They spin by night

Nov 27, 2002 at 12:00 am

It’s nearly dusk and the motorcycles with their weekend-warrior riders are descending upon the brewpubs and faux-tony restaurants of Royal Oak. Across metro Detroit, rush hour is settling down and people are getting ready for the nightlife.

Sam Valenti IV, the brains behind iconoclastic Ann Arbor record label Ghostly International, is about to be late, and the Journalist is wondering if he’ll have to reschedule. Hell, the Journalist doesn’t even know what Valenti looks like. He does know this: 1) Valenti is exceedingly polite via phone and e-mail and 2) He is exceedingly young for someone at the helm of a business that’s gathering international critical and popular acclaim. The Journalist is busy trying to reconcile these seemingly contradictory traits — respectful, yet successful in the notoriously sleazy music business; youthfully exuberant in the face of a thus far impeccably executed aesthetic vision — when Valenti strides into the restaurant, removes his shades and casually scans the joint.

The Journalist sticks out like a tourist. Valenti IV walks in like he owns the place. Like the music his label releases, he is lean and unpretentious, yet undeniably stylish. If it were 1999, one might presume Valenti a winning dot-com gambler. But it’s 2002, and he’s the head of a growing 3-year-old record imprint that is busy exporting compelling Midwest-born electronic music for a new generation of consumers hungry for something more substantial than the next big thing and the pabulum on radio.

The Ghostly sound is grounded in what is called intelligent dance music (or IDM) — essentially music made with electronics that is in theory as compelling to the cerebrum as it is to the booty.

It is, in short, easy to forget that Valenti is only 23 years old and just graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in art history. An upper-class kid from Bloomfield Hills, Valenti has led Ghostly by example. He is first and foremost a fan of the electronic music in which his label specializes.

He is also an avid art collector, student of the machinations of consumer culture and, by all accounts, an excellent party host. To spend time with him is to understand why Ghostly is turning heads from the Cass Corridor to Tokyo.

As one industry insider notes: “It’d be really easy for him to be all Richie Rich. But he’s not. He’s really gracious and respectful and enthusiastic and that rubs off on you.”

So it is that the lanky Valenti smiles, approaches the Journalist calmly, offers a confident handshake, sits down, orders a glass of red wine and begins to tell the Ghostly story.

The specter of serendipity, part 1

The label’s roots go back to Valenti’s baby steps as a teenager with a head full of music.

Even before he left for Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, Valenti DJ’d at high school parties under the moniker DJ Spaceghost — spinning hip-hop, jungle and other club beats. The story goes that one of his high school pals crafted a metal Pac-Man ghost for Valenti to sport as his emblem. Little did anyone know that this little piece of metal would become the iconic calling card for one of the first labels to spring from Southeast Michigan in the new millennium.

The Ghostly International story started in a college dorm room in autumn 1998, just like any story of a thousand indie labels from Def Jam to those long-forgotten.

September in Ann Arbor is a glorious time of drunken benders, doe-eyed idealism and lots and lots of manic youthful energy as every year hundreds of freshmen learn the ropes and start to get the social lay of the land during “Welcome Week.” Sam Valenti was no different, of course. Except his Welcome Week was touched with serendipity.

“I was walking around with my dorm friends poking our heads into different parties. And I went down the basement at one of the parties and I saw this guy playing techno live — I was enraptured — and no one was watching! Everyone was upstairs partying and I was like ‘Who is this guy?’”

The guy was Matthew Dear.

“I got his number. I don’t know why,” says Valenti.

Patronage following on the heels of fandom would become a recurring theme in the Ghostly story.

Valenti always knew he wanted to start a label. But it wasn’t until that following summer when he was studying in London that the idea began to take shape. “I took a DAT [recording] out there that I had made of him with me and I thought I’d find a place to make a record,” he recalls with a chuckle. “So we made our first record overseas.

“It was funny because it was stupid. The records, of course, didn’t arrive until the day before I had to leave,” he says.

“So I get to my dorm in London and there’s 500 records sitting there in the open doorway. I had to convince a girl that I had just broken up with there to help me get them home. So shipping pretty much wiped out any profit margin.”

That record was Dear’s “Hands Up for Detroit.” And it made an immediate impact. It was featured at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival that year, and Ann Arbor booty/house wunderkind Disco D helped co-produce it.

“So it was like a really neat moment in time,” Valenti says.

“And I had to reorder it, so it sold!”

