Throughout the pandemic, many of us have leaned on vices to get through it. For some people, that vice is something like drinking, smoking, video games, sourdough starters, whatever. Just something to indulge in and obsess over. For me, it's Leaving Records.
I first came across Leaving Records when I was sifting through Bandcamp. I was looking for some new sounds to quell my anxiety in early 2020. That's when I stumbled upon this beautiful harp music of Nailah Hunter. Leaving Records put out her album, Spells, so I began digging into their catalog. Each release felt like a left turn, each just as exciting as the last one.
There's this beat tape by an artist named Kara — the moniker of Devin Daniels – who makes beats as a side-project to his formal saxophone studies. There was also Xyla, a classical musician turned electronic experimentalist whose beats rattled my brain. And there’s Lionmilk, who released a tape of ambient jazz compositions that he originally hand-delivered to friends as a way of checking in during the pandemic. And that’s just scratching the surface.
As I dug deeper into Leaving Records, I noticed that it was all wrapped into a core philosophy called "All Genre." A mantra that unites all of Leaving's disparate artists under an ideal of inclusivity. “All Genre” is a lifestyle, a way of being open to new sounds and ideas, a freedom to do whatever the hell you want in a music industry that constantly wants pigeonhole artists into one thing.
After spending so much time obsessing over the label and its ethos, I had to find out more about what they're all about. I spoke with founder Matthew David about starting Leaving, the community formed between the artists, and how he envisions a new way forward in the music industry that puts the artist first.
Listen below to an excerpt from their conversation as aired on KEXP's Sound & Vision in August, and read the full interview below.
KEXP: I was wondering if you could just tell me a little bit about starting Leaving and what prompted you to want to start the label to begin with?
Matthew David: I think it was just always sort of a dream to have a record shop or a record label and got the idea planted in my mind from a funny early entrepreneurship business class. In high school, I was selling a lot of my burned CD-Rs of amateurish FruityLoops hip-hop beats in the cafeteria. And that did really, really well. And people were really encouraging me to keep it going. When I went to college on a scholarship for business, I kind of just had it in my mind that I wanted to do something with music.
When I landed in L.A. after graduating college in 2006, interning at Dublab and Plug Research Records, they had a shared office space on the northeast side of Los Angeles, near Silverlake, and that's where I was meeting all kinds of DJs and musicians and producers from all kinds of scenes. Coming from sort of a hip-hop background, beatmaker background, coming out to L.A. was very much a psychedelic kind of hippie "vision quest" situation, throwing all of the hip-hop stuff out the window and integrating into more experimental noise, drone, ambient collage, tape loop culture, and cassette culture. It was huge for my own music and starting the label.
Starting the label was just kind of through the conduits. The Dublab community here in L.A., it was very non-scene specific. I was interning there, doing a lot of audio engineering and office management stuff, so I was just meeting all of this incredible untapped talent from all scenes and genres. My partner-at-the-time and I wanted to start a little art project — a cassette label, craft label — and we did it based on the relationships that we were forming through the Dublab Community Network. [I was] working at Plug Research Records at that time, too. I met Flying Lotus, who released his first album on Plugged Research. Met Daedalus, Dntel, kind of everyone that was on this sort of "Low End Theory" scene. And it was just experimental, electronic, instrumental post-hip-hop music.
[We started] Leaving from that place with incredible art direction and visual aesthetic from Jesselisa, who was my partner at the time. She was working at Studio Number One, which is Shepard Fairey's graphic design studio. And so we would have access after hours to slide in there and work and craft and photograph and screen print and, you know, do fun stuff with our platform at the time that was very upheld and backed by Dublab, Alpha Pup, who I'm now partnered with again for distribution as Daddy Kev's label and distribution company, also Poo-Bah Record Shop where Ras G (rest in peace) worked.
And a lot of DJs and producers over the years worked through that record shop that I was hanging out at, and it just slowly started happening from there. Yeah, DJs were spinning the music early, you know, like Mary Anne Hobbs and BBC was like, fascinated by it all early. And I think I had a lot to credit towards like Dublab and Daddy Kev for really spreading the early releases and early artists out to the world and garnering a fan base kind of early for people looking for something maybe rooted in what was happening in L.A., but a little further outside, on the fringes.
