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Waking Up Is Hard to Do

[whitespace] Darla
The Darla Project: Marin Gibbs, James Agren and Chandra Tobey devote almost all of their time to running a record label from their tiny San Francisco home office.

A San Francisco-based record label pushes the divergent worlds of electronic music and independent rock closer together--and the only stipulation is that a band must, simply, bliss out

By Kara Platoni

Darla has records in the hallway, in the linen closet, on the coffee table. There are records in neat stacks on the threadbare pink couch, on bookshelves that reach to the ceiling; records on top of more records. Even the neighbors in Darla's San Francisco apartment building have allowed their closets to be usurped for storing, well, more records.

But Darla isn't just one vinyl-obsessed person; Darla is three. More specifically, Darla is a record label, and perhaps one of the best-kept secrets in a city that prides itself on being at the frontier of both pop and electronic music. The newest Darla project, a series of ambient albums called the Bliss Out, has a goal that is both ambitious and overdue: to push the divergent worlds of electronic music and independent rock closer together.

Co-founded by Chandra Tobey, 25, and James Agren, 32, and run with the help of intern Marin Gibbs, 21, Darla Records has been in existence since 1994. The friendly blonde trio, who tend to complete one another's sentences, does everything from signing bands to shipping out boxes full of discs stamped with Darla's eye-catching surfer-girl logo.

The three of them devote almost all of their time to running the label from their tiny home office, where the phone constantly rings and the fax machine never stops churning. When asked what they do to relax from a week of fueling the international pop underground, James pauses and thinks for a while. "Well," he says finally, "there was a good episode of Homicide on last night."

Chandra and James, who met while flipping through vinyl at a San Francisco record store, had always wanted to run a label. Working at college radio stations and record stores had convinced them that the music they loved was never going to be given the treatment it deserved from the mainstream industry. "Working for the music industry was just ridiculous," says Chandra. "It's so not relevant to ..." "... anything you're interested in, basically," finishes James.

So the two of them scraped together their spare change and in January 1994 released their first single, a Grifters 7-inch. The fledgling label then began to build an impressive roster of independent bands, including Jessamine, Holiday Flyer and the Feelings.

Surprisingly, they say it was easy. "We started with nothing," says James. "We started a business with 2,000 bucks. You can do stuff yourself. You don't need to go work for some faceless corporation." "It's not as intimidating as it seems," Chandra adds.

As the label grew, they also began to do distribution for other small labels and to produce their first compilation series, Little Darla Has a Treat for You, a string of records intended to promote Darla's bands to record store owners. When shoppers began to show an interest in the compilations, they increased production and made the series quarterly.

In the meantime, thanks in part to the Little Darla series, the label began to carve out a niche for itself, gaining a reputation for efficiency and an unerring knack for producing bright, sugary pop albums. The trio also began cooperating on projects with like-minded labels like Seattle's Cher Doll Records, New Jersey's Fuzzy Box Records and Tokyo's Cardinal Records.

The label's transition into ambient music and the genesis of the Bliss Out series, however, happened almost by accident. "I was getting tired of playing my Brian Eno records," says James. "Everyone's going toward the hard end of the spectrum. I wanted something soft, melodic." But the quest for Eno-like music produced surprisingly little fruit, and in 1996 the Darla staff decided it was time to jump-start their own scene.

Borrowing a phrase from British rock critic Simon Reynolds' book Blissed Out: The Rapture of Rock, the original plan was to release a double album featuring bands who make the sweet, sleepy music variously referred to as spacepop, ambient rock, bedroom pop or shoegazer. There would be no stipulation as to whether the bands must be electronic or acoustic, dance- or pop-oriented. They must, simply, bliss out.

The label sent out a plea for contributions and was promptly swamped with replies, beginning with a submission from the New Jersey band Flowchart. "The first track was so tremendously good, we thought we'd ask everyone to make long, beautiful pieces and release them as EPs," says Chandra. Flowchart sent along three more climbing, crystalline tracks, and the result was Tenjira, the first Bliss Out album.

Unknowingly, Darla had tapped into the increasingly active intersection between electronic and independent rock music. The series began to attract attention from both college radio and concert promoters like Spacecake Enterprises, who chose San Francisco's Sweet Trip, the newest band in Darla's Bliss Out lineup, as the headliner for their last event.

At April's Spacecake show at the Justice League, Sweet Trip combined prerecorded drumbeats and loops with live acoustic guitar and delicate, whispery vocals, as projections of flowers and falling snow drifted around them. As a group, Sweet Trip embodies what is best about the Bliss Out--the embracing of both technology and the old-fashioned art of pop songcraft.

While all of the records in the series evoke similar feelings of peacefulness, they sound very different. Bliss Out albums include Windy & Carl's Antarctica, which is composed of layer upon layer of guitar wash; Orange Cake Mix's Silver Lining Underwater, which features the gentle synthpop musings of keyboardist Jim Rao; and Junior Varsity km's Taking Care of You, which playfully tinkers with drum & bass beats.

But as easy as it would be to jump on the drum & bass bandwagon, the Darla staff has no plans to settle on any one style. They say they'll continue the series as long as they keep finding interesting material. "Darla is always evolving," says Chandra. "We're not trying to go with what's cool; we just put out what we like. And in the meantime, we sell a few records."

"We're not genre-specific," says James, grinning. "We just put out stuff by 19-year-olds."

From outside the Darla headquarters, the future of the series looks bright as well. At Terrastock West, a three-day-long music festival that camped in San Francisco April 17-19, Bliss Out veterans Windy & Carl held a warehouse full of people absolutely silent and motionless for an hour with their hypnotic layering of guitars and reverb. Onstage, the duo, who take it as a compliment when audience members turn up with pillows and blankets, played with a concentration that was practically tangible. "We're almost to the point where we don't have to look at one another to know what's going on," says guitarist Windy.

In fact, the audience, many of whom listened while lying on the floor with their eyes closed, didn't have to look either. They just blissed out.

For more information on Darla Records, write to them at 625 Scott St. #301, SF, 94117, or look them up online.

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From the May 18-31, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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