But while serendipity shined on Ghostly’s first release, Valenti’s vision for the music and how he wanted it presented was well-articulated.

“I wanted to start a really cool label like Mo Wax, like a label I was totally inspired by — from their design to the music to the whole ‘feel,’” says Valenti.

“All my favorite labels are from England, all these really intricate lifestyle labels with a great catalog of music. The plan all along was — and I hate to use cheesy words — a synaesthetic experience. Every release you could feel something about the music, the whole package that’s more than just the one record. I wanted to create an American version of that.”

Ghostly and its more dance floor-friendly sister acid-house label, Spectral, are, in fact, terrific examples of what a DIY label can look and sound like when it’s not living hand-to-mouth.

And the luxury of a cash cushion is one of the few ways otherwise-struggling independent labels can survive, let alone make each of its releases a meticulously crafted musical statement and objet d’art. So Valenti made a choice early to find and spend the cash that would help his endeavor be successful. He didn’t have to search far.

You’ve known us all your life

“When it came right down to it I thought, ‘I could do it half-baked and not be true to my vision and it could fail, or I could go to my dad with a sound plan and stay true to my vision for the label,’” says Valenti.

Valenti’s pop (Sam Valenti III) is a successful investment adviser, venture capitalist and corporate honcho (he was an executive at homebuilding product giant Masco Corporation for years). He found just cause to invest in his son’s endeavor, and the young Valenti has delivered the goods since.

Though neither Valenti will say exactly how much seed money Ghostly received, it’s telling that Valenti the younger only recently moved the label out of his apartment and into an office in downtown Ann Arbor, even after several successful releases.

Aesthetically, Valenti’s vision was an enterprise that married all of his artistic passions — from electronic-based music to graphic design, fashion, visual art, advertising psychology and pop culture. The goal was to make Ghostly’s records instantly recognizable and to create a brand on which the consumer could rely.

“With 4AD and Factory, you may not know exactly what the music was going to sound like, but you trusted that it was going to be interesting and worth your time,” says Valenti. “It was that kind of trust that I wanted to create with Ghostly.”

Of course, building this kind of a label meant that he had to do two things: build his artist roster and establish a strong visual identity. With each release — including the prototype, Dear’s “Hands Up For Detroit” 12-inch — Valenti set about doing both.

A keystone to building the former was Valenti’s working relationship with classically trained renaissance electro artist Tadd Mullinix. Without Mullinix and his many personae, Ghostly’s catalog might be anemic. The prolific Mullinix has recorded under his own name as well as noms de guerre James Cotton and his twisted hip-hop alter ego, Dabrye.

Valenti matter-of-factly calls Mullinix “the soul of Ghostly International.”

As with Dear, fandom brought Mullinix and Valenti together.

“Sam and I met while I was working at [Ann Arbor record store] Dubplate Pressure,” recalls Mullinix. “[He] heard that I made house and techno and was interested in hearing a tape. I gave him a tape with ideas and drafts on one side. Sam let the tape play through until it flipped and he heard what would later be released on [Mullinix’s Ghostly solo debut album] Winking Makes A Face on the other side. Kind of an accident.”

Ghostly’s unorthodoxy and diverse lineup (within the broad confines of “electronic” music) is one of its core strengths. Besides Mullinix’s recordings, the Ann Arbor trio Midwest Product — which released its Ghostly debut, Specifics, last year to critical acclaim — is on one hand a standard-issue rock band. But Midwest Product also straddles the line between indie rock’s current obsession with all things electronic and stretched-out dance floor compositions played on guitars.

Kill Memory Crash — which will release their debut full-length on Ghostly in April — lives on the electronic side of the industrial music tracks.

Each of these artists helps paint part of the larger Ghostly picture.

“I wanted people to know that they could get a Ghostly release and — even though they may not already be familiar with the artist — know that they were getting something of quality and originality,” says Valenti.

“They might know that it’s based in electronic culture, but that element of surprise and trust is really important to the continued growth of the label.”

Another guiding dictum for Valenti was his desire to create a label on which artists could feel like they had a “home base” while exploring opportunities with other imprints. Dear, for example, is set to release a pair of 12-inches on the well-known Plus 8 label founded by former Detroiter and techno stalwart Richie Hawtin.

“I wanted the artists that recorded for me to feel like they’d always get treated right, that there was a sense of family,” says Valenti. “I think they know that they have a home — that’s part of what I wanted the brand to mean.”

