Who needs bot-generated playlists? With 30th Century Records, the tastemaking producer has created one of the coolest hubs for discovering far-out new sounds
Back in the late ’90s, Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton was pursuing a degree at the University of Georgia while working part-time at Athens’ legendary Wuxtry Records. The superproducer, who is one half of Gnarls Barkley with CeeLo Green and has worked with megastars like Adele and U2, was the record store’s hip-hop buyer at the time and dutifully listened to every release from cutting-edge American indie labels like Matador and Stones Throw. “It was like its own world,” Burton, now 39, recalls. “I loved working at the record store. When you’re a college student, you’re understanding commerce and business and art, and you see them coming together…. It was inspiring.”
Now Burton is putting what he’s learned to good use. Since launching a label called 30th Century Records last year, he has steadily released music in recent months from his diverse roster, which spans psychedelic pop from Rochester, N.Y.’s Maybird to more established indie acts like art-rock mavens Autolux. He’s even helped persuade the indie-rock group Grandaddy to reunite under his guidance; their first album in a decade, Last Place, arrives via 30th Century in March. “They were one of my favorite bands in the ’90s,” says Burton. “I always followed them.”
30th Century Records is less a commercial moneymaker venture and more a discovery network for adventurous music fans. “It’s stuff that I think is a little tough to sell — I mean, I hope stuff sells — but that’s not really the point of what I was trying to do,” he says. And while Burton has worked with Beck and Norah Jones, he admits, “I wasn’t trying to make a label of all my famous friends…. It’s become a little more eclectic and it’s probably just going to get more and more eclectic.”
In recent years, plenty of artists have launched vanity imprints — Jack White’s Third Man Records might be the most famous example — but Burton isn’t taking cues from his contemporaries. In fact, he looked to iconic indie labels like Sub Pop (Nirvana’s first home), 4AD (Pixies), and Factory Records (Joy Division), brands whose names could carry as much clout as a signee. “I follow all the stuff Jack does, and I love what he does,” he says, “but the roots of this are more back in Athens working at the record store, [when] I realized there were these consistencies in the labels and the stuff they were putting out.”
On a day-to-day basis, Burton demands the best from his roster. “I’m pushy,” he says. “I like people to work. I like people to be prolific, to make music while they can.” But he’s not overbearing: “He has been very hands-off and trustful with what I’m creating,” says Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle.
While 30th Century Records is in its infancy, Burton has big plans for its future: He hopes it will become a haven for artists who feel pressured to re-create past successes. “I’ve noticed that working with bands, there’s expectations [from the label] for the kind of song they need to have — I’ve seen it mess up lots of bands,” he says. “I’d like this to just be a place where you can go make the record you want to make.”
Meet Some of 30th Century’s Eclectic Sonic Squad
The space-rockers went on hiatus after putting out their fourth album in 2006 — but they played reunion shows in 2012 and will release their fifth album, Last Place, via 30th Century in March 2017.
Singer-drummer Carla Azar has drummed for Jack White, and her main band offers a heady blend of post-punk, noise, and Krautrock.
The psychedelic folkie played in the house band for Day of the Dead, the Grateful Dead tribute album helmed by members of the National.
Nate Salman’s Afrobeat-and electronica-inspired act has been opening for the Pixies this fall.