Luke Rocha, the local artist and music producer, recently passed us a vintage-looking CD called Karen Zinc and the Silver Recovery Presents the World Today. The cover is a composite of old photographs, yellowed and faded, of clean-cut children playing acoustic instruments. The album itself contains spoken testimonials of faith layered over harpsichords, kazoos and funky horn breaks. The sounds are primitive, spiritual and deeply strange, like a Sunday-school class all stoned on the Holy Spirit.
Where could those kids have learned to make such loopy, futuristic music? Who is, or was, Karen Zinc? A closer look at the cover revealed a tiny logo of a smiling cat near the bottom that says, "Magic Cat Records, a subsidiary of Symbol Heavy." But it still wasn't clear: Was this a reissue of some private-press gospel record from the 1970s? or new material from Rocha? or both? or ... what?
"There's a whole story behind it," the soft-spoken Rocha says.
With Symbol Heavy projects, it seems that there always is.
Rocha founded Symbol Heavy, a record label and artist collective, about a decade ago, with fellow producer Boyd Pro. The idea was to release music and showcase the talents of friends such as rapper Brother of Moses and DJ Beatbroker, whose collaborative The Forward Look 12-inch was the label's first release. Symbol Heavy also put out instrumental albums by Rocha (under the name Topp Boom) and Pro, as well as Dragon Tears, a synth-driven bedroom-recording project by Rocha's younger brother, Patrick.
In addition to these certifiably flesh-and-blood musicians, Symbol Heavy's roster contains a wide range of mysterious musical personas, many of whom happen to have sprung from Rocha's mind. Each Symbol Heavy release is enhanced by artwork, zines and music videos, which open up new avenues for these thematic impulses. A tempting comparison for Rocha's approach is the work of Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa, who created different names, styles and elaborate biographies for each of his literary personas.
But Rocha says his projects are less extensions of his own musical ego than a means of breathing new life into marginalized genres like disco or gospel. (A recent Topp Boom mix, for example, is built around recordings and promos for 1980s sex hotlines.)
"It's never been about Luke Rocha, which is why I create these different aliases," Rocha says. "They're all art projects to me. I'm still trying to discover older shit, trying to resurrect some of these artists before they die out."
Patrick Rocha compares his brother's meticulously researched projects with the extensive notes that Stanley Kubrick amassed in preparation for each of his films. "Luke has copious amounts of material to inspire the music and music to inspire the material," he says. "We get inspired by just looking through his catalog."
Like fellow Kansas City producer and InnateSounds founder Miles Bonny, the Symbol Heavy crew takes a workmanlike approach to making music, steadily releasing new projects, sampling from a wide variety of sources and collaborating with fellow artists. Pro, whose woozy tape loops, VHS transfers and electro-funk recordings are a Symbol Heavy staple, says it's the variety and willingness to experiment that hold the collective together.
"All of our influences and aesthetics are different, but they all fit together well," says Pro, who now lives in Seattle, where he maintains the label's website. "When I get demos or drafts from Luke or Pat or anybody else, I'm pretty pumped to find out what might be on there. It could be anything, but whatever it is, it's going to be pretty bonkers."
Which brings us back to Karen Zinc and the Silver Recovery. When we caught up with Rocha again, he allowed that Zinc is a fictional character, and the Silver Recovery is the name of her imaginary backing band. The record — a free-form sound collage of old gospel recordings, youth religion summits, and French children's albums — is a Rocha joint from top to bottom. (It's not yet available on the Symbol Heavy website, and Rocha says he's not sure when he'll release it, though probably sometime in the next couple of months.) He also revealed the cover of another unreleased album, this one by a group called Magic Wanda and the Crystal Balls. Rocha described them as a sleazy disco group with a feminist, spoken-word element, and he spoke of them as if they inhabited the corporeal world. Presumably Wanda and her pals are just another of Symbol Heavy's elaborately researched, carefully cultivated musical collages. But in a way, you always kind of wonder.
Up to this point, Symbol Heavy has lacked the kind of flagship artist that could carry the label to audiences outside the underground. But that could change with Electric Indian, a late-2012 release by Your Reflection that has been building a buzz online among fans of psych, experimental and electronic music.
The project was the brainchild of Rocha and Michael Hutcherson, a Kansas City native and itinerant musician. Taking a cheesy-funky 1969 United Artists release called The Electric Indian as a conceptual jumping-off point, the duo set out to make an album that would reflect their appreciation of Native American culture and early electronic music — an experiment that Rocha envisioned as an "electric powwow."
