AARON PICKFORD (SLUDGELORD RECORDS) INTERVIEW

Aaron Pickford is Editor in Chief of The Sludgelord and Label Owner of Sludgelord Records. Recently with great new releases by bands like OPIUM LORD and TORPR I’ve found myself unable to stop buying one cool new piece of vinyl after another from them. Aaron is clearly incredibly busy with the work he does both with his metal blog The Sludgelord and his label Sludgelord Records (he resists calling it a label, but you can read his own words on this in the interview), not to mention the needs of family life. Nonetheless, he very generously took the time to answer all my questions. Check out what he had to say below, have a listen to the playlist I created of some of the music on Sludgelord Records, then do yourself a favour and get on Bandcamp and buy some of the great music from the label.

– Thanks a lot for agreeing to be interviewed for Blessed Altar Zine. You’ve got a really great catalogue of music on Sludgelord Records, so I’m very happy to be able to find out more about what you do and the music you’re involved with.

First of all can you tell us a bit about how you joined The Sludgelord blog, what it was at the time and how it’s changed since then?

A – First of all, Tom, can I say a massive thank you for your kinds words and asking me to do this. I have been asked to do these kinds of things before, but tend to be a little resistant, because I feel the music should really speak for itself, you know. I don’t want to be that asshole boasting how great they are, when they haven’t got the roster to back it up. haha

My day job and family life also make doing these things difficult, because you have to fit them in during your free time. Anyway I am digressing somewhat. But I am truly thankful for given me this opportunity to wax lyrical about what is effectively a hobby.

In terms of The Sludgelord blog, I joined as a contributor way back in 2012. It was just two guys at the time. I got more interested in underground music via Metal Hammer’s Subterranea article, which featured bands that kinda flew under the radar or were perhaps regarded as more extreme. I was gutted when I heard it no longer exists, because it was the best thing about the mag.

I discovered bands such as CONAN via that article and bought “Horseback Battle Hammer” off the back of a review and was just blown away at how dense and cavernous it sounded. So I just Google searched sludge doom bands and I just happened to come across the blog. I emailed the founder Steve Howe a bunch of times and discovered the band HORN OF THE RHINO around the same time and talked about how he should cover them. I think I asked if he wanted any more contributors and eventually, I joined. I reviewed an album by the band (16) and that was the springboard for doing more and getting more involved. I realised quickly that writing reviews didn’t really come naturally to me and I found it to be labour intensive. So, I stopped writing and began to co edit the blog.

The blog eventually began to evolve because I felt that it would be best to present reviews in a certain way and I also felt that as a reviews site you shouldn’t really limit yourself to one genre of music per se. I mean there is nothing wrong with that, it is cool to be niche, but due to the number of promos we’d receive it made sense to cater to other tastes. Therefore, we slowly but surely began to review death metal black metal and pretty much all heavy metal music. Adopting an approach that if the music was enjoyed by the writers why not cover them, because everyone has different tastes.

The strong philosophy has always been to concentrate on writing good reviews about music we enjoy.

At its peak The Sludgelord had up to 10 -12 contributors and we were publishing at least 2 reviews a day, which was crazy. Today our output is smaller because it can be difficult to recruit writers, they come and go, and it is a big commitment to give up your free time. I would like to thank each person who has contributed to the blog over the years, because without their input, the blog wouldn’t be alive and kicking today. I hope that answers your question?

[It certainly does]

– Why did you decide to expand The Sludgelord and start releasing music under the Sludgelord Records name?

A – Well that is an interesting question. It was kind of a joke at first really. During a conversation I had with a friend of mine Curtis Dewar of Dewar PR, I kinda joked that I should start a “label”, the reason why I am saying that label in inverted commas, is because I don’t really view the label as a label, if you catch my drift?

It is more of a platform to support and help nurture great music that I love. Anyway, I joked that I should do it and Curtis responded by saying “yeah you totally should”. I had already set up a Bandcamp page, so I already had the platform. Then by sheer fluke, whilst scanning through Instagram, I saw the artwork for COFFIN TORTURE’s album, “Dismal Planet” and instantly loved it. I listened to it on Bandcamp, loved it and then approached the band. After some initial skepticism perhaps on the part of the band, and rightly so because I was just starting out, they agreed to work with me.

I paid for a digital distro service to help get the album out there and the album received amazing feedback and that’s how the label started.

I started digitally because I didn’t want to pour money into something and then run the risk of losing an investment. I aimed small with the hope of being able to grow it. What assisted me was having the blog and the name Sludgelord, to help attract bands. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but I thought it can’t hurt.

We then went on to release a bunch of albums digitally in 2018 and then we eventually progressed to physical copies, by virtue of the income generated via the digital sales (which was minimal) and also via money I made by selling some of my own records via eBay. I thought to myself if I wasn’t prepared to make sacrifices, then I wouldn’t fulfill my ambition which was to release the LP by the band you mention in the next question.

– I think your first vinyl release was SHALLOW GRAVE’S “Threshold Between Worlds” LP? Could you share with our readers the story behind that? Why did you decide you wanted a vinyl release and how difficult was it to make that happen?

A – Correct. “Threshold Between Worlds” by SHALLOW GRAVE was my first vinyl release and we still have copies. So please buy one, they’re only £6 haha. Seriously though, there isn’t any great story behind it. The band submitted the album, I was sold on their description of like a blackened version of ELECTRIC WIZARD by way of NEUROSIS, so I listened to it and loved it. The band and I chatted via email over many days. They said that they wanted a vinyl release. Therefore, that was the catalyst to raise funds for the release. I priced it up and it was just too much for me to do on my own.

The band said they’d chip in but I felt that should be a last resort. Anyway, I reached out to a bunch of labels and some liked it. We then released it on black vinyl as a 4-way split between Sludgelord Records, Black Voodoo Records, Cursed Monk Records and Minor Obscure.

I mean in terms of difficulty. I must be honest doing a vinyl release is a big risk. I invested £425 in an album and whilst that might sound like peanuts, it really is a pot of gold for a one-man operation. For me, selling lots of copies wasn’t my priority, I think you have to be realistic and aim to just break even and anything else is a bonus, but there is a real risk you could sell nothing and have 100 records just in your garage collecting dust.

It is difficult in the sense that it is new ground and something I had never done before. You’re trying to coordinate a release with 3 virtual strangers and a band you’ve only spoken to over email. But the commonality is that we were all very passionate about the album and we felt that we were releasing one of the best albums of the year. In addition, the band’s enthusiasm to work with me and their faith to allow me to steer the album on their behalf were amazing. Putting out an album isn’t difficult if you have the money to do it, however for me it is the music first, I, must love the album and often the difficulty is finding that diamond.

I still love that album to this day and feel with the right audience it could have done even better than it did. Overall I am extremely proud of that record and it was a great platform in which to build on.

– I sometimes get confused by all the different parties that can be involved in a release. What dictates your collaborations? Is it to do with areas of distribution? Financing? Both? Something else?

A- Initially I have to say collaborations were based upon trying to find people to help fund the SHALLOW GRAVE album because doing a vinyl release is expensive on your own. I don’t think people truly appreciate how costly these releases can be. Facebook is interesting because people ask for vinyl releases all of the time, but probably have no idea how much things cost or how big a risk it is. It is also those people who never buy a copy, you know. haha

Even a basic vinyl release can roll into like £1300. Ask yourself, “Have you that kinda change lying around?” I certainly don’t. It is my aim to do future releases on my own eventually, but all my vinyl releases have been collaborations. I have been lucky to have worked with Black Voodoo Records on three releases and will continue to do so because Danny and I seem to be on the same page in terms of tastes. He has also trusted me to produce good products, which is a big deal, particularly when money is involved

Collaborations also cover the distro of having a product in the UK/Europe and America too. Shipping overseas is expensive as I am sure everyone is aware of.

I have worked with labels such as Pink Lemonade Records because I have liked the bands they have worked with and they’re small like me, also I loved the aesthetic of their releases. So I thought it would be great to work with them. I also felt that there was so many great talented bands from Canada, so why not work with a label from there. Our first release by BLESSING is an incredible piece of music and I am very proud to have done it.

It is also worth noting I have no expertise when it comes to design work, so you choose to work with people who are talented and are able to assist you with such things. Pink Lemonade Records and I will also continue to work closely together and we are currently working on a project atm which we’re really excited about.

