If you didn’t know better you would think Potluck Foundation was cranking out local indie-rock records specifically to fill the COVID-19 shutdown. The nine-year-old quote-unquote label—to borrow a rhetorical device favored by Maria Albani, one of its three founders—issued five releases in April and the first week of May.
The onslaught began on April 3 with 3 Good Songs by Le Weekend, who introduce volatile strains of math-rock and dance-punk to hooky indie-pop tunes with invigorating results, if you have the acquired taste for consciously homely singing. It continued on April 24 with Erie Choir’s Starlight Veins EP, where former Sorry About Dresden larynx-shredder Eric Roehrig goes full Nick Lowe (read our review).
May 1 brought the dreamy, drone-y, dark-hued rock of Shelles’ Hot After Heat and the genial Jerry Garcia jams of Your Space Is You by Jphono1 & The Chevrons, the project of Potluck founder John Harrison. (We did a premiere.) Stray Owls’ acoustic-electric psych-rock record Stray Owls Versus Time and Space followed on May 8. (Ditto.)
But Potluck didn’t coordinate this flood of releases during the quarantine. Potluck doesn’t coordinate much of anything. It’s a laissez-faire label that never set out to be a label at all, and that’s what keeps it going strong.
“I think it’s just evidence of poor planning,” Harrison says of the logjam, chuckling. “People are like, ‘Do you have any releases coming out next month?’ And I’m like, ‘I dunno, somebody said they were gonna do this.’ So this happens sometimes. Personally, I think it’s awesome, and I don’t think I’d still be involved in it if it was a normal label.”
Like most of the bands under their umbrella, all three founders have deep roots in the local music scene, particularly in Chapel Hill. Schooner’s amply spaced records have been earning national notices since around 2004. Albani, a bassist and drummer, has played in bands from Schooner to her own projects, including Organos and See Gulls. Harrison, who currently performs homespun electronic epics in Tacoma Park alongside his Jphono1 output, has a pedigree that stretches back through North Elementary and all the way to The Comas.
In 2011, the three realized that they and most of their friends were increasingly self-releasing, self-promoting, and otherwise running their own bands. A lot of the little labels that would give you a couple of thousand dollars to make a record were fading away, and Potluck wasn’t trying to replace them.
“We never intended to operate like a quote-unquote label,” Albani says. “It’s really just a collection of friends and people we know making music that we like, who want to be a part of Potluck for whatever reason. I think it’s because we’re nice people, and when we see people making good music, we want people to know about it.”
“The first thing that I say in any conversation I have about the label is, ‘We have no money for you,’” Harrison adds.
The idea of Potluck, as its name implies, is mainly to share resources and information, from press contacts to good vinyl pressing plants. Each of the founders brings in and handles their own signees, offering guidance in self-releasing where needed and pitching in with labor when possible. For some projects, Albani and Johnson have handled press, writing one-sheets and sending CDs and emails to writers and radio. Harrison has screen-printed album covers and done layouts.
“It’s like, you can do some of this with an app or a website that has some of these resources, but this is a group of people that you already know and trust,” Johnson says.
Potluck releases might be on vinyl, cassette, or CD, in runs of ten or runs of 1,000. They might be simple digital releases or they might be complex multimedia presentations. It all depends on what the artist is trying to do.
“I like to encourage folks to do something out of the box,” Johnson says. “But it’s just a suggestion. This is an anarchist label, I guess, accidentally. We suggest that you do this thing, and then you do what you need to.”
Beyond guidance, community, and moral support, Potluck’s hands-off help also increases visibility for artists by putting them all in one online place, under one banner. Harrison calls it “strength in numbers;” you might think of their model as self-releasing with a safety net.
To celebrate Potluck’s almost-ten years of keeping the Chapel Hill indie-rock flame alive, we gathered the founders on a conference call to defrost some of the label’s deeper cuts, from the very first Organos-North Elementary seven-inch to the debut of Beauty World. Let’s eat.
