The Story Of Mexican Summer In 10 Records

IT’S hard to believe that Mexican Summer has only been around for a single decade.

The Brooklyn label has been instrumental in nurturing some of today’s defining indie artists – from Kurt Vile to Ariel Pink, Best Coast to Oneohtrix Point Never – while building up a catalogue that’s as consistent as it is adventurous.

And while soft-focus rock, stark folk and spacious ambience are among the label’s most common sweet spots, it never dwells in just one sound.

Founded by Keith Abrahamsson and Andrés Santo Domingo as a speciality offshoot of established label Kemado, where Keith worked in A&R until 2007, Mexican Summer was named after a song by Marissa Nadler.

“I started to conceptualise the idea of creating an imprint that would allow me to be a bit more free.”

The label arose to release limited 7” singles and other such spontaneous releases that wouldn’t be possible under Kemado’s more restrictive deals. Fast forward 10 years, and the label just celebrated its latest milestone with the one-day Brooklyn festival A Decade Deeper and a 13-track compilation of the same name.

Talking by phone ahead of the festival, Keith set the scene for the label’s origin story.

“I started to conceptualise the idea of creating an imprint that would allow me to be a bit more free,” he recalls. “[Kemado] were doing multi-record deals, locked into this archaic way of putting out records. For what I was hoping to do at that time, it wasn’t the right vehicle.”

Mexican Summer debuted with a limited-run 12” single from Swedish rockers Dungen, whom Keith had signed to Kemado. That was followed by a series of subscription-only singles before branching into albums and EPs by Nadler, The Tallest Man on Earth and others.

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In 2010, the label struck gold with Best Coast’s Crazy for You, a touchstone indie album of the past decade.

Today, the label boasts a staff of 18 and a second office in London. “It’s wild,” muses Keith.

“It’s become a much different thing now.” It has also outlived Kemado while continuing to incubate acts lurking well beneath the radar, including Australian artists such as Lace Curtain, Andras Fox, Lower Plenty and Terrible Truths.

“That’s the dream and the thrill,” he says, “to find someone at that stage and help it develop. That’s really the ultimate goal.”

Other highlights have included the launch of its own imprints and side projects, such as the electronic-leaning Software Recording Co.; the reissue and publishing arm Anthology; and the annual festival Marfa Myths, which has spawned a series of collaborative EPs.

And as much as things have changed over the past 10 years, Mexican Summer honoured its origins nicely by limiting the A Decade Deeper compilation to just 300 vinyl copies, selling out in a matter of hours.

“We were by no means reinventing the wheel,” Keith says. “I just saw an opportunity to do something that was creatively good for my soul.”

He also had some sterling role models from his youth. “Growing up, labels like Dischord and SST and Siltbreeze were pretty important to me,” he admits. “The loyalty they inspired in their audience has always been a real inspiration to me.”

In honour of Mexican Summer’s thriving first decade, Keith has singled out one release from each year of the label’s life to unpack its unique story.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

Can’t Hear My Eyes/Evolution’s a Lie 7” (2008)

Only the label’s seventh release, this two-song gem typifies Mexican Summer’s knack for curating limited-run singles that develop a immediate cult following. It was also the start of a fruitful working relationship with underground pop visionary Ariel Pink, who performed at the label’s fifth and 10th anniversary shows. Both songs appear in slightly different form on Ariel’s breakthrough 2010 album Before Today, and after Pink finished his deal with 4AD, he returned to Mexican Summer to release 2017’s acclaimed Dedicated to Bobbi Jameson.

I was a huge fan of his. [2003’s] Worn Copy was something I played over and over again. So the idea that I could put music out with him was just crazy. I met him in around 2007, and nobody really cared then. Both of those tracks ended up on that first 4AD record. I thought they were fucking incredible; I couldn’t believe it. I mean, our version of ‘Can’t Hear My Eyes’ sounded like Fleetwood Mac. He’s just a chameleon, he can put out anything he wants. We’ve got a lot more coming up with him.

Again operating well ahead of the curve, the label released an early album by Philly slacker royalty Kurt Vile two years before his breakthrough Smoke Ring for My Halo. Balancing fleeting fragments with more developed songs, the sleepy home-recorded collection has since been repressed “a lot,” according to Keith.

I heard Constant Hitmaker in 2008 – I must have played ‘Freeway’ a thousand times. From that point, I started a dialogue with Kurt. I remember seeing him in Austin one year in a living room with like 10 people. It was a cool time – a lot of the bands that are now the staples of the “indie” scene were coming up then. He was on a path to work with Matador, but we decided we would do something together. It’s a collection of CD-Rs and various tracks he had kicking around. There’s an intimacy to that record that I don’t think he’s really captured in that way since. Obviously I’m a little biased, but there’s something pretty special about it.

