Monday, February 26, 2007
Mrs. Whiskerson was a good kitty-a mild-mannered feline who enjoyed snacking and nuzzling.
Then, late one night, in the presence of housemates under the influence of powerful psychoactive medicines, Mrs. Whiskerson went apeshit.
"The cat comes out of nowhere and starts to attack, going for any part of the body of any person she could find, all the while making these strange sounds," explains Justin Roelofs, the Kansas-bred songwriter who records under the alias of White Flight.
"This continued on for weeks and then months. It was literally as if a switch had flipped."
The situation intensified during Roelofs' long days in isolation recording his debut solo record (and first since disbanding his former band The Anniversary). In this tragic yet comic scenario, the shirtless musician worked diligently in his home studio, interrupted only by the occasional ambush from his crackbrained cat.
"It's hard to put a good performance in if you're worried about physical harm all the time," he explains. "People would be running and slamming doors and getting up on chairs, because you knew the sound meant the cat was going to come out of nowhere and just start slashing."
- Justin Roelofs of White Flight discusses explorations into telepathy.
- Justin Roelofs of White Flight discusses the UFO presence in Hawaii.
- Range Life Records' Zach Hangauer discusses his former life in Los Angeles.
- Range Life Records' Zach Hangauer discusses impressions of "White Flight."
- Range Life Records' Zach Hangauer discusses the creative process vs. the music industry.
In such dire straits, most musicians would probably let kitty fend for herself at the nearest shelter. But Justin Roelofs could never fight a cat like that.
"I just sat down and did a 20-minute meditation and said, 'Please, whoever is listening, let me find peace with Mrs. Whiskerson,'" he says. "Sure enough, she never attacked me again."
Home off the range
The Mrs. Whiskerson episode inspired "The Condition," one of the standout tracks from White Flight's eponymous debut released locally last April via Lawrence's Range Life Records.
Since then, Roelefs has followed his spirit animal as far away from Kansas as it will take him. He's performed Shiatsu massage on the streets of Central America, harvested the farms of Northern California, and camped out on the beaches of Hawaii. He's looked to ancient Chinese oracles for guidance, and attempted to tap into telepathy and extraterrestrial conspiracies.
"The UFO presence here in Hawaii is just so obvious," he says via cell phone from the beaches of Kauai, where he's been experiencing numerous bright-light sightings. "There's no doubt in my mind we're part of a galactic community. We're just remembering and waking up to that."
Meanwhile, back in Kansas, Range Life's main mover and shaker Zach Hangauer is waking up to the fact that his label's premier artist has never played a show-and may or may not return to the mainland.
Such considerations come on the heels of a fortuitous distribution deal with Saddle Creek Records that will put "White Flight" in front of a national audience on March 6.
"Justin has always been a bit of an extremist with what he pursues," says Hangauer, who grew up with Roelofs as neighbors in Overland Park. "He's making a very conscious decision that, in terms of his ability to understand and express and create music, the adventurous life is going to be far more fruitful than the stable life."
Roelofs has continued to compose music amidst his travels, albeit at a slower pace than his days with the Anniversary. He'd like to return to performing, but only if he can rewrite the book on what that entails.
"I'm not so convinced that the rock and roll club is where it's going to happen," Roelofs says, adding that he'd prefer to perform in a cave or a Greek-style theatre, and possibly involve dancing and other interactive elements.
"I really want it to be the most high and have the most effect on the listener," he says. "I keep waiting for these pieces of the puzzle to fit in that are showing me how to do that."
Though Roelofs hasn't set a timetable for returning to Kansas, Range Life is moving ahead.
In recent months, the label has acquired a publicist (Daniel Gill of Forcefield PR) and nurtured White Flight features in Fader and Urb magazines, as well as an album review in Spin and even props from NPR.
"To do publicity on your own outside the system, you are living your life as a cold caller," Hangauer says. "A publicist is a skilled gatekeeper, and they're the difference between legitimate exposure and just having to work so hard for it."
But the label's biggest break yet came when Hangauer drove up to Omaha and hashed out a partnership with Saddle Creek. The agreement makes Range Life the second label to be distributed by Saddle Creek, which has developed indie icons like the Faint, Bright Eyes, and Cursive (the label also distributes Conor Oberst's Team Love catalog).
According to Saddle Creek's Robb Nansel, the deal will pertain to all future Range Life releases.
"I told Zach at the time, 'If White Flight is the only record you plan on releasing, then this probably doesn't make sense,'" Nansel says. "Considering all the other bands that he's potentially going to be working with and what he hopes to develop, it seemed like it was a good fit for both of us."
Hangauer describes the partnership as a best-case scenario, enabling Range Life to retain its creative identity while elevating its public profile.
"Saddle Creek, quite frankly, would be making a really smart business decision just to stake its claim on Lawrence and to put out every good band that we have here," Hangauer says.
"Thank goodness that they're not trying to do that," he adds. "Lawrence has too much that is objectively good and marketable and translatable to a larger audience to let someone just claim it all."
