Meet the Maker: Mississippi Records

Sep 12, 2018

The Albina neighborhood in Portland, Oregon has a long history in the music industry. Originally the jazz hub of old Portland, the streets around Mississippi Avenue housed some of the best musical minds and performances in town. As time rolls on, we continue to be humbled by the creators and curators who support our city's musical outlets.

Mississippi Records first opened on Mississippi Avenue in 2003, right next door to The Fresh Pot, one of Stumptown's oldest wholesale partners. From the beginning, we've been hypnotized by the incomparable collection that has evolved out of founder Eric Isaacson's personal musical library. Never afraid to open up a sealed LP, anyone who steps in to his space is welcomed to sit down at a little turntable by the window, and listen to anything they want, for as long as they please. We’ve discovered so much of our favorite music through this magical little shop. He has a knack for finding rarities and yet to be revered albums, often compiling them on cassette mix tapes with hand drawn album art. Eventually, Eric started re-issuing some of his favorite vinyl finds, evolving his shop to include a record label that distributes the best tunes sourced from around the planet.

Starting this week, all Stumptown cafes will be playing a curated selection of music from the Mississippi Records music label in the mornings. We sat down with the record label’s originator Eric Isaacson and friend Gordon Ashworth, to talk about how the label got started and where it’s going. Gordon’s been a longtime human of Stumptown, working first on our team in Portland, and now at our cafe in Chicago. You may have seen him featured in the latest issue of Bloom.

Stumptown: Eric, you’ve been supplying us with the best archival and beloved tunes for years now. How did Mississippi Records get started?

Eric Isaacson: Mississippi started back in 2003. Really - I just was having a spiritual crisis, did not know what to do with my life and could not find a job - so I opened the shop out of desperation. I had no business plan, no capital and no expectations for it to last more than 6 months. It was just a fun experiment. This was back when you could start a business in Portland for $5,000 - which is what I had saved up from my previous job. The day I opened I had $50 in ones and fives in the register and no idea how I would pay rent or eat if no one came in. I put every book and record I owned for sale in the shop and did not have any savings or anything else to hock.

Mississippi Records has never had a computer or a credit card machine - just a notebook and a calculator. We've never advertised and never had a website. We still operate like that! It's 15 years later and we are miraculously still here - pretty much unchanged from day one. It's like I always say, "Fuck progress." Take that Portland!

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Stumptown: We are so excited to have Mississippi Records in our Stumptown cafes. How did you curate this first selection?

Eric Isaacson: Quite simple - I thought about records I'd want to hear while working at or hanging out at a cafe. Not boring music, but not overly aggressive. Luckily, the Mississippi label puts out a lot of mellow but not boring music. I was a barista back in 1992 (!) and I loved soundtracking the cafe. Music can make or break the atmosphere of a coffee shop. It's a dangerous game and baristas should take soundtracking their day very seriously. It's a balancing act over what you want to hear, what your co-workers want to hear and what the customers want to hear. I hope/pray the records I suggested for the cafes serve as good tools to make the day more pleasant for everyone.

Stumptown: In the beginning, Mississippi Records was simply a fantastic record shop with rare finds and yet-to-be-discovered classics. At what point did it become a label?

Eric Isaacson: It became a label by default. Some folks who worked at the shop wanted to put stuff out and needed an address and name for their individual releases - so the first 5 Mississippi releases had nothing to do with me. There was a pop record by store employee Alex Yusimov featuring lots of horns and background singers, an audio zine about a case of Police brutality in Portland by store employee Erin Yanke, a memorial record by the Spooky Dance Band for the O.G electronics repair man at Mississippi, Orion, (who passed away the first month we were open), and a cassette by a punk band featuring Rhythm Kenally (lead singer and songwriter at the age of 10), Marisa Anderson (the best guitarist in Portland), and me (the worst drummer in Portland).

