A warmer place: Experimental label Headway Recordings offers an interior experience

Cumulus performs at a recent Headway show. Cumulus photo courtesy Headway. Other photos by Yeager St. John.

The first Headway Recordings event was at Izzy’s Coffee Den on Lexington Avenue, where Headway’s founders worked as baristas. The downtown café featured Dean Inman’s project Sys-hex, along with future Headway/Bathetic artist Villages. “We played to about 10 people,” says Inman. “But 10 really receptive people.”

Though small, it was this group of artists, audience, promoters, and venue owners that laid the foundation for the community to come. For four years, that community grew into a powerful force for local experimental music, and Headway grew into an organization capable of sustaining that force.

If the typical sequence goes band, record label, concerts, then Asheville's Headway started backward. Headway began in 2008 as a series of live events — Headway Presents — at Izzy’s. Its purpose was to provide support for “an aesthetic outside the realm of the mainstream [that] needed a live audience and a venue,” says co-founder and musician Christopher Ballard.

At the time, Ballard was a barista at Izzy’s, along with Headway Recordings co-founders and musicians Gentry and Inman.

“Headway was pretty much a reaction to us feeling like the town was in a lull of venues for weirdo/outsider music,” says Inman. “It just got to a point where we figured we might as well build it ourselves.”

That’s A Thing

Tape it

Headway's operational motto, coined by Inman on a show flier, is “Ambient, Experimental and Uncommon Music.” And although the group isn’t opposed to setting up shows for more accessible styles like punk and metal, the members have always aimed to spotlight the experimental community first.

Noise complaints now prohibit Izzy’s from holding live shows, but other Lexington Avenue venues like Static Age Records, Broadway's and pedal manufacturer Blackout Effectors have kept the music series in a continued, if nomadic home. And in May of 2012, Ballard and Gentry were finally able to turn Headway Presents into Headway Recordings, thanks to the financial support of the community. (Inman has since moved to Colorado.) “When you support Headway-booked shows, you're partially funding an independent record label [that] is more than likely releasing an album by a friend of yours,” Ballard explains.

Headway shows resemble jazz or classical music in their live setting. The performances emphasize subtlety in texture and mood, and often involve some form of live experimentation. In other words, you’ll find a listening audience. If you’ve been to a Headway show, you know the crowd typically sits rapt as a typical chamber-music crowd.

That’s a Thing

“That’s a Thing” (insert) / HWY 010

The formats of Headway releases seem to encourage the same involved, deliberate approach to listening. At-home versions of the Headway experience command a similar focus. Although Headway releases some digital versions, the label has so far released cassettes almost exclusively — a format even more rarefied than vinyl. The analog versus digital question may have many answers, but Headway’s catalog makes its position clear — that the tangible form of vinyl record and cassettes does produce a different, warmer listening experience than computer-based reproduction. Perhaps the material, physical mechanism of these formats ensures that one generally won’t listen by accident.

The object of music

Many so-called boutique labels have attempted to promote the tactile listening experience (most notably, as relates to Headway, Factory Records and Fast Product of the ‘70s and ‘80s). The medium becomes a piece of art itself.

Forming amid the growth of post-punk in Britain in the mid-to-late ‘70s, both Fast and Factory valued the object of the music, its form of distribution, as art. Factory assigned catalog numbers to everything from events it hosted to plastic bags with Xeroxed flyers inside. A Durutti Column album had a sandpaper sleeve in order to destroy neighboring albums on the shelf. And every Factory release came with exquisite cover art, like Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, a graphic piece courtesy of house designer Peter Saville that shows a seismograph-type set of lines gathered to points at the center like a mountain range.

Placing such a high value on the look (and touch) of an album, and not just its sound, is something Headway has taken to heart. “Not only do we want to keep the aesthetic of the music interesting, we also place importance on format and packaging,” Ballard says. Even when the label strays from its vinyl and cassette foundation, as they did when they released a Nomeadze album as a CD-R, they never lose sight of presenting the product as a work of art.

Bad Command or File Name / “Split /Union” / HWY 009

While the CD may lack the lauded “warmth” of vinyl and cassette, Headway compensated for the material difference with a booklet with art by Will Isenogle, one half of the duo, along works by poet Jesse Crawford. “The ornate packaging and classic formats are as beautiful, real and warm as the sounds contained therein,” Ballard says.

Adds Gentry: “It's a big endeavor. But it feels incredibly rewarding to put some awesome music on a physical format and share it with the world.

Hard rock

Though the sense of art and play involved in these types of releases may be thrilling, it’s rarely easy. “Chris and Ross have put in a lot of work to bring the experimental music scene to a new prominence in Asheville,” says Bhutanese avant-garde guitarist Tashi Dorji, Headway’s top-selling artist and whose cassette was the label’s first release.

Since then, Headway Recordings has put out four more albums, including the CD by Nomeadze. Like Headway, Nomeadze is a collaboration between two members of Asheville’s experimental scene. Aside from making music as Merryl, Isenogle also curated the past two Foogmess music festivals, a weekend-long tongue-in-cheek complement to the more visible Moogfest. And the other member of the Merryl, David Grubba, makes music as Enea, and is one of the founders of Apothecary, a community art space that’s fast becoming the unofficial hub of local experimental music.

Navigating the logistics of physical releases for an independent label can be challenging, but it’s certainly not without its rewards. “By curating shows and releasing music on their label, they have brought a lot of local musicians and listeners together,” says Dorji.

Keep Asheville (conditionally) weird

Like Factory Records and other small, community-run labels, Headway doesn’t sign contracts with its artists. The label makes sure that as much of the money as possible from a release goes back into the hands of the musicians. The art-and-community-centric business model has won the group support in Asheville and beyond. For example, after the loss of Izzy’s, “When we had to find new venue space, it didn't take long for folks to come to the rescue,” says Ballard.

Andrew Williams from (Sky Lake) performs at a recent Headway show.

But putting out music in Asheville is all harmony and buddies and pals. As many in the more experimental corners of the art scene have found, Asheville isn’t always as accepting of the weird as its residents purport. “In Asheville, it’s difficult to get people to come to a show that isn't feel-good party music,” says Ballard. “Our artists are pushing the envelope, in keeping not only with the contemporary avant-garde, but with progressive takes on traditional music as well.”

It’s that focus on the contemporary and modern that sometimes alienates groups like Headway from the larger Asheville scene. With Asheville’s focus on tourism, traditional and folk styles of art and music often take precedent over the less-accessible sounds of noise, experimental and non-crowd-pleasing forms of electronic music.

Still, Headway’s name is getting out more, with the strength of its releases and the commitment of its founders. “I think most people, whether they're into the music or not, can look at what we're doing and see that we're passionate about it and completely dedicated to pushing it as far as we can,” says Gentry. The core community remains intact, along with the ideals they originally held. And the years have only added to its numbers. New venues, artists, and organizations continue to manifest in Asheville.

Says Ballard: “As long as we continue to expose people to the immense talent this town has to offer, we're following through with the goals we set for ourselves.”

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