Darrin Wiener makes an unlikely entrepreneur. For one thing, he's late joining me for dinner at a Thai restaurant in Fremont—not in itself unusual, particularly for someone who doesn't drive. Still, Wiener's excuse is a good one. "I skated two miles in the rain," the lanky, bearded 26-year-old head of the Imputor? label explains. "I figured I'd make it here faster that way than by taking the bus."
He also eschews traditional manufacturing methods. Take Pop/Rock Ruff Drafts, the first EP by local spazz-electro-dance-punk combo Dalmatians, which Imputor? issued in September housed in a pair of unevenly chopped pieces of cardboard, held together with a rubber band, with a button pinned to the front, all in a plastic baggie. Or the cover of the Vells' first full album, Flight From Echo Falls, a gold-leaf stamp on a digipak case recycled from a series of differently colored file folders that date back to the 1970s. Or the self-titled new album by Plastiq Phantom, the electronic-music moniker with which Wiener first attracted attention four years ago, which is wrapped inside a brightly colored, folded-up poster with a glued-on hard-rubber nozzle for the CD's center, all inside a delicate wraparound yellow cardboard box with a slip latch.
"With iPods and stuff now, who needs a case anymore?" asks Wiener, who runs the label alongside Jordan Snodgrass, an old friend from San Diego, where Wiener was raised. "Isn't that how it works now? I figure you can just hang the poster on your wall, and you can throw the CD away after you burn it."
Maybe, but the objets d'art that Imputor? has been packaging its music in make them collectors' items by default—or, more likely, by design. Because, most unusual of all, Wiener is making all of this pay. Not enormously—as local indies go, Imputor? ain't Sub Pop or Barsuk yet. Still, Wiener's been able to not resort to day work in two years—he pays the bills with freelance commercial work (some clients: American Movie Classics, Nike, MTV, AOL/iTunes, Fine Living Network, Anime Network, and Viva, the German music TV network recently purchased by MTV) and devotes the rest of his time to the label. It helps, too, that the label's output has been noteworthy—though the Vells' album is a lot more scattershot than the self-titled EP they released on Luckyhorse in 2003, the Dalmatians and Plastiq Phantom discs are among the year's finest local releases.
Wiener began Imputor? modestly enough. He'd issued one album, Enjoy the Art of Lying Down, in May 2001 on the local label Neverstop, best known for its custom-made mix CDs for Standard Hotel. "I was fed up with Neverstop because they took so long to put anything out," says Wiener. "So I decided to put out a CD-R EP myself. I didn't think it would sell, but no one seemed to care that it was a CD-R."
Not long thereafter, he began moving away from the electronica he'd made his name with. "I guess I got bored of it. Ever since we started the label, my partner wanted to call it an electronic music label. I always resisted that. I wanted to put out music I liked and not have a [category] for it. [Electronic music] is just a production style these days anyway. Most of the Vells' album was produced that way."
The Vells began as a side project for Modest Mouse drummer Jeremiah Green, who'd met Wiener at the first-ever Plastiq Phantom show in Seattle. "He came up and introduced himself," Wiener says. "We've been friends since then. Then he told me, 'You really need to record my band's album.' I'd seen them once or twice and thought they were OK—I'd never really heard them live. I'd never heard Tristan [Marcum's] vocals. I didn't realize how good they were until then."
The Vells aren't the only thing Green is involved with on Imputor? Along with Marcum and Wiener, as well as cellist Brent Arnold and bassist James Bertram, the drummer plays on the forthcoming debut of Psychic Emperor, a project that Wiener refers to, tongue in cheek, as "the dance- oriented Vells." According to Wiener, Green recorded all the drums for the Psychic Emperor album in three hours. "He had to leave for tour," Wiener explains. "He's gone all the time now, and he's cool with whatever we do. I'll sit around and make beats, chop up what he's played, and he's just like, 'Yeah, I like that.'"
That understanding carries over to the other Green-enhanced Imputor? album, Wiener's own Plastiq Phantom. Where the jokey sound effects and skittering drums of Enjoy the Art of Lying Down gave it a somewhat goofy cast and made it identifiably the work of a smart-assed bedroom wonk, the new disc occupies the same terrain with a lot more assurance and—no other word for it—maturity. Part of that comes from the interactivity of the album's making. "Some of the songs [on Plastiq Phantom] come out of ad work; a lot of them come from me and Jeremiah playing with weird instruments together. I'm going for a more organic feeling on this record."
Psychic Emperor also plan to play live eventually—with instruments Wiener procured from a friend who'd had them donated by Lucky Strike. "There's this pink pleather-backed guitar with a feather boa. It was custom built, with custom-built cases. We thought the guitar was bigger than it was because the case was so large, but it was just built that way to accommodate the feather boa."
Then there's Dalmatians, one of the few bands that's taken the mantle of "electro-punk" to actually come up with a variant on it worth paying attention to. The band's leader, Brian McCarty, had performed with Wiener in the electronica-mocking DJs on Strike; the group did "one tour and then [we] got sick of it, because we were playing cardboard guitars—that project's gonna sleep a while, I think. But Brian wrote [Pop/Rock Ruff Drafts] while he was living at my house. That living situation didn't work out. He's nuts—you can tell listening to the CD. But it's a great CD, so it doesn't matter."
That offhanded attitude defines Wiener's working style. "Right now, it's like a blitzkrieg," he says. "That's what I've been doing earlier this year. I've been working on all this stuff for a long time; it's just now coming out all at once." It isn't about to abate, either: Wiener mentions casually that Imputor? will be issuing five new projects by early 2005, and having finished dinner, he's on his way to the studio to finish the next (!) Vells album. After all, he reasons, "If you're having fun, why stop?"