And so that's just been it. That's how it started, I guess.
You mentioned briefly in there, the idea of a label as like an art project and some of the visual aesthetics of Leaving. When I found Leaving originally myself, I was perusing Bandcamp and it stood out to me because of that first visual. And then you dig into the music and you find a whole other world. I'm kind of curious, the idea of what aesthetic or ethos or philosophy you were coming in to with the label.
The philosophy has always been to disrupt the industry and deconstruct systems that do not serve artists' communities. And I've always just sort of played it on my own terms and never really... you know, you had to have one foot in and then one foot out, and that's like, I guess the balance sort of perspective and philosophy. It's a sort of punk rock attitude of, "Yeah, we're going to sort of play ball and play the game, but also do it on our own accord, whether that means relating to genre or bridging." Bringing people together through different sorts of scenes in L.A. and also not releasing music conventionally, whether that means format or abiding by certain prescribed dates or campaign models or any kind of thing like that. We're just doing it on our own terms and regarding how it serves, those are how we best see it to serve us. And that's always been the philosophy. As an experimental artist and creator, I really feel like just the adventure and the constant reward in seeking and pushing and creating throughout the entire spectrum lends itself to Leaving and how Leaving expresses its label aesthetic.
And also artist relationships, too. I mean, it's all just an expression of my values and how that can relate to others and finding common ground there and sort of building and galvanizing from a shared set of values. Ultimately, the priority value is to keep artist community, experimental music-making community thriving and sustainable and supported. So, by any means possible, doing that through experimental art and music-making is the priority philosophy of Leaving. That can shapeshift and morph and translate visually and sonically in a lot of ways. And I think that's just the best way to express that core philosophy, is through this ever-changing or morphing genre-diverse community, however that scene is displayed.
That brings me to a question, a higher level question, that you're hinting at. But I appreciate how forward-thinking Leaving Records is. I'm curious what you think — with your label or just across the board — what is the role of a record label now? So much has changed, so much is independent, artists can go directly to fans now. What role do you see the label having in the greater music ecosystem?
It's community and curation. Those two words are oftentimes lumped into cliches or even taboo. I think a lot of people are searching for community but don't find it. And a lot of people are searching for signal to noise ratio and don't find it, so these ideas are then lumped into clichés. But I feel like it's alive. Community is alive and present here through the Leaving network and so is curation. I mean, people need to make sense of all the noise. You know, you have thousands of albums uploaded, thousands of tracks uploaded every day to DSPs and Spotify. And there's a lot of a lot of a lot of music, a lot a lot of promotion, a lot of pressure on social media to promote. I mean, if you want the good shit, where are you going to find it? Right. It's just about trust and community building and curation.
Community is alive and present here through the Leaving network...
I wanted to dig in on community, you've mentioned it a few times. That is an aspect of Leaving that I feel is really unique in how you're fostering community, both with the fans consuming the music, but also the artists themselves. I think you've mentioned, you try to maintain close relationships with artists. You have the all-genre Discord channel. But how do you go about emphasizing community in what you do? And why do you think it's important to do?
We do it by any means possible, whether it be through technology or organizing on the ground level, grassroots style, through free art experiences, like this outdoor concert series that we're about to relaunch at the park here. Or Discord, or experiments in Web3, or however possible. It's not only, I feel, the priority role of a record label like ours, but it's instrumental in bridging this relationship between fans and artists, fans and the label.
You know, I'm always trying to experiment with community engagement. And I think one really surprisingly successful experiment is the demo policy that we've just enacted. It's a cassette-only demo policy with the understanding that one song from the best demos will be compiled and released on a community compilation. And every year, annually, we're going to formally organize and release this comp that's been pulled and curated from these cassettes that we're getting. And so these cassettes are sometimes very, very personalized, super crafty and artisanal, lots and lots of love. I try to do posting and sharing of some of the dope demos, some of the wacky demos that I get, and it makes people feel seen and heard.
At the park shows, at any events here in Los Angeles or wherever we are, [we] just try to talk to people. I think artists — also, not all of the artists, because we need to respect people's sort of preferences and boundaries, right? — but for me, I try to identify a safe sort of fan interaction and then just allow conversation to happen. We learn so much from the fan community or our audience or people that are participating as lovers and listeners of music. And I don't want to really shut that door. I think traditionally labels have shut the door and it kind of gives off this elitist mentality. And I've seen it firsthand across a few labels, and it's just left a bad taste in my mouth. I don't know why you would want to alienate the people that are upholding and uplifting and sustaining your business or your, you know, foundation of your community. So it's important. It's always evolving how we're going to engage and expand that idea.
