A Chat with American Dreams Records
Over the past two years I've had the great pleasure of conducting and publishing a number of artist interviews. It's great. I send out DMs or email inquiries to musicians I admire, see who has the capacity to respond (and take no offense when they do not), and then I chat with anyone who's game for a few questions. Through these interviews I learn a lot about artistic inspiration, creative processes, industry challenges, future aspirations and hopes, and then I get to share these conversations with DC readers.
But I haven't tackled a label interview until now.
American Dreams Records is, in their words, "A label dedicated to showcasing art inspired by wonder, intention, and hope." Expanding on their mission, they state, "Our ethos is rooted in storytelling, inclusivity, community, and cohabitation with the natural world." Admittedly, it feels a little odd to simply copy/paste information from ADR's "About" page to introduce the Chicago-based label, because even though we haven't met in person, I feel pretty connected to Jordan, Eli, and Devin through our online communication and a handful of promotional partnerships. American Dreams was one of the first labels to send DC music way back in the winter of 2020, and I have been a huge fan of their output ever since. They were the only label to hold spots on all three of DC's 2021 year-end lists (two songs, my favorite EP, and a top-ten album), and I am continually impressed with their curiously experimental and sonically diverse releases. More than that, though, I love the energy and enthusiasm that these three artists/label heads exude. ADR is something special - a group of friends working together to improve an industry and support a community in which they participate and believe in deeply.
Below I have included my correspondence with Jordan Reyes (ADR's Founder), Devin Shaffer (ADR's Art Director, Social Media & Marketing Manager) and Eli Winter (ADR's Label Manager). Instead of hyperlinking each album mentioned across the interview and then embedding tracks, I'll simply drop the label's website link here and Bandcamp page once here, and again at the end of this post. Please check out ADR's catalogue - I promise that you'll love it.
Lastly, this post is longer and more detailed than anything I've ever published on deepestcurrents.com. Please do not let the length of this write-up be a deterrent. Try to read the whole piece from start to finish, even if that means breaking it into chunks. Getting a peek into ADR's inner-workings is well worth your time.
ADR staff and a few label artists. This photo (and the cover image) taken by Katherine Squier and provided by the label.
DC: What is ADR's origin story? Like, where/when/why did you start, and how have you expanded/morphed over the label's life?
JR: American Dreams came out of my label before, which was American Damage, a cassette label, online distro, and roving record store that was grappling with some of the same themes and sonics, but had a bit more of an emphasis on industrial culture. I’m 31 now and I hadn’t toured until I was 27, but on my first tour I had just started carrying some import titles and underground classics as a distro, and realized quickly that I could bank on getting at least $100 in extra sales every gig from selling them. So I ramped that up heavily, and began touring consistently 6-8 times a year after I left my last office job and would bring like 500-800 records with me along the way, set up a pop-up shop at gigs, spend the days going into record stores to handsell my tapes, etc, all in the pursuit of breaking even, which I couldn’t have done without the distro & handselling, frankly.
JR: I also started getting into eurorack modular synthesis around then, and over about 6-8 months, I recorded my first album Close. American Damage had previously been tapes with a consistent art scheme - I wrote a poem on each cover, occasionally added an image, and it was always in black and white. I didn’t think that Close called for that - I couldn’t see its cover as black and white or that I needed to write a poem to adorn it. I messaged my now friend JJ Cromer to see if I could use a piece of his for the art, and he was more than gracious in not only allowing that, but giving me permission to make art prints, which he signed for special editions. Cromer wouldn’t even let me pay for postage on the way back after he signed them - it was unbelievably generous of him, and I’m so grateful for everything he has done.
JR: Around then, Smashed Plastic had opened up their pressing plant here in Chicago, and no label I sent Close to was able to do the record or they were too kind to tell me they didn’t like it, so I sent Smashed Plastic a quote request, the price was right, and I pressed it. At first I started touring again like mad, and I got this CD burner so I could burn copies of Close outside record stores, then go in, introduce myself, tell the stores that I was starting this label, and give them the CD, each of which had hand-drawn art and tracklist, etc. I even stopped by Redeye Worldwide who are my distributors now and gave them CDs, though frankly I doubt any of the people I gave the CDs to kept them. That’s just how it goes.
JR: I had also been talking with John Daniel of Forest Management about doing a record, which became a 2LP called After Dark, and that came out officially like 5 months after Close. A lot of the folks who’ve released on ADR at this point were people I just cold-emailed who I didn’t know but who maybe I had mutual friends with - Evicshen and Claire Rousay are examples of that.
