Words by Rafe Arnott, photographs courtesy of Forager Records. CommonWave Hi-fi supports storytelling on Resistor Mag.
While some who see themselves as serious music collectors may hold the compilation album in low esteem, its value should never be underestimated. Often a compilation album’s true worth lies in its ability to bring difficult-to-find music to a wider audience. Lest there be confusion, I’m not talking about a Greatest Hits LP, or singles collection (think Standing on a Beach by The Cure), no, instead consider Chicago-based reissue label Numero Group and their Personal Space, Electronic Soul 1974-1984, which uncovers a galaxy of unheard, underground and mostly self -produced experimental and at times vestigial soul-based electronica. Or Time Capsule Records and its Island Sounds From Japan 2009-2016 which features artists “who refuse to be bound by genre,” and fuses Afrobeat, reggae, Jazz and psych with a tropical flavour. Or the compilation LP which led me to Forager Records: Belong To The Wind. The SoCal label’s 2021 debut release is chock-a-block with lo-fi ‘70s loner Americana folk/soul fusion, all culled from unobtanium 45s that range from one-take rough cuts to a touch of studio polish, while remaining honest, accessible and relentlessly musical.
Albums like those listed, unlike an algorithm, are curated by real human beings with an obsessive desire to share music. Music that was often pressed in runs of less than 300 copies, or never had lacquers cut at all, and stayed on tape (or cassette) because of the prohibitive cost of producing an album in the pre-digital age. Albums whose physical existence take time to track down, as many were lost to the ether. A master tape, LP or 45 almost impossible to come by, the only proof of a recording perhaps a bootleg cassette recorded at a honky tonk, bar or theatre. And in the digital age we live in, where one assumes everything is available, these rare-groove comps prove even more valuable as so many of these small label’s picks for inclusion on their releases were never available digitally, so how would one even be able to hear these artists without the work and dedication of these music hunters? You wouldn’t. It’s the expertise of these detective musicologists and their desire to share the lost treasure of decades past unearthed from swap meets, estate sales, dusty basements, and the tightly interconnected scene of information shared by hardcore record collectors. Collectors like Forager Records boss Matthew Bruce who decided he wanted to further explore the stories behind unknown records he was finding through crate digging in Southern California, “I wanted to take it further by getting in touch with the artists and officially licensing the music to share it with a larger audience.”
The following is a lightly-edited excerpt of a recent email conversation with Matthew Bruce.
Resistor Mag: Who is Matthew Bruce, and what is his relationship to music?
Matthew Bruce: “Northern California boy turned Los Angeles transplant by way of Brooklyn. I have a background in graphic design and a serious record collecting habit.”
Resistor Mag: Did you grow up with music as part of your childhood?
Matthew Bruce: “It wasn’t in my family but I did take an interest in playing musical instruments in middle school. I learned to play electric bass in the school jazz band. From there I dabbled with guitar, but nothing really stuck. I was always glued to my Discman and constantly on the hunt for new or interesting music.”
Resistor Mag: Did you ever think music would be a central pillar of your adult life, your career?
Matthew Bruce: “Not at all. I wanted to be a designer of some kind which actually ties in heavily with running the label. Branding and creative direction are extremely important aspects.”
Resistor Mag: You’re a self-described “connoisseur of ‘downer folk,’ why does this genre hold such appeal for you?
Matthew Bruce: “It’s a relatively new obsession for me that really snowballed over the past few years. I’ve always been an emotional and somewhat moody person, so when I started dropping the needle on some of these folk 45s it just clicked. The measure of good art is based on the level of any emotion it can evoke within someone. I guess I just relate to, and feel sadness in music the most.”
Photo above: The debut release from Forager Records: Belong To The Wind. Currently sold out...
Resistor Mag: Could you describe your record collection? Size? When did you start, and can you recall the first album you bought?
Matthew Bruce: “Currently about 1,000 records or so with the majority being 45s. I started collecting records about 12 years ago. I found a ‘70s Pioneer turntable, receiver, and Altec speakers for $20 at an estate sale and became fascinated with vintage audio. I can’t recall the very first record I purchased, but the first record I remember buying that gave me that life changing analog experience was a copy of Ronnie Laws – Fever, I stumbled on at a Goodwill. The amount of detail I could hear, and the warmth I felt listening to that record through that system was unforgettable.”
Resistor Mag: What made you start Forager Records?
Matthew Bruce: “I had been running a YouTube channel called Crates LA for a few years where I uploaded rips of rare and unknown records. After a while I wanted something more out of the experience. I was finding the record, uploading it, and either putting in my collection or selling it. I wanted to take it further by getting in touch with the artists and officially licensing the music to share it with a larger audience. I had been stewing on the idea for a year or so when I met my business partner, Sam Hirschfelder, who has some serious audio engineering skills. I mentioned the idea to him and he was into it, so we got to work right as the pandemic lockdown happened in March of 2020. I also love the archival aspect of a reissue label. Tracking down master tapes, or the last remaining copy of a record, allows us to digitize, restore, and remaster the music. This is important because if the last copy ends up in a landfill before there’s a digitized file, that music is going to be gone forever.”
“The music industry of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s was incredibly political and prohibited a ton of music from garnering the attention it may have deserved."