Tamaryn

The Waves (2010)

California dream-pop sorceress Tamaryn – here working with collaborator Rex John Shelverton – strongly evokes the rich legacy of shoegaze music, whether via immersive washes of effects or smouldering vocals. There’s a goth edge to some of her work too, and vibrant melodies at work in songs like ‘Love Fade’. Whichever way she drifts, this is an album to get lost in.

She made [a 2008 debut] EP called Led Astray, Washed Ashore. There was a track called ‘Return to Surrender’ that was just insane to me. I grew up a big fan of Siouxsie [and The Banshees] and The Chameleons, and hearing her do that stuff in such a convincing fashion, I had to hear more. There was nobody doing stuff like that – nobody that I knew of – at that time.

When we put on a show in Big Sur [California] in 2009 at the Henry Miller Library [called Party in the Pines]. It was this amazing all-day show [with] Kurt, Ariel, Gang Gang Dance, Dungen. Tamaryn came down from San Francisco, and that’s when I first met her. We were both into Brett Anderson and The London Suede, and early Byrds records. She didn’t have a deal, so we worked together on The Waves and couple more records. It’s such an incredibly dark, beautiful record. ‘Love Fade’ is the classic shoegaze vibe, but the record is a lot more than that. It transcends that.

Oneohtrix Point Never

Replica (2011)

Brooklyn composer/producer Daniel Lopatin co-founded the Mexican Summer imprint Software, through which he released his breakthrough fifth album as Oneohtrix Point Never. Blurring the lines between wavering ambience, glitch-y samples, rumbling noise and meditative piano, Replica is by turns soothing and jarring, conveying an eroded beauty that Daniel would fragment even further from here.

We’re not going platinum with any of these records, but it was certainly a critical smash. And for me, a real high point at that point. I met Dan right around the time he released [2010’s] Returnal. He was simultaneously releasing music with a childhood friend of his, Joel Ford, under the name Games. That stuff was more like crazy, lethargic, weird mixes [of] amazing MIDI-funk, ’80s-synth stuff. We started talking and decided it would be cool to start an imprint together, so that was where Software was born. We signed Oneohtrix and Games, which became Ford & Lopatin.

So they started producing records out of our studio [Gary’s Electric Studio], and one of those was Replica. I remember hearing that stuff and thinking, “Man, this guy is just a total fucking genius.” To me, it’s still his most poignant recording statement, and the title track alone puts him in a whole different conversation. It just went beyond electronic music at that point. And he’s managed to continue that thread with what he’s doing [through to the present]. He’s on a completely different level.

Mike Wexler

Dispossession (2012)

Another genre-blurring Brooklyn iconoclast, Mike Wexler broadens finger-picked folk with deep shades of jazz, psych and prog rock. Usually taking four or five years between albums, he’s not the most prolific songwriter, but his winding, fully realised compositions are well worth the wait. His second album, and only one for Mexican Summer, is a slow-burn wonder that deserves at least a cult following.

He put out a record in 2007 called Sun Wheel that was really great. Just incredible finger-picking. I was floored. [This one is] a really dark, ornate, folk record [with John] Fahey-level playing. He’s such an incredible talent, and really unsung. I wish we’d been able to push him further with that record. It got really good reviews and Mike toured a lot, but it just became a cool catalogue piece. It definitely deserves attention – if you’re going to listen to it, you need to sit down and put headphones on.

A lot of Pitchfork reviews mention Mexican Summer by name in the actual review. Most labels wouldn’t warrant that, but here it’s part of the context.

That’s what we strive for. For me, all the labels I loved were building a loyalty and reputation with the people that are buying your records. Believing in the taste. They might not know what the record is, but since you put it out, they might take a chance. That’s the ultimate compliment.

No single act captures the label’s vast stylistic spectrum like Lansing-Dreiden, a shape-shifting group that Keith originally signed to Kemado. Mexican Summer reissued a trio of their releases in 2013, sparking a reappraisal of music that initially sounded quite far out. In a current context, it comes off as endlessly inventive, with genre-hopping transitions occurring in mid-thought. Whether swinging between carnival-esque bubblegum, steamy synth-pop or cerebral funk, Lansing-Dreiden prove far more sincere than their arty reputation would have you think.

