Baltimore is awash in local labels releasing music from the city. But nearly a decade ago, some of the most notable musicians were being put out by a label based in Washington, D.C., Carpark Records, the home to releases from Adventure, Lexie Mountain Boys, Ecstatic Sunshine, Wzt Hearts, Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez, and most notably, the first two albums from Beach House and two records that helped propel Dan Deacon’s career, “Spiderman of the Rings” and “Bromst.” In addition to that, the label’s founder, Todd Hyman, helped start an imprint, Paw Tracks, with the Baltimore County-reared psych-pop band Animal Collective, which released side and solo projects through the label in addition to albums by Ariel Pink, among others.
Carpark has since diversified the geography of its offerings, signing acts such as electro-R&B artist and chillwave pioneer Toro Y Moi and indie favorite Speedy Ortiz, to name a few. Now that Carpark is old enough to drive, Hyman is celebrating its sweet 16 by releasing goodies such as specially designed sweatpants, a basketball-themed 12-inch picture disc with new music from Deacon, Wzt Hearts’ Jason Urick, and Adventure, and a best-of compilation on a race-car-shaped USB drive.
We talked with Hyman about his recollections from Baltimore, seeing the success achieved by Carpark artists, how he’s kept the label going for 16 years, and more.
City Paper: One of the things I thought was interesting about Carpark is the Baltimore connection. I was reading this Washington Post profile of you and the label and it said Beach House was one of the first bands from here that you signed. How did that all happen?
Todd Hyman: Well, let’s see. It’s kind of a semi-amusing story. I moved [to D.C.] in 2005 with my wife. I knew a couple people in Baltimore, and I got in touch with them just to say, I was living down here and seeing what’s up, because I didn’t know a whole lot about the area at that time. The two people I knew were Jason Urick and [City Paper contributor] Lexie Macchi [aka Lexie Mountain], because I would email them when I lived in New York to set up shows for our bands. I would typically set up tours for our bands at that time.
So I emailed them and some other people. My wife, she spent a lot of time on message boards back then, and she was into a lot of emo and hardcore stuff back in the late ‘90s. There was some board she was on—I forget the URL—but it was some kind of emo board, and I remember she was searching through it—and I don’t know who the person was, but there was one person who was always posting about Baltimore stuff. And at one point I remember this person posted a list of all the bands in Baltimore at that time. So being someone who was running a record label, I was like, oh cool, I’ll go through them all and check them out and see what’s going on. And I think they were mostly MySpace links, that’s pretty much how bands could put their music online back around 2005. Beach House was one of them. There were a couple of tracks on their MySpace page. I thought they were really interesting.
It’s almost 10 years ago, so I don’t really remember all the details. But I remember at some point I emailed Jason Urick just to see if he knew them or could put me in touch with them or something. He helped put us together, and I think he was actually at the meeting too, though I’m not exactly sure. I can’t remember now if he was there or not. We met in some bar in Charles Village. I met Alex [Scally] and Victoria [Legrand] for the first time there. They were interested in Carpark. We put out their first two records. We put out their first record, and it didn’t really take off immediately, it took a few months for people to catch on to them. But once people did, it kind of grew very quickly and there was a big buzz about them. So by the time the second record, “Devotion,” came out, there was really a lot of excitement around that record.
CP: You went on to work with Jason and Lexie, with Wzt Hearts and Lexie Mountain Boys, respectively. How did that come about?
TH: Throughout 2006 and ’07, I spent a lot of time in Baltimore. I would drive up there at least once or twice a week and go to shows at Floristree and Talking Head and the Copycat building and a bunch of other places whose names I can’t remember. I just kind of gradually met everybody who was making music in Baltimore at that time. Jason was doing music with Wzt Hearts, and I thought what they were doing was really awesome, so I asked if I could put out their record and they were cool with that. Same thing with Lexie Mountain Boys—I found what they were doing was really special and unique, and they were happy for us to put out their stuff as well.
CP: What are some of your memories from that time? What was it that kept bringing you back?
TH: It was an exciting time. Wham City was just kind of getting going, it was in its heyday. There was all kinds of crazy stuff going on: Wham City plays, musical performances, and video performances, Whartscape every summer. There was no shortage of fun things going on. No disrespect to D.C., but they just weren’t approximating what was going on here. What I was into, it was going on in Baltimore then. I was able to [go], I had a car. I would basically eat dinner and head up to Baltimore around 8 or 9 o’clock every night and see a show and drive home at 1 or 2 in the morning.
CP: Are there any shows from that era that stand out in your mind?
TH: Oh, let’s see. The Wham City adaptation of “Jurassic Park” was particularly memorable. I’m remembering Whartscape—what was it, 2008—the one where they had to shut it down early when that big storm came through. [And] tons of shows.
