Argot (noun) : the language used by a particular group of people.
Whilst the precise language that members of Argot and sub label Tasteful Nudes may speak is a mystery, it manifests itself in some pretty great music. Run by Little White Earbuds editor Steve Mizek, this Chicagoan imprint has released a diverse selection of vaguely dance-floor oriented music since 2012. Argot came racing out of the blocks with one of Amir Alexander’s finest 12’s as its debut release, and since then both it and sister white label Tasteful Nudes have been home to much fresh and lesser known talent.
Mizek’s imprints are the latest product of a longstanding love affair with music dating back to time as a college music critic, then as writer for RA, and later as editor of the much loved Little White Earbuds site. In the words of Prosumer (who provided its 200th podcast) LWE is “a dear and independent voice in music journalism”, and certainly one of the most vital sources of electronic music criticism on the web. Its interviews, mixes and editorial content have unquestionably raised the bar for independent underground music criticism. Elevating its own status far above a ‘blog’ although being edited by just one person. The same uncompromising attitude and drive informs Mizek’s other pursuits. Due to a publishing arrangement, Mizek’s first record label, Stolen Kisses, saw him lose a final say in the finished product. Argot was born of this frustration, and is essentially a vehicle for his “complete creative control.”
Explaining his reasons for starting the label, Mizek told me; “there were many good American artists, yet they had to look to European labels to find someone to release their music.” Argot is an attempt to remedy this situation: a platform for showcasing American talent. The states’ relationship with dance music is still evolving, Mizek claims, from seeing it as somehow “fey” or “feminine”. And it remains much more ‘underground’ than in Europe. This is partly due to the sheer size of America, which means it is hard for any critical mass to form across more than one city, but also due to the nation’s attitude towards ‘the arts.’ Omar S – in one of his more serious moments – sums the situation up succinctly:
People in Europe appreciate art more than Americans. You could make fucking ice sculptures. And, in Europe, that’s art. Over here, that’s fucking nothing. If it’s not about sex, drugs, and violence people here don’t care.
This American philistinism has always puzzled me coming from a country that produces so much excellent art. And outside of New York, say, this attitude seems to prevail, aside from the small cliques who frequent the same parties/galleries in each town. Argot, however, has carved out its own niche within an already tiny scene. Mizek is clearly unmoved by current trends both within his country and within the general musical community. He told me of a desire to release music which is “capable of standing on its own whatever the year”; rising above any voguish trends.
Argot’s output is diverse in style, with the motto seemingly thus: if it’s good, it fits. Mizek cites Gerd Jansen’s Running Back label as a key influence; an imprint as legendary as it is diverse with releases from Redshape, Theo Parrish and Todd Terje glittering in its armoury. Both Argot and Running back strive for a vitality which is not confined by style or easy generic categorization. As a result everything from field recordings, techno to slow house has found release on Argot (and that’s just this year!). This is not to say each release is random – far from it. As with any other label Argot ultimately boils down to one person’s taste. Mizek has a self confessed affinity for “melody, and songwriter style arrangements”, with much of the material he opts for often being quite “earnest” and emotional.” These may not the most fashionable of qualities to seek in today’s underground dance scene, but it is refreshing to see someone truly invest in their taste.
On paper, “dance music with songwriter style arrangements” may sound like a hard sell, but tracks such as Chase Smith’s recent Argot release, “Stay,” dispel any question marks. It’s a delicately poised ballad with lilting vocals and a hook that refuses to leave your head. It’s also quite unlike almost anything being released on comparable labels. Smith himself told me : “it’s a little more difficult to get a track like that released. As it sort of rides a line that most labels don’t seem to care for.” But, ultimately, “a good song is a good song and it will find its way out”. This seems very much the ethos of Argot: an adherence to craft as opposed to style. While the current trend may be for “raw” – perhaps underproduced – tracks, Argot are content to tread their own aesthetic path. Putting out tracks that glisten with 80s-esque shimmering production like “Stay”, whose sluggish pace renders them almost unusable on the 1s and 2s. “I think the best dance music is around 110 bpm”, Smith told me. “Maybe not for the club exactly, but good for, like, rollerskating”.