JR: In terms of morphing, originally I set out to have ADR be only synth records with album covers by artists I chose, and by the second release, I threw those rules out the window. I’ve only gotten more lenient with what’s an ADR release and what isn’t. I look to labels like Sacred Bones and see that they started with a lot of emphasis on industrial culture, post-punk, etc, but now they’re dropping a damn DJ Muggs release or Spellling or Thou, and I’m like fuck! That’s what I want to do. I can’t stay satisfied with mining or excavating from one kind of sound, one vibe.
JR: Ultimately, I think of ADR as a vehicle for storytelling, and there’s a lot of stories that need to be told. I think the glue that holds them together is this sense of wonder, of hope, of lessening the pain from being alive, and excluding certain sounds from that is dumb.
DC: Over the past couple of years, your label's sonic palette has grown considerably. How do you find new acts? Word of mouth? Going to shows? Skimming social media? Mining the web? Do you look for artists who fit a particular criteria, or is it more of a gut feeling when you hear something that you like?
JR: Good question. Well, a lot of it used to be from touring - I’d play like 100 shows a year, which isn’t crazy when you compare to some other folks, but now that touring is off the table, it’s been a lot more from friends, friends’ writing, reading a Bandcamp daily article, etc. I also collect a fuckton of music. I am a chronic, insane record and tape buyer - I love buying records, tapes, CDs so much, and always have, so I will buy pretty much anything if there’s something prodding me, just trying things out. For someone like Evicshen, I had carried her tape Klee Doll for my distro because my homie Ryan put it out on his label Hot Releases, and I loved it, sold them all. Then I saw my friend Sarah Lutkenhaus post a video of her performing and I was like “Okay, that’s it - gotta ask her to do something.” She and I became super close right away. I sent a first email saying what’s up, and then a couple months later serendipitously met up in NY, both touring, and spent the day playing pinball - like literally the whole day. That was it. Game blouses.
JR: Others were people I wrote about for Bandcamp or connected with that way. The Paris-based Iranian duo 9T Antiope have an album coming out with us at some point, and I connected with Sara and Nima because I was asked to write about them, and we just became homies. Same with folks like Andreé Burelli or Will Ballantyne aka City and also Anti-God Hand who’s an act I work with a ton on American Decline, though I would do a City & i.o. Release on ADR, Will, if you’re reading!
EW: I’ve occasionally advocated for music I believe in and want ADR to release.
DC: What do you think sets your label apart from others? I'm not trying to insinuate that the music industry is some sort of cutthroat competition or anything like that, but what specifically do you pride yourself on doing or offering at ADR?
JR: I think I take more chances, giving people shots when they haven’t had opportunities. That has to be part of what my label does, not that it’s a charity by any stretch, but there are some releases I do that I know for a fact will not make the money back. I still do them because I think the positive impact that will come from it is worthwhile - maybe it’s just someone who’s never been given a chance or who hasn’t had something on vinyl, but has released so much music before, or someone who books shittons of shows but then people don’t pay attention to their music. Well, I pay attention to that, especially if the person is here in Chicago, just paying it forward, putting skin in the game, trying to add some goodness to the pot for the culture.
DS: I was an artist on ADR before I got hired to do art direction, and I was always struck by how kind, patient, and supportive Jordan is with the artists he signs. This is a person who cares deeply about the musicians he works with. Actually, the music industry is built to be incredibly competitive, and much of it runs on clout, status, and privilege. We are not the only label that is actively fighting against that but I think we are certainly making a name for ourselves as a label that considers the humanity of our artists and embraces the power of music to move and inspire people—rather than just generate money and content for an elite few.
EW: You’re not wrong. Many aspects of the so-called industry are interested in undoing artists’ ability to sustain working lives within it. Touring, for example, can easily undermine an artist’s ability to carry out a tour, whether or not one is careful. This was the case before the pandemic, more so now. The extent to which extramusical forces encourage artists to render themselves images, brands or commodities — rather than treating the music they might release, the events they might present, as such — troubles. Devin's right. Much current music appears more interested in operating outside of, rather than within, communities, and for the sake of its growth rather than helping others. None of this makes the music better. I suspect empty suits within the so-called industry like this, and like to create the sense of reified competition, privilege and clout-chasing that Devin mentions, even though it can easily result in pablum. Will Oldham: “Not only are musicians expendable/exchangeable to labels, management, publicists, promoters and venues; audiences are, as well.”
EW: And I think ADR pushes back against all of these things as much as possible, and tries to bear out a politics that many other labels don’t, won’t, or can’t. It strikes me as quietly uncompromising and particularly artist-centric. In my understanding it encompasses many kinds of diversity while remaining responsive to and supportive of artists working from the margins. It’s not doing shit for the sake of it, but because it understands the importance of holding firm in cultural production; not because it looks good, but because it is.
