Design Notes 27: Bayonet Records
Bayonet Records founders Katie Garcia and Dustin Payseur on collaborating with musicians
In this episode, Liam speaks with Katie Garcia and Dustin Payseur, who together run independent music label Bayonet Records.
Garcia and Payseur (who also leads the band Beach Fossils) break down the complex relationship between a record label and the creative work it supports, the qualities of sonic design, and the magic of releasing an album on your own terms.
Liam Spradlin: Katie, Dustin, welcome to Design Notes.
Dustin Payseur: Yeah, thanks for having us.
Katie Garcia: Thanks for having us.
Liam: So, I want to start off the same way I always do by learning about each of your journeys. Um, I want to know basically, how you got to where you are creatively now, and how the path that you took there influences your work.
Dustin: It depends on how much back story we’re looking for (laughs).
Liam: All of it.
Dustin: I- I grew up in like, a very musical family. My mom’s Cuban, my family’s Cuban on my mom’s side and so, like, her father, my grandpa, he’s a percussionist, like, Latin percussionist and, um, he still performs. And my parents are both musicians. And, like, my dad has a recording studio, so I kind of grew up around all that, so music was just always in my life. And, um, yeah, I just started really young, you know, just self recording and working on stuff. And whenever I would record a little tape on my 4-track, I would put, like, a fake record label name on the back of it, you know? And I… that was, like, always my dream to record my own music and be able to release it myself. And it’s just something that I’ve always thought about as, like, the only option, you know?
Dustin: They had career day in school and everyone came to school in, like, suits and stuff like that, and I just showed up wearing, like, a Marilyn Manson t-shirt.
Dustin: And people were like, “Why are you dressed like that?” And I was like, “Because I’m going to be a musician” (laughs).
Katie: That’s amazing. Tell everyone what your record label name was.
Katie: You had a few.
Dustin: There were a few. I mean, it’s dumb. I was, like, you know, a little kid, so it was, like, 420 Records.
Dustin: And, like, Morbid Records with a backwards R and stuff like that.
Katie: (laughs) Yes, I love Morbid Records.
Katie: That’s one of my favorite ones.
Katie: So, for me, I was just a huge music fan growing up. Every time I would get a new CD, I would open it up and just, like, read the liner notes, cover to cover, who did what, what are the lyrics. I was just constantly consuming music. And then when I got older, I actually studied film in school, so I moved to New York with the intention of, like, working in film. I worked for a set designer for a while. And then when that fizzled out, I just took a step back and was like, “What is it that I’ve always been passionate about?” And I was always going to music shows. I was like, “I should just work in music. It’s a field that I know for a fact that I love.”
So, I emailed a ton of record labels asking if they had any internships open. I even called Matador and they just laughed and hung up the phone, which I think is pretty funny.
Katie: And pretty on-brand. And yeah, and then I emailed Captured Tracks, and they were like, “Yeah, actually, we could use some help,” so I started interning there. Um, I was interning there for, like, six months and then the girl that was the label manager at the time, Autumn, left to go move back to Detroit. And then I became the label manager, which was exciting and also scary. And um, that’s also where Dustin and I met.
And then yeah… And from then on, Dustin had always talked about wanting to start his own label. And so, it was around the time that we got married that we talked about it more seriously and we basically told everyone to just give us money as wedding gifts, and we used all of that money to start Bayonet. And that’s where we are today (laughs).
Liam: Nice. To start off with kind of a broad question, what would you say is the creative role of a record label?
Katie: Hoo, the creative role of record label? There are a lot of different things. You know, I think the creative role of record label is just helping an artist put their music out into the world so that they don’t have to think about that. You know, like, an artist should focus on the creative aspect of their art and working on songs, and maybe what they want the photography to look like. But, label can help facilitate some of those things if they have a general vision, a label can be like, “Oh, well, this photographer would be great if you want this kind of photo.” Or drawing from what the artist feels passionate about.
I always really like to get to know the artists that I work with pretty closely so that I can come up with creative ideas that are suited for them, and that I know that when I present it to them, the chances of them being into the idea are pretty high. I don’t want to waste my time, and I definitely don’t want waste their time, bringing them a shitty idea.