Nor is Hangauer trying to cast a net across Mass. St. to scoop up Lawrence's best bands. Instead, he's kept things close to home, releasing his brother Patrick's "1,000,000 Light Years" instrumental project in conjunction with the album "White Flight," and etching out plans for an upcoming release from Fourth of July -the local indie rock ensemble featuring his brothers Brendan, Patrick, and Kelly.
According to Brendan Hangauer, lead singer and guitarist of Fourth of July, the venture has been a long time coming for all involved.
"It just seems like the most natural thing to start a business around it instead of sign to some label that doesn't care about us," he says. "Zach works all day every day on it, besides when he has to go to work to pay bills. He went over his cell phone minutes by like 5,000 the first month he had it."
Hint of a spark
Before Range Life can expand its roster, Zach Hangauer must endure an intense learning experience of the costs of doing business. With no investors and mounting credit card bills, he's learning to pick his battles.
"It's a dam, and there are places you can burst through this dam," he explains. "They're pretty specific places. You can burst through on the tour circuit; you can burst through with national media."
"One of the bursting points right now is a Pitchfork Review," he adds, referring to the popular online music zine. "It's the guerilla in the corner. It could be some rocket fuel or it could be a bucket full of ice water." (As it happens, Pitchfork reviewed "White Flight" this week-read it here.)
Needless to say, there will be trials along the way.
"Vice magazine gave us the middle finger, criticizing basically anyone who thinks they can come from the suburbs and make music that appeals to anyone cool," Hangauer says.
"Legitimacy has been a major factor in this. For some reason the critics of 'White Flight' wanna say that it sounds 'too bedroom' : somehow it doesn't seem legit, like Beck."
The 30-year-old visionary describes his role as that of a curator, positioning and nurturing the creative endeavors of others. It's an identity he's embraced after spending the majority of his 20s chasing his own artistic ambitions in Los Angeles, waiting tables at an upscale restaurant on Melrose and developing a screenplay for a Jack Black vehicle titled "Mr. Excitement."
"It needed a lot more work," he says. "I started rewriting and then I gave up."
- Friday, March 30, 2007, 10 p.m.
- Replay Lounge, 946 Mass., Lawrence
- 21+ / $2
On days when he wasn't suffocating from toxic smog, Hangauer would walk a couple miles to Amoeba Records, which he describes as "like Love Garden but the size of Wal-Mart." The daily pilgrimages whet his appetite for discovering new underground music, and the spark for Range Life went off when Roelofs sent him a package with three new home demos.
"I thought they were incredible songs in a very different way from the Anniversary or anything I'd known from Justin before," Hangauer says. "As deep as I was into that new music craze, those tracks that he sent me in the mail were, I thought, some of the best stuff I had come across."
Hangauer flew to Lawrence and made his pitch to Roelofs: he would finance the equipment needed to make a home recording, ensure complete artistic freedom, and give the album a proper release with a swank website.
"What was really comforting and heartening and inspiring to Justin was that he was being given the green light to do it however he wanted," Hangauer says. "I think if you would have listened to a potential White Flight record with less time, more deadlines - I think you would have heard a very different record that was far less dynamic."
The resulting 13-song collection is one of the most distinctive and compelling records ever to come out of Lawrence. But as Hangauer quickly discovered, the rest of the world is quite oblivious.
"I thought we were legitimized by Justin's past and the quality of the music that he is making now," Hangauer says of the launch of rangeliferecords.com in April 2006 (and the coinciding digital release of "White Flight").
"I thought it didn't matter if we had just come out of nowhere. We had no publicist; no one knew anything about it. There was no context, there was absolutely nothing. All of a sudden we existed as another blip on the massive radar of the worldwide web. From our perspective, we were a pretty big blip, or at least a bunch of small blips-but that's totally not accurate."
So began Range Life's quest for legitimacy.
Without solid distribution (promo versions of the CD did make it to a couple stores in Seattle and New York), Hangauer focused his efforts on the website. In addition to streaming the entire "White Flight" and "1,000,000 Light Years" albums, Hangauer and local filmmaker Brendan Costello set to work molding a distinctive video presence. To date, the duo has churned out eight music videos and a collection of shorts profiling the offbeat antics of the Range Life crew (one hilarious segment documents the team mock protesting the closing of a local McDonalds).
Costello also completed a documentary on the making of "White Flight" that will be included with the March 6 re-release. He's begun work on a sixth "White Flight" music video (for the song "Deathhands") and would like to eventually release a DVD compilation of Range Life videos.
"I just can't help but keep thinking of silly ideas for videos," Costello says. "A lot of the humor might feel a bit like an inside joke ... We're all just doing this for the love of it."
Hangauer credits Range Life graphic designer Jeffrey Isom and web guru Matthew Eastwood with helping the label build a fledgling identity. The collective has also benefited from the efforts of L.A.-based music supervisor Mollie Casey, who helped introduce "White Flight" to the mp3-blogging community and music supervisors for film and television.
"When you have all these resources, you feel like it's all in place-there's no excuse," Hangauer says. "We've got to put together some serious cash and get ourselves on some seriously safe terrain. We've got to find an island, basically, and once we're up on that island I want to put a bunch of messages in a bunch of bottles and send them all out."