Obviously Leaving is so grounded in L.A, that's where you're based out of. But you have artists like Growth Eternal — I believe he's out of Tulsa, I think — and MATTIE, out of Texas. Are you looking to spreading out Leaving even further and building a more global digital community?
Ideally what would be great is to have a represented sort-of faction or office in Europe and in Japan. We got people over there that want to help — [it's] just about compensating them and making them feel valued. So these kinds of international extensions of the Leaving Records operation is something that we really are thinking about. And I think those kinds of like offices, if you will, or landmarks that represent Leaving in other places could help with establishing more community and organizing more events and releases in different parts of the world.
I will say, I feel all the time super lucky that this thing happened and continues to grow in Los Angeles because Los Angeles is such a hub of nature and people and culture. And it feels like it's always sort of on the cutting edge of culture for me. I definitely view Leaving as an L.A.-centric, L.A.-centered, L.A.-focused label. But as we grow and evolve and tap in with the fan base internationally, it's becoming more important that we establish roots more in other countries so we're working on it. I think Europe, UK, and Japan are the top three on the list and we've been — we meaning me and the homies — been talking a lot about how we're exactly going to do that.
It feels like there are ideas that Leaving is bringing to the table that go beyond just Leaving Records. And one of those ideas that I think about is this "all genre" phrase I've seen you use. I was hoping you could kind of speak to this "all genre" idea a little bit and what it means to you, to Leaving, and to the artists.
That is, I think, the core philosophy. It's a very philosophical approach and I try to keep it. I try to wear it on my sleeve, you know. And most of the artists really feel advocated for in that sort of representation, or sort of blanket philosophy, of "all genre." All genre means all genres. It doesn't mean no genre. If I were to say no genre, I might be coming from a place of not discriminating against other kinds of music. But it does feel negative or omitting, right? And so when you just say "all," it allows for a more positive perspective and a more allowing or accepting or embracing perspective. So that at its core, philosophically, is what I think drives the label and what drives people to feel connected and safe.
All genre to me is like, you're safe here. You're safe to explore and experiment here with us. And I think it's deeply important right now, you know, and so if you start there and people start understanding that and that definition can evolve and elaborate with others, and you can start to define and elaborate upon really important components and facets of our society like community, you know. Like diversity. Like fairness and equality. So it's just like as a record label, a really easy way to say, bring it all on. We're here. We want to listen. We want to party, you know, and it's a safe place to do that. And we're all going to be looking out for one another.
I really love that. And I think, you know, maybe I'm making a lot of assumptions or speaking for myself, but I feel like there's a lot of times with record labels, it can feel almost by design, a little bit exclusionary, like this is going to be this thing and it's going to be exactly this and don't call us, we'll call you sort of mindset. And I feel like what you're doing again coming back to community, is breaking down that unnecessary barrier. And I don't know that there's a question there, just to highlight that, that I feel like that's a really important concept that I feel like needs to be diffused outward. And I appreciate that you're doing that with Leaving.
Thank you. I think we're in a time now where people are kind of getting on the same page and starting to see this more clearly with what we're doing and others can kind of follow suit or they can just feel empowered or inspired to do the same thing wherever they are with whatever practice that they're involved in or growing with others, wherever they are. The old model was, you know, it's like dog-eat-dog out here. You got to get yours. You got to stay ahead. You got to make ends meet. You got to feed family, put dinner on the table, keep the lights on. These old models are constructed with that sort of mentality in mind, and I get it. But I think that there's more these days or maybe even historically, more harm being done than good, especially as it relates to music and art.
Being in the business of music and art doesn't always have to be so self-serving, and it's very contradictory that it would be self-serving. I've been in different positions within other organizations where it's like very, very clear that their doors are closed and that you have to really, like, struggle to even penetrate their field. And I've just become less and less interested.
Ideally, Leaving would be more cooperative and horizontal. I've been thinking about ways to expand the label into more models of cooperation, and I think we're going to be able to get there through imprints or different extensions or arms or branches of the label. And that's what I'm also really excited about is, a kind of community economy with the label, whether that's our own form of currency, or the form of currency isn't like hinged to a financial market. Maybe it's something else. I have a lot of really beautiful, brilliant, genius, forward-thinking engineers and artists, just brilliant people talking to me a lot about all kinds of ideas relating to this. I'm just constantly inspired and I think being in L.A. has a lot to do with that. I mean, L.A. isn't the easiest place to live. I mean, there's smog and the unhoused situation here is gross. But the geographical landscape and the culture is really, really inspiring. So, it is inspiring to be here. And I feel really blessed to have people around me sharing their visions of community and collective empowerment and evolution. Yeah, I just feel really lucky.
That brings it to talking about some of the artists on the label who are living this out. You've done a few releases with Sam Gendel. Can you talk to me a little bit about his music and putting out his latest record Superstore and a few records in the catalog?
Sam is a true visionary. He's a living legend of our time in our generation, not only as a saxophonist, but just as a composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, beatmaker, electronic musician. I personally feel he's one of the most innovative players, period. I'm really, really grateful to work with so many true innovators.
I've been making music with Sam for some time now, even before we started experimenting with releasing things on Leaving. Kind of just met him through the community of different musicians that I know and my wife, Diva, knows actually too. Also, my publicist, Julian, was very instrumental in introducing me and Gendel. When you meet someone like that, it can be really intimidating, but because we were so connected socially in the scenes and communities here in L.A., [it] felt very graceful and easy to start being vulnerable and expressing admiration and inspiration together.
I think Sam's been looking for a platform or an outlet to release his art that doesn't feel restrictive or bogged down. I let him lead with all the ways that we promote his records. He's not on social media anymore. He doesn't really need to be. He's found himself in a very fortunate situation as a very in-demand artist and player. At this point, his career, he can kind of just do what he wants. And I completely support him doing whatever the fuck he wants. And I think he loves that about me, about Leaving. And he feels at home here.
And yeah, me and Sam's relationship's continuing to evolve. Between me, Sam Wilkes, and Sam Gendel, we have not only a lot of music that is just sitting, waiting in the pipeline to be released, but a lot more work to do as far as building community and turning people on to shit they've never listened to before. I think it's like a gateway, right? This kind of smooth jazz gateway into weirdness is something that's been very, very sick and valuable with working with Gendel because you have something like Superstore. Fresh Bread [Gendel's collection of previously unreleased recordings] is all over the map. You've got other stuff out there that's like very, very ambient or very, very smooth jazz.
Another artist I've thought about you put out recently another record from was The Growth Eternal [real name: Byron Crenshaw]. I first heard the Bass Tone Paintings tape, and it just totally blew my mind just to know that that was primarily just bass and vocal vocoder. Multiple languages. And this new record is a lot more different instrumentation. Curious to know about how you found The Growth Eternal and about how you feel about their music as well?
Another total visionary. Putting on Byron to play in different environments and perform for different people all around L.A. through different Leaving Records-organized events has been really gratifying also because it's kind of like alien R&B. It has this smoothness to it, but you've got thisvocoder element that bridges the electronic and the human. He's, you know, a virtuosic player and crazy jazz chops, but he's very interested in technology and psychedelics and experimentation.
Byron moved to L.A. just before lockdown, so it's like the end of 2019. I didn't even know that he was here. And then top of 2020, through mutual friends connected with jazz music in L.A., his music started to become on my radar a little bit just through these one minute long social media posts that he was publishing. And then he, during the George Floyd riots, posted on YouTube a video of this kind of protest song that he made. I thought it was just like the most brilliant thing. And it's abstract, extremely poetic lyrics. And he makes all the video and it's this vocoder jazz element. But he had, like, this trap beat going. And I'm just like, yeah, man. Do you want to sign up for this thing that we're doing over here? Because you know, the pandemic is weird. It just started. But I know you got some stuff, so let's try to put some stuff out and introduce your work to people. And we can start with this kind of mixtape of one minute long songs and then put out a record.