Warren Hill, an old friend of mine since I was a teenager who now runs Little Axe, and I decided to do a couple releases on a lark. Just a couple fun little records that we could sell at our shops and at a few friends’ shops. We had no plans to do more than those two and expected it to take years to sell them all. Instead they sold out in a couple months. No other labels were putting out vinyl of the kinds of stuff we were into, like African acoustic guitar music, 1920's - 30's country blues, deep gospel and so on. We kind of had the whole field to ourselves for a hot minute. We were selling out of everything, no matter how esoteric, within weeks! Now there are 100's of labels doing this kind of thing, but 2004 were different times. Thanks to our good timing, we thrived and started putting out records at a clip of almost one per week. Nowadays we ain't such hot shit and we're lucky to just be here - but man oh man, were we slinging records for a minute there. We were the first label to reissue stuff from the 90's like Dead Moon and the Ex! We got to expand into almost every genre including soul, psych rock, Indian ragas, and classical music. It got a little mad. The label has released over 230 records and 130 cassettes now.

Stumptown: Something we love about Portland’s music community is that it can feel so small and so large at the same time. Unexpected webs seem to connect people from all angles. How did you and Gordon get to know each other?

Eric Isaacson: I met Gordon back around 2008. He was a nice shy dude who would stop by the shop and shoot the shit here and there. Gradually, I came to realize he was a deep well of knowledge about music, and real esoteric stuff too - Greek music, African dry guitar music, early ska, avant garde classical and so on. He played music solo and also with bands that I found to be kinda alienating (metal and noise) but it ended up that we had an incredible amount of aesthetic overlap deep down.

Gordon travels all over the world and has made great connections in Greece. He turned me on to a whole genre of music I didn't even know existed, like Greek Hawaiian music, and we ended up collaborating on a couple records by the mysterious Greek guitar player Kostis. Kostis had two musical identities - one as a Hawaiian slide guitarist in some hoaky but great bands and one as a deep dark solo Rembetika musician who just sang about drugs, prison, crime and sex. Gordon went down a crazy rabbit hole researching him and I was impressed with what he dredged up. We ended up working on a couple more projects together after that. Gordon's been working at Stumptown by day and getting real weird researching things like South African country-western music, Kenyan music, Greek village music and god knows what other long-forsaken genres by night. He's a head! I sometimes worry that he is not going out and having enough fun. Guy might need a little yin for his yang (I'm one to talk).

Gordon Ashworth: Yeah, this is more or less accurate... Once I started living in North Portland in 2006, the record shop soon felt like the kindest gateway into the local community, where you could go and listen, learn, observe, meet weirdos, and just stare at plants on the sidewalk while discovering some new deep music on the headphones. A safe space for sad, alienated people. You could (and still can) regularly show up with $10 in hand and leave with a legitimately life changing record or two. The Mississippi Records label and shop really fucked up my world and absolutely helped push me deeper into music.

Eric and I started talking more and more while discovering mutual appreciations over the years, until we eventually decided to collaborate on the Kostis release I had pitched. It worked out great, so we just keep going. Now we're looking at a bigger transition, and shaping an unusual future for the label. And yes, Eric is right that I need more yin, and I really, really should be sleeping right now.

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Stumptown: Gordon, what’s your music story? What led you to this new transition?

Gordon Ashworth: I come from making music first. Like Eric touched on, I started out playing guitar and vocals and drums in grindcore and extreme metal bands as a teenager, as well as a bunch of solo noise and drone projects which I did for a long time and toured all over with. Now I'm partially still involved in all those things, but am currently most busy being obsessed by obscure, mostly-acoustic music from Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Greece, Cuba, and Peru. I started my label Olvido Records in 2015, but have been releasing music for myself and others since 2002 with my older label Iatrogenesis (mostly tapes of harsh noise, drone, experimental stuff). It doesn't seem to make much sense, but that's where I'm at. I also am a barista at the Stumptown cafe in Chicago and get to choose the music sometimes.

Stumptown: There are so many wormholes to dive in to and explore when it comes to music genres and eras. Do either of you keep an eye out for particular things? What really excites you when you come across something new?