–Matthew Bruce, Forager Records
Photo above: Up next from Forager Records: Roberta Vandervort & Sally Townes - Self Titled Vinyl LP (Click image for link to Preorder).
Resistor Mag: Forager Records is described as “… [a] record label, committed to unearthing and breathing new life into rare and under appreciated sounds from the past.” Could you explain the reasons behind this focus, and what this production process entails? It sounds like a complex proposition.
Matthew Bruce: “The music industry of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s was incredibly political and prohibited a ton of music from garnering the attention it may have deserved. If you didn’t get radio play or a hit single, then that was it. So much has changed since the advent of the Internet. It’s levelled the playing field quite a bit. So now we get to give these artists and their music another shot. Sam and I were blown away and extremely humbled by the response to our first release Belong To The Wind. There is a niche, but extremely passionate community of people interested in these overlooked gems of the past and we are honoured to be a part of it. The goal is to transcend the niche market and stigma of the “reissue label” and reach more of a mainstream audience because good music is objectively good music. It should not matter when, where, or how it was created.”
Resistor Mag: As mentioned, Forager’s first release was a compilation of psychedelic folk, cosmic soul and other 45 rarities titled Belong to the Wind. Because of the many artists involved, and the time lapsed since the releases, how difficult was it pull this LP together?
Matthew Bruce: “Sam and I worked on Belong To The Wind for an entire year. It definitely kept us busy during the pandemic. It took us quite a bit longer than it should have. Essentially the record was our crash course on starting a reissue record label. We had to learn and teach ourselves how to navigate the entire process. Honestly, I think it was easier to get in touch with these artists during the pandemic because people had to be at home. I was shocked by the amount of people who actually picked up the phone and had time to speak with me about their music. Most people are really cool and love the idea of their music being re-released, but some people are very standoffish or skeptical thinking it’s some sort of scam. When working on compilation projects like this you have to cast a large net in terms of songs you would be willing to include. I had picked 40 to 50 songs that could have fit on Belong To The Wind. I was only able to get in touch with 15 to 20 of those artists, and ended up only signing the 10 songs that made it on the LP. Our new compilation projects are happening much, much quicker since we have ironed out the process.”
Resistor Mag: Does Forager do its own mastering/lacquer cutting? Are original analogue tapes used to master from, or is digital in the mastering chain out of necessity?
Matthew Bruce: “Up until recently Sam had been doing all the remastering in house. Our records are pressed at GZ in the Czech Republic and they use a DMM process. We always try and source original master tapes, but most times they are long gone and we have to use a copy of the original record. I have even heard of bands renting two-inch master tape from the studios because it was too expensive to buy outright. Since we have to use vinyl as a master source, most of it requires restoration which needs to be done digitally. Most of the tapes we have used even needed some sort of restoration. I would love to use an analog-only chain for an upcoming project, but the planets would need to align perfectly.”
Resistor Mag: How influential a role do you think the compilation LP plays in the discovery of new music? I ask because comps can allow access to artists and genres which were denied further recognition due to scarcity of physical copies from a pre-digital era.
Matthew Bruce: “One of the biggest allures of record collecting for me is the exploration of music. The further we are pushed into the digital age the harder it is to navigate the vast expanse of music that’s out there. If I go to a record store I am limited to digging through whatever lies within those walls. It narrows it down for you, and the music isn’t pushed on you by some algorithm or based on what your friends are streaming. It’s more work physically flipping through and scanning the credits of record sleeves, but it’s much more rewarding. A compilation is an incredible thing because it’s thousands of hours of digging through records, restored and remastered audio, and new artwork neatly wrapped with a bow. It’s a sort of gateway into serious record digging. It showcases what kind of rare, unknown, or obscure music is out there. It might convince someone to go spend hours in a dingy basement digging through moldy records.”
Resistor Mag: How important is an analogue signal path to you?
Matthew Bruce: “It’s important if I am doing some active listening, but I don’t have a problem throwing Spotify on my TV while I am cooking or doing some work. That’s what’s great about records is that they force you to pay more attention to the music. That’s why I was thrilled to be a part of the deep listening sessions that In Sheep’s Clothing held at Neuehouse.
Resistor Mag: Can you discuss upcoming LP projects Forager is working on?
Matthew Bruce: “We currently have four new projects in the works, but due to manufacturing delays they won’t be out till next year. Our next release, FOR-LP004, is album-oriented rock, soft rock, psych folk and it’s complete torture that we cannot share it with everyone just yet.”
Resistor Mag: I’ve heard you’re into high fidelity, as in you’ve got a curated sound system. What’s your current hi-fi comprised of?
Matthew Bruce: “I appreciate a great hi-fi system but I don’t think I have the ears to be a true aficionado. My system for listening at home is a Technics-SL1200 MK2 with a Shure M97xe cart and Jico NeoSas R stylus. I have a Teac A-H500 integrated amplifier which is a well-built little gem from the ‘90s that features an incredibly quiet phono stage and powers some Martin Logan Motion 15 bookshelf speakers. It gets the job done in my apartment.”
Resistor Mag: Matthew Bruce takes time out of his busy schedule to share five albums he currently has in heavy rotation for personal listening.Matthew Bruce: