Interview with Keith Abrahamsson of Anthology Surf Archive- By Brian Musial.
As a surfer and self-professed record collector nerd, you have to understand my excitement when finding out that New York label ‘Anthology Recordings’ released the soundtrack to the pivotal surf film, Morning of the Earth. This is a film that has influenced us here at Aqua deeply (anyone remember our short film, Mourning of the Earth…?), and we continue to watch it on the regular.
The combination of extremely soulful surfing, the righteous vibe of that era and the soundtrack created for the film is nothing short of perfection.
(Riverock and Skydar jamming out with friends- from a rough screen shot of our short film.)
Fast forward to a recent email I got from the company announcing their third surf soundtrack release (Bali High, available HERE), and I knew I had to find out who was behind these wonderful decisions. Keith Abrahamsson began working the labels Mexican Summer and Kemado several years back, and what follows are his motivations, experiences, and plans with releasing music crucial to our surfing experience. We encourage you to snag Bali High, and purchase other titles in the collection ASAP.
AQUA: Okay, Keith Abrahamsson, let's start with the basics. Where'd you grow up, and when did you start surfing?
Keith: I grew up on the East Coast -- Connecticut and i've lived in NY for 18 years (spent one year in San Diego when I was 8). I grew up a skater and only picked up surfing over the last year.
AQUA: Was there something recently that got you into surfing?
Keith: To be honest, I always wanted to, but had a crippling phobia of sharks that literally kept me out of the water my whole childhood/young adult life. I have 2 boys and the last I wanted to do was project that fear onto them - so gradually over the last few years I started going in the water and then last year I took the step and tried surfing.
AQUA: Ha, nice! That's almost the exact sub-plot of Jaws with Chief Brody.
Keith: Yeah it's a mega cliche
AQUA: Nah, but understandable. Nature is crazy. So growing up, at what point did you embrace music? As the owner of a record label, I have to imagine there was a point when you understood that this would be your future career trajectory.
Keith: Early. My mom and dad were hugely influential w/ that. My mom would give me Beatles and Kinks records as a young kid and bought me my first 45 (Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks) when I was in 1st grade. My Dad turned me on to heavier jams like Black Sabbath’s Vol.4, Jethro Tull, Hendrix, Savoy Brown, etc around that same time. I never really looked back
AQUA: That's rad. I had something similar when my Dad played Santana and Croce, I still remember thinking I was listening to something so illicit and cool when I heard Croce say "Damn" in his song “Leroy Brown.” Wasn't until high school, really, that I found punk rock. That changed everything for me.
Keith: Yeah man -- i remember staring at Blodwyn Pig's 'getting to this' album cover forever cause it had a naked woman on it. That was mindbending
AQUA: Totally! And also like, 'what else is out there?'
Keith: Same for me on the punk tip. Once I discovered SST, dischord, etc - it was a game changer. I was hugely into metal as a kid too (still am)
(photo of Keith, with son Stellan)
AQUA: And so with all these pretty specific tastes, at some point you create a label, what was your main goal as far as that goes?
Keith: That was a journey. I mean, I played music for a long time - but I couldn't find the right band and I turned to the business side out of necessity to work in music. Long story short, I met a dude named Andres Santo Domingo while I was temping/interning in the early 2000s for a label called Astralwerks. He left to start his own label, which ended up being the Kemado label. He offered me a job and I started doing A&R there right away. I've been there ever since and started the Mexican Summer imprint under Kemado in 2008.
AQUA: Gotcha. I also want to ask of your immediate feeling when you hear something amazing. Is the quick impulse like you want to release this to more people to hear? Alternately, the knee-jerk reaction can be to keep a gem for yourself...
Keith: I don't ever really have that hoarding collector mentality. I know some folks who feel that way -- they wanna uncover an artist and just have it for themselves or a small circle of privileged people. I just come at it from a different place - even if i'm not thinking reissue, I love to share. It's part of how I get turned on to music - I have a constant stream of jams I'm either sending to people or receiving.
AQUA: So with your first Surf Archive release, did you see the surf film or know of the music first? And does that music kind of fit under the umbrella 'feel' of your labels?
Keith: With Morning of the Earth, I first saw it about 11 or 12 years ago and was immediately drawn to soundtrack and general aesthetic of the film. Growing up skateboarding, surf culture is a very natural extension of who I am, which obviously has a lot of bleed into the overall label feel and output w/ Mexican Summer and Anthology. So yeah, I'd say there is a definite common thread there.
AQUA: Morning of the Earth is such an important film for myself and Aqua Surf Shop. We draw HUGE influences from the surfing style and even their aesthetic as well. The music is so unique of the era, but I have a much stronger attraction to the images themselves. But it's funny, because listening to your reissue soundtrack is so nice - largely because it reminds me of the film. My Dad has the same reaction to listening to Honk for Five Summer Stories.
Keith: Five Summer Stories is one of my all-time favorites. Working on an LP reissue for that now!