As word has spread throughout the electronic world (throughout the world) and Ghostly’s prominence, sales and critical response have grown, the label’s brand identity has strengthened.

The specter of serendipity, part 2

No small part of establishing that identity is the iconic artwork that graces each release.

It was clear to Valenti that a label needed to be more than just great music.

“We are creating a brand. I don’t think that branding is necessarily a bad thing even though it’s usually associated with more corporate advertising and may not be associated with an artistic endeavor,” says Valenti.

As with Valenti’s discovery of Dear in the basement, he found the visual identity he was looking for thanks to his curiosity and fandom of Detroit visual artist Michael Segal.

“I met Sam in 1997,” says Segal. “He was a young kid coming out of hip hop into DJ culture. We connected on a pan-generational plain of humor and pop culture. I am, in fact, old enough to be Sam’s ... cool uncle.”

Over the next couple years, Valenti became a major collector of Segal’s marker-drawn postcards.

“I told Mike that if I ever started a label that I was going to put his cartoons on the records,” Valenti says.

“There was one series involving a little boy in green pajamas, a giant pink cat in shorts and a silent orange bird,” Segal recalls.

“Sam tried to buy all of these” postcards, and the back of Dear’s record had “a blow-up of one of my ‘Boy Cat Bird’ cards.”

“This was the start. Then I did the inside for Tadd Mullinix’ first CD and have been on hand ever since.”

Segal’s become part of the Ghostly family.

“As time went on the symbiotic nature of the label/illustrator relation was very inspiring,” says Segal.

“I knew Sam had a very keen aesthetic, and that he thought I fit in was not only flattering but a challenge to keep up with this young fuck.”

To Valenti, the boy, cat and bird characters announced a friendliness, a certain innocence and an unironic iconography that summed up what he thought the label ought to represent.

“They’re fun, cartoony, warm, but still with a flatness and using the look of corporate culture,” says Valenti. “I think everything the label does should have a duality with an immediate impact like ‘OK, boom, it’s cute’ but there’s also a sense of ‘I’m not quite sure what’s going on, what these things mean.’”

New kind of disco

Over the course of the label’s first two years, Valenti and company worked hard to establish the Ghostly brand via a string of albums and 12-inches.

But it was a compilation of international DJs spinning postmodern disco that helped Ghostly gain prominence on the international stage. In early 2002, Ghostly started to unleash the “Tangent” series of 12-inches featuring cuts from well-known locals like Ectomorph and Adult. There were also contributions from DJs from as far afield as Germany and Japan. All of these releases led up to Tangent 2002: Disco Nouveau, an impeccably assembled statement of calculated future funk. The 28-page hardcover booklet with original art by fashion designer Kristian Russell is worth the price of admission alone.

Disco Nouveau could really have only happened now,” says Valenti. “It happened largely via e-mail — one person would know two others and eventually it got, literally, around the world.”

The critical response to Disco Nouveau — coming as the release did just after the opening bell of the electroclash hype — got Ghostly on the lips of enough hipsters to create a critical mass.

It’s sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, 2,400 units stateside in the year since its release. This total doesn’t include the limited-edition 12-inches that comprise the compilation’s content. (And 12-inches are, like any independent release, notoriously hard to track accurately.)

Disco Nouveau is still selling and it is the best-selling release in the Ghostly/Spectral catalog. Taken as a statement of purpose, Tangent created enough of a stir to put Ghostly on the map.

In other words, after two years of hard work, serendipity and good taste allowed Ghostly’s grasp to start to match its reach.

Straight outta flyover country

Ann Arbor is not Detroit. And Detroit is not London and London is not Germany and Germany is not Japan. But you can’t conquer the world before you find your way around the block. And that’s the organic, homegrown approach that has helped Ghostly establish its reach. From the label’s headquarters on Washington Street, a hop, skip and jump from clubs such as the Blind Pig and Necto and the bustle of Ann Arbor’s nightlife, Ghostly immerses itself first and foremost in a college atmosphere that feeds its aesthetic.

That may seem obvious, but Ann Arbor has a rhythm of its own based on a new crop of freshmen every September and a latent native talent pool of musically, artistically and culturally literate twentysomethings seeking a platform from which to ply their musical notions.

Ghostly has become a home for these artists and a natural citizen of a city that’s full of folks searching for new identities.

It was natural that Ghostly found its first audience right at home. A semiregular residency at Ann Arbor nightclub Necto found members of the label’s roster — and, indeed, Valenti himself — spinning aural manifestos to a casually captive audience.

