[ there's no place like home ]
by Craig Young

John Askew is a busy man. The creative force behind the band Tracker, Askew is also the one-man band behind Portland, Oregon, label FILMguerrero. Formed in the late '90s as a means to release the music of his friends and close associates, Askew's label has never strayed from its original intent of creating a strong visual aesthetic to compliment the "cinematic element" of the music he so admires. FILMguerrero's stable boasts releases from Norfolk and Western, Holy Sons, Transmissionary Six, Peace Harbor, and the aforementioned Tracker, among others. Their latest release comes from Spain's Manta Ray in the form of Estratexa, an album (and a band) that has been receiving widespread critical acclaim in Europe, and who now is finally finding an outlet here in America.

What follows is a shortened version of a nearly three hour phone conversation I had with John recently. In similar situations but in different corners of the music industry, it was very refreshing to have a candid discussion with someone who understands what it takes to create something in this business out of sheer love and stubbornness, what it can take out of you to keep it running, and what inspires a person to continue. As every release on FILMguerrero will attest to, Askew has a keen sensibility in being able to recognize the art in music, and to be able to separate it from the commerce involved. With his label he has created a niche of rich artistic talent backed by a person who runs his business with the same dedicated vision.

It begins with Manta Ray.

[ john askew ]

With a band like Manta Ray, which is not really well known outside of continental Europe, how does someone with a label in Portland, Oregon, come across a band like that? And what was it about their music that caught your attention?

John Askew: In that particular situation, we'd been in pretty good contact over the last couple of years with Acuarela Records, who released the European version of Manta Ray's Estratexa. Jesus, who runs Acuarela, would send me new releases to try to get released over here, and I would do the same with him. Tracker, Norfolk and Western, and Transmissionary Six, all have been on a compilation that he put out [the Acuarela Songs compilations]. So, I guess all this has lead to more regular communication between the two of us.

When I got the [Manta Ray] package in the mail and listened to the album, I was really excited about it -- mainly because I end up getting so much of the same stuff.

I know that feeling well.

John: I'm sure you do. And instantly it was such a relief to hear an album that was so good. That's how I came across [Estratexa], and at that point I started a dialog with Acuarela about it.

I was just excited about the record. It was different from what I put out. And also, I knew the record was doing really well in Europe, so I wanted to take on something that was little bit more of a story for me. I knew that it would be a hard sell over here, and for some reason I pick records that luckily I love but are hard to sell. I like the challenge of it -- so we just carried it from there and it's ended up working out.

The delay in releasing the album in the States is something, I take, that has to do with waiting to see what it can do in Europe before selling it over here? Or was it just the delay in FILMguerrero getting the material and working it through channels?

John: Two things, really. I got a copy of Estratexa pretty much when it was released in Europe, and at that time my schedule was rather full. I think the album came out in February or March, and I basically looked at my schedule and kind of toyed around with it. The more time I have with it over here is not really going to matter to the band -- no one is releasing it here, and the band weren't touring -- so the more time I had to take to put it out, the better for press and what not.

That was one main reason. The other reason was that I was going through some distribution changes, so I didn't want to have the album thrown into some system that was going to end up failing me. I waited until I had a real solid road for it to go down -- [laughs] which I guess is never solid.

How has the response been?

John: The response has been much better than I thought. It's been very similar to your take on the record. I'm not totally surprised by the response. However, I don't think their genre is totally new. In this situation it just kinda hit me with a level of authenticity.

Overall, the response has been really positive.

It's one of those albums that every time you listen to it something new you didn't notice previously creeps out of the speakers.

Like you mentioned earlier, I'm sure you just a massive pile of demo submissions and what not on a regular basis. We're in a similar situation, and it's not that most of what we get here at eP is particularly bad; it's just that it's so middle of the road that you don't have words good or bad to describe it. That's not meant to be a slight to the bands and artists who release the material, it's just that most of it doesn't stand out one way or another. But when an album like Estratexa comes along, it really makes you stand up and go, "Wow! Here's some talented people doing some really talented things."

John: Exactly! It sounds exactly how it affected me.

Getting back to what I really first wanted to ask you: Which came first, FILMguerrero or Tracker and your life as a musician?

[ manta ray - estratexa ]

John: Definitely Tracker and recording in general. FILMguerrero sort of provided the missing link between the two. Being part of music ever since I was a kid, the one mystery to me about it was that you could stay in your bedroom or your basement or whatever recording and enjoying music, but at some point you realize that you've got a collection of stuff accumulated in your closet that you gotta do something with.

I started freelancing at Type Foundry Recording here in Portland. Adam Selzer of Norfolk and Western, a good friend of mine, basically started Type Foundry. He called me up and I started working there. I, more or less, was interested in learning what I could from him, and so I spent a few years under his tutelage. Adam had finished the first real full-length Norfolk and Western album, called Centralia, and I was working on Ames. This would be back in 1999. When we finished the records we started doing what everyone does, and sent them out to people -- and basically heard nothing back.

It just seemed at that point at time that I should go ahead and try to put out the records myself, and so kinda developed FILMguerrero as a collective. I didn't really put up any money for Adam's record, and a friend of mine helped with the website. Slowly over time I built up distribution, and at that point I was basically a label. Other friends started coming with stuff they wanted released, and I ended up being put in a position where I realized that I could either blow it or try to do something cool with it all.

I ended up becoming really picky. The collective mentality was a good idea, but somebody ultimately has to drive the machine and I started realizing that I needed to start investing money into the label so I could create a higher standard and hand pick the things I wanted to work on.

FILMguerrero has a very strong aesthetic in terms of the visual representation of both your label and your artists. How do you go about choosing what you want to work on, and how do you go about putting together the packaging for it?

John: Unfortunately, the answer to your question is that there's a steep accident rate here. You make mistakes and you recover from them. I'm in a much better position now than I was six months ago. That sort of growth has been with us since the start.

In the beginning the label was unified by friends of mine who were recording by themselves. Putting out those records was the general appeal at first. There definitely was -- and I hate the phrasing -- a do-it-yourself mentality that we all could relate to. What led from that was me realizing that there was a really strong visual aesthetic in both Norfolk and Western, and Tracker. For instance, Adam wasn't standing up onstage acting like a songwriter and wanting to be the focus of attention as an individual. For him, he had a definite story in his mind that he was trying to bring to life. I was very attracted to that, and I definitely feel the same about Tracker.

The scenic, cinematic element to music is what draws me into things, and I would say that of all the things that keep ebbing and flowing since FILMguerrero first began, that element is the strongest attraction for me. That is my main appeal for the Manta Ray record, and for my new Tracker record as well. There's definitely a very visual sensibility to them. Not all bands I put out are like that, however, but the majority of what I'm trying to pull off definitely relates to that.

When I brought up the learning curve, I can't see myself solely existing on that cinematic element, because I feel that the umbrella would stay small. Holy Sons, the record that came out this past July, I don't necessarily think of in the same way. He [Emil Amos] is just a purist and I found myself really bonding to his vision.

In terms of the actual visual aesthetic with packaging and all that, I have to say that -- and it's going to sound really shallow -- I judge a band a lot on what they see visually in their own aesthetic. I don't really want, or I try not, to come in and control anything visually, so most of what you see with the packaging is pretty much their vision. I really support spending extra time and money to make things look good, and if I can step in and be the person that helps out in that area and make something happen, I'll play that role. I try to stay hands off and see what the artist wants to do.

[ tracker - polk ]
[ give a listen! ] Tracker "Photographing
the Ancestors" MP3

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