Interview with Josh Cheon in ANP Quarterly

June 20, 2015

We are beyond honored to have a 10 page spread in the new issue of ANP Quarterly out this month! Though the interview is over 2 years old the content focuses on the origins of Dark Entries where Josh Cheon spent his youth dancing to new wave and goth in New York City and the riding around backwoods of Pennsylvania with a boom box on his lap. Thanks to Damon Way for asking thoughtful questions and connecting the dots between Josh's record collecting past and where he's at now with Dark Entries.

DARK ENTRIES
Portraits and Interview with Josh Cheon by Damon Way
Images courtesy of the bands and Dark Entries

Operating in the hazy underground of San Francisco, a city known for its entrepreneurial prowess and lofty mindsets, resides a lone wolf named Josh Cheon…a purveyor of the obscure and champion for the forgotten. Over the past four years he has applied his energy towards a simple record label concept and developed it into an impressive catalog of releases, a strong online distribution hub and cultural beacon for the audience he serves. His ability to cut through the noise and assemble a well-curated range of artists, past and present, is second to none.

ANP: Where does this desire to bring things from the past into contemporary times come from? At what point in your younger years was the seed planted?
Josh Cheon: It is so hard to know exactly where it all started, but when I was young my dad had this huge record collection that I would always get into. So I grew up listening to lot’s of classic rock and music that was not of the time. Like listening to 60’s music in the 80’s. Then as a teenager I was listening 80’s music in the 90’s, whereas my younger brother was into the Breeders, Offspring and all those indie bands at the time, and I was buying all Cure cassettes, which I would make my brother memorize by album color.

ANP: At what point in time was this?
JC: This was around 1998. I would buy so many records back then and I would feel like, “Why am I hoarding all of this stuff, and how am I giving back, or keeping the cycle going”. So I felt like I wanted to open a record store, because I would spend my weekends in Manhattan digging in record stores as a
teenager and never want to leave.

ANP: Do you have one?
JC: No, but the label is kind of like having a record store, or giving back to the cycle. And distributing 300 + titles from all over the world is a part of that. I would like to have a physical space one day.

ANP: It’s the early 90’s and grunge has taken over with synth music being totally out of favor. What was going on with you then?
JC: In the early to mid 90’s I had two goth girlfriends , and we would just listen to the Misfits, The Cure, Nosferatu, Q Lazzarus and kind of the darker heavier stuff. My friend did not even have a stereo in her car, so I would hold a boom box in my lap and we would blast this stuff out of the window.

ANP: And then what?
JC: I then started working for Metropolis records in 1998 as an intern for two summers in Philadelphia, which was my first taste of working at a record label. The catalog was full of EBM, Industrial and Future Pop, but they also did some reissues of older stuff like Bunnydrums, Laeather Strip and Clan of Xymox, which gave me a taste of the underground. That first summer in Philly, I remember buying a CD at Tower Records on South Street called New Wave Class X, which had Snowy Red, Executive Slacks, Medium Medium, Simple Minds and other underground stuff. So I started to dig for the next thing and think, “Where did this come from and who’s in this band or that band?” and start linking it all together.

ANP: Then you started working at DFA right?
JC: No, before DFA I was an intern at 4AD (Beggars Group) and at that time they bought Matador Records, so I helped them move all the 4AD stuff across the street to the Matador offices and then I started working there.

ANP: Were you into the Larry T. (notorious NYC club promoter) thing back then?
JC: Sure, I would go to Luxx and see Chicks on Speed, W.I.T., Avenue D, Ladytron, Adult, and buy all the Gigolo Records stuff from Europe. Tiga’s “Sunglasses at Night”, I loved that stuff. It was all so familiar and synthesizer-based which I could totally relate to and so similar to the stuff I grew up on like Soft Cell, OMD, Depeche Mode.

ANP: For me the Electroclash period felt very nostalgic as it connected the loop between my teenage years and being an adult. Also, coming from a place of Indie rock, it was like all of sudden we got permission to dance. All through the 90’s you had to sit still at shows and not really move and maybe even sit down. It was still energy. And then The Rapture came though it was like, “Wait, we can have fun with this”.
JC: So after Matador, I didn’t know what to do and DFA put an ad in CMJ Weekly and they told me I was the only person that responded to it. This was before the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem put out their LP’s. They were just doing 12”s at the time. And then I met Tim Goldsworthy at a Rutgers graduation ceremony and he ended up sending me a really nice care package. Inside was this mix James Murphy did for Colette. It had all of these electronic Post Punk songs on it, which added fuel to the fire. When I was working at DFA, I would bring in them all my recent Indie purchases and say “We need to listen to Glass Candy, we need to listen to all of these underground bands”. And then they would just turn me on to classic acts like Terry Riley and Loop.