Dustin: Yeah, I think record labels play a really different role than they used to as well, you know? Things are changing a lot because of streaming. You know, physical’s not the main focus of most labels these days. It’s a big focus for us because we’re a smaller indie label, but in general, people focus more on different sides of things that labels didn’t used to really think about as much. With artists, there’s, like, a really big ego, and a lot of them have, like, a clear vision where it’s like, “This is my record no matter what. This is the artwork. This is the video.”
I mean, I still feel like I don’t know what I want a lot of times. I kind of hate music videos and don’t want to do them, and Katie’s like, “You have to music videos.”
Katie: Yeah, I basically have to, like, Inception artists.
Katie: To be like, “Oh, cool.” And then they’re like, “What if did this thing?” And it’s this awesome idea, but it’s secretly something that I have planted in their heads all along.
Katie: I feel like I do that a lot with you, actually.
Katie: Because you’re the hardest artist to A&R for me, personally.
Katie: Yeah, yeah, yeah. For sure.
Katie: I feel like other artists, I’m like, they’ll send me their demos and I’ll be like, “Great, okay. Here… Like, here are my notes. These are the songs that I think should be singles. This is this.” You’ll be like, “No, I’m not changing those lyrics.”
Dustin: I think I’m not good with constructive criticism (laughs).
Katie: (laughs) Yeah.
Liam: It seems like there must be a lot of that interaction with people’s art and creative work, and then viewing that through a strategic lens.
Katie: For sure.
Liam: I want to know about how you approach that.
Katie: Yeah, it’s really fun, but also really challenging because we can get really creative with certain ideas. Like, recently, this was something I worked on… I also do A&R at Secretly Group, which is Secretly Canadian, Jagjauwar, and Dead Oceans. And, um, I was working on this project called Better Oblivion Community Center, which is Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst, and for that, they wanted to do a surprise drop release, which we had never really done before. And we started brainstorming things, and then we came up with this idea to have, like, a hotline that people could call as if they were calling some kind of Better Oblivion Community Center, and it really took off. And it made people aware of Better Oblivion Community Center, but they didn’t know what it was yet, the album hadn’t come out. So, it was just this, like, mysterious little nugget of information.
And I feel like doing stuff like that is always really fun and exciting, and just trying to find different ways to reach audiences without it being too creepy (laughs). You know, and also, keeping in line with the vision that artist has, making sure that it’s something they’re excited about, too.
Liam: Also, just to define a term, what is A&R?
Katie: A&R is Artists and Repertoire. So, it’s finding new artists to bring to the table to a label. So, scouting new artists, new talent, and yeah… And then developing it, and maintaining a really great relationship with that artist, developing it creatively. You’re kind of the liaison between the artist themselves and the record label, so it’s a really fun job. And I get to go to a lot of shows and hang out with a lot of musicians.
Dustin: Wha- I think you’re also in the unique place where you’re close friends with the artists that you work, you know? And I think-
Dustin: That’s also unique to your personality, but, like, these are people that… I’ve become friends with the artists that she A&Rs, you know, because they’re just that close. Like, they come over to the house or we’re hanging out at festivals or something.
And, like, there’s just this relationship that sort of transcends the work environment and it becomes, like, a very personal connection. Because I think if you’re working with someone that close on something that is that personal to them, it’s inevitable to get that close with them, you know?
Katie: Thanks, Dustin (laughs).
Liam: As you’re going through this process, I’m working about, like, the organizing principal or the quality that you’re looking for in artists that are signed to Bayonet.
Katie: We’re always looking for new and unique songwriters, people who have a unique voice, and people who are writing about really interesting things. Yeah, and who want to grow creatively and just, like, keep expanding. And I feel like that’s always really exciting.
And I think sonically, we’re just constantly trying to diversify the kinds of sounds that we’re putting out. We don’t just want to be putting out like “indie rock.” And I think so far we’ve done a pretty good job of that. You know, we talk about this a lot Secretly, as well as Bayonet, which is that we want the type of music that we release to reflect the kind of music that we listen to in our every day lives. I think before, you know… especially at Secretly, to see how much the roster there has diversified, like, sonically is amazing in the last couple of years.
