Sonic Sanctuaries: At Home With Sargent House

With Russian Circles coming for the third time to our side of the dirt, we couldn’t help but notice the very firm relationship our own KittyWu Records have with Sargent House, the record label responsible behind so many brilliant music outfits, including the post-metal trio as well. With a little help from KittyWu and Incursive productions, we've had the pleasure of having our face melted and minds shattered watching Deafheaven, And So I Watch You From Afar live this year, not to mention catching the mighty Russian Circles twice, back in 2010 and 2012. In all the aforementioned gigs, the Sargent House artistes have unquestionably and consistently proven that they're among the finest in their respective genres, and put up helluva outstanding live shows while at it too. 

So just how did Sargent House ascended to the echelons of worldwide prominence as one of the most successful independent labels around, representing all our favourite independent bands? The Sargent House origin story is an intriguing one, with one enterprising individual at the centre of it all: Cathy Pellow. Before a stint at Atlantic records as a freelance music video commissioner, she had formed her own music video production company Refused TV producing videos for the likes of Paramore, Fall Out Boy, Train and most notably Cee Lo Green's "F*ck You" - and that's where she formed relationships with the bands that would eventually make it into her label roster. 

The progressive rock outfit Rx Bandits played a huge part in the formation of the Sargent House entity. Back in 2006 when the Bandits felt strongly about leaving their label Drive Thru Records, it was Cathy who took it upon herself to help them out of their rut by becoming their manager. Hence Sargent House was borne initially as an artiste management company, but over the years it eventually evolved into something bigger and all-encompassing - management, publicity, record label and more - that actually didn't compromise the creative facet of the artistes themselves. 

Now label alumnus, back in 2006 Rx Bandits found themselves in the most rewarding position in the Sargent House sanctuary with the release of …And The Battle Begun, which was distributed and printed by Cathy herself - all at their own terms. And it is this partnership that defines the Sargent House frame of mind. "We are partners with our bands, sharing the same unified goal, which is to retain the integrity of the music and to grow and develop them so that they will be able to support themselves as musicians," she asserts.

Since formation, Sargent House has become a home for alternative rock's left-field side of the spectrum, featuring bands like psyched-out math-rock band Tera Melos and the nasal (but talented) singer and songwriter, Dave Davison, of Maps and Atlases and Cast Spells. Cathy herself has instituted a “no submissions” policy, preferring to leave the discovery of future signings either to the live show, or to recommendations by friends and artists already on her label. This comes as no surprise, judging by the 40 odd bands on her label - a good portion of which are made up of side projects and supergroups formed by musicians already signed to Sargent House. 

There's no one fixed genre that the label specializes in, but what they share all share in common is utmost musicality - more often than not the acts exude a huge level of technical abilities in their music (TTNG and their complex guitar riffs, Adebisi Shank and their lunatic time-signatures, Zorch and their math-rock infused electronica), or they are adept at creating atmosphere (Chelsea Wolfe and her distinctly bleak melodies, Marriages and their gorgeously hazy tunes), or both. 

The acts that the label champions are also renowned to be the best at their game, as proven by their fiercely loyal following and respectable attendance at shows. Cathy Pellow has, in an interview, stated that bands on her roster are “genuinely my favourite bands", and "bands that other bands love". So yes, we can definitely trust her better judgement. 

Another notable Sargent House release was Russian Circles’ Empros. As the post-metal trio's first album on the label, Empros got a lot of attention, with Sargent House’s own press release promising it to be their “heaviest album to date,” with “all the visceral intensity of Godflesh, Swans and Neurosis.” Having recently clocked in with their latest album (the majestic Memorial), Russian Circles has established itself as a stalwart symbol of the label's success, having played well over 30 dates across the US and Australia, and an Asian tour planned this season. For a label just under ten years old, Sargent House’s presence has expanded at an unbelievable rate.

As a record label themselves, Sargent House may not produce the most profitable acts but they instead present a carefully-curated selection of musicians that run across the rock gamut. But what’s most important is the relationship between the label and its musicians. Being consistently active on Twitter and Instagram, Cathy constantly promotes her artists without being overbearing, while also being unashamedly affectionate towards them; almost like a proud mother. Here’s someone who invests a lot in these artists who mainly appeal to a niche crowd. She’s not running her label because she thinks these musicians will earn her the big bucks. She does it because she truly believes in their music, and it’s difficult not to respect that. 

But of course, she’s not oblivious - she knows how the business works. She didn’t get to thrive in the industry by being a starry-eyed idealist. That’s where her genius comes in. Being a company that simultaneously deals with releasing albums, managing artists and publicizing them, Sargent House has been able to retain complete control of their artists but only to allow them to grow creatively. It’s hard enough managing artists but to Cathy it’s the best way to avoid any potential conflict while first and foremost looking out for the artist’s interests. She also understands the fanbases of each of her bands; fanbases which often overlap with those of her other bands. She caters towards these fans with constant up-to-date tweets of their newest releases, specially-tailored tour lineups and even organizing collaboration between her artists (Bosnian Rainbows is a prime example). Adding on to the label’s unwillingness to behave like a traditional business, their entire catalogue is available on Bandcamp for unlimited free streaming. Despite being in a competitive industry, they maintain strong working relationships with numerous labels worldwide; labels that include Japan’s Daymare Recordings and Singapore’s own KittyWu Records.

Truth is, running a record label in itself is a tough, tough job. You don’t need to run one to know. Many record labels are now struggling to survive in an age where an increasing amount of bands, especially established acts, have shunned away external help to form their own imprint in order to regain creative control over their works. Sargent House learned from the mistakes of many labels by being self-reliant and since have become currently one of the biggest underground rock labels in the world. With a keen ear for talent, a stubbornly progressive business ethic and a big heart for both artists and fans, Sargent House is the record label forward-thinking rock music needs, and one that we deserve. 

Words by Ilyas Sholihyn, Tim Wong and Daniel Peters

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