Aaron Shults is not just the man behind Garfield’s Garden. He also has his fingers in a few other aspects of the local DIY pie: playing in the band Kowabunga! Kid and starting a tape-only label of his own, Rat King Records, which he runs with his assistant Kamila. While Rat King Records was officially birthed last summer with the release of RKR-001, Gus by Aphid House, it was recently brought back into play with several new releases, including Anna Karenina/Anna Karina’s Autobiographies EP and a set of songs released under the name Pontow, written and performed by 15-year-old Kyle Lang, known to most as the driving force behind Easter.
Recently we sat down with Shults to get answers to all of the important questions about getting a label off of the ground, keeping it running, and aiming it in the right direction, as well as all of the hows and whys that accompany those questions.
Smile Politely: Why a tape label?
Aaron Shults: Well, I like tapes, I like the way tapes sound. The sound of analog is just better than the clean CD sound. I like it a lot and I feel like right now I’m just going to do tapes until I get the funding to do actual records.
SP: So part of it is that it’s easy to make tapes, and part is that the format is friendly?
Shults: For sure. It’s easy and it’s pretty cheap to make tapes and it just sounds so much nicer than CDs.
SP: On the other hand do you feel like you’re kind of restraining the group of people who will look into your releases because of the medium?
Shults: You know, I don’t because we offer most of our stuff online. We give them a download, so if they don’t have a tape player I feel like they have a computer they can listen to it on.
Aphid House’s Gus, debut release from Rat King Records.
SP: Does your marketing scheme also play into it, in terms of the packaging and the ways you present your releases?
Shults: Well, we try to keep it a little fresh — just the plastic cases are boring. We released a tape using watercolor paper instead of card stock, so we could do watercolor on it, which was a lot of fun. We’ve made pouches for the Anna Karenina/Anna Karina’s tapes. We embroidered the diamond on the front of that, just using fabric that we got from the I.D.E.A. Store. Probably my favorite one that we’ve done was the first tape we did for this band the Aphid House — this really weirdo noise band — and we made a little aphid house for it out of a ball jar and we put some fake leaves in there and gave instructions on how you could raise your own aphids in that environment. It’s something that … I don’t want it to be boring. [laughs] So it’s definitely not boring making them.
SP: It’s like, “Hey, guys, I got this tape and it came in this weird glass jar.”
Shults: Yeah, even though it’s kind of cumbersome in the glass jar. I had a lot of fun doing those, though.
SP: And obviously it’s all handmade…
Shults: Yeah, so far no two have been the same.
SP: Why the name Rat King Records?
Shults: My friends and I, if somebody would do something shitty, we would call them a “rat king.” Then when we lived in the dorms we would go around crowning people. Whoever did the most shitty thing would get crowned the Rat King…
SP: But then it’s also this medieval term…
Shults: Yeah, this really gross gross term … this knot of rats. I didn’t even think about the real term when I started it, but I love that it means that too, that’s awesome. Because these last couple tapes we’ve put out have been like these really light indie bands. I don’t know, I guess the Annas have a more full sound, but Pontow is just little Kyle Lang playing acoustic music when he was 15. I like that.
Kyle Lang’s early recordings under the name Pontow.
SP: Why did you choose to do Kyle’s project from when he was 15 rather than — I mean, I don’t know if there is new Easter stuff — but…
Shults: He’s gonna come up with some new Easter stuff I’m sure. But I really love that music [Pontow]. When we first met he showed me that and then this other band Nunpuncher, which was just like this really hardcore spazzy punk screamo band…
SP: Called Nunpuncher?
Shults: He was in a band called Nunpuncher. And I love them both, but with Pontow I’d always found myself listening to it for a while and then I’d lose it, because it was on Myspace or something. Eventually, I just asked him if I could release this because I thought it would sound really good on tape. Then he actually rearranged the tracklist and added a new song to it that he also recorded when he was 15. The original Pontow tape was released on a record label called Wrack and Ruin, which is an online MP3 label, and it was released when he was 15. And then that label closed and there was never a physical version.
SP: Are you worried about them coming after you?
Shults: [laughs] I hope not. They had a little copyright on there, but … the order’s different and I think it’s much more cohesive on tape than it was then.
SP: What are you seeking to contribute with Rat King Records to the local scene?
Shults: Well, I mean I really would like to help some of my favorite bands make a physical thing; that’s something I really like. Also, I want to expose them to some new music that’s not even from Champaign when I get to that point. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I’d like to release other stuff outside of the area. That’d be really cool.
SP: So you sort of want to be a tastemaker character? Or is it more of a sharing thing?
Shults: Yeah, with Pontow, that’s just music that I really loved and that people wouldn’t have gotten a chance to hear, and it’s really cool and I wanted people to listen to it because it means a lot to me. I just really, really love the music I put out and I want people to hear it.
SP: And for some reason that’s a rarity. So there you go.
SP: So, best case scenario, where is Rat King Records heading?
Shults: It’ll be on the level of Warner Brothers. [laughs]
SP: You’re going to buy Warner Brothers and start putting out weird tapes?
Shults: [laughs] Hopefully, if I get to the point where I’m buying Warner Brothers I can be actually putting out records though.
SP: So the goal isn’t to stay with tapes?
Shults: Definitely, the goal is to put out vinyl, for sure. Never CDs though, those are garbage. I still love my tapes I had from when I was a kid. There’s something there I just care about.
SP: Obviously you have this special attachment to tapes from when you were younger, but what place do you think tapes have in the modern world? You have a resurgence in vinyl recently, where some people are reconnecting with having a physical item, but where do you think tapes fit in to that?
Shults: I really think tapes are having a huge resurgence too. The scenes that I’m the most familiar with are the DIY and punk scenes, and oftentimes tapes are the cheapest way to get out the music. I think it’s definitely a thing. I have a couple of friends in town who also have labels where they put out tapes (Crippled Sound Records and Error Records). It’s something that I’ve grown into. I came into the scene and tapes were already there and I loved that they were there.
SP: So they’re kind of a cultural signifier of the DIY scene. Tapes are cheap and a little scuzzy, but they’re also loved?
Shults: Yeah, for sure.
SP: Outside of loving all the music that you put out, what else goes into choosing what you release? Because obviously you can’t just release music from every band you love.
Shults: Well, that’s what I’m trying to do now, actually. [laughs] I don’t know, usually it’s a band I like and I know they’re putting out music, like the Annas (debut Autobiographies EP tape, pictured right). I was listening to them in my friend Michael’s car and I really liked it, so I contacted Cole and I was like, “I’d love to release it.”
If I know a band that has music, or is going to have music soon and it’s a band I really love I’ll talk to them, although mostly right now it’s just my friends that I’m talking to so I can go about it super casually.
SP: What about this moment in music made you want to start Rat King Records?
Shults: I was in a place where I could — I started it last summer, actually. That was when the Aphid House tape came out. It was pretty much that I really love Aphid House and I was like, I have to do this now … but then I kind of slept on it for a whole year. But I’ve always wanted to work with music … I was looking through my Livejournal last year from when I was in sixth grade and I did one of those stupid quizzes that was like, “What’s your name? What do you want to do when you get older?” and I wrote that I planned to work with music and that kind of struck a chord with me, because I realized that I could do that right now and I’m able to do that, so I definitely did.
SP: So as soon as circumstances permitted it was time to start?
Shults: Yeah, for sure. I feel like I’m in a really good spot right now, having this space of my own to do what I want, having all of this music that I always wanted in my house. It’s just really cool.