It's hard to name a more unforeseen story in the music industry than the recent resurgence of the vinyl LP. With vinyl record sales increasing at astronomic rates (up over 50% since 2013 alone), opportunistic major labels that had abandoned the format years ago have been promoting limited re-releases and Record Store Day exclusives in order to cash in on the surge. But for these giant conglomerates, vinyl is just a way to dip their fingers in the pot; by no means is it their passion (or main source of cash flow, for that matter).
But for labels like Dallas' Tofu Carnage Records, vinyl is a means of highlighting music near and dear to the owners. Theirs is a small, carefully curated selection of releases that are individual works of art, and some of the most beautiful records you'll ever see.
Tofu Carnage lies in direct contrast to larger industry trends of brickwalled masters, rushed releases, and a reliance on digital sales over physical product. Its also one of the few Dallas-centric labels to service solely in vinyl. Label head Sean Mehl has a scrupulous eye for detail, and he spares no expense to make each of his releases an all-encompassing experience. Rather than simply placing a record within a cardboard jacket, his releases are beautiful, intricate and meant as a true accompaniment to the audio recording within. You don't open a Tofu Carnage release, you unpack it.
Initially, before Tofu Carnage even had a name, Mehl's goal was a simple one: get his band Dead to a Dying World's album heard. "I had never set out with the intention of starting a record label," Mehl explains. "It very much began as a means to releasing the first Dead to a Dying World record. I felt that even as a self-release, having a name behind it gave it more legitimacy."
Released in March of 2011, the record garnered high praise not only for the songs and recording, but also for the record's packaging and layout. "Before Tofu Carnage was established as an entity, people often described the first Dead to a Dying World record as one of the most beautiful records they had ever seen. It is my goal to give these artists nothing less," states Mehl.
That initial spark has led to a spate of releases from some of Texas' most boundary-pushing bands, with a particular focus on Dallas-based groups. He's drawn together a roster of bands that don't necessarily sound alike, but share a similar ethos of adventurousness. Tofu Carnage releases from Dallas bands like Cleric, Unconscious Collective and Akkolyte have turned many eyes nationally to DFW's under-appreciated extreme music scene.
Mehl sees his label as a way of giving due justice to the wealth of talent bubbling in Texas underground music. "It was very much a deliberate choice to work with artists from the Dallas area, and Texas in general," asserts Mehl. "After I had my first few releases under my belt, it became clear to me that I needed some direction. I could no longer just get by without some kind of plan or overall idea of what my goals as a label were."
That plan was to only shine a light on local talent but to also present it in a meaningful way. "I wanted my label to serve as a means for people to more widely recognize the astonishing creativity brewing in Texas," he continues. "I wasn't ever interested in making music as an art form into something disposable. I feel a great responsibility in the efforts these musicians have taken and always strive to create a memorable artifact of that beauty."
The care Mehl puts into his releases certainly shows, and it's garnered the label a large amount of attention. A writer on the music website Dangerousminds.net even went so far as to devote an entire article to the vinyl release of Unconscious Collective's Pleistocene Moon, calling it "the single most beautiful vinyl record I've ever laid eyes on." There's an inarguable beauty to the unique splatter, swirl and marble combinations on Tofu Carnage's releases. Mehl strategizes extensively with the artists on designing a layout and color scheme to best fit the emotion of each record.
To Mehl, though, the final, finished product isn't so much a commodity to buy as a document of bonds forged over a shared love of music.
"As I see it, music is an experience that begins and ends with relationships," he explains. "It's the hope and despair you feel with each note; it's the friends made and cherished; it's what ultimately draws people to the experience of vinyl. That is also largely why I took a community based approach to my label: It starts with close relationships and expands to an entity unto itself."
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Improbably, what began simply as a means to release one album has worked its way to its seventh release, A Holy Land Beneath a Godless Sky by Austin- based post-rock band Sans Soleil. To take stock of its past, present and future, Tofu Carnage is hosting a free label showcase February 28 at Double Wide. They're even sweetening the deal by offering free tacos to attendees. (Because who doesn't love free tacos?) Newly signed acts like Tyrannosorceress and They Say the Wind Made Them Crazy will present their uniquely visceral approaches alongside more established Tofu Carnage bands like Ecocide and Cleric. It's a lineup that not only represents the Tofu Carnage roster, but arguably some of the best forward-thinking bands in Texas.
Mehl takes great pride in working with such a strong core of musicians, and releasing these records is a task he doesn't take lightly. Each Tofu Carnage album is the logical endpoint for that band's initial creative spark, one that deserves the execution that his label can bring. "Vinyl is the final form of the musical artistic vision", says Mehl. "It is my responsibility to make each release a work of art in its own right."
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