And then, you know, we've been getting a lot of really great cosigns from DJs, like Giles Peterson is a huge fan now and Byron is starting to collaborate and work with a lot of his heroes. And we have another record coming out soon here. Might be next year. Byron is a super sweet, very prolific composer that wants and really values community and collaborates with a lot of friends of mine and artists in the community. And it's just been like a really beautiful natural organic relationship growth situation with Byron. He's hilarious, too. His sense of humor is incredible and he's a genius. He's always, like, turning me on to all kinds of horticulture experiments and wellness and health kind of tips. And he gifted me a homegrown cannabis plant and a little pot for my birthday instead of, you know, whatever else that I might have wanted. Just a really solid person. I really consider a lot of artists I work with on the label, my friends, you know, and I really value that as a way to display or express the warmth. And again, that kind of safe environment that Leaving might portray or exhibit has probably a lot to do with me being friends with all these people and, you know, having a trusting, established sense of trust embedded into the relationship. And Byron is definitely no exception to that.
Yeah, I definitely feel that warmth. It's hard not to go through every single artist, but I feel like Green-House [real name: Olive Ardizoni] has really taken off. It's really beautiful, like naturalistic, ambient music. Can you speak a little bit to their music as well?
Their EP Six Songs For Invisible Gardens was already self-released on DSPs, on Spotify when I met them. I was at a birthday party for a mutual friend and, "Oh, my friend Olive just started working at the same place I work at, and they're new to L.A. and they make really wonderful music, and I just really love to introduce you to them. Here they are, say hi." So I was like, hello, good to meet you, blah blah blah. Immediately intrigued. But then upon going home and listening to this EP, I knew immediately. There was no doubt that I wanted to get behind this, that this was going to be something great. And if this was the music that they're into making, I could see it just long term being a great situation.
Olive, my wife, Diva, Nyla Hunter, and Amy Dang all started becoming friends and and making music together on the Internet throughout the pandemic. And that turned into its own little project, which was really cool. Olive and my kid and my wife Diva went on a walk today, I'm here at the office working. But again, there's that community thing. I mean, Olive is just so embedded into our family at this point. They're basically family. Their aesthetic is very cute and soft and non-obtrusive and they're an incredible musician. We're going to be hearing a lot more of Olive's vocal here coming up soon on the new record. They're a classically trained opera singer or something, no one knows, but they're about to find out, as revealed a little bit on their last album. Any kind of ideas that they want to do. I'm all here for it. Definitely a huge priority for me in the realms of environmental, ambient, new age music, but also in the realms of inclusivity.
You know, Olive is a very hard they/them pronouns, non-binary person and advocates for queer community within the Leaving Records fold and I've been so happy to learn and grow within those kinds of gender realms, honestly. And I owe a lot to Olive for trusting me. And there being this reciprocation of inclusive and diverse sort of growth and acceptance and enabling and empowering here in L.A. and throughout the Leaving Records community. And yeah, queer ambient is a whole thing and it's really, really, really special. And there's so much amazing music here in L.A. from that particular subset of people and artists and musiciansand communities. And I definitely owe so much to Olive for kind of looping me and bringing me into that.
That's really awesome and beautiful. And that is an interesting fact to thinking about the different, I don't know, communities and cultures and even like generations that are represented on the label. And I was curious to think a little bit about, there's a lot of artists when I'm looking at Leaving that are totally new to me but you'll also put records by someone like Laraaji and you have the Ras G records. But I'm curious, you know, Laraaji is to me a living legend and it's so cool to see him on this roster of emerging artists as well and obviously his music continues to grow and evolve in really interesting and cool ways. Curious what the relationship is there and how he came together with Leaving.
Laraaji is a spiritual mentor for me personally. During the beginnings of our creative relationship and label/artist relationship, we organized a really great show here in Los Angeles, I think that was like 2015 or 2016. No, it was 2015. And he was living with us for a whole week. I think my kid was maybe two-years-old, and Laraaji would be, you know, hanging his orange underwear and socks out to dry on our clothes line and making music with us and my kid all day, you know, making meals. And it was extremely formative and wholesome. And during that time, I'm just learning so much and asking questions. And he was teaching me things and being extremely open. And it taught me how to further spread the gospel of the DIY electric zither harp instrument that he plays.
