Interview with Antonio Contiero

This past October saw the wedding of two very creative talents when shoegaze outfit Dear Eloise joined forces with the Italian design firm/specialty label Bubutz Records to create the packaging for “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the Beijing duo’s fuzzed-out rendition of the Velvet Underground ethereal psychedelic pop classic reworked with Chinese lyrics.

The result, a limited edition set of 30 handmade 7” picture discs individually lathe-cut and mounted on printed wooden bases, has set a new standard for packaging in the country with its lovingly-crafted exterior matching the heartfelt contents contained within.

We had a chance to catch up to mastermind Antonio Contiero to discuss his creative process, how he got dialed into the Chinese rock scene and what’s next for Bubutz Records.

Bubutz Records is pretty different from other labels out there…

We are first and foremost vinyl record collectors and this passion of ours is at the heart of our choices. I’ve held various jobs dealing with graphic design and photography for over 30 years: I’ve worked as a professional in a number of different fields, including classical ballet, fashion, record cover design, book design, publishing, magazines, comics and artistic typography.

When some friends and I decided to create a small record label almost as a joke, the idea was to merge various artisan and artistic abilities into a single “container”—the vinyl record and its packaging. The concept was to create a little work of art that encapsulated a number of values: the musical one, the text and its graphical representation and the support materials.

That’s why we chose to work with lathe cut: it allows us to work on limited quantities—even as little as one copy—which frees us from the quantity problems that are typical of industrial production.

What interests you about such ultra-limited runs?

Limiting the quantity means being able to pay more attention to the details and aim for the people who are looking for an exclusive product that is often created using precious materials. In the past few years, my work has also involved the commerce of old books and engravings, something that has influenced me in my research for materials, from specific types of paper and wood to movable type printing both with lead and wood type pieces.

The quality of a text assembled by hand and printed with a press can’t even be compared to that produced with an industrial machine. Sometimes it shows small imperfections, but that’s part of the beauty of handmade work.

Can you explain a little about what a lathe cut is—the different techniques used and how it’s different from the way vinyl records are normally produced?

Lathe cut is the very same process used in the production of normal vinyl records. Usually the lathe is used to engrave the lacquers on an acetate (in negative) which are then used as matrixes for the mothers from which metal stampers are formed, which in turn allows for the production of normal vinyl records.

To manufacture picture discs in our case, we cut a positive of every copy on a special plastic support that is suitable for high-fidelity sound reproduction. Lathe cuts usually are lo-fi and mono, but we can produce lathe cuts in hi-fi and stereo. For mono records, we use an old valve Lyric lathe that allows for excellent sound reproduction.

You focus on creating releases that also double as works of art and have even done gallery events with some of your releases. Are you intentionally trying to create a more direct interaction between music and art movements?

Yes, our interest has always been that of attracting the attention of musicians and record labels that are interested in experimentation. Not just music-wise, but also in the more general artistic sense—including the graphic and visual representation of the record as a work of art.

We work to create events that bring musicians and artists of other branches together to unite their experience and abilities, turning the record into a container for innovative spirit that allows an exchange between artists from all over the world.

You are based in Italy and have worked with artists from across Europe. What made you want reach out to Chinese artists?

I happened to see a Carsick Cars video on TV some years ago and it made a huge impression on me. I started looking for more information on the Internet and I soon discovered things that are virtually unknown to us Europeans—such as the independent record label Maybe Mars in China and Tenzenmen in Australia.

I immediately bought lots of records from Tenzenmen that allowed me to understand how advanced the Chinese music scene was and the pinnacle of quality that it had reached. I discovered that the formation of these young musicians was often the result of college studies and of a profound knowledge of what had been done up to that point—especially in the West.

The fusion between this knowledge and an experimentation sometimes pushed to the extreme brought about the creation of a new language—one that I find especially fascinating. So I asked if there was a way to create a collaboration that, with our great pleasure, turned out to be possible.

Why did you decide to work with [harsh noise act] Torturing Nurse and Dear Eloise? Was it something about their music that interested you?

Thanks to Tenzenmen and Maybe Mars, we discovered a new world, one that was dynamic and full of countless influences touching upon every musical genre, from rock and punk to noise, neo-folk and musique concrete. Artists such as Xiao He, Carsick Cars, Snapline, Joyside, Ourselves Beside Me, Muscle Snog, Low Wormwood, Torturing Nurse and Dear Eloise allowed us to open a door to a world of sounds that we, in all honesty, didn’t imagine could exist in China.

This was exciting and stimulating—working with artists not yet contaminated by the logic of business and its deformations—because it allowed us to plan works in absolute freedom, using in full the openness and the competence of the musicians and their producers. What impresses us the most is that we’re talking about independent producers and independent musicians that take risks and believe in their works with great autonomy and even greater passion. We have found in them the sincere passion that here in Europe, and maybe in America too, has become increasingly rare.

Can you describe how the Torturing Nurse release was produced and what materials and processes you used?

Funny enough, I had just taken some weird, distorted photos with the help of a friend who is an artist and a photographer. At almost the same time, I had been discussing with [Tenzenmen label head] Shaun the idea of putting together a 7” with Junkie. I showed him those photos that to me, appeared to be just perfect for tracks such as “Survive” and “Life.”

The photos show a decomposing face, fluid and repulsive, that could somehow help to reflect upon the unpleasant, almost unbearable sounds that Torturing Nurse were creating. The idea of the survival of a life that has been pushed to the limit seemed to us to be well represented by those photos and Shaun and [Torturing Nurse mastermind] Junkie agreed with us.

As for the materials, we thought about a base of untreated wood, using stamps, and a square shape that became an integral part of the record as much as the cover. All other parties involved liked this idea as well.

What problems did you have with the Torturing Nurse release? I heard that the high frequencies were fucking up your machine.

Yes, the machines used to cut records are extremely delicate—especially at the very high frequencies often employed by Torturing Nurse for the creation of their sounds and noises. Frequency peaks can damage the Neumann cutter head and the cutting bit, which are very expensive—around 5000€ (40,240RMB). Because of this, we had to limit the direct cut to only nine copies and decided to cut more using a less sensitive plant in the US.

Many musicians, not facing the problem of having to make vinyl records, take advantage of digital means to create sounds and lengths that traditional records aren’t capable to withstand. To be more exact, the cutting process involves extremely high raw material prices and mistakes are very common. All it takes is a small electronic imperfection in the transmission of the music, a problem with the aspiration of the filament, or any other mishap, however small, and the matrix we’re cutting must be thrown away.

What materials did you use for the Dear Eloise release? Did you try out anything new or was it fairly similar to the other releases you have done?

For Dear Eloise, we again worked with a wooden base, but this time we used round ones as well as square and we printed an insert using an original Liberty wooden type set dating from early 1900 and an antique printing press.

When you work on a release, you often experiment with the design and different sorts of materials. Are there other releases that you tried that just didn’t work or turned out drastically different than you planned?

The work is designed on the basis of the experience of a number of people. As everybody else, these days we work with computers, so we’re able to simulate to a large degree the characteristics of any given handmade piece. Sometimes, though not all, that one has imagined can be turned into reality, but most of the time that’s just because of cost constraints.

Do you have future plans to work with Chinese artists? If there are musicians here that are interested, how should they go about applying to work with you?

I am very interested to continue working with Chinese artists—I like their approach to, and how they develop their, creativity. If any band wants to contact us, they can contact us through our Discogs page or by sending us an email.