ANP: What were the first synth bands you really responded to?
JC: The British ones. Soft Cell, Human League, and OMD. I wore out the first Alphaville record so much when I was a teenager. I loved the flare and theatrics. It was so over the top. But the music was so well done and so well produced. The first Ministry is still one of my favorite albums of all time. It just hit a nerve in my brain that left a mark and still resonates today with what I like, a good melody.

ANP: It seems like that would be the seed for everything you do now.
JC: At 16, I was so obsessed with The Cure, Siouxsie, and Bauhaus. I remember going to this record shop on St. Marks Place and asking for any Cure or Siouxsie stuff that they had, and the guy working there said “If you are into those bands you have to check out Clan of Xymox”, and then pointed me to Tower Records around the corner to get a copy. So I picked up the first two CD’s, which forever changed my life.

ANP: When you think about all of that, how does it create a vision for Dark Entries?
JC: I can sum it up as being in High School with my older cousin being way into Synthpop and New Wave, and she would tell me about this club she would go to called “The Bank”. And as soon as I turned 16 and got my drivers license I would go to New York every Friday and Saturday, and dance to all of this music by myself all night. And then just drive back home at 3am in the morning. The music was like my drug and every time a song would possess me I would run up to the DJ and ask what it was. At the same time there was this other movement called Future Pop. All of these German and Nordic bands releasing stuff that sounded like a Depeche Mode song.

ANP: And that started to formulate your future ideas around a label?
JC: Yeah, I started to think about music more seriously than just collecting. I also had a knack for finding rare albums and re-selling them. I guess this was a lesson in business 101.

ANP: Let’s talk about the name Dark Entires. Did that come from the Bauhaus song?
JC: Yes. When I was 14 listening to Gothic Rock Volume 1 on Cleopatra Records, “Dark Entries” was the first song. I would hold a boom box on my lap in my friend’s car and blast that song every night on our way to Denny’s. So when I was thinking about what to name the label that was the first name that would always come to mind. So I had to use it, it was where it all started for me.

ANP: What was the timing around that?
JC: The boom box was 1996, but the label was cemented in 2007.

ANP: When you moved to SF from NY, did you know you wanted to do a label?
JC: I moved here then started to feel more confident. San Francisco definitely boosted my self-esteem and creativity. I felt everything was possible here.

ANP: So you are going to do this record label and name it Dark Entries... How did you launch it?
JC: I was living in this house in the Mission and I remember asking my roommate who had a label in the early 2000’s about it, and he pointed me towards all of these resources for vinyl pressing, mastering, having jackets made, etc. In 2006, I met Phil Maier who runs the blog called A Viable Commercial. I won a record by The Dance off him and he dropped it off at my house and immediately we clicked and became friends. He then pushed me to look at Eleven Pond as my first release. So I contacted the band and drew up an agreement. Then Jeff Gallea from the band drove up from LA and helped me silk screen the first edition.

ANP: It’s such a great record to hang your first release on. They are one of those obscure bands with a tremendous amount of talent. They should of broke through and been huge.
JC: Yeah, but the timing was off in the sense that it was already 1986/7 and hair metal bands were starting to take over.

ANP: When I first met you and was exposed to Dark Entries, I saw the label as something really focused on reissues. You have since put out music that is not reissue based. You have also become an online distributor with a good amount of 3rd party music flowing through your site. What this always your intent?
JC: My original plan was to release a reissue then a new release, alternating with reissues on odd numbers and new releases on even numbers. And this was the way it was with my first release, Eleven Pond and my second, Death Domain, and my third release Second Decay, but then I realized that there weren’t enough new artists for me to release, and that I had a dearth of archival stuff to get to, so I just kept going with the archival stuff. The distribution happened as kind of a fluke. I would contact other labels to see if they wanted to carry my records in their online shops, and they would ask if I wanted to trade. So I said okay to Annalogue, Mannequin and a few others, and then it just spiraled to a point where I would just start buying titles to carry in my store.

ANP: From a genre perspective, do you feel that the label is bound to anything, or broader in the sense that you can go anywhere with it over time?
JC: I think I can go broad with it. I don’t think I have pigeon holed myself too much to any one genre. I mean going from Eleven Pond who has essence of For Against, Depeche Mode and New Order then jumping over to The Danse Society which is very Goth-Rock, then jumping over to Lives of Angels which is DIY indie-pop.

