Chicago: For Practically Everyone—New Label Finds Our Musical Soft Spots

About halfway through my interview with Matt Pakulski, the founder of new Chicago record label FPE, I asked him to describe the music of one of his label artists, the Miami Dolphins. By coincidence, Pakulski was actually wearing one of the band’s t-shirts.  “They’re kind of noise-rock,” he began excitedly. “They’re from Minneapolis…do you want to hear them?!” He sprang up from the sofa in his Oak Park home—strewn with big tiger stuffed animals and craft supplies for his daughter, Frances—and started looking for the album. “I’m going down to the basement,” he declared, and disappeared for a moment.

Pakulski’s home, and head, are filled with a dizzingly diverse and quirky music collection—and, now that he’s got his record label off the ground, everyone can start listening along. Pakulski is a musician, a largely self-taught composer, and a record enthusiast. Although he now has a work-from-home job in the corporate world, he once owned his own record store and has developed close relationships with Chicago record stores like Dusty Groove and Old School Records.

Matt Pakulski

The acronym FPE—For Practically Everyone—embodies Pakulski’s wide-ranging tastes, as well as his enthusiastic, happy-go-lucky approach to the curation and creation of musical objects. Although his work with FPE means he has less time to blog now, Pakulski’s online persona still reveals his unique passion and unpretentiousness as a record collector. His presence is equal parts perplexing and endearing: at his old blog, Frances Picks, he would regularly let his daughter pull a record off the shelf and then write a blog post about it. One recent post includes photos of the record posed with Pakulski’s pet turtle. Another post begins: “The records pile up. Every month more records. … Listen: each one is special. Each and every one was made for you. I’m lucky I’ve got someone to help me choose: a small person.” His new tumblr, Records are Fun, is a collection of unfussy portraits of records with scraps of commentary that are alternately goofy and rhapsodic.

Pakulski is utterly unique in Chicago’s music scene, and I sat down with him last week to talk about the new label and its first release from Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble. (The Miami Dolphins, and several other acts, have releases forthcoming on FPE.) We were surrounded by several boxes of the album, which had just arrived on Pakulski’s doorstep the day before.

So your first vinyl release is a live recording of Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, in a performance they presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Nicole just won the Jazz Journalists’ award for Flutist of the Year for the fifth time in a row, isn’t that right?

Nicole just keeps doing amazing things. She’s really a force of nature. Her vision is so broad and well-defined at the same time, it’s amazing. There’s a great video that really embodies that: at UC-Irvine, where she teaches, they had a speaker series called “What Matters to Me and Why.” She spoke on the series, and it’s fantastic. It’s really interesting to watch her in an academic context. She has this philosophy she calls “limitless possibility.” She talks about where she came from, and how the likelihood of her addressing a group of 100 students at UC Irvine was about .00001%—but hey, it happened. What I found interesting about that video is that her style of speaking in an academic context is very similar to the way she expresses herself creatively and musically. There is, actually, a solo improv in the middle of the talk—and it’s quite seamless, from talking to improv to talking. Like she just expressed an idea, but in a different language.

Why did you want to be an advocate for Nicole and her music?

Because “jazz flutist” doesn’t encompass Nicole at all. She is a brilliant jazz flutist, but the totality of her talent and vision is much more comprehensive. She’s got multitudes. Being known as a jazz flutist is, in some way, a limitation on her audience: people who don’t know jazz, or don’t pay attention to jazz, might not be aware of her. But I feel she has a potential to cross over, like a Sun Ra or an Art Ensemble of Chicago. People who aren’t jazz people were interested in what they were doing, and I think she has the same kind of potential.

I really hesitate to call it a jazz record. The soloing is minimal—it’s almost all composed. It’s a composition for a chamber ensemble, coming from the jazz world, in the same way that a lot of new music incorporates a jazz language in the statement that it makes. This is maybe a jazz piece that uses the language of new music.

Mitchell Intergalactic Beings

Dropping music into genre buckets is a challenging necessity for record labels. What does genre mean for FPE?

Genre is only a concern for me inasmuch as I’d try to avoid doing two things in the same genre. I think a lot of the time, musical expression is silenced because people don’t think it’s for them. Just because you say you’re a rockabilly person doesn’t mean that you don’t have some Herb Alpert records that you like! Everyone’s got their soft spots. People have their guilty pleasures: “I really love this Madonna song but don’t tell anyone.” And I say no! You shouldn’t be afraid to say if you like it.

I’m always debating with people on Facebook about pop music versus serious, versus underground, versus punk. I’m having these debates about authenticity. What I want to do with the label, and the roster I’m selecting, is to find artists that are doing their own thing and expressing it, in some cases, in terms of genre signifiers—but not in a way that is pandering to, or trying to be cool in the eyes of, specialists.

Nicole’s record is your first vinyl release, but you’ve already signed several groups for forthcoming albums. Tell me about some of FPE’s other artists.

I’ve got this great band, Zigtebra. The story is that although Joe and Emily are brother and sister, they didn’t meet until their twenties. They grew up separately, not knowing about each other, and ended up in a dance troupe together called Pure Magical Love. They went out on a date after they met and discovered that they were siblings. At first I wondered if it was a White Stripes thing? They were pretending to be siblings? Anyway, they formed in late 2011 and started making music together. Their first project was a musical about Leonard Cohen. They did a lot of weird performance art when they first started—papier-mâché masks and little operas with a storyline. They have since honed themselves into a brilliantly catchy pop songwriting machine—songs that are nothing but hooks. They have dispensed with everything that isn’t a hook. They’re earnest in a way that I often wouldn’t be able to appreciate, but they’re so damn charming that it’s hard not to appreciate them and kind of love them.

You’re a self-taught composer and a new music lover. Do you plan to have more contemporary classical ensembles on the label eventually?

I’d love to increase the amount of that on FPE. There’s this tension between the stuff that’s really challenging, provocative, and weird and, frankly, sales potential. But I firmly believe that with music that is important, one of the things that makes it vital or important is its ability to communicate to more than just a small group of people.

The ensembles I’m really into have a raw, visceral sound and a very intuitive way of playing. And a way of bringing people in, rather than distancing people.

Another thing which is really important to me, which is a criterion #1 for a band being on the label, is that they have to be energetic self-promoters. It can’t be a group that’s going to break up. They need to be there in two years when I’m still trying to sell the record.

What’s next for you and FPE?

The day after tomorrow, I’m going to Ethiopia to be with this other band on my label, Qwanqa, while they record. My friend in the band, Kaethe Hostetter, is from Massachusetts and she moved to Addis Ababa to start a music school. She’s also in Deboband, an Ethiopian-style brass and funk band from Boston, and they’re incredible live. I can’t wait.

A Qwanqwa tape, photographed in Pakulski's living room.

A Qwanqwa tape, photographed in Pakulski’s living room.

Nicole Mitchell performs her Liberation Narratives in Chicago on May 2. Meanwhile, you can buy Black Earth Ensemble’s new release at the FPE website, as well as in Chicago record stores like Reckless Records. A limited edition of 30 records, with a special art print inside, was created exclusively for Dusty Groove records on Record Store Day. There are reportedly a few copies left.

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