For the past six years, Alex Ruder has been carving his own niche by bringing to the forefront a specific brand of brooding, cinematic electronic called Night Bus through his label Hush Hush Records. The beloved Seattle label has released works from celebrated artists such as Cock and Swan, NAVVI, Kid Smpl, DJAO, Hanssen, Shelf Nunny, and many more. Late last month, Hush Hush celebrated their 100th release, HH100, a compilation of Hush Hush artists teaming up to collaborate on new, original songs. On a magically crisp late-summer evening, KEXP sat down with Ruder in a tiny restaurant on Capitol Hill to discuss the evolution of the label, the people and artists who influenced him, and what it takes to run Hush Hush.
KEXP: How has Hush Hush evolved in the past 100 releases, starting from the original Night Bus vibe to now?
Alex Ruder: It started evolving with the Big Spider's Back release, being more up-tempo and trying to think of Hush Hush in a different perspective than from just strictly the Night Bus idea. Which came from talking with my buddy Allen and thinking of it as “Morning Train” rather than Night Bus and that’s what made me more okay with the idea of putting out something that maybe didn’t initially fit the idea of what a Night Bus label would put out. I think once you put out something that goes outside your strict definition it frees you up to think a little more about what else could make sense. Then a lot of it is just following your ear and seeing how the theme might expand to different and sounds. So I think ultimately for a labor of love passion project you wanna be excited about the music. And what you’re excited by changes over time so it’s just seeing where that goes and being okay with that.
Well, it definitely helps that the label is run by one person with one ear.
Exactly, I don’t have to ask if something I hear gives someone else the exact same response.
What genres and sounds do you see Hush Hush evolving towards on the next 100 releases?
(laughs) The next 100!
Oh yeah, 100 more baby! Gotta beat Sub Pop
(laughs) At this pace, I probably will! I think I see myself staying open. Naturally, you don’t want to keep putting the same sound out. Especially since this label is defined more by a feeling than a specific sound or genre, it allows a lot of different sounds to seep in. It’s something that I still feel makes sense.
For instance, there’s an upcoming release from this Chilean artist which is the first one diving into Latin rhythms but it’s a foundation of Latin rhythms infused with a really dreamy, atmospheric, cinematic sound so it’s like “Oh, that works. It’s different but it works.” Then there's an upcoming release from a young UK singer/songwriter that’s kind of atmospheric folk music. A lot of Hush Hush music isn’t vocal-heavy and when it is it’s more dream pop but going more dark, introspective folk is the type of music I’ve been a fan of for a long time.
This year there’s actually been a couple of folk/post-rock releases which were new for the label in a lot of ways. It’s very personal in a way because it’s not money-making music by any means but it’s really beautiful music. There was a collaborative release by Walrus Ghost, this musician in Brooklyn, and this German guitarist, Max Frankl, that was instrumental post-rock, that was a new sound for Hush Hush but it made a lot of sense. And then there's this artist from Portland, his first release came out a couple years ago on Hush Hush that was under the name Hobbess that was instrumental electronic that fit the classic Hush Hush sound. But lately he's been getting more into playing guitar and singing for the first time. He had a good friend pass away in the Ghost Ship fire so he was starting to work on this album of new music that was really different, more introspective folk songs and almost has a post-rock grunge shoegaze vibe. He got really into that after his friend passed away and put it out under a new name called Nuri Orman. For so long, Hush Hush was very electronic heavy but now it’s more about the feeling. So, to answer your question, I think more international sounds and more organic sounds are where Hush Hush is heading but I’m curious to see what crosses my path.
What is your method of finding artists outside of Seattle?
Mostly getting cold-called emails of demos. I listen to everything that gets sent my way unless they’re like a power pop band or country or something completely out of the realm where it’s like “Okay, you clearly didn’t look up what this label is about at all.” But otherwise, I listen to everything.
Do you look for a whole package from an artist or will just like a Bandcamp link suffice?
Mp3s, Google drive, or a private Soundcloud set are the most popular. Sometimes it’s a full album, sometimes it’s just a track but it’s determining whether it works. It’s pretty rare when an artist sends me something and it’s like “Yeah that’s gonna be the release.” It happens but it’s rare. Usually, it’s like three tracks that they send and I’ll be like “Yeah I like these but we need a bigger picture here” because I don’t really like putting out short releases, I feel like everything I put out needs to tell a story. So I’ve never put out just a single by any artist. Like a single could be really good but-
But it doesn’t deserve its own catalog number.
Right, exactly. It needs to be part of something bigger. I need to know that there’s something bigger behind this.
How has Hush Hush impacted the careers of the artists you’ve worked with?