Five to Reheat from the Potluck Freezer
Potluck Foundation made its debut by establishing its collective, collaborative spirit with a unique release format.
ALBANI: We reached out to musicians and artists around the country and said we were putting a split seven-inch out and wanted each one to have its own cover. So whatever they sent would be the cover of one of the copies. I think we did 50. It was cool because at the live shows people would look through and pick the one they wanted. I also just liked the aspect of getting more people involved. The more people you have involved in what you’re doing, the more excitement builds around it. We had Missy Thangs, we had Eric Morrison from Home, we had Andrew Whiteman from Broken Social Scene.
JOHNSON: For me, it’s always easier to promote something that other people are a part of.
Potluck’s first full-length cassette release revealed the singer-songwriter prowess of a musician then better known as a supporting player.
ALBANI: Josh is a very dear friend of mine who later wound up becoming the drummer for Schooner. He’s been in a lot of bands; he was in The Nein, Piedmont Charisma, Floating Action. Basically, people knew Josh for playing drums or bass, not for singing and writing songs. He’s a really great songwriter. He’s got a great voice. He’s a great guitar player. It was exciting, for all those reasons, for people to get to experience that part of his creativity.
Potluck started to broaden its indie-rock horizons with this pair of releases from Carrboro’s synth-y Robes, which sounds more like Hot Chip than Archers of Loaf.
HARRISON: This was the first band that reached out to us. Didn’t they take us to dinner?
ALBANI: I remember it perfectly; they took us to Acme, and we sat out back. Pat [Cudahy, guitar and vocals] was one of the first people I met when I moved here from Florida. He had sort of been out of the realm of playing out and stuff for a little while, which is a perfect example of people who were like, OK, you guys have this thing, how can we get involved?
HARRISON: On the digital version there’s three songs on each and putting them together is almost a record. They got a lot of press we hadn’t gotten. They released a dope-ass video, too. There was a nice slick non-indie-rock style to what they were doing, and I was happy from a Potluck perspective because most of our friends play indie rock.
Schooner’s long-awaited second album earned Potluck more national notice—PopMatters dubbed it the antidote to chillwave and witch house—and it featured an all-star guest lineup.
JOHNSON: John and I collaborated on the cover. I took a photo, John screen-printed it on a piece of glass, and we both went outside and took a picture of the sun coming through the glass, and that was the cover. It looks like Photoshop but it’s total analog.
ALBANI: It was Josh Carpenter, Chris Badger, me on bass, and a buttload of guest appearances like Catherine Edgerton, Ivan Howard, Billy Sugarfix, Wendy Spitzer, D-Town Brass people, and Jeff Crawford.
JOHNSON: It definitely represents a shift in paradigm for Schooner. The previous one was—Maria says pop, but I think a melancholy record. Neighborhood Veins was more capital-R Rock. Nick Jaeger, who recorded that record, plays bass with us now—when we play.
Another venture beyond rock music brought the local-classic debut by Duncan Webster from Hammer No More the Fingers and Leah Gibson from Lost in the Trees.
ALBANI: It was cool working at the old Schoolkids Records. When we found out the Franklin Street store was closing, I helped put together the bands that were going to play the show at the Cat’s Cradle. And I remember hearing Hammer No More the Fingers and I loved how young they were and how incredible they were at their instruments. I got to know Duncan from that point, and then Leah from Lost in the Trees. They’re both really wonderful, and the two of them coming together, I would have never expected it to sound how it does. In 2015 I recruited them to come play in See Gulls, and that was super fun.
JOHNSON: Like Organos’s Concha, it was a CD with hand-printed covers, in this case via lithograph with a two-color print. We really love it when people put their music on something handmade or unique, and theirs was made with creativity and care.
And one we had to cut from print for space:
Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DEAR READERS, WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW MORE THAN EVER. Support independent local journalism by joining the INDY Press Club today. Your contributions will keep our fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle, coronavirus be damned.