For exactly a decade now, Seattle- and Los Angeles-based record label Light in the Attic has specialized in a particular kind of music geek’s dream come true. The imprint, founded by Matt Sullivan, signs the occasional new artist, but that’s far from its focus. Instead, Sullivan and his team excavate old, forgotten vintage nuggets that, more often enough, went unnoticed flops in their time.
Light in the Attic then lovingly reissues these unsung gems, complete with remastered tapes, limited-edition cover art and packaging (for the physical releases), and new liner notes, often with updated commentary from the artists themselves. There aren’t any stylistic rules, either. A release could be soul, funk, rock, folk, jazz, or whatever, but something all the records hold in common is a particular quality of sounding before their time.
The result, when the label particularly strikes gold, is a newfound appreciation for a genius who never got proper due the first time around. Case in point: Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, a Mexican-American folk singer from Detroit whose albums met poor reviews and low sales when they were first released in the early ’70s. Light in the Attic reissued 1970′s Cold Fact in 2008, and 1971′s Coming From Reality the following year. The rereleases sparked a renewed interest in Rodriguez, culminating in the national release this month of the biographical documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Now, Sullivan is working with its distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, to put out the film’s official soundtrack.
Sullivan says he holds out similar hopes for an upcoming label release by a forgotten (or, more accurately, never known) teen brother duo, Donnie and Joe, from late-’70s eastern Washington state. “They were from a little, tiny town of about 50 people, and their dad literally built them a studio on their 16-acre farm. They knew nothing about the music business, but they were passionate, so the dad said he would build it,” Sullivan says. “He built them a log cabin and spent $100,000 in 1978 for this record. They bought the finest amplifiers and mixing console and everything imaginable.”
The self-released finished product, unsurprisingly, went nowhere, without even proper distribution in record stores in Seattle. Thanks to a few lingering thrift store copies, the record slowly became a small cult hit among deep crate-diggers for its preternatural sound. “It sounds like kind of yacht rock, late ’70s, early ’80s California music, but also with soul,” Sullivan says.
Donnie and Joe found an influential fan in Ariel Pink, who covered their song “Baby” and is making his version the lead single from his own forthcoming album. Dam-Funk has spun his own Donnie and Joe cover as well, and it’s all leading up to great marketing for the Light in the Attic reissue of the album, due out next Tuesday, June 26.
This kind of willful, passionate devotion to obscurity has, in many ways, girded the label against much of the music industry’s decline. The Light in the Attic audience is a true music-loving one, one that cherishes the work put into digging up and then bringing to market these dusty nuggets.
“The illegal downloading thing is inevitable for the reissue world as well. But with the records we’re doing, and how they’re produced, we try to do them in a way that gives somebody a reason to not feel that they’re disposable,” says Sullivan. “Our catalog is available on all the digital stores, and we do sell through there, but it’s not as big as the physical world for us. When people want to hear Donnie and Joe or Sixto Rodriguez, they’re more into the old-school sound and experience of it.”
In fact, another journey into forgotten music, a super-secret Light in the Attic anniversary project, brings Sullivan and company to South Florida this weekend. Despite every local music nerd’s desperate need to know which local unsung great Light in the Attic might be working with, Sullivan insists on keeping mum for now while the project is still in the works.
Nevertheless, fans can head out to Radio-Active Records in Fort Lauderdale this Saturday afternoon, June 23 when Sullivan and project manager Patrick McCarthy, a Florida native, take the decks for a DJ set at the shop. Local act ADNA also performs as part of the event.
“I’m excited because I’ve never been to Florida,” Sullivan says. “Radio-Active has this Instagram page where they constantly post photos of people buying records. I love following that thing every day and seeing what people buy. It seems like a really good store, so I’m excited to buy some records.”
Light in the Attic DJ Set. With ADNA, featuring Timothy Gordon Hicks. 3 p.m. Saturday, June 23 at Radio-Active Records, 845 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Admission is free. Call 954-762-9488, or visit radio-active-records.com.