Past Life and Broken Circles, or: How to Succeed in the Music Business While Really, Really Trying
By Natalie Rinn
This spring, a band from Brooklyn called Past Life set up in the basement of Rudy’s Barber Shop in Williamsburg to play a live set. That night, Tawfiq Mardini, the 26-year-old project manager of a small Brooklyn label called Broken Circles, was in the audience. “That room doesn’t innately sound good, it’s a concrete box,” said Mardini. Over the last four years, Mardini’s close friend Brent Lakes, who runs Broken Circles, had signed about six bands to his label; Mardini was on a mission to find Lakes another band that they could help to break through on a different level.
So there was Mardini, in a dank Williamsburg barbershop basement, when the sound hit his ears. “All the sudden you hear these really good riffs with pop sensibility and, it’s like, what is going on?” said Mardini. “They sounded incredible.” After listening to countless demos and band after band, Mardini recognized something different. Past Life was the opposite of what Lakes was constantly saying about a stream of music submissions—“good, not great.” These guys had it the other way around. Mardini called Lakes. “I was like, Listen: I got this band.”
A few months later, Past Life became the latest (and only Brooklyn-based) band to join Broken Circle’s small but growing roster of guitar-based bands. On Tuesday, Fader premiered Past Life’s debut single, “Sever Your Love,” off their EP, out February 5. In a world where, technically speaking, the Internet gives bands the tools they need to promote themselves, book shows, get their music on Spotify—basically, make it, alone—signing with a label is still crucial to a band’s success—which is to say, getting as many people as possible to listen to their music, and make money doing the thing they love. “Just like anything in life, music is about networks,” says Lakes. All bands know some people. But new bands—busy forming their sound, becoming themselves, practicing, and writing, all while making money doing something else—don’t have the time, technical know-how, or clout to be maximally effective at using them to their advantage.
“It’s impossible when you’re trying to get a hold of someone, and have no credentials of your own,” says Malcolm Donaldson, Past Life bassist. “Even when that’s not the case, when it’s friends of friends, and you’re trying to get a hold of them to play in a show in like Jersey City, they’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, sounds great—email us next week!’” People and their ears are busy. A label is a band cheerleader, with the money, networks, and (best case scenario) online prowess of a 16-year-old YouTube star—only, ideally, influential among people with good taste in music—to get people to stop, and listen.
And yet, even when all of that is true, one fact remains, unavoidably: A label could provide the most rarefied package of ready-made fans, music contacts, and cash, but judgment day will land, ultimately, on the band. “At the end of the day, the market is organic,” says Mardini. “If [people] don’t like songs, there is nothing we can do.”
A couple weeks ago, Past Life played at Cake Shop. I’d heard a sample of their music on Bandcamp: rock and roll that was unapologetically itself, with some punk rock energy, that made me wanna soulfully bob my head. Still, you can only tell so much from earbuds.
Lakes and Mardini were in the basement of Cake Shop, hanging out like excited band dads, mid-crowd. I took my Tecate and stood up upfront by a gigantic speaker. Past Life—Kyle Carlson, Griffin Harrison, Malcolm Donaldson, and Chrys Nodal—were set up and ready on stage. What followed was classic, shredding, danceable, rock music presented in a set of quick, clean, and expertly choreographed transitions. A solid wave of Thin Lizzy meets the Replacements bars of music that crashed, impact fully, all over me (and, particularly strongly in my right ear, neighbor to the giant speaker). It left, in sum, an impression.
Afterward I turned and joined Mardini and Lakes. “Holy shit, that made me remember why I liked rock and roll.”
“Yeah,” Mardini says, “Or why rock and roll is good in the first place.”
Broken Circles started out as the personal project of Lakes, several years ago in Cincinnati. Lakes grew up there, not really playing music, but being a genuine, gigantic fan of it. He started out reissuing old bands on vinyl, before vinyl sales started growing 30 percent every year, when Lakes could get a run of a few hundred pressed and turned around in a couple of months. That same order today would take half a year due to increased demand for very limited equipment that everyone in the music industry, not too long ago, thought completely obsolete. Eventually, Lakes started getting more out of supporting local bands, and signing the ones he liked best.
Mardini was born in California but spent a lot of formative time in the DYI music scene in Portland, Oregon, and listened to a lot punk and hardcore. He, too, was less focused on playing music than on supporting and being a fan of the good stuff. Three years ago, he moved to New York City with a friend from California, jobless. He landed in Bushwick and managed to secure an apartment in the first 24 hours. “You don’t realize the circus of real estate in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It’s a monkey show. Kids showing up in their band’s van pretending to be real estate agents—its like, what is going on? A Broker’s fee? I don’t even like you!”
Still, desperate times—and suddenly he was living in Bushwick. While Mardini secured freelance design work, a year later, Lakes arrived on Mardini’s living room floor. A potential nightmare that actually turned out very well. Though Lakes eventually found a place of his own, and worked full time in graphic design, both became very motivated to build Broken Circle’s roster. Lakes ran the label, while Mardini started doing A&R, passing music on to Lakes that, maybe, could be Broken Circle’s big next band.