I mean it can definitely give them a bigger platform to reach people who might be able to help them make money from their music. It’s really unpredictable if that really is gonna happen but I do think that it helps to have a platform that isn’t just your own podium. People can self-release music on their own so easily now, which wasn’t always the case, and you can blow up on a self-released track so you don’t need a label to blow up but I do think that putting music out on a label gives you some community, it gives some context. For instance, there was this kid who was a fan of Kid Smpl’s music and he’s a video game developer. So he wanted Kid Smpl to make music for a game he was working on but he was also really into Cock and Swan so he hit up Johnny [of Cock and Swan] to do some instrumental pieces for the game and now Johnny is continuing to work with this local professional game developer. So it’s network and connections. If you work with someone then you’re opening yourself up to the people that that person knows. I think it helps expand your reach.
Does Hush Hush feel like a family?
I suppose, in a very international, very stay-in-our-bedrooms, very admire-each-other-from-afar type of way. We’re all pretty shy.
What’s the most successful release Hush Hush has put out?
Navvi’s Omni has by far been the most successful release so far on the business end but the Cock and Swan albums are the ones that people tend to hold in high reverence.
You obviously have other jobs, do you consider Hush Hush to be a hobby or a job?
There’s the time factor. It does take up time. When you’re starting a label when you’re single it’s one thing but then when you get into a relationship and you’re buying a home, then you have to put Hush Hush to the side sometimes. The whole breaking down how much time things take and how much money we get for that time isn’t why I feel like Hush Hush exists. Hush Hush exists because I wanted to try to use this platform to spotlight new and underground artists who deserve more spotlight. And it’s like any hobby, as long as you enjoy doing it then it’s worth your time. But yeah, financially it’s a hobby. I might make some money here and there but I’m typically breaking even.
You also have this amazing opportunity to create your own world. Where’s it’s like “This is the music that I like.” And people do care. It's easy to downplay it but the thing is that Hush Hush is well regarded and people do care about what you put out.
And so you get the ultimate platform to bring to the world something. You may not get paid in money but you at least get the satisfaction of pride of bringing something to the world they may not have heard without you.
Yeah, there's something to that. My wife does pottery, not as a full-time job, but as a hobby, and she really enjoys it and has even sold some stuff. Hush Hush is kind of like that, where I do think there's something about the act of just creating something that's meaningful. It's a really cool feeling
I honestly feel like when you get into the mindset of like” I've got to start making money,” that it kind of ruins the experience.
Totally. Honestly, it puts so much pressure on it when that's not the point. But it's cool to like be a part of something where you’re working with someone to present something. I've always felt like Hush Hush, more than anything presents music that's kind of its goal. It's cool to work with someone to bring a tape or vinyl release or just even like a cool digital-only thing because there’s artwork, there’s music involved. But yeah you know working together to make that exist in the world.
How much work goes into each release? Breaking it down from the moment you get an artist coming to you. How does that factor into your time schedule?
If I were to break down it's like OK someone sends me six tracks to check out. I’ll listen to those six tracks maybe once maybe twice maybe three times. It varies depending on how much the release is mind blowing but I typically listen to them multiple times. I also want to make sure that I like it after multiple listens. Sometimes something sounds cool at first but then it doesn't really have that lasting power and I feel as a label that typically revolves around a kind of nostalgic, cinematic sound you want to be able to revisit it and still think it sounds interesting. Yeah so listening to the music which you know you can do on a drive to work. Do while doing busy work at home. And then there's just the time of writing a little two or three paragraph press release about the release. I do all of that. Then when the tracks get to a place where we send them to mastering engineer it's sending them to the engineer and he’ll send them back. Listen to them again.
Do you have to go-to person you use for mastering?
Yeah, it’s a guy who used to live in Seattle, he lives in Portland now, named Adam Straney. He runs a mastering company kind of as a side passion project. It’s called BreakPoint Mastering named after his favorite movie Point Break.
Is that the one with Keanu Reeves?
Yep and Patrick Swayze. It’s completely genuine. But yeah I was a fan of the music he was making in a group called The New Law. He hit me up because he knew I was like supporting him through KEXP. He told me he was going to start mastering stuff if I ever needed help and it was just around the time I started Hush Hush. So he mastered the second Hush Hush release and since then he’s been my go-to guy. He's gotten a lot of jobs because people discovered him through Hush Hush releases which is a good feeling. And now he’s done a lot of Sub Pop releases and he’s also kinda Erik Blood’s go-to guy so he’s done Shabazz Palaces and Thee Satisfaction.
Has he changed his rates at all for you?
Yes. I mean he definitely raises rates over the years as he's gotten better. Inflation and all that. I still think I get the veteran discount because I've been with him since the jump but he's still an affordable mastering engineer. More so than some of the mastering professionals that charge like $100 a pop. Mastering is kind of like this weird wizardry that I don't fully understand.
I don’t understand it at all either, I just imagine like it an Instagram filter for music?
Honestly, in a sense, that's the simple version.
But obviously, it's probably far more intricate.
