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Interview with Leeor Brown of Pioneering L.A. Record Label Friends of Friends

Leeor Brown is the unassuming, quiet force behind some of the most forward-thinking music released by an L.A. record label in the past ten years. He's worked with next-level artists like Shlohmo, Salva, Perera Elsewhere, Deru, Groundislava, RL Grime, Daedalus, and Jerome LOL, and keeps thinking of innovative ways to promote, release, and support unique and forward-thinking music and art. We recently sat down with Leeor to discuss the five year anniversary of Friends of Friends, Pusha-T, the city of Los Angeles, the music business, and tacos...

What’s happening in 2014 for Friends of Friends? 

First up is the Jerome LOL EP, it’s amazing. Then in April we’re putting out an EP by a new signing “Different Sleep”, originally from San Diego and now based in Chicago. Super dope, emotive stuff with piano and some vocal work. Very diverse producer I’m really excited about. We’re also releasing the deluxe edition of Perera Elsewhere’s EP “Everlast”. The original came out in October, and this edition will have a new song and an entire album of remixes, including  Prefuse73 and Shlohmo.

In June we have one of our biggest releases of the year. I can’t get into details yet, but let’s just say it’s an audio/visual project that nobody has ever really done anything like. It’s so cool just in terms of an art project, I’m so excited about it.

In the Fall the main thing is the 5oFoF compilation, we’re going to span our whole 5 year career, with singles, rarities, remixes, new tracks from the crew. Double-disc CD, 40 track digital. That’s probably what I’m most excited about because it will show everyone who might be into Shlohmo, or Thomas Barfod, or Salva just what we’ve been able to do over the last five years. Between the guests, remixers, and our core group, I’m so proud of what we’ve been doing! If someone told me five years ago what our anniversary comp would look like, I’d be tripping out.


It must feel good to look back!

It does! I can’t deny that. When I was 19 I was traveling Europe, chasing down people like Prefuse73 at festivals and stuff, and now he’s on the Prayer release-- that dude was God to me at one point. It’s funny too because when you get caught up in the everyday b.s., those are the kind of things you have to remind yourself of. Like, it’s OK, 4-5 years ago you had no clue what you were doing! Like the Pusha-T thing, who would’ve thunk? I had Pusha-T on my stage,  It still doesn’t make any sense to me.

How do you work with artists? It seems like you do more than “just” a label?

The real bottom line is that as a record label, you want your artists to have a full team behind them-- management, booking, lawyer, and other things, right? But frankly none of our guys had any of that when they first started out. So I kind of took on a lot of the management role too to start building them out. I still work with Salva and Groundislava on a management level, which is also why you may see them move on to other labels. It’s not all about FoF. To me FoF is about building a hub for a lot of like-minded groups and artists to rally around. Kind of like Dublab in that way. We don’t have to be in charge of everything, but when someone is doing something cool we can all come together on it and make it special. I treat FoF more like a creative music company than just a record label. For instance, we also run our sister label, Young Adults, which is a house label that I run with my DJ partner David Fisher.

We also do marketing and PR for other labels and artists. We just want really cool opportunities coming across our desks and we want to be involved with really awesome projects. “Get in where you fit in”. Which for us is forward-thinking electronic music and art projects. The flexibility is the coolest part, especially moving into the new music industry, whatever that ends up being. If all you are is a record label trying to get iTunes sales, you’re going to have a really hard time. Running a record label is a hard thing to do, but I still think it’s really valuable and important.

What’s the single most fun thing that’s happened in this journey?

Oh man, that’s tough. I guess the most fun is just developing relationships with all these people. Getting to navigate this new world that we’ve all created with the people we work with. It’s something both fans and artists really like, and it’s been a lot of fun for me to construct this thing with everyone’s input.

Building this community...

Yeah, building this community, that’s a good way to put it. And now it’s funny, when I look back on the last five years, when we started there was no community. I signed an artist, that’s it, and I didn’t even sign an artist, it was a friendly thing between me and Daedalus at the time. Now to see this community of people who have all become friends, it’s amazing. Other things have grown out of it too, people are starting their own labels, their own brands, but we all have that common ground which is FoF. I’m proud of that, and I’ve really been able to appreciate that this year and reflect on it because of the anniversary.

(Friends of Friends’ accountant jumps in: the Culture Clash thing kind of epitomized all of that)

The Red Bull Event in Downtown? 

Yeah, bringing Pusha T on stage, having Pusha T involved in my record label, that was the most fun thing that happened. And we did the whole thing again at SxSW.


Were you a big fan of Clipse growing up?

Dude, are you kidding me, that’s not even a fair question. Everything Neptunes, everything Clipse, that was the shit.

Is that the kind of music that brought you into this world? 

Yes, I come from rap and hip hop. Hip hop brought me in. I lived in Santa Cruz, did the backpacker thing for awhile, (laughs), I would say that hip hop lead me directly into instrumentals, beats and whatnot, and then I was the resident publicist of Low End Theory... it’s a natural progression in my head but when you think back to all the different styles we listen to and what we put out, it seems far from hip hop at times, but it formed who we are.