Using the foundational elements provided by Rocha, Hutcherson pieced together the album over the course of 2011, completing the bulk of it in Berlin while on a break from touring with 4AD recording artist Twin Shadow. Along the way, he recruited a half-dozen musicians to take part, including Patrick Rocha, Sam Cohen (Apollo Sunshine) and George Lewis Jr. (Twin Shadow). The finished product is a kaleidoscopic tapestry of heady samples, fuzz guitar, Moog synths and polyrhythmic breaks — a stoner's holy grail that has been getting some blogosphere love.
To accompany the album, Rocha made a series of collages, placing Native American imagery into colorful, surrealist backgrounds. In one, a field of Tomahawk missiles is adorned with peace-pipe feathers. Another depicts a solemn American Indian chief with a blacked-out face wearing a drum machine around his neck. By combining pictures of tribes with images of weaponry, popular culture and outdated means of musical production, Rocha turns what might have been mere kitsch into an ambiguous commentary on American history. It's the type of progressive artistry that recently earned him a 2012 Charlotte Street Visual Artist Award, and Rocha credits the studio space and recognition provided by the Charlotte Street Foundation with helping him advance not just his visual art but also his musical pursuits in Symbol Heavy.
"Luke's getting the Charlotte Street award helped open up people's eyes to what we were doing and got them to check out all this stuff we have on the site for free," Patrick Rocha says. "It made us want to take Symbol Heavy to the next level."
For now, Rocha says, that includes making more videos and preparing a vinyl release of Electric Indian with a full-size booklet of the artwork. He hopes that the project catches on with audiences worldwide, of course, but he has no interest in abandoning Symbol Heavy's obscurity-celebrating, reality-bending mystique. There will always be hidden tracks, bonus materials and limited-edition releases — all delivered with a subtle wink.
"I want it to stay underground forever," Rocha says. "That's the truth."
Where to start with Symbol Heavy's intimidating discography? The Pitch queried some enthusiasts of the label about their favorite releases.
Beatbroker + Brother of Moses
The Forward Look EP
"Not Your Average"
"Delightfully straightforward, concisely executed hip-hop with socially conscious spitting and moody jazz loops. The bass line on 'Not Your Average' should be used by EMs in lieu of shock paddles. Most of the traits that I feel define Symbol Heavy - the combination of psychedelic art, DIY spirit, conscious thinking, collage, and archivist tendencies - are present in one form or another even on this very first missive."
Phil Torpey, former Pitch contributor
Topp Boom/Brother of Moses
"KC in the Ghetto" (single)
"It's always a pleasure to find something that captures what's fucked up, weird and delightful about the place you call home. Plus, the beat - sampled from the local soul group Trilogy's 1975 single on K-Town Records - has a sort of classic appeal."
Nathan Readey, Power & Light
SYMBOL HEAVY: Vol. 1
"They really started to flesh the crew out here, and the result is a sort of stylistic bridge between their different styles. 'Rain Check' is that rare beat that's hard as fuck yet so damn pretty. I usually like BGM's rapping about as much as I'd like to re-wire a socket while treading water, but it fits in perfectly with the oboe-funk line on '474-TIPS.' Plus, it's almost 40 tracks long. Who does that (except for maybe Dam Funk)?"
"I don't know how much of Boyd's work is sampled from VHS, but there's a quality to his slowed-down/hyper-compressed sound collages that feels warm and faded like public access. It's hardly mellow, however: Imagine Jonathan Bell hosting an episode of Soul Train. Manic voices fade in and out of repetitive grooves that hiss and blur like worn cassette tapes. You're nostalgically recalling your first auditory hallucination as a teenage breakdancer circa 1983. Shit is beautiful; shit is weird."
"Live recordings of electronic-music sets are often more filler than substance (ask anyone who has sat through more than one live Tangerine Dream recording). 'Options,' however, remains interesting and thoughtful throughout, recalling the ethereal synthesizer textures of electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani's 'Lixiviation.' You do forget what you're listening to after a while, but in the best way possible."
"Analog Apache" (single)
"If Symbol Heavy ever does blow up, this first single by Your Reflection could be the spark that lights the fuse. After some scrambled computer sounds, the song begins with a bold guitar line that could be the main theme to a psychedelic western. Pretty soon a keyboard line, tribal rhythm and jumpy melody creep in before it all converges in a full-blown freak-out around the minute and a half mark (at least that's how it felt watching the brilliant, disorienting music video)."