ANP: There are people in society that are great barometers for things that will connect to larger groups, whether it be fashion, art, design, music, etc. I think you have a great sense for what is going to connect.
JC: I feel like if I like it, then other people with like it. I trust that if the music moves me, that it might move other people. I was had a radio show on college radio for eight years and I was the music director and would review hundreds of albums. I would build my radio shows from themes, which allowed me to jump all around. I was such a nerd with researching specific songs and bands.

ANP: How many releases do you have right now?
JC: I am up to 48 right now.

ANP: That’s a lot of releases in 4 years. More than most!
JC: When I started everyone was giving me advice, saying “Don’t put out 100 records...be more like Dischord”. And then my engineer, George Horn, said “Josh, you have this momentum and if the demand is there, why not release more music?”. So I listened to him and went with it. Now I release three titles every two months or so.

ANP: What were the 90’s like for you from a music perspective?
JC: In 1992 I was really into The Cure but was also buying stuff like En Vogue, TLC and Salt-n-Pepa. I was also listening to lots of classic rock like Pink Floyd and the Nuggets compilations. By 1995 the Goth girls and I would listen to Misfits and the Cramps. In 1997 my friend Anna turned me onto indie rock like Stereolab and Belle and Sebastian and I got into shoegaze with My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Chapterhouse.

ANP: We talked about Slint earlier.
JC: Yeah, I didn’t get into post-rock stuff until 2000. I had this girlfriend that was studying abroad from the UK and she brought a giant CD booklet with her, and every page had bands like Slint, Mogwai, Sonic Youth, etc. I was like “What is this?” I hadn’t heard any of it. At that point my references were the 80’s and band’s referencing that sound.

ANP: The 90’s Indie scene was pretty amazing from a DIY ethic. Labels like Gravity Records were pushing it hard with everything circulating between San Diego, DC and Olympia. Did you catch any of that?
JC: Working at the college radio station, I would go see all the bands that I was obsessed with like Erase Errata and Black Eyes and Pinback. I was also really into K Records and met Calvin Johnson when he played at my college. I would buy everything off the K Records mail order and he would email me with personal notes thanking me. So I guess seeing the way he ran his label probably had a subconscious effect on me with my own label. I then got into noisier stuff with label like Three One G, Load, Gold Standard Laboratories.

ANP: Gravity was doing such a good job with screen printing releases, adding ephemera, creating editions , etc. in a time when CD’s were overwhelmingly dominant. And as I think about it now, I can almost see a thread of Gravity in Dark Entries with regard to the care and detail that you put into it.
JC: When I bought records as a teenager in college, I would fixate over the album artwork, the inserts, color schemes, and everything else that came along with them. I would collect all the limited edition silk-screened records from Hand Held Hart and Deathbomb Arc, so yeah I can see that too.

ANP: Who helps you with that? I see so much effort put into each of your releases and I think “wow this is really considered”. Is that all you?
JC: I have a designer named Eloise Leigh who is now in Berlin. She has been my designer since 2010. With the silk-screening, I do it all myself. I have pulled the screens for every single release, hand-numbered all the releases (when I was still doing that) and stamped all of the inserts.

ANP: There is an element of craft with what you do that separates it from everything else in your space.
JC: Yeah, a lot of labels that are doing these 80’s reissues are doing high-end 180 gram vinyl with glossy jackets. To me, that takes away from the D.I.Y. cassette aesthetic that the original release was presented in, framing it in this more polished and shiny light. Eloise and I want you to feel the rawness of the music via the record jacket fibers and even with the paper inside. I want it to feel like what it would have felt like in the ‘80s.

ANP: This is really consistent with your releases, meaning the visual or aesthetic aspects of them seem just as important as the music.
JC: When I listen to the music, I have a passion for the sound and what it feels like. Eloise shares this vision and we parallel the jackets, inserts, ephemera, and color schemes to it. The whole thing is very circular and thought out.

ANP: When you are working with bands that are typically creative, there has to be a collaborative process. It can’t just be you with your ideas as they are going to want to participate. How does that work?
JC: A lot of the time we are just reproducing the original artwork. If there was a jacket that was previously done, we are not going to change it and give it a new look. We will add new inserts and printed ephemera to accompany the release. But there are projects that require completely new designs for release that did not have designs before. So in those instances we go to the band and ask for everything they have saved in their archives and we scan in everything and go from there. Every project we do is always bounced back to the band for their input. Their voice is such in integral part of the reissue. With Eleven Pond, Jeff didn’t want to use the original artwork and I was kind of apprehensive, as I wanted to recreate exactly. But he wanted use a picture of the band, so I said okay. Right from the beginning I learned how not to be so steadfast with my ideas to mimic everything. I was open to his interpretation of how he wanted it to look back in the ‘80s. I think it came out pretty well.