What role do you think Low End Theory plays in LA music in general and in Friends of Friends? 

In terms of what I’ve done, there’s no doubt it’s been big. I’ve worked really closely with all those guys and Daddy Kev, who runs Alpha Pup, is our digital distributor and we’re very tied in with that community. Them and Dublab I learned a lot from in terms of how to establish an identity with artists and build a community. That was always the vibe with both. I loved with Low End the feeling of community, where so much has grown around that. With Dublab they could do almost anything they wanted, because they’re a non-profit. They could be advocates for art, and I wanted to do that too but on a… non-non profit way (laughs). Where we can do things and not have to ask people for money but take that same idea and allow artists to work on projects they love and really believe in that they can make some money to pay their bills.


Who do you think the consumers are? Who buys Friends of Friends records? 

That’s tricky. Who enjoys Friends of Friends is always changing and the internet is allowing us to reach younger people, people open to a wide variety music. But in terms of who is actually buying music, that’s the tricky part now. Especially with younger listeners, it’s weirder for them to buy something than it is to just stream it or watch YouTube. With Spotify, etc. there are so many places you can get free music legally now, that I really don’t know where the audience is. My main thing is to not worry too much about that and to focus on projects we think are really great and let the audience come to us.

Do you guys do boxed sets, merch, and all that stuff? 

Our first release with Daedalus was a record on a t-shirt. Buy the shirt, get the download.  It was a great idea, but the problem is there’s not a lot of places to sell stuff like that. Clothing stores won’t sell an album, that’s not how they think. Music shops may have a merch section, you can’t fold up a t-shirt and put it in the vinyl section.

We now have a pretty decent sized fanbase that we can sell directly to, so I want to explore that more. The audio-visual project I spoke about before is going to be very high end, very expensive to produce that people are going to be like “what?! Holy Shit!”, so there could be some opportunities there. The FoF compilation will be available in an alternate mode besides CD or digital. I want to move more into that stuff, and be creative with it, but the merch thing is a little tough. Some people are talking USBs or little tchotchke things. I’m all for it. One thing I love about the shirts we did for Daedalus is they were 100% organic cotton, great quality, Alternative Apparel, and people tell me all the time they still wear it. Best thing I could’ve done, it keeps people thinking about FoF. With digital now you’re lucky if you can keep people’s attention for 5 minutes.

Doing vinyl is cool. The argument is out there that vinyl sales are rising, but you really have to take that with a grain of salt. If you see the top vinyl sales list, it’s Justin Timberlake, and then indie rock stuff like White Stripes. So is it really cost-effective and valuable for us to make vinyl? I do it because I love vinyl, our fans love vinyl…

You’re a vinyl DJ right? 

Yeah, Young Adults, I think it’s great but I can tell you after creating it now for four years, the strain it puts on the business… it’s hectic, it doesn’t make money, you’re hoping to just break even on the vinyl release… the work it takes to produce, sell, market, it literally is not worth it, if you’re a business person.

We recognize that there’s value in it though for us and our fans. And on the flipside we do want to make things that people can use, that makes sense. Bringing stuff to people’s everyday lives. Like, we’re not going to do Friends of Friends salt and pepper shakers, but I do think making something people care about that they can buy from us that involves the art and the music. What that looks like, we’re still working on. Everyone is kind of working on that. What makes people care, but is still true to the art. Somewhere in the middle, DFA makes mugs. I love it. I use my mug all the time! You know what I’m saying? It’s got the DFA logo and I fuckin’ drink coffee out of it every day!

3D printing is going to change everything. When we get a reasonable, commercial way to do it, and get blueprints and all that stuff, we could just sit here and make small numbers of whatever we want, whenever we want. That’s part of the reason I’m patient on the product side.

You’ve been on a lot of stuff before it got really big, but you’ve also not really chased trends once they’re created. Is that a conscious decision? 

I don’t like to feel like we’re doing stuff to cash in.

You’re not putting out FoF TRAP BANGERS VOL II

I think there’s a certain level of, and I don’t want to come off pretentious because it’s not like that, but I come from an artistic background. Even when Shlohmo was releasing a bunch of records with us, it was always about putting his vision out into the world the way he sees it. I’ve learned something about this industry-- the money is in stuff that’s already broken. Breaking new things, you get no credit and no money. At the end of the day, I guess I don’t care that much. Of course I want to make money for us and for the artists, but I want to believe in what we’re doing.

There’s become a very big discrepancy between music and art-- you can be a musician and not be an artist, and that’s fair. Not everyone has to make art. But I think there is a distinction more and more where you see people going out and doing this just for financial purposes. Supporting people that have a vision and have something to say is the reason I got into this, not money. There’s a lot of other ways to make money. For me it was always about the idea that artists are meant to challenge conceptions, challenge social norms. To work on the fringes and create something for people who might be subjugated or not have a voice, so they can look at that and say “You’re speaking my language.” That’s why people get behind artists! That’s the whole point! I feel like we’re losing that in some respects, when people like a sound or a scene, which comes and goes. Really valuable music and artistic movements come when people who are outsiders, politically or socially or whatever, find someone they can rally around, who speak to them in a unique way. That’s the shit that gets me, so that’s the shit I focus on.