DC: I'm not going to ask anyone to play favorites, especially since y'all label folks are musicians too, but is there an ADR release you wanna share a story about? Maybe a memorable release or one which ran into a bunch of unforeseen roadblocks? Or perhaps an album which was particularly well-received or one which included interesting extra-musical elements? Anything stories you feel like sharing, really.
JR: Oh man so many. But I’ve got to talk about ONO’s Red Summer. I’m in the band and am effectively the manager too, so I pitched the hell out of that record to labels, and we got a lot of no’s and a lot of hemming and hawing. Eventually I just said “Man, fuck this - I know for a fact I can do as good a job as some of these other labels, and I don’t have to worry about some White person not getting the band or taking some of the message personally, and there being some shit storm.” ONO’s been around since 1980, and the whole time they’ve been a Black band too weird or too combative for most folks, and that shit continued until Red Summer. When I decided to do Red Summer, that was a giddy up moment for me - that’s when I went all in on the label. And then when it became time to roll out Red Summer, which is about a heightened period of racial violence in the Summer of 1919 coinciding with the Spanish flu epidemic, we first of all, go into lockdown, and two, George Floyd gets murdered. Boom! Right back to Red Summer in 2019. You can’t make this shit up! And suddenly everyone’s writing about Red Summer, basically covering their ass - I think - to absolve themselves from being part of the problem. P Michael, travis, and I still laugh about it these days - it was comical to us how transparent everything was, and I would get so mad about it back then, and then travis would remind me that that shit had been happening for 40 years!!! That was the first big success on ADR and also is still one of the best-selling records in the catalog. It was also the first time I made a chapbook to go alongside a release, and frankly the first time I used InDesign to lay out a book haha!
JR: I should also say we’ve got a lot of ONO stuff cooking up. Reissues, new music, travis has a hardcover book coming out this year. There’s so much!
DS: Well, let’s see, I think Patrick Shiroishi’s LP Hidemi made all of us cry. The record was also released alongside a book called Tangled that featured writings by Asian-American musicians. Then there’s also Daniel Wyche’s album Earthwork—that album had been in the cooker for years and even includes a guitar part Daniel wrote in high school. Something that’s so special about albums like Earthwork or Hidemi is that people are trusting us to put their stories and their family stories and their histories into the world. I feel really honored to be involved.
EW: I think my first impression of ADR was seeing Forest Management's 2xLP After Dark release special editions with a bar of soap. Fuck! I have to mention the kitchen utensils on “Puerto Suelo” (from Places of Consequence by Cameron Knowler). Classic Cameron. Also: Mute Duo, Lapse in Passage, but I don’t really have any stories about it. I just love it.
DC: What do you appreciate about being based in Chicago, and conversely, are there any challenges that come with your present location? I lived in Chicago like twelve years ago before moving back out to Oregon, and really fell in love with the music scene there. What do you think makes the city so special?
JR: Chicago is a brutal ass town and you have to be tough to live here - I feel a lot of kinship with cities like Philly. Philly’s got a similar vibe, and I love playing there. 6 months of the year are hard here - it’s hard to drive cause there’s potholes appearing, it’s hard to walk cause the sidewalks get icy, some motherfucker is calling dibs on your parking spot. Winter is cutthroat. So you have to surrender yourself to it. But then you also need to nourish yourself to get through it mentally - I think the arts community is something of a reaction to this. Like people are literally making art and music as a defense mechanism, in order to get through the harshness. Then in the summer it’s a completely different city - you get the sense that the population triples, everyone’s active as all get out, there’s shows happening in the park. That give and take is essential to how arts and music communities thrive here - people build each other up because…we just all need to be built up to survive it.
JR: There’s also historically some of the best, most boundary pushing music in the city. Sun Ra, obviously, Jazz Showcase existing here, the electric blues have their home in Chicago, not to mention contemporary classic heads like Tortoise, Marvin Tate, Common, No I.D., Typical Cats, and - yes - Kanye West.
JR: I also think that while there are a lot of people pushing for careers in music, there isn’t this careerist mentality you see in some of the other big cities. Like even acts who break through to critical success still do weird shit here, still play some improv set at the Hungry Brain or cruise through to see a noise rock band, potentially do second vocals in the set. The community is pretty much unparalleled in my opinion, and if you’re a real head here, there’s no social hierarchy. The love of music shines through.
