Though Play Alone Records had a very recent birth, the duo behind it have spent quite a few years involved in the alternative scene in Pennsylvania. Running events and gigs led in turn to the formation on a record label (sounds familiar!), so we decided to catch up with the founders of Play Alone Records to discover more about this very singular label.
Tell us a little bit about yourselves. What’s the story behind the people behind Play Alone Records?
Play Alone Records was started by Erica Moulinier and Aaron Grey in December of 2017, but the story didn’t begin there. Erica and Aaron always loved post-punk. They both came up through the DIY punk scenes, Erica in Philly, and Aaron in Pittsburgh. Even though punk and hardcore will always be dear to their hearts and the politics and ethics of those lifestyles inform their actions, post-punk is what resonated most. Those artists and weirdos that saw punk and wanted to swim in those same murky waters, but do it with other sensibilities, those currents moved them more.
Aaron played in political punk bands over the years and danced at any 80s night that he could. Erica DJ’d, danced, and booked all kinds of bands over the years. After a two- and half-year stint in The Bay area, Aaron moved back to Pittsburgh and wanted to start a new post-punk dance night in Pittsburgh, inspired by his friends’ night Shutter in San Francisco. Aaron asked Erica and another friend Sean, and the first Second Skin dance night happened at Brillobox in Pittsburgh on January 1st, 2015. The night was named after The Chameleons song of the same name. Erica, Sean, and Aaron pour their hearts out dancing on stage for every set that they do, and Second Skin celebrated its successful 4th anniversary in January 2019.
Always the entrepreneurial mindset, Aaron wanted to do something more with music. He had started a new band and thought about all the people that had helped his previous bands over the years. The thought of helping other bands and feeling like something bigger is what made him decide that a record label would be a great way to help expand Pittsburgh’s growing post-punk and darkwave community. Erica was onboard immediately, and they set out to start an LLC and find their first band to put out, the incredible Richmond band Shadow Age. Erica runs her own accounting business and Aaron his own digital marketing consulting agency, so their talents were uniquely suited to start a small business.
What motivates you and inspires the music, aesthetic and overall vibe of the label?
Aaron: I’ve always seen the world as a corrupt place with islands of strange beautiful flora and fauna. I’m a sci-fi nerd who wants to believe that the world will be a better place tomorrow. I’m a kid at heart who heard Johnny Cash once, “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,” and never turned back.
Post-punk music always skirted the realm of the morose, but somehow you can dance too it and there is a kinship between us, even though we’re dancing alone. I’m motivated by the integrity that it tries to uphold. I’m motivated by the idea that our makeup and dark clothes were armour that we all grew into and now bind us into a fellowship of outsiders.
Play Alone Records needs to stand by that integrity in my mind. We stand for equality and inclusion. We need the bands that are on the label to understand that. We seek individuals who understand those punk ideals.
We seek individuals that get that this is work, but it is worth it. The vibe of the label is honesty and compassion, with a bit of grit and nail polish besides. I look to iconic early DIY labels and their values. We don’t retain the rights to any of our bands’ music and we allow all digital sales to go straight to the band. We don’t exchange money, we make their records and divide them based on investment.
Erica: I really love the art deco and art nouveau movements. This has inspired a lot of the artwork we’ve used as well as our logo. In terms of the music, I’ve been involved in the punk scene for over 25 years but my favorite style of punk has always been post-punk even though I have only heard people label bands like The Cure and New Order “post-punk” for around the last 15 years.
Before this I feel like this I feel like a lot of post-punk bands were labeled as alternative which described bands from the Pixies to Guided by Voices. I am grateful for this label though because it helps us to describe the ethereal guitar sound and modern and minimalist aesthetic that unites bands under this genre.
You operate out of Pittsburgh – how do you find that in terms of running a label? Is there a local audience for your sound?
Aaron: Pittsburgh is incredible. I’m a Pittsburgh native and I grew up going to shows at The Mr. Roboto Project and seeing bands from Japan in basements. The underground scene in Pittsburgh has always been great.
Luckily there is a fantastic scene here. We have locals like Death Instinct, Empty Beings, Child of Night, Bring Her, Ky Vöss, Sleeping Witch & Saturn, The Gotobeds, Silence, Wisteria and a bunch more I’m sure I am forgetting, sorry…
Erica: Pittsburgh is a really ideal city to start a label or any other music project honestly. I think this is because it is a really affordable city which has cultivated a vibrant music scene and small business and artist community. As a result, this environment and community has been so supportive of most of the projects I’ve been involved in since I’ve moved here.
