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Light in the Attic Records' reissues bring long-lost tunes to a new audience

by Michelle Lanz and Cameron Kell | The Frame

Group photo of the Inuit band Sugluk. Courtesy of Light in the Attic

Most record labels are on the hunt for the next big thing in music. I mean, who wouldn’t want to find the next Taylor Swift?

But that’s not the goal for Light in the Attic Records. The independent label launched in Seattle in 2002 with a focus on re-issues — re-pressing and re-releasing notable and hard-to-find albums on both vinyl and CD.

The growing dominance of digital music means you often miss out on the well-researched liner notes or the album art to communicate the artist’s true intent. Light In The Attic puts painstaking detail into each album’s packaging, to give the listener a complete picture of why a particular album is important.

Since its founding, the label has reissued a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop group Digable Planets’ 1994 album “Blowout Comb” to the film soundtrack “Low Down” to a two-disc set of Native North American folk music from the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Label founder and co-owner Matt Sullivan stopped by our studio to talk about how the label found its focus and how they found themselves releasing a compilation of lost folk, rock, and country songs by Native peoples of North America.

​Interview Highlights:

What compelled you to focus on reissuing old music?

Outside of a few key reissue labels, the focus is being ignored on the packaging and archival process, liner notes, and a deeper emphasis on things. There were labels like Rhino Records, which were legendary, but on the whole most reissues were kind of thrown out there for the collector audience only.

For us, it's always been about getting kids involved as well as older people, giving context to the music and showing why it's important. It might be something from 1965 or 1985, it could be soul or country music, and we'll explain why this music's important now. These artists struggled for years to make this music, and all of us at Light in the Attic feel a kinship or something within the grooves of these records. We're just trying to get this music heard again.

Let's talk about one of those archival projects. This is a two-disc collection called "Native North America: Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country, 1966-1985." What's the backstory for this album?

A reissue producer/friend/DJ/collector in Canada, Kevin "Sipreano" Howes, came to us with the idea of making a compilation of Native peoples of North America performing folk, rock and country music for the first time. He played me some of the songs and I was transfixed.

Kevin had already spent 10 years on this project, driving across Canada, going to thrift stores, swap meets and native cultural centers while looking for these records. These were private press recordings, often funded by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and many of these 45s and LPs are completely off the radar.

Tell us a little more about Willie Dunn and his song, "I Pity the Country."

Willie Dunn sadly passed away while making this project, but he was an activist, a singer-songwriter, and also a filmmaker from the mid-'60s up until his death. He did a few records, one of which was this song, "I Pity the Country," which is the first track on the compilation.

It just floors me — it was the first thing I heard from this project, and I thought, How is this guy not a household name? If you look him up, there's so little documentation on him and many of these artists. It just seemed completely criminal to me.

And this is music that would basically be lost, were it not for a collection like this, right?

It was lost, but Kevin found every single musician on here. And these people were from very remote regions of Canada and the Northern U.S. One group in particular, called Sugluk, was an Inuit group that released only two 7" EPs in the 1970s for the CBC. He couldn't find the band so he called the local town hall in this little town of a thousand people, and they said, "If you call the local radio station and tell them who you're looking for, they'll say your name and phone number on the radio."

Kevin's in Vancouver and is like, Are you kidding me? This is 2013. Within two hours, he gets a call from a guy who's super excited that anyone knows who Sugluk is. Before they hang up, Kevin's like, "How can I get back in touch with you?" And the guy says, "Just call the radio station again and you'll find me." [laughs]

Those are the stories that we want to shine a light on. These songs, really importantly, are discussing things in the '60s and '70s like police brutality, environmentalism, alcoholism — things that haven't really changed.

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