AQUA: AWESOME. It's good to have these releases because music was so important in that era. Modern surf films kind of got stuck in the 90s blender of rip/slash music. Is getting better now, but so good to hear music written for surfing.
Keith: There was a purity and art that came w/ the marriage of audio/visual back then. Maybe that's the old guy in me talking, but I truly think that there's been some of that feeling lost. Andrew Kidman has done really well preserving that.
AQUA: We are really good friends with Kidman. Have shown his films and art in SF in the past. In fact we're working on a screening for his latest. And we agree, he's got it wired.
Keith: Excellent -- we're doing the Litmus/Glass Love reissues and are bringing him to NY! SOON - this june!
AQUA: Super fun. In fact, Aqua's owner did a music video for Kidman. We look forward to that for sure. Okay so back to this, you see Morning of the Earth and file it away as a pivotal film for you. And then you develop the Surf Archive dept. Was it a crazy process to release Crystal Voyager and Morning of the Earth? Mostly, in getting rights, tracking down artist/filmmaker, etc. Or were they really excited and easy.
Keith: it was not too crazy -- I was lucky to deal w/ some great people. Tony Harlow at Warners was so supportive and Alby Falzon was as well - he's been so easy to work with. I spoke w/ George Greenough on the phone a couple of times, which was a trip and he gave the project his blessing and then I worked closely w/ G.Wayne Thomas. All enthusiastic and cool folks. I was lucky, I suppose.
AQUA: Oh that's so good to hear. It's funny how easy it is to contact your surf heroes. I did a project in college and hung out with Endless Summer’s Bruce Brown for the day - dude could not have been nicer. Kidman is tight with Falzon/Greenough, I believe. He's got the same mentality as them, which is wonderful. Did they realize that there was still an audience for their music?
Keith: I'm not sure -- I think there may have been some surprise that someone in the US wanted to release it. But I think overall Alby was of the mindset to do what we wanted and 'have fun' with it. He was so freewheeling and easy about everything - almost as if he could care less if he made a dime of anything - he's just happy people are still impacted by it.
AQUA: But that's what's so great about his film and that music, is that it's come full circle at this point and people are back to that music and that style of surf. We showed Bali High in San Francisco several years back - but how did you come across the film Bali High - and there are two different scores for the film, right?
Keith: I just came across it a couple years back - and the soundtrack crushed me. Yeah, the original soundtrack that Stephen Spaulding had on there was all major label artists like the Rolling Stones, Peter Tosh, etc. Stuff he never cleared and probably wouldn't have had the budget to clear. So, he decided to get some original composition work done that would compliment the film in the same way those other jams did and hopefully retain some of the feel. That's where Michael Sena came in.
AQUA: So you heard this, was crushed, and did you feel you wanted to know more about Sena or was your first reaction that 'more people have to hear this'?
Keith: At first I didn't feel anything except an urge to give it some deep listens. At the time I wasn't reissuing surf soundtracks, so I didn't think about a release or anything. That came a while after. And I was able to track Michael through the web pretty easily - I think someone passed me his email through a blog.
AQUA: From what I've read online via Aquarium Drunkard’s excellent interview, Sena is pumped and almost reinvigorated with this release, yeah?
Keith: Totally, he's doing new music and digging through archives. I think if there's one thing I could hope for from this process, it's that. And i'm psyched to give the people this soundtrack for the first time ever on vinyl!
AQUA: I think you should be hugely commended for that. When you think of the talents (writers, artists, whatever…) whose work goes forgotten - it's a great thing when someone refreshes their work for a new audience. So, you've mentioned some to me earlier, but are there future releases you would like to announce that you are working on? As well, are there any titles/scores that you are scouring the earth for?
Keith: Yes -- we'll be announcing the 20th anniversary set for Litmus very soon. That'll be a box w/ 2 LPs - both Litmus and Glass Love and a book detailing both films. All laid out and designed w/ love by Andrew Kidman. We've been at work on several others - Pacific Vibrations, Getting Back To Nothing, Five Summer Stories....and more. I've wanted to do the Evolution soundtrack, too - Tamam Shud!
AQUA: Crap. I can already feel my credit card maxing. I could ramble with you all day, but will keep it somewhat condensed for blog-attention-spans. What's the best way for people to stay aware of upcoming Surf Archive releases? Mailing list, twitter, IG, etc?
Keith: Best way to keep up with us is through anthologyrecordings.com and we have instagram and twitter (both @anthology_recs) happening that we're active on. All reissue news (surf and otherwise) runs through those! As well, on June 11th at Pilgrim Surf + Supply in Brooklyn (68 N.3rd St) and June 13th in Amagansett, NY in the town square (also co-presented w/ Pilgrim), we’ll be showing Bali High. We're planning screenings in Hawaii and San Diego as well.
AQUA: Nice! Well, am stoked you took the time for us. And like I said, just stoked to see someone out there dusting off some history and sharing it again (or for the first time) with surfers and music fans everywhere.Keith: Indeed - labor of love. Thanks for the support, man.