Despite having a soft spot for the slower, more tender strains of machine music Mizek agrees with me when I suggest; “you have to remember who actually buys records” (DJs!). Much of this more floor-quaking fodder finds a home on Tasteful Nudes. This outlet for non-American music has, to my ears, a slightly different stylistic bent to Argot. The Bristol based producer, Borai, provided its first release with the triumphant Moonlight On the Malago EP. Its eponymous title cut is a Balearic wave of dubbed out house which wraps itself like a Thai head massage around the senses. Using whatever cheap gear Borai could get his hands on, he made the track using just a Kawaii K1 synth, whilst, in his own words, “hammering the shit out of an Alesis Compressor”. It snuck its way into a Marcellus Pittman Plastic People set and is unquestionably among the best house tunes of the past few years.
Other recent big hitters on Mizek’s labels have included fine releases from 100% Silk alumni Octo Octa, and young Denmark based producer, Royer. Both are club ready and illustrate, to my eyes, an upping of the ante. Royer was discovered after submitting a mix for LWE’s annual podcast competition. His effort piqued Mizek’s attention, who ended up releasing the Tough Questions EP on Tasteful Nudes which was lifted entirely from the aforementioned mix. “There were so many tracks I wanted”, Mizek enthused, “he’s a very talented guy.” This is in evidence throughout an EP which inhabits the well worn but well loved terrain of hypnotic, deep Detroit grooves. Royer’s grasp of rhythm is particularly impressive on standout cut, “Us”, which comes over as Rick Wade being remixed by Terekke. Octo Octa’s track “Where Did You Go” is another highlight of the year for me. Its hazy analogue melodies are very much in line with Argot’s mien, yet it has an inherent propulsion which edges it towards techno futurism: new territory for the label.
Many of the artists on Argot feel like shape-shifters restlessly experimenting with styles and sounds. Argot can provide these musical nomads with an ideal blanc canvas from which to work. Few check in for more than one release, yet many do stop by leaving a memorable record in the process. Take Chase Smith, for example, whose releases on WT and others have oscillated wildly between hard techno, and swinging boogie. Or The Black Madonna whose output on Hope Taping and Stripped & Chewed, in addition to Argot, is even harder to pin down. “I’m not interested in a signature sound” she told me via email. “I’m always trying something new: the greats like Moodymann made everything from jazz to techno. I’d rather aim for greatness and fail than be a one trick pony.” There is a pleasingly amorphous nature to everything Argot and its artists stand for. Even the concept of ‘dance’ music itself is up for discussion by Marea (The Black Madonna): “disco is what I want to dance to”. Plain and simple. Be it the film soundtracks of Patrick Cowley, straight italo or a Roman Flugel track.
It is interesting that Mizek selected some of The Black Madonna’s oldest material for The Lady of Sorrows EP. “The masters had been sitting on soundcloud for a year. No one was interested in it”, she told me. But he still trusted his judgement and pressed it to wax. The EP is now coveted on Discogs. “Trusting interesting art is something that really appeals to me” Mizek told me. And his faith in the narrative synth excursions of The Lady Of Sorrows EP is one instance of this.
Another is Paul Levack’s recent cassette release which is essentially the result of a contact mic being placed on a bridge between two busy central Chicago thoroughfares. The final, time stretched product captured “lots of crazy shit” and was instantly redolent of Chicago for Mizek. Whilst Mizek has no intention of creating a noise label anytime soon, this release typifies the open mindedness of his aesthetic. If it’s good, it fits.
If Argot and Tasteful Nudes have a shared language, or one common thread; it is fluidity. Freedom of expression. Many of the cuts (on Argot especially) have an almost discursive feel, as if there is always room for another melodic phrase or breakdown. Such room is a refreshing antidote to the plethora of utilitarian club music doing the rounds on a weekly basis. Though rather than search for common denominators, it seems more sensible instead to simply celebrate the diverse array of talent Mizek has assembled. I have no idea where Argot will go next, which can only be a good thing for the longevity of a label in a famously fickle industry. And with the recently announced downscaling of LWE, Mizek can now devote more time to running his labels, and as he put it to me; “capitalising on their renown.” This will mean more records, more live shows and, inevitably, more uncompromising commitment to music for its own sake.