DS: I appreciate how down-to-earth and hardworking Chicago musicians are. I think it’s a Midwestern attitude. I don’t think a lot of the challenges here are unique to Chicago. Issues like biased booking at major venues, segregation, underpaying artists, sexual assault in the music industry, and of course Covid-19…these are all huge issues that affect musicians everywhere and Chicago is no different. But orgs like Our Music, My Body; Brave Space Alliance; Chicago Arts Census; Union of Musicians and Allied Workers; and a bunch others are really doing the work of trying to address these issues.
EW: Hard to synthesize all the different threads. The best music in the country, for one. There’s a lot less bullshit here than there is in New York or LA. When it's safe, there are a lot of concerts, and even so, there’s a lot of musical cross-pollination happening here — people playing across approaches, idioms, ‘genres,’ artistic mediums — to a greater extent than elsewhere. One of the things that really inspires me is how much of Chicago’s independent music history is archived — online and elsewhere — through the Chicago Reader, now-is.org, savagesound.com (the late Malachi Ritscher’s website), Seth Tisue’s Chicago Now calendar, etc. The different infrastructures and support Chicago provides musicians are life-changing. And transit. And parks. Coming from Houston, where there are parks underneath highways, it’s night and day. Devin rightly points out a lot of ways it can improve and groups working to improve it.
DC: Who are some non-ADR artists you're into right now? Could be musicians, but feel free to shout out any visual, literary, etc. folks if you'd like as well! Love hearing what different people are into these days, and then checking those recommendations out.
JR: I’m largely inspired by hip-hop. Hip-hop was my first musical love growing up, and in High School when I was a dancer I took so many cues from learning about the Rock Steady crew, Cool Herc in the Bronx, and the genesis of hip hop. To me, that is the ultimate democratic culture, and also one of the only musical styles that doesn’t require an instrument - if you see a cypher, it can just be some dude making beats with his mouth and someone emceeing on top. Literally no instruments. It’s a style of music that technically requires the least barriers to entry to perform, but also requires the most skill at language. Hip hop is experimental music - it’s the biggest cultural movement in the last several decades, and continues to push so many boundaries. It’s also tied into basketball, art, movement, fashion, and much more.
JR: I hesitate to say ADR is a collective because the “governing body” isn’t all the artists, but it is a family, for sure. There’s a central crew, and we’re all homies. Like all my best friends are either on the label or work at the label. I took a lot of inspiration from the Wu-Tang Clan for this who are basically the best artistic group ever, not to mention the first group who taught me to embrace 1. Nerdiness 2. East Asian Philosophy 3. Wellness. Wu-Tang had this kind of central figure who brought in people who could actualize the original vision, but then let each person grow and create their own art, their own universe, too.
JR: In terms of hip-hop, I’m listening to Mach-Hommy always - I think he’s the most invigorating artist these days and doing a lot of innovative things with how to release music. I also am inspired by everything the Alchemist touches, especially the Boldy James and Armand Hammer stuff. Everything Billy Woods does for Backwoodz Studioz is also a huge influence to me, not to mention Woods’ command of language and storytelling is unmatched. My homie Geng in New York who runs PTP is also a boon and testament to underground cultures, archiving, and more - he is very good at connecting community initiatives with art and music.
JR: I also need to talk about Samuel Delany who changed my life. Eli’s gotten deep into him, too, recently. I took a college class with Fred Moten when I was in undergrad at Duke, and it was the only class I never skipped. Fred taught me so much about life, equity, art, experimentation. And he also taught me Dhalgren, which is my favorite book ever, and also one of the things that united me with ONO - P Michael, travis, and I are all obsessed with the book and Delany at large. It’s science fiction, erotica, literary theory, ergodic literature all wrapped into one perfect story. Delany and Fred basically sent me down this rabbit hole of weirdness, and I’ve yet to get out. It’s like that classic Gass quote - “You have fallen into art - return to life!” But I’ve already chosen art.
DS: I’m just counting down the days until Cate Le Bon’s new album comes out so I can feel serotonin enter my body again.
EW: This is hard, and this list is non-exhaustive. Daniel Bachman, always, and Three Lobed Recordings. The late British drummer John Stevens and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Country Teasers. Terry Allen (especially "The Beautiful Waitress"). Richard Youngs. Wendy Eisenberg. Mess Esque. Michael Hafftka. No Immediate Danger by William T. Vollmann, TINY by Mairead Case. “Art on the Frontline: Mandate for a People’s Culture” by Angela Davis. And J Hunter, a dear friend, ex-Lower Dens, who mixed my first solo album, has been writing with astonishing depth at rx-ointment.ghost.io. I want to shout his work from the rooftops. Please read it.
