Antwerp-based label Ekster is the brainchild of graphic designer Victor and producer Roman (also known as producer Hiele, who recorded an exclusive mix for us way back when), two like-minded creative spirits who’ve joined forces to launch what is arguably one of the sharpest and visionary record imprints in the country. With an approach that borders on the obsessive, their releases are anchored in an astute balancing act between style and substance. Indeed, beyond the actual music, each of their release is a work of art (think vacuum-packed limited editions that come complete with lose blends of tea leaves), a fact that has translated in the label gaining a cult following among hardcore vinyl addicts. Here, in a candid interview with the pair in their studio, we talk early beginnings, physical vs digital releases and losing money on their first release.
VICTOR: I think for me it started quite a long time ago actually. I was playing with the idea of starting a label because I had a lot of friends with similar musical interests, but I never really had the courage to take the step. I didn’t know anything about the legal aspects, and about the whole commercial aspect of the industry, which kind of scared me off. Eventually, I just started it because I thought “If I don’t do it, I will regret it in a couple of years,” you know. And also Roman was there at the right place and time, producing great music, so I was like “hey Roman, let’s do this together
He was very enthusiastic about it, so it kind of came naturally. I’m also very interested in the graphic aspect of producing the records, so that added even more motivation to start publishing. I think working on a record cover is, somehow, a very nice way to work with other people you look up to. Trying to enforce the music with the visual aspect.
ON THE EARLY DAYS
VICTOR: In the beginning of course you don’t have a clue what you are getting into. You don’t have any real contacts, don’t have any real idea how much things are going to cost. Of course you can make some calculations but, you know, like the first release we did, there were some mistakes, and then some money was lost and then you have to do it again. But yeah, we were very pleased that our first release, Hiele’s debut, was received well and sold out quite fast with some distribution help from Rush Hour.
ON BEGINNERS’ MISTAKES
ROMAN: We chose a pressing plant that just kind of fucked up the first test-pressing. And they didn’t agree with our remarks on the sound. It just sounded distorted.
VICTOR: Yeah we decided to go for the cheaper option which was a mistake. We were like, “oh this is this much money and it’s like a couple of hundred euros cheaper” but eventually if you want quality then you should not go for the cheapest. And you always want quality over quantity…
VICTOR: Choosing, even finding, the people to work with on the technical side was a bit difficult. For example there are so many places where you can master a record, and at the start we didn’t really know what to look for in a mastering studio. Like it’s good to work with someone who knows the vinyl production proces, and can for example make a good sounding master cut.
ROMAN: In the end, everything works out quite well just by stumbling onto things. Thing is,
there’s always going to be something to be said with every release and I think every label has that. But that shouldn’t put you down nor discourage you. It makes you learn and improve the next release.
VICTOR: Deciding on a price for our records was also tricky. In the beginning we had no clue and I actually sold my records too cheap. It was a lot of work. We silk-screened A1-size posters, folded them and hand-numbered all of them you know. I’s like putting your heart and soul in it for a couple of months and then you lose money in the end. The thing is, you can’t really predict these things. I think once you have a relatively steady system that you can use and work with, which we more or less have now, then you can keep rolling. Although there are still things in our system that definitely need to change.
We’re just as likely to do a hardcore techno record as we are a crazy digital ambient or an acoustic guitar one
ON THE LABEL
VICTOR: It’s a very personal thing, it’s very intuitive. And that’s how I want to keep it because the moment you feel that you are just publishing things for a grading audience or for the sales you kind of lose yourself. I want to at least try not to give into that, and keep it as interesting for ourselves as possible. I also think an aspect of the label is very much to feel free and do what we want without thinking too much of that commercial aspect. So we’re just as likely to do a hardcore techno record as we are a crazy digital ambient or an acoustic guitar one, you know. I kind of want to keep that freedom.
ROMAN: There are a lot of labels in general these days. And it takes a real effort to stand out from that and I think going that extra mile can provide that edge.
ON THE LABEL’S ROSTER
VICTOR: So far they are mostly people who are close to me, but I think it’s really more about the creative energy they have. I feel that a lot with Roman (Hiele), Han (Hantrax) and with Lars (TCF) too for example. They’re all really emotional people who follow their heart and their passion. I think that’s quite a crucial aspect of our roster. For Ekster in the future, that’ll also act as a common theme, something defining to hold on to.
ON THE BUSINESS MODEL
VICTOR: In the beginning it was very chaotic, there wasn’t really any model. I mean, I was just constantly on the lookout and we work with everybody in a different way. I didn’t have
any rules like when the preview should come online, how many months before the release
or whether distribution is found before. Now it’s all a bit more balanced and I found some structure and routine. I’m not saying everything is solid… We still work very intuitively.
VICTOR: I like both vinyl and digital… I really like vinyl because it seems to be the carrier of music that can go through time and has the most collecting appeal because of its size, weight and packaging. For me these factors make it very interesting.
ROMAN: It’s all a little bit absurd actually… it’s fetishism… I don’t know if it helps people love the music more. But it’s nice that vinyl still has this thing of everlasting medium.
