Inside WRWTFWW Records, the idiosyncratic label fuelling interest in long-forgotten releases
We Release Whatever the Fuck We Want Records is one of the key players in today’s thriving reissue culture, releasing everything from B movie soundtracks to Midori Takada’s debut Through the Looking Glass.
The label does, well, exactly as the name says. Founded in 2014 by Stéphane Armleder and Oliver Mental Groove, the trajectory of the Swiss label has knitted together disparate genres, releasing hip-hop compilations to film soundtracks. It was in 2017, however, that soundtracks segued into reissues of experimental and ambient rarities from Japan that were first released in the 80s and 90s. While these releases were overlooked at the time, a surge of interest in recent years has seen them accumulate eye-watering prices on Discogs, while YouTube algorithms have placed online vinyl rips in front of a wider audience.
Catering to those placing these rarities on their Discogs wishlists – and willing to pay around £800 for a copy – WRWTFWW Records has been instrumental in re-releasing these LPs and making them available again at an affordable price; complete with new liner notes, too. Teaming up with NYC label Palto Flats, the Swiss imprint has co-released Midori Takada’s solo debut, Through the Looking Glass, along with albums that’ve garnered a cult audience such as Yasuaki Shimizu’s Kakashi.
We meet the label’s founders to rifle through their back catalogue and make sense of the renewed fascination with both reissue culture and experimental music from Japan.
How did this label come about and why did you start it?
Friendship and a common love for music, cinema and objects. Olivier and I had been collaborating on projects since 2004, whether it was co-releases from our respective labels (Mental Groove and Villa Magica Records), curating events in Geneva or DJing here and there, but we were always yearning for something more solid, something longer term that would be the perfect excuse for us to spend more time together and have fun with all the things that got us together in the first place: soundtracks, Japanese music, B movies and the list goes on. We just didn’t know what this project would be.
Then, on a stormy night of April 2012, we attended a marathon screening of weird, rare, absurd and cult classic B movies. At around 4am, as we were half asleep, it appeared. Legendary French actress Brigitte Lahaie riding a horse au naturel, galloping through the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel to the sound of an incredible Giorgio Moroder-type 80s track. At that precise moment, we knew that all that mattered from there on was releasing the soundtrack to the film this clip came from: an obscure French mondo documentary from 1984 titled La France Interdite. One year and a half later, on 1 December 2013, the soundtrack came out and the label was born.
We had no other plans than to release music in physical formats that we had cherished growing up – without thinking too much about what’s relevant and what’s not, or whether a project would work. It was all about keeping the passion alive, trying to maintain the excitement you have, say, when you’re a teenager and you do your first creative project, or you discover an album, a movie or a book that blows your mind. That feeling of doing something you love, and doing something your close friends understand and appreciate. Total freedom.
It seems that in 2017, the label changed its tastes and started releasing music from Japan. Why did you decide to make this change?
It was more of a natural progression for the label, an extension. We went from nine releases between 2013 and 2016 to 10 releases in 2017 only. It’s the year that we made the big jump into trying to make this label our life. For us it wasn’t changing taste, but rather having more space, more time, more releases and a wider canvas to work with. Taking that leap of faith and embracing all genres that make our hearts beat. That’s why in 2017 we released groundbreaking projects like Midori Takada’s Through the Looking Glass – with our friend Jacob Gorchov at Palto Flats – and Jun Fukamachi’s Nicole, as well as soundtracks for horror/exploitation movies like Zombi 3. Or even super low budget slasher romcom Psychos in Love for which we sourced the music from a VHS tape of the film and released it on grape-scented vinyl. Totally different worlds but the same amount of pleasure and sense of accomplishment for us.
Regarding music from Japan specifically, we both have been very interested in Japanese music, cinema and history for a long time. I first visited the country in the early 90s and then lived in Tokyo from 2001 to 2003. Olivier has travelled extensively in Japan, he goes there almost every year. We also toured the country for DJ sets together in 2014.
The thing that really launched our Japanese reissue campaign was meeting Midori Takada and Masahiko Sato. Olivier spent quality time with them in 2014, and this eventually led to the reissue of Through the Looking Glass, Lunar Cruise and the Mkwaju Ensemble albums in 2017 and 2018. Around the same time, in 2014/2015, we also started working on Colored Music’s self-titled album, Jun Fukamachi’s Nicole, as well as a few more albums that will see the light of day in 2019. We also have the chance to work with Kensuke Hidaka in Tokyo; he coordinates licensing for Japanese releases and is someone whose expertise, suggestions and advice we hold very dearly.
What’s your selection criteria for Japanese ambient reissues? As some are so rare, how do you find them to begin with?
Finding releases goes through various channels. Digging, whether it’s out there in the real world or online, friends sharing favourites and rare gems, or sometimes it’s artists we work with on specific projects that open our ears to other artists. Midori Takada, Masahiko Sato and Bruno Spoerri, for example, have been very helpful and an endless source of knowledge and inspiration. Listening to the stories that made them, their trials and tribulations, understanding their approach and vision, trying to get a sense of their world – learning from them in many ways – has been a true blessing.
There are also, very simply, albums we discovered in our childhood or teenage years that we have always dreamt of getting involved with. The Ghost in the Shell soundtrack is an example. Being able to present an updated version of art that touched you in indescribable ways in your younger days, not to mention working with people you admired growing up – it’s a bit unreal.
