Matt Sullivan of Light in the Attic Records Shines a Light on Releases, New and Old

Jake Uitti
photo by Hilary Staff

Matt Sullivan founded his company, Light In The Attic Records, in 2002 in Seattle. Since then, he’s rereleased unknown, under-appreciated, and utterly fantastic music — like that of The Last Poets, Digable Planets, and countless others. Light in the Attic, which started in Fremont but now has offices in L.A., was also responsible for reissuing the music of famed rock ‘n’ roll artist, Sixto Rodriguez, the star in the now infamous film, Searching for Sugar Man. And this year, Light in the Attic has another great catalog of music they’re releasing into the world. As a result, we wanted to catch up with Sullivan to get a sense of what it takes to reissue an album, how his experiences have shaped his appreciation of music, and why he likes to bring sounds back to life. 

How has your appreciation of music changed over the last 20 years?

Getting older and having kids, combined with the media oversaturation we all experience, I think I have more of an appreciation for the quiet times I get with music. I really like the vinyl experience, it’s something that asks for your attention. I have a lot of love for the album format these days, too. 

Why do you like to bring sounds and old recordings back to life?

Being a music lover is a constant journey. All of us at Light In The Attic love music and we love the discovery aspect of it. Your tastes are always changing and evolving, so finding new bands to love, regardless of era or genre, is very exciting. I’ve always been a sucker for rooting for the underdog whenever and wherever it might be. So, I think I have a love for these old recordings and the artists who didn’t get their due. It’s human nature — our attention spans are limited. But there’s something about these records that’s timeless. 

For those that don’t know, what is the process like to put out a reissue?

There are a lot of hoops. There are so many elements to it but the key ones have to do with licensing. But even before that, finding something that we are all very passionate about, that we think we can get back out into the world in a meaningful way, takes time. Once we find a project that we’re excited about — and that often comes from our great network of friends and contacts in the music world — the next big challenge is licensing, which could take a day or 10 years to figure out. You could be trying to work with a record label in, say, South Korea or Brazil that’s now defunct. Or the artist could own the rights and he or she is a little hesitant because they don’t know us at all. Lots of times we’re coming into something that’s 30, 40 or 50 years old and you knock on someone’s door and they say, “Where have you been for the last 50 years?” Or they might not want to revisit the project and pull those ghosts out of the closet again. But most of the time, people come around. It’s about being patient with them — a big part of why we’re still in the business is our patience and our persistence. 

Does the reaction you get from people around your releases ever surprise you?

Sometimes we’re really excited about something and the response is, like, crickets. And then 10 years later, maybe Kanye West decides he wants to license a song from that record to put in one of his songs. It’s always really hard to know, it can be so hit and miss. But all of these projects are interesting journeys. We’ve put out almost 250 releases in 16 years and they never go as you think. We’re lucky with what we do, though, because there’s a core community of people like us who just love old records. And bless their souls.  

Is there a life lesson you hold dear that one of your records taught you?

I can definitely think of things people have said over the years — like, Rodriguez would always say, “Live below your means.” I always thought that was a really great quote. But, more broadly, a lot of the music we’re releasing, most of the things we’re reissuing were financial failures back in the day. So with each one, you realize the sacrifices the individuals went through to record these records. You really had to believe in yourself and believe in something and work your ass off to get a record out. It’s inspiring to see what they went through to get their work out there. Because it ain’t easy.

Speaking of Rodriguez, what was the craziest part of the Searching for Sugar Man story from your perspective?

Well, the craziest part was seeing that whole thing blow up. It was mind-boggling. For Rodriguez, it was hard to even fathom. But from our perspective, we started trying to do those reissues in ’04-05. And we finally got the licensing in ’06-07 and the records came out in ’08-09. The movie was 2012. So we were really proud of those records before everything started to happen. With the help of his daughter, we booked shows for him all over the country — like, opening for Animal Collective in Chicago around 2010, which was a big deal for us. Then just seeing the masterpiece of the film and the director one night, as we were all drinking in a bar by our offices, win an Oscar. 

In a sentence or two, can you tell me why you wanted to put out The Golden Record? (Ed. note: a 2CD/3LP set featuring content around the 1977 NASA launches of Voyager 1 and 2.)

Well, that’s just something we distribute. But we were fortunate that record company got a hold of us to ask if we’d like to distribute it to independent record stores around the globe. And we were ecstatic — that’s one of the greatest reissues of all time.  

Digable Planets?

What can I say? Those records are two classic masterpieces of modern music, hip-hop, everything. I just love those albums lyrically and musically. They’re totally timeless. I think Ishmael Butler is one of the modern marvels of music. He’s had an incredible career and continues to push the envelope.

The Last Poets?

Our first two releases were albums by The Last Poets. It was sad to see [group member Jalal Mansur Nuriddin] pass - and that was just the other day. Those records are some of the cornerstones of music or hip-hop. The Last Poets were a pinnacle piece of art, especially in hip-hop history. Hip-hop may not be hip-hop without them. 

Is there something you wish people understood better about vinyl?

It’s a long and detailed and frustrating process to put vinyl records into the world if you’re trying to do it right. Vinyls are an imperfect medium and I think that’s something great about them. They’re natural. Sometimes people buy a record and take it home and they’re confused why it doesn’t sound like their YouTube stream. Making a record takes a long time; it’s not something you can do quickly. And we always try to find the best audio source, even though that can be tricky. And when we give them to our mastering engineers, they can take, like, 10 hours on each song. 

What comes to mind when I say the words, “timeless music”?

A bunch of artists come to mind. Like Nirvana, Fela Kuti, the Sex Pistols, Fred Neil, John Coltrane. People that you listen to that you think, if the world is still here in a thousand years, those records will still be playing. Brilliant minds. It’s cliché, but some music really does cross over all boundaries. 

How is Light in the Attic evolving?

Our core, which is trying to get these sounds and records back in the world, won’t change. But as we evolve, we are going to push more heavily on trying to get more involved in — we love vinyl and we will continue to always do vinyl as long as people will listen to it, but for us, the discovery of music is what we’re all about. As we evolve, digital music is more of a significant platform in how people experience music. So, that’s becoming more of a part of our business, finding creative ways to get people to lend an ear and give time to something. And our relationship with brick and mortar stores continues to be important to us, so that continues to grow. And finally, we expanded our licensing staff to work to place our songs in film and television. A lot of people are using shows as a discovery tool for music in the same way people listen to great radio stations like KEXP. 

You can check out more of Light in the Attic's catalog on their website, here. The Light in the Attic Record Shop is located in the KEXP Gathering Space and is open from Tuesday through Saturday, 10 AM to 6 PM and on Sunday, 11 AM to 6 PM.

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