Tempe's Gilgongo Records Celebrates 10 Years of Underground Music

James Fella performing at the Trunk Space in downtown Phoenix.
James Fella performing at the Trunk Space in downtown Phoenix.
Jason P. Woodbury

Gilgongo Records founder James Fella smiles mischievously as he pulls a record from a sleeve and puts it on the turntable.

"This is incredible," he says, dressed unassumingly in a button-down, blue jeans, and New Balances. The youthful-looking 32-year-old brushes his hair to the side as haunting sounds emit from the speakers, muffled strands of "Martha My Dear," that sound warbled and transmuted.

This particular record fascinates Fella. It's a limited pressing by SoHo-based artist Rutherford Chang, who cataloged 1,076 original pressings of the Beatles' "White Album" as part of an elaborate art exhibit, "We Buy White Albums." Operating from a temporary storefront in New York, Chang purchased copies of the record from fans, and when the exhibit ended, pressed a rare bootleg version of the album which layers and stacks sounds from the original copies on top of each other, resulting in a bizarre but beautiful sonic tapestry of damaged, warped, and otherwise well-loved copies played at the same time.

Fella's enthusiasm is contagious on this rainy Tuesday night at his Tempe house, which doubles as the headquarters of Gilgongo Records, the experimental record label and distro Fella's overseen for 10 years. On Saturday, December 20, the Trunk Space in downtown Phoenix celebrates the label's decade anniversary, hosting Sissy Spacek (a vehicle of noise craftsman John Wiese, who's collaborated with Sunn O))), Wolf Eyes, Cattle Decapitation, and more), songwriter Stephen Steinbrink, Cherie Cherie, and industrial band Mallevs. Stylistically diverse, Gilgongo's defining characteristic has been its freeform format; Fella releases what he wants to hear.

Reindeer Tiger Team's 2004 single, released by Gilgongo Records.
Reindeer Tiger Team's 2004 single, released by Gilgongo Records.

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Joined by Cherie Cherie drummer Ann Seletos, he leads the way through his tidy living room to two rooms devoted solely to records and cassettes, roughly divided between his personal collection, which contains everything from Pearl Jam's Vitalogy to a massive stack of cassettes from Michigan noise label American Tapes, and his label room, which houses copies of his releases and projects in varying stages of completion.

Counting a couple of projects in the queue, Fella estimates the label's output at "80-something releases." Fella grew up in New Jersey before relocating to Phoenix in high school. After graduating, he played in bands and immersed himself in Phoenix's punk scene. Inspired by labels like Troubleman Unlimited Records and Vermiform Records, he founded Gilgongo in 2004 to release an EP by Tempe indie rock band Reindeer Tiger Team. Fella was tired of great music going undocumented, and he decided to siphon extra money from his job working with developmentally disabled adults into a label.

"At that time -- from '99 to 2003 --there were so many bands that would do cool stuff and just be gone," Fella says. "I just got very sick of that. The initial intention was never to only do Arizona bands -- it never has been -- but routinely you'd see bands from Tempe and Phoenix open for bigger touring bands, and the opening band would just kill them." It's difficult to define Gilgongo's aesthetic, but it has always reflected Fella's own taste, spanning all manner of DIY sounds.

"It can't be designed for any one person other than myself," Fella says of the label's sprawling discography, home to noise, punk, indie pop, and damaged free jazz."A lot of people don't appreciate the all-over-the-map thing," Fella says. "I get a lot of that from customers who'll either really love it or say, 'Man, I really hate some of this stuff.'"  

Olivia Neutron Bomb's 2014 Gilgongo release.
Olivia Neutron Bomb's 2014 Gilgongo release.
Gilgongo Records

Over the decade, Gilgongo's catalog has developed into one of the weirdest and far-reaching in the modern underground music sphere, including early releases by Woods, Pigeon Religion (whose members would go on to form the Arizona-based Ascetic House collective and perform with Destruction Unit), Zs, Raccoo-oo-oon, and of Old Time Relijun's Arrington de Dionyso, whose 2010 release Abraxasaxophonic Smooth Jazz Vagina features atonal skronk over distorted smooth jazz radio.

The label has attracted significant attention in that time: Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and music critic Byron Coley have documented the label's releases in their Bull Tongue column for Arthur Magazine. British outsider music journal The Wire routinely covers the label's 45s, and Henry Rollins spins Gilgongo artists like Foot Village on his KCRW radio show in Los Angeles.

Some titles have sold better than others, Fella says, citing Woods and French Quarter, enough for him to continue releasing a handful of records each year, most in limited runs of 300 or 500 copies.

"I paid for four or five catalog releases with the Shearing Pinx and Zs CDs," Fella says of two early windfalls.

The label doesn't often issue CDs anymore, focusing mostly on Fella's preferred format, vinyl. The recent surge in interest in the vinyl has wreaked havoc on his production schedule, but Fella's vinyl releases have little to do with the current trends of slick packaging and heavyweight vinyl.

"I like negative space," Fella says. "I like the rawness of photocopied art."

Sissy Spacek - Incomprehensible Dehumanization
Sissy Spacek - Incomprehensible Dehumanization
Gilgongo Records

Consequently, Gilgongo releases are hand-assembled. About a quarter of them feature art from Fella himself, and his style extends to show flyers and other music-related ephemera. For Fella, these are art objects, representations of the work ethic, energy, and time put into creating each one.

"I like to think that my records all command attention," Fella says as the conversation disintegrates into a frenzied listening session. Fella pulls records from the shelves as rain patters on the window, flipping from My Bloody Valentine's 2013 album MBV to Total Shutdown's Reflections, another Beatles-baiting LP. Fella free-associates as he pulls out record after record. His selections are esoteric and bizarre, and his dedication to collecting is reflected in Gilgongo's catalog. To the outsider, it might be hard to distinguish a through line, but Fella's keenly attuned to his personal sensibilities.

When post-punk Manchester band The Fall comes up, Fella announces that they are probably the best band in the world, almost as if he's realizing it in real time. "In a sense," he clarifies, discussing the band's massive discography, which stretches back to 1978's Bingo-Master's Break Out! There are plenty of Fall records he isn't partial to, but he can't help admiring Fall leader Mark E. Smith and his willingness to trample through punk, funk, electronica, and garage, all the while maintaining a shout-speak vocal style.

"He's relentless and he doesn't stop," Fella says, laughing. "He'll be doing it till he's dead, for sure."

And Fella? Does he have similar aspirations?

"Oh yeah, I'll absolutely be doing records until I die," he says, no laughter left in his voice. "There's no doubt in my mind."

Gilgongo's 10th anniversary celebration is scheduled to take place Saturday, December 20, at Trunk Space.

Tweet at the author @jasonpwoodbury.

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