“The point of a label is to provide support and money to a band to help them expand their reach,” says Lakes. How every label does that, though, is very different. Broken Circles—who are, they say, very, very selective about the bands they choose—takes a fairly personal approach. “I am very hands on with bands. I probably talk to every one of my bands at least once a day. I’ll text them. I’m like the dad,” says Lakes.
“Music is a cultural product—it doesn’t exist in the world or on the market, and you want to essentially be the catalyst for this being something open to everyone,” says Mardini. “You want to support good music. There is a lot of bad music.” Which, of course, is the point of the whole thing: Such persistent and irrational quantities of time and support for bands can only come from one place: love.
“I am a genuine fan of Past Life,” says Tawfiq and, after years of tour-managing bands, being a roadie, and meeting countless contacts in countless cities, he is anxious to pool his music resources and apply them to helping the world hear better music. “I have these tools, and I really want to start using them in a different way—putting out an actual record is only so much. There’s press, distribution, so may different things and one person can’t do it all, you need to have contacts to make those things happen.”
“The most important part of being a band is writing good music. But after that, touring is the most important part,” says Lakes. “It’s not just the crowd, it’s people who are in the music business who would be seeing you in these cities. The digital age has leveled the playing field a lot, but like people still want to go see live music. And it’s also the main way that bands actually make money. That’s the only way,” he says. Mardini jumps in. “People don’t buy records the way they used to, and this is why you don’t debut first week platinum—just Taylor Swift, and possibly Drake.”
“Adele, bro,” Lakes chimes in.
I ask them about their goal as a label. “My goal is for people to care about it,” says Lakes—basically by acquiring really good bands. Lakes’ all time favorite label is 4AD, to which The National is signed. He likes that their bands are somewhat different. “There is a spectrum, and one band is on this end, and one band is on the other and then there are the bands that connect them in-between,” says Lakes. “Our label is shaping up like that. I don’t want fifteen bands that sound like Past Life. I want like one band that sounds like Past Life that is really good.”
Last week I met Past Life drummer Griffin Harrison and bassist Malcolm Donaldson in the band’s practice space in South Williamsburg. All four members—songwriter and lead guitar Kyle Carlson, and rhythm guitar Chrys Nodal included (though absent that night)—are, on the surface, The Brooklyn Band. Three members, except Donaldson, are friends from the Bay Area. Donaldson is from Vermont and met the others while frequenting a taco truck where a friend of his now-bandmates worked. “The big project was one between Griffin and Kyle,” said Donaldson. “That was always the starry-eyed hope—to start a band between the three of us.”
Carlson, who has played music since he was a little kid, is completely self-taught, says Harrison, and is an incredibly serious listener-of-music. Donaldson adds, “He has an iTunes library that is like Rain Man—it is the most beautifully organized one.” Harrison’s dad was a musician, so there were always instruments scattered around the house. Music was not his life in high school, “I don’t think I had enough focus then,” says Harrison, but, “I always wanted [music] to be my whole life.” Nodal was the last member to join, who Harrison says, “knows a shit load about music” and has more experience in the musical world than the others. He also happens to be a good guitar player.
The group’s sound is very intentional, says Harrison, tightly controlled by Carlson, but embraced by everyone because they spend a crap load of time together, and have the same tastes—which is to say, they are very tight buds. “Definitely a big part of this band is just trying to have good taste, I think, that’s like what draws us together as friends,” says Harrison. “Not just good taste, but similar tastes.” The sound has evolved since Harrison and Carlson first started playing together, but “It is definitely shaped by the fact that we are pretty much a straight-forward rock and role band.”
With the shape and sound of the band in place, getting others to care was still hard. Working with Broken Circles has lifted a burden that might seem basic, but if a band isn’t doing it, they’re dead in the water. “They’re doing shit on the Internet and P.R. and publicity and stuff that we just couldn’t do on our own and, honestly, we don’t like doing,” says Harrison.
Broken Circle’s focus on vinyl was especially important to Past Life. “We’ve never recorded anything on a computer or cassette so far,” says Donaldson. “We don’t want to be known as this strictly analog band, it just sounds so much fucking more like what we’re after.” Harrison adds, “Every single one of us is into buying records and we want to feel like there is one of our own out there.”
All of that aside—albums, P.R. the dreaded and relentless social media machine, contacts and influence—one thing really usurps it all. It’s the same formula that works in every human relationship: if people like each other, if the love is felt equally on both sides, that interaction will yield and inspire the best results.
“The most important thing is if the people you’re working with are excited about what you’re doing, and you’re not just another name that can hopefully make them money,” says Harrison. “These guys aren’t putting shit out to make money, they’re putting it out because they want to have other people hear shit that they like and that they think is cool, and I think that’s super commendable,” says Harrion. After Mardini told Lakes about Past Life, Harrison recounted, “Brent was just at our next show, and they came to every show after, like every one. The fact that they genuinely care about what they’re dong was definitely a big plus for us.”
So, an EP on the way February 5, a full-length due out next summer, and vinyl with their name on it—all sounds like smooth sailing, a rock band’s dream come true. But there is still one more thing, after being listened to by people whose tastes they respect, that they care about more: Touring.
“It’s not as much about money as that’s what we want to do,” says Harrison. “Getting to go and play music, and drive around with our friends. Like, what is better than that?”