There’s been a real explosion recently in the number of post-punk bands coming through – do you think there’s a particular reason for that?
Aaron: It isn’t a ground-breaking thought I know, but everything comes back around. I danced all through the indie dance parties of the 2000s and the DIY hardcore resurgence. It seems fitting to me that post-punk came back and kind of married those two together. I also think with sites like Bandcamp, where anyone can get music out there and make a little bit of money, DIY is back with a vengeance. The political climate is so polarized these days and frankly about as dystopian as I want to imagine. It all adds up to dark and macabre with a glimmer of revolution to me, that’s all post-punk right?
Erica: I’ve thought about this a lot and I think that the new wave of new wave we are experiencing has contributed to this. We see this in popular culture with the success of bands clearly influenced by the 1980s like MGMT and M-83 as well as TV shows like Stranger Things and in the underground with bands like Soft Kill. For folks like Aaron and I who have loved post-punk music for years this cultural phenomenon has enabled us to build the scene in Pittsburgh we’ve always dreamed of.
You maintain a very boutique approach with the number of artists you have on the label – is that a conscious decision?
Aaron: Boutique, what a nice way of putting it, thank you. It is by necessity and by design; we created the label with our own money and with loans. We have other small businesses and have clawed and fought for everything we have in them. We are not “bourgee” by any stretch of the imagination.
That being said we also try to find bands that we both agree on musically and lyrically and that we know believe similarly to what we believe. We have made mistakes already, pressing too many records at once or not understanding PR at first, so it is crucial that we work with bands that are patient and just as hard working as we are. We want to take it slowly because we want to get it right. We want to have longevity, but we also know that we have a responsibility to the artists we’re working with. We want to share in their success, so we play the long game.
Erica: As Aaron said, this is partially due to budget constraints but also because it’s really important to us to put out music that we love by artists that have a DIY ethos.
There’s two of you at the core of the label – how does that effect the decision-making process?
Aaron: Luckily Erica and I have worked together on Second Skin for years and have similar personalities, we like planning and attention to detail. When we were in early talks about doing all of this, we pretty clearly decided on a delineation of roles. Erica was responsible for finances and communication with bands and booking of shows. I would oversee the operations of getting the records made and all the marketing efforts. We blur those lines sometimes, but that is because we trust each other.
When it comes to what bands we want to work with next, either of us can bring music to the table. We both must agree the music is good and sounds like it fits the label. After that we must see the bands play live. It is crucial that a band write excellent music, but also be able to execute it live. Live shows are what helped us survive adolescents, we need integrity there too.
Erica: I believe we started this label because Aaron and I truly are kindred spirits. We almost always agree on music and ideals. At the same time our skill sets are really different (he’s in marketing and I’m an accountant and promoter) so it’s really easy for us to divide up the work of the label by both of our individual gifts.
What’s up next for Play Alone Records? New releases on the horizon, new signings, events, plans for the future?
Aaron: We just had a cassette EP coming out by Pittsburgh post-punk shoegaze band Death Instinct. We also have an LP coming out from post-punk ragers Empty Beings within the two months or so. My band Wisteria will likely be recording our LP later this winter, with a spring 2020 release.
I’d like to write more blog posts for the site, perhaps this will guilt me into finally doing it. We’ve learned so much in our year and a half, I’d love to pass that information along and hopefully save others some steps.
We’d also love to do a Play Alone Records compilation, not just with our bands, but with all of our favorites happening right now.
All I can say is I am going to keep Play Alone Records alive as long as humanly possible. It has taught me so much and helped me grow and has been so rewarding.
Erica: We’ve also had the opportunity to book three shows in August on a large Pittsburgh punk fest we help with called Skull Fest and we booked an east coast tour for a UK punk band from the 80s called Rubella Ballet. Additionally, we are talking to a couple of new post-punk bands (shhhhh-secrets!!!) that are likely going into the studio in the summer/fall and hopefully those records will be out in the spring.
Thanks Aaron and Erica for giving us such an indepth look into your excellent label all the other things you do!