It's like creating the filter instead of using the filter. Like you decide what lights shine through. Yeah, but working with a lot of first-time artists, it's a lot of people that don't know how to make their stuff sound professional. So it's then listening back to those masters and seeing if they’re good, coordinating artwork, emailing people about it. It probably adds up but it's all stuff you can just kind of do whenever.
What is it like going to shows in Seattle being an established label owner and KEXP DJ?
Oh I mean it can be chill. There is a time where I remember going to shows when I was like 21 and just not knowing anybody except my friends and I feel like it was a very special part of my life, being this young 21-year-old kid just being maybe too drunk or just having a good time talking to my friends. And then you go to more shows where they just become social affairs where you have to say hey. Which is wonderful in that you feel like you're part of a community but it takes away from just getting lost in whatever show you want to see.
When did you start at KEXP?
Right out of college. I was about to graduate from UW with a history degree. I knew I could probably go to grad school, because you can't do much with that degree, or I could keep doing radio because I absolutely loved doing college radio. So I applied to be an intern a few weeks before graduating. Got an interview with Rachel Ratner from Wimps when she was at KEXP, she was a volunteer coordinator. So I started DJ assisting on Kevin Cole’s Monday afternoon show after graduation and did that for three years. Assisted on John’s show for a little bit. Started writing reviews for new music that was getting missed. 13 plus years now.
Do you have a mentor or a label you’ve looked up to in the making of Hush Hush?
My buddy Will Creason who used to go by Ill Cosby (he has since changed the name) had a label called Car Crash Set Records. I was a big fan of what he was doing with his label. He was putting out some really cutting edge, forward-thinking club music. He actually put out a Kid Smpl release which is how I discovered Kid Smpl. He was a local DJ producer guy who was running a label on the side and we became friends just through mutual appreciation of each other’s music doings and taste. He was the one I reached out to when I was interested in putting out Kid Smpl’s debut album as kind of a launching point for Hush Hush. He was just like a super-connector. I met DJAO through him. He was kind of the nucleus for a lot of the 2011 era Seattle. He was like the mentor who helped tell me what I needed to do to set up a label. But then it was also seeing some people my age at that time also running these passion projects labels like Aaron Meola who was running Dropping Gems in Portland and Leeor Brown in Los Angeles doing Friends Of Friends and Jakub Alexander doing Moodgadget in Brooklyn. They were just putting out music that I thought was really cool and gave me the inspiration to think maybe I could do that too.
Do you have a favorite Hush Hush release?
It's like asking who's your favorite kid. I actually feel like HH100 was a very important release. It was reaching that milestone and being a compilation that showcased a lot of different artists working together to create something new that ended up being really good. But I’ve gotta say Kid Smpl’s Skylight album was a big one. We’d put out a couple of releases before that like a precursor thing but that album definitely holds a special place just because that was really the reason for starting everything. The demos. He was sending each demo of each track that ended up on the album as he was making them and I’m like “You sent me like 15 tracks that are all really good, what are you going to do with them? What’s this going to be?” And he’s like "I don’t know." And I said, "I think there’s an album here and let’s send it to some labels to see if anybody is interested." And when these labels weren’t interested that was when we started the conversation like maybe I should start a label to put this out. I didn’t know if other people believed that electronic artists could make a really beautiful full-length album in those days but I believed in it so that was kind of the cause of everything.
Is there a dream artist you’d love to work with?
In the total dream world, it would probably be one of the two artists that I thought was super influential in the start of Hush Hush - Burial and CFCF. CFCF is amazing, he's incredibly diverse.
What's coming up in the future for Hush Hush that you're most excited about?
There’s the compilation, there’s the release tomorrow [Kid Smpl’s Burnished Phoenix / Winter Heap 2-track released August 31]. The NAVVI album is a really big one. Omni was the album that took Hush Hush to the next level as far as reaching new people. It was a cool collaboration between a group already doing something in Seattle but having similar vibes. And trying to do that again is super exciting because they’re super fun and super chill to work with. So it's a big one that I'm excited about. We’re doing vinyl for that which is pretty rare and we’re throwing a release show at Vermillion on the release date Friday, September 28 which should be fun. And then after that, it's a lot of debuts. Also a new Shelf Nunny release, another local artist. It's been awesome working with him, with each release I can hear his evolution and can hear him getting better. He’s collaborating more and getting a sound that's more polished in a lot of ways. That's gonna come out early-mid November. It's great stuff. But otherwise, it's going to be a lot of brand new artists that I'm excited about. Putting out music by a new artist for the first is a risky business. It's easy to release music by artists that you know have more reach. There's more risk in supporting someone that has no Facebook page and 3 Soundcloud followers. There’s more mystery to that than someone who’s already got this built-in platform. But that’s also what keeps it exciting.
HH100 is out now and available on Bandcamp.
Over the course of 100+ releases, Hush Hush have proven themselves to be a singular entity in the vast expanse of music. Some of the label's artists wax poetic over their favorite Hush Hush works.
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