We both have been avid readers of French horror and sci-fi magazine Mad Movies since the early 80s; it’s well written with great humour, deep knowledge and has an incredibly passionate staff of writers searching for overlooked gems, always challenging themselves. They reviewed our first release La France Interdite. Just seeing something we worked on in this magazine, it makes the whole thing very worth it. It’s reassuring, you feel you belong to a certain world you believe in, the weird little universe you designed around yourself with various aspects of culture that moved you throughout the different stages of your life. And I think this helps define our main selection criteria. It must be a record we believe in, an album we deeply think is worth sharing with the world. Something that feels right.
In what ways are your reissues different to the original releases?
It varies from one release to the other. At the foundation of each project is a close collaboration with the artist or the artist’s estate as well as the content owners if they differ from the artist. Long talks to get a feel of what they expect and what would be their ideal version of the release. Once there is an overall vision, we embark on the big adventure. Finding the best audio source possible, mastering and cutting with Frederic Stader of MusicMatters at Emil Berliner Studios, trying to reach the highest sound quality.
In parallel, we design the artwork with Nicolas Eigenheer, our in-house graphic wonder. One thing we often do is remove the text from the front cover of the original release, to let the image breathe. Then we’ll fine-tune the packaging with special inks, maybe a robust Stoughton tip-on sleeve. We try to add liner notes when possible, as historical and cultural context is something that fascinates us, and we strongly believe it adds to the power of a release.
Sometimes we’ll add bonus tracks, or sometimes we’ll take out bonus tracks from the original release if we feel they don’t fit. For the Pieces soundtrack we inserted a puzzle that appeared in the movie, and the Psychos in Love soundtrack had a I LOVE MY VCR bumper sticker that appeared in the film. Every now and then we’ll add a poster, an extra object that makes sense with the project. We’re always hoping to create an experience that’s worth the ride.
Why do you think there’s been a resurgence of interest in Japanese ambient music from the 80s? What do you think this cultural shift in interests signifies?
A lot of these records were hardly accessible outside of Japan before the internet. I feel that a lot of people who are interested in Japanese ambient, electronic, experimental music from the 80s and 90s are people who probably grew up digging through all the music they could reach within their parts of the world. From a Western point of view, getting records from Japan was extremely complicated back then. Aside from very few record stores importing selected releases, you had to go there, or have friends bring back records. But how could you learn about a whole scene based there? How could you discover complete discographies from local artists? You would probably have had to live in Japan.
The internet gave us access to an immense archival database for music, access to the knowledge of people for every corner of the globe through blogs, message boards, YouTube and Discogs. I think the first phase for music enthusiasts was completing their knowledge of genres they were familiar with, of music from countries they had been researching before.
When I think of why I got so excited when I heard, say, something like Jun Fukamachi’s Nicole or Satoshi Ashikawa’s Still Way or Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Green for the first time, I keep going back to my childhood and the shock – and I mean the best kind of shock – of hearing Run DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy or the Beastie Boys in the 80s the first time I travelled to the US. Or the first time we heard Kraftwerk. Or the first time we heard Chicago house and so on. Something totally new to your ear, created in a context that’s unknown to you, but that resonates sonically, something that opens your mind and makes you want to learn. In a way, it’s recapturing that feeling of being blown away by a piece of art that always pushes us forward with the label.
“We live in times that are so non-stop, stressful and so overabundant with information that these records come as a very welcome break from the madness”
Some people have also described Through the Looking Glass, Green and other Japanese ambient and environmental releases as having a calming effect; soothing and meditative music that helps to focus on the inner self. We live in times that are so non-stop, stressful and so overabundant with information that these records come as a very welcome break from the madness. Maybe that’s why they resonate at this particular time.
What are your thoughts on reissue culture? Why do you think there’s been a renewed fascination with it over the past few years?
Reissue culture that focuses on overlooked artists who were neglected when they originally released their work is wonderful. Great art needs to be heard, seen and read. As music fans there’s also the magic of ‘hey, we didn’t tell you but the record store has another room full of never heard music that was closed for 30 years, but now we’re opening it – come dig through!’ When you feel you’ve heard everything, and then you suddenly realise it’s only the tip of the iceberg and another door opens. Archival material can serve as a great foundation to learn about the past and create new content with a knowledge of history. More knowledge to base your craft on. More things to reinterpret, recontextualise and rethink.
Aside from the artists under the label roster, which act would you most like to reissue music for?
We’d love to work on Wendy Carlos projects. She is such an inspiration for us and numerous artists we have worked with. A superb discography. Another avenue we’re exploring is releasing music pieces that never saw the light of day in any traditional format, whether they were created for art installations, theatre, shopping malls, commercials or answering machines. On the non-reissue side, releasing soundtracks from current movies would be a blast.
What’s next for the label?
[There’ll be a] late January release of L’Univers de la Mer by Dominique Guiot: a very rare French electronic/prog rock/ambient/library album from 1978 with an intriguing and rather hypnotising artwork by surrealist sci-fi artist Jacques Wyrs. It’s entirely written, composed and played by Dominique Guiot with a Mellotron, a Minimoog plus a clavinet, organ and guitar. It’s inspired by deep sea exploration, oceanic creatures and underwater kingdoms.
The rest of 2019 will consist of horror and sci-fi soundtracks, and a run of Japanese releases including Inoyama Land’s Danzindan-Pojidon produced by Haruomi Hosono.
An ambitious discography reissue for our favourite Swiss band, more albums on our We Release Jazz sister label and possibly our first new music release. Last but not least, we’ll be providing help and distribution for our friend label Mitsuko & Svetlana Records, whose release line-up for 2019 is super exciting. Also, hopefully more cassettes and t-shirts.