In our current era of seemingly infinite internet choice, the role of curator is more important than ever. In this vein, through refusing algorithms and instead opting for subjectivity and trusted personal taste, independent radio has maintained its influence as an invaluable resource. With internet stations like NTS, Radar and Balamii in London acquiring global followings in recent years, the FM dial KEXP station in Seattle can claim its status as an originator of the curated radio experience, first coming on-air in its current iteration in 2001.
One of the station’s veteran DJs is Alex Ruder. Holding down the overnight slot of 1am-6am every Saturday night for eight years straight, he has soundtracked many an after-hours party, late night dalliance, or insomniac routine with his wide-ranging mix of dark electronica, R&B jams and hip-hop beats. Since 2012 he has expanded these curatorial efforts to the off-air realm with the founding of his label Hush Hush. Operating with an internationalist, DIY ethos, the label has been responsible for releases covering everything from jazzy house to ambient electronica and synth-pop – with many available on cassette as well as digitally.
Their latest release, Fountains, is a quietly melodic collaborative effort from Manchester’s Two Tail and Denver-based duo Quiett. A perfect embodiment of Hush Hush and Ruder’s ethos of putting the music first, Fountains is a satisfyingly well-crafted collection of danceable rhythms and headphone-ready tunes. Ahead of its release later this month, we spoke to Alex about his cassette obsessions, his approach to selection, and establishing a reputation that carries beyond the individual work.
How did you first get into radio?
My passion for radio began in the early 1990s, obsessively taping songs off my favourite station KUBE, which was Seattle’s main hip-hop station at the time. I packed drawers and drawers at home with tapes of songs recorded off the radio; I still have most of them to this day!
What’s special about working for KEXP?
KEXP is an incredibly unique platform to be able to showcase music. Non-internet radio in the US is dominated by commercial ‘Top 40’ stations, so it’s super rare to have somewhere like KEXP which takes the college/underground radio attitude into competing, “professional” territory. The focus on community is also emphasised strongly at KEXP, since it’s a non-profit station that’s largely funded by listener donations. Add the fact that we’re able to play almost anything we want and that makes it a special environment to be part of.
How would you describe your show and its approach to music selection?
My show is just a snapshot of what’s bringing joy and excitement to my ears. Growing up as a fan of hip-hop and R&B first, and then segueing into an obsession with electronic music in college, my taste is a bit different from your typical Pacific Northwest DJ. A lot of independent radio DJs were immersed in grunge and alternative rock during the 1990s and early 2000s but my show leans more towards the fringes of hip-hop, electronic, R&B, experimental music, and everything in-between.
What made you decide to start Hush Hush?
Hush Hush actually started out in 2012 as a monthly DJ night in Seattle that was dedicated to showcasing music that fit the ‘night bus’ vibe that was being popularised by artists like Burial at the time. There was a huge rise in new producers creating these cinematic, melancholic late-night beats, and these sounds fit perfectly on my overnight radio show.
My friend Joey Butler, aka Kid Smpl, was producing music that fit this vibe and I was frequently spinning his latest demos on my radio show. It got to a point where he had sent me basically an album’s worth of material that I thought was super strong. I helped him reach out to some labels to see if they were interested in releasing what would be his debut LP but nobody was biting, so we decided to give it a shot ourselves. We pieced together what would become his album, Skylight, and it went from there.
How would you describe the ethos and the influences behind the label?
The influences come from my discovery of labels such as Warp, Ninja Tune, Morr Music and City Centre Offices during my college years. These labels made me recognise and respect their curatorial mission, often before the artists themselves. Once you respect a label’s vision, it makes you want to dig into any new release of theirs, regardless of whether it is a new or established artist, so shooting for that goal is still something I strive to do with Hush Hush.
The driving ethos today is the same as it was from day one: we’re a fan-first, business-second label, supporting emerging artists and hopefully providing a positive label experience for them. There’s also a family vibe of trying to unite this wide-ranging group of artists that reside all over the world under one umbrella where everyone feels welcome and appreciated.
Why do you release on cassette as well as digitally?
I grew up on cassettes, so they hold a strong nostalgic factor for me. I’ve always loved the 2-sided nature of them too and their ability to tell a more complex and layered story.
Do you feel like the proliferation of internet streaming makes it easier or harder for independent new music to reach audiences?
It’s undeniably both. Internet streaming has made the opportunity for independent new music to reach a larger audience a lot easier. But the sheer quantity of music being released these days due to easier access to streaming also makes it much more difficult to reach audiences. It’s still ultimately a needle in the haystack situation for indie labels compared to major labels.
How did the Two Tail and Quiett record come about?
The Two Tail & Quiett release came about in a fairly common way with non-Seattle artists: Sam from Quiett simply emailed me the 4-track demo to check out and consider for release. I wasn’t familiar with their work prior to receiving the email, but I’m always eager to check out demos, and I immediately dug the sound and expressed interest in releasing it via Hush Hush. It was a super smooth process as the release is the exact 4-track demo that they initially sent my way!
What forthcoming releases do you have that you’re excited about?
We have a handful of exciting things in Hush Hush queue. Officially coming out the same day as the Two Tail & Quiett EP is the debut album from Seattle artist Lushloss, Asking/Bearing. It’s a really powerful release that’s basically a double EP, split between an introspective A-side that showcases her singer-songwriter side and a B-side that features her earlier production-focused work. We’re also gearing up to release a new mini-album from the electronic producer HimeHime, a local artist that has been pretty prolific over the last few years. There’s lots more too: a new EP from Seattle electronic producer Shelf Nunny, forthcoming albums from the synth-pop duo NAVVI and Greek dream-pop duo Ocean Hope, a post-rock collaboration between NYC electronic producer Walrus Ghost and German guitarist Max Frankl, and a meditative soundtrack from NYC filmmaker/musician Austin Johnson. Most of them should arrive sometime before the end of the year.
Words: Ammar Kalia
Two Tail & Quiett’s Fountains is out July 28 on Hush Hush Records. Pre-Order it here.