Eric Isaacson: We are both all over the goddamn map. I like just about every genre of music and have a fairly open ear. That being said, I do have some major limitations. I can't stand 95% of the music from the 1980's to nowadays. I hate overproduced music with too much razzmatazz. I don't like voices that stink of insincerity or irony. I don't like sax solos from America or Europe (Africa and Jamaica get a pass). I hate middling music - it's gotta make me want to dance or cry. Fuck all this ambient Mr. In-between stuff. I don't like any New Age, contemporary singer songwriter music, vocoders, fast old timey fiddling, or blues rock.

Maybe I don't have such an open ear after all... Funny that you ask me what I look for and instead I give you a litany of what I avoid. I guess I'm looking for all the stuff that has fallen between the cracks and is not what I hate. I define myself largely by my limitations.

Gordon Ashworth: I'm all about emotional impact and just keeping myself open to chasing any sounds that give me the gut-punch and goosebumps. I'm a sucker for a good story and weird production and my tastes are pretty scattershot. I'm always hungry to connect the dots of the bigger musical/human picture.

Stumptown: It sounds like there’s also some really special things in the works with you two - a bit of a collaboration, a bit of a new beginning. Could you speak to that?

Eric Isaacson: Gordon can field this one! Yikes.

Gordon Ashworth: So this is pretty wild and a bit scary, but Mississippi Records, as a record label, is moving to Chicago in January 2019. It will be a collaboration between myself and Cyrus Moussavi (of Raw Music International), and also of course supported with the continued and eternal involvement of Eric in respect to the history of the label. The shop will continue as-is in Portland, with Eric and everyone else running things there, but the label is moving to Chicago to get a new perspective and fresh set of ideas. Yeah, some things will necessarily modernize (we are making a website where people can buy stuff directly at the most affordable price) but any and all changes are for the sake of making it easier for everyone and anyone to hear the music we're excited to share.

Eric and Cyrus and I are going to take the label on tour in January 2019, from Portland to Chicago by way of the American southwest and south, doing film screenings, DJ sets, "lectures" (or whatever you call the strange and amazing presentations Eric performs), and basically hitting every record shop on the way in the spirit of connectivity and directness. So in January, the label will figuratively and physically cross the Mississippi River. We're gonna hit the ground running and lay all the cards are on the table.

Stumptown: What are you two most excited about with this shift? This feels like such an intentional choice, and one made with true trust between friends.

Eric Isaacson: For me - I feel like handing the reins over to Gordon and Cyrus gives the label a chance to survive, and even grow. There was a time when my curmudgeonly way of avoiding the modern world served the label well. Not being online, not doing any outreach to customers, not being available on any format but vinyl - all this served to create accidental mystique and keep the label honest and focused on just making good vinyl records. Slowly, I ran the label into the ground with this outmoded, out of step with the times, business model. I am truly incapable of moving things forward in the dignified and moral way it needs to be done. I know that Gordon and Cyrus possess the skills to bring Mississippi into the year 2018 without ruining any of the good things about it.

I'll still be lurking in the shadows, administering the Dead Moon and Michael Hurley catalogs and doing some work for Cyrus and Gordon. Without the albatross of the label on my plate, I'll be able to run the Mississippi Record shop better and work on a book project I have in the wings. If the new owners will have me, I'd love to still help conceptualize, design and edit records here and there for the company.

Gordon Ashworth: Among the things we have planned, Cyrus and I have some really beautiful and interesting projects in the works involving deep collaborations with amazing people and musicians from all over the world. This will also include creating local versions of releases to be produced and distributed in other countries! This is not something that generally happens with reissue (or any) labels... There's also going to be a greater inclusion of the film medium too, thanks to Cyrus, which opens up a lot of doors. We have some ambitious and probably insane ideas, but the foundation is one of excitement and we're gonna do our damndest to keep a great label alive and fighting in this era of mass uncertainty. Love over gold, forever.

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Mississippi Records can be found all over the world in places that really give a damn about music.

Hear a hand-curated selection of their vinyl LP’s in our cafes every morning. Many thanks to Eric & Gordon for sharing their talents and projects with us.