ANP: Is there anything that you salivate over that will never be reissued... Music that just exists out there and will forever just live in obscurity?
JC: Oh yeah, there is so much! It happens multiple times a year where I will contact the band and they will say, “Sorry, no thanks, that was a long time ago”. A lot of them will have found religion or something else that prohibits them from revisiting their musical past. In some cases it evokes a dark memory or pain, and a lot of bands don’t want to go there or they can’t get all the band members to have consensus so they just let it die.

ANP: Sold Space comes to mind.
JC: Solid Space...yeah. That is tricky. The problem is that there are two members and one guy lives in the UK and the other in the South Bay (SF). The guy in the South Bay wants to re-record a number of the songs because he feels that recordings don’t sound right. He wants to change enough of it that it won’t really sound like it did. In my head, I am such a purist and I want it to sound like the original cassette. The other problem is that the master tapes are gone, which were thrown out in the ‘90s by the engineer’s wife. I call them every few months and keep trying.

ANP: Talking about the re-mastering, how does that work? Are you the one tweaking on it?
JC: I rely on the engineers at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. They dehydrate or “bake” the reel-to-reel tapes and then transfer the material. We then use those files for the re-mastering process with my engineer George Horn who has worked on every single release on Dark Entries.

ANP: What is it like when you discover something that has never been touched? Does anxiety pour over you with regards to making contact?
JC: It becomes this overwhelming and consuming thing to just make contact with a band member and get a confirmation. I have a very addictive personality so it works well with sleuthing.

ANP: It was amazing to see how fast you worked when we talked about Lives of Angels.
JC: You played that song...I went home at 2am and I found and emailed the singer/songwriter within 20 minutes of being home. Four hours later at 6am he contacts me saying, “Yes let’s do it.”

ANP: It was so impressive...and I can totally identify with the anxiety of discovery. If you aren’t quick to own an idea it will go out into the aether and someone else will pick it up. In your case, there are a handful of labels working the same landscape, so it even becomes more urgent feeling, as I am sure a fair about of inquiries are lost to this.
JC: Yeah, many times it happens where other labels have already approached the band and then I approach them, which can lead to feuds between the labels. Unfortunately, it is very competitive now because there are so many labels doing 80s reissues. Whenever I email a band I always assume that they have already been contacted so when I get the reply back, “How did you hear about me?” I am like, “Really?!” [smiling].

ANP: How did the Jeff & Jane Hudson release with Capture Tracks come together?
JC: Well, Captured Tracks emailed Jeff & Jane Hudson a week before I did. But since I know Mike Sniper at Captured Tracks, I proposed that we do a joint reissue, which he agreed to. We might be working on another one next year.

ANP: Who?
JC: Well Captured Tracks is reissuing some of the Flying Nun catalog. There is a band from the label that I have been working with for the past two years called Phantom Forth, a husband and wife duo from Australia. I have the masters and a deal with the band, so I hope they make it a part of their reissue series.

ANP: Do you think a lot of this is being driven by the web?
JC: Of course, if YouTube didn’t exist I wouldn’t have The Product, I wouldn’t have the Danse Society demos. A lot of these bands I have heard are the result of getting lost in a YouTube vortex…which I could never do as a teenager. I would just go to the record stores and dig and dig and dig, or find out about stuff through word of mouth, cousins, friends, or going to a club in NY and hearing new bands and asking the DJ, “What’s this?”

ANP: I kind of miss that. The whole experience of getting compilation cassettes from friends. It was so personal as the tracks would be handwritten with this kind of DIY cover art. Whenever I hear songs that I was turned onto that way, it takes me right back. And now what I find amazing is that the connective tissue for this sort of thing lives in YouTube.
JC: Yeah, there aren’t these tape traders anymore or these publications naming all the new releases. Fast forward 30 years and this is the way people are consuming music now, which I don’t think makes it any simpler as you still have to spend a lot of time digging whether it be YouTube or record bins at Amoeba.

ANP: YouTube is like the infinite record bin. And to your point, you can’t just search a tag and get all of the good stuff.
JC: Yeah.

ANP: Do you think that with this era of music the “finds” are starting to dry up? Or do you think there is a lot more out there to discover?
JC: It’s infinite. Just when I think there is nothing else, I find a lost album that has never been released.

ANP: Do you ever have this experience with band where you go through the process of a release and you see that you have given them new life?
JC: Sure, there are a few bands that, since the reissue, have reformed and played shows. Eleven Pond, Vita Noctis and Jeff and Jane Hudson started playing shows again for the first time in 25 years.