They’re like an art collective, but they wanted to be called a company. They wouldn’t do interviews – they sent a representative to do press for them. They wouldn’t play live – they hired a cover band to play their songs live. It was super conceptual, and it really pissed people off. It made people so fucking mad. Pitchfork gave it a [3.7]; I don’t know if you can even find the original review of The Incomplete Triangle, but they completely destroyed it. And they didn’t destroy it on the merits of the musicianship or songcraft, they destroyed it because of the level of pretence.

For refusing to play the game?

Exactly. And when we reissued it, they gave [The Dividing Island] Best New Reissue, because it’s fucking amazing. They were so ahead of their time. The main guy [Jorge Elbrecht] produced a lot of records for us over the years. We’ve released a lot of his solo material, and he’s in Ariel’s band. He’s just an incredible talent.

The records themselves are this crazy fusion of ideas. They were from Miami, so there was a lot of Miami bass stuff [in there]. And Beach Boys harmonies. before people were really doing the Beach Boys thing [again]. And Phil Spector-style production. Then there’d be really devastating riffs, like borderline metal/punk riffs. It was this total future-pop vibe, and I don’t think people were ready for it.

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma

A Year With 13 Moons (2014)

Like Daniel Lopatin, San Francisco composer Jefre Cantu-Ledesma has a talent for mingling New Age-y ambient bliss with corrosive noise. Jefre, who has played in acts like The Alps and Tarentel, also co-founded the influential drone-leaning label Root Strata, which released records by Harold Budd, Grouper, Golden Retriever and Christina Carter before shuttering this year. His shimmering, all-instrumental 2014 album opens with a hypnotic eight-minute statement before turning the focus to more ephemeral, but no less lovely, one- and two-minute pieces.

The label really balances traditional songwriting with these quite abstract records.

I think that goal has been a through line with the label. I like these curveballs. And it’s a real representation of my personal tastes. I’m really attracted to weirdo pop records, but I’m also really beautiful folk and noise or synth music. The idea of creating a label identity to capture all of those things is really appealing to me – putting out records like, “Whoa, where the fuck did this come from?” It does feel like [those different] things make sense on Mexican Summer.

[On one of Jefre’s earlier albums], on one side there’s this real ambient bliss, and then it’s this real fucked-up noise record. That was right at home with us. We’re close to wrapping up his new record.

Dungen

Allas Sak (2015)

Swedish psych-rock ensemble Dungen have been around since the turn of the millennium; in fact, Tame Impala often got compared to them at their start. They’re another band that Keith carried over from Kemado, and their seventh album was their first new LP in five years. It’s just as potent as the rest of their catalogue, working from a widescreen palette of dank riffs, sumptuous drum fills, placid Swedish-language vocals and much dreamy embellishment.

I’ve been working with those guys for so long, it’s hard for me to imagine that there was ever a time I was doing this without them. I started working with them at Kemado in 2004. It’s been a really long and fruitful partnership, and we continue to put their records out. They’re dear friends of mine now.

I think people had written them off, in a way, before this record came out. I look at this as a comeback moment for them. They’d been gone for several years at that point, so people were ready for a new record. For me, some of my favourite moments [of theirs] are on thus record: like, ‘Franks Kaktus’ has a saxophone solo. Dungen were also the very first record that Mexican Summer ever released – a 12-inch for ‘Sätt Att Se’.

I love that soundtrack they did [2016’s Häxan].

That record is fantastic – it’s their score for an 1926 animated silent film called The Adventures of Prince Achmed. They toured it in select cities with the film, and they’d score it live. It was completely transcendent. I literally cried when I saw it. If they’re ever doing it anywhere near you, get a ticket.

Allah Las

Calico Review (2016)

One of the more “indie”-sounding bands on the label, Los Angeles quartet Allah Las pull together warm threads of ’60s psych and folk with a laidback airiness. More often than not, they actually sound like some lost band from that classic era, whose work was discovered in a neglected attic and promptly dusted off for rediscovery.

I remember hearing tracks like ‘Catamaran’ and ‘Tell Me (What’s on Your Mind)’ on their self-titled record [from 2012]. I was in awe of their ability to craft something that was so pure and didn’t feel like a rehash. It’s really hard to do the jangly garage pop thing and not have it feel tired. They put out another one called Worship the Sun [in 2014], which I just played endlessly. After that record, I had to work with them. This turned out to be the record where they stretched out that formula a bit and experimented. They created more of a subdued atmosphere. I always [compare it to] The Byrds’ Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde album, which is like the dark horse of their catalogue.