And so, I think that that’s something that we consciously think about.
Dustin: Yeah, I think a big part of it is just a gut feeling, you know? You just… you listen to something and you can tell if it’s real, you know? I has a substance, there’s a real person behind it, you know? And something that has a lot of personality and is unique and is willing to take risks, and you hear it, and you’re just like… You can just kind of tell when people have something special to them, and there’s no way to really quantify that in, like, a concrete way, or explain it in a way that someone could learn. It’s just… it’s… a lot of it is just based on feeling.
Liam: I think that gets into my next question, as well, which is more about the qualities of music.
Because I’m a designer who works primarily in a vision medium…
Katie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Liam: So, the idea of working on something that’s mostly a sonic or auditory medium-
Katie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Liam: … Is not only interesting, but also foreign to me, and I’m interested-
Katie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Liam: … in how you conceptualize that and, like, what are the pieces that you identify?
Katie: One of the things… I feel like this is applicable to this question, is Jeff Buckley has this amazing quote where he says that music is trying to shape sound to fit a feeling. And I feel like that’s, like, really apt. And I think that that is something that I connect with in a really big way because I feel like music is so emotional, and this work on our side is so emotional and, at sometimes, it can be emotionally draining.
Dustin: Music, it’s kind of like… My objective with it, when I’m creating something, is to… it’s almost like, um, if you were able to send, like, a psychic message to someone in a way. It’s like, I have this feeling and this emotion that’s so overwhelming and so powerful, and there’s no way to express it to someone else outside of this form, you know? It’s like trying to condense all these feelings into a way that you can share with someone else and give them a piece of your mind and be like, “This is where… This is exactly how I feel and what I’m experiencing and I want you to feel this exact same way.” And I feel like when you hear a song that gives you the chills, that person has done that right. They’ve been able to send you this little personal feeling that no one else can understand and like inject that into you.
Liam: So, Katie, going back to something that you said earlier about the kinds of artists that are with Bayonet.
Katie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Liam: I read in an interview with Forbes, uh, you said that Bayonet tries to get artists that sound different from one another or use different sonic palettes.
Katie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Liam: And I’m really interested in that phrase and what it means, and also why it’s important.
Katie: You know, a sonic palette just means it’s like when an artist has their palette and they’re picking all the colors, and which colors make sense for this painting. It’s similar to an artist having access to all of these sounds and which sounds make sense, and Dustin was saying before, like, can creative something new and fresh, and something that can resonate with people.
We just want each artist to be as diverse and as singular from the next. Um…
Dustin: Yeah. I mean, music is all about textures. I think that’s something that people don’t think about enough, is that everybody is kind of working with these different textures, almost like how painters have a different way that they work with the pain, you know? Sometimes it’s really clumpy, sometimes it’s really smooth, sometimes it’s very watery and drippy. Artists can work with different instruments, if you’re using a synthesizer, or if it’s, like, a vintage synthesizer or a soft synth, something very contemporary. Or the way that your drums sound, I mean, there’s a million different things you can use for drums. I mean, now you can do anything. You can drop some keys on a table and sample that and use that.
So, the sonic palette is almost, like, infinite these days. And there’s so many ways for people to combine these different sounds in ways that people haven’t, you know, with electronic versus organic. And then, also, subject matter, which is pretty infinite as well, you know, you can go anywhere with it. And someone who’s able to blend all that in a creative way and a technical way at the same time, that’s when, you know, you’ve stumbled upon something that’s very special and unique.
Liam: I also want to talk about, uh, Beach Fossils’ 2017 album, Summer Salt, because it was released on Bayonet Records and I’m interested… Knowing now, like, a lot of the logistics that go into a label and, like, the creative involvement and things like that. Dustin, I’m interested what impact the association with your own label had on the album’s creation?
