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."
He remembers reading an article in those days about Burt Taggart, the slightly older, teenaged entrepreneur and scene mainstay who had started a record store in high school, and who, Werth said, "is and will always remain an incredible influence on me" (Taggart is now a partner in a local architectural firm, as well as the front man for The Big Cats and the founder of Max Recordings). The article focused on the novelty of Taggart's youth coupled with his enterprising dedication to the burgeoning music community. "For me," Werth said, "it was cool to think about the possibility of validation through punk rock."
Talking to Werth about these years, it's easy to admire his boldness, his sense of conviction that he belonged, obviously, to this culture and that the culture had value that extended far beyond a few Little Rock concerts. It was, he said, "an ethics," and he insisted on participating, going so far as to list his parents' address in a punk magazine as a spot for free room and board for touring bands passing through. His family was patient. In a post on the website for the documentary "Towncraft," which concentrates on the city's punk scene, Werth's father, Jay, remembers, "We may have been the only address in Little Rock that had a different well-used van parked at the front entrance every week."
Werth's commitment didn't go unnoticed by the scene's older generation, and when Mark Dober, then running the local record label File 13, left town to go on tour, he asked Werth to take over while he was gone. The label had been started in 1989 as a way to document and distribute the increasingly vast and vivid network of Little Rock bands, and was passed down to successive generations as a kind of rite of passage. Werth threw himself into the role eagerly, and when Dober returned, he asked him to stay on permanently. From the age of 16 through the end of high school, Werth ran the label out of his childhood bedroom.
"It taught me everything I know now," he said. "It was a complete education in the fundamentals of not only putting out vinyl, but also establishing an identity, an aesthetic and a written and stylistic voice. File 13 had this very strong aesthetic when it was handed over to me, so I had to learn that inside out — learn how to speak the language of the label. And that has directly applied to the way I run RVNG. It's about a distinct voice."
The transition from File 13 to RVNG, from a local punk outlet to an internationally renowned sonic free-for-all, came as a result of Werth's next great "cultural immersion," which arrived when he left Little Rock to go to college in Philadelphia.
"By virtue of being in a larger, Northeastern city, there was a little bit more of a flux of music, a larger spectrum," he said. "There were record stores that offered a different kind of selection sensibility. There were just more people, and they were listening to more music." It was here that he discovered and fell in love with electronic music, a shift in his musical outlook that he calls a "realization that there were even more alternatives."
He started RVNG there in the early 2000s, initially as a mix series designed as a calling card for a series of parties called "Making Time" that he helped throw with the local promoter Dave Pianka. "I loved the party aspect of it," he said. "It was a lot of fun for me, but I was missing the tactile aspect, the nuts and bolts of putting together and releasing a record. There was a void there from File 13, which wasn't a part of my daily ritual anymore. It felt like a calling, a needed shot in the arm to get back into this stuff." When he moved to New York in 2002, he continued the mix series, by then called RVNG of the NRDS, and began releasing full-length LPs as well, mostly by friends and acquaintances early on, like Philly duo Pink Skull.
I asked him to describe the sound of the label and he said, "Honestly, I'll take whatever. It's open to interpretation, and it's about the personal experience. I don't mind genres or parameters; I like that conversation and think it helps. But I try to keep it really abstract, to be honest, because I'm not so sure. I'm not trying to be clever, but if we're going to deal in stratification I don't want to be the one creating those parameters. So I go with things like 'fried' or 'melted' or 'fucked up.' I know that's a cop-out."
Though the RVNG catalogue has extended well beyond his web of friends, he still prefers to work with artists he has some personal relationship with, an approach that has led most recently to his reunion with Lee Buford and Chip King of The Body, two friends of his from his days in the Little Rock punk scene. "We've kept in touch and seen each other sporadically through the years," Werth said, "but as you get older and you're geographically displaced, you don't necessarily see your friends as much as you'd like."
The group's new record, "I Shall Die Here," came out of Werth's idea that the duo should collaborate with the British producer and musician Bobby Krlic, better known as The Haxan Cloak. It's a dissonant and ambitiously forbidding album. More than almost anything else the label has released, it sounds "fried" and "melted" and "fucked up." "I hadn't seen Chip or Lee in some time," Werth said, "but I've loved their music from afar. So it's super special to be able to drop them a line and ask them to go on a journey."
While the label seems primarily oriented toward these types of forward-thinking projects by younger musicians, Werth is also passionate about paying tribute to older, little-known artists whom he believes have been overlooked or deserve some contemporary reconsideration. This is the impetus behind reissuing strange cult artifacts like "Synthesist," a gorgeous 1980 album by Krautrock percussionist Harald Grosskopf, and also behind FRKWYS, a series of releases featuring intergenerational and often unlikely collaborations.
The most prominent of the FRKWYS records to date involved Werth flying to Jamaica with West Coast experimentalists Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras to work with the iconic reggae group The Congos. "The Congos made one of my favorite albums ever," Werth said, referring to their 1977 classic, "Heart of the Congos." "To work with people that you admire and respect so much, to actually get into the creative process and DNA of those artists, is just so incredible. It's hard not to be awed."
"Walking into it," he said of his time in Jamaica, "I didn't know what we were getting into or where we would end up. I guess I still don't. I don't need to know where it's going, it's important not to have a grid. I like being thrown into situations like that, where you don't know."
Another recent "archival" release was inspired several years ago by a viewing of the 1982 documentary "Land of Look Behind," a portrait of the Rastafarian movement after the death of Bob Marley. Werth liked the film, but loved the soundtrack, became entranced by it and spent years digging for records by and information about its composer, K. Leimer. He eventually tracked down the reclusive artist, who it emerged was from Seattle, and "thus began two years of my life," he says, "putting together this definitive, unheard collection." The album, "A Period of Review: Original Recordings 1975-1983," is set to be released May 13.
"Recognizing the importance of earlier generations of artists, learning from their practices and processes, is pretty important to me," Werth said. "So I don't necessarily approach the reissues as relics. I want to create a stage for them, to bring more interest to their legacy or to inspire and encourage them to interact with a new audience and a new generation."
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked an awkward question that nevertheless seemed obvious: How can you make any money at this? Werth hesitated for a beat before answering: "Just the other day we were going through royalties for the year, and, you know, some projects did better than others. And some projects didn't do so well. You can't totally calculate this stuff. I honestly don't even maneuver it that way, for the sake of business decisions. It's always just something I believe in, and you hope that other people understand or share that belief."
After another pause, he said, "You don't want to get into the practice of dropping bombs, but really nothing is a bomb. Nothing is a failure." Listen to "A Period of Review" and you might understand what he means. No one, or very few people at any rate, asked for a definitive compilation of K. Leimer's music, but now one exists, and it's beautiful. The album isn't necessary, but it has a quiet, minor importance that is unarguable and even poignant.
A few days after our phone call, I emailed Werth with a few follow-up questions and got an automated response. Every time I've emailed him, for that matter, I've received an automated response. He's sorry he can't check his email and he'll be back soon, it says, but for now he's "off the grid." His sign-off is one I've never seen before: "Be light."