ANP: That is an amazing thing though, meaning giving the artist life again. I imagine if you are from the 80’s, and you are in your late 50’s, that there are not a lot of places to do this without a context. You give them context to express themselves again musically and artistically.
JC: Um yeah, it runs the gamut from band members being totally disinterested and not wanting any copies of the release, to a band needing 100 copies for their tour, or to give to their friends.

ANP: Do you play music?
JC: No

ANP: Or obsess on gear?
JC: When I see gear over at friend’s houses I do want to touch them and I become curious about how the sounds are made knowing that this is where the music I’m releasing comes from. I get very nervous around the instruments though. But then at the same time I think about how the bands didn’t really know anything about their instruments and just took stabs at it, with a lot of them being anti-musicians and just doing what they did without any formal training.

ANP: But you are DJ.
JC: I do DJ a lot. Every week.

ANP: Where?
JC: I am part of a collective called Honey Soundsystem.

ANP: What is that?
JC: We are four queer guys that share a passion for digging for music from all genres, past to present. We got started with all of us coming from very different paths, including Italo Disco, New Wave, Techno and House. It has evolved into this thing where we are just four music dorks who obsess over this stuff.

ANP: Do you just play in SF or go out of the area?
JC: Yeah, all of us do gigs all over the country.

ANP: Do you ever use Honey as a testing ground for new material that you are considering releasing.
JC: Not really. The music I play there is so different than the music I release.\

ANP: But when I saw you play the other night before Silent Servant, you played a Victrola track, which I hear you are going to release soon.
JC: Okay, caught! And I have played bands like Eleven Pond and Neon Judgement. Actually, I have played a lot of my songs now that I think about it.

ANP: Who are your musical heroes? Artists that have stood the test of time…
JC: The Cure, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Patrick Cowley, Arthur Russell, Siouxsie, Nico, Joni Mitchell, early Ministry... Those are all huge for me.

ANP: What do you think of the new breed of Post Punk and Minimal Synth bands?
JC: I think a lot of it is hit or miss. Some bands are making their music sound very “now” but there are a lot that are very derivative and calculated.

ANP: Do you think it has the potential to breakthrough to a larger audience? A sort of second 1980s?
JC: No, I don’t think that will ever happen again Labels just aren’t throwing money at bands any more. Everything relies so much more on touring and selling merchandise. And I feel like a lot of these bands are in the same predicament as the late 70’s bands. They are confused and not doing it for the money, but are doing it because they have the passion. And they are releasing on cassettes again because they are affordable whereas vinyl is expensive.

ANP: For me cassettes are really nostalgic as I grew up on them, but if I had a preference it is not be a cassette.
JC: No. When I get a cassette in the mail to master from I get so frustrated because the cassettes from the 80’s have a limited life span. The more you play it the more you are shedding off the audio and losing frequencies. To reissue something on cassette that is going to have a limited lifespan, and isn’t the highest quality, doesn’t make sense to me. But for the nostalgic quality and to handle a cassette, I do understand the psychology behind it.

ANP: Yeah, I feel like cassettes are kind of this blind nostalgia where they are obscure, weird and out of favor “so let’s do that” vs. what is going to deliver the best product. Whereas I still think vinyl holds up in terms of a great audio experience.
JC: It does, but it’s definitely a psychological thing, this whole vinyl resurgence. My engineer is stumped as to why he is doing more records than CDs. To him it doesn’t equate because he knows down to the physics that CDs are superior. But for us we want to touch the vinyl and jacket, and the artwork is bigger, and the ephemera is better, which creates the experience that I love.

ANP: What do you think about SF as a place to live and do what you are doing from a cultural perspective? Is there anywhere else you would rather be?
JC: I love SF, but I also like Oakland because of the space you get, and how much more everything is spread out, and that they are warehouse parties. It’s way more underground and kind of more like a Sheffield. But it’s also a much quieter suburb with a suburbia feel to it. I would love to have a shop or warehouse over there, but I would also feel disconnected from the pulse of things, which are tied to SF. I would also love to take time off and live in different cities, but it is hard to lug 1000 records around. I would love to have a residency in Berlin, live in London...go back to New York. I would love to live all over, but SF is currently suiting the needs of my label.

ANP: Where do you see Dark Entries in 10 years? Do you see burn out or expansion?
JC: If anything I would want to release three records a month, but I am limited to the workspace, which I operate out of. It is really small. But I feel like if anything it will just grow and get bigger and bigger, as I get more distribution and people get clued into what I am doing.

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