When you’re creating something that’s genuinely new, and creative, people can tell, and it brings them in.

That’s right, and to be honest there are moments where people look at what we do, and go and run with it. I’ve seen it a bunch. But we move on… we’ve championed great things, and new things, and become the hub for what’s next, and I hope that’s how we are perceived.


Changing gears a bit, what brought you to Highland Park?

HP has been a long journey. I was born on the East Coast but we moved to LA when I was 4. I went to school at Hamilton, and it’s really funny how many people in my life now are from that High School; when I left I didn’t think there would be anyone from school that I would be in touch with. I went to college in Santa Cruz, where I hung out with our mutual friend Garret, shoutout Garret Leahy, then I moved to Oakland but I met a girl who lived in Silver Lake. She’s now my wife (and baby momma) so long story short I moved to Silver Lake to be with her, then we moved to Downtown LA, and then to Highland Park because it had a little more mellow vibe after the DTLA life. We moved here about four years ago, so it wasn’t cracking yet, but the York had opened, a few things had happened, and now it’s like a hot spot. It’s changed so much. It’s trippy, we were talking about it the day, how much it’s changed in this brief 4 year period.

The word is out.

It’s, like, so out. All I see are articles about “Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Woo!” And I rent, so I’m screwed. I’m never going to buy a house out here now. I wanted to try to buy a place when we first moved in because it’s such a great neighborhood, but… I’m running an independent record label, so…

Will you stay in Highland Park?

I’d love to. We have our home, our roots are here now. I’ve been in this office for the last year and a half, so I feel good about this place. It could be a wave, I don’t know if this will continue at this pace or maybe it will slow down a little bit.

But L.A. in general is the place to be, right?

Put it this way-- the weather is fucking perfect, the entertainment business is centered here. At the end of the day those are two really big things, and it’s constantly keeping this place full of energy and creativity. There are some people in our crew who are born and raised, but I can’t tell you how many are people that moved here. Actually, now that I think about it, the only person on our staff besides me who grew up here is Matt, our accountant. We’ve got Miami, Midwest, London… the artists we are signing are from Berlin, all over. We have a handful of locals-- Salva isn’t from here but lives here now, Shlohmo and Groundislava are from LA, but everybody no matter where they’re from is trying to come here because there’s so much going on. I think we’ve finally shook the perception of LA being only phony, and all this bullshit, which never really existed, but if all you do is go to Hollywood, you’re going to fucking hate this town.

Which the basis of 90% of the anti-LA articles out there…

Right yeah it’s like if you tell someone from New York that you hate New York and they ask you where you went and you say Times Square, it’s like, well yeah, no shit. That sucks. Again, I find that most people that come to visit from other countries don’t go East of Western, because the people they tend to visit are living on the west side. That’s cool, I grew up out there and it’s all good, but I’ve been able to explore so much in just 5-6 years and I’ve realized that the city’s real culture is embedded on this side of town. There’s a lot going on here that people over there have no idea about. If you’re creative, and you’re not balling out of control, you live on the east side. But that’s what interesting about L.A., there’s a dichotomy between the different parts of town, but we do mingle and get together. We all go to the El Rey, the Wiltern, there are meeting places where we have to all meet up and get together.

What’s your favorite venue in town?

Got to be honest, venues are weird. I like that there are a lot of new venues popping up.

There seems to be lag between the music and the venues that are available to present it right now… 

Right. My venue friends will be mad at me for saying, but yeah I think there’s a major discrepancy with the amount of talent and things happening here and the venues able to take it on and do it right. Something I can say across the board is I’ve felt the venues are strict about the ways they think they need to make money, so they’re very hard on the people who put on the shows, they’re very restricting, and it doesn’t allow for the types of conversations that can make shows better and build audiences. So they say, OK that one show wasn’t financially beneficial for us, and frankly we’re going to give you a hard time while you’re doing the show. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been harassed during a show by the venue managers, and it’s like you wonder why we can’t develop real relationships that are necessary to make things grow, and get better over time.

With some venues you need to deal with major promoters, which is rarely the rarely the right fit for our artists, and then dealing with the completely DIY venues can be challenging as well. Walk up traffic doesn’t exist, they don’t have much of their own marketing, so you’re responsible for all of that, and when you’re trying to develop an artist that’s tough. So I think we’re in kind of a weird middle ground. That said, I’ve noticed a lot of warehouse parties popping up, I’ve noticed of promoters start to get hip to the fact that people want to hear some new shit… respect to Cooper at Faraway, he throws one of the best parties in the city, with no set venue, he does his thing and I want more people like that who are passionate enough to take this on. Venues that need to book every night can’t be as passionate.

OK now for the big one, the one people really care about-- what's your favorite Taco?

Damn. Ok, favorite taco, I hate to take the easy route but there are two right here in our neighborhood that I just can’t get enough of. Huarache Azteca, everything there is amazing. Suadero taco or Al Pastor taco, money. Then the duck confit taco at Cacao Mexicatessan, god. It sticks with you and has a really distinct flavor with the pickled radish. So good. That’s on some wow stuff for me.

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