Dustin: I think it was the first felt full creative freedom working on something. I have a love-hate relationship with deadlines, and I think it’s more on the hate side, where I work very poorly knowing that I have to have something done at a certain time. And so, part of this, for me, was being, like, “Okay, I have the freedom. I don’t have someone yelling at me about when this thing needs to be done,” you know? And I work in my own studio as well, so I can go in there every day and feel this freedom that I’m not restricted by anything, you know? It’s this life path that I chose for myself that I’m very fortunate to be able to experience because I know it’s rare, and I know a lot of people don’t have that amount of freedom.
But I have issues with, like, authority, (laughs) you know, I kind of always have. And even if it’s helpful authority, like a label just being like, “You need have this thing done,” I feel claustrophobic and suffocated knowing that I have to have something done at a certain time. So, when I go in and I don’t have a deadline, sometimes I can work even faster because I don’t have that hanging over my head. And it gave me the freedom to feel like I could do anything with that record.
And, like we were talking about before, the sonic palette, this record opened up in a huge way that I never been able to do before. I had enough time to think about how do I find a way to get all these different instruments on a record? How do I find… I- I made a list of instruments, and it was like, harpsichord, flute, pedal steel, saxophone, string quartet, all these things that I wanted to have on the record, and I had enough time to figure out how do I find all these people that play these things and actually get this on the record. And, if I had a crazy deadline, I probably wouldn’t have had all those instruments on the record.
Also, I write so much. We must’ve written, like, 70 songs or something for the record and then just thrown them all away or recycled them. But if I was rushed, I would’ve put out a record that was probably a bunch of those songs that I threw away, and I’d be really unhappy with it.
Liam: It strikes me as you’re talking about deadlines and timelines for creating this stuff, that a song or an album is not created all in one sitting, so I think there’s something interesting that between using music to shape sound and convey an emotion, but over a timeline.
Liam: Like, there must be some refinement process over that timeline to get it right, and I’m curious, how do you know when it’s right?
Dustin: It’s so hard to say, you know? I feel like… I sit with a song for a really long time. I’ll work on it and I’ll keep adding stuff to it. And I think when you know it’s right… This is something that, I guess, works for me, personally, is like, I add so much to the song and then I start stripping things away and pulling stuff off. And when I feel like it’s reached the point that I’ve taken enough things away from it, and it’s minimal enough, and it’s working, and it’s not cluttered, that’s kind of when it feels right for me.
But I have a problem where I write all the music first and then the lyrics last. I think that’s because when I first started recording music on a computer, I was making rap music (laughs). I was, like, making beats. So, you know, you make all the music first and then you do the vocals on top of it, and so, for me, that was just, like, a natural way to make music, and I still think about it that way. I get this instrumental and then I put vocals on at the end. But it’s like the song is so cluttered at point, I’m like, “Where am I going to fit vocals?” So I have to start stripping things away and getting it really empty and turning things into, like, little one shots instead of loops and… I don’t know. So, you just know. Like, I- I- I listen back until there’s not one second of the song that I don’t like and then I realize it’s right.
Liam: You said that doing the instrumentation in the song itself first and then adding vocals is a problem.
Liam: But what would it look like if you did the lyrics and vocals first?
Dustin: I’ve actually been doing that recently for the songs that we’re working on for the new record because it’s kind of the traditional songwriter, that’s the way it’s done, you know? It’s like… a person sits down with an acoustic guitar or a piano and they come up with the melody and they start to figure what fits on top of it. And usually, yeah, people have the vocals and the main thing already going together, and then they just bring instruments and layer everything on top after the fact. Whereas, I’m doing the total opposite, I’m just layering it all up and I’m like, “There’s no room for vocals. I have to start taking stuff off” (laughs).
Liam: (laughs). I also do want to try to dig in a little bit to the visual aspects of the label, as well. You said that for Bayonet, physical media is pretty important.
Katie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Liam: And I think there’s a lot to go into that, whether you’re making vinyl or cassettes or- or anything like that. So, first I want to understand what all the pieces of that are.
