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Kimochi Sound: Unfamiliar by design

This Chicago ambient techno label doesn't chase trends, sell downloads, or send out press releases, but its music finds the right ears anyway.


Kimochi Sound founder Max, who records as Area and DJs as M50 - JOHN STURDY
  • John Sturdy
  • Kimochi Sound founder Max, who records as Area and DJs as M50

Early last month I was flipping through LPs at Pilsen's new 606 Records when an ambient techno track playing through the store's speakers caught my ears: dulcet flutelike synth droplets steadily echoing and arpeggiating, chirping crickets, pulsing brittle hi-hats. Like many smartphone users, I sometimes bust out Shazam to identify an unfamiliar song in public; sometimes it doesn't work, and I fight back my embarrassment to ask someone who might know. But considering how often a song piques my curiosity, I rarely remember to follow up—I'll type a note on my phone or send myself an e-mail, but usually the e-mail gets buried in my inbox or I forget that I ever wrote the note.

This time, at least, I didn't have to ask. Alejandro Zerah, a DJ who runs a local label called Hesperian Sound Division, was spinning vinyl at 606 Records. I overheard him talking to the shop's owners, Tim Unsell and Drew Mitchell, about the song that had gotten its hooks into me—it was from a recent 12-inch EP by Russian producer Shine Grooves. The record had come out in early October on an under-the-­radar local label called Kimochi Sound.

I'd never heard of Kimochi before, and when I reached the label's founder, he identified himself only as Max. (He kept his age off the record too.) He says he has no phone, and we never met in person—I interviewed him via Skype. Kimochi has only one other staffer, who doesn't live in town. The label has never used a publicist, and when it put out its first release, the 2011 EP Tenderness by Max's producer alter ego Area, it had no distributor. (It's since started working with Chicago-based Crosstalk International.) Our conversation was the first time Max had talked to anyone from the media in his capacity as owner and operator of Kimochi Sound.

Max has toured internationally as a DJ under the name M50, which is also what he calls himself on WNUR's long-running house and hip-hop show, Streetbeat, which he's been part of since the late 90s. By the end of 2012, Kimochi had managed six releases, half of them Max's own music as Area. Since then, though, he's put the tracks he's made for Kimochi on the back burner, releasing material elsewhere instead—the label has focused on music by other artists, including techno veterans such as New York-based South African producer Brendon Moeller and German native Benjamin Brunn.

Kimochi puts out music only on 12-inch vinyl—it can be streamed online but not bought digitally, and the vinyl doesn't come with a download code. Seven of its 18 releases have sold out editions of 200 or 300 copies through Bandcamp, though they're all still available via Crosstalk. This modest success notwithstanding, Max remains pleasantly surprised whenever someone reaches out to him about Kimochi—he even asked me how I found him. Often people discover Kimochi through a friend or by stumbling upon one of the records at a shop. "I just had one the other day—'I was in Japan a little while ago and found your records,'" Max says. He'd booked some gigs in Japan that happened to fall near the release of Tenderness, and he took advantage of his time overseas to sell the vinyl to a few stores in Tokyo. "With the first record I didn't have any distribution at all," he says. "I was going from record store to record store."

Kimochi’s visuals are the work of designer and label partner Aaron Shinn, who creates the stencils that Max uses to spray-paint every record sleeve. - JOHN STURDY
  • John Sturdy
  • Kimochi’s visuals are the work of designer and label partner Aaron Shinn, who creates the stencils that Max uses to spray-paint every record sleeve.

The label's name is a Japanese word, but that's just happenstance. Max picked "kimochi," which translates roughly as "feeling," because in his understanding it's meaningless on its own—it needs to be attached to another word that will characterize the feeling in question. This open-endedness reflects the stylistic freedom he wants Kimochi to have. He's less interested in achieving a distinct aesthetic than in releasing what he calls "personal" recordings—tracks that sound introverted, a little rough, possibly unfinished. "Almost all the artists I'm working with are doing a whole variety of sounds," Max says. "No one's locked into one thing." The only quality that everything in the label's catalog shares is a hard-to-define intimacy. Graphic designer Aaron Shinn, a friend of Max's who's responsible for the artwork on Kimochi's packaging, can't put his finger on it either: "Not every release sounds the same as every other release," he says, "but it's all out of the norm in the same sort of way."

Max, or rather Area, released his first music on vinyl in 2006, after dropping several digital tracks. Mathematics Recordings founder Jamal Moss, best known as producer Hieroglyphic Being, asked him to remix "Maniac," a raw, bubbling track by ghetto-house wizard Steve Poindexter. Max called his hiccupping, acid-fried remix "Area's Lost Meaning Version."