ON DIGITAL RELEASES
VICTOR: We started off with the idea to do both: digital as well as vinyl releases. But then I decided that I would like for the label to really focus more on the physical releases. I let the artists sell their albums online, if they want to, once the records are sold out. I might return to also selling digitally in the future, but for now I’d like to focus on making strong physical products. A download is included with every release, for those who want the digital files.
ROMAN: Exactly. If people really want the music, they will buy the record.
ON REMAINING INDEPENDENT
VICTOR: It is very important for me because the label is not a profitable business. We just want to do our own thing, starting from our passion, like I said before… So yes I think remaining independent is very important. If somebody comes up to me and says “here’s a big pile of money but you have to change your label into something horrible,” it would have to be a very very big pile for me to say yes, haha! No, I’m not going to do anything just for the money.
ON THE LABEL’S NAME
VICTOR: Well there are a lot of small connections to the name. For starters, I’m a real bird lover in general. I think they are the most iconic and symbolically the nicest animals and I just really love them. A magpie (English for Ekster) is somehow a collector and Ekster also tries to collect series of music. I really like the freedom in the label, and a bird is kind of represented for its freedom. Also, the word ekster comes from the word “ak” or “ago,” which meant “sharp.” So Ekster actually means “the sharp one.”
VICTOR: For me it’s very important of course because that’s also a big reason why I started – I love being busy with the visual aspect. It’s the same with the music; I don’t want us to limit ourselves to a certain style too much. It would be nice that every record somehow surprises visually too.
ON WHO DOES WHAT
VICTOR: In the beginning I kind of did everything except making the music. I replied to all the emails, I looked for distribution, I even did a big part of the distribution and promotion.
ROMAN: We share the workload when it comes to communication or tasks like following up on upcoming projects or just looking out for stuff.
ON VINYL’S RESURGENCE
VICTOR: I think it’s nice… it would be silly to be against it since I’m busy with it myself. It’s always easy to complain like “oh no, now that everybody is going back to vinyl, pressing plants are overbooked and now I have to wait three months for this record.” I really don’t mind it that much… that’s how it goes and we work with it.
EXO: Ekster’s first compilation album released in December 2015 and limited to 400 copies.
ROMAN: I always found it really funny to bump into DJs and producers saying “I only use vinyl!” I find it snobby and it doesn’t make any sense because you are just limiting yourself to whatever is available.
VICTOR: We very much support the vinyl comeback but not to the level that it becomes snobby and that we don’t like other media. You should love everything in life. It’s like saying “I only work analog.” Why would you limit yourself to that? The digital world is just too interesting.
VICTOR: Sometimes you ask somebody for music and then they send it through and, well, you don’t always like it of course. But I also try to be honest about it. This is very personal. You ask somebody to do something and you’re not 100 percent sure of what they sent. It’s very difficult not to disappoint anyone then. But it doesn’t mean that I am not interested anymore. I just try to be as honest as I can about how I see something and if somebody is open to criticism and not too egocentric, then they will understand. Then, when the tracks are ready, we start brainstorming about the visual aspects, and how the full package should be. Most of the time it starts from the name. Then, when the music is getting mastered, this is when we start to work on the visual and then by the time we get the test-pressing, we can send it to the pressing plant. It gives us a little more time to ponder the visual side of each release.
ROMAN: It’s good to give time to the music, it has to grow. We have to be sure about it. It’s good to have this delay around during all the process, look back at it a few days later, a few weeks later even, and let the design impregnate itself of that time taken.
VICTOR: We have never made a record overnight. We always rework and rework it over again, in the time we have, until it’s really time to go to the plant.
ON RELEASE PARTIES
VICTOR: We did the Hantrax party in an old gay bar in Antwerp for example, which was great. Then we had the Jack and Riot release accompanied with food in a restaurant, and the Hiele releases in bigger venues, more club orientated. The Ssaliva release was more of an intimate live show on a sunday afternoon… So we’ve actually had different kinds of so- called parties that come in different forms.
ROMAN: It’s really important to have these different showcases. The type of event really depends on the artist and the type of music. We had four release parties which were more “club themed,” one with the TCF release, two times with Hiele, and one with the Hantrax release. On top of that we do Ekster nights gathering the artists of the label and others together. There are more of those coming up.
ON THE FUTURE
VICTOR: I definitely would like to keep the freedom and I would like to release music that we really like without compromise, and I think we could somehow show our passion in that way. I’d also love for people to help us out with the label, so we can move to a higher level.
ROMAN: It’d be great to have a higher pace of release, but nothing forced. It has to stay fun.
ON THE LOCAL SCENE
VICTOR: It’s really hard because I have the feeling that we’re on our own island, doing our own thing and we’re not super involved. It’s only recently that we’ve gotten to know a lot of people within the scene. I like a lot of the things that are coming out here in Belgium. Ultra Eczema, Entr’acte, WEME, JJ Funhouse, Bepotel, Vlek, Kraak, BAADM… to name a few.eksterlabel.com