Katie: Oh yeah, it’s a lot. So, we work with this awesome designer, Andrew Lawandus, who’s based in Atlanta. He helps us lay out everything we need, the record cover, the inner sleeve. Sometimes it’s a gatefold, so you need to figure out what’s going to go in the gatefold. Sometimes there’s a poster that’ll go inside. You have figure out what the marketing sticker is going to look like. The CD booklet, what’s going to go on the CD booklet. What is the CD itself going to look like? The labels that go on the center of the vinyl. The J-card for the cassette tape.
Katie: Like, there are so many things and, you know, you’re- you’re drawing from the same set of images or designs, but you kind of have to change it according to the layout, because all the layouts for each item are different. So, you kind of have to distill, like, what it is you really, really want on certain things.
Like, for example, cassettes, like, there isn’t much room to have a lot of, like, artwork or words. Whereas like a CD, you have a booklet, you can add as many pages as you want, then it becomes like, “Oh crap, what images are we going to have (laughs) inside the CD booklet? And, like, do we want to have the lyrics or do we not want to have the lyrics? Do we want to just have production notes?” And then the vinyl is kind of like this… the in between of those two.
It’s always a challenge.
Katie: Um, but it’s a fun one.
Dustin: That part’s kind of fun. You can hide little Easter Eggs in there, you know?
Katie: Oh yeah, totally. For most of our records, this awesome guy Josh Bonati masters them. And when we did our first record on vinyl, he was like, “You know, I can always put a secret hidden message in the etching of the lacquer of the vinyl so that when you press it, it’ll be on, like, every single copy.” So we were like, “Whoa, that is sick.” So then, we started asking our artists to do that and started asking them like, “What do you want the etching to say?” And so, if you look closely in the light of a lot of our records, in the inner loop of the vinyl you’ll see, like…
Dustin: There’s a little etching. There’s a little-
Katie: Little etching, yeah.
Dustin: Quote on all of them (laughs).
Liam: That’s awesome. Going back to something that Dustin said earlier about music videos and, like, preferring to focus on the music rather than the video, I’m curious how you translate the aesthetic of the music into something cohesive that can cover all of this physical media.
Dustin: It’s difficult. I mean, I can’t speak for other artists, but for me, I try to make my artwork as minimal as possible because it just goes back to me liking the music to speak for itself. Because I take so long working on stuff, this last record, it took me, like, four years… Four years? Five years? Something like that.
Dustin: It was long time. But it was like… I spent so long thinking about the music. I was like, “I don’t like to put an idea in people’s mind about what this is. I like them to make up their own minds.” So, like, it’s just white album cover with the name on it, and that’s it. It’s just… I- I want people to have their own visuals, you know, when they listen to the music. They can lay in their bed and whatever, and just imagine their own little story or music videos because people always interpret their own things.
And it’s funny how people will interpret your music or your lyrics when you go and meet with someone who is a music video director, or even just talking to someone who listens to your music, because the lyrics mean a very different thing to a listener than it does to you as the writer. Because I’ve had people be like, “This line is like the most important thing ever,” and, like, tell me what it means to them and I’m like, “That is not what that means at all, but I’m really glad that you took that from it.” And I think that part is really important, like, not correcting people if they get a different idea because I feel like there’s no such thing as, like, a wrong interpretation, it’s just your interpretation.
But, anyway, going back to visuals, it’s funny to see how people will kind of interpret themselves, you know, if you give somebody free rein for a music video. They’re like, “Oh, what if we did this.” It’s like this crazy storyline. And, in way, that kind of bugs me because I don’t like the idea of different story going on top of the story that I’m already telling.
Katie: Yeah, I mean, I think every artist is different. You know, some artists will want the music video to be a very literal translation of what the song means. And other artists, kind of like Dustin, will want it to just be them, like, signing the song or whatever, and let people kind of interpret the meaning of the song for themselves (laughs).