I can’t forget Seeing Red Records either. Again he is a talented guy and we released one of the best, if not the best doom album of 2018 by HUATA.

– Do you ever feel like you’re competing with labels for sales, or in having a band choose you to release their music? I’m partly wondering because you review bands on other labels for the blog, but then simultaneously you’re promoting music that’s on Sludgelord Records.

A – Wow I’m not really sure how to answer this question. I have learned lessons about how to release records and who with in order to give myself the best chance to sell records. But if a record is so good, sales are secondary for me. I haven’t competed with a label for an album as such. I give my sales pitch to a band and it is up to them whether they want to work with me or not. They can take it or leave it. I don’t have much and can’t offer a lot, because I don’t have a lot to give financially. What I do have though, is passion, enthusiasm and 100% commitment to ensure that I push an album as hard as I can. I have to be a fan of their music first and foremost, so if I love your album, I shall move heaven and earth to promote it.

I’m sorry if that doesn’t answer the question haha

– It seems you don’t review Sludgelord Records releases on the blog. Is that an absolute rule to keep the two separate?

A – Yep 100% can’t do it. We reviewed NEST but then on the back of that we decided to work with them. People would think I wasn’t being impartial if I was asking writers to review bands on the roster and then promote them on the blog. The Sludgelord and the label are driven by me, but I have to separate them. I want people to review our bands with no bias. It would feel unethical to do so.

– How important is social media for promoting your releases? What have you found to be most effective?

A – I would say that social media is vital. Join any group and spam the shit out of your bands or the bands on your roster, as a means of promotion. Post content. It is essential. Join Instagram. Post regularly on there. If you’re not in the public domain then you’re doing yourself a disservice.

I have generated many sales myself via spamming people. Showing pictures of vinyl for example. Yeah, it may annoy people but I don’t care about that too much. Reviews are great, streams on sites are great, but unless the sites are posting those articles on social media then you’re not going to get the traffic you want. You have to create your own content and share it.

– Sludgelord Records is most associated with Sludge and Doom Metal, but some of your releases definitely don’t fall into either category. Does anything stand out as a really atypical release you’ve done that might surprise people?

A – I guess Hope Drone is not typical or perhaps not representative of sludge doom but when I was asked to be involved I was surprised how much I loved. I guess you could say that Hope Drone isn’t your typical black metal band. There’s a lot of texture and atmosphere to the record, which I feel sets it apart from other trad bm records.

Recently we worked with FAWN LIMBS which is the complete opposite of doom I guess, but I like different things and I release stuff that I am excited about first and foremost. Eeli and I had already worked together to do the MIREPLANER album, so when he suggested I get involved with release “Harm Remissions”, I was like “hey let me check it out”. I must say it completely blew me away. FAWN LIMBS are so chaotic and raging. So yeah, you could say FAWN LIMBS would surprise people. Go check it out.

– Do you have rigid boundaries to the genres of music you’ll release, or is it just a matter of what bands come to you and what you like?

A – I wouldn’t say there is any rigidity there. Just over the years, I gravitated towards slower and more oppressive sounding riffs, which just happened to be in the subgenre of doom I guess. Because I gravitate to that sound I feel more inclined to release stuff of that type. I mean I’d love to release a really great death metal record and more black metal stuff. I can safely say I don’t love those genres, but it is all about what your ears enjoy. It is personal taste, so if something hooked me in, then I’d consider it. If you want to restrict yourself that’s fine if you want to be a one trick pony that’s also fine, but I want to release music that excites me. So far I think I have achieved that.

– I thought the cassette was a dead format until I joined Bandcamp and got heavily into underground metal. As a music fan, what’s your opinion on vinyl vs cassettes, or CDs or digital downloads?

A – I am all for everything if it gets people to buy music. Admittedly I don’t buy CDs anymore because I listen to my iPod in the car. Cassettes have always been cool. Tape trading in school got me into heavy music and I got into bands like MEGADETH, METALLICA, TYPE O NEGATIVE and heavy stuff because of tapes. Then they were kinda phased out because of the emergence of CDs. My Dad has a massive catalogue of FRANK ZAPPA LPs and the first SABBATH LP amongst others, so again it is about what you’re exposed too. I’m personally very happy that LPs are back because it would be sad to think that the only format that future generation is exposed to it an audio file. That to me is kinda fucked up.

