Not long ago, Little Rock-native Matt Werth, founder and proprietor of an unusual record label called RVNG Intl., was in Los Angeles trying to remember how to drive. "One second," he said, while I waited on the other end of the line. "OK, I'm changing lanes. Fuck." Our conversation was punctuated by nervous outbursts and GPS directions from his phone, though he wouldn't tell me where he was going. He'd say only that he was tracking down a forgotten recording artist from the 1960s or '70s, that it was a woman and that her music has "profoundly impacted" him. He had a bit of a drive ahead and could talk, he said, as "it takes hours to get anywhere here."
Werth spends most of his time in New York, where he runs RVNG and also manages another label, Software, which was started by Daniel Lopatin (who records music under the name Oneohtrix Point Never), but he spends about one out of every six weeks traveling on business. For Werth, this could mean anything from pursuing obscure musicians around the world, to organizing art events and dance festivals in Berkeley, London or Asheville, to filling in on bass for the seminal reggae band The Congos. "Generally, everything is busy," he said. "How are things in Arkansas?"
The RVNG roster, a direct reflection of Werth's expansive taste and interests, has included insular noise musicians and mutant-dance DJs and avant-garde composers like Julia Holter and Holly Herndon (a doctoral candidate at Stanford). There is a compilation of early '80s synthesizer music called the "Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1," an album featuring electric-zither virtuoso and onetime Brian Eno collaborator Laraaji and, especially close to Werth's heart, the new record by The Body, an altered-states metal band originally based in Little Rock. In a blog post for The Fader, Sam Hockley-Smith wrote that the label "specializes in music that is basically the sonic equivalent of taking heavy psychedelics inside a fancy museum." When I asked Werth about this quote, he laughs and said, "I relate very much to that activity."
Telling the story of his life, which is what he was doing on the phone as he drove around L.A. looking for the forgotten woman he declined to name, Werth spoke of moments of "drastic cultural immersion," ruptures in his understanding of musical possibility that opened the door for new spaces, new phases and new sounds. The first of these moments, he said, occurred one night in Little Rock in 1992, when he got a ride to Vino's in his friend Dave's mom's mini-van.
The band they were going to see that night was Econochrist, the hardcore punk group that had formed in Little Rock before migrating to the Bay Area, and were sharing a bill with Paxston Quiggly and Grimple. They covered Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge" and especially impressed Werth and his friend precisely because they were local. The show was crowded and quick. "It was like walking into a different world," Werth said, "a very appealing, genuinely alternative world. This culture I'd only experienced before through media."
Within weeks, Werth, who was still a freshman at Catholic High School, was making cut-and-paste Xerox zines, starting bands of his own with names like Otherwise and William Martyr 17 and playing illicit shows in the pavilions at Riverfront Park. He calls the city's punk rock culture at the time "incredible vivid."
"There was this generation before ours' that had cultivated this really amazing, fertile D.I.Y. scene. So it was actually quite an environment to walk into. I had the very fortunate privilege to not have to totally innovate something."