Indeed, part of the Ghostly mission, according to Valenti, is to evangelize the unique sound of the Midwest.

“The Midwest creates unique artists,” says Valenti. “I really think that there’s something about the relative isolation — even though Ann Arbor and Detroit aren’t really in the middle of nowhere, per se — that allows artists to follow their own personal vision. It helps them stay true to what they believe in about their art. And if Ghostly can help them get that out there and package it appropriately, then that’s our goal.”

As one reviewer noted when Ghostly’s Idol Tryouts tour (a sort of label revue) rolled through San Francisco: “Bringing out their idm/electro/indie sound for the SF leg of their Idol Tryouts tour, Ghostly artists Dabrye, Matthew Dear, and Dykehouse will have you believing they wrote the book on meshing abstract styles with sophistication.”

It’s that kind of confidence in craft that has helped Ghostly separate itself from the pack of labels peddling beats, bleats and lifestyle music.

According to Lavell Williams, manager of electronic music retail landmark Record Time, Ghostly is doing something right: “They’re young, but they’re doing a good job making themselves stand out and be original as possible in the genres they work in.”

For all its success, Ghostly has had precious few complaints lodged against it in this often backbiting scene. The only one you’ll hear on the wind is this: For good or ill, the label is guilty of using the language and tools of marketing as part of the aesthetic of marketing itself; which, in and of itself, is kind of an ironic turn. The label is in a sense making fun of itself. Still, as much as Valenti is writing his own chapter in Detroit’s dance music book, Ghostly is appropriating the aesthetics of black, gay, underground dance club culture and selling it to a largely straight, white college audience.

That the releases have all been made by twentysomething white boys isn’t reason enough in itself to dismiss the label as a precious clique, though. But it is understandable that, given Ghostly’s rise to prominence during this boom time for electronic music, culture watchers might assume Valenti and company to be bandwagoneers — rich kids with the time and resources to create an insulated art project for themselves and their friends.

That argument would hold more water if Valenti didn’t have the business acumen to have seen past the current wave of electro popularity. He has a five-year-plan for growing Ghostly while most folks his age are still wrapping up the five-year plan that ends with pomp and circumstance, a diploma and a swift kick into the real world.

“People ask, ‘Are you a Detroit label?’ I say ‘No, but …’ I grew up on Detroit radio, on ghetto-tech and techno, going to Record Time. It’s very much how I view [being from the Midwest] as kind of removed and taking in the whole culture. We’re not a scenester label.”

Perhaps Valenti had it all mapped out from the start. From its beginning in his London dorm room, Ghostly International found its way home only to be spread to the rest of the world.

Are Ghostly International and Sam Valenti IV successful? It depends upon why you’re asking.

“In terms of sales, they do better than most Detroit labels — and they are popular among the DJs too,” says Williams.

Williams says his store moves as many units of Ghostly recordings as many of the major independent record labels. In this arena, sales of 1 to 5,000 units constitute a success. For some perspective, Tadd Mullinix’s newest CD was a limited edition of 2,000. Ghostly was sold out based on pre-sales before the record even hit the street. Mullinix now has a solid fan base in Japan.

So, while Ghostly may not be challenging the majors, the picture the evidence paints is rosy for the company. And, according to Valenti, the label is breaking even — a goal that he met earlier than expected.

“Most records, especially the 12-inches, sell more than the one before it — which is good,” Valenti notes.

“I think it’s just because we are releasing records in a way unlike other European labels and also that we have a stateside perspective which is refreshing, I am sure, in comparison to a saturated electronic market over there.”

Last week, Ghostly International released a handful of 12-inches by Dear and Dabrye, and Mullinix’s disturbingly good new EP. That they hew to the Ghostly edict of well-made product in the service of well-made art is no surprise. The only uncertainty for Ghostly, Sam Valenti and crew is how far they can spread their gospel.

By all accounts, the Ghostly crew is young enough, smart enough and well-aware of how aware one must stay to keep up in the music business.

The roster is rapidly outgrowing local label status (without losing its hometown flavor).

“Berlin and other cities in Germany are very big markets for us … England is picking up and we are working on Japan for next year,” says Valenti.

So long as Ghostly’s reach doesn’t exceed its grasp and Valenti keeps his cerebral-cocksure wits about him, you’re likely to hear about the label around the block and around the globe.

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]