For me cassettes are cheaper to produce, so I will always do them plus I think they’re cool looking. There’s a place for everything. Again it is personal taste, isn’t it? You like what you like. But those people that hate on stuff, I don’t see the point really.

– Do you think music has become more disposable in the age of digital downloads and streaming?

A – Personally I am not a fan of the whole streaming phenomenon anyway. I don’t subscribe to a platform. But I do use the Bandcamp app, so maybe I’m a hypocrite. But to answer your question No because people still want a physical copy. True music lovers want something physical. You buy a tape you buy a cassette because you want to listen to a whole album or because the artwork looks cool, or you want to read the liner notes, lyrics, etc. Labels like APF records, for example, are doing well because people are buying their products. Streaming for me is a means of helping sell a physical product. You can try before you buy. Back in the day people were more patient about music. You’d buy a record blind because it looked cool and you’d persevere with a record by your favourite band because you made an investment and you wanted to love it, even when it probably sucked. I bought a record by THE ABOMINABLE IRON SLOTH because the cover looked good. I didn’t know what it sounded like but I thought if it sounded like the cover, it was going crush and thankfully it did.

– I gather you’re a bit of a record collector. If your house was burning down, what would be your most treasured records that you’d have to save (possibly after your kids I guess)?

A – “Smoke Acid Shot Pill” by FISTULA. Searched the Internet for years for a copy. It is limited to 100 copies.

– Have you ever passed on any music and then later wished you’d released it?

A – Nope no regrets.

– Are there any releases in your catalog where there wasn’t a vinyl edition that you might go back and do one for in the future? (I’m holding out hope for “The Michael Jordans of Suicide” in particular)

A – Hey I’d love to do that album on LP. ROWSDOER produced such an amazing record and I was so proud to do that cassette. Turned out great. Part of me thinks you should concentrate on looking forward rather than back though. The tape sold out which is amazing. Whether we could repeat that again on vinyl, it is hard to say. You never know.

I made a point earlier that people ask for things, but sometimes when you do them, the demand isn’t there. But no doubt that album rules, you should definitely check them out. If it happens it happens. I can’t say it will, but you never know. It is not in my plans. I must admit I have thought about doing a COFFIN TORTURE tape. That would be cool. As for a vinyl release. If I had to pick one, honestly, I think SCIENTIST “Barbelith” deserves a vinyl treatment. That band should be huge because that album is phenomenal.

– Without wanting to force you to choose between your children, what would you pick out as your personal favourites from the Sludgelord Records catalog?

A – COFFIN TORTURE helped get things started so that will always be a personal favourite. But really, I couldn’t choose to be honest.

– Do you ever get involved in organizing live shows for bands you release, or might you in the future? I could easily imagine OPIUM LORD, TORPOR, and WALLOWING playing some shows together for example.

A – Nope never put on shows. There’s been the talk of a Sludgelord Records showcase which would be a dream. I haven’t the time to do these things on my own, but you never know. OPIUM LORD is playing with ARCHELON and VOW soon. Torpor is playing with WALLOWING, TIDES OF SULFUR and THE AIR TURNED TO ACID. So there are mini pockets of showcases taking place haha.

– There was a time year back when I naively thought that NEUROSIS and early SWANS was the pinnacle of heaviness, now when I listen to bands like FULL OF HELL I feel like there’s a lot more to what can be heavy and extreme (and good!) that I’d thought of before. What would you consider to be the heaviest and/ or most extreme music that you’ve heard (and enjoyed)?

A – It might sound weird, but NICK CAVE produces some of the heaviest music out there. He writes poetry to me, he tells stories, he is like a narrator and he writes about pretty dark stuff. I mean cmon “Murder Ballads” is brutal, no? The album he put out following the tragic death of his son, is pretty harrowing stuff. I can’t even begin to imagine the grief he must have gone through. He is a real hero of mine.

– I could definitely keep the questions coming, but I think I’ve tortured you enough, so finally, is there anything you’d like to promote or anything else you want to mention that’s coming up at Sludgelord Records?

A – Thanks for the interview, Tom. Just check out my site, check out the bands, I think there is something you will enjoy. Turn up and let your speakers die.

Interview by Tom Boatman

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