Out of Nowhere
Last November Pop Up Records issued its first release, an album by Summer Blanket titled Charm Wrestling. The album has a rare, fragile quality emphasized by its downbeat melodies and confessional verse, the work of Keith Michaud, who plays bass and guitar while singing on its nine tracks, and a handful of friends who accompanied him on esoteric instruments like glockenspiel and Fender Rhodes piano. "I'm a walking document of failure/It's a talent all my own," he characteristically sings on "Someday," a floating pop ballad similar to the other eight tracks on the album. Despite Charm Wrestling's melancholy air, it feels honest, even if Michaud's words are more reflective of his own internal life than any sort of universal truth.
Jason Knapfel and Nick Dominguez, the two owners behind Pop Up, describe the recording as a coup of sorts. "We're big fans of his," admits Knapfel during a joint interview with Dominguez at Morning Drinker Studios in Fort Lauderdale. (A third associate of the label is Derek Cordova of Further Seems Forever, who helps the duo look for potential talent.) True, Charm Wrestling is a strong debut from a promising new singer-songwriter. But Michaud is also a relatively unknown musician released on a new, untested label. Still both parties are capturing South Florida music fans' attention with their surprisingly high production values. The sound of the album is rich and full, a professional record produced on the cheap. Recorded at MDS Productions, it cost a mere $650 to make. "[Studio owner] Matt Cohen was super-fair to us," says Knapfel. The CD's artwork, a simple picture of floating clouds, is clean and striking, as visually impressive as anything a better-known indie company such as Sub Pop might have produced. Like fellow local overachievers Counterflow Recordings, Pop Up doesn't sacrifice quality for frugality.
Pop Up is the result of several conversations Knapfel and Dominguez had in early 2003. The duo both work at www.ediets.com, a health and fitness Website. "Every week when we'd go out to lunch, I'd throw out the idea of starting a label," remembers 33-year-old Knapfel. He turned to Michaud, with whom he had once shared membership in a band called Waking Universe, to be his first artist. "That was more of a heavy rocking band, more on the punk side," says Knapfel, who now plays in another group called Brite Side. "But I always liked his singer-songwriter [songs]." He eventually got a chance to hear Michaud's demo tape; impressed, he asked if he could issue the songs as Pop Up's first release.
Start-up costs for Pop Up took about $1000 of Knapfel and Dominguez's personal savings, which went toward production costs for the Summer Blanket CD. For his part, Dominguez, who is 28, designed the disc's artwork and the label Website, seeking to establish an image that was clean, professional, and iconic. The label name itself is a play on the frustrating pop-up windows that appear when you load certain sites. They hope, though, their output won't be as annoying. "It was a labor of love," says Knapfel of the Summer Blanket release.
Although it didn't take much money for Pop Up's owners to get into the music industry game, drawing attention to its efforts and building an audience for its products will eventually prove to be the bigger challenge. Toward that end they've contracted with Fanatic Promotion, a New York-based independent publicity firm that has worked with Sleater-Kinney, My Morning Jacket, and Steve Earle, to handle their national press. "I know they've done good work," says Knapfel, who adds that he first heard of the firm through his freelance writing assignments for the Sun-Sentinel. It doesn't help, though, that South Florida's audience for original live music is something of a work in progress. Only a handful of people showed up when Summer Blanket opened for the Album Leaf and American Analog Set last December. "If you're not a pop-punk band bringing in a bunch of sixteen-year-old kids, doing adult-oriented original rock is a little bit of a harder sell," says Knapfel. "So we'll often do shows in front of 40 people. If we sell five CDs that night, we're happy."
Maybe that's why Pop Up's attention is focused on the rest of the country instead of its own hometown. Its next projects include a release by Army of Me, a Washington, D.C. punk band with an established following; and Artists Speak Against Poverty, a unique compilation that will feature spoken-word tracks by Daryl Palumbo (Glassjaw), Jason Gleason (Further Seems Forever), Vinnie Caruana (Movielife), and several other underground heroes. With luck, both forthcoming albums will further position Pop Up as an outpost for consistently strong music that happens to be based in South Florida. "We're not really a local label," says Knapfel. "We want to be like any other label, no matter where we're based."
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