Weyes Blood & Ariel Pink

MYTHS 002 (2017)

A fruit of the label’s multi-disciplinary Texas festival of the same name, the Marfa Myths series documents an annual artist residency pairing two different acts. Collaborators thus far have included Connan Mockasin and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, Dungen and Woods, and Weyes Blood and Ariel Pink, whose four song EP is a startling mind meld of psychedelic folk and outsider pop.

About six years ago, we put on a show in Marfa, Texas, which is rural west Texas. It’s the high plains, 5000 feet above sea level. A bunch of artists set up shop there in the ’70s. The community itself is really unique; it’s hard to articulate what is so special about it. We all fell in love with it from the first time we went there. We put on an outdoor show – it was 80 degrees the day before, and then the day of our show, it was like 40 degrees. It was a rough go, but we decided to do it again and expand the programming each year with outside, off-label artists and visual art. Our partner, Ballroom Marfa, are the main gallery space in town. They’d open their spring show around the same time, and we started adding some film stuff. It became this tiny, tightly curated accident.

We also introduced the idea of a music residency, and we had Connan Mockasin and Dev Hynes do eight days in a studio there, which was pretty much improvised. Then they did an impromptu live set at the end of the week. That set the tone for future residencies, and the third year, we invited Ariel to come record with Natalie Mering, who is Weyes Blood. I think one song in particular, ‘Tears on Fire’, is one of the best things that either of them has ever recorded. It’s so fucking good, and people weren’t ready, man. You’ve just got to give it time. [Laughs] I truly love it, and I hope one day it will be looked at as a classic. I think it deserves to be.

You also started the Anthology imprint, which has reissued Australian stuff like Tully, Andrew Kidman and Taman Shud.

Mikey [Young] and I are actually co-curating another compilation that’s sort of a sister comp [to 2017’s Follow the Sun compilation]. It’s going to be lost and unsung North American artists [rather than Aussies this time]. I just have a real fondness for the music that comes out of Australia. Not intentionally, Anthology became a thing that was really Australia-centric. We did an Eddy Current Suppression Ring 7-inch on Mexican Summer in 2010, so I’ve known Mikey for years. We did the Lace Curtain project together too.

Connan Mockasin

Jassbusters (2018)

Unusual even by Mexican Summer standards, the third album by the New Zealand native is intended to accompany his “five-part melodrama film” Bostyn ’n Dobsyn. The album itself ranges from bluesy soft rock to warbled bedroom pop to glacial R&B. It’s quiet and often inscrutable, yet just as immaculately lovely and fully realised as anything else that Connan has done – alone or collaboratively.

Connan is another one of those guys that almost feels like a co-ambassador of the label, along with Ariel. He’s certainly the unofficial ambassador of Marfa: he’s been there every year with us. And he’s become one of my best friends in the world. He just moved to Japan. I loved his records for so long, it’s weird to work with someone like that. We’re working with Cate Le Bon now too, whose records I worshipped for so long. Same with Jessica Pratt. All these people I work with, I’m in awe of their talent.

With Connan, [2011’s] Forever Dolphin Love was one of those records were I was like, “What the fuck is this? How is it possible that yet another great thing is coming out of Australia or New Zealand?” I couldn’t believe it. I started trying to feel my way around how I could work with him, because his records weren’t really available in the States. I knew he had a deal overseas, and I knew he had toured in Radiohead and played in the backing band for Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Yeah. In America there was a very tight circle of people who seemed to be aware of him, but for the most part he was an unknown here. I was able to strike up a license deal to put out Forever Dolphin Love, but [more] to put out Caramel in 2013. We brought him over and he played our five-year anniversary party, which was the first time he played in America.

Even from that first show, there was something really special about his command of the audience. It’s not like a bombastic show, [but] he knows how to really work the crowd from the ground up, and build it from this real low point up until people are frenzied, basically. People were on stage taking their clothes off! He had them hypnotised. And I saw him do it repeatedly. It’s the best energy I’ve been around at a live show ever. He would bring all these dancers on stage, and Mac DeMarco in his underwear would be on Connan’s shoulders playing bass. It was ridiculous shit, like the circus or something. He’s just this magnetic guy that you want to be near.

This record ties back to some of the multi-disciplinary stuff we’ve talked about, where music crosses over into movies and beyond.

Definitely. I think there’s an unspoken truth out there among certain artists, where the traditional record cycle is just becoming a grind. It’s becoming boring. People are trying to figure how to break the mould, like, “How can I do something interesting that’s going to challenge people?” Something that’s not just going through the motions: making another record, going on another tour. Connan is always asking those questions.

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