INTERVIEW: Shelsmusic’s Mehdi Safa (Part 1)

We spend a lot of time talking to artists—whether in blog posts or in each month’s issue—and rightfully so. After all, they put their blood, sweat and tears into making the music that brings us together. We haven’t necessarily dedicated a lot of space to the people actually putting out those releases, however, so we figured now was as good of a time as any to start finding out more about the minds behind some of our favorite record labels.
First up is Shelsmusic‘s Mehdi Safa. We first came across Safa’s main band *shels last year when their second full-length, Plains Of The Purple Buffalo, completely blew us away. We quickly discovered that not only is Safa a man of many talents—vocalist, guitarist, producer, artist, etc—but he runs a label that is home to a rather diverse roster, including Down I Go, Brother/Ghost and of course its namesake. So we sent Safa (who was also in the now defunct Mahumodo) ten questions that he was kind enough to answer, the first five of which you can find below. Stay tuned for part two next week.

What person/people are involved in the label and how did it get started?
I run the label out of my home in Temecula, CA with help from a lot of friends and family from around the world. I started Shelsmusic in 1998 to help release music for my own band Mahumodo. We had reached a point in 2001 when we were getting interest from major labels and some decent independents, but all the deals were terrible, not to mention extremely predatory. It was clear that all we needed from a label was money and help with PR and touring. At the time, I believed we could do it all ourselves, so we each chipped in and self-financed our first EP. When it sold out, the money went into our next record, and things slowly started to grow. I spent most of my time trying to get shows and reviews, and thanks to the help of a few good promoters and zines, we eventually had a bit of a break and things started moving forward. By 2003, I was set on growing the label and helping other bands get off the ground in the same way Mahumodo did. And at this point, I’ve built a good network of friends who are willing to help review our releases and help with shows.

While your band *shels has a home on the label that bears its name, how do you go about finding new acts to sign?
We receive CDs in the mail quite regularly and get lots of emails from bands looking for help. But our roster is comprised mostly of bands that I have been introduced to through friends, bands or touring. I listen to everything I get, no matter how long it takes me to get around to it. Oddly enough, I recently received an email from a French band looking for help with its debut album, and they’re incredible. We’re wrapping up an agreement this week and hopefully we’ll be able to announce them as our newest signing.

What effect(s) do you think being in a band has on how you deal with the artists on your label and approach the business in general?
It helps a ton—there’s more understanding and less pressure, and communication usually goes very smoothly. I understand exactly what the concerns of a musician are and should be, and I also understand that the show won’t go on unless you can pay to hire a tour van. You have to be a bit of a business hippy if you have long term visions, and that’s exactly what we are in it for, and what we devote to our bands is a long term goal and vision. We like working with bands who are in love with music and see themselves doing it as long as they are able. We’re not so keen on folks in it to be part of a trend, etc.

What have you found to be the most effective means of communicating and interacting with fans of the music that you put out?
Facebook has been the main one, but is another great way. We also have a mailing list that we use to interact with our friends and give away a lot of free shit. I mail out all the merch orders, and I remember the names of the folks who order and reorder from us, so it’s not difficult to figure out who our closest supporters are—many have been involved with us since the late ’90s and Mahumodo—and it’s super important to us that they get the best we can deliver in everything we do.

You just re-released *shels’ debut album in a limited edition vinyl pressing. Tell us a little bit about how that came about, what kind of work goes into a project like that and your views on vinyl as a medium to distribute/package your music.
I’ve wanted to release vinyl since day one, but I’ve never understood how labels can do it without going bankrupt! Unfortunately, we’ve had to be patient and build our following over the years to the point where vinyl made sense financially without it being the end of the label. Our vinyl story started around 2008/2009 with Admiral Angry. They were working on a new EP and Daniel Kraus, who was Admiral’s frontman and main driving force—an incredible artist who did the artwork for Black Sheep Wall’s debut album—was very keen to have their new EP A Fire To Burn Down The World released on vinyl. It was financially impossible for us at the time, so we settled on doing limited edition hand screen printed digipaks. Unfortunately, he passed away before the band even got to record the EP—he was only 21 and had been struggling with cystic fibrosis. Since it was his wish for the EP to be on vinyl, we honored that and made sure that no matter what, we’d do it on vinyl. And that was our first vinyl release.

The next one was *shels’ Plains of the Purple Buffalo, which was a complete shocker and happened through Facebook. Fans started posting on our wall that they wanted a vinyl version, so we figured that we’d need at least 100 preorders to be able to afford it. And once we posted that, it took just over a week to get enough—pretty incredible really—and so we had the money in our account and pulled the trigger. That vinyl sold out in a few months. Our next one was for Down I Go, and since then it’s somehow been working out.

For Sea of the Dying Dhow, we had help from the good folks at Dead Chemists Records—a new label that at the time was a group of promoters based in Bristol, UK—who emailed us and said that the record and Waves “must be released on vinyl” and offered to help us make it happen. And so we rescanned all the original artwork from the CD version and custom tailored it for the vinyl release. We put a lot of love into the art and vinyl. I still haven’t seen it because I’ve been on tour with *shels, but I’m dying to get my hands on it [note: we have a copy and it’s awesome]. We spared no expense with the packaging and vinyl, and I think there are only 100 or so copies left. It’s been selling pretty quick. It’s funny how we’re doing vinyl now. I absolutely love it since I think album art needs to be THAT big. Plus, nothing beats the ceremonial aspect of listening to music on vinyl and slowly building a collection. For us, the demand for vinyl has been growing steadily and we’re very stoked to be finally doing it. We have several vinyl projects on the horizon, including Ancients’ debut—check out the artwork [see below] and you will understand why that needs to be on a 12″ gatefold—and Black Sheep Wall’s debut.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week. In the meantime, be sure to check out!