DC: What's it gonna take to get some ADR artists on a West Coast tour? If I'm correct, you've got a contingent headed to SXSW, in March, right? I guess scheduling live performances might be tricky right now given the state of the world, but any other tours in the works this spring/summer?
JR: Yes, we tentatively have a sect rolling out to SXSW - we’ll see what happens at this point. I had done one West Coat tour in November 2019 right before COVID and was planning to do one or two in 2020, but now…god I have no idea. We’ve actually canceled a few things we had set up to do - indefinitely postponed, really, but we’ll see what happens. I’m sure I can speak for all of us when I say we would all love to get out there.
EW: I just need a guarantee and a solid show :). In any event, yes, SXSW, though I just postponed a Europe tour that would have happened in March and April. Some US shows might take its place. Several tours in the nearer and hazy future, with luck. Presenting concerts safely and mindfully, with online and in-person components, is paramount.
DC: Speaking of challenges, what is difficult about running an indie label these days, and what are you doing to tackle (or avoid) these tough parts of the business?
JR: The most difficult thing is the vinyl delay at the moment. It sucks having something so central to your business model not working and out of your control. Being completely candid, there are times it makes running a label so frustrating I’ve told people I didn’t even want to do it anymore. Of course, that’s not true, but we’ve basically all grouped up and said “Okay, this model’s out, we have to think of some new stuff.” So we’re starting to release more on cassette, and will have more merch, merch that coincides with digital releases, capsule collections, another thing I took from hip-hop and streetwear cultures. It feels like coming up for air.
DS: VINYL DELAYS! It is so hard to feel powerless over delivering artists what they’ve worked so hard for, and fans what they’ve spent money and time supporting. I wish there was anything more we could do. Also, speaking as a label employee, musician, and fan, it is really hard to be without the in-person aspects of music right now. So much of the joy of music is in the connection with others. It is really tiring trying to keep this industry moving solely with social media and the internet. Online purchases, Instagram posts, zoom shows…there’s certainly value in it, but it is exhausting and it isn’t nourishing in the same way holding space together is nourishing. That’s where the magic of music happens, in my opinion. In the room together.
EW: Vinyl delays are hard; the contingency of touring is hard; those two things, together, are very hard. I’m excited to finally release an album at a time where it’s possible to tour full-time behind its release, and to support other albums in the same circumstance. My understanding of working artist histories is that working artists, by necessity, roll with the punches. So do we.
DC: And finally, thinking ahead across the upcoming year (and to end on a more positive note), what are you all looking forward to heading into 2022? Any future releases you'd like to detail? New label initiatives? Fuck it, anything else y'all are looking forward to, either music-related or totally random?
JR: We’ve got our first vinyl box set coming out this year - it’s a 4LP archival release that Eli Winter & I have been working on for over a year at this point, doing interviews, transcribing, editing. Super thrilled about that. First capsule collection & digital release coming soon, which will be very fun, I think. A lot of releases still - some new artists who we’ve been working with behind the scenes like Kyle Kidd, RA Washington, and Latoya Kent of Mourning [A] BLKstar, Lucy Liyou, Aaron Turner & Jon Mueller did a banger together, and more. Claire’s got a bunch in the works. Matt Rolin. Lots of ONO.
DS: I don’t want to spoil anything, but we have some really beautiful releases coming up this year, and I am really just so excited to see and hear them come to life. One thing I will tease is that we have a special capsule collection coming out soon with new merch and a compilation of unreleased music from a bunch of ADR artists…I think people are going to freak.
EW: There are some special records in the works this year. I have to admit I’m very excited for my next solo record, which features several ADR labelmates. Otherwise, excited to make it through the year in spite of all the things that want to grind us down. To eat life-affirming food.
DC: Actually, one last question: you think the Bulls could send the Blazers some help at the trade deadline? We've got plenty of expendable pieces and need help at pretty much every position besides the 1. Or maybe we should just tank. Anything is appreciated. Thanks.
JR: Hahahaha! I think we’re gonna be greedy this year in Chicago, and hopefully the next few years. NBA watching has been such a blessing for my mental health. I love having something to pay attention to that is just fun for me, not involved with work, though considering some upcoming capsule collection ideas I’ve got…maybe that’s not quite true.
EW: I’m a Rockets fan. Can’t help you there…
Be sure to follow American Dreams into the new year, as it sounds like they're cooking up a lot in the coming months. Once again, here is a link to their website, and you can find their Bandcamp page by clicking here.
A massive thanks to Jordan, Devin, and Eli for the time and energy they put into this. Keep doing what you're doing, y'all, because you've got a lot of fans listening in.