the opposite of checking your Facebook every two minutes. It’s as far from that kind of mentality as you can get. People are excited by that.
It has a mental effect like that for me.
There’s not really any room for irony to operate within New Age music. I think it appeals to people who have very evolved sense of irony for whom something where irony can’t exist is a good thing. I think also there’s the matter of the imagery, styling, and packaging and all of the handmade elements of it are super attractive to people. In a weird way, it’s a precursor to the way indie music is packaged now. The creativity of record covers today echoes the creativity of the visionary art of old New Age packages. When people see the cover of Breathe, it’s like…yeah, these are all of my favorite pastel colors!
Does the cassette culture play into this as well?
Definitely. New Age is a cassette medium. The length of the tapes, the ability to do short runs yourself, the fact that tape doesn’t pick up noise over time, which has a big effect on quiet music. I’m completely for cassette culture. I wish we could have the enthusiasm we have for records about cassettes. Cassettes are much more readily recyclable and to be honest, it’s heresy to say, but cassettes sound better than vinyl when everything is being done right. JD Emmanuel very forcefully told me that. Cassettes were good for the counter-culture. Cassettes kept it alive and they’re the democratic sound medium. You could say the same thing about CDRs, but they’re ugly. Tapes can be re-used.
In these New Age articles that come around of late, I always think of those bullshit ‘comics aren’t just for kids’ stories that accompany graphic novel magazine features. I’d love to see the discussion move past that. New Age isn’t just crap. I’d like to see it move past that really quickly. I’d like to see more new artists get into it. It’s really exciting that people aren’t just looking with nostalgia but that they’re innovating within the form.