SF reissue label Dark Entries gives lost, forgotten music another spin

Ryan Kost May 27, 2019

Josh Cheon created a record label called Dark Entries, which he uses to revive history and promote new local music.Photo: Yalonda M. James, The Chronicle

A few months ago, Josh Cheon came across a to-do list from 2007. It wasn’t long, half a dozen things, scribbled in blue ink on a piece of pale pink paper. He’d written it a year after moving to San Francisco, a little guide for how to arrange his life.

• dj more at home — practice
• record shelves
• road trips
• more time for family
• supportive friends

The usual stuff, mostly, except for the one at the very top, the one right under “to do.” There he wrote “start a record label — friends + reissues.” The words are formed just as casually as all the others, as though starting a label would be as easy to do — or to forget — as buying some shelves at Ikea.

Now Cheon sits in a cramped office above RS94109, a record store in the Tenderloin, and he laughs a little. Maybe it’s more of a chuckle. The space is full with metal shelves and those shelves are full with boxes and those boxes are full with records — Cheon’s records. During the past 10 years, he’s issued more than 250 titles on his Dark Entries record label.

A good portion of the music is new stuff, albums he’s released for friends or other bands that contact him. The biggest portion, though, is rereleases and posthumous releases. Cheon preserved and expanded the legacy of San Francisco disco producer Patrick Cowley. He helped Greek electronic artist Lena Platonos find a new fan base. “Josh has been a deus ex machina in my life,” she wrote in an email. This year he reissued a 1982 suite of 48 poemsby adult film star Roy Garrett, read aloud, backed by a woozy, atmospheric score by musician Man Parrish.

And still, Cheon has just the same casualness about it as he did when he wrote that to-do list, as if he’s simply selling records that he likes, as if this work hasn’t, in its own way, brought people back from the dead.

“I just do it,” he says. “I just wake up every morning and have this passion. I’ve never really sat down and thought about why.”

Josh Cheon recently rereleased Roy Garrett and Man Parrish’s “Hot Rod to Hell” LP.Photo: Yalonda M. James, The Chronicle

Cheon is the kind of person who, very genuinely, doesn’t like to get his photograph taken. He seems fine not being seen so much. He talks quietly, pulling the smallest details out of the past with a speed that feels impossible. But he has a hard time describing himself or describing what he does in any way that takes the focus away from the music on his records and the people who made that music.

Probably Cheon should be a scientist. That’s what he studied back in college in New Jersey. Biology and psychology. But music got him early. “My dad,” he says.

His father used to DJ at home for fun, slipping small 45s onto turntables. All soul. He built a cabinet for all his records, sort of like a library card catalog. “I remember flipping through them. … He would teach us how to play them and be gentle so, you know, I was always handling vinyl since I was born.”

There was one record, an album by the Seekers; Cheon loved a track called “Georgy Girl.” Hey there, Georgy girl/ Swinging down the street so fancy-free.There was something about the melody, “super gay, super soaring, super high and fast. I would get dizzy dancing to this song.”

So living room dancing became a college radio show — “Hunkafied Fridays” — which became an internship at one record label and then another and another. “Just stick to science, dude. You don’t want to do a record label.” But he did want to do a record label. “I just kind of didn’t listen to them.”

Josh Cheon shows his first release by Eleven Pond.Photo: Yalonda M. James, The Chronicle

Dark Entries is a label without an obvious theme. The tagline is “resuscitating the ’80s underground.” But that’s only true up to a point. Just this month Cheon released new music by local artist Vin Sol (a double album called “Planet Trash”).

Really, the only thing that ties the label’s output together is Cheon himself. More specifically Cheon’s obsessions. Sometimes a person will write in, asking him to rerelease something that’s out of print. Sometimes he’ll oblige. Sometimes someone will hand him a cassette and he’ll decide, sure, this poetry by an adult film star should be a full release, with a zine and launch party to go with it. At least, that’s what happened with the Roy Garrett tape he got from somebody at the Magazine.

But usually it’s him following his specific interests — and those interests shifted in a really specific way when he moved to San Francisco. He found a gay community. He came out and found himself. He found DJs playing disco and house and Hi-NRG music.

And he found Patrick Cowley, a pioneer of electronic dance music whose work Cheon has given new life through his label.

If you were to look up Cowley’s discography today, much of it — six (soon to be seven) albums — has been released on Dark Entries. This was music Cheon found by calling Cowley’s family members and ex-lovers; investigating rumors of soundtracks made for gay porn. 

Josh Cheon poses for a portrait with albums he’s released on Dark Entries.Photo: Yalonda M. James, The Chronicle

“He keeps Patrick’s flame burning,” says Maurice Tani, Cowley’s onetime roommate. Cheon wasn’t the first person to come looking for it. “But he’s the one who has actually done the most with it.” He thinks Cowley would like Cheon, his seriousness and eagerness. They would have gotten along. “Josh has sort of allowed me to see this stuff through somebody else’s eyes. It’s been exciting and it feels very good for me to have somebody taking an interest in this stuff.”Now, Cheon has plans to publish Cowley’s personal erotic diary: a journal of the sex he had and the relationships he built before he died during the AIDS crisis. He’s doing this alongside Cowley’s past lover, a man named Jorge Socarras. “I know well his dedication to preserving Patrick’s legacy,” Socarras wrote in an email. “This he does as much for his love of the music as for the preservation of an important segment of gay cultural history. Thus when I was entrusted with Patrick’s private erotic diary, I knew immediately what I wanted to do: publish it together with Josh as an extension of his musical enterprise into the literary sphere — a perfect segue. After all, it was Patrick who brought us together.”

There’s another album coming, too. Recently, Cheon was listening to the music alone, on tape, sorting out the track order. “It was … I was almost in tears. Just giddy. I’m excited to share this with people.”

Solid Space’s “Space Museum” LP is one of Josh Cheon’s favorite releases.Photo: Yalonda M. James, The Chronicle

This is not just true for Cowley. Cheon digs deep into catalogues to share music he loves and hopes others might love, too. Greek musician Lena Platonos was another.

Cheon came across her sounds on YouTube. He loved her videos. He loved her poetry. He loved her music — experimental, no firm edges. He calls her the “Greek Laurie Anderson.” He’s rereleased her music and released remixes of her music and distributed fan-made zines about her music. She’s responsible for her sound, for her art, but he’s given her a new audience.

She wrote about his impact in an email: “Dark Entries have played a role in making me known to a wider audience outside Greece. Since then, I have received numerous invitations from venues in the U.S. and Europe to appear in concerts. I do not think that would have been possible without Dark Entries’ contribution.”

Whether Cheon likes to be seen or not, the artists, their loved ones and their listeners see him.

So that list, the one from 12 years ago. Cheon has his label. He practiced DJing — enough, anyway, that he became a member of a collective that draws hundreds, sometimes thousands, to a dance floor. He got to travel roads. He reconnected with family. He eventually found his close friends. 

He bought those record shelves, too. But he always needs more.

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