When I first started working with Beach House, I saw them at the Golden West. That was good times. When Dan Deacon tried to have a Wham City space, I think it was a block or two north of the Copycat building, if my memory serves me correctly. And they had this big warehouse, they were trying to get that going. I just remember the building was a bit structurally dicey. I remember when Benny [Boeldt]—[of] Adventure, who we worked with—was playing and the floor was wood boards, and you could kind of see in between them, and the whole floor was kinda like going up and down. It was gonna collapse at any moment. I think Benny took me down to the basement where there was all this weird old machinery from the early 20th century, when the building was actually being used for industrial purposes. Those were some good times.
CP: The Post story I referred to earlier said you started the label as more of an IDM thing. Was there any hesitance to transition to some of these Baltimore bands, like Dan and Adventure, which lean more toward party music?
TH: It wasn’t a big deal to me at that point, really. I came from more of an indie-rock background in college. In the early ’90s, I was totally into indie rock and all kinds of weird stuff. And then, kind of like as a lot of people in the late ’90s progressed into more electronic stuff, I thought that was the way things were going.
But then, after starting Carpark, after a few years I kind of was feeling like that was not working out either. It wasn’t really catching on. It was really kind of a specialist, esoteric kind of thing. Before I moved down here, I was intentionally trying to mix things up a little bit, working with artists who were working in digital and analog kind of media and had mixed success there.
And when I finally moved down here, I was just like, I shouldn’t worry so much about the sound of the label. I don’t think there’s that many people who really care if Carpark’s an electronic label. I didn’t really care so much either. Finally, I was just like, I’m going to put out what I like. I’m not going to worry if it’s electronic or whatever, because there was all this cool stuff going on in Baltimore. I was just like, “Whatever, no one’s gonna care anyway.” That’s kinda how Carpark, I think, came to be what it is today, where it’s all kinds of different music.
CP: You worked with Animal Collective, too, to help form Paw Tracks. But I guess that was well after they left Baltimore. Is that right?
TH: Yeah. I first met them in New York in 2000, I think. I was seeing them play in Manhattan, Dave [Portner] and Noah [Lennox] playing weird shows with not that many [people]. They were pretty weird back then, so they were playing in small clubs.
I think it was around 2002 I approached them to see if they were interested in forming a label together, because they had released the first two records at that point. And they weren’t Animal Collective records, they were Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist, or whatever. They were not wanting to call themselves Animal Collective on record, because people were moving around. Brian [Weitz] went to Arizona for a while. I guess they were just trying to keep things fluid.
I was like, well, if we form this label together, you won’t necessarily have to worry about that so much, because people will know if it comes out on this label, it will be you guys. They kind of tried to do that before anyway, with Animal Records, so they were interested in the idea. And that was how we ended up working together. I think the first release was Animal Collective “Here Comes the Indian,” which was released in 2003.
CP: We’ve seen bands’ profiles rise here locally. So Dan has worked with Francis Ford Coppola on film soundtracks, he’s signed to Domino, his profile has risen over the last couple of years. You mentioned Beach House, how you saw them at Golden West, and now they’re playing a big theater up here. It’s been amazing to see how they’ve grown. What’s it been like for you, with those two acts in particular or even the Animal Collective side projects you’ve worked on, to get as big as they have?
TH: Panda Bear “Person Pitch” was the biggest record we ever put out. It was an exciting time, 2007. We had just put out Beach House’s first record in the fall of 2006 and then we did “Person Pitch” and Dan Deacon’s “Spiderman of the Rings” in 2007. I knew the Panda Bear record was going to be popular, but I had no idea it was going to be as popular as it was. It was the No. 1 record on Pitchfork for that year, and it just kind of grew in a way that no other release we’ve put out has. A few years ago outside of my house I could hear it blaring out of someone’s back porch at one point, which was very surreal. [laughs] That record just resonates with a lot of people.
CP: Do you think the label is something you’ll be able to continue doing?
TH: Yeah. It’s going good so far. Since I’ve had kids I’ve brought on a staff of people. It used to be just me running everything. So I have people who have fresher brains than me at times to do lots of things for us. The music world being as it is right now, it’s very easy to find stuff on the internet, whether it’s music or videos or performances and stuff. It’s really not even necessary to be able to stay out late and see [a] band play anymore. It’s been three and a half years since I’ve been doing that kind of stuff. I’m still able to find new bands, so we’ll see how long we can keep it going. [laughs]
CP: And you’re able to do this as a full-time job?
TH: Yup, we’ve got me and two other employees down here, and then we’ve got an employee in Brooklyn. So it works out.
CP: Yeah, that seems pretty rare when so many labels are struggling to make a go of it.
TH: [You] just gotta be frugal and know where to spend your money and not get all excited when you have a big release and start spending lots of money everywhere and then you run out a year later. Being smart with everything will pay off in the end.
CP: That’s it for me. Is there anything else you want to add?
TH: Nope. Just tell Baltimore I’m sorry I can’t come and visit as much as I used to.