Dustin: Yeah. Well, some artists are really visual and they do have like a whole idea. Like Jerry Paper, when we were working with him, he just had all these crazy ideas because he, like, does collaborations with, like, Adult Swim and stuff. And he’s like, “Yeah, like, it should be, like, this big human cockroach, like, smoking a cigarette.” And he’s got, like, this whole idea, you know? He’s somebody who like… he would turn in a full record and be like, “Here it is, here’s the artwork.” And it’s like, we hadn’t talked in months and all of a sudden he’s just like…
Dustin: … got it, you know? He’s, like, got his whole, like, aesthetic. He’s created a whole universe.
And that’s really fun, too, because you don’t want to step on that, you know? It’s like… I think there are certain record labels that are just so big that they will sign somebody and then try to change them and be like, “Okay, cool, like, this is who you were and how do we make it more marketable now?” And it’s like, “Oh, you can’t do this big, weird human cockroach thing that you wanted to do.”
Dustin: But for us it’s like, “Hey, the more the merrier. Like, this is why we signed you,” you know?
Liam: Yeah. Speaking of creating an album and all this art and everything as it’s whole universe…
Liam: I’m interested in how you think about an album as one work and what it means, how you decide, like, on what goes on an album versus what doesn’t out of those 70 songs or whatever.
Dustin: I guess just trying to create, like, its own universe that kind of works, but also it shouldn’t contradict itself enough. You don’t want to have an album where every single song sounds exactly the same because then it just gets boring. Unless you’re the Ramones, that’s- that’s the only time it’s legal.
Dustin: But, for me, I do think about records. I can’t think about singles. I just don’t see it that way. You know, I feel like an album is like a film and there are all these different acts. And, actually, that’s something that I do when I’m thinking about what songs should go on an album and how to sequence the songs in a certain order.
I always thought of it in four parts because, traditionally, a physical records has two sides and so you want to have two movements. And so, I like to have where it’s upbeat stuff in the beginning, then it slows down a little bit for the A-side, slows down a little bit, then picks back up. And then the B-side does, like, a similar thing where it’s a little upbeat, slows down, and picks back up. So it’s, like, there’s these four separate chunks and it flows like a movie.
And that’s- that’s the only thing I will say that bums me out about streaming, is that I sequence these songs where sometimes they blend into each other, and if you listen to the song just by itself, it might cut off weird or like not quite sound right, you know? Like, I make some songs that are just made to fit in between other songs, and if you’re listening to it on shuffle, it’s like, “What the hell was that? What did I just listen to?”
Dustin: “What was this weird… that’s not a song.” But I think an album is still really important. And I- I know a lot of people still think about albums, it’s not a dead thing by any means. But, for me, I can’t help but to just be conscious of it. I- I can’t think about singles. I don’t know, I’m not a pop star, so that’s just not how I see it (laughs).
Liam: Speaking of streaming and kind of making the decision whether to listen to, like, the complete album or if you just hear a song pop up on shuffle, I’m interested in moving into the future, like, what impact or influence you think evolving technologies are going to have on both music creation and also being a label.
Dustin: Hard to say.
Katie: Um, I think AI is going to have a big impact.
Dustin: I’m all for AI.
Katie: Yeah, Dustin’s very pro…
Dustin: I’m super pro-AI (laughs).
Katie: …AI. He’s ready for the singularity (laughs).
Dustin: Yeah, I’m ready to merge.
Katie: (laughs). Yeah, so I think AI is going to play a big role.
Dustin: Sometimes I try to think about, like, what is the next thing that comes after the internet. And you’re like, “Well, you couldn’t imagine it because you weren’t able to imagine the internet a 100 years ago, so how are you able to think of what can be next?” I guess quantum computers and AI would be the biggest things, but I don’t know.
That paired with, like, the creation of art and songwriting and stuff. Like, yeah, I like the idea of, like, getting music made just for you, that’s cool. It’s like, “Hey, uh, I want to have an artist that is Metallica and 2 Chainz.”
Dustin: “And they made five albums and the fourth one was acoustic, and it was love songs.” And it’s like, “All right, generating, just for you (laughs).”
Dustin: Like, I’m ready for that.
Katie: Oh my god (laughs).
Liam: That sounds amazing.
Cool. Well, thank you again for joining me.
Katie: Thanks for having us.
Dustin: Thanks for having us.