Max put out a few 12-inches as Area on other labels before launching Kimochi to release Tenderness—he'd tried shopping the record around shortly after finishing it in 2010, but he didn't get great responses. "I felt like this was strong material for me," he says. The 12-inch's second track, "So Many Fireflies," which features blown-out percussion and what sounds like a distorted and muffled horn melody, is exemplary of Kimochi's best material: despite its rawness, it establishes a soothing, immersive groove that I wish would continue long after the song evaporates.

After Max began thinking about starting his own label, he reached out to Shinn, a friend from his early days at WNUR. Max wanted Shinn to help create Kimochi's visual aesthetic, and Shinn agreed to work within the label's shoestring budget. Max didn't have money for professional printing, so he wanted to try something DIY for his album covers—but Shinn, who lives in LA now and lived in the Bay Area then, wouldn't be able to help assemble the sleeves in person. "I had to come up with a way of designing for somebody else to execute the designs by hand," he says.

Shinn eventually found a laser cutter and made stencils that would let Max spray-paint precise designs onto Kimochi's LPs. "We could basically make these stencils that could be used again and again," Shinn says. The two of them collaborate on the art for each 12-inch, creating a unique design that's linked to the preceding and subsequent releases. "It's always thought of as a narrative," Shinn says. "He's a very conceptual thinker, and he's always got a reason for what he's doing even though that will probably be unspoken in the finished product." The center labels, which show through cutouts in the sleeves, are printed at the pressing plant, but the rest is done by hand: simple, serene designs on white or black covers, often with a cloudy layer of color on top. The imagery has included swarming oblong blobs, delicate tentacles, tree branches, and large shaded circles. Shinn mails his stencils to Max, who paints hundreds of sleeves.

Kimochi actually began well before Tenderness came out, when Max launched a Kickstarter in July 2010. "I thought, 'This is a good idea—I'll see if enough people think it's a good idea,'" he says. He set his sights low, setting his goal at $500; when the campaign wrapped up at the end of August, 33 people had donated a total of $900. Kimochi released 200 copies of Tenderness on New Year's Day 2011, and Max had sold half of them—and put out the label's second release—by the time Crosstalk approached him that summer.

As Kimochi grew, Max started reaching out to other musicians to contribute—generally friends such as Moeller whose music he'd enjoyed playing. The two of them had been in touch since 2006, when Max sent some Area tracks to Moeller, who was in New York working A&R for Francois K's Wave Music; in 2012 Wave released the Area full-length Where I Am Now. For Kimochi's eighth 12-inch, Tak, Moeller contributed the smoldering dub-techno cut "Sitting Duck," which also appears in two remixes by guest artists. He recorded it while he was on the road a lot and his life was consumed by live techno. "That track was sort of a response to that—wanting to slow things down and make things sort of simpler and groovier," Moeller says. "It was kind of the antithesis of what I was out there playing in DJ sets."

  • John Sturdy

Moeller admires Max in part because he's so unconcerned with trends. "He's basically avoiding every sort of overplayed, cliched, or homogenized genre or approach," he says. "He has this little ear for quirky things as well." Moeller also appreciates that Max lets Kimochi operate at its own pace "in an industry run over by sycophants and maniacal social-media whores"—he doesn't see much value in trying to keep up with the Joneses. "I hope we get to do something again," Moeller says. "I'm sure we will."

Max admits that he moves slower than most label heads, but Kimochi has grown almost despite him. It's released five 12-inches per year in the past two years, up from two in 2013. After Kimochi's 15th record—April's Adapted, by German collective UD—Max and Shinn switched from white sleeves to black for the three most recent. But Max still hasn't gotten back around to any of the material he made with Kimochi in mind. "I'm more patient with me," he says. If he drags his feet with his own stuff, he explains, "I don't yell at me."

Kimochi has already lived up to some of the visions that have driven Max from the beginning. "The little labels that have been inspirational to me—that I was kind of thinking I could do something like them—were all pretty slow, and kind of more art projects than big business," he says. But he's got so many releases waiting for his attention that he feels compelled to go faster than he'd like. "The problem is I have this music I want to put out."

Max is taking on more label responsibilities in other ways too—in March he'll launch an imprint called Tesuji. "I don't want to pigeonhole it too much, because I feel like I'm gonna break it, but something more about rhythm, poise, and attitude," he says. Each Tesuji record will have only two tracks, and all will include some collaborative element. And of course, the music has to strike Max's fancy. "I can't say what's gonna be cool a year from now," he says. "I just know what I like."  v

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