And, you know, [it's] kind of curious why more modern younger musicians don't hack into this instrument more. And so [he] kind of allowed me, gave me the permission to spread that awareness or spread the gospel or start using it or turning people on to it. Because you see this legend or this luminary working on this very idiosyncratic instrument, and any time maybe that you see someone else younger do it, it's just like, Oh, they're doing the Laraaji thing. That's not theirs. They can't do that. But, you know, I was told firsthand by this person that it needs to be explored more. And there's still so much more to be explored with this instrument. So I thought that was super cool. And, you know, that's just kind of a part of like this mentorship relationship situation that I have with him.
Carlos Niño is also extremely instrumental as sort of an older facilitator like mentor figure and even directly as it relates to Laraaji. Carlos and Laraaji collaborate together constantly and there's just been many relationships and releases sort of formed through that network of spiritual mentorship, I guess, and music. Laraaji is also extremely open to new young producers, new music, new kinds of music, experimental music. Healing music that is just kind of very straight ahead and very tonal and harmonic, that definitely serves a very valuable function. And we know Laraaji participates in that. But also Laraaji participates in experimental or just many different kinds of experiments. Philosophically, spiritually and musically, the guy is kind of all over the place, actually. We know him for his maybe more relaxation style music, but he leads extremely, you know, ecstatic laughter workshops that can get really strange. And I've heard records and I think we've all heard, many different styles exhibited on his records that do not sort of confine to what we might think as New Age. So, you know, I'm saying all that because, you know, just relating to his collaborative nature with some of these newer emerging electronic musicians or composers or producers or beat makers, it's been amazing. And Carlos is really, really good about linking or bridging that generational gap collaboratively, organizing studio sessions across the generational spectrum, you know, with Laraaji. Super beautiful, does not happen that often. So we're really lucky to be able to, you know, have that as another part of our label community, have a sort of elder energy, this elder mentor energy that's part of our label is amazing.
I know we talked about it a little bit, but where would you like to take the label next or what are your hopes for labels?
I think just ultimately landing on a kind of model that can empower the sustainability of our community. And I don't think that selling records is going to be the end all solution to that problem or to that vision. I think there's going to be a lot more experimentation to be had. There's going to need to be a lot more just creative, progressive, unconventional and experimental ideas brought to the table within a kind of committee or board that can trust one another and that aren't afraid to sort of dive into the unknown. I know this is all really vague. We were experimenting with Web3, right? Launching our own kind of cryptocurrency, minting NFTs. We have like a treasury of funds that sort of are reserved for artist project creative incubation, artist mutual aid, public goods, stuff like that. The best takeaway about decentralized organizations in the Web3 or crypto sphere is just that, that it is decentralized, that it is cooperative and it is horizontal. And I think that there's going to be many, many ways to explore that outside of the Web3 world or the decentralized finance crypto world or even the Internet world. I've been talking with a lot of people and organizing IRL events that kind of collectively empower and grow and financially sustain us.
Again, establishing nodes in different key international cities is going to help us a lot. Having a licensing sync representative is going to be huge for us. Booking representation is going to be huge for us. All of these things are feeling it out and having some discussions and conversations that I mean, it's going to evolve the label and help us reach a lot more people all over the world. And I would love for the fans to feel like there's an equitable relationship when you sign up for supporting us, meaning the label or an artist on the label. Equitable exchange and you know, some kind of really clear, simple value exchange other than like, yeah, I value this music, I'm going to support this music, but like something more. And I'm thinking along the lines of a fan club, maybe deeper, maybe more evolved? I don't know where this can go. We're thinking about it a lot. I think the individualistic nature, pretentious, elitist, sort of closed doors nature of labels, you know, if artists want to be that way and kind of just hide in the shadows and be reclusive, like totally respect those boundaries. And I even work with some artists like that through Leaving, so not all artists need to be in this way, but collectively Leaving should just feel safer and more fun and more inspiring as it grows and evolves and as we proceed into the future, hopefully more people can add to that in a very valuable way.
So that's my hope and I don't really know how that's exactly going to happen, but we're definitely continuing to experiment and it's been a lot, a lot of work, but extremely rewarding and extremely worth it. Yeah, and I think other people are finally starting to see. I feel like there's this moment right now-ish, this surge of attention or maybe identifying or understanding what it is that we're growing or building or doing over here with our community. And so it feels good to be seen and heard, finally, the attention is definitely overdue, maybe, and accepted.
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