November 16, 2015
By Ken Waxman
Clichés frequently contain a kernel of truth. For instance apply the adage “if you want something done right, do it yourself” to drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s Oslo-based PNL record label and the bromide makes perfect sense. Although recording for other imprints – which he still does – since the early ‘90s, by 2007 Nilssen-Love had so many projects he wanted to expose that he decided to become a label owner himself.
“I wanted to be more hands on,” he recalls. “Already in 2007 I was on several labels with various bands which is fine enough, but I wanted to do things myself. I wouldn’t say that I had been chasing labels with a ton of recordings but I figured that I couldn’t depend on other labels to have the music released. There´s also a long tradition of musicians putting out records themselves. You’re in full – well almost – control of the product and if something goes wrong, you’re the one to blame. It makes things easier that way.”
Nilssen-Love is equally honest when asked why the label is named with his initials. “I couldn’t think of anything else at the moment … and why not? I’m not planning to release other musicians’ music and recordings so it makes sense to me.” Since that decision eight years ago PNL has released 29 sets in various formats from single LPs and CDs to multi-volume CD sets. Nilssen-Love may also be featured on every disc, but his associates include, among others, saxophonists Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, Peter Brötzmann and Frode Gjerstad, guitarists Jim O’Rourke, Otomo Yoshide and Anders Hana plus the entire Large Unit band. Most sessions come out within a year of recording, although a few are of older material.
Norwegian noise musician Lasse Marhaug the other player on PNL’s first CD that was actually recorded in 2004. Besides being featured on that one and five other dates, he’s responsible for PNL’s visual look. “For Paal having a label of his own gave him a playground where he could realize and present recordings that may never have come out on other labels,” notes Marhaug. “I guess he was also tired of records not being ready for tours. I'm both a musician and a graphic designer. I've done design for more than 20 years, and because of my involvement in music I tend to get asked to do record covers a lot. Paal gives me complete freedom to do what I want. Plus he cares deeply about the visuals presentation of his music. Most often we're completely in tune with what's right for a specific release, and we’re willing to go the extra mile to get it absolutely 100% right. That sometimes means re-doing already completed artwork the night before it needs to go the pressing plant. We’re also both record collectors, so we look at the work in a historical context. You’ve got to make sure your records look good, because chances are they’ll outlive you.”
Besides this unique graphic design partnership, PNL also has an equally distinctive distribution model: Nilssen-Love does most of it himself at performances. All the discs and sleeves are pressed and printed in Poland, and he usually travels from Norway to collect them. The average CD run is limited to about 500 copies and LPs to about 250. Except for a few very limited editions the catalogue is all in print.
“There are still some LPs and CDs that don’t sell much and it always bugs me,” Nilssen-Love elaborates. “I´m trying to map out in which territories they sell or don’t, so I know what to take on tour and where to focus on press.” At the same time the entire catalogue is also available from Chicago’s Catalytic Sound. Every CD release is available as a download, but none of the vinyl releases are. Deciding on the format depends on the session’s length as well as the musicians involved, he reveals. “Lasse, Jim O’Rourke, Otomo and I have affection for vinyl and it felt natural to release The Love Robots and Explosion Course on LP with a solid gatefold and printed cover,” he states “The CD is of course a practical media and easy to take on the road.. Releasing the box sets with Ken, Joe and the Large Unit was natural thing to do as the amount of music demanded that and it was nice to make something really solid.”
Initial PNL releases had some government support, and if they’re co-productions with another label, costs are shared. Otherwise, since the majority of discs are organized at Nilssen-Love’s initiative, he pays all expenses. As for the participants: “All musicians get a good load of CDs and a very few times, some money. I’m usually very generous with artist copies,” notes the drummer.
Stavanger-based Gjerstad, who for years has run his own Circulasione Totale label, says that his two PNL appearances were the result of Nilssen-Love’s enthusiasm for the music. “He’s like a propeller: he likes to get turned around,” the saxophonist says of the drummer. “The key to his thing is his endless touring: he’s a mobile record store,” Gjerstad adds. “He brings records to all parts of the world, selling them at gigs. And with his ever-growing number of recordings, many with well known names, he sells a good number of records. The profit is then plowed back into new projects. The only thing that worries me is how long his body can take the extra weight he’s carrying around.”
A few PNL releases are quasi-reissues. Only 50 copies of discs such as 27 Years, a solo drum record and AM/FM with Hana were pressed by Utech Records, while Woodcuts, a duo with Brötzmann, which sold out its initial pressing. Meanwhile, some of the music on Candy, the multi-disc McPhee set, was recorded for Smalltown Supersound (SS), but after postphoning its release for years, SS still lacked the time and capacity to present it. PNL took over the job. “I basically think that all recordings should be part of the back catalogue and available to the buyer,” says Nilssen-Love.
“Candy is also special because it gives us seven discs spanning over seven years with the odd duo gig with Joe and I. The duo means a lot to me and it brings out other ways of playing. The seven-CD box was pretty expensive but I hope I’ll make my money back. It was worth doing either way.” Besides that multi-disc set, another new PNL release will include a 96-page photo book plus two CDs highlighting performances by the entire Large Unit plus smaller groups broken out from the band.
Nilssen-Love explains that any gaps in download availability or catalogue gaps result from his constant touring and recording. “I couldn’t afford to employ anyone to work for me,” he notes. “I’m the only one involved with all aspects of the label, so whenever I have the time, I deal with it.
“In a way it reflects the way I run the All Ears and Blow Out festivals. I basically book musicians and bands I want people to hear, and the same goes with the label, I release recordings I think deserve a life after the actual recording and/or concert where it was recorded is over.”
—For The New York City Jazz Record November 2015